One of seven sacraments in the Coptic church.
Although all sacraments contain and impart grace, the Eucharist carries the most sublime grace of all. In BAPTISM, for example, water remains water, as does the holy chrism in confirmation, the visible element of the sacrament thus undergoing no change. In the Eucharist, however, the bread and wine are no longer mere bread and wine but become the true Body and Blood of the Redeemer, Jesus Christ. Whereas in other sacraments the Lord bestows His gifts in accordance with each sacrament, in the Eucharist He offers His entire Self, so that partakers may enter in full and complete communion with Him. Being the sacrifice of Christ for all humanity, the Eucharist is universal in nature, embracing the living and the dead, and is not, as in the case of other sacraments, a grace restricted to one individual.
The Eucharist has also been known as the sacrament of thanksgiving, the Lord’s supper, the Lord’s table, Christ’s table, the sacred table, Holy Communion, the holy sacrifice, the divine mystery, the Lord’s bread, the heavenly bread, Christ’s Body, the Precious Blood, the redemptive chalice.
The following topics relate to the theme of the Eucharist: the institution of the Eucharist, the expression and manifestation of belief in this sacrament, the church fathers’ writings, the nature of the divine transformation, the Eucharist as a sacrifice, the necessity of using leavened bread, officiating at the Eucharist, and administering the sacraments.
The Institution of the Eucharist
Christ, having satisfied the hunger of the multitudes, began to initiate them into the mystery of the heavenly bread, which is His own body, “I am the living bread which came down from heaven; if any one eats of this bread, he will live for ever; and the bread which I shall give for the life of the world is my flesh” (Jn. 6:51).
The disciples took these words in their literal and obvious sense, without allegory or metaphor. “This is a hard saying, who can listen to it?” they asked (Jn. 6:60). Christ continued in the same vein expounding to them the mystery that He was shortly to institute, after which they received it without a shadow of doubt or further questioning.
Thus bread and wine, following the teaching of Christ and the example He set on the eve of His passion, are the elements of the Eucharist: leavened wheat bread and wine. The wine is unfermented and mixed with a little water, in memory of the water which issued with Christ’s blood when His side was pierced with a spear (Jn. 19:34).
The Expression and Manifestation of Belief
It is the firm belief of the Orthodox church that after the consecration of the oblations and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon them, they become the Body and the Blood of Christ. Hence the declaration by the priest: “The Holy Body, the Honored Blood of Jesus Christ the Son of God, Amen,” followed, for the second time by “The Holy and Honored Body, and the Very Blood of Jesus Christ, the Son of our God, Amen,” and for the third time, “The Body and the Blood of Emmanuel our God. This is in very truth, Amen.” Each time the congregation responds “Amen,” before the priest finally utters the profession of faith: “Amen. Amen. Amen. I believe, I believe and confess till the last breath, that this is the life- giving flesh which Thy only-begotten Son, our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ, took from our Lady, the Queen of us all, the Mother of God, the saint, the pure Mary. He made It one with His divinity, without mingling, without confusion, and without alteration. . . . I believe, I believe, I believe that this is in very truth. Amen.” He kisses the altar thrice, while the deacon responds “I believe, I believe, I believe. This is in very truth, Amen. . . .”
This has always been the steadfast, unwavering faith of the church. While other doctrines of belief were subject to heresy during the early centuries of Christianity, the Eucharist continued to meet with universal acceptance for at least eight centuries, until a bishop of Antioch called Abraham threw doubt upon the efficacy of the sacrament. Patriarch Qiryaqus of Antioch (793-817), together with Patriarch MARK II of Alexandria (799-819), asked him to recant, but on his refusing to do so, a council was convened that excommunicated him.
The Writings of the Early Church Fathers
This realistic interpretation of the eucharistic bread and wine as becoming the Lord’s Body and Blood was strongly maintained in the writing of the early fathers, from which we cite a few excerpts.
IGNATIUS, bishop of Antioch (c. 35-c. 107) writes: “I have no task for corruptible food nor for the pleasures of this life. I desire the Bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ, who was of the seed of David; and for drink I desire His Blood, which is love incorruptible” (Letter to the Romans 7.3).
Saint Irenaeus (c. 130-c. 200) writes: “But what consistency is there in those who hold that the bread over which thanks have been given is the Body of their Lord, and the cup His Blood, if they do not acknowledge that he is the Son of the Creator of the world. . . ,” (Adversus omnes haereses 4.18.4).
In the Mystagogia, Saint CYRIL OF JERUSALEM (c. 315-386) writes: “Let us then, with full confidence, partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. For in the figure of bread His Body is given to you, so that by partaking of the Body and Blood of Christ, you might become united in body and blood with Him. For thus do we become Christ-bearers, His Body and Blood being distributed through our members. And thus it is that we become, according to the blessed Peter, sharers of the divine nature” (Mystagogia 4.3). “Do not, therefore, regard the Bread and the Wine as simply that; for they are, according to the Master’s declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ. Even though the senses suggest to you the other, let faith make you firm. Do not judge in this matter by taste, but be fully assured by the faith, not doubting that you have been deemed worthy of the Body and Blood of Christ” (Mystagogia 4.6).
According to Saint JOHN CHRYSOSTOM (c. 347-407), “When the words say, “This is my Body,’ be convinced of it and believe it, and look at it with the eyes of the mind. For Christ did not give us something tangible, but even in His tangible things all is intellectual.
. . . How many now say, “I wish I could see His shape, His appearance, His garments, His sandals.’ Only look! You see Him! You touch Him! You eat Him!” (On Matthew 82.4.) and: “Take care, then, lest you too become guilty of the Body and Blood of Christ. They slaughtered His most holy body; but you, after such great benefits, receive Him into a filthy soul. For it was not enough for Him to be made man, to be struck and to be slaughtered, but He even mingles Himself with us; and this not by faith only, but even in every deed He makes us His Body. How very pure, then, ought he not be, who enjoys the benefit of this Sacrifice?”
Saint Ambrose, bishop of Milan (c. 339-397) writes: “Before it is consecrated it is bread; but where the words of Christ come in, it is the Body of Christ. Finally, hear Him saying: “All of you take and eat of this, for this is My Body.’ And before the words of Christ the chalice is full of wine and water; but where the words of Christ have been operative it is made the Blood of Christ, which redeems the people.”
Similar teaching about the eucharistic sacrifice is to be found in the writings of CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA, Tertullian, DIONYSIUS THE GREAT of Alexandria, BASIL THE GREAT, Epiphanius, bishop of Salamis, CYRIL OF ALEXANDRIA, and many others.
The Nature of the Divine Transformation
Unlike other churches, the apostolic churches hold the unshakable belief that the elements are completely transformed into the very flesh and blood of Jesus Christ—a belief based on the pledge given by Christ in which He called bread His body and wine His blood. Saint Paul clarifies this transformation in 1 Corinthians 11:23-25. Confirmation of this belief recurs in key passages in the liturgy as mentioned earlier, and also in the prayer for the descent of the Holy Spirit: “We pray Thee, O Lord our God, we Thy sinful and unworthy servants. We worship Thee by the pleasure of Thy goodness, that Thy Holy Spirit may descend upon us and upon these offerings placed here, to purify them, transubstantiate them and manifest them holy unto Thy Saints. And this Bread, He makes into His Holy Body. And this Cup the honoured Blood, unto the New Testament.” Henceforth, the bread and wine having already undergone this divine and mysterious transformation, and become the Lord’s Body and Blood, they will no more receive the sign of the CROSS from the priest, but become themselves the source of consignation.
This belief is affirmed by the fathers in straightforward and unambiguous terms. Saint GREGORY OF NYSSA says, “Rightly then, do we believe that now also the bread which is consecrated by the Word of God is changed into the Body of God the Word.” In the words of John of Damascus: “the bread itself and the wine are made over into the Body and Blood of God. If you inquire into the way in which this happens, let it suffice for you to hear that it is through the Holy Spirit. . . . More than this we do not know, except that the word of God is true and effective and all-powerful; but the manner [of the Eucharistic transformation] is inscrutable.”
The Eucharist as a Sacrifice
The church believes that the Eucharist is a genuine bloodless sacrifice offered to God. This is evident from the words of Christ when He instituted the sacrament (Jn. 6:51; Lk. 22:19, 20). Hence the teaching of the apostle Paul (1 Cor. 10:8-21) where he contrasts the Lord’s table with that of the Gentiles, among whom unclean sacrifices were offered. The Epistle to the Hebrews says, “We have an altar from which those who serve the rest have no right to eat” (Heb. 13:10), thus testifying to the heavenly sacrifice of Jesus Christ as opposed to the pagan sacrifice.
The Eucharist is the sacrifice prophesied through Malachi, “I have no pleasure in you, says the Lord of hosts, and I will not accept an offering from your hand. For from the rising of the sun to its setting my name is great among the nations, and in every place incense is offered to my name, and a pure offering; for my name is great among the nations, says the Lord of hosts” (Mal. 1:10, 11).
This prophetic text carries a clear implication of the perfection of Mosaic sacrifice in the fullness of time. This one sacrifice cannot be that of the Gentiles, as they were unclean. Nor can it be that of which the Psalmist speaks “Then wilt thou delight in right sacrifices, in burnt offerings and whole burnt offerings” (Ps. 51:19), as this is a spiritual sacrifice offered by all righteous people everywhere. Christians have traditionally interpreted this prophecy as referring to the sacrament of the Eucharist offered to God everywhere.
Accordingly, the Liturgy contains various references to these offerings:
- In the intercession prayers of Saint Basil’s Liturgy the priest says, “Remember, O Lord, those who offered unto Thee these oblations, those for whom they were offered, and those by whom they were offered. Give them all the heavenly recompense.” The deacon responds by saying, “Pray for these holy and honored oblations, for our sacrifices, and for those who offered them.”
- In the prayer of the veil, the priest says, “We pray Thee, our Lord, do not reject us as we lay our hands on this awesome and bloodless sacrifice.”
- Toward the end of the consecration the priest says, “As we commemorate His holy passion, His Resurrection from the dead, His Ascension into heaven, His sitting at Thy right hand O Father . . . we offer Thee Thy oblations from what is Thine. . . .”
- In the Fraction prayers for the feasts of the Angels and the Virgin Mary, the priest says, “Today on this table is present with us Emmanuel our Lord, the Lamb of God who carries the sins of the whole world. . . . Holy and full of glory in this sacrifice which has been slain for the life of the whole world. Amen, Alleluia. . . .”
- On Holy Thursday, the Fraction prayer for Isaac, son of Abraham, includes this section: “O God who accepted the offering of our father Abraham, do accept from us this sacrifice, and bless these oblations.”
- In the brief Fraction the priest prays, “O God who has given us, we sinners, the bread of salvation, a live and heavenly sacrifice, the holy and honored Body and Blood of Thy Christ.”
The sacrificial nature of the Eucharist has been strongly stressed in the writings of the early fathers.
Justin Martyr (c. 100-c. 165) says: “Accordingly God, anticipating all the sacrifices which we offer through His Name, and which Jesus the Christ enjoined us to offer; i.e., in the Eucharist of the Bread and the cup, and which are presented by Christians in all places throughout the world, bears witness that they are well-pleasing to Him” (Dialogue with Trypho 117).
According to Saint Irenaeus (c. 130-c. 200): “He [Christ] taught the new sacrifice of the new covenant, of which Malachias, one of the twelve prophets, had signified beforehand, “You do not do My will,” says the Lord Almighty, “and I will not accept a sacrifice at your hands. For from the rising of the sun to its setting, My name is glorified among the gentiles, and in every place incense is offered to My name, and a pure sacrifice; for great is My name among the gentiles,” says the Lord Almighty’ [Mal. 1:10-11]. By these words He makes it plain that the former people will cease to make offerings to God; but that in every place sacrifice will be offered to Him, and indeed, a pure one; for His name is glorified among the gentiles” (Adversus omnes haereses 4.17.5).
Saint Cyprian, bishop of Carthage (d. 258), writes: “Whence it appears that the Blood of Christ is not offered if there be no wine in the cup, nor the Lord’s sacrifice celebrated with a legitimate consecration unless our oblations and sacrifice respond to His Passion. . . . For if Jesus Christ, our Lord and God, is Himself the chief priest of God the Father, and has first offered Himself a sacrifice to the Father, and has commanded this to be done in commemoration of Himself, certainly that priest truly discharges the office of Christ, who imitates that which Christ did; and he then offers a true and full sacrifice in the Church to God the Father, when he proceeds to offer it according to what he sees Christ Himself to have offered” (Epistle 112.9.14).
Saint Gregory of Nyssa (c. 330-c. 395) says: “He offered Himself for us, Victim and Sacrifice, and Priest as well, and Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. When did He do this? When He made His own Body food and His own Blood drink for His disciples for this much is clear enough to anyone, that a sheep cannot be eaten by a man unless its being eaten be preceded by its being slaughtered. This giving of His own Body to His disciples for eating clearly indicates that the sacrifice of the Lamb has now been completed” (Sermon on the Resurrection of Christ).
And according to Saint John Chrysostom (c. 347-407): “What then? Do we not offer daily? Yes, we offer, but making remembrance of His death; and this remembrance is one and not many. How is it one and not many? Because this Sacrifice is offered once, like that in the Holy of Holies. This Sacrifice is a type of that, and this remembrance a type of that. We offer always the same, not one sheep now and another tomorrow, but the same thing always. Thus there is one Sacrifice. By this reasoning, since the Sacrifice is offered everywhere, are there, then, a multiplicity of Christ? By no means! Christ is one everywhere. He is complete here, complete there, one Body. And just as He is one Body and not many though offered everywhere, so too is there one Sacrifice” (Homilies on the Epistle to the Hebrews 17.3).
Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the eucharistic sacrifice are thus one and the same. Both are the body and the blood of the Redeemer, the former being the main root while the latter a shoot growing from this root, with branches spreading all over the Christian church providing fruit and nourishment to every partaker of the sacrament. The following distinctions must, however, be noted:
- On the cross the body and blood of Christ are the visible sacrifice, whereas on the altar the eucharistic bread and wine become the body and blood of the Savior.
- On the cross, Christ, in His capacity as the High Priest, offered the sacrifice of propitiation; on the altar it is offered by the priest.
- The sacrifice of the cross was real, as the Lamb was physically slain. Now, “we know that Christ being raised from the dead will never die again” (Rom. 6:9); a bloodless sacrifice is offered through the eucharistic sacrament.
- The entire human race was redeemed on the cross, while the Eucharist is celebrated to ask God’s forgiveness for sins committed by those on whose behalf the sacrifice (oblations) is being offered, both the living and the dead.
- The sacrifice on the cross was offered once—at Golgotha— whereas the eucharistic sacrifice has been perpetually offered since its institution by Christ.
The characteristic feature of the Eucharist as an expression of gratitude has its origin in the precedent established by Christ when He instituted the sacrament: “He took bread and when he had given thanks . . .” (Lk. 22:19; Cor. 11:23-24).
The liturgies used by the church are interspersed with expressions of thankfulness: at the beginning, following the petitions, in the epiclesis, before the fraction, during the communion.
The Eucharist is also a sacrifice on behalf of the living and the dead. According to John Chyrsostom, “For not unmeaningly have these things been devised, nor do we in vain make mention of the departed in the course of the divine mysteries, and approach God in their behalf, beseeching the Lamb who is before us, who taketh away the sin of the world; not in vain doth he that standeth by the altar cry out when the tremendous mysteries are celebrated, “For all that have fallen asleep in Christ, and for those who perform commemorations in their behalf.’ For if there were no commemorations for them, these things would not have been spoken. . . . Let us not then be weary in giving aid to the departed, both by offering on their behalf and obtaining prayers for them: for the common Expiation of the world is even before us . . .” (Homilies on First Corinthians 41.8).
The Coptic Liturgy of Saint Basil includes this section following the commemoration of the saints, which is a prayer for both the dead and the living: “Those, O Lord, whose souls Thou hast taken, repose in the Paradise of Grace, in the land of eternal life, in the heavenly Jerusalem. And we, who are pilgrims in this place, keep us in Thy faith, and grant us Thy peace unto the end.”
Leavened, Not Unleavened, Bread for the Eucharist
The tradition followed by the Coptic and other Orthodox Eastern churches, and by all Eastern and Western churches in the days of the apostles, is that leavened bread should be used in the Eucharist. This is evident from the fact that Christ instituted this sacrament on a Thursday, that is, a whole day prior to killing the passover lamb, or a whole day before unleavened bread was to be eaten. It is the firm belief of the church that the Lord was crucified on the day when the passover lamb for that year was killed, which fell on a Friday, thus becoming the new Christian passover: “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn: 1:29).
The Roman Catholic church continued to follow the same tradition, using leavened bread for the Eucharist until the eleventh century when it introduced unleavened bread instead, due to a misconception that when Christ instituted the Eucharist, unleavened bread had started to be used; this was a misinterpretation of certain passages in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. We shall here consider the facts as gleaned from the writings of the evangelists, and also in the light of the Jewish customs for Passover.
In keeping with biblical law, every household was to kill a lamb on the eve of the fourteenth, and eat it on the eve of the fifteenth day of Nisan, which is the first month of the year. Till the end of the fourteenth day, leavened bread would still be in use, and would not be taken away until just before the passover meal which, in memory of the hurried departure of the Israelites from the land of Egypt, had to be the passover lamb with bitter herbs and unleavened bread—the bread of affliction (Dt. 16:3). The days of unleavened bread would be “feasts of the Lord”: “In the first month, on the fourteenth day of the month in the evening, is the Lord’s passover. And on the fifteenth day of the same month is the feast of unleavened bread to the Lord; seven days you shall eat unleavened bread. On the first day you shall have a holy convocation; you shall do no laborious work” (Lev. 23:5-8).
From the gospel of John we understand that:
- The supper which Christ ate with the disciples took place before the Passover: “Now before the feast of the Passover . . . And during supper . . .” (Jn. 13:1,2).
- “Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany. . . . The next day [i.e., five days before the Passover] . . . they took branches of palm trees and went out to meet him” (Jn. 12:1, 12-13). This means that the passover was on the following Friday evening, and that the supper at which the Lord instituted the Eucharist was on Thursday evening, a whole day before the Passover.
- “Then they led Jesus from the house of Caiaphas to the praetorium. It was early. They themselves did not enter the praetorium, so that they might not be defiled, but might eat the passover” (Jn. 18: 28). It is evident here that the Lord was tried and crucified on the day on which the passover lamb would be killed later in the evening, that is, on Friday. The Lord’s supper, accordingly, was on the previous Thursday, a whole day before the Jewish Passover.
- The same fact is clear from John 19:13, 14, “When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus out and sat down on the judgment seat. . . . Now it was the day of Preparation of the . .”
If we turn to the synoptic Gospels, we find that the account is different. Matthew begins with the words, “Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread . . .” (26:17-28); Mark begins with “And on the first day of Unleavened Bread, when they sacrificed the passover lamb . . .” (14:12-24); and Luke begins with “Then came the day of Unleavened Bread, on which the passover lamb had to be sacrificed . . .” (22:7-20). It is an established fact, as we have pointed out earlier, that the Passover lamb cannot be killed on the Passover feast itself. Biblical scholars with profound knowledge of Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and other relevant languages, of whom the German Jewish-Christian Joachim Jeremias is one of the most prominent, have brought to light certain inaccuracies in the Greek translation of the Hebrew text, and proved, rather convincingly, that the Last Supper was not a passover meal, but one that took place twenty-four hours earlier. How could it have been, when it was completely devoid of the ritual that must be diligently and meticulously obeyed? There is no mention of the Passover lamb, the bitter herbs, the Passover haggadah, the hallel, the necessity of giving every person his own plate and cup (actually four cups). Most important is the total inadmissibility of doing any action or holding any meeting on such a sacred feast day, while countless episodes are involved in the synod in order to try and condemn Jesus. The conclusive evidence is that the Last Supper used leavened bread. This is what the Orthodox churches use for the Eucharist.
PETER I (302-311) writes: “But after His public ministry He did not eat of the lamb, but Himself suffered as the true Lamb in the Paschal feast, as John the Divine and Evangelist teaches us in the Gospel written by him, where he thus speaks: “Then led they Jesus from Caiaphas unto the hall of judgment: and it was early; and they themselves went not into the judgment hall lest they should be defiled, but that they might eat the passover'” (Jn. 28:28).
The Right to Officiate at the Eucharist
This right was primarily given to bishops, as successors to the apostles who received it from Christ, and who, in turn, passed it on to priests. “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread . . .” (1 Cor. 11:23-25). Most of the early fathers and the ecumenical councils recorded this right of the clergy, not extending it to the diaconate. Deacons can only assist; and laymen, of course, are not entitled to serve at the altar. As to partaking of the holy sacrament, this is open to every Christian baptized believer who has fulfilled the preliminary requirements, namely, fasting and confession. According to Justin Martyr, “this food is called among us the Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined” (First Apology 66).
The Eucharist must be denied to unbelievers, the unbaptized, and believers who are impenitent or unprepared to receive the Sacrament. “Whoever therefore eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body, eats and drinks judgment upon himself” (1 Cor. 11:27-29).
The Apostolic Constitutions insist that the Eucharist should be given to all, including children immediately after baptism and confirmation: “And after that, let the bishop partake, then the presbyters, and deacons, and sub-deacons, and the readers, and the singers, and the ascetics; . . . then the children; and then all the people in order . . . ” (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles 8.13).
Dionysius the Areopagite also stressed the importance of communion to small children: “Children who cannot understand divine things are yet made partakers of divine generation, and of divine communion of the most sacred mysteries” (Ecclesiastical Hierarchy, 7.11). Other church fathers do also.
The Eucharist is celebrated daily in most Coptic churches and monasteries; a few churches, however, celebrate it only on Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Redemptive Fruits of the Eucharist
Partaking worthily of the sacrament brings about: (1) oneness and communion with the Lord: “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me and I in him” (Jn. 6:56); Saint Cyril of Jerusalem says, “”. . . thus do we become Christ-bearers, His Body and Blood being distributed through our members. And thus it is that we become . . . sharers of the divine nature” (Mystagogia 4.3); (2) growth in spiritual life in Christ Jesus: “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so he who eats me will live because of me” (Jn. 6:57); and (3) a pledge of eternal life: “he who eats this bread will live for ever” (Jn. 6:58).
- Habib Jirjis. Asrar al-Kanisah al-Sab‘ah, 2nd ed., pp. 75-120. Cairo, 1950.
- Ibn Siba‘ Yuhanna ibn Abi Zakariya. Kitab al-Jawharah al-Nafisah fi ‘Ulum al-Kanisah, ed. Viktur Mansur. Cairo, 1902. Trans. into Latin as Pretiosa margarita de scientiis ecclesiasticis by Vincentio Mistrh. Cairo, 1966.
- Jurgens, W. A., ed. The Faith of the Early Fathers. Vol. 1, Collegeville, Minn., 1970. Vol. 2, Vol. 3, Collegeville, Minn., 1979.
- Percival, H. R. “Excursus on the Worship of the Early Church.” In A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2nd ser., Vol. 14, ed. P. Schaff and H. Wace. Grand Rapids, Mich., 1956.
- Tadrus Ya‘qub Malati. Christ in the Eucharist, bk. 1, pp. 34-40; bk. 5, pp. 268-74, 306. Alexandria, 1973.