June 2007, Article #2
Written by the Very Rev. John Breck
Christ's gestures are as important as His words in signaling
allusions to Eucharistic celebration throughout the Gospels. Like
His words, those gestures serve to actualize within the community
of faith both the original Lord's Supper and the eternal Banquet in
the Kingdom of heaven.
To Orthodox Christians the Eucharist or Holy Communion is the very
culmination of our life in Christ. It gives direction and meaning to
our entire cycle of liturgical services, all of which ultimately
serve to prepare us to receive the life-giving Body and Blood of our
risen and glorified Lord. The Eucharist is Christ Himself, "the
Bread that came down from heaven" (Jn 6:41), who nourishes His
followers throughout the pilgrimage that will lead them beyond death
to eternal life and eternal communion in the Holy Trinity.
These kinds of statements are difficult for some non-Orthodox,
particularly Protestant Christians, to hear. A lingering (and often
unconscious) reaction against Roman Catholic "sacramentalism" leads
some, at least, to minimize or simply deny Eucharistic references
that appear throughout the New Testament. To many Protestant biblical
scholars, for example, the "bread from heaven" that Jesus embodies
is to be identified with His Word, His announcement of the coming of
salvation. Accordingly, they tend to read the passage John 6:51-58,
which identifies that bread with Jesus' flesh, as a
secondary "sacramental" addition to the Gospel, made by a
later "ecclesiastical redactor." This view became a
staple of liberal Protestant exegesis toward the middle of the last
century under the influence of German theologians such as Rudolf
Bultmann and Günther Bornkamm. Literary analysis of the Gospel of
John, and particularly of the passage 6:47-58, shows conclusively,
however, that the so-called sacramental addition of verses 51c-58 is
in fact an original and integral part of the "bread of life
discourse" that spans 6:22-65. That entire passage conveys the
message that Jesus Christ, the "bread from heaven," offers life to
His followers by means of Eucharistic communion.
Other passages in the four Gospels make the same point. The most
obvious and important is the "institution" of the Lord's Supper on
the evening before Christ's Passion. Whether the meal Jesus shared
with His disciples was an actual Passover meal (Mt, Mc and Lk) or
the previous night's meal of preparation (Jn),the entire ritual was
infused with Passover significance. It celebrated Israel's
liberation from slavery in Egypt by God's mighty hand, a prophetic
image of the Christian's salvation from the slavery of sin and
liberation from death and corruption. This is a ritual Jesus had
performed from childhood. Yet here, just before His death and
resurrection, He modified the traditional Jewish pattern of
celebration by transforming it into a rite of communion. Taking
bread, He blessed God with words of thanksgiving. Then He
broke the bread and gave it to His disciples, while He identified it
with His own being: "This is my Body, given for you!"
He took, blessed, broke and gave the bread to His disciples. Four
gestures that taken together would recall to those with Him similar
prophetic gestures Jesus had earlier performed in the wilderness.
There too, in order to feed the multitudes, He took bread and
blessed it, offering thanks to God. Then He broke
the bread and distributed it to the people (Mt 14:14-21 and
parallels).  Significantly, this is the only miracle Jesus
performed that is recorded in all four Gospels. Its Eucharistic
overtones are unmistakable.
According to St Luke's Gospel (ch 24), the risen Christ repeated
these same gestures in the house at Emmaus. This entire account is
suffused with Eucharistic significance. The Emmaus story, in fact,
offers us a remarkable image of the entire unfolding of the
Eucharistic Divine Liturgy, beginning with proclamation of the Word
and ending with communion in Christ's Body and Blood.
The first part of the story reflects the "Liturgy of the Word," as
the disciples encounter on the roadway the risen Lord, who appears
incognito. Plunged into a state of distress and incomprehension, the
two disciples, Cleopas and his companion (traditionally identified
with the evangelist Luke), are discussing the tragic fate of their
crucified Master. Jesus approaches them, unrecognized, and inquires
about their conversation. In reply, they describe the tragic
condemnation and death of the one they hoped would "redeem Israel."
Then they speak of the women who reported finding the empty tomb and
how they themselves went and found Him missing. Then
Jesus, "beginning with Moses and all the prophets
them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself" (Lk
24:27). Still, although their "hearts burned within them," they did
not recognize Him.
That recognition came only with the shared meal in the house at
Emmaus. There Jesus assumed the role not of guest, but of pater
familias, the Host who presides at table. By His gestures He
revealed to the disciples His true identity as the Risen Lord.
Again, "taking bread, He blessed (God), and breaking, He gave to
them." In the Greek text, only the verbs are expressed (labôn
ton arton eulogêsen kai klasas epedidou autois), to stress once more
the significance of those Eucharistic gestures.
The Liturgy of the Word is thus fulfilled in the Liturgy of the
Eucharist. Thanks to this account, future readers and hearers of St
Luke's Gospel will know that their most intimate encounter, their
deepest communion, with the risen Christ occurs through celebration
of this unique, sacramental meal. The apostle
Paul declares of this celebration that "as often as you eat this
Bread and drink the Cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until He
comes" (1 Cor. 11:26). His coming at the "last day," however, is
proclaimed and made present "proleptically," by a living
anticipation, each time the community of the faithful gathers around
the Lord's Table, in order to participate in His Eucharistic self-
If the Holy Eucharist has primal importance for Orthodox Christians,
it is because this ritual combination of words and gestures offers a
real sharing, here and now, in the very Life of the Resurrected
Lord. Although those words and gestures are repeated by the priest
in the name of the community of faithful, the true celebrant of the
Eucharistic mystery is Christ Himself. He is the true Host of our
celebration, just as He is both Priest and Sacrifice, "the One who
offers and is offered," for our life and for the life of the world.
Through that Eucharistic ritual, Christ unites us with the Twelve in
the Upper Room and with the Church throughout the ages. At the same
time, He offers us a foretaste, real but anticipatory, of the
heavenly banquet, the Bread of eternal Life, that will be ours in
the age to come.
 Evidence for this is given in P.F. Ellis, The Genius of John
(Liturgical Press, 1984) and J. Breck, The Shape of Biblical
Language (St Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1994, p. 204-213).
 In St John's Gospel, Jesus does not break the bread. Thereby He
associates the bread with His own crucified body, which, because of
His rapid death, was left intact: the soldiers did not break His leg
bones, "so that Scripture might be fulfilled" (Jn 19:36). As the
true Paschal Lamb, Jesus thus fulfills the Hebrew Passover (Exod.
12:46; cf 1 Cor. 5:7).
Issac K Joseph
Mar Thoman Church