Mystery or Memorial? Sacrament or Symbol?

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What is the Lord’s Supper? What is the Eucharist? Was it always understood as a Sacrament? Throughout the history of Christianity, the overwhelming majority of Christians have consistently believed that Jesus Christ, in a mystery, imparts His Body and Blood to His people though the vehicle of the Lord’s Supper. Bypassing all the Biblical references, here is a small, non-exhaustive sampling of what they’ve had to say in every generation. If you’re going to read any of them, please read them all.

Ignatius of Antioch AD 35-107

“Mark ye those who hold strange doctrines touch the grace of Jesus which came to us, how they are contrary to the mind of God… They abstain from Eucharist and prayer, because they allow not that the Eucharist is the flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ, which flesh suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up.”

“Assemble yourselves together in common… breaking the bread, which the medicine of immortality and the antidote that we should not die but live forever in Jesus Christ.”

Ignatius to the Smyrnaens, 6.2; Ignatius to the Ephesians 20.2

Justin Martyr  AD 100-165

“We do not receive these as common bread or common drink. But juest as our Savior Jesus Christ was made flesh through the Word of God and had both flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food which has been Eucharized by the word of prayer from Him is the flesh and blood of the Incarnate Jesus.”

First Apology 66.2

Irenaeus of Lyons   AD 130-200

“For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist are no longer corruptible, having the hope of resurrection to eternity.:

“When, therefore, the mixed cup and baked bread receives the Word of God and becomes the Eucharist, the Body of Christ, and from these the substance of our flesh is increased and supported, how can they say that the flesh is not capable of receiving the gift of God, which is eternal life – flesh is nourished by the Body and Blood of the Lord, and  is in fact, a member of Him?”

Against Heresies 4.18; 5.2,3

 Cyprian of Carthage   AD 200-258

“We may not arouse and exhort those to battle unarmed and naked, but may fortify them with the protection of Christ’s Body and Blood. The Eucharist is designate for this very purpose, that it may be a safeguard to those who receive it.”

Epistle 54

Athanasius of Alexandria  AD 296-373

“You will see the Levites (deacons) bringing loaves and a cup of win, and placing them on the Table. So long as the prayers and invocations have not yet been made, it is mere bread and a mere cup. But when the great and wondrous prayers have been recited, then the bread becomes the Body, and the cup becomes the Blood of Jesus Christ… When the great prayers and holy supplications are sent up, the Word descends on the bread and cup, and it becomes His Body.”

Sermon to the Baptized, quoted in Early Christian Doctrine by J.N.D. Kelley

 Hilary of Poitiers  AD 315-367

“He Himself declares: ‘For My Flesh is real food, and My Blood is real drink. He who eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood abides in Me and I in him.’  It is no longer permitted us to raise doubts about the nature of the Body and the Blood, for, according to the statement of the Lord Himself, as well as our faith, this is indeed Flesh and Blood. And these things that we receive bring it about that we are in Christ and Christ in us… How deeply we are in Him through the sacrament fo the Flesh and Blood.”

The Trinity 8.14

 Cyril of Jerusalem AD 315-386

“Since then He Himself declared and said of the Bread, ‘this is my Body’, who shall dare to doubt any longer? And since He Himself affirmed and said, ‘this is My Blood’, who shall ever hesitate, saying that it is not His Blood? He once, in Cana of Galilee turned water into wine, akin to blood, and is it incredible that He should have turned wine into Blood?

“Consider therefore the bread and wine not as bare elements, for they are, according to the Lord’s declaration, the Body and Blood of Christ; for even though sense suggest this to you, yetlet faith establish you. Judge not the matter from the taste, but from faith be fully assured without misgiving, that the Body and Blood of Christ have been granted to you.”

Catechetical Lectures XXII 1.2; XXII 6

 Basil the Great  AD 330-379

“It is beneficial and good to communicate every day, to partake of the Holy Body and Blood of Christ, for He distinctly says, ‘He that eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood h as eternal life.”

Epistle 93 ad Caesariam

 Gregory of Nyssa    AD 335-395

“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… by dispensation of His grace, He disseminates Himself in every believer through that Flesh, whose substance comes from bread and wine, blending Himself with the bodies of the believers, to secure that, by this union with the immortal, man, too, may be a sharer in incorruption. He gives these gifts by virtue of the benediction through which is trans-elements the natural quality of these visibile signs to that immortal thing.”

The Great Catechism XXXVII

Ambrose of Milan   AD 339-397

“We, as often as we receive the Sacramental Elements, which by the mysterious efficacy of holy prayer are transformed into the Flesh and Blood, ‘do show the Lord’s death’.”

The Faith, 4.124

John Chrysostom    AD 345-407

“This which is in the cup is that which flowed from His side, and of that we do we partake… What is the bread? The Body of Christ.”

Homily 24 on First Corinthians; 1,2

Augustine of Hippo    AD 354-430

“That Bread which you see on the altar, having been sanctified by the Word of God, is the Body of Christ. That chalice, or rather, what is in that chalice, having been sanctified by the Word of God, is the Blood of Christ. Through that bread and wine the Lord Christ willed to commend His Body and Blood, which He poured out for us unto the forgiveness of sins.”

“What you see is the bread and the chalice; that is what  your own eyes report to you. But what your faith obliges you to accept is that the bread is the Body of Christ, and the chalice is the Blood of Christ… How is the bread His Body? And the chalice, or what is in the chalice, how is it His Blood? Those elements, brethren, are called Sacraments, because in them one thing is seen, but anoterh is understood. What is seen is the corporeal species; but what is understood is the spiritual fruit.”

Sermon 227; Sermon 272

Cyril of Alexandria    AD 375-444

“He states demonstratively: ‘This is My Body’ and ‘This is my Blood,’ lest you might suppose the things that are seen are a figure. Rather, by some secret of the all-powerful God thethings seen are transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ, truly offered ina sacrifice in whic we, as particpants, receive the life-giving and sanctifying power of Christ.”

Commentary on Matthew 26,27

Leo  the Great    AD 400-461

“When the Lord says: ‘Unless you shall have eaten the Flesh of the Son of Man and shall have drunk His Blood, you shall not have life in you,’ you ought to so communicate at the Sacred Table that  you have no doubt whatsoever of the truth of the Body and Blood of Christ. For that which is taken in the mouth si what is believed in faith; and in vain do those respond, ‘Amen’ who argue against that which is received.”

Sermon 91:3

Gelasius I of Rome    d. AD 496

“The substance or nature of the bread and wine does not cease to exist, although the elements, the Holy Spirit, perfecting them, pass over into a divine substance, as was the case with Christ Himself. And certainly the image and likeness are honored in the observance of the Mysteries.”

Concerning the Two Natures of Christ, Thiel. Ep. Pontiff, p. 541 f.

 John of Damascus      AD 675-749

 “…not that the Body which was taken up comes back down from heaven, but that 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…  Mmore than this we do not know, except that the Word of God is true and effective and all-powerful; but the manner is inscrutable… the Bread and the Wine are not a type of the Body and Blood of Christ – perish the thought! – but the deified Body itself of the Lord.”

The Source of Knowledge, 3,4,13

Paschasius Radbertus      AD 790-865

“Let no man be moved from this Body and Blood of Christ which in a mystery are true Flesh and Blood since the Creator so willed it… Because the sacrament is mystical, we cannot deny that it is a figure, but if it is a figure, we must inquire how it can be truth. For every figure is a figure of another thing and is always referred to that other thing as being the real thing of which it is a figure.”

The Body and Blood of the Lord I.2; IV.1

Ratramnus of Corbie    d, AD 868

“If, indeed, it is bread in appearance, in the sacrament it is the true Body of Christ, even as the Lord Jesus proclaims, ‘This is my Body,’… they are figures according to he visible form; but according to the invisible substances, i.d. the power of the Divine Word, the true Body and Blood of Christ truly exist.”

Letters to Charles the Bald, 57;49

Thomas Aquinas      AD 1225-1274

“Two things may be considered in the sacrament of the Eucharist. One is the fact that it is a sacrament, and in this respect it is like the other effects of sanctifying grace. The other is that Christ’s Body is miraculously contained therein, and thus, it is included under God’s ominpotence, like all other miracles which are ascribed to God’s almighty power.”

Summa Theologica, Section XV, Question 1, article 9, reply to objection 6

John Wycliffe       AD 1330-1384

“That change does not destroy the nature of bread, nor alter the nature of the Body… but it effects the presence of the Body of Christ and destroys thte preeminence of the bread, so that the whole attention of the worshipper is concentrated upon the Body of Christ… Not that the bread has been destroyed, but that it signifies the Body of the Lord there present in the Sacrament.”

The Eucharist, p. 100,101

John Huss      AD  1375-1415

“The humble priest does not… say that he is the creator of Christ, but that the Lord Christ by His power and Word, through him, causes that which is bread to be His Body; not that at that time it began to be His, but that there on the altar begins to be sacramentally in the form of bread what was previously was not there and therein.”

John Huss, by David Schaff, 1915

Martin Luther     AD 1483-1543

“What is the Sacrament of the Altar? It is the true Body and Blood of Christ, under the bread and wine, given unto us Chrisitans to eat and to drink, as it was instituted by Christ Himself… What is the benefit of such eating and drinking? It is pointed out in these words: Given and shed for you for the remission of sins.”

Small Catechism Section VI

John Calvin     AD 1509-1564

“It is a spiritual mystery which cannot be seen by the eye, nor be comprehended by human understanding. Therefore,  it is represented for us by means of visible signs, according to the need of our weaknesses. Nevertheless, it is not a naked figure, but one joined to its truth and substance. With good reason, then, the bread is called Body, because it not only represents it, but also presents it.”

Short Treatise on the Lord’s Supper

John Wesley     AD  1703-1791

“All who desire an increase of the grace of God are to wait for it in partaking of the Lord’s Supper: for this also is a direction He Himself has given… is not the eating of the bread, and the drinking of that cup, the outward, visible means, whereby God conveys into our souls all that spiritual grace, that righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost which were purchased by the Body of Christ, once broken and the Blood of Christ once shed for us? Let all, therefore, who truly desire the grace of God, eat of that bread, and drink of that cup.”

Sermon 16, The Means of Grace, points 11,12

Andrew Murray  AD 1828-1917

“In the Supper, Christ would take possession of the whole man – body and soul – to renew and sanctify it by the power of His holy Body and Blood. even His Body is communicated by the Holy Spirit. Even our body is fed with His holy Body and renewed by the working of the Holy Spirit… ‘He that eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood, let him abide in Me, and I in him.”

The New Life, p. 205, 2-7

F.F. Bruce    20th Century

“In the Biblical sense, ‘remembrance’ is more than a mental exercise; it involves a realization of what is remembered. At the Passover feast the participants are one with their ancestors of the Exodus; at the Eucharist, Christians experience the Real Presence of their Lord.”

 1st and 2nd Corinthians, Oliphants, 1971; p. 111

R.C.H. Lenski     20th Century

“‘My Body means exactly what the words say: in truth and reality My Body… We refuse to answer the question regarding the how because the Lord withholds the answer. We ould probably not have understood the real answer if it had ben given because of the giving of His Body in the Sacrament is a Divine act of omnipotence and grace which is beyond mortal comprehension. The Lord declares the fact: ‘This is My Body,’ and we take Him at His word.”

The Interpretation of St. Paul’s 1st and 2nd Epistles to the Corinthians, Augsburg, 1963

G.M.A. Jansen    20th Century

“This is the mystery: The Body and blood of Christ are there and He offers them to us a food and drink, because He said so. If you believe in the Mystery of the Incarnation and in that of hte Redemption, you can also believe in the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist, in the Real Presence.”

The Sacramental We, Bruce Publishing, co. 1968, p. 52


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 And finally one who didn’t.

Influenced by the rationalistic spirit of the Renaissance and reacting to abuses in the Roman Church, a small segment of Reformation churchmen, centered around Ulrich Zwingli, began to view the Lord’s Supper as an empty symbol, a Real Absence of Christ, instead of a vehicle of grace.

Ulrich Zwingli  AD 1484-1531

“If He has gone away, if He has left this world, if He is no longer with us, then either the Creed is unfaithful to the words of Christ, which is impossible, or else the Body and Blood of Christ cannot be present in the Sacrament. The flesh may fume but the words of Christ stand firm. He sits at the right hand of the Father, He has left the world, He is no longer present with us. And if these words are true, it is impossible to maintain that His Flesh and Blood are present in the Sacrament.”

“The Fathers held exactly the same view as we do. And they use exactly the same speech as we do, for they call the bread and wine the Body and Blood of Christ, although what they really mean is that they are the representation and memorial of His Body and Blood…”

Zwingli and Bullinger, The Westminster Press, p. 214-234

“And just as I have no doubt that this God created heaven and earth, and that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, so I know that it is not possible that the Body of Christ is in the Sacrament.”

Huldrych Zwingli, G.R. Potter, Edward Arnold Pub. 1978; p. 100

 Much of modern American Evangelicalism has taken its view of the Lord’s Supper from the Gnostic Zwinglian tradition, rather than from the mainstream of historic Incarnational Christianity. Althought a multitude of examples could be quoted, Zwingli has stated the case most succinctly, and substantially speaks for them all.

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The Orthodox Church, as the historic Church of Christ, has maintained the Lord’s command, and the Apostolic teaching, often at great cost, for the last 2,000+ years.

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 Mystery or Memorial? Sacrament or Symbol?



About Fr. John A. Peck

Director of the Preachers Institute, priest in the Orthodox Church in America, award-winning graphic designer and media consultant, and non-profit administrator.
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