• Gospel Reading
  • This homily was preached at the Orthodox Monastery of the Transfiguration in Ellwood City, PA on Friday, July 27, 2007.

    In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen! In the context of what we’re doing right now—offering the worship of the Holy Liturgy—this morning’s Gospel reading can best be understood. There can be no better time to hear our Lord teach about His Body and Blood than when we are preparing to receive that very gift. In the Gospels, this passage is one of those times when Christ is speaking very plainly, not veiled in parable, to those who believe in Him. And we are faced with the same choices today that the believers who heard Christ speak these words nearly 2000 years ago had—to hear and believe and live; or to do what “many disciples” do just a few verses later (v. 66), “to walk with Him no more.” The Liturgical significance of this morning’s Gospel is not lost on any of us—Christ is the Bread of Life. An obvious allusion to the Holy Eucharist. We will eat of His flesh and drink of His blood in just a few moments, as we approach the chalice and partake of the Holy Mysteries. And the promises that Christ makes this morning are also clear—we may eat and not die…he who eats and drinks has eternal life. It’s easy to see why the Divine Liturgy has such a central place in the life of the Orthodox Church. This is the central mystery of the Church—when we are all joined together in the Body of Christ in the Mystery of Holy Communion. In the context of this Mystery we pray for the entire world, mirroring Christ’s word “My flesh…I give for the life of the world.” The Fathers write that the prayers of the Divine Liturgy are the most powerful prayers of the Church precisely because they are offered by the Body for everyone and everything as we’re being joined to Christ in His Body and Blood. During my time here at the monastery this week I’ve been re-discovering the writings of Fr. Alexander Schmemann. Fr. Alexander is particularly known for his emphasis on the Liturgy as the central act of the Church. This is a teaching that received, and continues to receive, much criticism. But there’s a wonderful story about Elder Sophrony, the spiritual son and biographer of St. Silouan the Athonite, and a saint himself as well. Someone was speaking with the Elder and criticizing this “Eucharistic theology” of people like Fr. Alexander. And so Elder Sophrony was asked what he thought about this—about giving the Eucharist such a central place, interpreting life through the prism of the Divine Liturgy. The Elder’s simple response: “We can never emphasize the Liturgy and the Eucharist too much.” There is nothing more important for our salvation. We hear this in Christ’s own words: “I am the bread of life” (v.48); “If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever” (v. 51); “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you” (v. 53). BUT, of course, there’s a qualifier. We don’t hear it in this morning’s Gospel, but it comes before and follows after. To eat the flesh and drink the blood unto salvation is not only receiving a particle from the Chalice at the Divine Liturgy. Eating together was the most intimate thing people who weren’t married could do together in 1st century Palestine. To eat together was to be joined together. When we partake of the Body and Blood, we are joined to Christ. His flesh becomes our flesh. His very Blood flows in our veins. This is the Orthodox understanding of salvation: union with Christ, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me,” we are filled with the life of God. Metropolitan HIEROTHEOS writes that as Christians all of us are called to be Theotokos—we are all called to be the bearers of God in our flesh. In the Mystery of the Holy Eucharist, the divine life of God is offered to us under the guise of bread and wine, and we are transformed by His presence. And if we’re not, then we receive unto our damnation, We’re not communing with God; we’re desecrating His holy Body and Blood if the whole desire of our heart is not union with Christ. Many in our society reject the Sacraments and deny themselves the deifying grace of God offered in them. But we Orthodox also have to be careful of a misunderstanding on the opposite extreme. What Christ says in the Gospel today is said to the believers, to those who are following Him. True discipleship presupposes that we are living a life in accord with the teaching of our Master. The Bread Christ gives is His flesh, His very being—and to eat of it requires that we give our lives. Not only in an external way—in ordination or monasticism or church attendance or whatever we “do” in order to be Christian—we’re commanded to offer all that we are (mind, heart, will, being), everything is to be given to Christ. And then, in a condition of total and complete surrender to our Saviour, we can truly receive the Bread which is His Body and the Wine which is His Blood unto life eternal and resurrection on the last day. Christ is Risen! Indeed He is Risen!