ORTHODOX SPIRITUALITY

Dr. Nos’hi Abdel-Shaheed

Part Thirty-Four

CHAPTER 6

The third stage: Christ Our Passover.

(Part 1)

Introduction

      We have previously mentioned, in the section on the stages of spiritual life (Ch. 3 [parts 15, 16]), that these stages in the spirituality of the Orthodox Church are connected to the three sacraments: Baptism, Anointment and Eucharist, and that the rest of the sacraments are included, in their spiritual meaning, within one of these three sacraments.[1] We remind you here before starting the third phase, that these three phases are linked to three graces:

1- The grace of Baptism,     2- The grace of Anointing (Chrismation) on the Pentecost, and

3- The Passover grace (Eucharistic grace), and these 3 are three aspects of the same divine grace.

     We also remind you that these three graces reflect three moments in the life of Christ, our Lord and Savior, namely:

1- The moment He descended in the waters of Baptism at the Jordan River.

2- The moment the Holy Spirit descended on Him (and then His sending of the Holy Spirit).

3- Finally the moment He presented himself as a sacrifice for the sins of the world, "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29).

     Our spiritual experiences are only faint and weak reflections of His life. The Baptizing Christ (Christ the Forgiver and Healer), and Christ the sender of the Spirit; and finally Christ the Passover Lamb, or rather, our real Passover, these are the facets of the life of our Savior and Lord. The declaration of this life, and experiencing it internally, constitute the spiritual life of the Christian person.

     After we talked about the first and second phases of spiritual life, i.e., 1- Christ the Baptizer, the Forgiver and Healer. 2 Christ the Sender of the Spirit, now we talk about the third phase: Christ our Passover:

1- The Paschal Lamb

     The Eucharistic grace complements and crowns the grace of Baptism and the grace of the holy Chrismation (the anointing of the Spirit). We know that all who receive the sacrament of Baptism in the church are anointed after their Baptism with the Holy Chrism (or the “Mayroon”) of the Holy Spirit. After Baptism and Anointing they are given the sacrament of the Eucharist. In the Orthodox Church, communion of the Body and Blood of Christ has to be given directly after Baptism and Chrismation without postponing it to a certain age for those who were baptized as children (as with the Catholic Church now).                   

     We can call the grace of the Eucharist “the Passover grace," or "the Paschal grace," because "Christ our Passover, was sacrificed for us" (1 Cor. 5:7) as the apostle Paul says.

     The sacrament of the Eucharist or the Passover sacrament is the most holy of holies of Christian worship. We find in it the three essential aspects or the three moments of the Eucharist, namely: 1- The Lord's Supper,               2- His Passions, and        3- His Resurrection.

     In fact, we cannot separate these three aspects from each other, and any separation between the "upper room", "Golgotha", and "the Tomb of Christ" is only a distorted piety. The three holy days, Thursday (Last Supper), Friday (the Cross) and Sunday (the Resurrection) are one unit that cannot to be divided. There is only one Passover of the only Christ.

     Christian art of the first centuries offers us the drawing of a fish (ichthis) and a drawing of a dove, side by side with a basket containing the Bread.

     The “fish” refers to Christ, Son of God, and Savior (ichthis, ιχθύς, five Greek letters: the letter ι (iota) is the first name of Jesus in Greek “Isous”, and the letter χ (chi) the beginning of the word “Christos” (Christ), and the letter θ (theta) is the beginning of the word “Theos” (God), and the letter υ (upsilon) first letter of “Uios” (i.e., son), and the letter ς (sigma) the first letter of “Soteer” (Savior), forming the word “ichthis”. The meaning of the Greek word ichthis is a fish. Ichthis thus means "Jesus Christ, son of God, Savior."

     And the "dove" symbolizes the Holy Spirit, because He descended on the head of Christ at His baptism in the form of a dove.

     And along with these two pictures, the old Christian art presents a basket containing bread (and sometimes bread and fish together), also presents a bunch of grapes, and also offers, with special fondness, "the Lamb."

     We find in a mosaic of the sixth century a drawing of the Lamb standing on a throne at the foot of the Cross; its side is pierced; five streams of blood flow from its body. The Shepherd feeds the Christians: St. Perpetwa (a martyr from the 2nd century) saw in a dream, the Shepherd fills her mouth with milk. All the aspects of the Passover are indicated in these beautiful symbols.

2- The Supper of the Lamb

     "Blessed are those who are called to the marriage supper of the Lamb!" (Rev 19: 9). The "breaking of bread," i.e. the Eucharist, remains the center of all the sacraments. The Orthodox Church has always been reluctant to elaborate a theory to explain the mystery of the Eucharist; but her conception was always realistically. Whether "conversion" or "change" of the elements is postulated (for the bread and wine), the Orthodox Church does not look at the bread and wine that they are symbols the Flesh and Blood of Christ, but believes in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, that is to say, it believes they are the holy Flesh and Blood of Christ. As we say in the last confession referring to the Lamb in the tray before Communion: "This is a life-giving Flesh ... etc".

     St. John Chrysostom (known as Doctor (teacher) of the Eucharist) says: “How many people say today: I like to see Christ himself, see His face, see His features, see His clothes and His shoes! Well, you see, touch, and eat Him .. He gives Himself to you”. [2]

     The Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Church nevertheless avoided the crude literalism which might become a sort of Eucharistic materialism. They warned us of a one-sided or disproportionate piety towards the sacramental action or sacramental elements. They knew that the change of the bread and wine to the Body and Blood of the Lord in Eucharist is not an end in itself, but rather a means to spiritual reality greater than the Sacrament, which is the person of the incarnate God Himself. St. Clement of Alexandria speaks of the Incarnate Logos as of a “spiritual food". And St. Basil the Great says that the Christian eats the Flesh of Christ and drinks His Blood when he shares in the Logos, in His coming, and in His teaching.[3] And the teacher Origen writes that behind the Sacrament, there is a "deeper and more divine matter" of understanding the Eucharist: "This bread, which God the Logos calls His Body, is the Logos nurturing the souls... And this (cup) which God the Logos calls His blood, is the Logos who gives drink to men’s hearts and splendidly exhilarates them."[4] He also adds, “He who recalls that Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us and that we must feast, eating the Flesh of the Word, at all times keeps the Passover, passing ever in thought, word, and deed from the things of this life to God, and hastening to His city.[5] And St. Gregory Nazianzen says: “I shall offer a sacrifice better than those that are offered now, inasmuch as the truth is better than the shadow”[6] and, in another place, he opposes the shadow to the true food (Shadow always points to O.T. sacrifices [see Heb. 8:5]). 

                                                                                                                        (To be contd.)

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[1] This explanation on the stages of spiritual life is taken from the English book “Orthodox spirituality” by a monk from the Eastern church, Father Lev Gillet, published in London (1945).

[2] In Matt. hom. LXXXII, NPN.Fathers, 1st series No 1.

[3] Epist. VIII, P.G XXXII, 253.

[4] In Matt. LXXXV; PG XIII, 1735.

[5] Contra celsum VIII, 22.

[6] Orat. 26.16.