THE BREAD, THE WINE, THE MODE
By Chrysostomos Koutloumousianos, Priestmonk
Koutloumousiou Monastery of Mount Athos
The recently arrived ancient fear of a pandemic has sparked fruitful discussions among learned ecclesiastical people and theologians around the world. It has been suggested that disease can be transmitted by way of the mode in which holy Communion is distributed. It has also been argued that the holy Gifts themselves have the potential to transmit pathogenic micro-organisms: the bread as the body of Christ, since it is essentially unchanged and retains its physical properties, is not only susceptible to corruption but can transmit toxic viruses. Indeed, a Christological basis has been put forward: Christ’s human body itself is a carrier of microorganisms that can harm us. After all, they are not evil because there is nothing evil in creation.
In this context, the following information that can be found in the works of the holy Fathers may be useful.
Of course there is nothing evil in creation. No form of life, even natural disasters, can be considered evil, because evil is only that which moves us away from God. But there are the effects of personal sin, such as a dangerous laboratory hybrid, and the effects of the primordial fall–destruction and death–that subjected man. But God’s incarnation introduces something new to the world.
Let us open a parenthesis to see what we believe about the holy Gifts of the Divine Liturgy. Do we believe that they merely symbolize the presence of Christ, as generally accepted in Protestantism? In this case, the holy Bread must be given out in specially sterilized sachets, and the precious Blood packed with certification. If, again, the substance of the precious Gifts is Christ, according to the Roman Catholic notion of transubstantiation, then we reach either to the worship of the bread or to incredulity, since the holy bread may also be altered.
The Greek Fathers talk of a “change” of the material elements, neither of a simple symbolic function nor of transubstantiation. This change indicates the new way of existence that God’s incarnate manifestation brings. Here we must bear in mind the patristic distinction between the logos of nature and the mode of existence, a distinction useful for an Orthodox understanding of the mystery of Christ1.
This distinction is used by certain Fathers to interpret God’s miracles in history. When God intervenes to perform a miracle, He does not alter the nature of creation–their logos– but He innovates the mode with which their nature acts in order to fulfill the divine economy. Innovative mode means a nature that works beyond its “institution,” beyond its limits, shifting man to “a different kind of life”, such as, for example, Noah, who could remain unharmed among wild beasts, or as the saints who walked on liquid matter.
The culmination of divine intervention is the incarnation. The mystery that occurs in the incarnate Logos is the indivisible union of divine and human nature. This union means that the property of one nature becomes the property of the other, as when a sword joining fire becomes fire, and at the same time the fire acquires a blade. Human nature remains intact, and its mode is renewed. This is why Christ is born both in a “divine manner” and in a “human manner,” i.e. conceived by a mother, but without corruption and pain. He did not submit to nature, He did not abolish it, but He turned it into “another mystery.” Christ’s human nature acts in a divine manner. And it acts in a divine manner because it holds the fullness of the uncreated divine energy.2
This also applies to the interpretation of divine Eucharist. Here too the nature of the material elements (bread and wine) is innovated. Their logos / substance and their physical properties do not change, but their mode is changed. Just as in Christ everything human in Him has a supernatural mode, since His human nature carries all the energy of the Divinity, so the material gifts receive and impart to the participants the same divine-human energy of Christ. We therefore commune, not something subject to corruption and death, but God Himself, through the matter that becomes life-giving, as the flesh of Christ itself is life-giving.
True communion, of course, is not only about the presence of Christ in the bread and the wine, but also about the presence of Christ in us. Union with God is not acted upon without the free will and the synergy of man, nor exclusively through the Divine Eucharist. Man must follow and imitate Christ freely, and be born in the Spirit. Divine energy acts in many ways according to the faith and desire of the one who receives.
So when Christ is offered as bread, He does not change the substance of the bread, but exercises “economy.” Christ’s human nature was passible, yet it was one with the divinity, which is why He could not be held by death. And as His body died and was resurrected, since the divinity never abandoned it, so we too when we receive the bread-body we foretaste resurrection. Just as Christ suffers as a human being and acts as God, so the Bread-Christ can “suffer” but acts in us as an uncreated divinity. As Saint Cyril of Alexandria explains,
The body of Christ is holy and has the power to defeat any disease. It was and is holy, not simply as flesh with its physical attributes, but as a temple of the God of Word inhabiting it, Who sanctifies the flesh with His Spirit. That is why Christ too gives life to the daughter of the leader of the synagogue, not only with His almighty command, but also with the touch of His body. (Anastasiou, Doctrina Patrum, pp. 129, 131-32)
This is why, in those who receive holy Communion with faith and true repentance, the body of the Lord becomes a “safeguard,” “for the strength and healing and health of soul and body”, preservation and theosis of human nature.3
The sanctified Gifts act as the divinized body of Jesus. Even through matter God gives life incorruptible. And although human incorruptibility is an eschatological condition, and we will all sooner or later pass to the opposite shore, the “doses” of incorruptibility are given in this mortal life, according to the faith, the desire, the godly “fear” and the love of everyone.
- See Chrysostomos Koutloumousianos, One and Three. The Trinitarian Monarchy in Orthodox Tradition, Mount Athos 2018, pp. 142-5.
- See typically, Maximus Confessor, PG 91. 298-300, 344, 1048-1056, 1273-1276, 1341-1345.
- John Damascene, Exact Edition of Orthodox Faith, 87. See also see also Divine Sequence, and Gregory of Nyssa, Catechism, 37.