by Vincent Rossi


Speaking of the principle of unity in relation to the Eucharist, Alexander Schmemann had these sobering words to say: “The loftier the word, the more ambiguous it is, the more insistently it demands from Christians who use it not simply as its most precise definition but also its liberation, exorcism and cleansing from the lie that perverts it from within … I am convinced that there is no word in human language more divine {than unity} — but therefore also more diabolical, in that it has fallen and been stolen from God. And this is true because in this case the primary meaning and the substitution, the ‘theft’, concern not something related to life but life itself, genuine life in its quintessence” (The Eucharist, pp. 148, 150). If we take this admonition to heart, it means that we should not be satisfied with mere definitions, words about words; nor should we uncritically accept the fallen world's understanding of unity because the true inner meaning of this word, its logos, by nature God-oriented, has been usurped, and another fallen meaning substituted in its place. We should seek instead to ground our discussion in the reality to which the word unity points and of which it is a symbol, and to the experience of that Reality upon which unity itself is grounded.

What then is eucharistic unity? Since by this question we are seeking not an answer that is only a definition but a contemplative insight that liberates the truth of unity in our souls, let us take as our guide perhaps the greatest theologian of unity in the ancient Church, St. Maximos the Confessor. Among his many works is a commentary on the Divine Liturgy called the Mystagogia, which is probably the most profound contemplation on eucharistic unity ever written. In this work, Maximos sees the eucharist as above all the sacrament of unity. The Divine Liturgy is a unifying sacrament embracing God, the Church and man in a transfiguring act of communion where the energies of God and man and cosmos interpenetrate by grace and participation. Maximos indicates the ontological basis for this cosmic liturgy by contemplating the Church in a series of reciprocal images in relation to God, creation and man. The Church is an image and figure first of God, then of the universe as a whole, then of man, then of the soul itself; Holy Scripture is also to be imaged as a man, with the historical letter as body and the inner meaning as soul, just as man, body and soul, is in the image and likeness of God; finally, the cosmos itself, made of visible and invisible things, is an image and symbol of man, just as man, composed of body and soul, is an image of the cosmos. Then Maximos interprets all the actions, images and symbols of the Divine Liturgy as the unfolding mystery of our salvation in Christ in the context of this three-fold unity of God, the cosmos and man in and as the Church.

From this perspective, which is the true eucharistic ethos of the Church, our understanding of the communion of the faithful is given the deepest and widest possible meaning. The conventional religious understanding of the Eucharist as only a means of sanctification of which the individual believer partakes according to his individual choice is herewith revealed as incomplete. The filling-station model of the Eucharist, that is, the Church seen as a spiritual gas station to which individual believers, like automobiles, drive once a week, one by one, to fill their tanks with grace like petrol, then drive away, one by one, to their separate destinations, has nothing at all to do with the communion of the faithful as the Orthodox Church as traditionally understood eucharistic unity: “And unite all of us to one another who become partakers of the one Bread and Cup in the communion of the Holy Spirit” (Eucharistic Prayer of St. Basil the Great).

Summarizing and simplifying Maximos' scheme, we may say that there are five basic disunities that have beset all humanity since the Fall, five primary disintegrations because of sin: man from God, man from cosmos, cosmos from itself, man from neighbor and human nature from itself. Communion of the faithful is an experience of ecclesial unity, in which the personal experience of eucharistic grace cannot be separated from communal experience.

Let St. Maximos have the final word on eucharistic unity, which he envisages as the Church and the soul in God's embrace: “It is in this blessed and most holy embrace that is accomplished this awesome mystery of a union transcending mind and reason by which God becomes one flesh and one spirit with the Church and thus with the soul, and the soul with God. O Christ, how shall I marvel at your goodness? I shall not presume to sing praise because I have not enough strength to marvel in a worthy manner. For, ‘they shall be two in one flesh,’ says the divine Apostle; ‘this is a great mystery, I speak of Christ and the Church.’ And he adds, 'The one who cleaves to the Lord is one spirit’”. (Ibid., Myst. 5). “We ask Thee, and pray Thee, and supplicate Thee: make us worthy to partake of the heavenly and awesome mysteries of this sacred and spiritual table.”

This article first appeared in the Adbook for the 1996 Midwest Region Parish Life Conference hosted by St. Elias Orthodox Church in Sylvania, OH.