In the reign of the emperor Trajan, at the start of the second century A.D., a man named Ignatius, who was the bishop of the Church in Antioch, was arrested for not sacrificing to the Roman gods. Around the year 108, he was thrown to the lions in the colosseum in Rome, and the account of his martyrdom has been preserved in the Church. The Church also preserved several letters that he wrote in his captivity — letters to the Philadelphian Christians, the Romans, the Trallians, the Magnesians, the Smyrnians, and the Ephesians. In his letter to the Church in Ephesus, St. Ignatius commends the Christians for holding true to the faith which was delivered to them — the faith he was going to die for — and not listening to the heresies of itinerant preachers, and he exhorts them to listen to their bishop, to assemble together frequently, and to celebrate God’s Eucharist, calling it the medicine of immortality and the antidote to death.
The potency of Ignatius’ metaphor about the Eucharist may sit uneasily with those who come from a tradition where the Eucharist itself is understood as a metaphor. Yet here’s a leader of the early Church, the second successor to St. Peter in Antioch, whose faith was confirmed by his universally revered martyrdom, describing the mystery (μυστήριον) of the Eucharist in powerfully efficacious, almost magical terms. For Ignatius, and for the Christians he was writing to, the risk of gathering together was worth it, because once assembled, the local Church with its bishop and people would offer gifts of thanks to God and receive back the very presence of God incarnate, in his incarnation — that is, his body and blood.
A few decades later, a pagan student of philosophy named Justin would find the fulfillment of all philosophy in the Christian gospel and convert. He joined his local Christian assembly and wrote a defense of their faith and practices to the Roman emperor Antoninus Pius after they began to suffer persecution. He too would accept martyrdom as a prize for his faithfulness. In his letter defending the Church, St. Justin said this of the Eucharistic celebration:
“This food we call Eucharist, of which no one is allowed to partake except one who believes that the things we teach are true, and has received the washing for forgiveness of sins and for rebirth, and who lives as Christ handed down to us. For we do not receive these things as common bread or common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Saviour being incarnate by God’s word took flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.” (First Apology, 66)
Just 300 years later, the transformative gospel that sent martyrs willingly to swords and fires and wild beasts would transform the whole empire. In the very heart of the empire, in the capital Constantinople, thousands would gather in the city’s cathedral to celebrate the very same meal that St. Justin defended. While there, they would hear the city’s bishop, St. John the golden-mouthed preacher, discoursing on the Lord’s words in John 6, saying:
“Let us be blended into [Christ’s] flesh. This is effected by the food which He has freely given us, desiring to show the love which He has for us. … He has given to those who desire Him not only to see Him, but even to touch, and eat Him, and fix their teeth in His flesh, and to embrace Him, and satisfy all their love. Let us then return from that table like lions breathing fire, having become terrible to the devil.” (Homily 46 on the Gospel according to John)
Once again, the language St. John Chrysostom uses here about the Eucharist is solid, sharp, and heavy. Communion with Christ in this food is concrete and has consequences. Communicants return from the Lord’s table breathing a fire perceptible and terrible to the devil. No mere metaphor will transform our flesh and blood, and no allegorical meal will make us terrible to the devil. The efficacy of the Eucharist as the transformative body and blood of Jesus is the unanimous witness of the earliest Church (including the apostolic Scriptures) and the ongoing witness of the Church ever since.
Because of the power of this kind of intimate communion with Christ, the Church has always carefully guarded this mystery. It was worth risking everything to partake of during the times of persecution, but it has also always been worth guarding from those who aren’t fully members of the community. This is partially to guard the Lord’s body from any inappropriate or sacrilegious handling, but equally it’s to guard people from harm. The Church even sets guidelines and parameters for her own members regarding participating in the Eucharist. But what kind of harm could the Eucharist do?
It’d be helpful to return to St. Ignatius’ language about the Eucharist as the medicine of immortality and the antidote to death. The most obvious thing to note about calling the Eucharist medicine is that it means it’s for healing. Christ came not for the well, but for the sick (Matthew 9:12). [We’re all sick, by the way]. And when administering medicines, especially extra potent medicines for extra dangerous diseases, the right dosage can be just as important as the right medicine. The wrong dosage of the right medicine could be detrimental for the patient. So just like a wise doctor, the Church often exercises wisdom through her ministers regarding the proper administration of this medicine of immortality. This is the most potent of medicines (the flesh of God) for the most dangerous of diseases (the corruptibility of Adam). But again, what danger is there in the Eucharist, in Christ?
The writer of Hebrews tells us plainly that “our God is a consuming fire” (Hebrews 12:29). All that is not worthy of God and of his kingdom will be consumed and burned away when it comes into unmediated and direct contact with the presence of God (Matt 3:12; 7:19; 13:40; 18:18; Luke 12:49; 1 Cor 3:15; Heb 10:27; 2 Pet 3:7,12). That fire, which burns away impurities leaving only what is worthy, is foretasted in the Eucharist. It’s a fire that ought only to be encountered now by those who, as St. Justin says, believe what the Church teaches, have been baptized, and who live like Christ has instructed. In the penitent person, the Eucharist burns away that which is repented of; it burns away those passions which are fought against; it fortifies and builds up the body and the soul that have already been washed clean.
But if anyone partakes of the Eucharist without having been baptized and living a life of repentance, the fire will scorch that which may be so embedded in their flesh that it destroys their flesh. That’s why St. Paul says some of the Corinthians were getting sick and dying, and that’s why he instructs them to commune only if they have examined themselves (1 Cor 11:28-30). In her wisdom, the Church would eventually prescribe always fasting before receiving the Eucharist. Personal confession before God is also prescribed before communion, and in many cases, the sacramental rite of confession should be utilized. The rite of confession, also known as the rite of reconciliation, is a point of connection for the individual with the Church. Just as the Eucharist draws the believer into communion with the assembly in order to commune with God, so the rite of reconciliation brings the believer into restored relationship with God through reconciliation to the Church through her minister the bishop or priest. In certain cases, the pastoral physicians may prescribe extended periods of repentance before allowing Church members to return to the Lord’s table, but this also is for their health.
The power of Christ in the Eucharist is both renewing and destructive, and what it does to us depends on the nature of what’s within us. If our souls are turned toward the kingdom of God in hope and repentance, then our sin is burned away and our souls and bodies are illumined. If we partake without true repentance and amendment of life, then we eat and drink to our condemnation. As often as we have the opportunity to commune with Christ in the holy Eucharist, we should recall St. Paul’s words: “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup.”