The Work of the Holy Spirit

But what actually is happening in this bloodless sacrifice? The Protestant community, by and large, has rejected the idea of an altar and a sacrifice, and sees their “Lord’s Supper” as a memorial of what Christ has done, a time of meditation in which God and God’s people join together in a family meal. We must recognize that there are, however, some Protestants who continue to speak of the “real presence” of Jesus in the Eucharist, declaring that there is a particular grace in obeying this “ordinance” of the Lord. Even when the Lord’s intimacy is recognized in their rites, however, there is a spiritualization of what is going on. Those outside of Orthodoxy do not perceive the cup and the bread as the “medicine of immortality,” nor do they consider that the congregation is doing anything other than “practicing” for the time when we will finally be with the Lord in heaven. That is, talk of a “change” in either the gifts or the congregation is not natural in the Protestant scene. As a result, no special care is given to the bread and wine, which, when remaining, is disposed of after the service in ways that seem shocking to us.

In the Roman Catholic context, there is utter respect for the “elements” in a way that is more congenial to us. However, frequently the prayers and the stance during the Mass give the impression that Christ is being repeatedly sacrificed at each service. There is greater attention given to the actual moment of transformation, over against our Orthodox understanding of being drawn further and further into God’s presence. We, for example, show great reverence for the Chalice even during the Great Entrance, where it is sometimes place on the forehead for healing: and all this before the actual consecration and call for the Spirit’s descent. Christ is among us all through the Liturgy, gathering us up with the angels and blessed faithful: the reception of the holy Mysteries is the pinnacle of our journey. What we experience here is neither a mere remembrance, nor is it a repeated offering, nor is it a new sacrifice: it is the self-same offering of Jesus on the cross, made present for our sake by the Holy Spirit.

We might also feel that too much intricate philosophizing goes on in the Roman context, where theologians tend to follow the explanation of Thomas Aquinas, who himself relied on Aristotelian categories. The bread and wine, Catholics tell us, are transformed in their “substance” but not in their “accidents”—there is an inside part of them that becomes the body and blood of Christ, but they continue in their appearance as they always were. This kind of “parsing” or distinction is foreign to us. We simply ask the Holy Spirit to “make the change” (St. John Chrysostom’s liturgy) or to “show” the elements to be “the body and blood” of our Lord (St. Basil’s liturgy) and do not try to explain the mode in which this happens. Christ is among us. He feeds us with Himself, and gathers us, together, into the divine life. Certainly, the epiclesis (when the Holy Spirit is called upon by us to act) is important: we offer the fruit of creation, and ourselves, to God, and ask the Holy Spirit to sanctify and transform. And we bow in adoration, as He is present. But God has been with us throughout the entire service: this is the highest moment of that special tryst with him. We know that the Holy Spirit is everywhere present, has been with us before the Anaphora, and will be with us as we prepare to leave, for “we have seen the true light.” As Fr. Alexander Schmemann reminds us, those who are in Christ and who have received from him are not to divide their lives into secular and sacred compartments, because to do so is a “negation” of worship and a “heresy” concerning the nature of humanity: we are to worship at all times, recognizing God’s presence everywhere.1 The Communion is a heightened moment, bringing us into the heavenly courts; but it transforms the whole of our lives, which are continually graced and glorified by God. It is natural, then, for us to remember all the saints during this time of joy.


  1. Schmemann, For the Life of the World, “Worship in a Secular Age,” Appendix 1, 140.