Chrysostom’s view of the Eucharist is not in line with that of many modern thinkers. This can be proven in two ways.
- Chrysostom affirms the Real Presence of Jesus Christ in the elements.
- Chrysostom affirms that the Eucharist is a memorial and nowhere teaches it serves another function, such as forgiving sins.
In our study, we look at Chrysostom’s homilies on several books of the Scripture (specifically the Gospel of Matthew, 1 Corinthians, and Hebrews) to derive a doctrine of the Eucharist in Chrysostom’s own words. We do not use the Liturgy of Saint Chrysostom, simply because he did not write it.
Note: This article was written before the author’s conversion to Orthodoxy.
- Jesus Christ’s Real Presence in the elements.
Frequent in the writings of Chrysostom are mentions of the mystical importance of the mystery of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. In short, he believes that by eating Christ we become blended with the eternal–it is a way of physically partaking in eternity:
We become one Body, and
members of His flesh and of His bones. Ephesians 5:30 Let the initiated follow what I say. In order then that we may become this not by love only, but in very deed, let us be blended into that flesh. This is effected by the food which He has freely given us, desiring to show the love which He has for us…This blood causes the image of our King to be fresh within us, produces beauty unspeakable, permits not the nobleness of our souls to waste away, watering it continually, and nourishing it…This blood, if rightly taken, drives away devils, and keeps them afar off from us, while it calls to us Angels and the Lord of Angels. For wherever they see the Lord’s blood, devils flee, and Angels run together (Homily 46 on the Gospel of John, Chapter 3).
For this Table is the sinews of our soul, the bond of our mind, the foundation of our confidence, our hope, our salvation, our light, our life. When with this sacrifice we depart into the outer world, with much confidence we shall tread the sacred threshold, fenced round on every side as with a kind of golden armor. And why speak I of the world to come? Since here this mystery makes earth become to you a heaven. Open only for once the gates of heaven and look in; nay, rather not of heaven, but of the heaven of heavens; and then you will behold what I have been speaking of (1 Cor 10:24, Homily 25, 1 Corinthians).
Because he intended to express something more and to point out how close was the union: in that we communicate not only by participating and partaking, but also by being united. For as that body is united to Christ, so also are we united to him by this bread (1 Cor 10:16)
And Christ indeed made you so far remote, one with himself: but thou dost not deign to be united even to your brother with due exactness, but separatest yourself, having had the privilege of so great love and life from the Lord. For he gave not simply even His own body; but because the former nature of the flesh which was framed out of earth, had first become deadened by sin and destitute of life; He brought in, as one may say, another sort of dough and leaven, His own flesh, by nature indeed the same, but free from sin and full of life; and gave to all to partake thereof, that being nourished by this and laying aside the old dead material, we might be blended together unto that which is living and eternal, by means of this table (1 Cor 10:17).
Many pretty famous Protestant teachers such as Lance Ralston view the Real Presence as some sort of 10th century invention. Chrysostom’s comments are hardly the earliest to disprove such a notion (as Justin Martyr is unequivocal about the Real Presence in his own right), but the profundity of how Chrysostom explains the Eucharist shows a very developed notion of what the Real Presence means. Partaking in the Eucharist is one of the ways we are in union with Christ. It literally allows us to depart Earth and enter into the highest heavens, where Christ’s physical body now resides. Clearly, Chrysostom did not view the Eucharist as purely symbolic.
- Did Chrysostom teach that the Eucharist forgive sins?
There are certain sections of Chrysostom’s homilies which may be construed to teach that the Eucharist forgives sins. However, when we read these sections in context we may understand that this is certainly not the case.
The following excerpt is probably the most difficult to explain away for the Protestant:
Let us watch then with the Lord, let us be pricked in our hearts with the disciples. It is the season of prayers, not of drunkenness; ever indeed, but especially during a festival. For a festival is therefore appointed, not that we may behave ourselves unseemly, not that we may accumulate sins, but rather that we may blot out those [sins] which exist (1 Cor 11:27).
What is the efficacy of a festival? Obviously, it appears that a festival exists to blot out sins.
How is the blotting out of sins accomplished? By virtue of partaking in the festival itself? Looking at what the text here says and not at the corpus of Chrysostom’s writings, it appears that the reference to the pricking of hearts shows that sins were blotted out by remembrance of what Christ done (i.e. faith in His death and resurrection). He does not employ a mystical argument pertaining to how the Real Presence actually forgives sins anew.
So, in some sense the way one interprets this text is based upon a presupposition. If one believes that Chrysostom believed the Eucharist forgave sins in its own right, then it is easy to read the preceding as evidence supporting the notion. However, if one views the text as commenting on Chrysostom viewing the festival as a memorial, then the blotting out of sins is accomplished by what is memorialized. I will be making the argument that the latter presupposition makes more sense, as Chrysostom extensively comments on this notion, while he never comments on the preceding one.
Before we move onto what Chrysostom wrote about the Eucharist being a memorial, let’s show the former presupposition would lead us to actually misinterpret the following two passages.
‘For if we discerned ourselves,’ says He, ‘We should not be judged…’ But since we are not willing to do even this light thing, as we ought to do it, not even thus does He endure to punish us with the world, but even thus spares us, exacting punishment in this world, where the penalty is for a season and the consolation great; for the result is both deliverance from sins, and a good hope of things to come, alleviating the present evils (Homily, 1 Cor 11:31).
Some may argue that Chrysostom is saying that the Eucharist alleviates “present evils” (i.e. our newest sins). However, we need to understand Chrysostom’s point in context. The comment here is that God gives illness and takes the lives of those who partake in the Lords Supper in an unworthy manner as a way to ensure their continued faith in Christ to the last. By pulling the plug before men can screw up too bad (or making them so sick that they repent and stop), this alleviates the problems that may arise from sinning in this sense, which he calls “the present evils.”
And He Himself drank of it. For lest on hearing this, they should say, What then? Do we drink blood, and eat flesh?…Therefore He Himself drank His own blood. What then must we observe that other ancient rite also? Some one may say. By no means. For on this account He said,
Do this, that He might withdraw them from the other. For if this works remission of sins, as it surely does work it, the other is now superfluous. As then in the case of the Jews, so here also He has bound up the memorial of the benefit with the mystery, by this again stopping the mouths of heretics. For when they say, Whence is it manifest that Christ was sacrificed? Together with the other arguments we stop their mouths from the mysteries also. For if Jesus did not die, of what are the rites the symbols [of]?…Do you see how much diligence has been used, that it should be ever borne in mind that He died for us? For since the Marcionists, and Valentinians, and Manichæans were to arise, denying this dispensation, He continually reminds us of the passion even by the mysteries, (so that no man should be deceived); at once saving, and at the same time teaching by means of that sacred table. For this is the chief of the blessings; wherefore Paul also is in every way pressing this (Matt 26:28).
Surely, Chrysostom is saying that “this [i.e. the Eucharist] works the remission of sins,” correct? Not quite.
Chrysostom is responding to Gnostics that claim that Jesus did not really die on the cross. “This works the remission of sins” is in reference to sins being forgiven by the literal event of the cross, not by continual re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice at the Mass. The memorial includes the benefit of the mystery because it affirms the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection, something that is denied by the Gnostics. This is why Chrysostom has said, “He has bound up the memorial of the benefit…” The memorial does not bring the benefit. Rather, the memorial reminds us of the benefit–something Gnostics cannot affirm as they deny the reality of Christ really dying on the cross. Hence, “[i]f Jesus did not die,” Chrysostom reasons, “of what are the rites symbols of?”
- Chrysostom’s view of exactly how the Eucharist is a memorial.
A good background to Chrysostom’s view of the Eucharist as a remembrance can be seen in his discussion of the subject in his homilies on Hebrews. In order to follow the logic of the discussion, we need to start in chapter nine.
Nor yet that He should offer Himself often, as the High Priest enters into the Holy place every year with blood of others. Seest Thou how many are the differences? The often for the once; the blood of others, for His own. Great is the distance. He is Himself then both victim and Priest and sacrifice. For if it had not been so, and it had been necessary to offer many sacrifices, He must have been many times crucified. For then, he says, He must often have suffered since the foundation of the world (Heb 9:26).
The comments on Heb 9:26 make clear that Jesus offered a single sacrifice, in time in contrast with the endless sacrifices of the Jews.
And what is [the meaning of] He bare the sins? Just as in the Oblation we bear up our sins and say, Whether we have sinned voluntarily or involuntarily, do Thou forgive, that is, we make mention of them first, and then ask for their forgiveness. So also was it done here. Where has Christ done this? Hear Himself saying, “And for their sakes I sanctify Myself.” John 17:19 Lo! He bore the sins. He took them from men, and bore them to the Father; not that He might determine anything against them [mankind], but that He might forgive them (Heb 9:28).
This sacrifice (he says) is one; whereas the others were many: therefore they had no strength, because they were many. For, tell me, what need of many, if one had been sufficient? So that their being many, and offered continually, proves that they [the worshipers] were never made clean (Heb 10:2).
He has appeared by the sacrifice of Himself (he says), that is, He has appeared, unto God, and drawn near [unto Him]. For do not [think] because the High Priest was wont to do this oftentimes in the year….On this account He ordained offerings continually, because of their want of power, and that a remembrance of sins might be made.
So, a repeat in sacrifice was not in order to forgive more sins, but to bring to remembrance the sins we commit that require forgiveness.
What then? Do not we offer every day? We offer indeed, but making a remembrance of His death, and this [remembrance] is one and not many. How is it one, and not many? Inasmuch as that [Sacrifice] was once for all offered, [and] carried into the Holy of Holies. This is a figure of that [sacrifice] and this remembrance of that.
That we offer now also, which was then offered, which cannot be exhausted. This is done in remembrance of what was then done. For (says He) “do this in remembrance of Me.” Luke 22:19 It is not another sacrifice, as the High Priest, but we offer always the same, or rather we perform a remembrance of a Sacrifice.
Here is some background on what Chrysostom is talking about. There are some that he implies live sinfully, fast for 40 days (for Lent) and then feel by doing this they can partake in the Eucharist rightly. Afterwards, they return to their sin. Chrysostom asserts that a Christian should never approach the Eucharist with such an attitude, rather whether frequently or infrequently, the Christian must always desire obedience, not merely “do his time” for a few weeks. Obviously, if the Eucharist was needed to deal with built-up venial sins, then wouldn’t it be incumbent upon the believer to both be obedient AND partake in the Eucharist frequently? Chrysostom appears unaware of this supposed tack-on benefit of the forgiveness of venial sins.
This tack on benefit also fails to be discussed in his discussion on the subject in Matt 26.
Hence also He shows that He is soon to die, wherefore also He made mention of a Testament, and He reminds them also of the former Testament, for that also was dedicated with blood. And again He tells the cause of His death, which is shed for many for the remission of sins; and He says, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Do you see how He removes and draws them off from Jewish customs. For like as you did that, He says, in remembrance of the miracles in Egypt, so do this likewise in remembrance of me. That was shed for the preservation of the firstborn, this for the remission of the sins of the whole world. For, “This,” says He, “is my blood, which is shed for the remission of sins.” But this He said, indicating thereby, that His passion and His cross are a mystery, by this too again comforting His disciples. And like as Moses says,”This shall be to you for an everlasting memorial,” Exodus 12:14 so He too, in remembrance of me, until I come (Matt 26:28).
Chrysostom writes how Jesus brings to mind how the efficacy of the Old Testament festivals was that they brought remembrance of previous miracles, likewise the Eucharist brings remembrance of the miracle of His death for the remission of sins.
“For as often as you eat this bread, and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death till He come.”
For as Christ in regard to the bread and the cup said, “Do this in remembrance of Me,” revealing to us the cause of the giving of the Mystery, and besides what else He said, declaring this to be a sufficient cause to ground our religious fear upon:— (for when you consider what your Master has suffered for you, you will the better deny yourself:)— so also Paul says here: as often as you eat ye do proclaim His death. And this is that Supper (1 Cor 11:26).
You have partaken of such a Table and when you ought to be more gentle than any and like the angels, none so cruel as you have become. You have tasted the Blood of the Lord, and not even thereupon do you acknowledge your brother. Of what indulgence then are you worthy? Whereas if even before this you had not known him, you ought to have come to the knowledge of him from the Table (1 Cor 11:27).
I would certainly agree the Eucharist is most effective memorial of the passion, death, and resurrection that attains salvation. I can’t imagine anyone disputing this. I also completely agree that there is a problem with the “do your time” mentality–a Christian ought to live in the grace he has received at all times. I think Catholics are most notorious of all for showing up only on Christmas and Easter. This is not a new problem.
The teaching that the Eucharist takes away venial sin is tied with the fact the Eucharist is Jesus. Jesus takes away sins, and so the Eucharist who is Christ, takes away sins. The reason this is often confined to venial sin is to make clear that one guilty of mortal sin derives no benefit whatsoever from this sacrament, receiving wholly unworthily.
It might be worth noting that the Eucharist is not the only way to remit venial sin–every act of charity or faith works toward removing the effect of venial sin. The Eucharist especially so, for it is Christ, but this effect (since it is common to every grace-filled act) is not so outstanding an effect that it needs to be noted, especially in the context of how mortal sin makes on unfit to receive the sacrament.
I was looking around, and I found a text from Ambrose that might interest you on this question:
On the Sacraments, V.25. “If it is daily bread, why dost thou take it once a year, as the Greek in the East are accustomed to do? Take daily what is to profit thee daily. He who does not deserve to receive it daily, does not deserve to receive it once a year; as holy Job offered sacrifice daily for his sons, lest perchance they should have done any sin in heart or word. Therefore dost thou hear that as often as sacrifice is offered, the Lord’s death, the Lord’s resurrection, the Lord’s Ascension and the remission of sins is signified, and dost thou not take this bread of life daily? He who has a wound need a medicine. The wound is that we are under sin; the medicine is the heavenly and venerable sacrament.”
Just a little more investigation on where the Catholic teaching on that effect of the Eucharist comes from…
Thomas Aquinas cites two sources: Ambrose (the passage I cited) and Innocent III (a 12th century pope). Looking up both of these sources, they both refer to Mt 6 as their primary source. “Give us this day our daily bread and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil.” They also both refer to the fact that this sacrament is a memorial of the passion that delivered us, and so the memorial aspect is not opposed to the efficacy of the sacrament, but undergirds it. And yet they say it is through memory and eating. And indeed, we eat “the bread of life”. Not physical life merely, but spiritual which entails the removal of sins.
Thank you for your response. I am interested in what you believe about CHrysostom’s explicit view of the Eucharist.