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St. Gregory of Nyssa on the Eucharist

Saint Gregory wrote this concerning the Eucharist in his work The Great Catechism (Chapter XXXVII):

The question was, how can that one Body of Christ vivify the whole of mankind, all, that is, in whomsoever there is Faith, and yet, though divided amongst all, be itself not diminished? Perhaps, then, we are now not far from the probable explanation. If the subsistence of every body depends on nourishment, and this is eating and drinking, and in the case of our eating there is bread and in the case of our drinking water sweetened with wine, and if, as was explained at the beginning, the Word of God, Who is both God and the Word, coalesced with man's nature, and when He came in a body such as ours did not innovate on man's physical constitution so as to make it other than it was, but secured continuance for His own body by the customary and proper means, and controlled its subsistence by meat and drink, the former of which was bread,-just, then, as in the case of ourselves, as has been repeatedly said already, if a person sees bread he also, in a kind of way, looks on a human body, for by the bread being within it the bread becomes it, so also, in that other case, the body into which God entered, by partaking of the nourishment of bread, was, in a certain measure, the same with it; that nourishment, as we have said, changing itself into the nature of the body. For that which is peculiar to all flesh is acknowledged also in the case of that flesh, namely, that that Body too was maintained by bread; which Body also by the indwelling of God the Word was transmuted to the dignity of Godhead. Rightly, then, do we believe that now also the bread which is consecrated by the Word of God is changed into the Body of God the Word.

Gregory proposes a sort of 'organic' approach to grasping the mystery of the Eucharist. Just as Christ, when on earth, ate bread, and this bread 'became' a part of Him (and through the mystery of the hypostatic union, the bread became God!), so, in a similar way, the bread and wine of the Eucharist are transformed, changed- transelemented or transmuted as Gregory says- into Christ's body and blood. Gregory definitely puts forward a radical change in the elements, though he follows an interesting way of explaining it. The bread and the wine, so to speak, are brought into Christ- it is through a mysterious 'incorporation' akin to eating, the bringing in and "blending" of food with the body. However, one should note that Gregory's language does not lead us to an exact correlation- hence while there is a change in the elements, one might also say they still exist, now as united, brought into, the Eucharist. I would propose that a use of Chalcedonian language would be helpful here- it would perhaps be proper to speak of two natures in the Eucharist, yet one hypostasis (St. Irenaeus speaks of the Eucharist as comrpising of "two realities" the heavenly and earthly). Also note what Gregory says below concerning the correlation of the Eucharist and our "mingling" with Christ. One might say that the elements "become" Christ in a way similar to which we are said to "become" Christ. The bread and wine are "one" with the body and blood in a way akin to our being "one" with Christ. {On second thought, I must disagree with myself- our "divinization" is properly understood more in the realm of participation, and is not strong enough for the Eucharist identification.}

For that Body was once, by implication, bread, but has been consecrated by the inhabitation of the Word that tabernacled in the flesh. Therefore, from the same cause as that by which the bread that was transformed in that Body was changed to a Divine potency, a similar result takes place now. For as in that case, too, the grace of the Word used to make holy the Body, the substance of which came of the bread, and in a manner was itself bread, so also in this case the bread, as says the Apostle, "is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer"; not that it advances by the process of eating to the stage of passing into the body of the Word, but it is at once changed into the body by means of the Word, as the Word itself said, "This is My Body.".... Since, then, that God-containing flesh partook for its substance and support of this particular nourishment also, and since the God who was manifested infused Himself into perishable humanity for this purpose, viz. that by this communion with Deity mankind might at the same time be deified, for this end it is that, by dispensation of His grace, He disseminates Himself in every believer through that flesh, whose substance comes from bread and wine, blending Himself with the bodies of believers, to secure that, by this union with the immortal, man, too, may be a sharer in incorruption. He gives these gifts by virtue of the benediction through which He transelements the natural quality of these visible things to that immortal thing.

Gregory, carrying through the thought of this entire chapter, demonstrates that Christ's body and blood, through our partaking of them in the Eucharist, are the means by which the believer's body is nourished and made a sharer in life. Jesus- the whole man, body and soul, humanity and divinity- is our life, and the whole of us needs the whole of Him. This is the reason for the Eucharist- communion with Christ: which is ultimately a mystery.


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