Eucharist and Unity – In the writings of Saint Ignatius of Antioch 

19 مايو

The life of the church fathers, as well as their teachings, was Eucharistic. The Eucharistic table was the meal which enflamed their entire life and renewed the Eschatological consciousness in their daily course of life. This holy meal was an Eschatological testimony in the first place. It kindled their longing toward eternity and their yearning to the meeting with the Savior, away from the life of death and vanishing. It pushed their lives to spread the Word while waiting for the eternal encounter with the Holy Trinity.

St. Ignatius had that kind of heart that took its fire from the Spirit, who is present in the Eucharist. One who reads his letters[1] feels that he had been touched deeply with a fiery spirit, pulling him above time, earth, and creature, which is captivated beneath the bars of materiality, into a world fabricated by spiritual joy and peace. The Eucharist, according to St. Ignatius, was not only an Eschatological revelation, but it was the mystery of unity that attracts the people of God, in Christ, to be seen before the Father.

St. Ignatius was known in the Church as Ignatius the Theophorus. That title indicated how close he was, in his inner being, to Christ, as Kelly wrote, “The center of Ignatius’s thinking was Christ”.[2]

Jesus was the center and core of St. Ignatius’ life, as he met him continuously in the Eucharistic meal. For, Eucharist is the unveiling of the mystery of Christ, through tasting, touching and interacting, until the mystery itself becomes a complete revelation in the heart, to nourish the heart and revive it.

The relation between Unity and Eucharist, according to St. Ignatius, will be the subject of the next few pages.

Unity and harmony in the life of the Church

The church is the place where God meets His people. This meeting which takes place in the sacramental atmosphere of the liturgy, cannot accomplish its purpose unless the members of that one body; the church, are rooted in the same ground of love. Division, separation and isolation are vocabularies not found in the Divine Economy toward the Church.

Christ called the Father, in his final prayer, saying: “I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one” (Jn 17: 23). This statement which was declared by Christ about His unity with the Father, synchronized with His prayer for the church to be united in Him, hence, become one with the Father. There is no unity with the Father, without Christ. Therefore, all the actions of Christ were aimed at unifying His beloved church with the Trinity.

The church grows and becomes glorified when the Son transfigures in it, through the Spirit. This fact affirmed by Jesus about the unity between Him and the Father, points to this “new possibility” He gave to the church: the unity between the members of that one body.

One might think of unity as a mere figment of the imagination or an inapplicable optimism bearing high expectations away from reality, as the multiplicity of manners and thoughts between men means that they cannot be recapitulated under the same umbrella! Yet, Christ confirms to the church that it can be united with the Father as He is united with Him, only when the church accepts the means by which it can achieve this unique state. The mystery which facilitates this unity given to the church, is Eucharist. St. Paul said that whoever eats from this one bread will be unified with the other members into one; “For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread.” (1 Co 10: 17). This kind of unity based on the Eucharistic concept was a source of joy to St. Ignatius as he says[3]:

Having been informed of your godly love, so well-ordered, I rejoiced greatly, and determined to commune with you in the faith of Jesus Christ. For as one who has been thought worthy of the most honorable of all names, in those bonds which I bear about, I commend the Churches, in which I pray for a union both of the flesh and spirit of Jesus Christ, the constant source of our life, and of faith and love, to which nothing is to be preferred, but especially of Jesus and the Father, in whom, if we endure all the assaults of the prince of this world, and escape them, we shall enjoy God.[4]

The mutual inhabitation between the Father and His people, in the Logos, was one of the salvific targets of Christ. He came into the world for the reconciliation between the Father and humanity. This reconciliation made out of man a dwelling place for God and made out of eternity a dwelling place for man. This mutual inhabitation can only be achieved through the will of man to obey the Spirit and leave the dark shield of his self and its narrow vision, to see a new horizon in the depth of life, through a lifestyle crowned with love and sacrifice as nonnegotiable concepts in life. The Christian sacrificial love can attract the Spirit to the heart of man, to prepare a dwelling place for the Lord. It also gives man no consolation in any place other than God’s heart. Love cannot be parceled up in the heart of man. For, the heart that can love God will be forced to love the entire humanity; as God’s beloved creatures; “he who loves God must love his brother also” (1 Jn 4: 21). Love creates divine bonds of intimacy between the members of the Christian community. This new harmonious state of the church is described by St. Ignatius as: “the symphony of love (sumfw,nw| avga,ph|)”[5]. Love must produce unity in the life of the church. The unity demanded by God from the church is not an independent request; it is the way to know, meet and communicate with the Father, through the mystical unity between Him and His people, in Christ. St. Ignatius wrote:

It is profitable, therefore, that you should live in an unblameable unity, that thus ye may always enjoy communion[6] with God.[7]

In another place he added:

The head, therefore, cannot be borne by itself, without its members; God, who is the Savior Himself, having promised their union[8]

Love, which Jesus called for, during his salvific journey, meant, basically, reaching a state of harmony between the members of that one body of his, which cannot be accomplished away from self-sacrifice of each member. Only successful and active fellowship between the members can melt the icy wall between them, for “where there is diversity of judgment, and wrath, and hatred, God does not dwell[9]. This sacrificial, united love melts individualism in favor of the community. This fellowship is an instrument of unity between the members that plays a beautiful tune of harmony and variety at the same time, for the glory of the kingdom of God. When unity is achieved in the Church through the self-sacrifice of each member, the church will adopt the feature called by St. Ignatius: “the character (carakth/ra)[10] of God the Father by Jesus Christ[11]. That character (carakth/ra) is the exact likeness of the original source, and the full expression of it[12]. Yet reaching the Divine likeness cannot be completed in this age, for the church is traveling through the waves of time, struggling with it, to reach the harbor of eternity. As much as Christ transfigures in the church, the Divine likeness will be accomplished, and shown through it, to the whole world. Christ is the only way for the church to become a Divine model, testifying to the age and kingdom to come.

The transfiguration of Christ in the church, based on the Eucharistic presence in the created matter, is an evidence of his everlasting existence with us, according to his promise: “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mat 28:  20). It is an extension of the incarnation event that occurred in the depth of time and history, to activate it in our daily life. Only when Christ is present, and our eyes are widely opened, by faith, to perceive the sacrifice on the altar, does unity become possible.

Harmony and unity in the life of the Christian congregation is the path of the church to meet the Father, who recognizes our membership in the Body of His Son through the way of the church’s life. Grace descends upon the church when the members of that one body are united with love. Grace is the stock of the church in its liturgical and evangelical pilgrimage. About this unique state of the members of the Body of Christ, St. Ignatius wrote:

And do ye, man by man, become a choir, that being harmonious in love, and taking up the song of God in unison, ye may with one voice sing to the Father through Jesus Christ, so that He may both hear you, and perceive by your works that ye are indeed the members of His Son.[13]

 So, when we have the same mind and heart, our membership in the body of Christ is verified and completed. Then we will be worthy to hold the same Name, and to be held with the same Hope.[14]

Again St. Ignatius affirms that the unity of heart and mind is the way to unify the prayer of the church. The liturgical prayer aims, mainly, for the glory of the holy Trinity and asks for help, only from God. The Holy Spirit abides in the heart of each member of the harmonized community to produce one thought, and to release from it, one prayer and one petition.

The church cannot unify the thought and prayer of its members without Christ. Therefore the church looks at His face to be inspired with its prototype. It runs toward Him while He is enthroned upon the altar stretching His hands calling for all to come and live. There is no other sacrifice that can unify the church but Christ’s. The altar is the only place where the church can gather and meet Jesus, with this intensive and mystical presence. When the church finds Jesus in bread and wine, and eat Him with complete faith, it can taste the real “unblemished joy”, and the church can be unified in joy with the savior and salvation.

Do ye all come together into the same place for prayer. Let there be one common supplication, one mind, one hope, with faith unblameable in Christ Jesus, than which nothing is more excellent.”[15]

The expression used by St. Ignatius to show how fast the church should run to Jesus was; “run together (suntre,cete)” which is rich in meaning and significance. The whole pursuit of the church, which is “being blessed in the greatness and fullness of God the Father”,[16] can be recapitulated under the banner of the Savior. The church as a congregation seeks Christ, and when it sees Him laying upon the altar, finds its purpose, and runs to encounter Him in its prayers and petitions; to put its thoughts under His feet to unify it, its work to bless it, its wounds to heal it, its confusion to guide it and its fears to eliminate it. The church puts its entire struggle with the evil forces, on the altar hoping for triumph through Christ, in return.

If the church ceases to run toward Christ, that means, it has become self-sufficient with its power and skills gained from the world, to be rescued from dark forces. Then it cannot be called the Body of Christ. The continuous running of the church after the Savior is a proclamation of a continuous need for Jesus to interfere in its life with Grace, Spirit and Blood, to make it holy, to direct it, unify it, nourish it and to give it an pledge (avrrabw/na) of the eternal joy. There no other way that makes the church feel eternity, like the Body and Blood of the Savior.

The run of the church toward the Savior has a very significant feature, which is “together (sun)”. The power that the church gets from the Savior, streams when He sees His beloved church moving together toward Him. This movement “together” of the church in its daily journey toward the Lord is an indication of the bond of love that gathers them together. Meanwhile, it is an indication of its submissiveness to the Spirit, who cannot lead a divergent group. The secret of  the church’s cohesiveness is its “running together (suntre,cete)” requesting life from the Lord.

Do ye therefore all run together (suntre,cete) as into one temple of God, as to one altar, as to one Jesus Christ.”[17]

When the church runs together to the Lord, it accepts anointing from the Father to be divine in its behavior in the midst of the world, as a poured scent from the divine vessel. When the Son is revealed in the church, He pours the aroma of salvation upon it, to perfume the entire world. This aroma points to the glory of the Father. That’s why St. Ignatius wrote:

For this end did the Lord suffer the ointment to be poured upon His head, that He might breathe immortality into His Church.”[18]

When the church accept the holy scent from the Lord, it spreads it among humanity, as a testimony of the Holy Trinity, as, Trinitarian gifts to the church have two aspects: its own salvation and its testimony amidst a material sleepy world


Published in Alexandria School Journal – Vol II – Issue 1 – 2010.

[1] Michael W. Holmes wrote about these letters saying that they are of: “extraordinary interest because of the unparalleled light they shed on the history of the church at that time, and because of what they reveal about the remarkable personality of the author.” Michael W. Holmes, The Apostolic Fathers, (3rd edition), Baker Academic (2007), p. 166

[2] J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines; A&C Black Publishers (1977), p. 92.

[3] St. Cyril of Alexandria agrees with St. Ignatius about the relation between our unity in the Trinity and Eucharist. C.f. (P. G. 74: 557).

[4] J. B. Lightfoot, The Apostolic Fathers (e.ed.), Macmillan and Co. and New York (1889), Magn. 1:1

[5] Ibid. Eph. 4:1

[6] The word “communion” in the text, is the Greek word “mete,chte”, the same word found in (1 Co 10: 17): “For we, though many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread (evk tou/ e`no.j a;rtou mete,comen)”, also in (1 Co 10: 21) “you cannot partake of (mete,cein) the Lord’s table and of the table of demons”. Both verses give an impression of Eucharistic communion. So, we conclude that communion here in the text refers, most likely, to Eucharist. It is not a sort of social communion through agreements, but it is communion with the Son through the Spirit, by whom, church walks toward the Father.

[7] Op. cit. Eph. 4:2

[8] Op. cit. Trall. 11:2

[9] Op. cit. Phld. 8:1

[10] This word “carakth/ra” is found also in the Epistle to the Hebrews (Heb 1: 3) when the apostle was speaking about the relationship between the Son and the Father; “who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person (carakth.r th/j u`posta,sewj auvtou/)”. This word which is so significant to the relation between the the Father and the Son, used by St. Ignatius to refer to the relation between believers. For the church carries the character of the Father as long as it it is walking with the life of the Son, and being one with the Son (Eucharistic).

[11] Op. cit. Mag. 5:2

[12] Friberg, Analytical Lexicon of the Greek New Testament (e.ed.), Baker, Grand Rapids; carakth,r

[13] Op. cit. Eph. 4:2

[14] Op. cit. Eph. 1:2

[15] Op. cit. Magn. 7:1

[16] Op. cit. Eph. 1:1

[17] Op. cit. Magn. 7:2

[18] Op. cit. Eph. 17:1

Seraphim El-Baramosy

A monk from the monastery of Saint Mary the Virgin – Baramos

Coptic Orthodox Church

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Posted by في مايو 19, 2011 in English Articles, ليتورجيا


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