Some Brief Thoughts on the Eucharist from St Jacob of Serugh

St Jacob of Serugh is most well known for the collection of more than seven hundred metrical homilies, many of which remain unpublished. He is second in only to St Ephrem the Syrian, the Harp of the Spirit, and is himself known as the Flute of the Spirit. He was born in the middle of the 5th century, and became a bishop only in the last years of his life, although he had been a chor-episcopus for many years, serving the rural churches in the area of Serugh, which now lies on the Turkish side of the border with Syria. In his memra or verse homily to St Simeon the Stylite he speaks of himself, saying,

I am your flute, breathe into me Your Spirit, O Son of God. Let me give forth melodies filled with wonder about this beautiful one.

Among the great many verse homilies which he composed, several deal with the Eucharist, and portions of these have been translated into European languages. While later commentators tend to concentrate on drawing out various spiritual interpretations of the rites and actions of the Liturgy, St Jacob says little directly about the rites themselves and prefers a mystical and scriptural commentary on the sacrament.

This brief article will consider portions of two homilies which touch on the Eucharist and which are available in English (Jacob of Serugh, Homily extracts, tr. R.H. Connolly. The Downside Review 27 (1908)). The first homily deals directly with the situation of Christians leaving the Church at the point when the Catechumens are dismissed. St Jacob describes in passing some of the aspects of the liturgy as he celebrated it, referring to ‘the sound of Psalms’, ‘the Prophets’, and ‘the Apostles’, which must describe the Lections of the Church. Then he speaks of the priest saying, ‘Him who is not baptised let him go forth’, which must describe the dismissal of the Catechumens. St Jacob urges those who have been born with the second birth to remain and cry out, ‘Our Father’, which must refer to the Lord’s Prayer, which only those who have been baptised and born again may truly pray.

Having warned those worldly Christians who leave the Church before the consecration so as to be about their business, he describes what they will be missing, and describes in some detail his own understanding of the meaning of the Eucharist. In the first place he describes the priest and the people ‘beseeching the Father that he will send his Son, that he may come down and dwell upon the oblation. And the Holy Spirit, his Power, lights down in the bread and wine and sanctifies it, yea, makes it the Body and the Blood’.

He then speaks of the means by which Christ is received by the faithful, saying, ‘by his brooding he mingles them in a holy manner, and they become one with him, as it is written, mystically….But he who goes out…has cut himself off from the brooding… these mysteries full of life are administered’.

These passages teach us several things about St Jacob’s understanding. Firstly the invocation of God is a matter of the people and the priest and is not simply a clerical function. It is neither the people alone who beseech God, nor the priest alone, but the whole Church united together beseeches God. The gathered community asks that God will send his Son, and the Holy Spirit upon the bread and wine. This distinguishes the teaching of St Jacob from those Protestant interpretations of the Eucharist, in which it becomes a memorial and a reminder of the sacrifice of Christ. Within the Syrian Orthodox context of St Jacob it is clearly understood as a ritual act in which the Divine presence of the Son and the Holy Spirit was earnestly sought. It is not simply a human response to the events of the Passion.

Indeed we see from these passages that in the Eucharist St Jacob understands that the Holy Spirit descends, and enters into the bread and wine in some manner and ‘sanctifies it and makes it the Body and Blood’. There is therefore a divine action in the Eucharist, a divine ownership and a divine transformation. The Holy Spirit descends, the Holy Spirit sets this particular offering of bread and wine apart for the use of God, and the Holy Spirit makes this particular offering of bread and wine which has been taken by God for his use into the Body and Blood of our Lord.

We see that St Jacob wants to use the Hebraic sense of the Holy Spirit brooding when he contemplates the Eucharist. This word ‘brooding’ is found in the account of Creation in Genesis 1:2 where the Spirit of God brooded over the face of the waters. In both the sense of Genesis and of St Jacob we may consider the Holy Spirit bringing forth life. He broods over the Eucharistic elements, but he broods over those who receive these elements and brings forth life in them. Indeed the mysteries are full of life, being full of the Holy Spirit who is the Divine life.

Those who leave the Church before the consecration and communion do not experience this creative brooding of the Spirit of God, and do not find life being renewed within them. It is clear from the words of St Jacob that he understands these elements of bread and wine, which become the Body and Blood of our Lord, to have life within them, and to produce life in those who receive them. They are life and life-giving as being filled with the power of God.

St Jacob then addresses those Christians who decide not to attend the Liturgy until after the consecration so that they can quickly attend and receive, and then return to their business affairs. He turns to a series of metaphors and illustrations to describe the blessings he believes are present in the Liturgy for those who faithfully commit themselves to prayer and praise at this time. These are designed to shame the distracted Christian who does not think he has enough time to worship God.
St Jacob speaks of the Great Physician, who will not charge anything for his services and who will ‘apply mercy to your disease’. He speaks of entreating the Creditor, asking him ‘to cancel the note of hand that is terrifying you’. He speaks of ‘the Son of God sacrificed and set forth upon the table for sinners to pardon them’. He says that, ‘the Bridegroom has come down and given you his body and sealed you with his blood’.

It is clear that St Jacob does not consider the Eucharist to have simply one aspect. We can see from these examples that he wishes us to consider that in the Eucharist we receive healing; we find that the debt owed by our sins is cancelled; that the Son pardons us by his sacrifice of himself; and that we receive the body of the Bridegroom and are sealed by his blood. There is a personal element to many of these aspects. We do not receive these blessings in a notional and legalistic sense, but by participating earnestly in the mystery of the Eucharist we find that the Holy Spirit broods upon us and works these out in our own life.

St Jacob urges us to ‘bring in before him all your petitions earnestly’, and ‘pour out tears before the table of the Godhead’. It is not possible, as far as St Jacob is concerned, for a person to turn up late to the Liturgy, with his mind full of worldly affairs, receive communion and then quickly leave the Church while expecting any blessing. Though the life-giving quality of the Eucharist does not depend on the worthiness of those who receive, and who should ‘reveal your plagues, O sick soul, and show your diseases’, nevertheless if the Eucharist is not approached with earnestness and with repentance then we should not expect that the Holy Spirit will remain upon us to renew us.

St Jacob elaborates when he says, ‘In that hour when the priest sacrifices the Son before the Father, gird yourself, enter, O soul, and ask for pardon with a loud voice. Say to the Father, “Behold thy Son, a sacrifice to reconcile Thee. Pardon me in Him who died for me was buried. Behold Thy Oblation. Accept from my hands Him who is from Thee’.

It is clear that in some sense we must consider the Eucharist as a sacrifice on our behalf, or rather perhaps a participation in that one eternal sacrifice which was offered once and for all on the cross. It is because we have been baptised into Christ that we are able to remain in the Church during the consecration. Having been baptised we are able to stand before the Father in the worthiness that is in Christ, and not in our own unworthiness. This is not a mechanical view of the atonement, but it requires a continuing participation in Christ, and a continuing sense of repentance. St Jacob does not allow a casual approach to the mysteries, as if Christ had done all that was necessary. On the contrary, it is because we are in Christ that we are able to receive the Holy Spirit brooding in the Eucharist elements, but we must make every effort to be ‘in Christ’, through earnestness, tears, repentance and a committed participation in the Liturgy.

Again it is clear that St Jacob allows no room for a Protestant view of the Eucharist, but is entirely Orthodox in his understanding. The Eucharist is a sacrifice and an oblation, but it is an offering to God of that which he has already provided, just as Abraham sacrificed to God the ram which God himself provided.

This sacrifice is not a purely spiritual one, in the sense that the elements of bread and wine are purely symbolic. Rather the bread and wine are transformed into the true body and blood of our Lord so that St Jacob can speak of ‘brides eating their betrothed’, and ‘his Body and his Blood he has set forth at the feast before them that sit at table, that they may eat of him, and live with him without end. Meat and drink is our Lord at his marriage supper’. Clearly we receive divine life by consuming the Eucharist elements which are become Christ. This is both a spiritual and a physical communication. The Holy Spirit is spirit and bodiless, but he broods within us and upon us by our physical eating and drinking of the Body and Blood of Christ. But this physical eating of the Body and Blood of our Lord also has a physical effect and unites us with Christ in his renewed humanity. Indeed it may be understood that the union of our material humanity with that of the new humanity of Christ is facilitated by the divine presence of the Holy Spirit in the same Body and Blood. This does not mean that we physically consume the divine nature of the Holy Spirit, but it does mean that the Holy Spirit is present, as he wills and knows, in the elements as we consume them, and therefore the effects are both physical and spiritual.

The same edition of the Downside Review contains excerpts from a second homily which is concerned with the Holy Week, and also refers to the teaching of St Jacob about the Eucharist. It begins with St Jacob discusses the case of Melchizedek. He says that Melchizedek offered the Eucharist in a mystical sense, but only ‘sacrificed bread and wine to God, and nothing besides’. But the bread and wine of the Eucharist ‘our Lord made Body and Blood’. It is clear that St Jacob wants us to contrast the sacrifice of Melchizedek, which was only bread and wine, with that of Christ himself, which was more than bread and wine, but was truly Body and Blood.

Yet perhaps some will say that though this sacrifice of the Eucharist is not simply bread and wine it is only in a figurative sense the Body and Blood of our Lord, indeed many Protestants have insisted on such a view in modern Christian history. But St Jacob is very clear. He says, ‘who will dare to say now that it was not his Body?’, and ‘the Apostles…while he was still alive and reclining with them, ate him’. If this is not clear enough, and if it still allows some figurative understanding then St Jacob is even clearer.
He says, ‘from when he took it and called it Body it was not bread, but his Body, and they ate him while they marvelled’. The Apostles did not question what the Lord said, and it can be understood that St Jacob is addressing this same sentiment to his congregation. At the moment of communion we do not question, but we receive what we have been taught. As St Jacob says, ‘faith stoops not to questioning; she knows to affirm’.

According to St Jacob we affirm the reality of the Eucharist because it would never have crossed the minds of the Apostles to consider that the one who was alive with them at the table should be understood as dead, and sacrificed as the bread and wine they were consuming. Therefore the institution of the Eucharist is a matter of revelation by Christ himself. St Jacob says, ‘He stood as Priest and performed the priest’s function upon himself among his disciples, that he might depict a type to the priesthood for it to imitate, he taught them… he made known to them…he gave an example’.

Therefore the Eucharist is not rooted in the exercise of man’s religious and spiritual imagination, but it is part of the Apostolic deposit, received from Christ himself. Indeed we pray in our ancient Orthodox and Catholic Liturgies, ‘in the night when he was betrayed, he took the bread into his holy, undefiled, blameless and immortal hands…’. This is the teaching of St Jacob; that the most shocking aspect of the Eucharist, that in the mysteries we truly receive the Body and Blood of Christ for the renewal of our lives and for forgiveness of sins, is not an invention of later generations of Christians, but is at the very core of our Faith, having been received from the very mouth of Christ himself.

The language of Eucharistic sacrifice, of Body and Blood, or priest and oblation, are inseparable from our Faith, as far as St Jacob is concerned. We are not gathered to make a human commemoration of an historic act, or to worship a God who is not present. But equally the Eucharist is not a human response to God, but is God’s offering of himself. To receive such a gift, the gift of life in the Holy Spirit, demands our wholehearted and complete devotion. Upon those who approach the altar and commune with repentance and a sense of their own unworthiness the Holy Spirit descends and broods creatively, bringing life and forgiveness of sins.

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