“I will come to you”
In the Gospels of Sts. Matthew, Mark and Luke, as well as in St. Paul, we have the mention of the institution of the Eucharist. One example is as follows:
“While they were eating, Jesus took bread, spoke a blessing and broke it, and gave it to the disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is My body.” Then He took the cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you. This is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28)
If we look at St. John’s version of the Last Supper, however, something surprising is to be found: there is no mention of the Institution of the Eucharist.
Throughout the ages Christians have asked themselves this question: how come the greatest Gospel doesn’t mention this most important moment in the life of the Lord? Of course, each person has tried to find an answer to this puzzling question. All have noticed that in Chapter 6 of his Gospel St. John not only talks about the Eucharist but also about its radical necessity. “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no Life in you.” (John 6:53) Our perplexity is reduced, however, when we find a proper and long teaching on the Eucharist in St. John. What is striking in Chapter 6, though, is the fact that there is a completeness in the Lord’s teaching that brings us closer to the wholesomeness of the Mass. In fact, in Jesus’ words we can find a teaching on the importance of believing in the Word of God. Furthermore this includes a teaching on the main two parts of the Mass: the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Eucharist.
Now, we can still ask ourselves why this teaching is placed in Chapter 6 and not in the long chapters of the Last Supper, namely, chapters 13 through to 16. By contrast, if we look carefully at the teaching the Lord offers us, we can find many teachings that certainly don’t replace the Institution of the Eucharist but rather offer either new insights to it or deepen it.
To begin with it is in the Washing of the Feet, in the first part of Chapter 13, where the first of these new insights is offered. In fact, it is crafted in a very detailed way that prefigures the sacrifice of the Lord on the Cross, where He lays down his life for us. But what offers a deepening of the Eucharist is all the teaching that follows. It is centred on a very important point that we often overlook: the mysterious coming of Jesus. What we may overlook is more precisely the relationship between the mysterious coming of Jesus into our hearts and the Eucharist. Indeed, this teaching unravels for us the deepest meaning of what Communion really consists.
Not only that, but in these chapters, St. John keeps the same balance we find in Chapter 6. Thus, there is a correlation between the relationship between our faithfulness to his Word and eating Jesus’ flesh and blood and the relationship between keeping the commandments of the Word, and his mysterious coming into our hearts.
In this sense we can consider that St. John didn’t choose to refrain from talking about the Eucharist but that he rather took another route, that is, he wanted to give us a deeper understanding of Communion. This mysterious coming of Jesus into our heart, this revelation of the Father’s Love for us and his coming with the Son into our heart, is a deeper dimension of the Eucharist.
1- In Each Eucharist we have a Coming of the Holy Spirit
To begin with, in the Mass we invoke the Holy Spirit for the Consecration: “Therefore, O Lord, we humbly implore you: by the same Spirit graciously make holy these gifts we have brought to you for consecration” (Eucharistic Prayer III). After the Consecration we again invoke Him to make of us one body in Christ and also an everlasting offering to the Father: “grant that we, who are nourished by the Body and Blood of your Son and filled with his Holy Spirit, may become one body, one spirit in Christ. May he make of us an eternal offering to you” (Eucharistic Prayer III). Then we invoke Him in the offering of ourselves in the Son to the Father: “Through him, and with him, and in him, O God, almighty Father, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, all glory and honour is yours, for ever and ever.” (Eucharistic Prayer III)
Is this not the very embodiment of the evangelist’s words: “15 If you love Me, you will keep My commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and He will give you another Advocate to be with you forever – 17 the Spirit of truth. The world cannot receive Him, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him. But you do know Him, for He abides with you and will be in you.”? (John 14:15-17)
Keeping the Lord’s Commandments allows us to please the Lord and therefore allows He himself to dwell in us. The first manifestation of his indwelling through the Eucharist, then, is the coming of the Holy Spirit.
2- The Mysterious Coming of Jesus in the Eucharist
“18 I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19 In a little while the world will see Me no more, but you will see Me. Because I live, you also will live. 20 On that day you will know that I am in My Father, and you are in Me, and I am in you. 21 Whoever has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me. The one who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and reveal Myself to him.” 22 Judas (not Iscariot) asked Him, “Lord, why are You going to reveal Yourself to us and not to the world?” 23 “If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word. My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.” (John 14:18-23)
This is the deepest mystical teaching on the Eucharist to be found in the Gospels: Jesus promises us that He will mysteriously come into our heart. It is a real coming. These verses are permeated by the deepest of teachings on the Eucharist as is illustrated below:
1- “I will come to you”. This is the central theme of the Last Supper. The latter is all focused on the Institution of the Eucharist. It is not absent from St. John’s Last Supper, but on the contrary it is more than ever present, but at its deepest point, that of Jesus… Jesus coming to us during Communion! This is the core of the Last Supper.
2- “You will see me.” Of course, this is a mystical vision, as its being sung after Communion in St. John’s Chrysostom’s Divine Liturgy shows: “we have seen the True Light” i.e. Christ.
3- “You will live” as He promised in John 6: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no Life in you.” (John 6:53)
4- “You will know”: encompasses a deep mystical knowledge about the Trinity: if we receive the Son, we also receive the Father. This is like when just before He had said: we receive the Holy Spirit that allows the coming of the Son in us. This is also a deep mystical knowledge about our mystical relationship with Jesus himself: we are in Him and He is in us.
5- “I will love him and reveal Myself to him”: this is another description of Communion. If we are faithful to the Lord in the Liturgy of the Word, i.e. if we listen to his word and put it into practice, we will be able to have a fruitful Communion, i.e. we will experience during Communion Jesus’ Love for us and He will reveal Himself to us.
6- “not to the world”: In the Eucharist Jesus reveals himself to us, intimately, mystically, but not to the world. The second part of the Mass, the Liturgy of the Eucharist normally is reserved only to the Baptised because in it the Lord reveals his deepest secret. This is why in the liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, at the beginning of the second part of the Mass the Deacon invites the non-baptised, i.e. the Catechumens to leave the Church. In the Armenian Orthodox Rite large veils actually cover the entire altar to emphasise the sacredness of what is about to happen. Also, in the Communion hymn in St. John Chrysostom’s liturgy we sing: I will not betray you and tell your secret like Judas did! Receiving Communion, then, is receiving God’s very intimacy and secret. We become the keepers of this sacred trust. “O Son of God, receive me today as a partaker of Your mystical supper. For I will not speak of your mystery to Your enemies, nor will I give You a kiss, as did Judas. But like the thief, I confess to You: Remember me, Lord, in Your Kingdom.”
7- “We will come to him and make Our home [dwell] with him”: The Eucharist is not only the coming of the Son, but also of course of the whole Trinity, including the Father and the Holy Spirit. Also, it is an indwelling that should last, until the next Communion. This is why it is important to “stay with him” as St. Teresa of Avila says. Not to leave Him and go our own way. This shows the utter greatness of the Human being: we are Living Tabernacles of God, who wants to live and act in us and through us. His love and his desire is to be in us, to dwell in us and find in us his pleasure! Putting into practice his Words allows this indwelling of God in us to be alive and active. It is very important to understand that we constantly carry God within us, that He is alive, He acts, and inspires us, He guides us. This is why, afterwards, in chapters 15 and 16 John portrays Jesus continuing to explain these two aspects:
- the need to keep dwelling in Him after Communion (John 15) and
- the need to be guided constantly by the Holy Spirit received during Communion (chapter 16).
As a final point let us look at St. Teresa of Avila, who while commenting on the Prayer of the Heart (Contemplative Prayer) in her pedagogical masterpiece, Way of Perfection, not only explains this prayer but shows us its direct link with Communion. It is by reading her chapters 33 and 34 where she describes Spiritual Communion, or better said the inner aspect of Communion, that we gain a better understanding of what St. John chose to do in these amazing Eucharistic Chapters: 13-17.