“Something that stands for something else.” That’s usually what we mean when we think of the word Symbol. In our world flags stand for countries, red octagonal signs stand for stopping, and wedding rings stand for love and commitment. Computers and advertising have accelerated this to the point that we are able to identify a vast number of products and applications by their icons and symbols. These are all things or images that stand for something else, but ultimately are not really connected. (Apples don’t really have anything to do with computers or electronics.)
And so when we hear of discussions about whether the Eucharist or some other Sacrament of the Church is symbolic, we naturally think in these terms of something that stands for something else. To our ears today that sounds like the bread and the wine of the Eucharist stand for the Body and Blood of our Lord. And so by implication it sounds like the bread and the wine merely represent our Lord’s Body and Blood but the two don’t have any more actual connection than a particular arrangement of stars and stripes really has with the United States of America. And so, ironically, many people today will strongly assert the symbolic character of the Eucharist, meaning that one represents the other though the two have no real connection.
The irony lies in the fact that the Orthodox Church really does believe that the Eucharist, the Sacraments, and the Church herself are symbolic. The difference lies in what we mean by symbol. The definition of a symbol as “Something that stands for something else” only really shows up for the first time about 500 years ago. When the Church first used the term to describe its understanding and experience of the Eucharist, it naturally employed the old meaning based on the Greek words themselves: Symbol is from the Greek words syn (meaning with) and ballo (meaning throw or put). In the ancient world, a symbol meant two things that had been ‘put with’ or ‘put together.’ For the early Christians the Eucharist was precisely a symbol because in it the bread and the wine offered were truly ‘put together’ with the Lord’s very Body and Blood; the two had been united. To receive one was actually to receive the Other; to encounter the Eucharist was to encounter the Lord Himself. Precisely because the Eucharist is a symbol, the Church carefully prepares herself by prayer and fasting to receive the Lord Himself. Because the Holy Gifts are a symbol, the clergy and the people show great care and reverence in receiving and handling them. Thanks be to God that our Lord did not give us something that merely stands for His presence but rather comes and Himself stands in our midst. Thanks be to God that He has given us a Symbol.
Dn Basil Ferguson
“Give me a word!”
A man becomes spiritual insofar as he lives a spiritual life. He begins to see God in all things, to see His power and might in every manifestation. Always and everywhere he sees himself abiding in God and dependent on God for all things. But insofar as a man lives a bodily life, so much he does he do bodily things; He doesn't see God in anything, even in the the most wondrous manifestations of His Divine power. In all things he sees body, material, everywhere and always - "God is not before his eyes." (Ps. 35:2)
-St John of Kronstadt
The soul that has come to know God fully no longer desires anything else, nor does it attach itself to anything on the earth; and if you put before it a kingdom, it would not desire it, for the love of God gives such sweetness and joy to the soul that even the life of a king can no longer give it any sweetness.
-St Silouan the Athonite
Every Christian should find for himself the imperative and incentive to become holy. If you live without struggle and without hope of becoming holy, then you are Christians only in name and not in essence. But without holiness, no one shall see the Lord, that is to say they will not attain eternal blessedness.
-St Philaret of Moscow