I’ve just been asked a really good question by a protestant inquirer, and it’s one I’ve never really considered, so we’re going to work through it together! The question is, why isn’t the Holy Communion/ Eucharist, as we Orthodox understand it, cannibalism? I don’t know how many folks consider this a valid concern, but it is a fun question to address here, so let’s get to it. The question seems to imply that when the Holy Spirit makes the elements into Christ’s Body and Blood it’s substantial, but the faithful may be sinning somehow by accepting it. The logic seems to go something like this - Christ is truly present in the Eucharist, is truly God and truly Man, and eating our fellow man is cannibalism, so… to form the question in this way one (as a logical predicate) must accept the real presence of Christ in the Holy Communion - kind of an interesting theological juxtaposition for a protestant to find themselves in (or so I would imagine).
To understand this a little better, we have to look at the earliest days of the catacombs Church, when the accusation of cannibal activity was sort of the go-to dig from pagan Greeks and Romans, who associated the practice with the barbarism at the outskirts of their empires. Next, if we look at the Roman Catholic teaching called transubstantiation, meaning literally across substances. This was a scholastic innovation in a time when the RCC, following the Great Schism, was in a bit of a fuss and fluster to develop its own unique theology outside Orthodoxy, and the desire to explain everything as “scientifically” and conclusively as possible was paramount. In a way our Orthodox understanding of what actually happens to the elements is similar, but we are content to call it a “Mystery,” which some may find frustrating, but which also requires a greater level of faith than a complex explanatory system predicated on medieval science.
What’s the Divine Liturgy have to tell us? Quite a bit, actually. Twice in the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom we hear of the “rational and bloodless service,” and the “liturgical and bloodless sacrifice.” Later, when the priest is dividing the Lamb portion of the prosphora (from which we all commune), he states, “broken and distributed is the Lamb of God: broken, yet not divided; ever eaten, though never consumed, but sanctifying them that partake thereof.” Clearly, this is no ordinary “food” we’re talking about here, but something much more than that - even when you approach the Chalice, we speak in terms of “partaking,” not simply being “fed.” Back to the original protestant origin of this particular question, the words of this part of the Liturgy (and most of the rest of it as well) are themselves taken purely from the Scriptures. In Matthew 26, Luke 22, John 6, and 1st Corinthians 11, Christ states quite clearly (and not metaphorically) that this is His body which is broken for us for the forgiveness of sins, and His blood of the New Testament, shed for us and for many for the forgiveness of sins. There is also of course the prayer of St. John Chrysostom discussed previously in which we say, “I believe also that this is truly Thine own pure Body, and that this is truly Thine own most precious Blood.” In other words, at the end of the day, to be Orthodox is to accept the incredible grace of God and give thanks to Him for his life-giving Mysteries!