Divine Liturgy: The Eucharist Among the Orthodox


by Gabriel S. Sanchez, J.D.

In examining the question of how the Orthodox Church understand the Eucharist, it is important for Catholics to appreciate that the Christian East has taken a less doctrinally rigorous approach to the matter than the West. While some of the Eastern Catholic churches, such as the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Maronites, serve bridges between Eastern and Western doctrinal outlooks, it is because they, unlike the Orthodox, have had recourse to the universal Church’s full theological patrimony. As such, the Eucharistic understanding of one Eastern communion cannot simply be transferred to another without prior reflection or qualification.

With that noted, it can be said without reservation that the Orthodox share with Catholics the same faith in the Real Presence: the Eucharistic elements, bread and wine, are truly transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. But Orthodoxy dogmatically affirms only the mystery of such transformation without fully adopting the Catholic Church’s understanding of how and when it happens.


First, the term transubstantiation is not commonly used, as Orthodoxy considers it external to the Church’s normal mode of expression (in this case, by having recourse to Aristotelian categories of substance and accident). Thus, the term is considered also to suffer from proposing a too scientific manner of explaining the mystery of the Eucharist. Nevertheless, when necessary—for example, to differentiate the Orthodox Faith from Protestantism—the term has been used, or its Greek equivalent, metousiosis. Although carrying far less doctrinal heft than a normal ecumenical council of the Catholic Church, the 1672 Orthodox Synod of Jerusalem had this to say about the matter:

“When we use the term metousiosis, we by no means think it explains the mode by which the bread and wine are converted into the Body and Blood of Christ, for this is altogether incomprehensible…but we mean that the bread and wine are changed into the Body and Blood of the Lord, not figuratively or symbolically, nor by any extraordinary grace attached to them… but the bread becomes verily and indeed and essentially the very true Body of the Lord, and the wine the very Blood of the Lord.”

Second, the Orthodox have started to drift away from the idea of declaring when during the Divine Liturgy (the Eastern name for Mass) metousiosis occurs. While the Roman Church liturgically centers our Lord’s Words of Institution, the Orthodox, historically, have placed a far greater premium on the epiclesis, that is, the point during the canon or anaphora when the priest calls on the Holy Ghost to make the bread and wine the Body and Blood of Christ. Today, however, Orthodox Church has begun encouraging its faithful to focus less on a particular “sacramental moment” and instead understand the entire Divine Liturgy as participation in God’s Kingdom, culminating in the receiving the Eucharist.

For Orthodoxy, the Eucharist is the central event of liturgical worship. All other services—Vespers, Matins, the small Hours—are not separate but constitute one all-encompassing liturgical act that leads to the Eucharistic celebration, which, in turn, is intrinsically joined to the other liturgical mysteries of the Church. As a result, we find the Eucharist given immediately after Baptism. Baptism and Chrismation (Confirmation) are conceived as fundamental requisites for the reception of the Eucharist, “as the foundations of entry into the Christian body, which has its center and head in the presence of the Lord—the very Eucharistic reality,” to use the words of the Russian Orthodox priest Irenaeus Steenberg.

Eucharistic Adoration

Strangely, to Western Catholic eyes at least, the Orthodox never established the practice of Eucharistic adoration, either as a private devotion of the faithful or as a paraliturgical action, such as Benediction. The reasons for this are difficult to discern. The Orthodox Divine Liturgy features powerful gestures of adoration toward the Blessed Sacrament, including bows, prostrations, and incensing. However, these devotional elements remain, by and large, tethered to their liturgical context, “escaping” only occasionally, such as the practice of priests, deacons, and acolytes prostrating themselves toward the reserved Sacrament when entering the altar area behind the inconostasis (icon screen). Still, even this practice is not universally followed throughout world Orthodoxy, and some Orthodox even go so far as to consider any adoration of the Eucharist outside of the Divine Liturgy to be a “Latinization.”

To be clear, the rift between Catholic and Orthodox adoration practices is not beyond mending, and there is good reason to question how important this difference actually is. Several sui iuris Eastern Catholic churches have practiced Eucharistic Adoration for centuries. Indeed, the late Fr. Julius Grigassy’s English/Church Slavonic prayer book, published for American Eastern Catholics during the mid-20th C., has a set rite of Supplication to the Most Holy Eucharist which occurs outside of the Divine Liturgy. Although some contemporary Eastern Catholics hold that such practices should cease on the grounds that they are not “part of their tradition,” that is a far different argument than the more polarizing rhetoric of certain Orthodox who go so far as to call Eucharistic Adoration “wafer worship.” Sadly, that is hardly the only example of Orthodoxy showing a lack of sympathetic understanding toward the West.

The absence of express Eucharistic Adoration among the Orthodox does not mean the absence of adoration altogether, as can be seen in the emphasis the East places on icon veneration. For both Orthodox and Eastern Catholics following the Byzantine Rite, the icon is an integral part of the liturgical space, which is the church, and an indispensable participant in divine services. It is not primarily intended for private devotional veneration. Certainly, every Christian has the right to hang an icon at home, but, as Russian Orthodox Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev notes in his 2011 lecture, “Theology of Icon in the Orthodox Church,” the Christian has this right only insofar as his home is a continuation of the church and his life a continuation of the liturgy.

As the books of the Gospel in the liturgy, the icon, itself “the Scriptures in color,” is an object not only to be contemplated, but also to be venerated with prayer. The meaning of the icon as an object of liturgical veneration was expounded in the dogmatic definition of the Seventh Ecumenical Council which resolved that “icons should be kissed and that they are an object of veneration and honor, but not of real worship, which is reserved for Him Who is the subject of our faith and is proper for the divine nature.”

For Orthodoxy, icons can take on a sacramental character through their capacity and function of transmitting to man the sanctifying presence of Christ and His Saints; and also the ability of raising up towards God both ecclesial and personal prayer. However, it is crucial not to conflate a sacramental with a sacrament. To put the matter in sharper relief, icons must be understood as representations which point beyond themselves rather than actually being or becoming that which they make present. An icon of Christ is not Christ Himself whereas, in the Eucharist, Catholics and Orthodox affirm His Real Presence.

Over the past 1,000 years, particular icons have been granted their own liturgical feast days with extensive hymnography composed in their honor. As reception of the Eucharist dwindled in the East, icons took on a greater sacramental role, including being seen as unique transmitters of grace independent of the official Sacraments.

The Way Forward

A reigniting of Orthodox theological understanding over the past two centuries has improved matters considerably, though there is an argument to be made that icons have a disproportionate place in the devotional and intellectual life of the Orthodox Church. In his landmark, though not uncontroversial, work, The Forbidden Image: An Intellectual History of Iconoclasm, Alain Besançon goes so far as to accuse the Orthodox of “iconolatry” by overinflating the representational capacity of the icon itself—an unfortunate matter that has not only negative theological implications, but artistic ones as well. To quote Besançon:

“[The Orthodox have] the intimate feeling that the icon truly allows us to grasp the divine image, and that, as a result, nothing else is worth the trouble of being represented, [only] God, His glory, the transfigured world, the resurrected body, the Kingdom. After that complete vision, which fulfills every expectation and elicits every prayer, what is the point of falling back into the ordinary world, what reason is there to condescend to look at inferior sights? We are touching here on the hubris of the icon, which is part of the hubris of Byzantium.”

There is, of course, no hubris of the Eucharist, for in it Jesus is wholly present—Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity—under the species of bread and wine. Neither Catholics nor Orthodox have to defend the “aesthetics of the Eucharist” as part of a larger discussion over the extent of its representational qualities for in the Eucharist there is the Real Presence of Christ. While it would be unfair to claim that the Orthodox are ignorant of this reality, there is ample room to reflect on whether or not it has been obscured by hundreds of years of animus against Catholic doctrinal, spiritual, and liturgical developments. Examining that question must, however, wait for another day.

Gabriel Sanchez is an attorney and independent researcher living in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with his wife and four children.