Holy Communion: Literal or Symbolic?

The Orthodox Church teaches that a man partakes of the true body and blood of Christ, for the purification of his soul, in what’s called the “Sacrament of Holy Communion,” also known as “The Eucharist,” which is a ritual practiced by its members. Orthodox Christians believe that God mysteriously changes the invisible substance of the bread and wine, into the true body and blood of Christ, though the visible forms of the bread and wine remain.

So, the question is: is this what Jesus actually taught?

The Scriptures

Just as in all matters of doctrine, let us start with the scriptures:

When Jesus broke bread with His disciples, at the Last Supper, He consecrated it, saying, “Take, eat; this is My body” (Holy Bible, Matthew 26:26).

He then took the cup and said, “Drink from it, all of you. For this is My blood of the new covenant, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (Holy Bible, Matthew 26:27-28).

In another place, He says, “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. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For My flesh is truly food, and My blood is truly drink. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him” (Holy Bible, John 6:53-56).

Now, seeing what our Lord said, and knowing that He often speaks in parables, one could argue that, by these passages alone, Jesus’ words were symbolic. And so, to get clarification, let us now move on to the words of Saint Paul, who spoke about this matter explicitly.

He says to the Church in Corinth, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?” (Holy Bible, 1 Corinthians 10:16).

And after speaking of the Last Supper, he says to them about ritual of Holy Communion, that “Whoever eats this bread or drinks this cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks in an unworthy manner eats and drinks damnation to himself, not perceiving the Lord’s body. For this reason, many are weak and sick among you, and many have even died.”

Saint Paul teaches us that those who do not perceive the Lord’s body to be in the Eucharist, but do partake of it, bring upon themselves damnation and judgement. He says that, if one partakes unworthily in this manner, he can become sick, weak, and can even die. And so with confidence, we can conclude from these truths that Holy Communion is not a mere symbol, but something much greater—that the true presence of the Body and Blood of Christ are under the form of bread and wine.

The Church Fathers

What did the early Christians say about Holy Communion? Saint Ignatius of Antioch, of the 1st century, a direct disciple of Saint Paul, had this to say about those who denied the truth of the sacrament:
Those who hold to heterodox beliefs…see how contrary their beliefs are to the mind of God…they do not confess that the Eucharist is the flesh of our savior, Jesus Christ” (Saint Ignatius of Antioch, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans).

The Truth

Based on the words of Jesus Christ, of Saint Paul, and of the early church, it is apparent that the Orthodox teaching of Holy Communion is the God-given truth—that that which we partake of in Holy Communion, is the true Body and Body of our Lord, given for the forgiveness of sins. This dogma has been affirmed by Church, throughout all generations, since the days of the apostles, and it is still affirmed and practiced, even today.


We hope that this helped you in your Christian journey. Click here to learn more about Holy Communion.