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November 23, 2015

The Aim of Asceticism is the Divine Eucharist

By Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon

Perhaps there is no more revealing point in the life of a Christian as to what holiness is, than when the priest pronounces when raising the Honorable Body soon before the Divine Communion: "The holy for the holy," that is, the Body of Christ and His Blood are holy and are offered to the "holy", who are the members of the Church about to commune. The response of the people is the shocking pronouncement: "One is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father." Only one person is holy, Christ - we are all sinners - and His holiness, which we sinners are all called to participate in, aims at nothing other than God's glory. At that point the Church experiences sanctity at its peak. By confessing "one is holy", all our virtues and all or worth are eliminated before the holiness of the only Holy One. This does not mean we can approach Divine Communion without preparation and the struggle for our worthiness to make the approach. It means that no matter what preparation we make, we were not holy before we communed. Holiness does not precede eucharistic communion, but it follows it. If we are holy prior to communing, then what of Divine Communion? Only by sharing in the holiness of God are we sanctified, and this is what Divine Communion offers us. From this observation derives a set of truths related to our subject.

The first is that we understand by this why in the epistles of the Apostle Paul all the members of the Church are called "saints" ("holy ones"), although they were not morally perfect. Since for people holiness means sharing in the holiness of God, as it was offered by Christ, Who sanctified us by His sacrifice, all the members of the Church who share in this sanctification can be called "saints".

By the same "logic" is the language of the Church since the first centuries when the elements of the Eucharist took on the name "the holy" (cf. "the holy for the holy"), although by nature they are not holy. By the same grounds the Church early on awarded the title "holy" to the bishops. Many are scandalized when we call a bishop today "the holy so and so". The bishop is called this not because of his virtues, but because he portrays during the Divine Eucharist the only Holy One, as an image of Christ, and as seated in the place and way of God, according to Saint Ignatius. The position of the bishop at the Divine Eucharist is what justifies the title "holy". Orthodox people, before undergoing the erosion of pietism, had no difficulty in using the language of this image, and they see Christ Himself in his person, which he, namely the bishop, depicts in the Divine Liturgy.

The Divine Eucharist is par excellence the "communion of saints." This is the aim of the asceticism of the venerable ones; asceticism never being the objective, but a means to that end, which is eucharistic communion. This point is forgotten and overlooked by many contemporary theologians, even Orthodox ones, who, especially nowadays, tend to equate asceticism with holiness.

The case of the venerable Mary of Egypt however expresses this eloquently. For forty years she lived in strict asceticism to be purified of her passions, but when she communed of the Immaculate Mysteries from the Saint [Zosimas], then her life ended having been sanctified. The aim of her asceticism was to receive eucharistic communion. Would the venerable Mary have been a saint, if she had been purified of her passions and not communed? The answer is probably negative.

But the Divine Eucharist is the culmination of sanctification, not only because it offers humanity the most perfect and complete union (physical and spiritual) with the only Holy One, but also because it is the most perfect portrayal of the Kingdom of God, namely that state of being, in which will be sanctified and glorified by all creation eternally and ceaselessly the "holy, holy, holy, Lord Sabaoth."

Source: From the book Sanctity, a Forgotten Vision. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.