Today’s sermon is entitled SERMO DE SCARIFICIO IN DIE PASCÆ, or, A SERMON ON THE SACRIFICE ON EASTER-DAY. It was written by the Rev. Aelfric of Eynsham, who lived during the previous turn of the millennium, from 955 to 1010. Even though he passed away 1,005 years ago, over forty of his sermons survive to this day, and continue to witness to the Christian faith, which itself is timeless.
Men þa leofostan, gelóme eow is gesæd ymbe ures Hælendes æriste, hú hé on ðisum andwerdan dæge, æfter his ðrowunge mihtiglice of deaðe arás…
(What, you don’t read Old English? Let me start over.)
Beloved brethren, you often hear about our Savior’s resurrection, how on this day, after his passion, he mightily arose from death. I would now like to share with you, by God’s grace, concerning the Holy Communion which we celebrate, and hone your understanding of that mystery, according to the teaching of both the Old and New Testaments.
The Almighty God commanded Moses that he should command the people of Israel to take for every household a lamb on that first Passover night, before they left Egypt for the Promised Land. They were to offer that lamb to God, slaughter it, use its blood to make the sign of the cross on their door-posts (the top and bottom, and both sides), and then to eat the lamb’s flesh roasted, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.
Remember what God had said to Moses in Exodus 12, which was read to us earlier. He gave instructions on keeping the Passover, and then later that night was slain in every house throughout the realm of Pharaoh the first-born child. And Israel, the people of God, was delivered from that sudden death through the offering of the lamb, and the marking of its blood. Then God said to Moses, “This day shall be for you a memorial day, and you shall keep it as a feast to the LORD; throughout your generations you shall observe it as an ordinance for ever. Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread” (Exodus 12:14-15a). After this deed, God led the people of Israel over the Red Sea on dry ground, but drowned there Pharaoh and all his army who had persecuted them, and then God fed the people of Israel for forty years with heavenly food, and gave them water from the hard stony rock, until they came to the Promised Land. Some of this story gets explored at other times; today we’ll focus on how this relates to Holy Communion.
Christ is in the Passover
Christians are not bound to the Law of Moses, but is fitting that we know what that Law teaches us spiritually. The innocent lamb, which the Old Israel then slaughtered, was a spiritual token or sign of Christ’s passion: he was innocent, he shed his blood for our redemption. This is referenced in the Communion service when we sing the Agnus Dei: “Lamb of God, who takes the sin of the world, have mercy upon us.” The Israelites were delivered from sudden death, and from slavery to Pharaoh through the offering of the lamb, which was a token or sign of Christ’s passion, through which we are redeemed from eternal death and slavery to the devil, if we rightly believe in the true Redeemer of the world, Jesus Christ. The Israelites marked their doors, with the blood of the lamb. the letter tau, which resembles the Cross, and so were shielded from the angel who slew the firstborn children of the Egyptians. And we also should mark our foreheads and bodies with the sign of Christ’s cross, that we may be saved from destruction, when we are marked both on the forehead and in the heart with the blood of our Lord’s passion.
The people of Israel ate the flesh of the lamb at their Eastertide, when they were delivered, and we now partake spiritually of Christ’s body, and drink his blood, when with true belief we partake of the Holy Communion. The time they held as their Eastertide, the seven days, in which they were delivered from Pharaoh, and departed from Egypt is paralleled for us as we hold Christ’s resurrection as our Eastertide, during these seven days, because, through his passion and resurrection, we are redeemed, and we shall be purified by partaking of the Holy Communion, as Christ himself said in his gospel, “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; he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day” (John 6:48-51). Jesus hallowed the bread before his passion and distributed it to his disciples saying “Eat this, it is my body, do this for my remembrance.” Afterward he blessed wine in a cup, and said “All of you, drink this, this is my blood, which shall be shed for many in forgiveness of sins.” The Apostles did as Christ commanded, by afterwards hallowing bread and wine for Communion for his remembrance. In the same way, those who followed them, and all priests to this day, at Christ’s command, hallow bread and wine for Communion, in his name, with the Apostolic blessing.
Christ is in the Holy Communion
Now some people have wondered how the bread, which is prepared from wheat and baked, can be changed to Christ’s body; or the wine, which is pressed from many grapes, can by any blessing be changed to the Lord’s blood? The answer, we say, is that some things are said of Christ as tokens and signs, and other things are known as they are. So for example, it is a true and certain thing that Christ was born of a virgin, and of his own will suffered death, and was buried and on this day arose from death. But he is called bread as a token or sign, and also a lamb, and a lion, and whatever else. He is called bread as a type of his life-giving nature. He is called a lamb for his innocence. He is called a lion for the strength by which he overcame the strong devil. But yet, according to his true nature, Christ is neither bread nor a lamb nor a lion. Why then is the Holy Communion called Christ’s body or his blood, if it is not truly that which it is called? Well, the bread and wine which are hallowed in the Mass appear one thing to human understanding without, and declare themselves another thing to believing minds within! On the outside they appear bread and wine, both in appearance and in taste; but they are truly, after the hallowing, Christ’s body and his blood through a spiritual mystery.
If we look at Holy Communion in a bodily sense, then we see that it is corruptible and changeable bread and wine. But if we distinguish its spiritual might, then we understand that there is life in it, and that it gives immortality to those who partake of it with belief. Great is the difference between the invisible might of Holy Communion and the visible appearance of its own nature. By nature it is corruptible bread and corruptible wine, yet is by the power of the divine Word truly Christ’s body and his blood; not however, bodily but spiritually. Great is the difference between the body in which Christ suffered, and the body which is hallowed for Holy Communion. The body in which Christ truly suffered was born of Mary, with blood and with bones, with skin and sinews, with human limbs, with a rational soul. His spiritual body, which we call the host in Holy Communion, is gathered from many grains of wheat, without blood and bone, limbless and soulless, and there is therefore nothing to be understood there bodily, but is to be entirely understood spiritually. Whatever there is in Holy Communion which gives us the substance of life comes from its spiritual power and invisible effect. Therefore Holy Communion is called a mystery, because there we see one thing, yet understand something else. What we see has its own physical appearance, and what we understand there has spiritual might. Truly Christ’s body which suffered death, and from death arose, will never die again; it’s eternal and indestructible. The Communion, on the other hand, is temporary, not eternal; corruptible and is distributed in pieces; it’s chewed between teeth and digested; but every piece of it, nevertheless, by spiritual strength, is the body of Christ. Multiple people receive a piece of the bread, and every piece of it is his body, by a spiritual miracle. And even if one person has a smaller piece than someone else, there is no more power in the large piece than the smaller; because Christ is entirely present in each piece, by the Spirit’s working.
The bottom line is, this mystery is a pledge and a symbol; Christ’s body is truth. We hold this pledge mystically until we see him face to face, and then will this pledge be ended. But it is, as I before said, Christ’s body and his blood, not bodily but spiritually. We are not to inquire how it is done, but to hold in our belief that it is so done.
We are in the Holy Communion
Paul the Apostle said of the old people of Israel in his one of his epistles: “I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ” (1 Corinthians 10:1-4). The rock from which the water flowed was not Christ bodily, but it was a token or sign of Christ, who himself cried out, “If any one thirst, let him come to me and drink. He who believes in me, as the scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’” (John 7:37-38). This he said of the Holy Spirit, received by all who believed in him. The Apostle Paul said that the people of Israel ate the same spiritual meat and drank the same spiritual drink, because the heavenly meat which fed them forty years, and the water which flowed from the stone, were a type or sign of Christ’s body and his blood, which are now offered daily in God’s Church! But they are the same not bodily, but spiritually.
Thus we find a timeless aspect of the mystery of Christ’s spiritual body and blood. Consider this: before his passion, for Holy Communion, Jesus said, “This is my body and my blood.” He had not yet suffered, but nevertheless, he changed the bread to his own body and the wine to his blood by spiritual power. He had done just the same thing before in the wilderness for the Israelites, before he was even born as a man – when he had changed the manna to his flesh and the water flowing from the rock to his own blood. Moses and Aaron and many others who pleased God ate that heavenly bread, and as a result they didn’t die the eternal death, even though their physical bodies died. For although they saw that the heavenly food was visible and corruptible, they understood spiritually concerning the visible thing, and partook of it spiritually. Jesus said “He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood shall have everlasting life” (John 6:54). He did not command his physical body to be eaten, nor the blood to be drunk which he shed for us; but he meant that Holy Communion, which is spiritually his body and blood; and whoever tastes that with believing heart shall have everlasting life!
Christ suffered once through himself, but yet his passion is renewed daily through the mystery of Holy Communion; therefore Communion is a celebration both of the living and the departed. For, we also have to consider that the Holy Communion is both the body of Christ and of all believing people. This is a spiritual mystery. As St. Augustine said of it, “If you will understand concerning the body of Christ, hear the apostle Paul, thus saying, ‘You are truly Christ’s body and members’ (Romans 12:27). Now your mystery is laid out on God’s table, and you receive your mystery, which you yourselves are. Be that which you see on the altar, and receive that which you yourselves are.” Again the apostle Paul said of this, “We who are many are one bread and one body” (1 Corinthians 10:17). Understand now and rejoice; many people are united as one bread and one body in Christ! He is our head, and we are his members. The bread is not made from one grain of wheat, but of many; nor the wine of one grape, but of many. So we should also have unity in our Lord, as it is written of the Church in the book of Acts, that they were in so great unity that they were said to be of one soul and one heart.
Christ hallowed on his table the mystery of our peace and our unity. Those who receive the mystery of unity, but don’t hold the bond of peace, do not receive the mystery for themselves, but as a witness against themselves. Great good it is to us that we frequently go to Holy Communion if we bear innocence in our hearts to the altar, if we aren’t possessed with sins. But for the wicked it turns to no good, but to condemnation if he unworthily receives Holy Communion.
Also, tradition mandates that water be mixed with the wine to be blessed for Communion because water is symbolic of the people, as the wine is symbolic of Christ. Neither should be offered without the other in the Mass, representing that Christ may be with us and we with him; the head with its members and the members with their head.
How we are to receive Holy Communion
I would like to talk about the Old Covenant Passover Lamb: we’ll look at how it relates to us in Holy Communion, and how the original Passover instructions have spiritual application for us as Christians.
The lamb was offered at their Eastertide, and the apostle Paul said in 1 Corinthians that Christ is our Passover, who was sacrificed for us, and on this day arose from death. Israel ate the flesh of the lamb, as God commanded, with unleavened bread and bitter herbs. Regarding, first, the unleavened bread, we should partake of the Holy Communion, Christ’s body and blood, without the leaven of malice and evil. As leaven changes wheat into bread, so also sins change us from innocence to corruption. The Apostle Paul taught that we should not feast on the “leaven of malice and evil, but on the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:8). As for the bitter herbs, which the Israelites were to eat with the unleavened bread is bitter to the taste; likewise we should purify our minds with the bitterness of true repentance, if we desire to partake of Christ’s body.
As for the lamb itself, God commanded them not to eat it raw, nor boiled in water, but roasted in fire. To partake of Christ’s body “raw” would be to come forward ignorantly with no preparation at all, thinking Christ was merely human like us, and not God. To partake of the lamb “boiled in water” would be like trying to understand Christ from a human perspective, which is better than no preparation at all, but still insufficient. Rather, we are to know the mystery of Christ’s incarnation through the power of the Holy Spirit, which came in the form of fire to the Apostles. Thus we eat the lamb “roasted in fire.”
Additionally, Israel was to eat the lamb’s head, and the feet, and its innards, and have no leftovers overnight. If anything remained, it was to be burnt in the fire. Also, they were not supposed to break the lamb’s bones. In a spiritual sense, we eat the lamb’s head when we believe the divinity of Christ, and when we believe Christ’s humanity, we are eating the feet of the lamb; for Christ is the head and the feet, beginning and end, God before all worlds and man at the ending of the world. And then, what are the innards but Christ’s commands? We eat those innards when we eagerly receive the Word of Life. Also, nothing of the lamb must remain until morning because the words of God are to be considered with great attention while we live in the darkness of the present age, before the morning of Christ’s return. But if we cannot fully understand the mystery of Christ’s incarnation, then we should at least commit ourselves humbly to the power and instruction of the Holy Spirit, who will lead us into all truth as we are able to receive it.
The Israelites also were to be dressed and equipped in a certain way while eating the lamb: with their belt fastened [or in earlier translations, “their loins girded”], with their shoes on, and with their staff in hand. As for the belt being fastened: under the belt are the loins, symbolizing the lust of the body. When we come to receive Holy Communion we are to bind up lust, and receive the sacrament in purity. The Israelites were to eat the Passover with their shoes on. For us this symbolizes that we are to be walking in the paths of God’s Saints of old, imitating their lives and obedience to God’s commandments. The staff in hand, finally, symbolizes leadership and care. Those who are elders in the faith should take care of newer believers, and support them with their aid. This is especially true with parents teaching their children the faith of Christ, but points us to care for one another also in our church family.
The Israelites were also instructed to eat the Passover quickly. One of the things that this shows us is that God hates idleness in his servants, whereas He loves those who seek the joy of everlasting life without delay! Finally, they were instructed not to break the lamb’s bones. This prefigured how the soldiers who hanged Christ would not break his legs, as they did to the thieves who hung on either side of him.
In closing, this holiday is called Pascha in Hebrew and Greek, Transitus in Latin, and Passover in English; because on this day God’s people passed from the land of Egypt over the Red Sea, from slavery to the Promised Land. Our Lord also passed at this time: from this world to his heavenly father. We should follow our head, and pass from the devil to Christ, from this unsteady world to his steadfast kingdom. But we should first, in our present life, pass from sins to holy virtues, from vices to good morals, if we desire, after this transitory life, to pass to the life everlasting and to Jesus Christ, after our resurrection. May he lead us to his Living Father, who gave him to death for our sins. To him be glory and praise for that great grace, to all eternity. Amen.