Come to him, a living stone, rejected by human beings
but chosen and precious in the sight of God,
and, like living stones,
let yourselves be built into a spiritual house
(1 Peter 2:4–5)
Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Church Fathers
Fifth Sunday of Easter
St. Irenaeus on the Eucharist
May 7, 2023
St. Irenaeus (c. 130 to c. 202 AD) was the Bishop of Lyon in what is now France. He was however born in the East most likely in Syrma in today’s Turkey. His assignment to Lyon was not happenstance. It was then, as it is now, a commercial center and had a large population of traders and merchants from the east. Irenaeus spoke Greek knew the culture and was uniquely able to minister to their needs. Also, they not only imported goods but also the church’s first major heresy, Gnosticism.
Gnostic means knowledge and although it came in many forms Gnostics of every kind believed that people were saved by having the right knowledge not by the death and resurrection of Jesus. They usually believed that the body was disposable or even evil and only the non-material spirit was important. This is an eternal temptation. We saw that Paul constantly taught the Gentiles that they would be raised “body and soul”. Pope Francis, as we will see, finds it in our own society, The Gnostics often went far beyond this and considered the human body to be a creation of a lesser god or even the devil. St Irenaeus fought the most dangerous form of Gnosticism devised by a charismatic Roman teacher Valentinus (c. 100 to c. 180 AD).
It was dangerous because Valentinus took the basics of Christianity and reinterpreted them to fit a Gnostic pattern. The idea was simple, but the development became too complicated and arcane, and we do not have to review it. It is important for us to remember as we read Irenaeus that he will show the goodness of the physical world in general and the body in particular, the importance of tradition and community and most critically that our salvation comes from Jesus’ death and resurrection.
He did this systematically and called his strategy “recapitulation”. Jesus takes on the entirety of human life and by that makes it holy and directs us more perfectly to God. In short “that which Jesus did not assume is not redeemed”.
Although he mentions the Eucharist only rarely in his writings, its importance is obvious: it is physical, it connects us with Jesus’s death and resurrection, and it is done in a community. These would all be denied by Valentinus and other Gnostics.
The rather long quote which follows brings these ideas together:(All quotations are from “Against the Heretics.”
[I]f our flesh is not saved, then the Lord has not redeemed us with his blood, the eucharistic chalice does not make us sharers in his blood, and the bread we break does not make us sharers in his body. There can be no blood without veins, flesh and the rest of the human substance, and this the Word of God actually became: it was with his own blood that he redeemed us. As the Apostle says: In him, through his blood, we have been redeemed, our sins have been forgiven.
We are his members and we are nourished by creation, which is his gift to us, for it is he who causes the sun to rise and the rain to fall. He declared that the chalice, which comes from his creation, was his blood, and he makes it the nourishment of our blood. He affirmed that the bread, which comes from his creation, was his body, and he makes it the nourishment of our body. When the chalice we mix and the bread we bake receive the word of God, the eucharistic elements become the body and blood of Christ, by which our bodies live and grow. How then can it be said that flesh belonging to the Lord’s own body and nourished by his body and blood is incapable of receiving God’s gift of eternal life? Saint Paul says in his letter to the Ephesians that /we are members of his body,/ of his flesh and bones. He is not speaking of some spiritual and incorporeal kind of man, /for spirits do not have flesh and bones./ He is speaking of a real human body composed of flesh, sinews and bones, nourished by the chalice of Christ’s blood and receiving growth from the bread which is his body.
Some Gnostics seem to have celebrated a form of the Eucharist. Ireneus asks why?
Then, again, how can they say that the flesh, which is nourished with the body of the Lord and with His blood, goes to corruption, and does not partake of life? Let them, therefore, either alter their opinion, or cease from offering the things just mentioned. But our opinion is in accordance with the Eucharist, and the Eucharist in turn establishes our opinion. For we offer to Him His own, announcing consistently the fellowship and union of the flesh and Spirit. For as the bread, which is produced from the earth, when it receives the invocation of God, is no longer common bread, but the Eucharist, consisting of two realities, earthly and heavenly; so also our bodies, when they receive the Eucharist, are no longer corruptible, having the hope of the resurrection to eternity.
(Against the Heretics, 4-18-5)
A consequence of this is that through the Eucharist we are transformed. Knowing that Valentinus relied on the wrings of St. Paul. Irenaeus quotes Paul whenever possible and most commentators would agree that he considered “recapitulation” to be thoroughly Pauline.
The slip of a vine planted in the ground bears fruit at the proper time. The grain of wheat falls into the ground and decays only to be raised up again and multiplied by the Spirit of God who sustains all things. The Wisdom of God places these things at the service of man and when they receive God’s word they become the eucharist, which is the body and blood of Christ. In the same way our bodies, which have been nourished by the eucharist, will be buried in the earth and will decay, but they will rise again at the appointed time, for the Word of God will raise them up to the glory of God the Father. Then the Father will clothe our mortal nature in immortality and freely endow our corruptible nature with incorruptibility, for God’s power is shown most perfectly in weakness.
Another consequence is that we are expected to offer ourselves as well:
For even as God does not need our possessions, so do we need to offer something to God; as Solomon says: “He that hath pity upon the poor, lendeth unto the Lord.” For God, who stands in need of nothing, takes our good works to Himself for this purpose, that He may grant us a recompense of His own good things, as our Lord says: “Come, ye blessed of My Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you. For I was an hungered, and ye gave Me to eat: I was thirsty, and ye gave Me drink: I was a stranger, and ye took Me in: naked, and ye clothed Me; sick, and ye visited Me; in prison, and ye came to Me.”9 As, therefore, He does not stand in need of these [services], yet does desire that we should render them for our own benefit, lest we be unfruitful; so did the Word give to the people that very precept as to the making of oblations, although He stood in no need of them, that they might learn to serve God: thus is it, therefore, also His will that we, too, should offer a gift at the altar, frequently and without intermission.
This gift we offer is ourselves and our acts of sacrifice. As we said above Gnosticism is particularly dangerous because it is based on a human tendency. It raises its head throughout history and Pope Francis sees it in our world today. In his apostolic exhortation Gaudete et Exsultate, Pope Francis writes:
Thanks be to God, throughout the history of the Church it has always been clear that a person’s perfection is measured not by the information or knowledge they possess, but by the depth of their charity. “Gnostics” do not understand this, because they judge others based on their ability to understand the complexity of certain doctrines. They think of the intellect as separate from the flesh, and thus become incapable of touching Christ’s suffering flesh in others, locked up as they are in an encyclopaedia of abstractions. In the end, by disembodying the mystery, they prefer “a God without Christ, a Christ without the Church, a Church without her people”
Gaudete et Exsultate, at #37
With St. Irenaeus, Pope Francis sees that separating our souls from our bodies ultimately leads to separating ourselves from other people. The church becomes irrelevant, and do we really need Jesus after he has shared his secret knowledge with us? Now as then the destination of Gnosticism in all its forms is to be solitary.
The faith of the Church is that we enter heaven not only with our bodies and souls but with our brothers and sisters.