late Middle English: from Old French eucariste, based on ecclesiastical Greek eukharistia ‘thanksgiving,’ from Greek eukharistos ‘grateful,’ from eu ‘well’ + kharizesthai‘offer graciously’ (from kharis ‘grace’).
I could toss around the word, “transubstantiation” all day long. The word clung to me for years as I wandered from my Catholic upbringing. I can remember key historical dates, some stories of the Saints, major doctrines of the church and the idea of “transubstantiation” which I always imagined to be that one moment when the bread and the wine turned into body and blood. I imagined a ray of light streaming down, changing the elements, making them into something new. When I first began my catechism I asked Father Gregory about transubstantiation and he waved me off. The Orthodox do not use this term, choosing instead to let it remain a holy mystery. I chalked it up to the Western mind, the search for reason and scientific sounding names to explain the unexplainable.
In truth, I did not really understand it.
Taking communion in the Catholic church meant wafers stamped with the Eucharistic symbol and then a sip of wine. One distributor, sometimes the priest, sometimes a deacon, sometimes a lay person, handled the paten of wafers and then I’d step to the left to partake of the wine from the chalice held by another lay distributor, nearly always someone I knew. When the church was packed out my parents would sometimes get a tap on the shoulder before Mass began to come and distribute. Choosing which line to enter, I’d shuffle to the front holding up my hands when it was my turn, making a kind of cradle for the host, left hand over right. I’d pop that wafer into my mouth before the sip of wine then break the wafer with my tongue, as the priest had done moments before as he held it up at the altar, “He broke the bread…blessing it…” he’d recite. In those moments when I walked back to my pew I broke the bread too, hearing those words again as I left the wafer melt a bit, chewing subtly and swallowing so that no one could see. It was a deeply private act for me, the center of the Mass.
After receiving the “Divine Mysteries” for the last year, I admit that the practice still gives me pause. I pour over texts and online forums. I question Orthodox friends about the process. I want to do it right, to do it well. Still a deeply private act, the mechanics are different but the feeling is much the same as I shuffle forward each week, crossing my arms over my chest as I step forward to the priest who holds the chalice and offers the mysteries. Gone are the wafers and the lay distributors. In their place stands just the priest, a small, shallow golden spoon upon which he carefully places the bread that has been baked for this occasion by a member of the church family. The bread is soaked in the wine, heated with warm water, blessed over and over until something has shifted, something unseen. The bread and the wine and the blessing and then the body and blood of Christ but still bread, still wine. He offers the mysteries to me as he speaks my Orthodox name, “The handmaid of the Lord, Theodora receives the body and blood of Christ…” All of it mixed together, warming my tongue as the Priest places it in my mouth, as the servers wipe my lips to catch any precious drop that might fall as I cross myself to seal the deal. This is why I come to worship. This deeply private act, this act of devotion and care, this moment of gratitude, of Eucharist, of love. And though I cannot explain it, I cannot explain how this is bread and wine and body and blood all at once I know somehow now that it is true. And I know that after receiving I’m different, changed, still Angela and yet also Theodora and perhaps something more maybe for a moment, maybe longer, maybe forever.