What is the Central Mystery of the Church


Hank Hanegraaff

Article ID:



Jan 16, 2024


Aug 16, 2021

This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 42, number 3/4 (2019). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.

No one can have God for his Father, who does not have the Church for his mother.1 — Cyprian of Carthage

Historically the church has been regarded as “the centre of the universe.”2 It is the reincarnation of Eden. The place in which you and I may access the tree of life replete with its eucharistic bounty. A eucharistic bounty that stands forever as the central mystery of the church.

Within the eucharistic assembly, “divine life flows into us and penetrates the fabric of our humanity. The future life is infused into the present one and is blended with it, so that our fallen humanity may be transformed into the glorified humanity of the new Adam, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”3 As such, Ignatius christened the Eucharist our “medicine of immortality and the antidote against death, enabling us to live forever in Jesus Christ.”4

Far from a mere representation of past events, the medicine of immortality “constitutes the very presence of God’s embracing love, which purifies, enlightens, perfects, and deifies (2 Pet 1.4) all those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb (Rev 19.9).”5 Like the burning bush encountered by Moses, the Eucharist introduces into our being the fire by which we are inflamed yet not consumed. The fire by which we experience Pentecost in the present.

As in the early church, so in the present, the Holy Spirit changes the bread and the wine into the pure body and precious blood of Christ — not physically but mystically. “In the Eucharist we are offered Christ’s deified flesh, to which we are joined, without confusion or division, in order to partake of divine life.”6 As Saint Gregory Palamas poignantly put it, by the Eucharist, the church “is raised to heaven; that is where this Bread truly dwells; and we enter into the Holy of Holies by the pure offering of the Body of Christ.”7 By it, the body of Christ partakes of the Body of Christ and experiences life in the fellowship of the divine Trinity.

Though a mystery, this is nevertheless grounded in the certainty of Christ, who during the Last Supper took the bread saying, “Take, eat; this is My body.” Thereafter, “He took the cup, gave thanks [Greek, eucharist􀦖sas], and gave it to them, saying, ‘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” (emphasis added).8

For the first thousand years, when the body of Christ was as yet undivided, the eucharistic assembly humbly took Him at His word. “This is My body”; “this is My Blood.” How this was so, no one could tell. The church simply confessed the real presence of Jesus Christ to be a great and glorious sacramental mystery.

Even after the Great Schism (1054), when the Eastern and Western churches were divided at the Table, the Eucharist was unanimously believed to be the real presence of Christ. This was likewise the conviction of Martin Luther. Though he was at the center of a second Great Schism — one that fissured the Western half of the church — he nonetheless remained unified with the ancient church respecting the matter of real presence of Christ as the central mystery of the church.

Luther went so far as to liken the presence of the sun in creation to the presence of the Son in communion: “At Creation God ordained that the sun must daily rise and shine and give light and warmth to creatures. Just so the Lord Christ also ordained and commanded that in His church His essential body and blood are to be present in the Lord’s Supper, not merely in a spiritual but also in a bodily and yet incomprehensible manner.”9

The mystery of Christ’s real presence was of little consequence to Luther. In a 1528 exposition on the Eucharist, he likened the enigma to the mysterious reality of Christ’s incarnation.10 For Luther, as for the church fathers, the explanation was far less significant than the experience. Experiencing the real presence of Christ was tantamount to becoming one with Christ — and oneness with Christ was tantamount to oneness with the Father and the Spirit.

In the words of distinguished fourth-century theologian Cyril of Jerusalem, “We become Christ-bearers, since His body and blood are distributed throughout our limbs. So, as blessed Peter expressed it, we are made partakers of the divine nature.”11 Cyril’s words aptly codify the faith of the Fathers. As the venerable patristic scholar J. N. D. Kelly has well said, “the eucharist for the fathers was the chief instrument of the Christian’s divinization.”12

While the first Great Schism split the body of Christ from East to West, it did little to fissure the centrality and substance of the Eucharist as the central mystery of the church. Not so the second Great Schism five hundred years after the first, which quite literally deformed the sacred sacrament. While Luther held fast to the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, fellow Protestants such as Swiss reformer Huldreich Zwingli moved in an entirely different direction. In his infamous dialogue with Luther at the Marburg castle in Germany in 1529, Zwingli argued that the eucharistic meal was a mere commemoration of Christ’s sacrifice and that the bread and the wine were purely symbolic.13

Luther considered Zwingli’s rhetoric to be a gratuitous alteration of the words of our Lord, the writings of the apostles, and the witness of the ancient church. Moreover, for Luther, taking our Lord at His word was far from unreasonable. “Why should not Christ be able to include his body within the substance of bread?” asked Luther. “Fire and iron, two different substances, are so mingled in red-hot iron, that every part of it is both fire and iron. Why may not the glorious body of Christ much more be in every part of the substance of the bread?” (emphasis added).14

So certain was Luther of the real presence of Christ that he enjoined hearers to “let a hundred thousand devils, with all the fanatics, come forward and say, ‘How can bread and wine be Christ’s body and blood?’ Still I know that all the spirits and scholars put together have less wisdom than the divine Majesty has in his little finger. Here is Christ’s word: ‘Take, eat, this is my body.’ ‘Drink of this, all of you, this is the New Testament in my blood.’ Here we shall take our stand and see who dares to instruct Christ and alter what he has spoken.”15

Despite brilliant articulacy, the father of the Protestant Reformation largely lost in the battle for the real presence of Christ. While Zwingli was dwarfed at Marburg, in the end his influence towered over the masses. Zwingli’s denial of the real presence of Christ spread like wildfire and is now the predominate position of Protestantism. Even within modernday Lutheranism the real presence of Christ in the sacraments is broadly denied. Philipp Melanchthon, disciple of Luther, who at one time went as far as to advocate death for anyone who denied the real presence of Christ, in the end relegated the ubiquitous practice of the ancient church to be mere “bread worship.”16 What Melanchthon uncharitably described as bread worship has now devolved into bread neglect. And therein lies the heart of the problem.

As our Lord so plainly put it: “He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me you can do nothing.”17 Life flows from the One True Vine to its outstretched branches. As such the branches are empowered to bear fruit. A branch cannot bear fruit separated from the vine. Nor can it bear fruit cut off from the other branches. “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but he who feeds on this bread will live forever” (emphasis added).18

The unambiguous point here is that in order to remain alive spiritually, one must continuously feed on the body and blood of Christ. Although the Gospel of John does not record the institution of Holy Communion, as do the other gospels, his report of our Lord’s words offer the clearest and most profound biblical understanding of the living power inherent in the real presence of Christ. When we partake of the Mystical Supper instituted by our Lord, we live in Him and He lives in us. When we do not, we have no life.

While there are other graces by which we may partake of the divine nature, there is nothing more needful to sustain the church in the wasteland of a warped and wicked world than the supernatural manna dispensed to us through the Eucharist. This manna is “appropriately called food of the soul, for it nourishes and strengthens the new creature. For in the first instance, we are born anew through Baptism. However, our human flesh and blood have not lost their old skin. There are so many hindrances and attacks of the devil and the world that we often grow weary and faint and at times even stumble. Therefore, the Lord’s Supper is given as a daily food and sustenance so that our faith may be refreshed and strengthened and that it may not succumb in the struggle but become stronger and stronger.”19

The partaking of the Eucharist was God’s intention from the very beginning. If Adam and Eve had rejected the serpent, they would forever have had access to the tree of life replete with its eucharistic mysterium. And yet there is a tree of life of which we may presently partake. It stands on Golgotha’s hill as the fulcrum of history. On it, Jesus stretched one hand toward the Edenic garden, the other toward the eternal garden. The life-giving tree that the first Adam could no longer reach, the Second Adam touched in his place.

As such, the cross of Christ is the way forward. For on it hangs the eucharistic bounty. “The assembly of saints bears resemblance to Paradise,” sang the venerable father, St. Ephrem the Syrian, “in it each day is plucked the fruit of Him who gives life to all; in it, my brethren, is trodden the cluster of grapes, to be the Medicine of Life.”20

Those who participate in the central mystery of the church are destined to partake of the tree of life in the paradise of God. “Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city.”21

The Eucharist is indeed the central mystery of the body of Christ. From the eucharistic bounty of the tree of life in the ante-historical state of Eden, to the glorious post-historical state in which Eden will be restored, it has been, and forever will be, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans — “the mystery that causes us to tremble and yet attracts us.”22 The central mystery of the church!

Hank Hanegraaff is president of the Christian Research Institute and host of the Bible Answer Man daily broadcast and the Hank Unplugged podcast. Hank has authored more than twenty books, including Truth Matters, Life Matters More.


  1. Cyprian, On the Unity of the Church, 6. For full bibliographic documentation of endnotes, see Hank Hanegraaff, Truth Matters, Life Matters More: The Unexpected Beauty of an Authentic Christian Life (Nashville: W Publishing Group, 2019), from which this article is adapted.
  2. Vladimir Lossky, The Mystical Theology of the Eastern Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2002), 178.
  3. Protopresbyter Panagiotis Papanikolaou, “Living A Eucharistic Life Is Living with Gratitude,” Dormition of the Virgin Mary Greek Orthodox Church, Oct. 29, 2017, Weekly Bulletin, www.bulletinbuilder.org/dormitionva/current/20171029.
  4. Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians, 20.
  5. Alkiviades Calivas, “An Introduction to the Divine Liturgy,” in The Divine Liturgy of Saint John Chrysostom, 3rd ed. (Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1985), xxiii–xxiv.
  6. Calivas, “An Introduction to the Divine Liturgy,” xxv.
  7. Gregory Palamas, On the Holy and Dread Mysteries of Christ, 9.
  8. Matthew 26:26–28 NKJV.
  9. Martin Luther, Tischreden, 6.6775 (Weimar edition).
  10. See Martin Luther, “Confession Concerning Christ’s Supper, 1528.”
  11. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lecture, 22.3.
  12. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines, rev. ed. (New York: HarperSanFrancisco, 1978), 450.
  13. See, e.g., Huldreich Zwingli, “The Presence of Christ’s Body in the Supper” (1531).
  14. Martin Luther, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), 2.29.
  15. Martin Luther, Large Catechism, art. 5.12–13.
  16. See John R. Stephenson, “Reflections on the Appropriate Vessels for Consecrating and Distributing the Precious Blood of Christ,” Logia 4, 1 (1995): 12.
  17. John 15:5 NKJV (see vv. 1–11).
  18. John 6:56–58 NIV 1984.
  19. Luther, Large Catechism, art. 5.23–25.
  20. Ephrem the Syrian, Hymns on Paradise 8.
  21. Revelation 22:14 NIV.
  22. Kallistos Ware (Metropolitan of Diokleia), “Light and Darkness in the Mystical Theology of the Greek Fathers,” in Light from Light: Scientists and Theologians in Dialogue, ed. Gerald O’Collins and Mary Ann Meyers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), 140.
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