"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Christ in the Eucharist

"For My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in Him."
~ John 6:55-56

With the successive gospel readings from the sixth chapter of John over the past several Sundays, I've been thinking about Jesus as the Bread of Life.  Of course, every Sunday we believe that we gather to partake of this Bread in the Eucharist (i.e. the Lord's Supper, the Mass, Holy Communion),  "the holy food and drink of new and unending life in him", the sacrament whereby we are strengthened by God's grace and drawn into closer union with God in Christ.  The power and consolation of this central act of our worship has been made more real to me of late, as I've been consciously seeking to open myself more willingly to the Spirit and grow closer to Jesus.  I believe that in these earthy gifts of bread and wine, by God's grace I encounter the real presence of Christ.

It is curious to me that so many Christians lay such emphasis upon negating a sacramental theology of the Eucharist, that is, in stressing that "these are only symbols, and we only do this 'in remembrance'; there is no special grace or power to be received here" (incidentally, it's my understanding that the Greek word anamnesis has significantly deeper meaning than our English remembrance, a meaning that imparts living into the reality of a past event, not merely thinking about it.  I really need to learn Greek one of these days; I can only imagine how much it opens up the Scriptures).  Apart from the very early and continuing tradition of the church (a line of argument which unfortunately may not carry much weight with many Protestants) there is the testimony of Scripture.  I would even say that a view of the Lord's Supper as memorial only, to the point of denying the real presence of Christ, is not grounded in the Bible, but rather in a reaction to the perceived abuses and/or excesses of the church of the middle ages.  To be sure, there was much need for reform and renewal in the church of the sixteenth century, and it was in this context that the Protestant traditions were born.  Unfortunately, it is still the reactionary context in which many continue.  

But what do the Scriptures say?  In the synoptic gospels, Jesus speaks with little elaboration, "This is my body ... this is my blood."  Paul writes about the imperative of not drinking "the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner" in a passage that seems to make clear that we partake of a powerful spiritual reality in this meal, a reality that unites us truly, not just symbolically.  "Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ?  Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?  Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread."

And then there is Jesus as the Bread of Life in John's gospel.  Jesus says, "I am the living bread that came down out of heaven; if anyone eats of this bread, he shall live forever; and the bread also which I shall give for the life of the world is My flesh."  The crowd is incredulous; "How can this man give us His flesh to eat?"  I can imagine them arguing and scratching their heads, trying to make sense of it: "Well, this guy is obviously crazy! ... No, no, he must be speaking metaphorically ... Surely, you don't think he actually means what he is saying?"  And Jesus answers: "My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.  He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in Him."  The message is not to be taken literally (Jesus is obviously not advocating cannibalism), but neither is this mere metaphor.  Here is a reality that goes deep, beyond what is seen, beyond what can be comprehended  rationally.  But it is a reality that gives eternal life and affects the union of man to God.  This is indeed a mystery, sacramentum.  The crowd, not surprisingly, responds, "This is a difficult statement; who can listen to it?" and many abandon him.

It is a difficult statement, and a hard thing to which Jesus calls us.  For, as my priest pointed out in her homily this morning, it is not only life to which Christ calls us, but death also, death to ourselves and the corruption of the world.  We eat of the Bread of Life even as we share the Cup of His Passion.  In the Eucharist we turn away from the dying things of this world, and take hold of that which is real.

We Christians separate ourselves from one another over so many things.  But it is truly sad that the very act which Our Lord commanded and gave us to draw us to Himself and one another in unity, has become such a cause of division.  Yet I believe that the Eucharist remains as God intended it, a sacrament of grace and union, and that He will even still draw us together around His table, that we who are many may find ourselves one in Christ. I pray that God hastens the day.  Peace.

And we earnestly desire thy fatherly goodness to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, whereby we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies.  Grant, we beseech thee, that all who partake of this Holy Communion may worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son Jesus Christ, and be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction; and also that we and all thy whole Church may be made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and we in him, through the same Jesus Christ our Lord; 
By whom, and with whom, and in whom, in the unity of the Holy Ghost all honor and glory be unto thee, O Father Almighty, world without end.  AMEN.
 ~from Eucharistic Prayer II, Rite I, BCP  

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