The Rt. Revd. Richard Chartres
Readings: Luke 22.7-23; 1 Corinthians 11:.23-26
WE are prevented by the lockdown from being in church this Maundy Thursday. We therefore cannot in person participate in communion, but we can nevertheless recall the Last Supper which Jesus shared with his friends before his betrayal and arrest. It is an opportunity to renew our sense of the Eucharistic life as we reflect on one of the very few commandments that Jesus gave us: “Do this in remembrance of me.”
The shadow of betrayal and imminent suffering hung heavily over that night. Yet, instead of looking back with regret and asking how all those early hopes had been disappointed, Jesus looks forward and confides his future in the world to his friends.
We, like the first disciples, are called to re-member him in a dynamic sense. We do not merely recall his teaching and his appearing, which is for us long ago and far away. We re-member him among us, amidst the dis-membering forces of our world. We become “very members” of the body of Christ, and members one of another. It would actually be more accurate to say that Christ “re-members” us, as a community in which all the distinctions which keep us apart are transcended by our new life in Christ.
Sometimes the word “eucharist” is used for our re-enactment of the Last Supper. It is simply the Greek word for “thanksgiving” –- the prayer at the heart of the communion service, as we rehearse what has been done for us.
Another word which is often used is “liturgy”. It is again a Greek word, meaning a “public work” — typically used of building a road or a temple by collective effort. In this case, the liturgy is the action of a community in building the Church.
The Eucharist does not merely illustrate but transforms. As Richard Hooker said, it “is performative”. The Holy Communion is not something the church “puts on” to cater for our “religious” needs and feelings. It is the way appointed by Christ in which the world itself is to be “re-membered” through the growth of his body.
Christians have in the past argued about precisely how this happens. In the 16th century, polemics centred on various attempts to explain how the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist was communicated.
When questioned about her beliefs on the Eucharist during the reign of her sister Mary, the Princess Elizabeth simply replied:
“Christ was the Word that spake it,
He took the bread and brake it:
And what his words did make it
That I believe and take it.”
A very Church of England affirmation.
Our liturgy is one which arises from the command of Jesus Christ, “Do this in remembrance of me” — not in order to build a temple made with hands, but to build his body which, the gospel-writers say, has taken the place of the physical temple in Jerusalem.
In our own day, as we wander in the flatland of what Bishop Hilary of Poitiers described as “gormandizing and killing time”, the Church is being called to re-imagine herself in the Spirit as the Eucharistic community — the transforming community of the future.
The church is not constituted simply by clinging to apostolic teaching translated into a set of abstract ideas. Eucharist is the work through which the Church becomes what she is called to be. St Irenaeus says that “our teaching is in harmony with the eucharist, and the eucharist confirms our teaching”. Eucharist is the journey of the Church into the dimension of the mystical life of the Kingdom in which the desire which wastes itself in impulses to “gormandize and kill time” is restored to its true end.
The nineteenth-century atheist Ludwig Feuerbach attempted to relegate the concept of the “spiritual” to the dustbin of history with the simple assertion that “man is what he eats”. It sounds better in German, because there is a play on words — “Der Mensch ist was er isst”.
It is obviously true that human beings must take the world into themselves to transform it into flesh and blood, and Feuerbach’s criticism arises from a false dichotomy between sacred and secular.
The whole creation depends on food. As David Hockney has recently said, “the important things in life are food and love, in that order”. Human beings alone have been created — and called — to bless God for the food and life we receive. God blesses the world; fills it with love and goodness. Human beings bless God, and see the world as He does. The human being is the priest of Creation, receiving the world from God and unifying it in his act of blessing.
The world was created as matter; material for one all-embracing eucharist. Human beings are priests of the cosmic sacrament.
Ordinary bread and wine quickly go stale and sour. But, if we offer them up to God in our thanksgiving, we can see them in their true colours as gifts of the Divine Love. After the offertory is when we can receive back the gifts, charged with a new significance and potency.
In recent years, the church has been much pre-occupied with mission and evangelism. It is obviously right that we should be caught up in God’s overflowing love for the world, and not turned in upon our own churchy concerns. But to what exactly we are calling men and women today? It cannot be that we are trying to sell our contemporaries an ideological package of some theories about God and life, and inviting them to join our gang.
The historical reality of Christ is, of course, the undisputed ground of the Christian faith; yet we do not so much remember him as a teacher of long ago and far away with a timeless message as know that he is with us as the Word made flesh. In him is the end of “religion”, because he himself is the Answer to all religion, to all human hunger for God; in him, the life that was lost by man — and which could only be symbolized, signified, asked for, in religion -– was restored to us.
All too often, of course, the church simply reflects the same old world: no eucharist and no joy, because there has been no real repentance and conversion; no real leaving home to follow Abraham in leaving his household gods to set out on the journey to the Promised Land; no authentic ascension (despite the injunction to “Lift up your hearts”); and no real mission.
As the transforming community of the future — the temple of Christ’s presence – the Church should overflow with love, expectation, and joy. We are waiting for the bridegroom. That is why we wear our party clothes. We are to love the Kingdom, not just talk about it as if the Church were simply a federation of discussion groups.
A true eucharist should be characterized by action and movement, seriousness and joy. It is not an audio-visual aid or an instruction course in “correct” doctrine. We are to re-member Christ in our assembly, not dismember him, or merely recall him.
The transformation of the bread and the wine is effected by the prayer for the blessing of the Holy Spirit — which has been restored, in our new liturgies, alongside his words at the Last Supper, the words of institution, because the Spirit manifests and brings into being the life of the world to come. Eucharist is not so much other-worldly or this- worldly; it is more next-worldly.
There are many ways of apprehending the transforming character of the eucharistic liturgy. One way of appreciating the eucharistic transformation is particularly salient in our own time, as we begin to count the cost of the wreckage of our world when it is treated as mere matter, to be transformed by human willing into material for further gormandizing and killing time.
Just as in the story of the marriage feast at Cana, there is in the eucharist a dramatic reversal of roles. We may enter the liturgy believing ourselves to be masters of the feast (you will remember that the master of the feast did not know where the good wine had come from) but, as we “put on” — as St Paul says — the Lord Jesus, we discover that we are not after all “masters and possessors of the earth” (Descartes) but guests; participants in a wedding, not just ignorant quaffers.
The transformation, of course, is such a reversal of all worldly wisdom and calculation that the passage into God’s future in Christ is by way of the Cross — the way of stripping and loss. The setting out from home to join the eucharistic assembly is a symbol of the many small deaths we must die, and crosses we must bear, in order to break out of the confining matrix of a life turned in upon itself and enter into “the glorious liberty of the children of God”. But that is a story for Good Friday.