Holy Communion

I have taken Holy Communion four times in just over two days, more 'compact communion consuming' than ever in my life and it makes me reflect - what would  people make of this? It's dependent on their theology. I must admit on the fourth time, I thought to myself - 'wow - four times' but I haven't really developed any thinking beyond that... yet.

I know that there are many curates who will be taking communion at the daily mass if they are Anglo-Catholic. I think I am low evangelical but I have a high view of the eucharist. I do not believe in transubstantiation as I think a Catholic would believe in it but I also harbour a suspicion that Anglicans have exaggerated and are not quite understanding the subtleties of transubstantiation. I am perhaps rejecting only the caricature. One thing that I was once surprised about at college was my own very emotional (hidden - I kept it in) reaction to someone in our group on hospital chaplaincy placement accidentally putting the consecrated element in the bin - I felt gutted ... upset, but couldn't really understand why completely. 

I have a high view of the Eucharist mainly because of the gospel (synoptics') focus but I think the Eucharist is both healing in itself and missional. The prayer about being not worthy to gather up the crumbs from under his table always stirs me to the core and I love its missional impetus - that we are sent to be bread and wine, if you like, to the world, however much we fail to do this, it is still God's aim. As Buber (1996, 164) explains in 'I and Thou, 'The encounter with God does not come to us in order that we may henceforth attend to God but... that we may prove its meaning in action... revelation is a calling and a mission...' Where the Eucharist is referred to as the Mass it recalls the words said at the end of the Lord’s Supper in the Medieval church: Ite Missa est- 'You are sent out.' Willimon (1981, 11) explains, 'In the Mass, Christians receive the nourishment and sustenance they need in order to go out into the world to do the work that they are supposed to do. ' Where it is most obvious, the liturgy of the Eucharist shapes our outward response at the dismissal,'1 where there is 'the urgent plea of the Church for the restoration of all things...the spirit calls [us] to serve God in the World,' (Holeton, 1996, 19). Yoder (1997, 44) is a passionate advocate for a recovery of the true sense of the Eucharist, writing: 'At the Lord's table, those who have bread bring it, and all are fed; that is the model for the Christian social vision in all times and places.' Of all the meals it symbolises: the heavenly banquet of God's elect (Isa 38:10-20) at our final redemption, the feeding of the multitude in the Gospels, the meals Jesus ate with outcasts and the Last Supper, Yoder (1997, 59) locates meaning in what 'Marion calls the Eucharistic present [which] is the commitment of charity, which signifies the true reception of the gift of the Eucharist.' In his explorations of the Eucharist, Ford (1989, 137) values Bonhoeffer who says 'The church is the church, only when it exists for others.' 

The Eucharist does more, even though I think its missional imperative is key. 


Ford (1989, 110) locates the reformers' reaction to the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation in their dis-ease with the 'miracle of transubstantiation in the priest's blessing of the bread and wine, rather than the transformation of the community itself in its participation in the Eucharist.' Marion wants to guard against the reduction of God to the material; his 'presence reduced to the dimensions of a thing,' (1995, 164). This would be for God 'to consecrate in a thing distinct from the community,' (1995, 165-6). It is rather that the mystical action takes place in the ecclesiastical body. One of the calls of the Eucharist is to become a gift to others. 'That we may evermore dwell in him and he in us,' points to our transformation rather than the transformation of the elements as Augustine (1991, 124) captures in his Confessions: 'I am the food of the fully grown; grow and you will feed on me. And you will not change me into you like the food your flesh eats, but you will be changed into me.' Jesus articulates the relationship between the eating and the drinking and the being sent: 'Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood, abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me,' (John 6). On being sent, Jesus lives, the same is true again as Christians are made conscious, through the language of the eucharistic prayer, that as his body, they too are 'sent' and live as they give life to others through acts of social justice in the many ways that manifests itself. In transforming the world and bringing justice, eucharistic prayer E (CW Order One), asks the 'Lord of all life,/ [to] help us to work together for that day/ when your kingdom comes/ and justice and mercy will be seen in all the earth. '

Holeton (1996, 21) insists that 'liturgical and pastoral ministries are not disengaged from one another' and this is a driving concern for liturgists:

It … becomes an important function of the liturgy to make us more attentive and responsive to those around us, to help us to have what St Paul calls ‘the mind of Christ’, so that we can be sent out to express that mind of Christ in our attentive dealing with the needs of individuals and the pressing issues of our society. (GS 1651, 1997, 2.4)


Green (1987, 67) describes how, 'It is not caring to lay huge ethical responsibilities on individuals without providing an adequate symbolic framework with which to respond to those responsibilities.' The language of the Eucharist creates a symbolic framework, playing with an ordinary linear sense of time, so that the Eucharist's missional call is felt but does not overwhelm. In obedience to Jesus' command to do this in 'remembrance' (1 Cor 11:24, 25) or 'memory' (Luke 22:19) of me, the Eucharist looks backwards, but moreover, it is anemnetic, recreating in the present that act of the past, Christ's work, without reducing the original sufficiency of the oblation. It is also proleptic with its focus on the eschaton, its anticipatory dimension, calling Christians to share in the transformation of God's Kingdom. In so doing, it addresses the present. Marion (1991, 172) puts it this way: 'The event remains less a past fact than a pledge given in the past in order, today still, to appeal to a future.' There is an incorporation into a kind of temporality about which Kierkegaard (1980, 90) describes the past redeeming the present by arriving in the form of hope from the future. For a congregation, linear time is compressed and multi-dimensional as the liturgy conveys Christ's humiliation, suffering and sacrifice and the new life, rebirth and future promise. A meta-narrative is shared both through the retelling with the prayer of institution and through the active participation, in the giving and receiving of bread and wine. Rowan Williams (1994, 114) says that this is 'more than the imitation of a remembered historical pattern of life: it is the uncovering of the eternal sapientia of God.'


An emphasis on the Church as Christ's body can eclipse the presence of Christ himself in the Eucharist but Transubstantiation locates Christ too precisely and ubiquitarianism perhaps lessens too dramatically Christ's particularity. It is difficult to articulate precisely where Christ locates himself during the Eucharist. Catholic theologians articulate more the transubstantiated real presence and the eucharistic celebration as a sacrifice, than their Protestant cousins. It would seem, however, that theologians like Pickstock, Williams and Ford are nuancing the old debate with fresh insight. Pickstock unpicks the relation of the Word (Logos) to the word spoken in the Eucharist and explores the lack of a gap between sign and referent. Williams describes Christ in the Eucharist as 'an effective sign, a converting sign' (Williams, 2000, 205). This conversion is to Christ and to others in mission, to those diverse others with whom we become the body. Barth is heard here as he elucidates, even if he denies the Eucharist as a sacrament par excellence, that Christ is the author of any event happening. He draws attention to God's initiation, Christ's self-disclosure and Williams helps with his reminder that it is the 'eternal sapientia of God' that the Eucharist uncovers. For Williams, the Eucharist is 'a symbol of mutuality' and Millband and Pickstock (2001, xiv), in their study of Aquinas, interpret what goes on in the Eucharist with words that capture the mutuality of a relationship out of which mission becomes possible: 'the mutuality of touch which is most intensely taste... as foretaste of our beatitude, newly discloses to us that this supreme intuition is itself also a touching.' It is best to concentrate on relationship and not objectify Christ, with puzzles over the elements, but hear him address us afresh. He does this in our tasting of the bread and wine and through the words we hear. But in the tasting, there is the immediate to our senses and also the call to become this food and drink (Augustine). 'This is my body' and 'this is my blood,' those key parts of the prayer of initiation, made real in food and drink, signify the gift that is Christ but so much more. Where the Calvinists rally against supposed fixed-meaning, 'the Eucharist, as interpreted by Aquinas, allows for - even demands - the greatest inexhaustibility of meaning, but at the same time overcomes the problem of a sheer indeterminacy of meaning...' (Millbank and Pickstock, 2001, 77). Buchanan (1998, 12) explores that 'liberty of interpretation' over whether the Spirit at the Epiclesis is being invoked upon the elements, the action or the people. Could it be that the Spirit makes sacred Christ as the Word addressing us (the sacred scriptures); the bread and wine given and received (the sacred species), his body (the sacred gathered) who partake of him and then the world (the sacred creation) into which they are sent? Cyril of Jerusalem (Tovey, 2004, 69) says 'whatever the Holy Spirit touches is sanctified and transformed.' In this way the missional work has its origin in God with Christians engaging in that mission as they participate in the Eucharist, not as a separate action once the Eucharist is over. Platten (GS 1651, 1997, 2.3) explains: 'We must not let the familiar words of the dismissal mislead us into thinking that, while we are still at worship, our active service has not yet begun...'

To conclude, significantly, the Eucharist prevents our reducing the relation of Christ and the Church to pure identity because in the bread and the wine Christ addresses us as an entity separate from us before being received. It is important for our reformed heritage that our self-offering is separated from what God offers us in Christ. Moreover, standing in an anemnetic juncture where Christ has been given (incarnation, death and resurrection) but will be given again (parousia), maintains an otherness that can not be controlled. It is perhaps in this way that Christians can best hear the mission of God that has already unfolded in time and be receptive to the mission that awaits them as they enter the world, not knowing what awaits but dependent on the Spirit to reveal the needs of the community. In the liminal space that is the Eucharist, mission is happening to, through and around the gathered, it is the gift of salvation that has already unfolded in time and it is something yet to be completed, into which there is an invitation to participate. Perhaps in order to avoid the old and ever-ongoing debate about where Christ locates himself in the Eucharist, Christians ought to ask themselves where Christ's call locates them.

1‘Go in peace to love and serve the Lord’ (CW Holy Communion, Order One).


Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Here's a question. If one takes a view, that I think I did and now I'm not sure, that Marcel Mauss uncovered a system of gift-exchange that involves material sacrifice and spiritual gift, that is socially binding, does this mean that such a system is a 'deep grammar' behind all these specific rituals, including the Eucharist, and that the specificity of the ritual doesn't actually matter.

What worried me was the obvious universalism and structuralism behind this - a structure to which successful binding rituals conform.

The same poststructuralism can be applied to this (see my blog and not so distant entries).

Is the essence of something in its conforming pattern, or in the specifics? Can one ritual and its effects translate into another ritual and its similar effects?

David Keen said...

It's interesting that you've not told us anything about the people you took communion with. In my mind that has just as much bearing on what was going on as anything Augustine might have said.

Rach said...

Hi David,

Nothing theological, only that I do the whole confidentiality thing by simply not going there. Indeed, it has huge impact, binding us together in this liminal experience. The pastoral efficacy of the Eucharist, I have explored elsewhere on the blog - might repost.

Adrian - yes - (as with David) the liminality and profundity of ritual, I get this, it is so important - Victor Turner is good on this as you probably know. Jesus would have known all about this, no doubt, trained in the Hebrew Scriptures. It is what he did with ritual in specifying it, that we follow as Christians, I suppose - the very many layers of meaning in such simple objects - that this is the every day - when we eat and drink, to be performed by anybody.

Anonymous said...

I only happened on your blog and having read it I can only conclude that in your hearts of hearts you desire Jesus, undiluted, in His Eucharist. why else would you feel 'gutted' by someone dispesnsing of a host in the bin. I think Jesus would say to you; 'Rach, it is not flesh and blood that thinks like this but my Father in Heaven'. Lloyd

Rach said...

Thank you Lloyd - God's timing on your comment - i have just returned from India where this reliance on Jesus caused me much bitterness and sweetness - thank you - you are perceptive.


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A little background reading so we might mutually flourish when there are different opinions