Monday, October 5, 2009

So what really happens in the Eucharist?

The short answer is ... we don't know.

However, I understand that there was a lot of discussion following Carrie Euler's presentation on Eucharistic controversies during the Reformation. People want to know... well, what do we think now?

It would be easy to take the dodge offered by (or attributed to) Elizabeth I:

Christ was the Word that spake it,
He took the bread and brake it,
And what that Word doth make it,
That I believe, and take it.

But we ought to be able to do some theological exploration around this. What do we think is happening in the Eucharist?

For now, I offer you this short essay I wrote some years ago on the matter. Later, we can talk more.



I believe that Christ is the Word of God, and that as that Word, Christ is made manifest throughout the entire Eucharistic action. Humans use words and gestures to communicate with each other; if God wants to communicate with humans, as we believe God does, what better way than to use the means of human communication, words and gestures, speech and symbols? And what better way to enter into full communication with humanity than in the Incarnation, by becoming an embodied human being, able to understand us by living as one of us, able to communicate with us by being one of us, using the media of our world – words and gestures, speech and symbols, to speak with us?

As God revealed God’s self to the Israelites, they began to set that revelation into words that described the history of their encounters with God. First the Law, the sacred covenant that outlined the nature of their relationship with the Creator. Then the Prophets, who interpreted Israel’s life with God against the backdrop of the Law and called Israel to true relationship with God. Then the Writings, the prayers and songs and wisdom and stories that described the everyday nature of life with the One God. These writings grew out of Israel’s liturgies of worship, and once written down, were used in Israel’s liturgies of worship in a mutually interpreting feedback loop of revelation and praise.

But to communicate effectively with humanity and to enter fully into human life and to redeem it, that Word became enfleshed, we believe, in the man Jesus of Nazareth. In his life on earth, Jesus used the media of human communication – words and actions – to combat evil in all its forms. In his death on the cross, Jesus used the entire medium of human life to conquer evil once and for all. Following his resurrection, his ongoing Body in the world, the Church, also used words and actions to retell this story of redemption, to recreate it for themselves in liturgical gestures and words that would make the truth of our redemption in Christ present to the community and to the world.

That is the story of our redemption that we re-tell and re-enact in every Eucharistic celebration – the story that is encoded in the Biblical narrative, the story that is re-told, re-taught, and offered in prayer during the entire Eucharistic liturgy. And I think that this is no mere memorial or remembrance of what Christ did. It is a liturgy that prays for God’s grace to enter into the gathered community so that it may become the Body of Christ in the world by feeding on the real Body of Christ we experience in the Word and in the Bread and Wine.

God is seeking us, God is reaching out to have a relationship with us, and we respond to God in faith when we hear that call. We first we hear that longing for relationship in the Word read in Scripture and unfolded for us in the Sermon. We hear the Biblical narrative, we hear the Word of God. When a word is spoken, it expresses a self-disclosure on the part of the speaker. When that word is the word of Scripture spoken in the Eucharistic liturgy, it is a self-disclosure on the part of God. It is God’s testimony to the truth that God loves us, God desires our relationship, God acts to redeem us so that we can share that relationship with God. We are confronted with God’s missionary Word, calling us into relationship. We respond in faith and prayer, opening our hearts so that we can encounter God in this Word. The Word calls us; the Word also stands over and against us, becoming the basis for our relationship with God, the ground for God’s judgment of our lives and behavior.

As we encounter this Word, as we respond in faith to the truth of God’s Testimony in that Word, we long for a deeper communion with God, a fuller encounter. God has already been made manifest to us in the proclamation of the saving Word and in our response to the truth of the Word’s testimony in prayer. Christ has already become present to us. But as with any loving relationship, the words also call for gestures, for touch, for embodiment, and so we move into the actions of the Eucharist seeking a deeper Encounter with God.

Macquarrie points out that in the Eucharistic liturgy, the presence of Christ is a personal one – in which communication takes place between two persons. But it is also a multiple one. Christ is present in the word which speaks his truth, in the priest who presides, since Christ is the presider at every Eucharist, in the gathered community, which is one body with him, and in the bread and wine which focus his presence for us (pp. 126, 127). We are embodied beings, and so we seek to touch God, to encounter an embodied God, and Christ bespoke Bread and Wine as the means by which God could be embodied after the physical form of Jesus was no longer present with us.

Bread and Wine are symbols of the sustenance we need to survive. When they become symbols of Christ present to us and with us, the elements’ function as purely physical sustenance become functional as spiritual sustenance as well. Christ could have chosen any physical element to embody himself for us. He chose Bread and Wine to speak his presence to us because they already speak to us. His choosing of Bread and Wine amplifies their symbolism of life-sustaining reality into a symbolism of the life-sustaining reality that is Christ himself.

With the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, Christ became present to everyone who believes in him. But the coming of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist focuses Christ’s uncontainable presence in these elements. As embodied beings, we need to touch the Body of Christ, just as the disciples touched their risen Lord on Easter night (Luke 24:36 ff.). Focused in the elements of bread and wine, we touch Christ there, we feed on him in our hearts by faith, with thanksgiving, and we do it in profound unity and communion with Christ’s gathered Body, present there at the altar rail with us, present in the communion of saints with us, present in the final eschatological banquet with us. Time collapses in the Eucharist, all time is as one, and the icon that gives us the glimpse of that eternal banquet is the entire Eucharistic liturgy, building to the climactic communal moment in which we are united with each other and with the Holy Trinity by means of the sacramental eating and drinking.

So are the bread and wine changed into flesh and blood? I think God is bigger than that. It can’t be reduced to that. It also denies the reality of the Incarnation, when God became human, but did not change that human form. If we believe in the Incarnation, then we must believe that God uses the sacraments in the same way, entering, but not changing, some created stuff so that it can speak the Word to us, bear Testimony to us, create Encounter for us, so that we can be drawn in to the deep, self-giving communion of God’s love within God’s self, a love which cannot be contained, but which spills out to draw all of us into that deep, self-giving love.