As I sit in my pew, I am waiting for the usher to come by and signal our pew to go up to approach the altar. As he does so, I exit the pew and genuflect towards the altar. As I take a knee on the altar, I begin to contemplate what it is I am about to partake and what it means to my life and my spirituality.
The Reverend Canon Travis Enright said of the Eucharist, ”When we experience the Eucharist we experience God breaking into our sinful nature. When we experience taking the Body and Blood of Christ wholly, in all its components, we are transformed in that moment into a sin-free state even just for that millisecond where God rest on our tongues and where our created nature meets the Creator in the fullness of the body of who we are as a people and in the Body of who God is as our God.” What a beautiful expression of Eucharist! The word Eucharist comes from the Greek word εὐχαριστία, or eucharistia, meaning “thanksgiving” or “giving thanks”. The Holy Eucharist, the center act of Christian worship, is a Divine Mystery, a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, where by the Holy Spirit condescends upon mere bread and wine transforming them into the Very Real Presence of the Most Precious Body and Blood of our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation.
“To participate in the Eucharist is to live inside God’s imagination. It is to be caught up into the what is really real, the body of Christ,” said William Cavanaugh. This is the Most Holy of Meals, a Love Feast beyond all feast! This Precious Meal is the way God grants His presence to us in Christ Jesus. Article XVIII of the “Articles of Religion” say of the Eucharist, “The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another; but rather it is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.”
The Center Act of Christian Worship
The basic structure of Anglican liturgy, which is similar to other liturgical rites, is that of the Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Sacrament. In the Liturgy of the Word the sermon is the climax then begins the Liturgy of the Sacrament, the second part of our worship, in which the Eucharist is the climax and the all encompassing peak of both parts of our worship.
The Holy Eucharist is given to the Church for Her own edification. The first 1500 years of the Church had the Eucharist front and center in the liturgy for the Church. It was this Holy Feast that was the center of our worship, the climax of the liturgy. However, the Reformation brought along a new liturgy that instead focused more on the Liturgy of the Word with its strong emphasis on Sola Scriptura. In this new focus, the Holy Eucharist fell to the wayside becoming an after-thought in many of the radical reformers minds, and while the Holy Altar once stood as the focus of the church’s attention the pulpit replaced it becoming the focus and attention of most of Protestantism. And today the pulpit has been replaced by the stage, by entertainment and seeker-friendly sensitivities that seek to cater to individualism and egoism. I fear we are pushing God to the edges of our worship rather than to the center!
The role of the Holy Eucharist in our worship is to welcome us into grace by placing in our midst the Real Presence of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Its role is to be the center of our worship to unite us to one another and to our Savior Jesus Christ. Acts 2:42 says, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” In Matthew 26:26, Jesus blessed the bread and gave it to His disciples. At this institution of His Blessed Sacrament, the Disciples partook of one of the grandest gifts God gave His Church. Holy Eucharist, in my opinion, is open to any Christian or Disciple of Christ who has been baptized in any way and is living a morally upright and righteous life and not one that is in a perpetual state of sin. In this Eucharist, we offer up a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. We are thankful for God’s grace bestowed to us in the Holy Eucharist and His continual presence with us there in the Chalice and Paton, in the wine and bread.
This act is a very communal act and not a privatized, individualistic Jesus-loves-me-and-wants-to-meet-my-needs sort of thing. It is the furthest thing from that! This is where we enter into the Holiest of Holies as a community of God seeking to be lifted to His grace and to meet Him. The Eucharist is very intimate, yes, but not at all a private matter or something celebrated on one’s own accord. This is a very big problem for those with a New Testament view of the Holy Eucharist. Materialism, egoism, and individualism have seeped into the Church’s life. For those of us with a high view of Eucharistic theology, we must confront this notion that worship is for our needs and designed to make us happy. The eschatological destination of the Church is worship! We must come to take that seriously if we want to confront the individualism and egoism in our churches. This eschatological reality should inform everything in our faith!
The early Christians gathered weekly to break bread around the Lord’s Table. The Eucharist, at the least, should be practiced once a week on Sunday or more if one should like to offer another service mid-week.
The Eastern Orthodox comment on this saying, “Historically, from New Testament days on, the central act of worship, the very apex of spiritual sacrifice, took place ‘on the first day of the week, when the disciples came together to break bread’ (Acts 20:7). The Eucharist has always been that supreme act of thanksgiving and praise to God in His Church.”
The Real Presence
When discussing the nature of the Eucharist it is best to start with the words of Jesus in John 6:48-51; 53-58:
“I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh’… ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. 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. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.’”
Jesus is referring here to the Divine Mystery of Holy Eucharist not yet instituted, but on the night He, the Great High Priest, conducted the first Eucharist He said, “‘Take, eat; this is my body.’ Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, ‘Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” Father Lancelot Andrewes, a Caroline Divine, said, “The blessed mysteries … are from above; the ‘Bread that came down from Heaven,’ the Blood that hath been carried ‘into the holy place.’ And I add, ‘ubi Corpus, ubi sanguis Christi, ibi Christus’. We here ‘on earth … are never so near Him, nor He us, as then and there.’ Thus it is to the altar we must come for ‘that blessed union [which] is the highest perfection we can in this life aspire unto.’”
Jesus clearly teaches that “This is My Body…this is My Blood” (Luke 22:19-20). Jesus never said these precious gifts symbolize, represent, spiritualize, or memorialize His Body and Blood, but He said there are His Body and Blood. Often the argument in response to this reality is, “Oh, but Jesus also said in John 10:7, ‘I am the door’ and He surely is not literally a wooden door in which we enter and exit. This is symbolic language.” The fallacy and flaw of this argument is clear: there has never been a time in the Church’s history from the Apostles up until now that she took His words to mean that He was literally a door. However, the Church has always taken it to mean that the consecrated bread and wine are absolutely and truly His Body and His Blood. Flannery O’Connor captures this very well in “The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor”:
“I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say…. Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them.
Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the host; she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the most portable person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, ‘Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.’
That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”
Let us consider Saint Paul’s words of warning to the Church in Corinth, “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. Examine yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For all who eat and drink without discerning the body, eat and drink judgment against themselves. For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (I Cor. 11:27-32). There is no way that a quarterly reminder, a mere symbol, or a simple memorial could have the power to cause sickness and death to those who have failed to receive the Holy Eucharist in holiness and reverence. Saint Paul said just before that in I Corinthians 10:16-17, “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.”
The Orthodox Study Bible comments:
“The eleventh and twelfth centuries brought on the scholastic era, the Age of Reason in the West. The Roman Church, which had become separated from the Orthodox Church in 1054, was pressed by the rationalists to define how the transformation [in the Eucharist] occurs. They answered with the word transubstantiation, meaning a change of substance. The elements are no longer bread and wine; they are physically changed into flesh and blood. The sacrament, which only faith can comprehend, was subjected to a philosophical definition. This view was unknown in the ancient church.”
I hold to the ancient view of the Church that only faith can comprehend the Sacrament. I do not view Transubstantiation as an invalid at all. I think that it is a great philosophical argument for what happens at the epiclesis and the Real Presence comes upon these forms of matter. I do not like to think that a philosophical argument is needed to prove the existence of Christ in the Eucharist for I believe He is there regardless. It is such a mystery that is far beyond our comprehension. That is the beauty of allowing it to remain a Divine Mystery in my opinion. The Orthodox believe that the “The mystery of the Holy Eucharist defies analysis and explanation in purely rational and logical terms. For the Eucharist, as Christ himself, is a mystery of the Kingdom of Heaven which, as Jesus has told us, is ‘not of this world.’ The Eucharist, because it belongs to God’s Kingdom, is truly free from the earth-born ‘logic’ of fallen humanity.”
The thing about the Holy Eucharist that we must understand is that it is tied strongly to the Incarnation. It is in and through the Incarnation that God validated humankind. His resurrected body is the prototype of our resurrected body thus making us an eschatological people. The Crucifixion is the ultimate healing, and the Resurrection is the ultimate death. The Crucifixion is the ultimate death, and the Resurrection is the ultimate healing. In these we find death and life! In these sickness becomes health. In these life becomes death and death becomes Life! In these brokenness becomes the mended! In these busted seams become sown! In these the lost becomes found the found! In these the fall is reversed! In these the unrighteous become righteous! We are Resurrection people and hallelujah is indeed our song! The Eucharist is all about the incarnation, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ! It is in the Incarnation that matter was used by God Himself for He became matter. In the Holy Eucharist this Divine Mystery of Incarnation yet again uses mere matter to become that which is holy! With the Incarnation God validated all of creation by becoming part of His creation. The Divine came into contact with the humanity He created. As David Crowder once said, “When our depravity meets His divinity it is a beautiful collision.”
The Eucharist is the most holy of sacrifices. Christ is the one who is offered and it is Christ Himself who offers this offering. This perfect sacrifice is offered to the Holy Trinity. The sacrifice is Christ offered to Christ and by Christ. The sacrifice is offered as a expiatory sacrifice for the living and the dead, for all of humankind. It is a common misconception that Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox believe that the sacrifice is made over and over again in the Mass. This is not true. The Orthodox comment, saying, “The Church teaches that the sacrifice is not a mere figure or symbol but a true sacrifice. It is not the bread that is sacrificed, but the very Body of Christ. And, the Lamb of God was sacrificed only once, for all time. The sacrifice at the Eucharist consists, not in the real and bloody immolation of the Lamb, but in the transformation of the bread into the sacrificed Lamb. All the events of Christ’s sacrifice, the Incarnation, the Last Supper, the Crucifixion, the Resurrection, and the Ascension are not repeated in the Eucharist, but they are made present.”
We can see from both Scripture, the Tradition of the Apostles and Fathers, and the testimony of the Apostolic witness that the Real Presence is not something to be taken lightly. The Real Presence is very active and present in the Eucharist. It is not up to us to figure this out, but to accept it as faith. St. John Chrysostom said it best and I think it represents a honoring of the Word of God like that of the Restoration Movement, “If you enquire how this happens, it is enough for you to learn that it is through the Holy Spirit…we know nothing more than this, that the word of God is true, active, and omnipotent, but in its manner of operation unsearchable.”
In the Holy Eucharist we partake in Christ and enjoy union with Him through His grace and by His Blood, and enjoy unity and communion with one another. It is through this Holy Feast that we proclaim the Gospel of the Lord, the New Covenant, and also proclaim His incarnation, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and Parousia. This is the mystery of our faith. The Holy Eucharist, the center act of Christian worship, is a Divine Mystery, a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving, where by the Holy Spirit condescends upon mere bread and wine transforming them into the Very Real Presence of the Most Precious Body and Blood of our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, the Bread of Heaven and the Cup of Salvation.
When I partake of this Holy Eucharist I am taking Christ into my being much in the same way a bride takes in her bridegroom on their honeymoon. Yes, it is physical, not in the way the sexual act is, but it is more of a spiritual and transcendent experience. The level of intimacy and love known between and bride and groom are known to us in the partaking of the Holy Eucharist. We, the Bride of Christ, transcendent time and space and participate with Christ, our Bridegroom, in His death, burial, and resurrection!
After I have partaken of the Body and Blood of Christ, I return to my seat, and I once again return to a kneeling position of reverence and thanksgiving. I read my favorite prayer in the entire Book of Common Prayer:
“O Lord Jesus Christ, who in a wonderful Sacrament hast left unto us a memorial of thy passion: Grant us, we beseech thee, so to venerate the sacred mysteries of thy Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of thy redemption; who livest and reignest with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.”
Upon reading this prayer I am so amazed and kneel in holy reverence of what an AWEsome God we serve and love! The fruit of His redemption is within me! The Resurrection and Restoration of the Lord are within me! I have just partaken of His Holy Meal and felt His grace anew! His Body is food indeed and His Blood is drink indeed. This is grace in action!
“Our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed. Therefore, let us celebrate the festival!” –Saint Paul