August 19, 2012
The 12th Sunday After Pentecost, Year B, Proper 15
The Rev. Dr. Brent Was
“Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.”
That is a pretty fantastic statement. Abiding in a dead man and He in us. The whole passage for this morning: eating flesh and blood and from that gaining eternal life. A fantastic statement in and of itself, sure, but made even more fantastic by the fact that this and a few other passages in scripture combined in the ancient religious imagination to birth a sacramental understanding of the world that has occupied the center of the spiritual life of one of the world’s great religions for 2000 years. In particular for Episcopal communities since the revision of the Book of Common Prayer in 1979, the Eucharist has become the foci of worship and life in our parishes. I want to say that it is important that we understand Eucharist, seeing that it is such a central practice of ours, but that is ridiculous. No one understands the Eucharist and whomever tells you otherwise is selling you a bill of goods. However, understanding some of the history and context and theology of the Eucharist can broaden our experience of this rite, can open us more widely to what is happening in the murky depths of mystery, and can prepare us to encounter God in Christ with the Holy Spirit here at this table, together.
What are we doing in the Eucharist? What is the Anglican understanding of what happens up here? (That is a trick question; Anglican’s rarely talk of certainties). To understand this we need to do two things, first we need to go back to 1559, and we need to turn to page 363 in your BCP. So what happened in 1559? Queen Elizabeth, a Protestant, ascended to the throne of England in the midst of a bitter religious conflict between Protestants and Catholics. Henry VIII, the church breaks with Rome, then a Catholic is coronated and it goes back to Rome, then Elizabeth ascends. She pushed through two acts of Parliament, the Act of Supremacy which placed the English monarch as the head of the English church (not the Pope), and the Act of Uniformity, which provided the structure of how the church would be operated, most importantly by revising and re-establishing the Book of Common Prayer as the primary source of church discipline. Could you imagine our congress trying to sort out even the most basic theological questions? The Parliament of 1559 didn’t fare well either. Of particular importance was Eucharistic theology, in particular the theology of transubstantiation. What is that?______
Elizabeth’s first draft took the protestant view. What would that be? Look at your BCP, p 363, the paragraph under “the celebrant continues”… Could someone read that sentence. “We celebrate the memorial of our redemption…” In prayer B, which we are using now, it has almost the same language but skips the words “we celebrate…” So what does that mean? Right, it is a memorial. Memorial. Memory. We are remembering what happened so long ago, remembering Christ dying and rising, remembering Him breaking bread with His friends. This is a Holy remembering, anamnesis is the technical term, it is a profound experience of a collective even cultural memory. That is our Protestant heritage front and center. No magic, no meat and blood but a simple, even dignified memorial of an event from long ago that is important enough to our collective and individual relationships to God that it stands remembering in a very particular way time and time again. That was Elizabeth and the Protestant’s contribution to our Eucharistic prayer heritage. Wonderful, but it would not be a very good story if it ended there.
Some of the catholic-leaning bishops and their allies in the House of Lord’s took exception to this. Again, imagine ourcongress taking this on. The catholic peers of the realm were not willing to concede that the Eucharist was just a memory; something more, something much more was going on according their religious sensibilities.
Look at the next paragraph on 363. Would someone read the first sentence… “Sanctify them by your Holy Spirit to be for your people the Body and Blood…” Huh… “…To be for your people the Body and Blood…” Theologically, the understanding of the mysterious action of God in the epiclesis, the moment where we understand that the Holy Spirit sanctifies the elements we place before her, has come to be known as consubstantiation. The words do not read simply “…to be the Body and Blood…” but rather “…to be for your People the body and blood…” This is not (necessarily) expressing a doctrine of transubstantiation. This language does not state that the bread and wine are confected into the real body and blood of Jesus. The words we use are “the real spiritual presence of Jesus.” They, the creatures of bread and wine don’t change in and of themselves, (or at least we do not have to understand it that way), but they change in relation to us. It is of the same category of relationship that we talked about last week, we have little to say about how the world is but we have everything to say about how we relate to it. Whether or how the bread and wine themselves change is immaterial; that our relationship to those elements changes, however, is paramount.
This is the quintessentially Anglican contribution to Christendom. It is this type of theological realism that drew me to this church. I say “realism” because we do not know what happens in the Eucharist, it is a true and holy mystery, so it would seem disingenuous if not presumptuous to have a single and definitive statement of belief in what is going on there. In reality, this, our form of Christianity does not have much in the way of dogmatic belief. There is no list of things we need to profess belief in. Our “beliefs”, what ever that means, are reflected in the general understanding of the Nicene and Apostles creeds, but are made manifestly real in our practice. If someone asks what Anglican’s believe, the most real and true answer you can give is hand them a copy of the BCP and say, “What do we believe? I am not sure I even know what I believe, but this is what we do. This is how we pray.”
So what does this matter to us, this morning, as we prepare ourselves to partake in this great sacramental mystery? In most ways, the history of the evolution of this Rite matters very little. Sure it is incredibly interesting, but does it help us religiously? Does it help us love God and each other better?
To my mind, knowing how others believe, or knowing how sets of beliefs and practices originated sort of helps me put myself in the context of the thing at hand. It sort of gives the range of normative, not that we can’t find ourselves outside of that range, but it is good to know where others sit, we are in a community after all. To me, that is helpful, because we are generally terrible about sharing what we believe. We are not a testifying kind of people.
Knowing how others have understood and experienced God in history can also expand our capacity for religious imagination. Initially, when I came to the Anglican way, I did not think too much about the real spiritual presence of Christ in the Eucharist. That was not where I was. I was falling in love with the act, the memorial aspect of things, the fact that this ritual, using the same words that have been used for 2000 years by Christians across the globe in many different ways, but together in this sacrament. There is a lot of momentum behind these words. A chorus of ancestors gone before us, the communion of Saints gathered as the body of Christ here and now, and the as of yet unborn or even imagined… these words, this memory, this anamnesis binds us in God’s time to each other and to God in Christ. My seeking mind could wrap itself around that and I was awed. With that opening, though, my mystery mind, my Christ consciousness was tweaked, awoken, ignited.
As I descended down the rabbit hole of the sacraments on the coat tails of memory, other things came into play. Questions, mostly unanswerable, became important. “Why does it seem that nothing changes but everything is different in the Mass?” “Is this what they mean by an eternal and actual encounter with God?” “Why do I feel predictably quiet (and better) at the distribution of the elements?” And my fascination with it all grew. And my satisfaction in it all deepened.
Then I arrive here, at the altar with the holy pat on the head from a bishop that gives me the authority of the church to preside here, and I half feared that familiarity with the Rite would breed over-familiarity, that it could become rote, that proximity to the mystery would dull the wonderment of it all. Not so, says this priest. The wonder of this event is striking, more striking the closer and closer I get; the more and more I receive communion the more and more I feel in communion with God, with you all, the world and everything. Gather round today. I wish we had the space for every-body to join the kids up here, but gather ‘round the altar in mind and spirit. We have the real food and drink, come close. Or in the words of Rumi, Come, come, whoever you are. Wanderer, worshiper, lover of leaving – it doesn’t matter. Ours is not a caravan of despair. Come, yet again, come. AMEN