Lenten Meditation 4 April 2012
Speaking of Holy Communion Father Rohr says, “He gave us something that he did not say we needed to “think about” or “agree upon,” “look at” or even “worship,” but he just said ‘Do this!’ It was an action, an audiovisual aid, a sacred ritual for a community, built on Jewish roots, that would summarize his whole lasting message for the world.” (Page 215)
|Leonardo Da Vinci – “The Last Supper”.|
Perhaps the most powerful and important legacy given to the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Communion of the 20th and 21st centuries by a group of Oxford scholars of the 19th century is the recovery of the Eucharist as central to the Sunday worship of the community of faith. Prior to the late 16th Century ascendancy of the Puritan movement in England, the “Lord’s Board” or Holy Communion was the normal worship of the Lord’s Day. By the middle of the 17th Century, laws regulated the percentage of a parish which was required to be present for Eucharistic worship. (In England, a parish is a geographical area and consists of all those who live within the boundaries of the parish; by contrast, in the US a parish is a voluntary association of individuals whose membership is entered in the parish register.) For at least one Sunday prior to celebrating Holy Communion, the Vicar would be required to read the Exhortation and announce to the congregation his intention to offer Holy Communion on the subsequent Sunday. If the requisite number of members of the parish were not present, the Vicar would begin Morning Prayer and omit Communion. To violate the law invited imprisonment or being defrocked. In the first quarter of the 18th Century, the Wesley brothers, John and Charles, were teased and lightly ridiculed by their fellow students for their “methodical” celebrations of the Sacraments. It is interesting that Methodism devolved almost entirely to prayer services with only infrequent Communion services. Toward the middle of the 19th Century, several instructors at Oxford began to re-examine the Church of England pattern in light of their study of Scripture and the tradition and theology of the Early Church, and they began to write tracts in favor of a more “high Church” understanding of worship, communal aspects of the Gospel (outreach), and community life. Out of the Oxford Movement came a recovery of the importance of the sacramental life as well as ministry to the poorest of the poor who lived in slums, teaching of the faith from what we now call an Anglo-Catholic perspective, and monastic orders for men and women.
On the evening Jesus gathered with his disciples either to celebrate the first day of Passover (as recorded in Matthew, Mark and Luke) or to eat a meal which has Passover overtones (John) we have the long tradition of the Jewish “remembering” of the escape from Egypt which leads to freedom from tyranny and oppression. Even today, as modern Jews celebrate Passover, the four questions, traditionally asked by the youngest male child, begin, “Why is this night so different from all others?” For 3500 years families and communities re-call the events and re-live them “today.” It is not a “once upon a time” tale, nor is the remembering of what happened to our ancestors long, long ago. They are participants in the events of God’s protection in which they are being led out of slavery. The Haggadah, the ritual of the Passover meal, is spoken in the present tense which intensifies the participation in the singularly focal event of all Jewish theology and experience. There is a Greek word for this re-calling which we use for our Eucharistic understanding as well: the word is anamnesis which means to re-member, to put together, to bring to the present, to experience now what once occurred then.
Jesus took this very Jewish experience of being present in the central “God Event” for Jews and expanded it for his disciples. When he said “Do this for the remembrance of me” he was giving the 12 and all who have come after them a way to be present with Jesus in the upper room as he says “This is my body…this is my blood.” The anamnesis brings Jesus present to us in a way that is both spiritual and physical; we are given “outward and visible signs” of bread and wine through which we can appropriate at a very physical level the Presence of our Lord Jesus, not just a spiritual thought that we can either accept or ignore as we feel at any given moment.
Unfortunately since the 16th Century, Western Christianity has argued and fought over how Jesus becomes present to us in the Eucharist. Roman Catholic doctrine utilizes Aristotle’s philosophical basis in the term transubstantiation, the language of the Scholastics of the 12th and 13th Centuries, to describe the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Some Lutherans quibbled with the older term and rephrased it as consubstantiation. Other of the 16th Century Reformers rejected both of those understandings and posited that Holy Communion is simply a memorial of an event which occurred in the life of Jesus. [For a more thorough definition of any of the terms used in describing the Real Presence, I suggest exploring Google.] Anglican doctrine formed in the late16th Century in the Articles of Religion, Article XXVIII, says, “…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.” Exactly how this occurs is not specifically defined, although the doctrine of Transubstantiation is “repugnant to the plain words of Scripture…” My preference is simply to say that in the bread and the wine we are able to receive Christ’s Body and Blood which is available to us, unexplainable but absolutely real. As a Rabbi friend from long ago would say, “It’s a mystery.”
As believers gather to celebrate Jesus’ presence among us, we are nurtured and fed on Heavenly food. We are strengthened to be the Body of Christ and to live out our calling, as St. Teresa of Avila says, to be the hands and feet and lips of Jesus to bring blessing and Christ’s healing touch to our broken world. Spirituality without action is hollow; action without spiritual preparation is merely good work.
As we continue to walk through Holy Week, may we remember the words of Richard of Chichester whose day we celebrated yesterday, “to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly, day by day.”