The Eucharist: Part III - The Liturgy of the Sacrament

The Revd Brutus Green

If you’re looking for a name for an expected child why not consider Anamnesis. It’s a beautiful name for a girl meaning ‘remembrance’. “Do this in remembrance of me.” Jesus’ words at the last supper. The words with which we bless the bread and wine. “Do this in remembrance of me.” This is Dom Gregory Dix, an old Anglican monk, writing the year the war ended:

Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetich because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God.

Dom Gregory Dix, The Shape of the Liturgy (London: Continuum, 2001), p. 744.

Before we get into a scandal, let me reassure you that plebs, here, is just the latin word for people.

What I hope the passage gets across is the sheer weight of history, the magnitude, behind these words and this action. That at any point in time there is a Eucharist happening; we are one here, now, one among perhaps hundreds of thousands, and this stretching back for two thousand years. From the sublime to the banal, the ordinary faith and prayers of billions. And that this is what it’s about: the plebs sancta Dei - the holy people of God, which miraculously includes you and I, in all our rough and readiness; Bryan with his ties, Andrejs with his broken wrist.

We have looked to date at the gathering, as we come together asking for forgiveness; and the liturgy of the word, which remembers the preaching ministry of Jesus as we hear the Scriptures, then the stories of the church and the life of Jesus himself. In the Spirit the Scripture is brought into today through preaching, measured against the tradition by the creed which proclaims the boundaries of our faith; and then brought into the desires and actions of our parish through our corporate prayers together.

This brings us to the peace, the beginning of the liturgy of the sacrament. If the liturgy of the Word is the spoken Word of God, mirroring Jesus preaching in the synagogues; the Eucharist is the Word made flesh, mirroring Jesus’ evening meals with his disciples in that Upper Room. While the liturgy of the Word begins with the formal ‘The Lord be with you’, the peace is a more intimate greeting - it is the greeting of the resurrected Christ when he met the disciples again in the Upper room where they hid for fear of the Jews - “peace be with you.” It is the insider greeting. Before the peace the ancient church would cry out “the doors! The doors!” to seal the doors against the uninitiated, the pagan and persecutor.

You too then are a disciple, ready to meet the risen Christ; you have made it to the VIP room, the Upper Room. The peace also reminds us of Jesus’ command that ‘if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, [you should] leave your gift there before the altar and [] first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift’ (Matt 5: 23-24). So if there’s anyone here with whom you have a grudge - make sure you shake their hand at the peace.

If it’s the vicar, please form an orderly queue. You’ll note how he’s pretty good at getting around everyone.

The words of the Eucharistic prayer in the early days, the central act of Christian worship, allowed a great deal of variety. Local customs flourished, just as they did much later in the middle ages. It is politics which has preferred uniformity. So first when Christianity became the religion of empire under Constantine, and then at the Reformation when it became the religion of the British state under Henry VIII, all local variation was stamped out to ensure it really was one people under God. Again now, Common Worship, our present liturgy has expanded to allow more variation now than since before the Reformation. 1928 was the last time parliament directly infringed on the worship of Britain. It is unlikely to happen again, unless they or the EU belatedly decide to force the church to marry gay couples!

The structure of the Eucharist though is unchanged since it was first celebrated two thousand years ago. The four-fold pattern of taking, blessing, breaking and giving, directly follows Jesus’ actions at the last supper. The early church added the greeting and kiss at the outset (the peace), and the dismissal at the end. At its heart, the whole action is the Church’s obedience to Jesus’ command at that supper ‘to celebrate a perpetual memory of that his precious death’; to ‘do this in remembrance of me’.

The reason for this is uniformly understood to be the means by which the church’s sacrifice is taken into Jesus’ sacrifice. The ancient understanding of sacrifice across all cultures is that of surrender to God and God’s reciprocal acceptance of that surrender. Jesus’ sacrifice is made complete in Gethsemane when he declares ‘not my will, but thy will be done’ - as we pray in the Lord’s prayer. For all our imperfections we are accepted by our participation in Christ’s sacrifice - in this the church intercedes and mediates for all creation - bringing it before God - and this is the intention of the Eucharist for all Christians.

There are of course minor differences though in how denominations have described what actually happens in the Eucharist. I say minor because they are technical. Like in politics very minor disagreements over description get blown out of proportion and then become totemic dividers. Many of the conflicts now are arbitrary as the language on which they depend, drawn from Aristotelian physics, has passed from use. The actual concern for which the ordinary Christian, who until recently would only have received communion two or three times a year, has for the exactness of this description is probably not a great deal more than that which the Roman catholic today listens to the teaching of the Church on contraception.

Still, that is not to say that what we think of the Eucharist does not matter; and there is one understanding of it that I do wish to contend with. In the late middle ages there came a rising cult of a private devotion to Christ’s presence in the sacrament, in the bread and wine. It was felt that an extrinsic miracle occurred during the Eucharistic prayer - say when the priest says “this is my body”, whereby the object of bread suddenly became, regardless of whatever else was going on, God-infused. The Eucharist, and other services such as benediction, then were a spectacle in which the divine was magically materialised in front of the people. People beheld God paraded in front of them and privately worshipped and adored from their pews.

Out of a Reformation horror at this priestly magic and superstition, certain groups labelled the entire show symbolic; nothing happens except that we remember that Christ died for us. The real meaning of the eucharistic words then is: “This is [a bit like] Christ’s body, broken for us” and “This is [a bit like] his blood, shed for us”. Both of these views reflect the early modern drift to individualism. In the catholic case the divine is lifted up and exhibited in front of the people who then practice their piety in front of it, watching as mass is performed in front of them. In the latter the act is just a show, the important thing being the individual remembering and the individual’s state of mind and heart.

I began, however, with that extended quotation because the eucharist has traditionally been understood as gathering all Christians together across time and place, and its purpose is the making of the holy people of God. We receive communion in a circle around the altar as a communal sharing in the divine life as at a meal. The Eucharist is not about an external miracle, something which happens to the bread, it is about us becoming together the body of Christ. The miracle is God’s presence in us, in the creation of the church as the holy people of God, here, and through the world and history. We are brought together as in ages past to repeat this miracle and be Christ’s body in the world, drawing it back to the Father, and revealing his love.

I said two weeks ago that Christian worship is not just about making something happen but it’s about making a representative act of a fully redeemed life - a shadow of the heavenly banquet which is to come. The Eucharist points beyond the worldwide and local conflicts of today to the meeting point of time and eternity and the restoration of our lives in God’s image. It is the sacrifice that we offer in memory of Christ’s sacrifice, in remembrance of his love for the world, in which we have faith and hope. It is the act by which we know ourselves, however unworthy, to be the holy people of God. Amen.