Sunday, May 22, 2005

Eucharist - four unorthodox views

If you want to get Christians to argue about something besides homosexuality, get folks from different denominations together and have them talk about Communion, or as some call it, the Eucharist.

Whether you read the version in Matthew, Mark or Luke, there has always been disagreement. There's the argument about whether to emphasize the "this IS" or the "DO this" portion of the Words of Instituion. There's the argument (foreshadowing a US president of recent memory) asking how we should understand "This is..." There are folks who believe that if the bread is leavened, or doesn't have wheat in it, or if some restriction or other isn't met, the Eucharist is "not valid" or "is not efficacious." And there are people who think that "do this..." means exactly what was done twenty-plus centuries ago. Or sixteen centuries. Or four. Or one. And so on.

I'm not going to resolve any of those arguments, though I certainly have my ideas. But I'm going to pose three from my own experience, one from my adoptive hometown, and one from history, on the topic. My purpose is not to annoy you in your understanding of what it is to "have Communion," but to simply ask if maybe God's purpose might just be bigger than our understanding (whatever that happens to be).

One view
In my seminary class on leading Lutheran worship, we had to break into teams and be videotaped while either presiding or assisting in leading worship. We had a team of 5 - and each time, one person would be the "senior pastor," one would be the "assisting minister," and the other three would be ushers/congregants. This was done in the seminary worship space, with the real robes, the real implements and paraments, everything just like real worship. Well, almost...but more on that in a bit.

We'd been told by our professor - definitely an authority on Lutheran worship - that there was no element of "zapping" in our service; no magic, no hocus-pocus. We learned at least the basic concept of consubstantiation. In very simple terms, this term means that the real presence of Christ (whatever that is) is present along with the unchanged reality of the bread and wine - "in, with, and under" the elements is the stock dogmatic line. The bread and wine are still bread and wine, but Christ is "with" the elements. (I still struggle with this, by the way.)

We'd also been told that in order for the Eucharist to be valid, there had to be (a) the gathered community of faith, (b) the Word of God, (c) the bread and wine, and (d) a Eucharistic prayer. The concept of personal, solo communion, or of communion without a worship service or without at least the words of institution was to be anathema for us seminarians. And for our Worship class video, almost all of these things were present.

In the place of the bread and wine, however, there was a host-shaped cardboard disk and a flagon of water. The message seemed to be that if it had been "real" bread and wine, we might have had "real" Eucharist - and since none of us were regularly consecrated and ordained clergy, that would have been dead wrong, eh?

But by the time I'd left our video session, I was really wondering about how hard we work to limit God's activity in the world. After all, the five of us were certainly true believers in the community of faith. I (in my turn as presiding liturgist) had read the Gospel, said the Eucharistic prayer, and had spoken the words of institution and the epiklesis, calling down the Holy Spirit on these pseudo-elements. My question to the group was, "If I had torn off pieces of the cardboard disk and given them to you to eat, and shared the cup with you, would that have been a valid Eucharist? Would the Spirit of Christ be 'in, with, and under' these elements as well?" But the group was uniformly weary from the video session, and just moaned and left the chapel...

It's not as silly a question as you might think. Every youth pastor who has stood before his or her youth group on the side of a mountain and spoken the words of institution over a plate of Wheat Thins and a cup of Dr. Pepper asks the same question. In fact, forty years ago in the book The Shoes of the Fisherman, the Pope-elect (who had been a Russian political prisoner for years in their gulags) spoke of sharing a Communion meal of bread crusts and water with people who he knew were not Catholic.

In the time since my seminary career ended, I have come to believe that if the Gospel is preached, the prayers are prayed, the elements (whatever they may be) are consecrated and shared in good faith, then it doesn't matter who does it, where, with what materials, or with what specific words. In fact, it could be argued that the youth-group pastor probably had the most "real" communion, because there was so little of the "traditional" church service and trappings to prop up the truths underlying the sacrament. The more we erect barriers between people and the Lord's Table, the worse off the church is. (Note, too, that it's not the Church's table.)

It's probably a good thing they aren't going to ordain me....

A second view
Excerpted from an article from the independent newspaper, the Chicago Free Press:
Obeying the Vatican and Cardinal Francis George, celebrants at Chicago's Holy Name Cathedral denied communion to two people wearing rainbow-colored sashes May 15, then watched as others receiving communion shared their wafers with the Rainbow Sash protesters.

"We were told many years ago, 'Do this in memory of me,' and that meant sharing and that meant the eucharist, for anyone," said Sister Donna Quinn, a Catholic nun who took her communion wafer, broke it in half and walked over to share it with the Rainbow Sash protesters.
I've always found it interesting - Jesus shared the Last Supper with Peter, who was still waiting for Jesus to pick up a holy light-saber and lead the Jews in whacking the Romans. What if Jesus had denied communion to "the Rock upon which I will build my church," because Peter didn't agree with Jesus' party line about the Romans? What price apostolic succession then, eh? Was it OK back then because he wasn't wearing a sash? Just wondering...
(Thanks to Damien's Spot for the hat-tip on the Free Press article.)

A third view
Pastor John Buchanan told a story in his sermon a week ago that stuck with me. As I remember, a Scotsman in the British Army in World War II was captured and kept in various POW camps for nearly five years. As the war dragged on, and things were not going well for the Germans, food and supplies for the prisoners was being diverted to the front-lines, and the prisoners got hungry. Soon, almost every prisoner had open, running sores and every kind of malnourishment disease. Several tried to escape...and were caught and executed. A few more threw themselves onto the electric fence, choosing to end their own suffering the only way they could.

One night, this soldier had enough. Starvation was an awful way to die, and so he resolved to throw himself on the electric fence, ending his suffering once and for all. But as he approached the fence, preparing to jump on it, he realized he was not alone. A local farmer stood on the other side of the fence, and as the prisoner stared in disbelief, the farmer threw something over the fence at him. The prisoner walked over, and was shocked to find a large potato.

And then the farmer, in broken English, managed to say, "The body of Christ" ... and walked away.

That farmer would have flunked my Worship class. But I imagine there was cheering in Heaven that night...

A final view
And the call is to community - the impoverished power that sets the soul free... (from Michael Card's song, The Basin and the Towel)

John Michael Talbot was one of the first Christian musicians I ever heard; I still think his Heart of the Shepherd CD is one of the most serene recordings I've ever heard. So years later, when I heard that Talbot (a contemplative Catholic) had joined with Michael Card, a Protestant, to sing each other's songs, I was delighted and amazed. Brother to Brother is a CD that I'd recommend to everyone.

Hearing the recording of Card's classic song Come To The Table, with the addition of the lush orchestrations so familiar in Talbot's word, and hearing both their voices lifted in joy and in praise, brought me to tears this morning as I finished this post. Their work is an example of the unity in Christ which is just so scandalous to those who would keep us apart.

Lord God, may we all set down our doctrines and dogmas and rules and holy nonsense, and just follow the example of these two men.

Come to the table He's prepared for you,
The Bread of forgiveness, the Wine of release!
Come to the table and sit down beside Him -
The Savior who wants you to join in the feast!

To which I can only say amen, and ever amen.


Michael Dodd said...

Love the potato story. Maybe with conflicts about the Eucharist, the final line may be, "You say po-TAY-to, I say po-TAH-to..." Sad that the sacrament of unity could be abused as a source of further division.

In the legend of El Cid,the hero of the Spanish reconquest, he laid siege to one of the Moorish cities until the people were near starving. Then he brought up his catapults for a final assault -- and instead of stones, threw in baskets of bread. The people opened the gates of the city and it was taken without further bloodshed. (Pure legend, of course.)

When we were preparing for the war with Iraq, I wondered if we had ever considred bread instead of bombs. Remember the cheering crowds that were supposed to greet us in the streets? Maybe a different approach...

Finally, in a worship course in a Catholic seminary, the question was raised about the difference between invalid and illicit celebrations. [The technical difference is that in an illicit celebration, everything necessary is done for validity {making it real},but some purely disciplinary matters are omitted or violated.] The professor thought a moment and said, "When it is invalid, Jesus doesn't come. When it's illicit, he comes, but he's not happy."

The prof's point was to show the absurdity of worrying about unimportant things, but I would bet Cardinal Arinze, head of the Congregation for Divine Worship, would buy that distinction completely with a straight face.

APN said...

I grew up with two traditions around me -- my Dad being a very observant, believing Catholic and my Mom being a oneness Pentecostal. Yeah, kinda divergent beliefs and practices, don't ya think? Makes you wonder how I even make sense of living for God some days. I never went through CCD classes, never experienced First Communion classes at my Dad's parish, and only did the whole "juice cup and cracker" thing once a year, like most good, no-tradition, low Protestants.

I grew up not understanding Communion at all -- I couldn't partake at Dad's church because I wasn't Catholic and it was only observed at the Pentecostal church once a year along with foot-washing service. And typically, the foot-washing, "bring in the New Year" service received MUCH more importance and reverence than did the Communion service. I really didn't understand what all of this wine/wafer v. juice/cracker controversy was really about.

But here's this (at least in my estimation) -- regardless of HOW it's taken, it's about why you're partaking in the ceremony. If you're there to remember Christ's death, burial, and resurrection as the forgiveness or our sins, redemption for our souls, and provider of the infinite grace of which we're infinitely NOT worthy of, then who cares quite how & with what component parts we observe communion.

This is what I've figured out, though it's not much, and I'm not even sure if it's really anything. I know it's fairly unorthodox, but does that really matter? Jesus told us to partake in the Lord's Supper in rememberance of Him, so, isn't THAT what's most important?

Jane Ellen+ said...

The challenge you offer ("maybe God's purpose might just be bigger than our understanding") is a part of why I'm involved with a church that worships-- and celebrates the Eucharist-- out of the Evangelical Covanent, American Baptist, and Episcopal traditions. Yes, all three. Go figure.

Does this give us all the answers? No, not by half. But we are learning to ask the questions together, and we are blessed by the asking; and that's a start, I think.

Anonymous said...

This was very thought provoking. Thanks, Steve.

~pen~ said...

this is one of the best meditations i have had on the Eucharist in a long, long while.

thank you.

Adinah said...

what a wonderfully well written post. Thanks to m2 for steering me in your direction. The potato story is the best, I have to take notes on that one. I'll just end this with a hearty "amen" to your post.

Matt Harmless said...

OK, I wasn't going to comment, but when you added Michael Card and John Michael Talbot into the conversation... I had to say something.

I love that song. And I love that music. I won't comment on the rest, except to say that the most important thing is the discovery of truth. It isn't everybody find their own truth... There is such a thing as truth.

But it isn't that we should fight about it. It think that is beautifully displayed by Card and Talbot.

Thanks for your stuff...

Monk-in-Training said...

What a wonderful discussion. I am a Consubstationalist, and that view is very welcome in the Anglcian tradition.

I don't know if He comes at the Verba or the Epiclesis, but I know He comes.

This little ditty, tho cute actually sums up my feelings.

He was the Word that spake it
He took the bread and brake it
And what that word did make it
I do believe and take it.
Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother

Erin said...

Oh, thank you for this. I too am so touched by the potato story... I started to weep as I read it. Maybe I am over-tired (a distinct possibility), or maybe I am looking at a potato in my hand, and wondering why I've been hanging on to it for so long...

Keith Brenton said...

I don't have the answer to what "this is" means. I just know He wants us to remember Him, body and blood ... to dine on the divine, if you will.

If God can make man from dust; if He can make life from lifelessness, He can make bread and wine into His son's body and blood. He can satisfy my hunger and thirst for righteousness.

I don't know how. I just know it's possible for Him. Perhaps it's because the portions are so small ... I never quite seem to be filled.

I keep coming back for more.

Mitch said...

You, sir, are a machine!

Keith Brenton said...

What, Mitch, like a cyborg farmer?

Or did you just mean I'm insatiable in my lust for power from above?

Ooh; there's a weird phrase.

see-through faith said...

Coming back to this MONTHS later. It is so good :)

be blessed :)