This post is part of “Ecclesia Anglicana,” a series devoted to all topics pertaining to Anglicanism. This contribution is by Trystan Owain Hughes, Tutor in Applied Theology at St Padarn’s, Cardiff, Wales, UK. Stay tuned for more!

In recent years, the identity and distinctiveness of priesthood has been questioned. In functional terms, it has long been recognized that priests require certain gifts and talents to minister effectively. Vocations advisors and directors of ordinands will suggest texts to candidates that list these functions. Such lists can seem daunting to those exploring a call to ordination. In John Pritchard’s The Life and Work of a Priest, one of the principal texts given to candidates exploring ordained ministry in the Church of England and in the Church in Wales, sixteen distinct functional roles are presented, including “creative leader”, “faith coach”, “wounded companion”, and “spiritual explorer”. Traditionally, theological models of priesthood have grown out of a consideration of such functions. By doing so, such models often forged an ontology of priesthood.

During the twentieth century, in the UK at least, the model growing in prominence was the priest as, primarily, a pastoral care giver. In some ecclesial and theological circles, though, there was a sense of uncertainty about this model, with the question posed how much its functional roles actually differ from counseling and social work. By the time I went through the discernment process in the late 1990s, Anglican Churches had moved to regarding the principal role of a priest as an empowerer – a nurturer of the gifts of others. Before my own selection board, one priest even said to me: “as long as you slip in the word ‘enabler’ at least six times, you’ll sail through”! The concept of enabler certainly fits neatly into the contemporary emphasis on collaboration and the flourishing of lay ministries. However, questions should still be asked about the primacy of this model. It is, after all, weak in terms of its sacramental rooting and it could lead to priests becoming glorified creative administrators or, worse still, simply talent-spotters. As such, it is difficult to forge an ontology of priesthood from this model alone.

Towards a New Model

With such uncertainties in theological and ecclesial circles surrounding models of priesthood, it is little wonder that so many candidates struggle to articulate why they feel called to ordained ministry, despite the fact that most of them have read the classic texts of discernment and vocation. The purpose and nature of priesthood certainly needs more thought and clarity. In an issue of The Furrow in 1995, the Roman Catholic Auxiliary Bishop of Los Angeles, Robert Barron suggests a model that is both culturally relevant and spiritually uplifting, as well as firmly rooted in tradition and scripture. It is also a model that could appeal to the plethora of churchpersonships and traditions that make up the Anglican Communion. It can be summed up as the priest as “a bearer of mystery”.

Barron begins his exploration of this model by describing the fundamental loss of confidence within the priesthood in recent years. He attributes this to an underdeveloped and negative theology of ministry. As a result, priests have lost confidence in themselves and their identity, leading to a lack focus and orientation. While he is writing from his own particular ecclesial context, the loss of joy and hope, along with the increase of pessimism and cynicism, is reflective of some areas of our own denomination. Rooted in that same loss of priestly identity is the superior, and sometimes arrogant, attitude that is found in other areas of our Communion, which looks down condescendingly on what is perceived as the lack of zeal and spiritual fervor of other clergy.

To counter the loss of priestly confidence and identity, Barron therefore presents an image that he believes captures the unique and indispensable quality of a priest. The term “mystagogue” was used in the early church with relation to bringing catechumens into the faith. Barron chooses this word to flesh out the priest’s role in bringing the mystery of God’s being to people’s troubled lives. In other words, the priest’s role is to notice, to announce, or to bring God’s love, hope, peace, and compassion to individuals and communities. He roots this in Thomas Aquinas’s analogia entis, whereby we come to know and experience God through his creation – we experience the otherly-other Being through the very tangible being of this world.

In this model, the overriding call of priesthood is to explore and grasp the mystery and then initiate others into it – opening eyes to God’s presence, ears to God’s call, hearts to God’s love, and ways to God’s will. It is in this context that Theilard De Chardin described the priest as a “border walker”, bringing those on earth closer to the kingdom. They stand at the boundaries between the commonplace and the sacred, thus offering the possibility of relationship with the divine. Priests are, therefore, interpreters of Manley-Hopkins’s “grandeur of God”, Von Balthasar’s “patterns of grace”, and Philip Yancey’s “rumours of another world”. They hold, to use William Blake’s phrase, “infinity in the palm of their hand and eternity in an hour” and offer this to those to whom they are ministering.

Incarnation and Mystery

This model is profoundly incarnational in its scope. Paul Tillich describes preaching as “holding up a picture of Christ”. The mystagogue’s task is related to this image – it is the art of bringing Jesus down to earth by displaying of the wonder, inspiration, and complexity of his icon. We do this through our words, but also through our lives. Meister Eckhart pointed out that the incarnation is worthless and pointless if the Word is not also born in Christians. By stating that “the Word was made flesh” (John 1.14), the Gospel writer uses the inceptive aorist Greek tense which implies an action that has started in the past but is continuing into the present. The phrase might rather be translated as ‘the Word started to become flesh’. Thus, the Word continues to become flesh, even today, as Christians acknowledge that “I no longer live, but Christ lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). The priestly calling is rooted in this and, in this sense at least, all church traditions will be able to affirm the priest as “in persona Christi”. The model of the bearer of mystery therefore allows us model ourselves on the Jesus of the gospels, bringing to our congregations as many questions as we provide answers, telling as many stories as we affirm facts, and challenging as much as we give comfort.

Yet, more than this, this ministry is a paradoxical process of being Christ to people we already regard as Christ. Cistercian Charles de Foucault regarded the recognition that all people are “the greatest treasure of all, Jesus himself” as integral to the priesthood. Likewise, in light of the radical incarnational call of Matthew 25, Alan Ecclestone went as far as to challenge his fellow priests to consider where they bow at the end of each service. They should, he suggested, be bowing where they truly believe Christ is. Rather than bowing to the altar or the host, he urged them to consider bowing to their congregations, where the real body of Christ resides and where the physical real presence is found. With the model of the priest as a bearer of mystery, then, we are compelled to see Christ in both ourselves and others, whoever they may be and however different they are to us.

Sacraments and Mystery

This model of priesthood is also sacramental to the core. On one hand, priests become witnesses to the wonder of the traditional sacraments, leading others beyond physical matter to spiritual beauty and benefit – to see beyond bread and wine to Christ’s body and blood, beyond the font to the transformational water of life, beyond the temporary joy of a wedding day to a spiritual covenant, and so on. On the other hand, priests become living sacraments themselves. They do this by, firstly, demonstrating, through words and deeds, God’s excessive and unreasonable love and compassion. To use Philip Yancey’s words, priests need to show people “what’s so amazing about grace”.

Secondly, though, priests become living sacraments by bringing others into engagement with the beauty and wonder of the whole gamut of human experience – theology, literature, film, music, nature, laughter, ecology, spirituality, art, architecture, poetry, and so on. G.K. Chesterton wrote that to see the world properly one must stand on one’s head. The priest’s role is to stand on her or his head, beckoning others to do the same and so to share this distinct, awe-inspiring, and life-giving vision of the world around. It is helping others to recognise the pearl of great price in their seemingly ordinary everyday routines. Karl Rahner, himself often referred to as a ‘mystic of everyday life’, pointed out the importance of leading Christians to God’s active grace in creation, his self-communication in the midst of our everyday lives. This is, to use the words of R.S. Thomas, “the turning aside like Moses to the miracle of the lit bush, to a brightness that seemed as transitory as your youth once, but is the eternity that awaits you”. Furthermore, there is also a healing aspect to this call to, in the words of Alan Billings, “make God possible”. After all, love, compassion, wisdom, and beauty are not only mystery bearing, but also profoundly healing. Barron employs the ancient term doctor animarum (doctor of the soul) to develop this aspect of priesthood and relates it directly to the priest’s pastoral calling.

To truly live out this model, though, priests themselves need time and space to connect with God and to engage with, and theologically reflect on, wider culture. The pace of modern ordained ministry, much of which is either non-stipendiary or encompasses the demands of diocesan or provincial roles alongside parish work, rarely allows enough time for study, contemplation, and prayer, thus making St Paul’s command to pray continually (1 Thessalonians 5:16) seem a mere aspiration to most clergy.

Bearer of Mystery

With Anglican Churches embracing the healthy process of commissioning and licensing lay people for various roles, it is imperative that we ensure that the priestly role is not devalued. Embracing the model of the bearer of mystery may help give further life and purpose to priestly ministry, as well as to our ordinands and ordination candidates. Priests should certainly never be placed on a spiritual pedestal or elevated over and above the laity. No parts of the body should be elevated above the body itself (1 Corinthians 12). However, there has to be something unique and distinctive about priestly ministry. The concept of priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:5) reflects that all Christians share something of the role of Mystagogue, but to the priest this is more than a role or function. Through ordination, it becomes a way of being.

While there is, then, no ideal model for which we can forge an ontology of priesthood, Barron’s work does provide us with a model that is both relevant to our times and rooted in the past. It also has the potential to inspire those who may feel the oars of priesthood have been lost on the shores of our rapidly changing culture. Furthermore, this model has the benefit of being accessible to all backgrounds and traditions. John Wesley once described himself as a preacher who set himself on fire and allowed people to watch him burn. This is at the root of this model of priesthood. The primary function of the priest, writes Barron, is not to preach, minister, or counsel. In fact, no function can define or confine priesthood. Rather, a priest is someone who is set on fire to the depths of their being by the mystery of God and then beckons others to draw near and be warmed or set alight by the flame.

Trystan Owain Hughes is Tutor of Applied Theology and Director of the MTh (Theology) at St Padarn’s Institute, Wales, UK and priest-in-charge of Christ Church, Roath Park, Cardiff, Wales. Previously he has been Chaplain at Cardiff University, Director of Ordinands at Llandaff Diocese, and Head of Theology at Trinity University College, Carmarthen. His theological training included extended placements in an asylum seekers deportation centre, an Oxford University college, and a large episcopal church in Washington DC. Trystan has attained an MTh from Oxford University and a PhD in church history from the University of Wales, Bangor. He is the author of Winds of Change: The Roman Catholic Church and Society in Wales 1916-1962 (UWP, 1999), Finding Hope and Meaning in Suffering (SPCK, 2010), The Compassion Quest (SPCK 2014), Real God in the Real World (BRF, 2014), and Living the Prayer (BRF, 2017). He has also been a regular voice on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Prayer for the Day’ and BBC Radio 2’s ‘Pause for Thought’ and was on the theological commission that assists the bench of Welsh Bishops for over 10 years. He is presently a member of the Church in Wales Evangelism Fund Committee, appointed as a cleric who has seen considerable growth in his parish in the past five years.

This post is part of “Ecclesia Anglicana,” a series devoted to all topics pertaining to Anglicanism. Stay tuned for more!

            I did not grow up in the Anglican church. My teenage years were split between a Messianic Jewish synagogue and a Grace Brethren congregation. So, at a distance, the sacrament of confirmation looked like a cool rite of passage for my Episcopalian friends. But on February 11th, 2018, I received the laying on of my Bishop’s hands with this blessing: 

“Defend, O Lord, this your servant, Hunter, with your heavenly grace, that he may continue yours for ever, and daily increase in your Holy Spirit more and more until he comes into the fullness of your everlasting kingdom.”

            This same confirmation prayer occurs in every iteration of the Book of Common Prayer, always emphasizing mature perseverance as an intended fruit. I received this sacrament as an adult who, at that point, had served as a youth minister for six years, yet I experienced a new vigor in receiving the Eucharist and participating in parish life. Perhaps my own confirmation experience makes me acutely aware of a common disparity between the theology of confirmation and the practice of confirming youth in the Anglican church. It seems to be the case that parish catechesis risks merely preparing youth confirmands for the rite of confirmation while the liturgy and theology of confirmation treats the sacrament as an initiation into life-long, Holy Spirit-filled perseverance. The result of this disparity is a generation of youth fully initiated into a Body they are unprepared to participate in long-term. Thus, the Church risks perpetuating another achievement for youth to attain without life-long practices and perspective. So, the question, “Are you initiated?” may not be as helpful for confirming youth as, “What are you initiated into?”

            Now, there is no ecumenical consensus on the timing of confirmation. Our Eastern Orthodox friends do not separate baptism and chrismation, while Anglicans, like our Roman Catholic friends, withhold confirmation until a child or adult may take reasonable, mature ownership of their faith. However, the question of what youth are initiated into remains for every Christian tradition. In what follows, I will explore the way a strong method and theology of confirmation moves youth beyond the words of a catechism and the works of piety into a persevering desire for the Triune God.

Words, Works, and Desire

            What prepares a young person for confirmation? The numerous catechisms written since the Protestant Reformation seem to answer: systematic content. The Apostles Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, the Ten Commandments, and the Sacraments become jumping off points into a didactic process whereby the catechumen ought to know what these teachings mean and why they occur in the Church’s liturgical life. Now, it may be unfair to diagnose this method as overly cognitive in its scope, yet youth confirmands experience that, in order to be confirmed, you must learn what these words mean. Under this view, catechism concerns the meaning behind the words and works of the Church. William Cavanaugh addresses a similar problematic method at work in the Eucharist. “The problem is that the Eucharist has been reduced to the message, to a piece of information for the mind to grasp. … The key is not what the Eucharist means, but what it makes. And it makes the Church.”[1] Surely the sacrament of confirmation also ought not be reduced to merely confirming what someone knows.

            Since a little ressourcement goes a long way, let us consider a catechetical method from the early church. In De Catechizandis rudibus, St. Augustine responded to Deogratias, a deacon in Carthage, regarding how to deliver a proper catechism. This deacon, celebrated in doctrinal knowledge and eloquence, struggled to deliver the scope of the Christian faith without boring his catechumens. What is Augustine’s advice?

The narration is complete when the candidate has received instruction from that first passage in Scripture, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” all the way up to the present age of the Church. But this does not mean that those of us who have memorized the whole Pentateuch, all the books of Jewish kingdoms and Ezra, the whole Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles, should rehearse them verbatim. … Rather we should offer a brief and general summary, selecting particular passages that occasion wonder and pleasure in the hearer and also form the sinews of the story.[2]

Certainly, Augustine is not implying that parts of the Biblical narrative are unimportant. His narrative method is intentional, knowing that where one starts affects the whole and must fit together with all other pieces.[3] The goal of catechetical instruction is “love proceeding from a pure heart, good conscience, and unfeigned faith.”[4] Much like the hermeneutic instructions in De Doctrina Christiana, Augustine emphasizes the desire for and enjoyment of the Trinity as the ultimate end of all instruction.

            So, how does Augustine’s narrative method answer what catechumens are initiated into? A catechism beginning with a selective biblical narrative (1) shows that the catechumen/confirmand is part of and participates in the public story of God’s redeemed people and (2) assumes this story will inspire wonder and pleasure for a life-long pursuit of God. If I might expand Augustine’s illustration, the sinews of the biblical narrative are sufficient for the catechism because they prepare the confirmand to be a full part of the Body of Christ, rather than an individual initiated solely on their mature knowledge.

            Confirmation gives young people something to long for beyond the moment of initiation: a daily strengthening by the work of the Holy Spirit. The theology of confirmation points to this very reality. In baptism, the Church is united to Christ’s death and resurrection. In the Eucharist, the Body is united to Christ and one another through receiving His body and blood. In confirmation, each believer participates in Pentecost. A narrative catechism emphasizes a young person’s participation in a public story; initiation is participating and receiving that act of God which initiated and constituted the Church.

            Throughout De Catechizandis rudibus,Augustine exhorts the listener to consider what they really rest their hope upon. If you place it upon your personal character, you will not persevere. If you place it upon the character and piety of others, you will not persevere. Augustine’s interest in the chaff among the wheat takes a pastoral turn towards perseverance and the purpose of Christian practice.

This is fulfilled by no one save the man who has received the other gift, the Holy Spirit, who is indeed equal with the Father and the Son, for this same Trinity is God; on this God every hope ought to be placed. On man our hope ought not to be placed, of whatsoever character he may be. For He, by whom we are justified, is one thing; and they, together with whom we are justified, are another.[5]

Here lies the mysterious hope in the sacrament of confirmation: that, by grace, we will persevere in our desire for the God on whom, alone, our hope truly rests. Christian practices form persons who daily put their hope in God, awaiting the fullness of His everlasting kingdom.

A Practitioner’s Perspective

            Discipling teenagers is not an easy task. I studied youth ministry at a Christian college, served in youth ministry a non-denominational church for six years, and now I am a student ministry director at an Anglican parish. I write as a practitioner seeking clarity and conviction for my own students, more like Deogratias than Augustine! Yet I find that the Anglican tradition offers a uniquely helpful perspective and practice for forming youth.

            First, Anglican youth ministry is free to learn from any Christian tradition and practice. Youth ministry, at least in the United States, began from a larger sociological shift when the institution of public education functionally created a distinct people group: teenagers.[6] The Anglican Church can learn from every kind of response to this phenomenon, from movements emphasizing family-driven faith to methods presupposing teenagers are largely unchurched. I have every reason to study the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, Orange’s “It’s Just A Phase” curriculum, Hillsong Worship, St. Augustine’s understanding of the Imago Dei, and missiologist Leslie Newbigin in order to catechize and disciple students well.

            Second, the Anglican tradition can be locally adapted for a variety of post-Christian contexts. I serve a diverse, urban parish in the heart of a city nicknamed the Holy City for all the church steeples on the skyline. Yet my students attend schools, have jobs, and form friendships in spaces that relegate religious beliefs to private preferences. Thus, the methods of reaching teenagers and equipping parents will look different in a diverse, urban setting compared to a suburban, like-goes-with-like context. The Liturgy of the Word and the Liturgy of the Table will form parishioners in a Kingdom reality, but parish catechesis must adapt to the spaces where parishioners will go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

            Third, the Daily Office is an ideal rhythm for worship and discipleship. It is relatively easy for young persons to read Scripture with the multitude of Bible apps and reading plans one download away. Yet the Anglican tradition gives youth ministry a true gem: a pattern for how to hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest Scripture as a Body. Our parish now requires all confirmands, youth and adults alike, to learn and practice the Daily Office as a rule of life.

            Finally, Anglican youth ministry benefits from strong sacramental theology and practice. On one morning of a youth service weekend at a nondenominational church, I struggled to teach Christ’s words, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.”[7] I realized I could not teach this passage without treating the Eucharist as a true sacrament and not just a memorial ordinance. Christ’s words surely go beyond daily devotions and into the constitutive reality of a Church united to Him in the sacraments. Youth ministry, at least in the United States, risks merely moralizing Christian practices without a historic sacramental theology, a risk still present even in Anglican parishes. The challenge of parish catechesis will always be to pierce beyond the meanings of a catechism into the mysterious initiation into a Body united to Christ, “from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.”[8] May our youth always persevere in their desire for God and participation in the Body.


Hunter Myers is a Student Ministry Director at the Cathedral Church of St. Luke & St. Paul in Charleston, South Carolina. He earned his BA in Youth Ministry & Philosophy at Columbia International University. He is from a small town called Golden, Colorado. 

[1] Cavanaugh, William. “Eucharistic Bodies in an Excarnated World.” Lecture, The Intersection Conference, Atlanta, May 17, 2019.

[2] Personal unpublished translation by Dr. Andrew Alwine, Associate Professor of Classics, College of Charleston.

[3] See Dr. Sarah Coakley’s understanding of systematic theology. Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self, 41.

[4] De Catechizandis rudibus, Chapter 2.6.

[5] Augustine, De Catechizandis rudibus, Chapter 27.55

[6] John Berard, Rick Bartlett, James Penner, Consuming Youth: Leading Teens Through Consumer Culture.

[7] John 15:5, ESV.

[8] Colossians 2:19, ESV.

Photo by Emre Can on Pexels.com

Originally published in Resonance: A Theological Journal for their issue on the Trinity.

“Alleluia, Alleluia. Let us go forth into the world rejoicing in the power of the Spirt. Thanks be to God. Alleluia, Alleluia.”[1] These words, or something very similar, are exclaimed on Sunday mornings throughout the world as the gathered faithful are dismissed from the liturgy of the Eucharist and ushered, nay catapulted, back into the world from the nave. Too often, though, this dismissal is nothing more than an ending to the liturgy rather than an invitation into deeper, more robust gospel living. The disconnect between Sunday worship and daily life often feels as though it is getting wider rather than narrower; the (false) dichotomy between sacred and secular or holy and profane is growing rather than diminishing. All too often we hear comments about public spheres and private life as though the two are somehow mutually exclusive. As Christians, we struggle to effectively be both in the world but not of the world, and to answer the question: what does this [liturgy/worship] mean for my “ordinary” life?

Liturgy can all too quickly be relegated to that which we do on a Sunday morning or a text to be read during the week for study and examination. This misses the mark entirely and we have no one to blame but ourselves. At some point along the way, and it does not matter from whom or whence this came, liturgy ceased being the experience of heaven and earth meeting at the altar and instead became a structured form used for right praise and thanksgiving. Liturgy as a noun will always be understood this way, but what if liturgy was understood and experienced as an action, as a verb, as a mission? This essay will explore liturgy as an action event, one which contains language about the missio dei, because ultimately the liturgy we celebrate on Sunday is tied explicitly to the leitourgia of Jesus.

One result of the Reformation has been the (almost) universal translation among Protestants of liturgy as “the work of the people.” The culmination of this interpretation can be seen through the documents of the Second Vatican Council, specifically Sacrosanctum Concilium (SC).  While SC was produced and is used authoritatively by the Roman Catholic Church, many Protestants have seen it as the validation for their earlier shift in liturgical understanding. SC highlights the participatory role of the laity in the liturgy, giving further (if only unintentional) credence to the Reformation claim.[2] Unfortunately, though, this translation is not the most accurate understanding of leitourgia. The ergon of the people in leitourgia is robbed of great meaning if it is resigned solely to referring to the laity. In Jesus we find a different understanding.

Leitourgia was used during the centuries before and after the time of Jesus, particularly in Greece, to mean a “public work of an individual/people on behalf of the whole.”[3] Often this would take the form of a wealthy benefactor paying for a road to be used by a community, city, province, or something similar. The addition of “on behalf” to “of” locates the focus of the work as being two-fold rather than singularly absorbed. The question for us becomes two-fold: who is performing the work and for whom?

Sunday liturgy is first and foremost about the worship of the triune God. If our liturgical worship is not doxological in telos then it is not Christian and should not be enacted. In addition to being a focused form of doxology, liturgy is performed by the Church on behalf of the world. Not only does the liturgy give us clues as to essence and meaning of the missio dei, it is also a microcosm of the missio dei enacted and embodied. Liturgy reflects the heart, activity, and mission of God because it flows directly from Christ’s own leitourgia on behalf of the world. The structural elements of liturgical worship, the very nature of worship itself, points to this reality: what we do in worship as doxology is meant to flow into everyday living as praxis. Who we are meant to be, who we are in Christ, is formed, shaped, and expressed presently and eschatologically in eucharistic celebration.

The Lord’s Day liturgy begins even before the faithful gather in the nave on Sunday morning.[4] The liturgy actually begins with the prompting invitation of the Holy Spirit and the response of men, women and children to come and engage in the worship of Almighty God together. If God’s mission is to redeem and restore all of creation, then the gathering up of his people from the ends of the earth (read city, county, etc.) is part of that mission. Even before the opening acclamation, God and humanity have been engaging in the dialogue of call and response, and just as God’s word does not return empty (Isaiah 55), so too should we see that those who are part of the throng on Sunday morning have in some way responded to God by grace and in faith.

Beginning with the standard, “Blessed be God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And blessed be his Kingdom, now and for ever. Amen,”[5] we can see that the telos of liturgical worship is the Kingdom of the triune God. That is, worship is ever moving toward something, God is ever inviting and drawing creation toward a specific end. When the Kingdom of God is the goal or destination of worship, our prayers and praises, laments and confessions, thanksgivings and silences are all part of the journey to and from the Kingdom as we are shaped and transformed by God into agents of the mission dei.[6]

The whole liturgy is a dually-climactic pilgrimage as we move “further up and further in.”[7] In constant motion forward, in consistent movement toward the goal, we first reach one climax in the sermon. The people of God who are on mission with God cannot be separated from the Word of God. Through the public reading of God’s Word and the further proclamation of the Gospel through the Sermon, the Church is instructed, illuminated, challenged, convicted, encouraged, exhorted, and so much more. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is present as the Word in the word, and the readings and sermon provide the hermeneutical foundation for Kingdom work. Simply put, upon further reflection of letters from Paul, proclamations from the prophets and kings, the wisdom of the Psalms, and the Gospel accounts themselves, the sermon turns from exposition toward explication, beckoning the listener toward discipleship, relationship with Jesus, and mission in the world.

However, the journey does not end with the sermon. Contrary to perception of many evangelical worship services, the point of the sermon is not to fill our heads with religious ideology before walking out of church, stepping over the beggar on the doorstep, and moving on with our public lives until we gather again next week for another information download. The sermon is always or should always be pointing toward the Table. Again, not to belabor the point here, Eucharist is not Table against or over Word but is instead the union of the Liturgy of Word and Table. Each interprets the other, each acts upon and grounds the other that our thoughts and actions, our words and embodiment, might all praise God.

The transition from Word to Table is important and not to be missed. A standard progression from one liturgy to the next includes the Nicene Creed, the Prayers of the People, the Confession of Sin, and the Exchange of the Peace. These elements are far more than liturgical time killers or clerical vamping; in fact, these elements speak directly to the mission God is carrying out in creation and into which we are invited.

The proclamation of the Nicene Creed during the Eucharist is not only a statement of doctrinal certainty and clarity, it (re)tells the soteriological story and mission of God from creation through fall and redemption and on toward the hopeful anticipation of consummation in the Kingdom. The Creed alerts those who are affirming their faith to the fact that in and through Jesus of Nazareth, the one who is both fully God and fully man, the world is being put to rights. “For us and for our salvation…and his kingdom will have no end…”[8] These are the words we say publicly, corporately, and expectantly every Sunday and they carry with them the imbibed hope and meaning of a people already redeemed joining in the work of redemption and reconciliation.

The Prayers of the People provide the first explicit opportunity for our worship to extend beyond the gathered faithful and to encompass the whole of the cosmos. While worship is the gathering up of creation’s praise and directing it back to the Creator, these prayers allow the worshippers to bring before Almighty God every relationship, every person, place, thing, job, city, etc. and to lay them upon the altar of grace and mercy. The prayers are offered—offered as part of the Eucharistic/anaphoric journey—for the Church, nation, the just use of creation, civil leaders, specific prayer requests and thanksgivings, and for the departed. There is not a single area or layer of life which is not represented in these prayers and that is the point: the mission of God encompasses the totality of life so that there is no false dichotomy between public and private or sacred and profane, and the Prayers of the People reflect this truth, too.

God’s mission in the world, as seen most clearly and prominently through the Passion, includes reconciling all things unto himself. The liturgy joins in this ministry of reconciliation through the use of public confession of sin and absolution by the priest. Note, it is important to bear in mind here that the priest is not forgiving sins based on her own merit or righteousness but is rather announcing and assuring those present of a forgiveness already graciously bestowed upon them by God. In other words, the priest is extending the forgiveness of sins found upon the cross (“Father, forgive them for they know not what they are doing”) and invites the people to approach the Table as a people of forgiveness. Both being forgiven and extending forgiveness are marks of the Kingdom of God, are integral to the mission of God, and are central to Eucharistic living.

The seal on the confession and absolution of sin can be seen through the lens of the Exchange of the Peace. This is often viewed as a time for greeting one another, making plans for brunch after the completion of the service, or an opportunity to stretch one’s legs after a long sermon. However, the origins of this practice depict a much different scene: we exchange the peace with one another because we have been once again reminded of our reconciliation to God in Christ through the Spirit. If I am reconciled and my brother or sister has also been reconciled unto God, then the natural and theologically appropriate next step is to reconcile one unto another. For how can we heed Paul’s exhortation in his epistle to the church at Corinth, or even approach the Table, if/when we still harbor anger or malice in our heart toward another? At the heart of the Christian life and the mission of God is the understanding that in and through Christ all things are being made new and being drawn toward the Father. The Peace is therefore the final opportunity for individuals to extend or receive forgiveness from a brother or sister before proceeding to the Table and eating and drinking judgment. Ultimately, it is “the peace of God” which we are extending to one another.

The Liturgy of the Word has been pointing toward the Liturgy of the Table from the opening acclamation and the Table seals and interprets the Word as we partake of the bread and wine, body and blood. Jesus’ Passion is recounted here and it is this anamnetic and anaphoric narrative which explicitly details the night that Jesus “was handed over to death” and the end toward which his Passion was pointed. The Church offers herself, her tithes, and her thanksgiving upon the altar as she “remember[s] his death, proclaims his resurrection, and awaits his coming in glory.”[9] The language used in the Eucharistic prayer evokes scenes of willing obedience and submission to the Father, arms stretched out upon the cross for the benefit and salvation of humanity and creation, and the sanctification of both gift and recipient that each may be transformed by the Spirit for holy purpose and use.

It is here, in the middle of recounting Christ’s Passion during the Eucharist, that we see the missio dei explained most fully. This is the point where Schmemann focused his attention for his classic For the Life of the Worldbecause it was through the willing submission to the Father’s will, through the arrest and betrayal and mocking and trial without complaint or resistance, through the cross and resurrection that we see Jesus’ actions were always for the life of the world. While Rome and the religious leaders may have thought they were silencing a troublemaker, and while many may view the crucifixion as nothing more than an execution, the Passion of Jesus is the ultimate affirmation, validation, and vindication of God’s creation. Christ died that all of creation, the whole of the cosmos, might be reconciled unto God; that all might be put back into right relationship with him. This is the Passion and the Passion is the central and defining element of Eucharistic worship.

Just as the bread is taken, blessed, broken, and given unto the disciples and those gathered around the table, so too are we a people to be dispersed and distributed among and amidst the world that others might see Christ. The elements are sanctified by the Spirit just as Christ was glorified upon the Cross and then the priest turns her prayer outward toward the congregation an she prays for the Spirit’s sanctifying work upon them as well. To what end? That they might become the body of Christ and be empowered for mission and ministry, of course.

The final act(s) after partaking of the Holy Meal include the final blessing by the priest which is nothing more or less than the acknowledgment of God’s blessing which he has already and always continues to pour out over his people. Finally, they are dismissed with a charge to go into the world, their mission field, as a people sent out.

If we can agree that the liturgy on Sunday is fashioned and formed after the leitourgia of Jesus, then it would follow that everything we do in liturgy is tied directly to the missio dei. In fact, the internal logic of the liturgy—the liturgical coefficient as it was dubbed by Schmemann[10]—shows a consistent and cohesive flow from entrance to dismissal, a flow which reveals to us the nature of our calling and sends us back out into the mission field. Jesus’ leitourgia was a (very) public work performed on behalf of the whole (cosmos) and the call for the church at liturgy is to join in this work: offering her own praise and prayer, thanksgiving and lament, joy and confession, in short her worship on behalf of the world that the world might see Christ and know him fully.


Endnotes

[1] Book of Common Prayer, 366.

[2] SC 14, In the restoration and promotion of the sacred liturgy, this full and active participation by all the people is the aim to be considered before all else.

[3] “The liturgy was an institution of compulsory public service in the classical Greek world, best known from Athens, in which the wealthiest citizens (and, for certain liturgies, metics) were compelled to shoulder the financial burden of some project or activity of benefit to the polis (MacDowell, 1978, p. 161). When used in Athens in the Early Classical period, the term referred to a set of specific duties designated by law. In the fourth century, however, it began to be used more generally, to designate a service or obligation performed for any beneficiary; our modern comes from its use to refer to religious obligations in the Septuagint (Lewis, 1960, p. 181).” Sterling Garnett, “Liturgy, Greece and Rome” in The Encyclopedia of Ancient History edited by Roger Bagnall et. al. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012).

[4] Sunday morning is used here as the normative time for Christian worship, but it is acknowledged that churches around the world also meet on Saturday or Sunday evenings as time, space, or circumstances dictate. This essay uses the Eucharistic liturgy of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer throughout.

[5] Book of Common Prayer, 355.

[6] “It means that we acknowledge and confess it [the Kingdom] to be our highest and ultimate value, the object of our desire, our love, and our hope. It means that we proclaim it to be the goal of the sacrament—of pilgrimage, ascension, entrance.” Schmemann, The Eucharist, 47.

[7] C.S. Lewis, The Last Battle.

[8] Book of Common Prayer, 358.

[9] Book of Common Prayer, 368.

[10] Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, 19.

A post by guest contributor, Dr. Eugene R. Schlesinger, Santa Clara University

It’s hard to find something that raises the hackles of Evangelical Christians quicker than the suggestion that the Eucharist is a sacrifice offered to God, unless it’s the suggestion that in addition to being a sacrifice, it is the sacrifice of Christ offered to God. Is this not the height of the vain superstitions from which the Reformers purified the church? Doesn’t such an idea call into doubt the sufficiency of Christ’s work on the cross for human salvation? Didn’t Anglicans in particular reject this idea when Article Thirty-One of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion said:

The Offering of Christ once made in that perfect redemption, propitiation, and satisfaction, for all the sins of the whole world, both original and actual; and there is none other satisfaction for sin, but that alone. Wherefore the sacrifices of Masses, in the which it was commonly said, that the Priest did offer Christ for the quick and the dead, to have remission of pain or guilt, were blasphemous fables, and dangerous deceits?

Well, maybe. But to my mind these questions are not the point. I am not going to address them directly. Instead, I want to do a bit of ressourcement—a retrieval of Scripture, the Church Fathers, and the Liturgy, to establish not only that the Eucharist is a sacrifice, and has been understood that way from the beginning, but that recovering the notion of eucharistic sacrifice is important for Evangelical Christians precisely because of a concern about the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice.

Sacrifice at the Origins of the Eucharist

So, first, my claim that the Eucharist has been understood as a sacrifice from the very beginning. Rather than reinvent the wheel here, allow me to refer readers to three important studies: Kenneth Stevenson’s Eucharist and Offering (Pueblo, 1986); Andrew McGowan’s Ascetic Eucharists (Oxford, 1999), and Rowan Williams’s Eucharistic Sacrifice: The Roots of a Metaphor (Grove, 1982). These books show just how early in the tradition the Eucharist was discussed as a sacrifice. In fact, it was sometimes described as a sacrifice without any explicit mention of Christ’s body and blood, or the sacrifice of the cross.

McGowan, in particular demonstrates that it was inevitable for the Eucharist to be conceived as a sacrifice because of its character as a meal in antiquity. Pretty much any public meals in the Græco-Roman milieu were inextricable from sacrifices. This, of course, recalls Paul’s concerns about meat sacrificed to idols when he writes to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 10:1-22). More than this, though, when we read Paul’s contrast between the Table of the Lord and the Table of the Demons in 1 Corinthians 10:18-22 with this knowledge in the background, we see that Paul is actually contrasting one sacrificial meal with another. Christians don’t partake in sacrificial meals associated with demons because they take part in a sacrificial meal associated with Christ.

Augustine and True Sacrifice

The contrast between the Eucharist and sacrifices offered to demons is also central to Augustine of Hippo’s thought. Augustine has inherited a long tradition of thinking of the Eucharist in sacrificial terms. What’s especially interesting, though, is this: his use of sacrificial language is limited almost entirely to contexts where he is opposing worship offered to demons (e.g., De Trinitate IV and XIII), or speaking about the Eucharist (Confessions IX, Sermons 227 and 272), or both (City of God X, Confessions X, Sermon 198). In other contexts, he uses other concepts to describe Christ’s death. Sacrifice, though, was especially suited to his anti-demon polemic and to his eucharistic thought.

As he explains in book 10 of City of God, sacrifice should be offered to God alone, and not to demons. He was particularly concerned with the practice of theurgy, which, according to Platonists such as Porphyry and Apuleius, would allow its practitioners to be purified by means of sacrificial offerings designed to secure the help of demons. In contrast to sacrifices offered to demons, Augustine insists that Christians have but one sacrifice, which is Christ’s, and that only God should receive sacrifice.

He further explains, by appealing to the Old Testament (e.g., Psalm 51), that true sacrifice is a matter of the heart. A visible and material gift is given as a sacramentum of the invisible sacrifice that God truly requires. Indeed, a true sacrifice is any act of mercy that is undertaken in order to bind together humanity with God in a holy fellowship so that we might be truly blessed (City of God, X.6). He goes further, though, to explain that the one true sacrifice was offered by Christ on the cross so that he might be the head of his body the church, and so that the whole redeemed city could be offered to God by him as the high priest.That last transition is an important one, because it shows that for Augustine sacrifice is not just something that happened to the historical Jesus, but something that is going to happen to the church as a whole. He conceives of our final salvation as a sacrifice where we are offered to God by Christ. And he understands this offering to be at one with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. The key insight behind this idea is Augustine’s understanding of the church as the totus Christus, the whole Christ, head and members.

Augustine’s thought here is, of course, deeply indebted to the Pauline image of the church as the body of Christ (e.g., 1 Corinthians 10 – 12; Ephesians 1:15-23). Suffice it to say that for Augustine, salvation is a matter of us returning to God, and that this return happens because we are united to Christ as members of his body. Sacrifice is one of the ways that he talks about that return.

We need to take two more steps to get where we’re going with this. First, immediately after he talks about the church as a whole being offered as a sacrifice to God, he also says that this sacrifice is the one offered on Christian altars, namely the Eucharist (City of God, X.6). Later in the same book, he’ll say that the Eucharist is a daily sacramentum of Christ’s sacrifice, through which the church learns to offer itself (City of God, X.20). This is important, because earlier he identifies the pious acts and ethical lives of Christians as sacrifices (City of God, X.3). Once more this is a very Pauline idea. In Romans 12:1-2, Paul begins the entire ethical section of the letter by describing ethics as a sacrifice offered to God.

Second, because of all the work he’s just done with the totus Christus, such that the sacrifice of the cross, of the whole church, and of the Eucharist are really one sacrifice of Christ, the lives of the faithful are themselves interior to the sacrifice of Christ. This is because the faithful are Christ’s members.

Conclusion: Eucharistic Sacrifice or Semi-Pelagianism

Here’s the point to which I’ve been driving, Augustine provides us with a way of synthesizing Romans 12:1, “Offer your bodies as a living sacrifice,” with 1 Corinthians 10:16-17, “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.” And this synthesis is vital. Because it allows us to talk about our moral behavior in a way that is connected with Christ’s one sacrifice. Apart from a synthesis like that, we have two options before us. Either we envision spiritual benefits coming to us from a source other than Christ’s sacrifice, or we completely sever any ethical dimension from Christianity.

If the Eucharist spiritually benefits us, it must, somehow, be Christ’s sacrifice, because this is the only source of salvation. If our ethical lives are of spiritual benefit, they must be connected to Christ’s sacrifice, otherwise we are left with a Pelagianism where our moral conduct benefits us apart from grace, or with a semi-Pelagianism where our moral conduct is purely a response to grace. The Augustinian account of eucharistic sacrifice I’ve sketched here allows us to uphold the benefit of the Eucharist and the importance of our moral lives, even as it upholds the bedrock Evangelical commitment that salvation is to be found only in the sacrifice of Christ.

The Eucharist is not a repetition of Calvary, and it’s important to realize that this has never been the teaching of any church. The Eucharist is not a re-sacrificing of Christ any more than our moral lives are a re-sacrifice of Christ. There is but one sacrifice which Christ offered once for all. It is through this sacrifice that he returns us to God. And in the eucharistic sacrifice, he brings us and our lives into that one sacrifice so that through him we may once more come to God. Through his one sacrifice, he transforms our lives into a sacrifice pleasing to God, a sacrifice which is only pleasing to God because it is united to his own.

Eugene Schlesinger is Lecturer in the Department of Religious Studies at Santa Clara University. The author of Missa Est! A Missional Liturgical Ecclesiology (Fortress Press, 2017) and Sacrificing the Church: Mass, Mission, and Ecumenism (forthcoming from Lexington Books/Fortress Academic), and the editor of Covenant, he understands his vocation to be an Episcopalian who does Catholic theology. He is a systematic theologian by training and, works primarily at the intersection of ecclesiology and sacramental theology. Since discovering Augustine of Hippo, much of his intellectual energy has been devoted to recovering the relevance of a theology of sacrifice for understanding “God, the universe, and everything,” which will be the subject matter of his next book (currently in progress). He is a committed Thomist insofar as he believes that understanding is good, and that being is intelligible, and he strives to belong to what Bernard Lonergan described as a “perhaps not numerous center.”

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

This post was originally published on my former blog, “The Liturgical Theologian.” It can be read in full here.

O God, whose blessed Son made himself known to his disciples in the breaking of bread: Open the eyes of our faith, that we may behold him in all his redeeming work; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

As I was preparing my sermon notes for the Third Sunday of Easter, I was struck by the Collect. It recounts how the Risen Lord revealed himself to his followers through the breaking of bread. Specifically, though not exclusively, this is a reference to Luke 24 when Jesus walked the road to Emmaus with two disciples, who did not recognize him until he took, blessed, broke and gave them bread. I think the revelation of Jesus through the breaking of bread and our weekly celebration of the Eucharist calls us to something great.

We are called to the Eucharistic Life.

New Testament Witness

Every biblical account of the Eucharist provides the same basic structure: bread was takenthanks was given, the bread was broken and then given.

The Synoptic (Matthew, Mark, Luke) accounts of the Last Supper are similar, but John’s Gospel does not contain the Last Supper; instead John connects Jesus’ words of institution with the feeding of the 5,000. In this story he “took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them.” Jesus then says, “I am the bread of life,” which Paul Bradshaw explains as a possible variation of “This is my body.” He writes, “Several scholars have already suggested that this latter statement is John’s version of the saying over the bread at the Last Supper.” (Bradshaw, Reconstructing Early Christian Worship,p. 4)

In 1 Corinthians 11 recounts Jesus’ words and actions during the Last Supper. Paul records that which had been handed down to him. Paul places the meal in the context of the crucifixion and resurrection: “On the night he was betrayed…Jesus took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said…” This summary has provided the foundation for Eucharistic prayers since the time of the Didache and The Apostolic Tradition.

The same structure was recorded in Acts 27 when Paul celebrated the Eucharist as he was sailing to Rome as a prisoner.

During the Last Supper, Jesus instituted four key actions (and corresponding words) that have been modeled and replicated in Eucharistic offerings for 2,000 years. These four words form the foundation of the Eucharistic life.

The Eucharistic Life

If the Eucharist is both “the sacrament of the Kingdom” (Schmemann, The Eucharistp. 28) and the sacrament that constitutes the church, and if in the Eucharist the church is not doing church but is doing the world the way it was meant to be done (combination of Alexander Schmemann and Aidan Kavanagh) then the Eucharist has meaning for the entirety of our lives. To live the Eucharistic life is to live a life that is taken, thanks-given, broken, and shared.

Taken

“Take my life and let it be,” O Lord! We offer our lives up unto the Lord that he might take them, consecrate them, and send us out with purpose. The act of offering is an act surrender and reverent submission to the triune God.

The Eucharistic life offers not just us but creation as well. Jesus took the bread and the wine, the most common food and drink in the world, and in so doing he celebrated the goodness of God’s creation. He did not comment about the nature or quality of the bread and wine, nor did he suggest that they were somehow bad because they were material. Instead he took the elements and transformed them in an act of oblation. “All things come of thee, O LORD, and of thine own have we given thee.” We are called to stewardship in God’s Kingdom as we recognize that God is the creator, sustainer and owner of all things.

Thanks-given

Eucharisteo means “the giving of thanks.” The Eucharistic life is one that recognizes the kindness and generosity of God in all things; it is a life that overflows with gratitude for God’s redeeming work throughout human history and above all in Jesus. In both the Eucharist and the Eucharistic Life we celebrate “the memorial of our redemption,” through our “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” Our very lives proclaim the grace of God which leads us to a lifestyle flavored with gratitude, thanksgiving, and adoration. May we be the kind of people for whom the Doxology is ever on our lips. “Praise God from whom all blessings flow. Praise him all creatures here below. Praise him above ye heavenly host. Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost.”

Broken

Brokenness always comes with a purpose. Christ was broken that we might share in his eternal life and kingdom. We are broken that Christ may live in us. The bread was broken and the wine poured out that all may share in the feast. “Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the Feast.” Jesus taught that a kernel must fall to the ground and die that it may be opened up and give new life.

To be broken does not require tragedy or great loss—indeed I pray that you never have to suffer such sadness. Rather, to be broken is to daily die to self and to rise to life in Christ; it is to pray that the Holy Spirit would convict us of our sinfulness and transform us daily into Christ’s likeness. It is to walk humbly before our God. It is to show the world that the only reason we can be an Easter people singing “Alleluia” is because we were first a Good Friday people shouting “Crucify him!” (Pope John Paul II)

Shared

When we live the Eucharistic Life, our desire to share the Good News flows from our gratitude. It is to be always pointing people back to the One who is worthy of our praise and thanksgiving. We are distributed to the corners of the earth that others may, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” We are shared not for our own glory but for the glory of God and for the life of the world.

The Eucharistic life is not for the faint of heart. We go back to the Altar weekly to partake of Christ’s self-oblation that we might receive spiritual nourishment and encouragement for the pilgrimage that we might:

Serve them with the very substance of your life. Paint them a picture of the Kingdom, weave them a shawl of love, sing them a Psalm of praise, write them a sonnet of promise, play them a symphony of grace, build them homes of compassion, mold them a pot of mercy. Demonstrate the Resurrection to them with your words and your actions to tell them that He loves them.

– The Rev. Canon Ellis E. Brust, Church of the Apostles, Kansas City

Jesus’ life was taken by God and consecrated. It was a life that constantly gave thanks to the Creator. It was a life broken by sin and the cross. It was a life shared with all that we might come to know God. The call of discipleship is the call to follow Him and live the Eucharistic Life.

(This article was written for “The Anglican Digest,” Volume 57, No. 3, Fall 2015. It can be read online here. The theme for this edition of the Digest was the “Communion of the Saints.” Many thanks to the (Rt.) Rev. Anthony Clavier for the invitation to submit my writing for consideration.)

Orthodox Church - Saints - Communion

In the fullness of time, put all things in subjection under your Christ, and bring us to that heavenly country where, with all your saints, we may enter the everlasting heritage of your sons and daughters; through Jesus Christ our Lord, the firstborn of all creation, the head of the Church, and the author of our salvation.

1979 Book of Common Prayer, Eucharistic Prayer B, Rite II

The celebration of the Eucharist is the sacrament par excellence of the church and the primary locus of her communion with the triune God. Any theological conversation about the often-ambiguous “communion of the saints” must begin and end with a robust understanding of koinonia in, with, and through the Trinity. The powerful imagery of heavenly worship portrayed in Revelation 4-5 comes to earthly fruition in our own sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. It is my contention that the church militant is most connected to the church triumphant through her doxological and eucharistic worship.

Koinonia and the Godhead

In line with the writings of John Zizioulas, our first step toward true communion (koinonia) must begin with the self-contained, mutual, and self-giving fellowship of the Trinity. Our koinonia with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit is based on the invitation to participate in the love that overflows from and has eternally existed within the Three-in-One. To be truly human is to be in communion with God for there is no existence outside of and apart from Him.

Throughout Scripture, God made it possible for his people to commune with Him: he “tabernacled” with Israel as she wandered through the desert; God “took up residence” in the Temple in Jerusalem; He spoke through prophets, judges and kings and delivered his people time and time again. He was most fully revealed through the incarnation, life, teachings, ministry, healings, crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus of Nazareth. Through Christ we have been adopted into the covenant family of God and made co-heirs of his kingdom.

The sacramental life of the church draws us into deeper relationship with the Trinity. In the waters of baptism we are initiated as covenant family members and united with Christ’s death and resurrection in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, we have communion with God when we celebrate the Eucharist as both the reaffirmation of our baptismal vows and the realization of our priestly (of all believers) calling to be the church.

Communion of the Saints

The hymn “The Church’s One Foundation” states profoundly, “Yet she on earth hath union with God the Three in One; And mystic sweet communion with those whose rest is won.” Communion with the saints only comes in and through the union the church experiences with the Trinity. As both the “sacrament of the kingdom” and the “Sacrament of sacraments,”[1] the Church most fully experiences this union in her regular celebration of the Eucharist.

Whether you believe in life after death or the preferred “life after life after death”[2] there is the hope and promise of union with those saints who have gone before and those who will come after. The Eucharist is not a form of religious magic but is rather the mystical, sweet union of God and Church transcending time and space through the power of the Holy Spirit. As we “lift up our hearts” in the Sursum Corda and sing the Sanctus we are, “Joining our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven who forever sing…” Our oblation is local to our historical context but it is most importantly part of a universal, ongoing offering of praise and thanksgiving.

Scripture offers a few glimpses at the communion of the saints. Both the letter to the Hebrews and John’s vision in Revelation provide the biblical framework for our participation in a covenant family much larger than the visible church. Additionally, Hebrews and Revelation should be seen as liturgical books—or at the very least letters containing liturgical visions and imagery. The reference to the “great cloud of witnesses” in Hebrews 12 and John’s vision in Revelation 5:13), “Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, singing,” are liturgical in nature. It is not that the communion of saints is impossible apart from liturgical worship, but rather that our worship of the Godhead is what makes any understanding of communion both possible and tangible.

Christ the Qualifier

Eucharistic worship is to the Father, through the Son, and by the Holy Spirit. In order to avoid talking about a vague religious order we must first add a qualifier to the phrase “the communion of the saints.” Who or what is the qualifier? Jesus the Christ. We conclude our Eucharistic Prayer with the words, “By him, and with him, and in him, in the unity of the Holy Spirit all honor and glory is yours, Almighty Father, now and for ever. AMEN.” The foundation of the church’s communion—the very underpinnings of the combination of church militant and triumphant—is the second person of the Trinity whose sacrifice we remember (anamnesis) and whose flesh and blood we do eat and drink.

It is through the words and actions of our heartfelt praise and gratitude that we are connected to believers across all generations in a real and tangible sense. We have the hope that when the kingdom is fulfilled we will sit around the table in that heavenly country with brothers and sisters whom we have never met. Until that day, we are called to bring our oblation before the Lord with the confidence that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who are proclaiming, “To the one seated on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” Communion begins and ends with the throne of God – may we find our fellows saints as we approach with humble confidence.

[1] Both quotations are references from Eucharist: Sacrament of the Kingdom by Protopresbyter Alexander Schmemann.

[2] N. T. Wright, Surprised By Hope

Last Supper Cologne Sculpture

This piece was originally published in Resonance: A Theological Journal back in 2015.

Introduction

The question of Christ’s presence or location in the Eucharist is common among theologians and readers of theology. Is Christ really present in the sacrament? If so, how? Such debate has similarly been central to ecumenical dialogue: transubstantiation, consubstantiation, memorial feast, realpresence, and spiritual presence represent varying answers to the conundrum. Rather than disagreeing about the nature or form of elemental transformation or the spiritual aspects of the Eucharist, ecumenical dialogue should instead focus on affirming the presence of Christ through the power of the Spirit to the glory of the Father. George Hunsinger offers a masterful attempt in The Eucharist and Ecumenism to find common ground amid these viewpoints while also capturing the thickness of the Sacrament.[i]

Such concrete attempts to locate Christ in the sacrament fall short of the depth of the Church’s liturgical worship however. The ordo, or structure of the church’s ancient liturgy, cannot be divvied up into smaller portions in an attempt to find Jesus or to use some elements while removing others. The ordo has an inherent meaning to it that cannot be separated out or watered down.[ii] Christ is fully present throughout the entirety of the liturgy because the liturgy in its entirety is considered to be the Eucharist. Any meaningful conversation about the location of Jesus in the Eucharist must see the Eucharist as the whole of the service rather than just one prayer or moment of consecration.[iii]

This article will seek to argue that not only is Christ really present in the Eucharist, but he is present in a plurality of forms and ways. Ultimately his presence is made known in the ritual sacrament in its most tangible and mysterious form, but he is also present in the assembly, (through the presiding minister), and by the reading and proclamation of his word.[iv] By understanding his location in such light, we as the Church are then able to articulate his presence more fully and embody his presence in the world he loves and is coming back to redeem.

Synaxis

Our first encounter with the person of Christ is found in the very gathering of the ecclesiafor Sunday worship: the synaxis. As the people of God join together for the corporate praise and worship of Almighty God they become the Church in a very real and tangible sense. Our Lord said, “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Mt 18:20 NRSV). Scripture also tells us that God is “enthroned on the praises of Israel” and that Jesus is the head of the Church.[v] In short, in becoming one, we become the very body of Christ. With Jesus as the head we are his agents, his singular vehicle of mission and ministry in the world.

In leaving the world and entering into praise and worship, the individual joins in with the koinonia (communion/fellowship)of the Trinity and the Church meeting the Risen Lord as the many become one. St. John tells us: “…the Word became flesh and lived [read: tabernacled] among us” (Ps 22:3, Col 1:18). Through the empowering presence of the Spirit we believe that Jesus continues to tabernacle in, with, and among his people. The opening acclamation—“Blessed be God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And blessed be his kingdom, now and forever. Amen.”[vi]—as well as the opening songs of praise locate the entire assembly within the triune Godhead and the ongoing, unending praise of the cosmos. The opening acclamation and call to worship identifies and realizes the synaxis in a different dimension of time and space: it is real time and space in the presence of Almighty God. As Fr. Schmemann has pointed out in The Eucharist, the use of “Amen” by the people is not simply a space-filler, it is an affirmation of “Yes, this is so, and let it be so.”[vii]

Word

Jesus is the second person of the Trinity, He is the divine logos poured forth from the mouth of God who created all that is and ever shall be. The majestic language of John’s prologue demonstrates the nature of such presence as the logos and within the ordo we encounter Christ through the public reading and proclamation of God’s word. The Word did indeed become flesh, but he is still the logos. The versicle (responsive statements) at the end of the Old Testament and Epistle lessons points to such reality: The reader says, “The Word of the Lord” and the faithful reply, “Thanks be to God.” We are truly giving thanks for the presence of God’s Word in the assembly; the reading of God’s word means that God’s Word is present in and among his people.

Hebrews claims, “The word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword” (Heb 4:12). Through Isaiah, YHWH says, “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Is 55:11). The Liturgy of the Word is thus ministry in action. It is not the preamble to Communion but rather it is one of two pinnacles or climaxes within the liturgy and should be received as the presence of Christ. In fact, it is against the tradition of the Church and liturgical rubrics to celebrate the Eucharist without first reading from Scripture. One cannot proceed to the Altar without first having been fed by the Word—the two cannot be separated.

The same should be said of the sermon. There should be no difference between the reading of God’s word and the kerygmatic proclamation of the word by the preacher. Perhaps the preacher should also conclude her sermon by saying, “The Word of the Lord,” to which the people reply, “Thanks be to God.” The Reformers certainly had this point right when they stated that “the marks of the true church [are] that the Word of God should be preached, and that the sacraments be rightly administered.”[viii] The connection between synaxis and Word is quite clear. Once the gathered faithful have been fed by the proclaimed word, the service naturally turns toward the second pinnacle of the ordo —the Feast of the Word, the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.

Last Supper Stained Glass

Sacrament

If we believe with Fr. Schmemann that the Eucharist is the sacrament par excellence of the Church, the Sacrament of sacraments and the very place where the Church becomes that which she already is,[ix] then we ought to have a thorough understanding of Christ’s location therein.[x] It is safest to dwell in the realm of mystery on this point. The move toward embracing mystery is not a philosophical or theological abandonment, but rather the simple admission that God’s ways and thoughts are higher than ours (Isaiah 55). Nor is Mystery a weakened, watered down version of transubstantiation nor is it akin to riding on the fence between two extremes. Christ can still be fully and really present in the bread and wine without requiring a solid answer as to “how” such a thing is possible.

The celebrant begins the Eucharistic Prayer with the Anaphora, the Great Thanksgiving when the Sursum Corda is said: “Lift up your hearts.”[xi] The response is beautiful: “We lift them up to the Lord.” Liturgiologists and liturgical theologians have believed that this proclamation locates the assembly within the eternal Throne Room of Almighty God. This is further evidenced by the singing (or saying) of the Sanctus which echoes the words of Revelation 4-5, “Holy, holy, holy Lord. God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest.”[xii] This is the song that the heavenly host sings before the Throne without ceasing and the Church is caught up into and joins that heavenly chorus. We know from Scripture that Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father and therefore in the act of Sursum Corda and Sanctus the assembly also is in his presence.The celebrant then moves into a recounting of YHWH’s mighty acts throughout history, ultimately culminating in the incarnation, life, and crucifixion of Jesus. The prayer brings to mind the Last Supper when Jesus instituted this holy meal. Our Lord said, “Do this in remembrance of me.”This act of anamnesis, of powerfully and actively remembering, is what drags the past into the present and makes known and real the one true sacrifice of Jesus. Jesus is not re-sacrificed weekly but rather his sacrifice is weekly re-presented. The eschatological outlook of the Eucharistic prayer awaits the day when God will be all in all, when Christ will return to make all things new, and when the faithful shall dine at the banquet table with their bridegroom. The future is a necessary component of all Eucharistic celebration because we are a hope-filled people awaiting the “resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.”[xiii] The past and future acts of Christ come crashing into present and therefore make him present as well.

The epiclesis (invocation of the Holy Spirit; e.g. “Send your Spirit upon these gifts…” ), no matter where it is placed, focuses on the transformation of the Bread and Wine into the Body and Blood of Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is no reason to believe that our Lord was being esoteric when he said, “This is my Body…this is my Blood.” We are not forced into elemental transformation where the form remains the same but the accidents do not. Nor are we confined to believing that the only transformation to take place is in the heart of the believer—though that would be easier. Rather, we are left to believe that the Bread is still bread and the Wine is still wine and yet somehow, someway they are the Body and Blood and that Christ is present in them. Christ’s presence in the sacrament has been made known and realized long before the prayer over the elements and people ever take place. The liturgy concludes with the dismissal of the people out into the world as Christ’s body—this is not truly the end of the liturgy but the beginning of a new chapter, the liturgy after the liturgy, through which we are called to be agents and partners with God’s will and mission.

Conclusion – Real Presence, Plural Presence

The question at hand, then, is not “is” Christ present or “how” is he present, but rather, “Are we willing to accept and encounter the plurality of his presence?” Any attempt to locate Jesus concretely or specifically in the Eucharistic elements is beyond the pale of Scripture and the ancient witness of the Church. The strongest claim that one can make is that he is present in the elements but the method or means by which are mysteriously unknown. Real presence would be the via media between the certainty of trans- and consubstantiation and the thin outlook of the memorial feast and spiritual presence. Christ is not only present in the elements, though you shall certainly find him there, but he is also really present throughout the liturgy in various places, ways, forms, and manners.

A separation between Word and Sacrament occurs when we focus our conversation of presence on a moment or action in the Eucharist.[xiv] Christ is not absent from the Liturgy of the Word and to suggest otherwise is to relegate the readings and sermons to the opinion of man. A robust understanding of a dually climactic liturgy, of both Word and Sacrament, will lead to a deeper acknowledgment of Christ’s pluralistic presence in the Eucharistic ordo. Our Lord is present in, among, by, with, and for his creation and we should expect nothing less from the summit of our praise and worship.

Ultimately the Church is sent forth from her walls that she might embody God’s love “for the life of the world.”[xv] As agents of transformation and grace, we are called to share the Good News of God in Christ with neighbors and strangers alike, inviting them into the family of God, and ultimately partaking with them in a foretaste of the eschatological banquet. By understanding his location in such light, we as the Church are then able to articulate his presence more fully and embody his presence in the world he loves and is coming back to redeem.

This piece was originally published in Resonance: A Theological Journal in the Winter 2015 edition. My heartfelt gratitude goes to Micah Lunsford, a fellow Fuller graduate and the Editor of Resonance.

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[i]George Hunsinger, The Eucharist and Ecumenism: Let Us Keep the Feast, Current Issues in Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

[ii]Alexander Schmemann, Introduction to Liturgical Theology, 3rd ed., trans. Asheleigh E. Moorhouse (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir, 1986, ©1966), 19.

[iii]Alexander Schmemann, The Eucharist–sacrament of the Kingdom (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir, 1988, ©1987), 31.

[iv] I have elected to include the presiding minister parenthetically because such a topic would require far more time and attention than we can give at this moment. Suffice it to say that varying viewpoints on the efficacy or ontology of presbyters is far too large in scope to cover here. That being said, I do believe the priest is an icon of Christ but I do not believe that it is an icon associated with masculine or male-dominated imagery. Cf. Bruce T. Morrill, Encountering Christ in the Eucharist: The Paschal Mystery in People, Word, and Sacrament (New York: Paulist Press, ©2012).

[v] Psalm 22:3 and Colossians 1:18.

[vi]The Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and Other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church: Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David According to the Use of the Episcopal Church (New York: Church Hymnal Corp., [1979]), 355.

[vii] Schmemann, The Eucharist, 48.

[viii] Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion via Alister E. McGrath. Historical Theology: An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Oxford: (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998) 205.

[ix] That is, in Christ the Church already is the Church but she becomes or realizes herself as the Church in the celebration of the Eucharist.

[x] Schmemann, The Eucharist, 29.

[xi] A better translation is the simple imperative, “Up hearts!”

[xii] 1979 BCP, 362.

[xiii] As stated in the Nicene Creed.

[xiv] Schmemann, The Eucharist, 27-28.

[xv] Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World: Sacraments and Orthodoxy, 2nd ed. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir, 1973 (1982 Printing)),.

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This was originally posted on my Patheos Blog, “The Liturgical Theologian” in April 2016. You can read the original post here.

You can easily begin a deep theological and liturgical debate across ecumenical lines with one simple question: how should the Celebrant be oriented in the Eucharist? Maybe it’s based on the fact that I am an Anglican, but this simple question has churned up many strong feelings and convictions.

My main goal, here, is to provide some fodder for thinking about our Eucharistic orientation. Perhaps we (those who are the inheritors of the Reformation(s)) have gotten it wrong…

For the children of the Reformation(s) the answer is clear: the priest (if you have one) should face the people. This is known as versus populum and it supposedly encourages or facilitates corporate worship around a common table. The logic continues that only when gathered around a common table can any sense of “clericalism” or medieval superstition be avoided.

The other tradition is known as ad orientem. In this celebration of the Eucharist the priest faces the altar, i.e. East, and has back turned to the people. I want to unpack the thinking behind this in a bit, but right now it’s important to note arguments against ad orientem. Naysayers will suggest that this orientation separates the people from the priest; that this is impersonal and cold (back turned); that the people become spectators; etc. The list goes on ad infinitum.

I think the main issue is that we haven’t taken the time to understand ad orientem. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI, Emeritus) wrote about this in his book The Spirit of the Liturgy. I encourage all to purchase this timeless classic!

Why Ad Orientem?

Ad orientem makes a great deal of sense when you understand that the entire practice is based on orienting oneself toward the East. Why? The assembled church faces East in the eschatological expectation of our Lord’s return. The Sun rises in the East and facing toward the East, in ancient times, meant facing toward the New Jerusalem—the heavenly city for which we wait and hope. Remember that the Lord’s return has always been imminent, for we know not the time or the hour, and therefore the Eucharistic people are prepared to greet their Risen Lord.The priest is seen as a member of the assembled church. In versus populum, one might say, there is a table separating priest from people but in ad orientem there is nothing separating them. All are equal, all are turned toward the East, all are anticipating the Lord’s parousia. When the priest faces the people it may feel, so goes the logic, as if the priest is the central figure of the celebration. In ad orientem it is clear that God is the chief actor: everyone is looking toward the triune God rather than at the priest.

Please here this: I am not suggesting that versus populum is wrong or invalid. The overwhelming majority of the time I am celebrating in this style. I simply think that we need to reconsider our stance on ad orientem.

If our liturgical worship is whole-bodied, and if what we do in worship matters as much as what we say, then perhaps our posture and orientation says and does something theologically. What if we attuned ourselves to eschatological hope and anticipation and prepared to great the Risen Lord? What if we have gotten it wrong and we’ve thrown the baby out with the bath water?

In the Eucharist we, both clergy and laity, are concelebrants. We join our prayers, praise, and voices together with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven before the triune God. When we face East together we participate together, we pray together, we offer together. This is the Eucharistic vision–the Church offers herself and her gifts unto the Giver of Life.

I could go on for pages—and perhaps I will later—but for now let us suffice it to say that our bodies, hearts, and minds should all face the same way. Even in celebrating versus populum may we look Eastward and expect the Lord’s return. Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. Jesus is our Great High Priest and the Celebrant of the Eucharist, may we look to him and see him.

This is a sonnet I penned for the Writer’s Guild at our church. The prompt was “Rite of Passage” and my mind immediately turned toward baptism. Enjoy! It was originally published here on my old blog, “The Liturgical Theologian.”

Rite of Passage: A Sonnet

A journey through water and into lightThe response of faith to the beckoning call

A night brighter than any day or night

The riteful passage offered one and all

Death and life, descent and ascent

The grace of our Lord ne’er will relent

Draw near the font, feel the water cover you

Into the triune name you are now placed

The glory of the Lord shines around you

A joy so palpable you can almost taste

As you’re washed by his love, grace may astound you

Come sinner, come beggar, make haste

It’s a rite of passage, a loving initiation

New birth, new life, beloved, new creation

This piece was first published on my previous blog, “The Liturgical Theologian,” on July 12, 2017 and can be found here.

Perhaps it’s just me and my upbringing in northern Virginia, but I can distinctly remember thinking the local our Catholic parish was weird because when I received communion there is was always and only a wafer. No wine. Anyone else with me? A few confessions are in order here: first, by “my upbringing” I simply refer to the fact that I was part of a fairly low Episcopal Church and had no personal real commitment to Anglican worship, polity, or anything during my youth. Second, I definitely received communion at a local Catholic parish despite being a baptized Episcopalian. Third, I only attended Saturday evening mass at St. James because I played on a successful, travel soccer team and we often had games on Sunday mornings. Arrest me, I know (alas, perhaps another post for another time).

Seriously though, I often thought to myself growing up—and can unfortunately remember numerous conversations attempting to proselytize others—that the Catholics were both weird and wrong for withholding wine from the Faithful. And the current articles/essays/blog pieces going around about the Vatican saying “no” to Gluten-free bread creates the potential for a seemingly interesting “one kind” situation for those with Gluten intolerance. You can read Sarah Pulliam Bailey here and Emma Winters hereon the issue for further information (hint: they both dispel the idea that low Gluten wafers are bad for those with an intolerance).

Fast forward twenty years: I am now an Anglican priest, PhD student in liturgical theology, and I haven’t had communion in both kinds in over 16 months. Why? Because I’m an alcoholic.

Before we go off the deep end here, please read my words clearly: I am not suggesting that all alcoholics in recovery must abstain from partaking the blood of Christ every Sunday. That is way above my pay grade and none of my business. I am also similarly aware that the Vatican has approved the use of mustum (grape juice with less than 1% alcohol content) for use during Holy Eucharist.

That said, being one who partakes of only the bread for 16 months has caused me to reflect on my childhood naiveté and more recent experiences.

You would assume that I would be the first person to insist upon having wine at Eucharist. And no, not because I’m an alcoholic, despite that being the obvious logic! You would make that assumption because my doctoral research is devoted to liturgical theology and what happens in worship, particularly sacramental worship. As I priest I regularly administer the bread and wine, the Body and Blood, to the faithful. Wouldn’t I—nay, shouldn’t I—partake as well?

Here’s what I’ve learned…

  1. I am not receiving a lesser Sacrament or being robbed of a sacramental experience. My involvement in the Eucharist is the same as it always has been: active, prayerful, grateful, expectant. I’m not missing out on anything by virtue of having only one element instead of two. There is no noticeable shift in my own awareness and no less grace conferred, either.
  2. The Eucharist, for me, has become more about the giving of thanks rather than the reception or partaking of elements. I have much to be thankful for in my life: an incredibly supportive and loving wife, three amazing children, a business, a PhD program, my sobriety…the list goes on and on. I have the opportunity to give thanks to my Heavenly Father during the Eucharist for this and for so much more. The point of the Eucharist, first and foremost, is for the church to gather for the source and summit of her worship by giving thanks, directing the praise of creation back to Creator, and self-offering before the Lord. Have we lost sight of this in our post-Reformation debates upon substance, change, and consecration?
  3. The significance of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist is not a matter of elemental change or discovering the moment of consecration. My awareness of Christ’s presence, or at least my openness to his activity and agency in worship has changed. Christ is present in the Eucharist, with his people, in the act of thanksgiving, in the offering of praise and prayer, and in the breaking of bread. Jesus is not somehow absent to me and more fully present to another because I no longer drink from the chalice or intinct my bread. The Eucharist is a whole service, not just one part of something larger. In the prayers of God’s people, in the reading of Scripture, in the sermon, and in Communion, Christ is present. My job is to encounter him there and not to locate him solely in bread or wine.

The focus on Eucharist in one kind or in two shifts radically the meaning of the Eucharist from what it should be. I’m not arguing for an anything goes mentality when it comes to sacramental worship, far from it! I’m advocating for a deeper, more robust, thicker sacramental experience and encounter. I’m learning on a Sunday by Sunday basis, and one day at a time, that Jesus beckons me—and all of us—to his table not simply for bread and wine or Body and Blood but for participation in the wedding feast, joining the Eschatological banquet table in a foretaste, participating in the self-giving, overflowing love of the Trinity.

My appreciation for the Eucharist—and I daresay my understanding—has grown significantly in the last 16 months. It feels as though things have been put into sharper perspective by virtue of opting out of the wine and that primary issues have once again become primary (and therefore secondary issues have returned to being secondary). I’m sure that I’ll have more to say on the subject as I am further changed by the liturgy and my lengthening time in recovery, but at this point I can say that it is “right to give him thanks and praise.”

“Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”[1]

You May Also Enjoy: On Being an Alcoholic and Liturgical Muggles and Losing the Sacramental Imagination

[1] Taken from the 1979 BCP, Rite II.