Several years ago, I was privileged to contribute a piece as a guest to the Covenant blog of The Living Church. Many thanks to the blog’s (former) managing editor, Zachary Guiliano for publishing this piece on the liturgical nature of time. You can read this article below or in its original format here.
This post really covers two different topics. First, how does the Church tell time daily, weekly, and annually? This much should be obvious. Second, and perhaps more importantly, how does the incarnation, life, ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation of Jesus the Christ influence our understanding of time? Further, is liturgical time real time?
It is safe to say — and perhaps overly apparent — that the Church tells time differently than the rest of the world. Rather than marking time by the seasons, political and military holidays, or the movement of plants and stars named after Roman gods, the Church tells time according to Jesus of Nazareth. Beginning with the first Sunday in Advent as we await the birth of the boy who is King, and ending with Christ the King Sunday, every aspect of the Church’s life can be understood within the context of Jesus’ own story.
As such, the new year is not the first of January but the first Sunday of Advent; the highest and holiest day of the year is not the fourth of July (America) or even Christmas (Hallmark) but the annual celebration of the Paschal Mystery: Easter. The feasts and the fasts of the Church help us to remember the saints and exemplars who have gone before, those who have embodied the way of Christ tangibly among us. The year then flows accordingly: Advent for the first coming of the Messiah, Christmastide as we celebrate his birth, Epiphany as we embrace the manifestation of God in Christ, Lent to recount the temptation of the Lord as we prepare for Holy Week and Easter, Holy Week as we journey through Jesus’ last days on earth, Easter for the church’s celebration par excellence, Eastertide as a reminder of Jesus’ post-resurrection and pre-exaltation days, Pentecost to remember the gift of the Holy Spirit, Ordinary Time as a corporate journey through Israel’s history and the teachings of our Lord, and finally Christ the King Sunday as we once again proclaim his kingship.
Such an annual cycle has a profound influence theologically and within the constructs of Christian formation. This is a time that is other than the time of the world, it is counter to the story and narratives of the powers and principalities that be, it is in short real time.
The same is true of our week. We mark our week around one day: Sunday. Sunday is the first, the third, and the eighth day of the week. This is bizarre; it sounds as confusing as attempting to explain the Trinity, but it is nonetheless true.
Sunday is the first day of the week and the first day of creation. It is the day of the Sun of Righteousness, given that Saturday is the Sabbath, the day of rest. It is the third day,because it was on Sunday that our Lord was raised from the grave, having conquered sin, death, and the devil; having “trampled down death by death,” he was raised to new life, echoing his bold claim from earlier in John’s gospel, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Finally, Sunday is the eighth day because the resurrection changes everything: it is the first day of the new week, the first day of the new creation. It is the breaking in of God’s Kingdom in the here and now. John marks his Gospel according to days, and the Sunday of the resurrection is both a continuation of the first day but also its fulfillment.
Nothing can ever be the same after the resurrection of Jesus, and time is no exception. Our week centers around the Church’s Sunday worship and celebration of the Eucharist — all other days gain their meaning in relation to this day.
Even our daily time is accounted differently. For those who follow the ancient tradition of the church time is marked by hours or offices of prayer. The Book of Common Prayer (1979) lists several such times: morning, noon, evening, and compline. Time then is measured by our ability to intercede and worship before the Lord, offering all that we are and all that we have to him, rather than by the workday or weekend schedule. The daily prayers coincide with both the Sunday Eucharist and the Church calendar, taking on new dimensions as we progress through the week and year. As we trek through the Psalter and the canon of Scripture, and as we sojourn together through the life of our Lord, our time is transformed into something different, something more, something almost whole.
What then do we do with liturgical time? It has often been said that as an individual steps into the nave for the liturgy “time ceases.” The indication here is that liturgical worship is somehow an escape or removal from time, that it is somehow against time as we know it. Not only do I find this unhelpful, I also find it untrue. Liturgical time is not the cessation of time; this could not be further from the truth. Liturgical time is in fact the thickening and deepening of time, it is time made more real; no, it is time made most real. Just as Jesus’ Kingdom is utterly for this world, so too is liturgical time absolutely for time as we know it in the Church.
The Sunday ordo celebrates the annual, weekly, and daily cycles of the Church’s prayer,and it proclaims, presents, and enacts the story of God in Christ. The dually climactic nature of Word and Table reaches a crescendo in the Eucharistic prayer when this sense of time is most fully revealed. The anamnesis is the reaching back into the past, dragging forward into the present, and making real of the sacrifice of Jesus. Similarly, we look forward to the day when God will be all in all; our eschatological hope gives us a foretaste of glory eternal and divine in the Eucharist. What we presently encounter is the crashing in of past and future into the now; it is the meeting of Christ’s salvific actions at the time of Passover and his coming again at time unknown. And yet we somehow experience it in a real, tangible, and robust sense on a weekly basis.
Liturgical time is thick. It is different. It is new. And it is utterly real. Our experience with and encounter of the living God through the sacrament of sacraments is the pinnacle of the Church’s worship. It is living with the reality, and in the light, of Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, and exaltation as he reigns over all things. Our understanding of time is irrevocably and undeniably tied into the Paschal Mystery. We ought to be more intentional about telling time liturgically because to do so is to tell time according to Jesus rather than the competing and counterfeit narratives of this world.
This piece was originally published in Resonance: A Theological Journal back in 2015.
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.
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]
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.
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 Journalin the Winter 2015 edition. My heartfelt gratitude goes to Micah Lunsford, a fellow Fuller graduate and the Editor of Resonance.
[i]George Hunsinger, The Eucharist and Ecumenism: Let Us Keep the Feast, Current Issues in Theology (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).
[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., ), 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)),.
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.
A friend recently shared that a young woman in his parish explained that she hates the Creed. He subsequently requested that something be written about the importance of teaching the Creed(s) to young people. There are likely to be many, many articles, books, and blog posts on the topic but here’s my attempt at an answer:
As part of the liturgy every Sunday, the assembled Church proclaims the words of the Nicene Creed (or Apostles’ Creed if connected with the Sacrament of Baptism). I have often heard this liturgical practice described as dull, rote, and boring. For many this is but a chance to stretch the legs after the sermon and to shake off the preacher’s (in)effective words before Eucharist. But why is the Creed viewed this way? Weren’t there councils and centuries of heresy and disagreement that ultimately gave birth to these statements of faith? Is the Creed relevant to my faith today? Keep reading…
The Creed (and I am using a generic “Creed” at this point but by it I mean Nicene-Constantinopolitan, Apostles’ or Athanasian) is far more than theological precision or the fruit of a council some 1700 years ago. The Creed is first and foremost part of the living expression and Tradition of the one holy catholic and apostolic church. The Creed recalls our baptismal covenant and Eucharistic joy, it is Scripture exegeted and digested, it is our corporate memory and shared faith, it is active, and it is certainly theologically robust.
In the Early Church, the Bishop gave the Apostles’ Creed to members of the catechumenate. These men and women were meant to learn, mark, study, and inwardly digest the Creed as part of their preparation for baptism at the Easter Vigil. They were taught and instructed based on the Creed as part of their catechesis. Nothing has changed to this day—at least, nothing needs to have changed.
The catechumens would then be responsible for “handing the Creed back” to the Bishop. That is, these God-fearing men and women would demonstrate their reception of the Creed by proclaiming its words and power to the Bishop. In modern liturgies, the Apostles’ Creed is part of the Liturgy of Baptism because it is the earliest baptismal statement in the Church. To this day we proclaim the Apostles’ Creed because it is the “faith once delivered” to the Church and carried on faithfully throughout generations.When you say the Creed you are not simply reciting ancient words. Side note: I think it would be wise for clergy to cease saying, “Let us recite the words…” No, the Creed is a proclamation of God’s faithfulness and work throughout history; it is an affirmation of the triune God; it is the recognition that Jesus is both fully man and fully God; it is embrace of the person and work of the Holy Spirit; it is a charge to and for the Church. The Creed signals our participation in salvation history because our very act of believing is evidence of the Creed’s efficacy and validity.
The normative creed in the midst of the Eucharist is the Nicene Creed, the words of which were hammered out by two great ecumenical councils in Nicaea and Constantinople. The councils were held as a result of heretical teachings spreading throughout the nascent church. The Nicene Creed is Trinitarian, it is doxological, it is theological, it is rich, and it is robust. One thing that it is not: complete. No creedal statement will ever be a complete capturing or encapsulation of theological reality and thought. The Creed is embedded within the liturgy and it is here that it finds its greatest significance. As part of the liturgy the Creed adds to our worship as it moves from a statement of assent and becomes a statement of praise and thanksgiving.
Is the Creed relevant to your faith? It is perhaps one of the most relevant things you can say! It is a reminder that while your faith is the faith of an individual it is also not your faith. It is a faith that was handed down to you, a faith that you received, and a faith that you are called to pass along. The Creed helps us hone in on what we believe as the one holy catholic and apostolic church and it also helps us get outside of our own heads and holy huddles.
Just to recap: the creeds are therefore used in intimate connection with two sacraments of the Church: baptism and Eucharist. The creeds allow us to participate liturgically and sacramentally in the witness, Tradition, and ministry of the Church. We join our voices with myriads of saints who have gone before—and many who will come after—in the praise and worship of Almighty God. Our faith is formed as Trinitarian, doxological, theological, baptismal, and Eucharistic.
I don’t know about you, but based on the all the above I have an extreme need for Creed…don’t you?
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
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…
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.
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?
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.”
Our most powerful memories are often tied to our senses and the way we experience the world. We can usually remember the first time we read a certain book or listened to a new album because of the feelings they evoked in us; we can smell the brand-new pages or remember the weather outside because the memory is made all the more tangible by these seemingly insignificant factors.
A meal can have the same effect. Associations form in the brain as we experience particularly enjoyable or upsetting events, and those associations can include the taste and smell of food, sounds, and sights. Often, we remember a place rather than the meal itself; for instance, Rebecca and I spent a weekend in San Francisco before Jet was born for a “babymoon.” We ate our way through the Golden Gate City having some of the best food ever…and I could hardly tell you what we ate. I could tell you the restaurants we visited and the delightful memories we created strolling through San Francisco and talking excitedly about becoming parents, but the food plays only a bit role in this story.
There are other times, however, when the food is the vehicle by which we make and enter our memories. We are able to conjure up feelings of profound love and happiness as we remember someone while eating. Have you ever wondered why we call it “comfort food?” Sure, a bowl of hot, creamy soup might bring comfort to your heart and stomach, but that’s not the point. At least, I think we are missing the fullness of the picture here. The food is comforting because it reminds us of someone, something, some time, or some place that we miss, want, or desperately need to remember.
My dad has an interesting dish that was a mainstay in my house growing up. I want to prepare you for the culinary sophistication oozing off of its name: Hotdog-on-bread-cheese-on-hotdog. Yes, that’s right: a piece of bread with a hotdog sliced on top and with cheese melted over everything. This meal, of course, could only be properly concocted in the miracle that is the toaster oven. Don’t knock it until you try it, friends.
I have not eaten one of these delicacies in many, many years. I honestly cannot remember the last time I had one, but I can tell you that even the mere thought of eating a hotdog-on-bread-cheese-on-hotdog floods my heart and mind in a very real way with warm and tender memories…as though I am eating with my dad presently.
So, imagine with me the scene as the disciples walked along the road to Emmaus after the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem. The pair is joined by a stranger who begins asking about current events, and they are surprised because the pain is all too real, all too fresh.
Have you not heard about the execution in Jerusalem? We thought he would restore Israel…
The stranger then begins to unlock the Scriptures for them, explaining God’s active plan and the fulfillment reached in the crucifixion, but they still don’t see that Jesus is the one present. Our Lord then breaks bread, just as He had during the Last Supper, and immediately they see Him for who He truly is: their Rabbi, their leader, their master, their Lord.
It wasn’t the breaking open of Scripture that gave the disciples understanding; it was the sharing of this holy meal. Jesus told the disciples at the Last Supper that He was leaving but would send the Spirit to them – that He would not leave them as orphans. The Spirit would come to comfort, guide, and lead them in all truth, and the disciples would be in Jesus just as he is in the Father. The meal Jesus shared with His followers on that fateful night would be forever etched in their memory—both bodily and mentally—because the events which took place after they got up from the table irrevocably shaped their lives.
What is the Eucharist if not the joyous celebration of Jesus’ presence with us? We often hear talk about how Jesus is present in the bread and wine, but we rarely embrace and celebrate that he is present. It is his presence that carries meaning for us and not the method. If Jesus is present in the bread and wine, in the celebration of the meal, then He is present with us in our very lives. We have a weekly reminder that Jesus will never leave us nor forsake us, that He comes to us even in the most mundane things and fills us with His peace and love.
Indulge me for one technical moment: there is a word in sacramental theology that bears great meaning: anamnesis. This is a form of remembering that is active, dangerous, volatile. It is a form of memory that does not merely rest in the past, but drags past events forward and makes them present in the here and now. It is what Israel knew as she celebrated (and still celebrates) Passover annually. It is what we know when we celebrate Eucharist on Sunday. Somehow, in some mysterious but real way, the events of Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection come charging into our present. “Does this in remembrance of me,” he said.
I will probably make a hotdog-on-bread-cheese-on-hotdog sometime soon. When I do this, it will be to celebrate the memories I have of eating that meal with my dad as a young boy. I will probably share that meal with Rebecca and my boys in the knowledge that passing it down to them is a way of inviting them into that loving tradition. Jesus shared a meal with His friends, and for the Church, this meal is the pinnacle of our corporate worship: we gather together as the church to remember Jesus and share in His presence through praise, Scripture, sermon, prayer, and the bread broken and the wine poured. This is why we celebrate Eucharist; this is why we need Eucharist as part of our Rule of Life; this is why our shared memories shape us as a people of bread and wine and a people who know Jesus’ real presence…even when we can’t see him.
This post was first published on June 28, 2017 for my former blog, The Liturgical Theologian, on Patheos.
This week marks the 20th anniversary of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. For starters, Alan Jacobs of Wheaton wrote a delightful piece on Harry Potter in 2000 and the piece was recently re-published by First Things. Anyone who knows me will know that I am a diehard-Potter fan. I discovered the books early into the series, I believe it was in between the publishing of Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban. Since my adolescence, I have read the books with vigor, attended 4 midnight book releases, watched the movies with a mixture of joy and zealous criticism, listened to the books while I paint, and most recently I attended Harry Potter in Concert with the Kansas City Symphony at the Kauffman Center. I feel a bit like Paul at this point in giving my credentials—only slightly joking—but I do this to suggest that I am not some squib jumping on the HP bandwagon.
I was listening to the original NPR announcement of Harry Potter this morning—it can be found here—and something grabbed my attention. Margot Adler predicted that the word “muggle” would become a big thing in common language and then shared an audio clip from Rowling discussing it further. Within the HP series the term “muggle” simply means “non-magical person.” However, Rowling shared that she began receiving letters and emails from fans who began expanding the term for modern, non-literary usage. In this form the term came to mean something like “dull and unimaginative person.” And I cannot tell you why, but it was like a lightning bolt scared my brain (see what I did there) and it got me thinking:
What if there are liturgical muggles? What if the loss of the sacramental imagination is like the difference between magic and muggle (or at least squib)? I suppose the easiest place to begin is first with the sacramental imagination and its loss.
…Before I go on, please hear: I am not suggesting that the liturgy is an actual form of magic or that words spoken over bread and wine is a spell or an enchantment like Stupefyor Avada Kedavra. I am not looking to debate hocus pocus (hoc est enim corpus meum) or medieval superstitions. If you find yourself arguing with me on these points then you’ve missed my meaning entirely. The reader may continue…
We are heirs of the Enlightenment. Our collective sacramental imagination has shifted over the course of 2,000 years. The ways in which we interpret information, tell stories, share experiences, and view the world today as Christians in the democratic, capitalist West is different from the earliest centuries of the church in the East and in Rome, it is different from the medieval church, it is different from the overwhelming majority of church history. Why does this matter?
Because we no longer actively view the world as being full of God’s glory, imbued with his presence, overwhelmed by his love, rich with encounters of him, Gerard Manley Hopkins’ lyric, “The earth is charged with the grandeur of God” makes no sense to us. Our imaginations, our sense of awe and wonder, our belief in the movement and action of the Holy Spirit is greatly diminished. There is a reason that Harry Potter, Lewis’ Narnia, the Force in Star Wars, and many similar stories capture our imaginations. It’s because it is so other than what we know and what we are used to. It’s not that these stories view magic positively but that they show a world teeming with possibilities, of a world where the supernatural is bumping against the natural regularly, where things aren’t always as they seem.And that brings me to the liturgy…
Our post-Enlightenment, Protestant worship has seen a minimalist approach to liturgy and a dwindling view of enchantment, wonder, awe, and terror before God. These have been replaced with rationalism, with Bible, with Sermon. In many Protestant, evangelical churches the sermon is the centerpiece. Rather than a dually climactic service where Word and Table play off of and interpret each other, these worship services are almost exclusively comprised of worship songs and a long, highly intellectual (though not always) sermon. The mind is what matters here, and how it affects the hands and the feet afterward, but the body is left relatively alone.
Enter the liturgical muggle. Remember that I am using muggle as a “dull and unimaginative person.”
This is the subtle shift from sacramental worship to rational worship, from Word and Sacrament to more and more Word. I think, and I may be mistaken, that it is obvious how this shift would result in making liturgical muggles. But those in more historical, liturgical conditions aren’t entirely off the hook. This isn’t an us vs. them situation. It is entirely possible to be(come) a liturgical muggle within the liturgy because, for me, liturgical muggles are those who have lost the sacramental imagination.
Even amid liturgical worship, we have lost a sacramental consciousness, awareness, and imagination as the sacraments have less and less to do with reality and more to do with vague and ethereal signs and symbols. Baptism becomes more about the confession of faith (or covenant promise) than the reality of and individual being washed in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, of being made a new person, of being anointed with the Holy Spirit. Or Eucharist is about nourishment for the spiritual journey, or a political act of the highest degree (don’t get me started), or a sign of socio-economic equality in the Kingdom of God and not about bread and wine becoming Body and Blood, joining the worship of the cosmos in the heavenly throne room. I could go on and on and on here, but suffice it today that for liturgical muggles water, oil, bread, and wine are always just that. There is no imagination, there is no magic (be careful here) per se. Worship is dull and unimaginative because it is focused exclusively on what our minds can handle and conceive rather than that God is doing in and among us, breaking into our midst regularly, sacramentally.
In my opinion, and I say this with all sincerity and humility, we need to guard against making more liturgical muggles and losing even more of the sacramental imagination. Our Christian worldview needs to shift, and shift pretty dramatically. A deeper, richer, more robust view of the Sacraments will help us avoid becoming liturgical muggles. At the end of the day, rationalist worship or rationalist Christianity is a separation of mind from body, of head and heart, of brain and soul. It may not appear that way, it certainly wasn’t intended that way, but it is it’s own form of escapism, of isolationism, of segregation. The reintegration of these elements, the reintroduction of Sacramental teaching and imagination will result in a holistic, fully-formed, fully informed, fully alive worship and a Christian spirituality that is committed to working within the world we inhabit rather than railing against it constantly.