Tag Archives: Eucharist

The drama of our salvation

A Sherborne Abbey Insight Lecture on the Eucharist, given by Canon Eric Woods on Monday 1 February 2016

EricHSMany years ago, in 1945, a remarkable man, a Benedictine monk of the Church of England, Dom Gregory Dix, published a pioneering study of the Eucharist and its history called The Shape of the Liturgy. Some of his arguments are now disputed, but towards the end of the book he delivered a sustained meditation on the sheer power of the Eucharist which never fails to move me. Listen to part of it now:  

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

To those who know a little of Christian history probably the most moving of all the reflections it brings is not the thought of the great events and the well-remembered saints, but of those innumerable millions of entirely obscure faithful men and women, everyone with his or her own individual hopes and fears and joys and sorrows and loves – and sins and temptations and prayers – once every whit as vivid and alive as mine are now. They have left no slightest trace in this world, not even a name, but have passed to God utterly forgotten by men. Yet each of them once believed and prayed as I believe and pray, and found it hard and grew slack and sinned and repented and fell again. Each of them worshipped at the eucharist, and found their thoughts wandering and tried again, and felt heavy and unresponsive and yet knew – just as really and pathetically as I do – these things. There is a little ill-spelled ill-carved rustic epitaph of the fourth century from Asia Minor: ‘Here sleeps the blessed Chione, who has found Jerusalem, for she prayed much’. Not another word is known of Chione, some peasant woman who lived in that vanished world of Christian Anatolia. But how lovely if all that should survive after sixteen centuries were that one had prayed much, so that the neighbours who saw all one’s life were sure one must have found Jerusalem! What did the Sunday eucharist in her village church every week for a life-time mean to the blessed Chione – and to the millions like her then, and every year since? The sheer stupendous quantity of the love of God which this ever-repeated action has drawn from the obscure Christian multitudes through the centuries is in itself an overwhelming thought….

It is because it is embedded deep down in the life of Christian peoples, colouring all the via vitae of the ordinary man and woman, marking its personal turning-points, marriage, sickness, death and the rest, running through it year by year with the feasts and fasts and rhythm of the Sundays, that the eucharistic action became inextricably woven into the public history of the Western world. The thought of it is inseparable from its great turning-points also. Pope Leo doing this in the morning before he went out to daunt Attila, on the day that saw the continuity of Europe saved; and another Leo doing this three and a half centuries later when he crowned Charlemagne Roman Emperor, on the day that saw that continuity fulfilled. Or again, Alfred wandering defeated by the Danes staying his soul on this, while mediaeval England struggled to be born; and Charles I also, on that morning of his execution when mediaeval England came to its final end. Such things strike the mind with their suggestions of a certain timelessness about the eucharistic action and an independence of its setting, in keeping with the stability in an ever-changing world of the forms of the liturgy themselves. At Constantinople they ‘do this’ yet with the identical words and gestures that they used while the silver trumpets of the Basileus still called across the Bosphorus, in what seems to us now the strange fairy-tale land of the Byzantine empire. In [the] twentieth century Charles de Foucauld in his hermitage in the Sahara ‘did this’ with the same rite as Cuthbert twelve centuries before in his hermitage on Lindisfarne in the Northern seas. This very morning I did this with a set of texts which has not changed by more than a few syllables since Augustine used those very words at Canterbury on the third Sunday of Easter in the summer after he landed. Yet ‘this’ can still take hold of a man’s life and work with it.

Oh to write like Dom Gregory! So much modern theological writing is so clumsy and ugly by comparison. Let me dare to try to add another paragraph, from my own experience:

I ‘did this’ as a boy in a little Norman church outside Brighton, with a conservative evangelical Vicar celebrating at the north end of the Holy Table, as he insisted it must be called, and whose sheer transparency and holiness of life taught me that it is not the baroque splendour of elaborate liturgy which matters, but sincerity of faith. I have ‘done this’ in great and glorious churches such as St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol and Sherborne Abbey, but I have done it too cross-legged on the floor with a group of students preparing for their final exams and needing to bring their fears and worries to the Lord. I have done it for Gerald Pitman, ‘Mr Sherborne’, shortly before he died when – arriving at Yeovil Hospital unprepared – I had to raid the private ward for bread and wine and then ‘do this’ from memory – 1662 of course – shortly before Gerald died. I have ‘done this’ for an old friend at his Requiem with tears pouring down my cheeks, and for a young couple getting married with the light of love and hope in their eyes. And I hope that one day someone will ‘do this’ for me and for the repose of my soul when my life and ministry on this earth are over.

Oceans of ink and vast cargoes of paper have been spent in arguments about what the Eucharist is, and what it is not. Most of that debate I find, and have always found, barren, sterile and bloodless. ‘Bloodless’ – there’s an ironic word for a debate about the Body and Blood of Christ! But of one thing you can be sure: when he took the bread and blessed it, broke it and shared it, Jesus did not intend to found an industry of cerebral, metaphysical philosophising about the meaning of what he was doing which would occupy Christians, and divide them, for the next two thousand years. There are no prizes for guessing with whom I would have sided when Martin Luther met Ulrich Zwingli, that rather bloodless Swiss reformer, at Marburg in October 1529 to try to reconcile their Reformation differences. The sticking point was the Eucharist. ‘Just a memorial meal’ said Zwingli, a reminder of what Jesus did for us on the Cross. Nonsense, said Luther. Jesus is present in the sacrament. And he shouted out the dominical words Hoc est corpus meum ‘this is my body’ – and chalked them on the table and pounded them with his fist.

Small wonder, too, that Princess Elizabeth Tudor, when her Catholic sister Mary was on the throne, demonstrated her skill at diplomacy combined with real theological insight when questioned about her understanding of the Eucharist. She is said to have replied:

Christ was the word that spake it.
He took the bread and break it;
And what his words did make it
That I believe and take it.

Queen Elizabeth I shaped and moulded the Anglican Settlement in our land more than any other. Queen Elizabeth II is her wonderful successor at keeping our odd, Catholic-and-Reformed, Church together. I wish our Bishops could learn a little of her wisdom, her diplomacy and her humility.

But it is to a book which has nothing whatsoever to do with liturgy that I turn for my understanding of what is happening when the Eucharist is celebrated. It is a wonderful book, still in print as a Penguin Modern Classic. It’s by the great Shakespearian director, Peter Brook, and it’s called The Empty Space. It’s a marvellous read, and I commend it to all of you who love the theatre – and who love liturgy.

Brook’s central argument is that the success of a play – any play – depends entirely on what the actors and director (and the audience) bring to it. In his terms, they can make it ‘deadly’, ‘holy’, ‘rough’ or ‘immediate’. I haven’t the time to go into the difference between the four, but we have all been to plays which were ‘deadly’, because the actors were just mouthing the words and going through the motions. And we have all been to plays which were ‘immediate’ because the actors were living every word and making the whole drama present to us, keeping us on the very edge of our seats. In the first the audience is entirely passive, receiving an offering which is bloodless and lifeless. In the second the audience is totally involved, living in and through the drama, totally caught-up in the plot as it unfolds.

And so it is with the Eucharist. When Sandra and I moved to Sherborne in 1993, we had just one Sunday, I think, between moving in and my being instituted and inducted as Vicar. We decided that we shouldn’t attend the Abbey Eucharist, but go to church outside the Benefice. I won’t tell you where we went, or who was presiding, but I remember my comment to Sandra as we left – ‘He celebrated the Eucharist like a demented machine-gun.’ To be fair, the priest had to race through one service in order to hurtle off to another church to celebrate another. But all he could deliver was ‘deadly theatre’ because there was no opportunity of making it ‘holy’, let alone ‘immediate’ – and we the congregation (it felt more like being the audience) were totally uninvolved in what was happening.

Now Peter Brook calls the best possible way of treating a play on stage an exercise in représentation. Note he has to use French – the English ‘representation’ would be meaningless in this context. Rehearsals might be about repétition, repetition, but it will be a dull play indeed if that which the actors have learned by the repetition of rehearsal does not have life breathed into it to become représentation – the making present again of that which the playwright first conceived.

In the same way, the Eucharist as the drama of our salvation must never be ‘repetition’, but rather représentation. It is about making present again Jesus’ sacrifice on the Cross for us, made once for all two thousand years ago. Anglicans cannot talk of the ‘sacrifice of the mass’ as though Jesus’ sacrifice of himself is happening all over again, and again, and again. But we can talk of représentation as it is ‘made present’ again, and again, and again.

This, surely, is what the best theatre does. It may be Charlie’s Aunt or The Mousetrap, but however well-known and hackneyed the play it can come alive if the director and actors make it come alive, and grip us and involve us. Equally, it may be a great tragic drama such as King Lear or Marlowe’s Edward II, but a parroted version badly directed can kill it for us and make it ‘deadly’.

In other words, the Eucharist is a living thing which invites us all to be caught-up in this drama of our salvation. To that Dom Gregory Dix devoted 750 pages of his classic book. Even I could divide the service we think we know so well into at least twenty distinct but interwoven actions: journeying, arriving, welcoming, confessing, forgiving, praising (that’s the Gloria), proclaiming (the readings), teaching (the sermon), affirming (that’s the Creed), interceding, greeting (that’s the Peace), offering, receiving, blessing, breaking, sharing, thanking, sending, departing and serving. And we could have done worse than devote an Insight Lecture to each one. Sadly, there is not world enough or time.

So let me offer you the four key actions of the Eucharist – taking, blessing, breaking and sharing. Here is where the great moments of the drama come. They begin with taking, taking ordinary kitchen things – bread and wine and water – and transforming them. How typical of Jesus to begin with the kitchen, just as his first miracle began with turning water into wine. The ordinary is always the raw material of the extraordinary. Miracles begin in the kitchen.

It is hugely significant, too, that at major services in the Abbey and in many Anglican churches, the bread and the wine are brought to the Altar by representatives of the laity, starting at the west end and bringing the elements through the whole congregation. To quote Bishop John Robinson (to whom I shall return later in this lecture):

The offertory is the thrust of the secular into the very heart of the sacred. It should not start in the sanctuary – if it does, our religion is losing its roots in the stuff and muck of life. It starts wherever the people of God find themselves during the week…. For what we do in this action is to bring the world – our world – into the Church, just as at the end of the service we have to take the Church into the world. .

Then comes the blessing, which takes those kitchen things and transforms or transfigures them. It is upon this priestly act that most controversy has descended. And what is ‘blessing’? The former Bishop of Peterborough, the late Douglas Feaver (who sometimes in retirement worshipped here) used to describe a blessing as “a semi-celestial lick”. When I watch our two cats greeting one another, I think I know what he meant. An English bishop visiting Uganda attempted the blessing in the local tribal language, and was much embarrassed when his huge congregation dissolved into laughter: he had offered them the grease of God rather than the peace of God! But in a way he had got it right: a blessing oils the points of contact between ourselves and God, ourselves and one another, ourselves and our homes, our hopes and our dreams.

But in the context of the Eucharist, the action of blessing is above all one of thanksgiving. In fact that’s what the Greek word “eucharist” means: thanksgiving. It was the word the early Church most often used as the name for what we are doing today – not Holy Communion, not the Lord’s Supper, not the Mass, but the Eucharist, the great thanksgiving. In the Middle Ages, all this was more or less lost. The spotlight became focused on the priest, and the prayer of blessing slipped into a different translation, as the prayer of consecration. And when those priestly hands lifted the bread, that became the moment at which people believed it was changed, from bread into body, the Body of Christ. And the Sanctus bell was rung, so that those outside the church building – sick or working or just plain idle – knew that at that moment the miracle – or magic – had happened. And it was repeated a few moments later, when the chalice containing the wine was blessed, and elevated as what was now the Blood of Christ.

Before we dismiss all this as mediaeval superstition, think what you did at Christmas. You took a piece of folded card from a shelf in the shop. You bought it for far more than its material, intrinsic worth. You took your pen and consecrated it to someone special. That card became a blessing from you but also a blessing to you. And the same thing happens at the Eucharist as bread and wine are blessed. And as they are lifted up for you to see – and you really should be watching this action, this wonderful piece of divine drama, not burying your face in a sort of pious slouch – so the significance of the bread and wine changes, and they become to you and for you the Body and Blood of Christ.

But it’s not magic. The biblical and early Christian understanding of the Eucharist was not that the priest suddenly turned bread and wine into something else, but that the Family of God offered bread and wine and received them back with a new significance, by blessing God for them and over them. The blessing opens up a channel. Blessing opens up a channel between us and God, and between us and other people. Blessing opposes and counteracts sin, which is the state of being closed to God and closed to other people: literally up-tight about life and living. Blessing breaks down the barriers, greases the points of contact, and opens us up to the world and to God.

Then the breaking, when the bread is broken (and the wine is poured), to make it clear to us that this is not something being done to or for us, but something which requires us to offer ourselves to be broken on the altar of this world and to pour ourselves out in love and service to those around us, as we discover in the Holy Communion how to make holy community. At one level, the breaking of the bread or the fraction (as it is called) of the large priest’s wafer, is purely an administrative process to enable distribution to take place. Those of you who sit at the front of the nave at the Parish Eucharist on Sunday mornings know that you do not receive the individual rounded white wafer. You receive a segment of a very large wafer indeed, called the priest’s wafer, which I like to use at the High Altar because then you can see it being blessed and broken. The very central segments are obviously triangular. I thought I would mention that, as some of you look a bit puzzled when your wafer is triangular rather than round. And please be aware that you can ask for a gluten-free wafer, which is square, or a totally wheat-free wafer, which is made from potato flour. The Good Lord will honour them all, just as he honoured illicit, secret Communions held by allied prisoners on the River Kwai, celebrated with all they had to hand – water, and a little rice.

Which brings us to sharing, for this is not something we can do on our own. Holy Communion by definition has to be a communion with others. That is part of what the Reformation was about – the rejection of private masses for individuals, dead or alive. It is for us all. It is about sharing as our Holy Communion helps us make holy community. And that, I think, is faithful to the New Testament witness. As St Paul makes clear, it is the common sharing of the loaf and the cup which enables the holy community to make holy communion, binding themselves together as the new community. That is what St Paul means when he says, ‘Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body’. The Eucharist is that which creates, and constantly recreates, the Church.

It begins to sound as if, despite my earlier comments, I am getting too cerebral, too theological. But once again, not. Every eucharistic action, as I have been trying to demonstrate, is earthed in the everyday and the mundane, taking kitchen things and ordinary human actions and reactions, and transforming them and transfiguring them. And so it is with the sharing. We need to share communion to be a community. We need to share Holy Communion to be a holy community. Of course it is possible for our community to be dysfunctional, just as it happens so often that families are dysfunctional. No-one who has been taking funerals for nearly forty years can be unaware of what strange things families do to one another. They are all technically family, but they do nothing to make themselves family, or to be family, and then they wonder why, when they come together, everything is so brittle and unpleasant. “We go to each other’s funerals”, one grande dame explained to me one day, “but we would not think of going to each other’s weddings”. Well, there you are. But the Christian family is one for whom every opportunity to make Communion is party time, and a blessing – which is why we are diminished and impoverished whenever a family member is not there. “I won’t see you on Sunday, Vicar” people say; “I’ve got family coming”. “But you are family” I want to reply. “Bring the rest along with you”. So few understand that it sometimes breaks my heart. But still we must go on, taking, blessing, breaking and sharing.

If I have learned any theology over the years, much of it is due to my Director of Studies at Trinity College, Cambridge, the late and great Bishop John A T Robinson. He is remembered today, rather unfairly, as a liberal theologian of the swinging years of the 1960’s, when he was Bishop of Woolwich. His chief crime then was to try to relate the Gospel to a society in rapid and often destructive change. In truth he was a superb New Testament scholar with a deep understanding of liturgy, who believed we have always to struggle to translate the Gospel into the language and terms of today. He tried to do that to the liturgy, first of Clare College where he was Dean, then for Southwark Diocese, and then in my day for Trinity College Chapel. I must confess that the service books we use Sunday by Sunday in the Abbey are modelled consciously on what he did with smaller resources decades before. So I am going to give him the last word, as my own tribute to a man blessed of God:

When we come to the Eucharist we come not simply to a representation of something that has happened, as in the Oberammergau play. We come to be present at – and at the same time to present, to transmit to the world – something that is happening. Here at this service we enter the very workshop of the new world. Here the master carpenter is in action, refashioning matter and men, forming and tooling the Body which is the instrument of his mission. When we have been to Communion we have been present at the changing of the world, present at the carpenter’s bench, yes, and on the carpenter’s bench, so that our whole lives come out chiselled and renewed.

And for that, thanks be to God.

Follow Us:

Two Minds, One Heart!

Annmarie.An Insight Lecture given by the Revd Sister Ann-Marie Stuart, F.J., MA
on the 11
th January 2016 at Sherborne.

In his book entitled ‘The Collage of God’ Canon Mark Oakley, Chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral refers to an image from The Greek Philosopher Archilochus, suggesting that there are two different takes on life. He said, the Fox knows many things, while the hedgehog knows one big thing. Isaiah Berlin interpreted this as meaning that some people relate to one central vision, while the foxes of this world collect a kind of Collage of many ends, seemingly unrelated but which swirl and merge at different levels, creating a huge collage of thoughts and insights and that’s where I believe an Anglican take, and my take on the Eucharist/or the Communion service belongs. But there is method in my madness and perhaps we need a bit of both!

I need to begin by reminding you that the title we have inherited for what we so often call the Communion Service was originally known as the Breaking of Bread, until this was overtaken by the Greek term Eucharist, meaning Thanksgiving, taken from St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. And Worshipping as we do in Sherborne Abbey we have received an unusual and extremely rich inheritance.

If we situate our Eucharistic gatherings within their proper context, then as our Abbey Congregation gathers to celebrate the Eucharist together, we find that our worship fits both into the silent, stillness of the Benedictine Monastic Contemplative tradition, with its emphasis upon the ability to Listen with one’s whole being, which is One MindWhile also as a Greater Church, which was historically a Cathedral, our Eucharist fits into the more formal and vocal chorus of what Paul Bradshaw, one time vice principle of Cuddesdon Theological College, Oxford, describes as “Cathedral” worship, which is characterised by the singing of thanksgiving, praise, intercession, and scripture readings, and that’s the Second Mind!

However, the two minds mesh and interweave to a certain extent when we place our Sunday Eucharist into one last context that of the Biblical injunction to pray without ceasing. As the letter to the Thessalonians tells us: Rejoice always, pray without ceasing; give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (Thessalonians 5: 17.) And this of course adds another important dimension, that of Rejoicing. If you are still with me, so far we have the stillness and silence of interiority, of what goes on within our hearts; externalised in the ritual of Singing Hymns and Psalms, the Recitation of Scripture and other words. The 2 minds.

And it is possible to read this as if the silent interiority of the prayer within our hearts, and the apparent exterior ritual are in some senses separate, or in contention, and certainly some spiritual writers have suggested this. Evelyn Underhill for instance in the only book of hers that I can really stomach, simply called Worship, suggests that there could be a danger in allowing ritual to displace the interiority of prayer, which for her would undermine the significance of the Eucharistic Activity, because it would upset the balance between the 2 minds! 

But we do need to tease out the real, the genuine if you like, significance of a Eucharist which even in our own time has changed dramatically from the Book of Common Prayer that most of you grew up with, to the ASB, the Alternative Service Book produced in1980 not a replacement for the Book of Common prayer but as the title suggests an Alternative until the year 2000 when Common Worship became the norm for Anglican Eucharistic Celebrations, which includes the Book of Common Prayer. Because it seems to me that essentially in breaking bread and inviting his friends to do so in Remembrance of His presence amongst them, was to lift thanksgiving, praise, and worship be it ritual and/or interior, way beyond the recitation of Psalms and Hymns and even Scripture Readings.

According to Michelle Guiness writing in her book The Heavenly Party the Hebrew word to Remember is Zakar, meaning ‘to have imprinted on one’s subconscious.’ And she also quotes the Jewish Sage, Baal Shem Tov who suggests that ‘to remember is the key to Salvation.  Since God never forgets us, He remembers his love, remembers his mercy, remembers his covenant; remembers to be gracious. And British Celtic Christian teachers such as John Scottus Eriugena & Pelagius suggested that our greatest spiritual problem is to forget who we really are, people in relationship with the Living God. According to Professor Hamish Swanston one time Professor of Theology at Kent University (RIP) Augustine of Hippo the African Theologian gives us a hint when he suggests that in the power of the Spirit as we Remember, as we encounter the simple, beautiful, loving act of a friend about to be taken away from His friends, we make real again in our own act of remembering, the way in which Jesus the Christ desired to insert Himself not only into their lives after his death, but into our lives, and into human history as well. (Augustine of Hippo. The Confessions. Ch: 24-25. P 142 & 143.)

While we may be in two minds it appears that the Living God is in One Mind, and One Heart, which means that we could risk missing the whole point of the Eucharistic Memory if we only emphasise what we do instead of remembering what He, in the power of the Spirit and in obedience to His Father wishes to do for us continually, and not on a one off basis. And it is this infusion of New Trinitarian and creative Life Giving Presence, which may make our two minds into OneAnd remember we are told that Christ the high priest continually intercedes for us at the feet of His Father. (Hebrews 7:25 and Romans 8:24). However, Evelyn Underhill does present us with a memorable image of the way to approach our Eucharist when she says, ‘I come to adore His (God’s) splendour and fling myself and all I have at His feet. (Worship Page 8.) We may fling but He reaches out to catch & fill, and revitalise us with His presence. And we have the task of unravelling, and trying to understand three dimensions of the Eucharistic Activity.

  1. Notice I call it an activity, rather than a quiet half hour or so, for the Eucharist is essentially a movement of encounter. A dynamic conversation if you like, be it silent or vocal between the Living God and ourselves in common. Hence the title Common Worship! We have a Living God it would seem who continues to stretch out towards us in creative ways that defy our human ingenuity. We often share meals with friends, and such times are often times of intimacy and enjoyment, but how much of ourselves are we able to insert into each meal? It is even conceivable that we may share food with someone whose life we have saved; but how often are we in a position to share food with someone whose whole demeanour has been to love, and save us from the inside out, in order to put our jumbled lives back together, and to draw us joyfully together. Jesus the Jew reveals Himself in the way that any Jew should be able to understand by inserting Himself into Human History. 
  2. In the early church Bradshaw reminds us most people saw the injunction to pray without ceasing as suggesting the transformation of the whole of one’s life. The exchange of presence suggested in the coming together of the Three Minds; of a) Still, Silent adoration that is also b) Ritual infused with the c) the presence or nearness of the Living God, can be seen as the catalyst which can change lives. And it’s certainly the way that I have always seen and taught Eucharist as a Catalyst for Change in a whole variety of ways, and at a whole variety of levels both individual and community wise.
    You would almost think that the early church was familiar with the best presentation of the idea of Mindfulness, the attempt to see prayer as a state of continuous communion with God. And if we are to take St. Paul seriously then we are not just followers of Christ but as he says, we are “in Christ.” (Philippians 1.1.) While St. John’s Gospel takes this one step further when he tells us that Christ taught that, ‘Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me and I in them!’ if we take Philippians literally here then he seems to see the people he was addressing who are ‘in Christ’ as having more significance than even Bishops and Deacons (this was before the term priest was used) since he addresses all of ‘the saints’ first!
  3. But this idea of being “in Christ” is one that helps us significantly as we consider our role in the dialogue of Eucharist. One of my heroes was Oscar Arnulfo Romero, the Bishop of San Salvador in El Salvador 1917-1980. Not long before his murder, he told his people,. ‘You have a great ability. The most beautiful dimension of your human vocation is the ability to speak with God, and to enter into dialogue with your creator.’ It seems to me that the Eucharist provides us with a stunning vehicle both for ourselves and for God to do just this, and therefore it seems to me that this Divine exchange is at the heart of the activity of our Eucharist our Communion Service.

And while we are at it, let’s dispel the myth that the priest alone celebrates the Eucharist, in theory theologically it should be the Bishop as the representative of Christ who delegates all of us to celebrate together. As John D. Zizioulas an Orthodox Metropolitan (that’s a Bishop to you and me) who is also a theologian reminds us, ‘The Eucharist requires the gathering of all the members of the local community’ (page 109). And as Luther reminds us we only have priests because we are a priestly people.

So now let’s take a peek at this activity that I keep referring to. Zizioulas gives us a thumb nail sketch of what took place originally. He gives us an overview of all the four different accounts of the exchange of presence that took place at the Last Supper. Scholars disagree about whether it was really a Passover meal or not. Let’s take it that it was at least similar, after all Jesus the Jew certainly knew how the Cedar meal should go and if he changed or re-arranged bits and pieces of the ritual then let’s agree that he knew what he was doing. In fact he left out quite a lot of the traditional Meal omitting the traditional questions and answers, the four ritual cups, and the various ritual use of herbs, and of course the main course of lamb. So it would seem that from its inception the Eucharistic ritual was based on something new, a radical change!

To begin with what had always been a family meal is now a meal taken with the some carefully chosen friends instead. What it did contain, was the Blessing of a cup of wine that he shared with his friends, then the breaking of bread (So meaningful at the time that later it revealed who the stranger was on the Road to Emmaus.) Then He dipped the piece of bread and passed it around, explaining the significance of the bread as he did so. At the end of the meal he took the cup again, presumably recharged with wine, blessed it, and passed it around, explaining its meaning as he did so.

St Paul uses this same pattern to describe early Eucharistic practice in his 1st letter to the Corinthians, when he refers to the Cup first Chapter 10 verse 16. Although later in the same letter to the same church in Corinth Chapter 11: verses 23-26 he tells us that Bread was also offered before the cup at other Liturgies. Suggesting that there was a variety of practice in the early church. Writing about this Professor Thomas O’Loughlin, Professor of Historical Theology at Nottingham University reminds us in his book entitled The Eucharist, that in the early liturgies, bread was not always offered first, and as for the cup, well it was the cup that mattered rather than what was in it, as water was often used instead of wine.

But we need to look at what Jesus said, perhaps we can catch his intention (just a glimpse in a glass darkly) concerning His meaning and significance. He said, ‘This is my body, this is my blood.’ It’s as if he cannot bear to be parted from his friends, so he is trying to remain as close to them as possible. I entrust the whole of myself into your hands, and into your hearts. Remember me, (imprint this on your subconscious!) do this he says in Remembrance of me, and then he reminds them of one of his teachings the ‘Old Law said to you, but I say to you,’ he reminds them, and it’s only mentioned in Luke’s Gospel that this is the New Covenant. This thing we do together he says is NEW! And as Zizioulas points out to us it’s new because Christ has now made Himself into the Paschal Lamb, that’s why there was no need for any other kind of sacrificial lamb.

This is a NEW Sacrifice. And there are references of course in John’s Gospel particularly Chapter 6 verses 51-59 when Jesus refers to Himself as the Bread of Life. ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood (because I am the sacrifice) will have eternal life,’ not just physical life but spiritual life, the fullness of life. St. Irenaeus the 2nd century Father of the Church put it this way, ‘God’s Glory is man/woman fully alive.’ So we have moved away from the old order, we’ve moved away from a natural family to a carefully selected family of friends, and this is the context for the New Covenant, which consists of a network of relationships based on the kind of loving friendships that transcends death. It’s actually based upon a Person willing to undergo anything in order to SAVE his friends. Not just his contemporaries either, as John’s Gospel makes clear as Jesus says, but, ‘All those who are drawn to me by the father.’ And the word drawn here according to William Berkley the Scottish Theologian being the same word in Greek that is used for drawing a sword, or a heavily laden net to the shore, both suggesting perhaps some kind of resistance perhaps. And it’s interesting isn’t it this connection between the breaking of bread (which we call the body of Christ) which takes place before His death and again after His death, and down through the centuries many, many times, which we are told can alone provide us with the fullness of real life, everything else is shadow.

The only way of dealing with the situation of the sacrificial context of a Breaking of Bread which took place prior to the actual death of Christ is to understand that time stands still here, time past and time future are made relevant in time present as T.S. Eliot reminds us, ‘At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless; neither from not towards; at the still point there the dance is, but neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it a fixity, where time past and future are gathered…..’ Burnt Norton II.  Yet we are provided with a movement not only within the Eucharist itself but also down through the centuries; hinting/pointing towards the Divine Parousia, the Heavenly Banquet, that great Celebratory meal, when all shall be one, and everyone and all time shall be gathered into the Presence of the Master of the Universe, according to Jewish teaching. Mind you I think I’d like to say that at every Eucharist in some sense the Parousia begins to take place.

In the creation of something NEW Jesus still manages to create a synthesis between theological Tradition and Innovation. Do we see our Eucharist today as capable of carrying the weight of this synthesis between the Old and the New, which is now revealed as being at the heart of our Spiritual and Liturgical lives? Do we realise the significance of the Breaking of Bread which was the original title for the Eucharist. In breaking ONE loaf into pieces, which the whole community share we declare our desire to be one people, one body of Christ. (1 Cor 10:17.) One community of friends. And as Professor O’Loughlin also tells us it is almost unique in religious ritual for all to drink from one cup, it is counter cultural. In private life we would never do this no matter how intimate our gathering, and even less likely in recent times, yet at this meal on and off for centuries (because we have to remember that the practice lapsed for many centuries) we have gathered to declare our willingness to become one, and to dare to drink the cup that our Master drank before us, the cup of fellowship and perhaps as in his case the cup of suffering.

And the indirect reference to the Parousia is vitally important; for this in Gathering in Jewish teaching is not just concerned with the in-gathering of the Jewish tribes but is genuinely inclusive, all will be gathered in we’re told, from the East and from the West, from the South and the North, and together with us all created things, all of God’s creation, will be gathered in, you know ‘Brother Sun and Sister Moon etc.’ And this is the Kingdom of God that we so often refer to in our Readings and in our prayers. So what is this mysterious Kingdom all about, what happens if we take all the parables about it and see what they tell us?

Well, the Greek word used in the text for Kingdom is Basileia, which is strange for it’s also the word used for Church, and it could be dangerous to suggest that only those who belong to the church can enter the Kingdom. Throughout the centuries Christian writers and once again Augustine of Hippo have refused to discuss the Kingdom in this way. (Ref: A of H City of God) And the word Basileia actually means Reign, not realm or domain. So a better term for the Kingdom would be the Reign of God, and it is the whole point of the Good News that Jesus has brought to us. He tells us that the Kingdom is among us. (Luke 17.) It is present but not often recognised, and It is something to be prayed for. Thy Kingdom come, how often do we say it but how often do we mean it or want it to come? And lastly it is about a mystery of Love, Justice and Peace. Just what we all really, really want! Because we truly do need His presence.

Just as at His nativity (or as the Book of Wisdom puts it) when God’s almighty Word leapt down from heaven through the activity of the Holy Spirit our Celtic Christian ancestors (who built the first Church here in Sherborne) taught that the light already within creation from its inception, glowed to greet Him, so too in the very word Parousia we are reminded of the coming again of the Holy One of God, ‘Who was, and, is, and is to come!’ This banquet will be the celebration to end all celebrations of everything that exists.

In using Bread and Wine and describing them as His body and His blood, Christ in a real sense takes hold of all creation symbolised by the Bread and Wine. In so doing He holds everything that contributed to the creation of what he holds, fields of wheat and barley, vines and grapes, earth, wind, rain and sun, and gathers them in as well. And as he gathers these elements which have sustained Him in life and continue to sustain us, all creation is ingathered so that the Divine Banquet is foreshadowed, and a transparent window opens between earth and heaven, the kingdom, the new creation, the new covenant is confirmed at every Eucharistic gathering.

But just as the Cedar meal has its own prayerful, relaxed, family ritual, which hinges on the escape from Egypt every aspect of that meal takes the participants through a transformative experience, which is not limited to a mere reliving of the past; so too the internal movement of the Eucharist takes us on a mini spiritual and deeply human journey loaded with meaning. So we would be mistaken if we reduced our understanding of the Eucharistic activity to merely the words of institution or even to those of the Eucharistic prayer. From the moment we arrive in the Abbey, greet our friends /or are greeted at the door, we are invited to put down our cares, our concerns and the messiness of our lives, which the brief absolution at the beginning of our service calms, and heals, reminding us that someone else, our own Paschal Person has taken them upon himself, as He reaches down to liberate us, clearing our minds ready to be enlivened by the words of Scripture, with the themes taken up in music and song. And the action continues until we leave the Abbey and way beyond….Its as if the words of Institution reach out and draw us in, before sending us out to fulfil our tasks. All this situates us within and beyond our Jewish Historical past, all preparing us for the Eucharistic Prayer the vehicle for our dialogue which is loaded with such meaning, so much so that the great exclamation at the end must be sung. After which we begin the preparation for a more tangible communion, followed by our thanksgiving, and a preparation for the task entrusted to us when we leave.

On the road to Emmaus the disciples eyes were opened, their sorrow at the folly of the cross was overtaken by their joy in the resurrection experience of the breaking of bread. In a real sense we too are reminded on the Eucharistic walk that we are travelling always, and at all times towards the Living God who is walking with measured pace towards each one of us, we are always celebrating Resurrection at every Eucharist. If nothing else I hope all this leaves you with a sense of each Eucharist as we experience it today as just a fleeting lit up moment of time, which is part of a huge historical and universal action of worship, encompassing the whole of creation, and all time, lifting us up towards the Living God, as the Living God reaches down through time and space to touch our hearts in order to change them. Remember the painting on the roof of the Sistine Chapel, Christ stretching his hand out towards Adam, whose hand is reaching out towards Christ’s and the frisson of energy where their hands nearly but don’t quite meet.

We may be the still and silent type, we may be the singing and dancing type, we may rely more upon the words of Scripture, we may love singing hymns and elegant prayers, and all these things are important but not nearly as important as the action of throwing ourselves and all we are at His feet, as he reaches down to touch and heal our hearts, and we allow ourselves to be caught up in the orchestration of it all.

But I must allow for those of you who feel that perhaps you have never had a spiritual experience. Someone whose theological writings I admire very much indeed also claimed never to have had a Spiritual experience even though her biographer entitled her book, A Capacity for RaptureDorothy L. Sayers, (apparently the L really mattered) wrote some of the most transparently clear and limpid theology I’ve ever read. Her other books and plays and her Advertising Copy writing were only in order to earn sufficient to fund her real work. Yet without realising it herself Sayers had a kind of intuitive knowledge of the Living God and of the audience for her books and religious plays, which did inculcate a capacity for rapture. Somehow she put her finger on the pulse of her society, and for both her and Evelyn Underhill the Eucharist was the focus of their spiritual lives, as Anglican women. And the mystic John of the Cross writing centuries before either of them described his spiritual experience in a similar manner. I did not know the door but when I found the way, unknowing where I was, I learned enormous things, but what I felt I cannot say, for I remained unknowing, rising beyond all science.

In our DIY world, we tend to place far too much importance upon our capacity to understand, to do, and to comprehend, when in fact what really matters is the theme running throughout this talk, what really matters is what He can do for us, rather than what we can do for Him. As John tells us in his first letter, ‘In this is love, not that we have loved God but that He has loved us…’ (1.John 3:10a). Augustine of Hippo once wrote that ‘God is nearer to us than we are to ourselves. ‘And the Psalmist who wrote Ps.139 seems to agree with him.

And Dorothy L. Sayers has something else to say of interest to us. In her teaching on the Nicene Creed, she suggests that man (and of course women) are most themselves when they are occupied in creation. She goes on to suggest that when we say the words, ‘I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of all things’, we acknowledge our participation in creation, because we are made in the image of this Maker God. And she suggests that we may test this out by observing those who create, either with their minds or with their hands as they are most truly themselves and ‘right’ with themselves, and with God during that act of creating. For her this would apply to writing a play, or a novel, or playing a musical instrument, cooking or painting, sewing or singing or any other creative activity, perhaps even doing the books!.

In this mysterious, mystical and yet hugely pragmatic activity that we call the Eucharist, during which we make music, break bread, drink wine, and read the Word of God, the Church of God inspired by the Holy Spirit has designed a vehicle, which allows the Living God to continue to meet with us at whatever stage of perception /or stage of life we may have reached. Just as he met the needs of his friends in the upper room, the needs of the monks who for many years worshipped here, and the needs of our congregations gathered here today, He takes us as we are. His disciples were quite a strange bunch and we are no stranger! Who we are, and how we are, if we are his friends it seems that is good enough for Him.

However, when we leave our task is not over, any more than Christ’s task was over when he left the upper room and the disciples fled denying Him. I’m sure we would not have fared any better, we too would have feared death, as He did. But as we have learned that small and discreet act of breaking bread transfigured His death into a glorious foretaste of heaven, so we are right to rejoice, right to bring all our sorrows to the Eucharist not to deny them but to allow the scales to be taken from our eyes, like the couple on the way to Emmaus. And we have our task, as we leave our upper room, we take the memory of our encounter with the Living God and we are invited to take our Remembrance of a genuinely dynamic life away with us in order to pass it on to others.

And if I have failed to give you a definition of the Eucharist that is quite deliberate, it seems to me that definitions tend to limit our understanding, rather than expand them, all except for one. When Elizabeth the 1st was interrogated in Mary’s Reign as to her understanding of the Eucharist this is what she replied, and it’s my reply also.

Christ was the word that spake it. He took the bread and break it; And what his words did make it That I believe and take it.

Once the scales are removed from our eyes then we can see if only in a glass very darkly the coming together of all those we love, alive or dead in and through and with the Trinity who hold us together in One community of friends. It’s no harm to remember that the Trinitie North Isle in our Abbey is also the darkest part of the Abbey. But the penultimate word goes to John of the Cross again who seems to know how we feel, when he remarked that if we wish to be sure of the road we tread on, then we must close our eyes and walk in the dark. We often do but that must not stop us from walking the walk.

I started out with the idea of two minds but to summarise I think I need to say that as far as I am concerned there are three ways into the journey of the Eucharist.

  1. One way is that of inner stillness and silence, the contemplative approach if you like, which we have inherited here from our Benedictine forbears,
  2. another is through the delights of music and the Word, and prayers
  3. the last one is through the in-gathering of the Community of friends, the coming together as one people who belong together.

Each way is viable, each of them acceptable, and each of them will lead us gently and carefully along the path which the Lord has prepared for us. It almost reminds me of Alice in Wonderland, dashing off after the white rabbit & falling down the rabbit hole! No way is higher than another, they are just different as we are all different but as the musical Godspell revealed somewhere along the journey the Lord sings an intimate and special song just for us and with us. So our journey is unique and not to be compared with anyone else’s journey, and there remains the One heart of the Trinity at the still centre.

And as we leave, to take coffee alone in our rooms, to meet with friends or family, to work, to play, to relax we are invited to Remember that we are a Eucharistic people, we have been touched by God, whether we like it or not, we are not the person we were when we arrived. And we are invited to pass that touch both Spiritual and human on, in whatever way we are able, in many and varied ways whenever we gather for meals, be it in pub or restaurant or among family and friends, because we have broken bread together, and if we live alone and eat alone, just remember the Mystical Body of Christ, we are never alone, ever since we were consecrated to the Living God at Baptism we do not walk alone, or sit or eat alone, and here is Paul’s advice as we do so, he says….

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. (Thessalonians 5: 17.) Have fun in other words!


Augustine of Hippo. The City of God.
Paul Bradshow: Eucharistic Origins
Michelle Guiness: The heavenly Party.
Thomas O’Loughlin, The Eucharist, Origins and Contemporary Understandings. BloomsburyT&T Clark, 2015. Pages 170-179.
Dorothy L. Sayers. The Mind of the Maker. & Unpopular Opinions
Evelyn Underhill. Worship.
John D. Zizioulas: The Eucharistic Communion & the world.


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