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 Mind. While 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 One. And 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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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 Rapture. Dorothy 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.
- One way is that of inner stillness and silence, the contemplative approach if you like, which we have inherited here from our Benedictine forbears,
- another is through the delights of music and the Word, and prayers
- 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.