Wednesday, March 29, 2006

a presentation on the meaning of the eucharist

I gave a somewhat ad hoc presentation on the Eucharist tonight. Here it is, for your edification. There are a few typos. For that I apologize.

The Eucharist is undertaken in obedience to Jesus’ command “Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22.19 & 1 Corinthians 11.24). This was one of Jesus’ final commands to the twelve disciples whom he had chosen from among all his followers, to be with him in a special way, and to be sent out to preach and to have authority (Mark 3.14).

As Dom Gregory Dix puts it: “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” (The Shape of the Liturgy, p. 700-and-something). Obedience to this command commenced as early as we have any records. Saint Paul, and the Christians he led, were “doing this” in remembrance of Him (1 Corinthians 11) around the year 55. And Bishop Polycarp at Smyrna and Bishop Ignatius at Antioch were “doing this” before the turn of the first century, as well as at Rome (cf. the Letters of Clement of Rome, likely a disciple of St. Peter).

Okay. So Jesus said to “do this,” and we have done it. What exactly is “this”?

We know that the Eucharist involves prayer, but one of the earliest names for the Eucharist is “The Action.” The Eucharist is therefore a combination of words and actions, or ceremonial. It is not only a saying something, but also a doing something.

The word used anciently (and still among the Greek Orthodox) for the primary thing done at the Eucharist is “anaphora” which means offering. Figuratively, the “anaphora” came to refer to what in the BCP is called the “Eucharistic Prayer” – what the priest says after the sursum corda (“lift up your hearts”) and sanctus (“Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Hosts,” etc.), all the way to the “Great Amen” which comes just before the Lord’s Prayer. There are several versions of this anaphora or “Eucharistic Prayer” in the BCP. There are two versions, similar to each other, in traditional language, and there are four versions in more contemporary language, one of which we use every Sunday.

Before the Eucharistic Prayer there is what Anglican’s have traditionally called the “Ante-Communion,” and which was anciently called the “proanaphora,” which consists of the readings, prayers, and instruction (sermon) in preparation for the main action, the Offering itself. The Ante-Communion grew out of a vigil that the earliest Christians kept during the years of persecution, late Saturday night, in preparation for the anaphora, the communion itself, which would take place early in the morning on Sunday. (This part, the proanaphora, or Ante-Communion, is also called the “mass of the catechumens” because early on, non-Christians were asked to leave when it concluded, i.e. before the anaphora, or “mass of the faithful.” )

This too, incidentally, is why churches traditionally face East, and why, when they don’t, the end where the altar is, is referred to as the “east end” anyway. I.e. because the offering is associated with Jesus, whom the early Christians associated with the prophecy from Malachi (4.2): “But for you who fear my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings. You shall go forth leaping like calves from the stall.” And also from the prophecy uttered by the priest Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, Jesus’s cousin (cf. Luke 1), who after naming his son “John” prophesied about John and Jesus saying “And thou, child, shalt be called prophet of the Highest, and shall go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation… through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the dayspring from on high hath dawned upon us.” This prophecy became the canticle called Benedictus, and is traditionally sung (or said) at Morning Prayer (BCP p. 50).

But let’s return to the Anaphora, or Eucharistic prayer. We know that it means “offering” and that it is the “this” that is done “in remembrance of me.” But still: what is “this”? Well whatever it is, in order for it to be “this” it must be whatever Jesus did when he said “Do this.” Here is the relevant passage from the Gospel of Luke (22.19-20):

And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, "This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me." And likewise the cup after supper, saying, "This cup which is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.

There are four discernible elements of “this” anaphora, or offering. (1) “He took bread / wine,” (2) He gave thanks, (3) “He broke it,” and (4) he “gave it to them.” And Saint Paul, years later writing to the Christians at Corinth says that (1 Corinthians 11:23-24) I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, "This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me."

And many years later, we do and say the same thing Sunday by Sunday (BCP p. 362). This is our anaphora. What we do effects a mystical closeness to what Jesus did. This mystical closeness is described when the Church says that the priest, in “doing this” does it “in the person of Christ.” In other words, the closeness that is accomplished by “doing this” in obedience to Jesus’ command, is so close as to be appropriately described as being the very same thing that Jesus did at the last supper. Mystically, it is Jesus that is doing it, offering it, for us and in our midst at the Eucharist. And that is why it is so important not to take it lightly, because of that closeness to what Jesus was doing. And by saying “this is my body,” and “this is my blood,” the Lord was drawing our attention to another mystical closeness, the closeness of this action, the anaphora, the offering of bread and wine, to what would happen the very next day: his body would be offered and his blood poured out on the cross, for us.

Again, Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 11 makes this point, that in the offering of the Eucharist we come so mystically close to Jesus on the cross that it is dangerous. 1 Corinthians 11:26-29: as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes. Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself.

1. He took bread.

A part of this is the offering we take up. It is an extension of the Lord does through the priest. And the offering is taken up right before the priest literally “takes bread” and is a part of it. In the early Church, bread and wine were brought forward, and what was not used during the Eucharist, was used for the support of the poor in the Church, and for those who served at the altar. That in essence is what still happens with the offering. And we should see it as an extension of the offering of our own selves, which we should offer spiritually, in union with the offering of the bread and cup to God, through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.

2. He Gave thanks.

“Eucharist” in Greek means “thanksgiving.” In ancient Jewish practice, blessing or consecration was accomplished by a formula of praise and thanksgiving, in which the thing to be blessed or consecrated was set aside as belonging to the Lord. The Eucharistic Prayer in the BCP refers to “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.” And in this way we set aside the bread and wine (and ourselves, “our souls and bodies”) to be God’s in virtue of being united to the Body and Blood of Jesus, which was the most intimate bit of creation ever united to God; united so closely to Him as to be Him.

3. He broke it.

The bread has been taken and united intimately to God by means of “our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” and through the offering of Jesus. Now the bread is broken as a visible sign of the breaking of the Body of Jesus on the cross for our sins. We are to think of ourselves as united to Jesus in this action. And the breaking of Jesus’ body on the Cross was the action which God used to deliver the world from the power of sin and death. So too, our union with Jesus in the breaking of His Body, is the visible sign of our incorporation into God’s action of redemption. In this regard too, we should think of the suffering and evil in the world, and God’s use of us (in union with the sacrifice of the Cross) to apply the benefit of redemption from sin and suffering and death to all humanity. We become God’s instruments by being united to the breaking of the Lord’s Body.

4. He gave it to them.

By being given the Elements (the bread and wine) of the Eucharist, united as it is to the broken Body and shed Blood of the Lord, and united as that was to God’s own essence, by receiving and consuming these Elements, our union (our communion) with Jesus is consummated. He said this on the Cross, his last words before his death on the cross, before he “breathed his last,” were “It is finished” – in Latin, consummatum est. That is, Jesus is totally broken, totally poured out, totally given for us. And taking and eating the consecrated elements, we totally receive Him in his total gift. By this union with Him (this communion with Him), we are empowered by His life, which we receive, to serve God in union with the service of God that Jesus accomplished on the Cross, a service that delivers humankind from what was previously the absolute tyranny of death.

This is the climax of the Eucharist. After it we have only a brief prayer of thanksgiving for what we have received, and a blessing by the priest in the Name of God. And the whole action is finished. There is nothing left but for us to “God in peace to love and serve the Lord,” because we have been empowered to do this through our union with the Son of God, who loved Him and served Him perfectly.

Some helpful hints, corresponding to the fourfold Action:

1. He took.

We offer ourselves to God, he takes our offering and makes us his own. During this action, offer yourself in prayer to God, in union with the money that is taken up, and especially in union with Bread and Wine that will become the Body and Blood of the Lord, by being offered to God in union with Jesus’ sacrifice.

2. He gave thanks.

During the consecration of the bread and wine, permit yourself spiritually also to be consecrated to the service of God, again in union with the prayer and ritual taking place at the altar, and through it in union with the Lord on the Cross.

3. He broke.

During “the fraction” (when the priest breaks the consecrated Host), will yourself to be united to the broken Body and shed Blood of Jesus on the cross, to be used by Him in whatever way He wants. Open yourself to the accomplishment of God’s plan of redemption.

4. He gave.

As you come up and receive communion, give yourself totally to Jesus, as He gives Himself totally to you in this Mystery. And know that you are thereby empowered to go out in peace, to Love and serve God.


Thorpus said...


Great stuff, and nicely systematic.

I'd love to hear someting on anamnesis here, in answer to the symbolic memorialists.

And I'd also love to hear your opinion on the Eucharistic prayer from Rite I, the Cranmerian one. And, while you're at it, the other prayers as well. Is there one you prefer over the others?

MM said...

Here's to a hundred more evangelical moments from one so capable.