On Sunday, we celebrated Corpus Christi, and I preached briefly on how Christ is present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist: if you missed it, you can read it here. I thought that it might be useful to build a little on last Sunday’s teaching in this parish email.
First, it’s important to recognise that Christ is present in the Eucharist in four different ways: First, in us, His gathered Body; second, as the Divine Word in the human words of the Bible, and especially in His words recorded in the Gospels; third, in the priest who represents Him at the Altar; and fourth, in the Eucharistic gifts of bread and wine.
At the Reformation, the fourth of these modes of Christ’s presence became controversial. Protestant thinkers questioned the precise definition of transubstantiation as it was taught by the Roman Catholic Church at the time, whereby the entire substance of the gifts is replaced with the body and blood of Christ, leaving only the outward appearance or ‘accidents’ of bread and wine. Still, almost all the Reformers held to what was clearly the belief of the earliest Christians, namely that Christ is really present in the gifts in some way. The disagreements were about exactly how.
At the most extreme end, the Swiss Reformer Zwingli argued that the bread and wine are bare signs conveying none of the grace of Christ’s body and blood at all: the Lord’s Supper was merely a commemorative meal. It should be said that this teaching is explicitly rejected in the Church of England’s 39 Articles of Religion.
Luther, meanwhile, devised a teaching called ‘consubstantiation:’ the belief that the bread and wine remain but are simultaneously the body and blood of Christ. This theory has the merits of echoing Christ’s status, agreed by the whole Church, as 100% human and simultaneously 100% divine.
Calvin, on the other hand, maintained that Christ was truly present in the sacrament only when it was received in true faith, a doctrine known as ‘receptionism.’ Archbishop Cranmer subscribed to this view at one point, and there is much evidence of it in the Book of Common Prayer. Article 28 of the 39 Articles of Religion maintains that “the Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith” (I do have difficulty with the word ‘only’ in that sentence).
However, this is not the end of the story. The Prayer Book contains many ambiguities, and some of it suggests that an objective change is effected in the gifts during the Eucharistic Prayer. For a start, the Eucharistic Prayer is called ‘the Prayer of Consecration.’ At the end of the service, the Priest is firmly prohibited from throwing away any consecrated left overs, but must ‘reverently eat and drink’ them there and then. If they are ‘just’ bread and wine, why should this be?
There has been room in the Church of England since 1662 at least for a range of opinion on how and for whom Christ is present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, but one teaching is clear: He is present in them somehow – and if we can train the eyes of our souls to see Him in ordinary bread and wine, then we should see Him all the more clearly in the ordinary encounters of our daily lives.
Are we guilty of a pick’n’mix religion? In A Portrait of the the Artist as a Young Man, James Joyce’s Catholic protagonist loses his faith. A friend asks him if, then, he means to become a Protestant; to which he replies by asking why he would “forsake an absurdity which is logical and coherent” only to “embrace one which is illogical and incoherent.” At Corpus Christi, I think this hits the mark.
I have never understood how so-called ‘Bible-based’ Christians can happily believe that God has the power to enter the Blessed Virgin’s womb, to go among us performing all sorts of spectacular miracles, to rise from the dead, ascend into heaven, give His disciples the power to speak in tongues – and yet deny the plain meaning of God’s own words at the Last Supper: “This is my body. This is my blood.” Everything else is to be taken at face value, but not this, and that does seem to me quite illogical and incoherent.
There were doubters in Jesus’ time as there are now, but He made it very clear that this was no metaphor. John 6: many of His followers question how they can possibly eat His flesh and drink His blood, something utterly repugnant to Jewish sensibilities. He tells them truly and tells them again: you must, in the Greek, trogein – that is ” chew on” – my flesh if you want to be born again. And in case we think He wasn’t serious, note: at that point, many of His followers turned and walked away.
Today we celebrate the reality of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine of the Altar. Absurd it may be, but it is entirely logical and coherent, and I for one will not walk away from it, because of all Jesus’ miracles, as far as I can see, this is the greatest and the most important. If it turned out that the various feedings and healings did not really take place, in honesty my faith would not be all that shaken: the meaning of those miracles would be enough. But if the bread and wine of the Eucharist were nothing more than bread and wine, then frankly, I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning to be here: and here’s why.
According to the foundational story of Jesus’ Jewish faith, for Moses to lead His people out of slavery in Egypt, they had to offer the sacrifice of a lamb, so that the angel of death would pass over their houses. In the desert, God sustained His people with a supernatural bread that they called ‘man hu,’ which means ‘what is it?’ – because they had no idea. God commanded them to keep some of this in their portable temple as a sign of His saving presence, and it kept them going until they got to the promised land of Canaan. So, a one-off sacrifice followed by a temporary gift to get the chosen people to a temporal location.
But Jesus is the new Lamb of God, a sacrifice for all people and for all time. Jesus is the new Bread of Life, not that which our ancestors ate and yet died, but the Bread given for all people, for all time, to nourish us towards an eternal kingdom. Jesus offered Himself once and for all for the sins of the world: the Cross was the “once,” the Eucharist is the “for all.” He has told us that it is His Body, given for us; and if the Jews in the desert venerated and carried around the manna bread which would only sustain them for a few years, how much more should we venerate the Bread given us for eternal life! The reason it is given us to is eat, not to carry about, but how can we help ourselves from rejoicing and showing to the world such an extraordinary gift, such a miracle in our midst, the very presence of Our Lord?
We have the chance to walk with Him today. I urge you to take it, and not to walk away.