In the third of his articles on “The Ladder of Divine Ascent” Douglas Dale speaks of the divine liturgy as the heart of the call to holiness
“THINE OWN OF THINE OWN, for all and through all we offer thee, O Lord.” These solemn words intoned at the heart of the Orthodox consecration of the Eucharist hold the key to the centrality of the sacrament at the heart of the Church’s life. On the one hand the holy gifts are indeed God’s own gift of Christ by the Spirit for the salvation of humanity; yet the bread and wine are taken from the created world by the common work of mankind.
The Eucharist is the focus of the Church’s life and ‘raison d’etre’ as it leads human beings to fulfil their vocation to worship God ‘in spirit and in truth’. For this it is set in but not of the world, like salt or leaven, to draw people into the orbit of the divine love. Each celebration of communion renews and deepens the meaning of Baptism and Christian discipleship, both individual and corporate. It sets forth what the Church truly is, and enables it to become that reality.
“Therefore with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven …”
These are words that should pull us up short each time we stand before the altar. For the Eucharist is set at the threshold of heaven, of that eternal kingdom and reality of life to which we are called as Christians. Sensitivity to the nearness of heaven and to the presence of those many fellow-Christians who already enjoy the fullness of its life should be something for which we pray and prepare.
This is not to suggest that worship in the Eucharist is some means of escape or a kind of opiate. Rather that the sense of the reality of heaven gives proper and lifegiving perspective to every aspect of the reality of earthly life. Too often our life is lived without that perspective, like people carrying on in a room against the backdrop of a great curtain. But when the curtain is pulled back, the true shape and splendour of the room with the view is revealed. Oblivion to the reality of the heavenly Church may well account for much of the confusion of direction and pettiness in church life as we know it. “By the power of your Holy Spirit’ – here lies the clue to the life-giving power and urgency that is hidden at the heart of the Eucharist.
It is interesting that in several saints’ lives, holy men and women have glimpsed the fire of the Spirit descend upon the celebrant, or as fire in the chalice or as a certain light around the altar. It is the descent of the Spirit which takes our present into the eternal Presence of God, and makes real and life-giving the words of scripture and the liturgy. For in the words of Jesus : ‘It is the Spirit that gives life; the flesh can achieve nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are both Spirit and Life.’ And elsewhere in the fourth gospel : ‘He will glorify me; for he will take what is mine and make it known to you.’ Words communicate a person, and it is the word of the Holy Spirit to make real the personal presence of Christ.
The words of the liturgy and of scripture become ‘tongued with fire’ and it is vital that worshipping Christians are disposed to receive this divine communication at the heart of their lives. So the celebration of communion should never degenerate into either an act of impersonal ritual, or of collective self-gratification or entertainment; nor is true devotion simply a private individual thing. For as Christians open their hearts to the coming of God and His self-giving, so in them and through them His compassion intercedes for the life and salvation of the world.
“The Body of Christ given for you.”
Every eucharist confronts the awesome moment of Calvary: it is the moment when the Christian past is joined to the Christian present. It is a moment too of deeper recognition of Christ in both word and sacrament, of openness to Him who says, ‘Behold I stand at the door and knock.’
This consideration should affect the way in which a eucharist is celebrated in church, for due sensitivity to the likelihood of God’s self-disclosure and call to someone should guard against unseemly distractions or interruptions. Participation in holy communion is a commitment to self-sacrifice in response to Christ’s self-sacrifice for us, and through the words of scripture and liturgy may come a distinct call of prophetic urgency.
These words must never fall lightly: for by ‘the Body of Christ’ we are joined to all that these words signify the divine self-giving’ and the costly manner of that self-giving, and now in this moment given to us personally and together.
“We are the Body of Christ”.
The Eucharist constitutes the heart of the Church’s life because it is the sacrament of unity. It is one and the same Lord’s Supper in each and every church, even if language and tradition vary. This is the important truth to which Anglicans bear witness by their policy of an ‘open table’, welcoming all baptised and communicant Christians. Holy Communion is not the property of any one church, nor is a tradition of how it should be celebrated the last word on the matter. These diversities should not be allowed to become points of division or barriers to communion. Instead they should be appreciated as conveying the manifold richness of the reality of the Eucharist and the different aspects of Christian truth.
Once again proper understanding of the sacrament helps place any individual church, local or national, in its true perspective as part of the whole. Probably there is no more urgent goal ecumenically than establishing open intercommunion between all churches which subscribe to the creeds. For if by partaking in the Eucharist we ‘become what we are’, then the reality of intercommunion between and within churches will profoundly affect and determine the whole ethos of church life; for whether we realise it or not as Christians ‘we are one Body’.
The shape of the Eucharist sets before us a whole framework for growth in Christian life: here there is preparation, confession, adoration; there is sanctification of time, contact with Christian tradition, the hearing and interpretation of Scripture. There is solemn affirmation of faith, active and wide-ranging intercession, acts of reconciliation and self-dedication of a costly nature, as well as the central act of communion itself. We see ourselves and our neighbour in a new light.
Communion also has profound social and ethical implications at both personal and corporate levels, for life within and outside the Church. We cannot break bread and be oblivious to our neighbour, either the one in the pew or the one far away who is poor and starving. We cannot consecrate wine one day and justify getting drunk the next. We cannot refuse to change or be changed, to be forgiven or to forgive without turning the words of the liturgy into a sham. For to participate in holy communion is to become part of a whole act of divine compassion for us and for the world of which we are an inescapable part.
At the heart of it lies the divine call to holiness of life which is also a call to active compassion. This is the dynamic at the heart of the church’s life too, and that which should determine its ethos and values. It exists for no other reason.
Finally, the Eucharist is an act of witness to the world beyond the Church. Human beings were made for the worship of God, and human life is not fulfilled when it is utterly preoccupied with existence in this world. Christian worship has great power to attract and to convert, and in this music, ritual, buildings all play an important part; so too does a lively sense of the past.
But how we worship is the vital thing; we become part of something much bigger than ourselves and our perceptions, and we are called to a certain self-effacement and pointing beyond which in the end must become unselfconscious and sincere. This is a work of grace, evident in the lives of individual Christians and of many worshipping communities.
As in the creation of art or the performance of music something of real beauty and life-giving power is transmitted by fidelity and hard concentration. There has to be a sacrificial labour at the root of Christian life and worship, in fact a true self-giving into the hands of God which is the meaning of true repentance.
By this path and in the corporate worship of the Church a door is opened through which many a human child can return to their heavenly Father, sensing by the attitudes of the worshippers the welcome of God Himself.
Douglas Dale is Chaplain and Head of Religious Studies at Marlborough College.