From the Communion of the Sick in the Prayer Book, we read this rubric:
But if a man, by reason of extremity of sickness … do not receive the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood: the Curate shall instruct him that if he do truly repent him of his sins, and stedfastly believe that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the Cross for him, and shed his Blood for his redemption, earnestly remembering the benefits he hath thereby, and giving him hearty thanks therefore: he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul’s health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth.
Such sixteenth-century Evangelical earnestness may have lost its practical application, for the circumstances envisaged are rarely propitious for such ‘instruction’, but does it ask too much? Can all that understanding be required as a necessary substitute for a small wafer?
Think of the equation as it were in reverse. All this is what you receive from one small piece of bread. We speak of Holy Communion, and rightly so, but it would be wrong to suppose this was all: it is more than just communion that is given and received.
If we are offended by the idea of ‘eating God’, this may be because we have not understood why it is so important. In this season, when the last leaves fall and plants die, when in George Herbert’s words ‘flowers depart to feed their mother-root whence they have blown’, let us lay aside the colour and adornment of our liturgy and reflect on this core truth. Why did Jesus command us to ‘Take, eat’?
Each one of us, as we seek to ‘receive God’s holy Word’, is subject to error and limitation. What we see or what we hear or what we feel is all subject to our own peculiar range of faults, [whether pride or stupidity, impatience or anger, mood swings or bitterness]. Despite ourselves, we each discover a million ways of muddying the clear waters of God’s word.
And those who share it with us, parents, teachers, ministers, they too are prone to error and limitation in their teaching, preaching or example. And then there are the limitations of the context: a simple church will not convey the richness of the faith in the same way that an ornate one will not convey its simplicity. There is no way in which we can be sure of passing on the Gospel truth untainted by our own constraints of sin.
Jesus knew this. He left us a Sacrament that goes deeper than our political or cultural context, deeper that our own social and psychological persona, beneath the waves of emotion, sentiment, peer pressure or whatever else may toss us about on life’s storms. A Sacrament that we receive with shocking physicality – by eating, in our mouths.
Reflect upon this simple act of eating and drinking. However much anyone may seek to manipulate or deceive you, inside the Church or out, they can never affect these two simple acts: you receive the Body and Blood of Christ, and no one can alter that. And when you are old, and lose your sight, or hearing, or even your mind, this simple physical act will remain almost to the very end.
Reflect upon its extraordinary simplicity. Not on the necessary discipline and preparation (that is something else) but on the simple act itself, as you stand or kneel by the altar. Not on the context, on who will give it, or what form it takes, or whether the wine is white or red, or any other distraction, but only on the act itself. It requires no intelligence, only a minimum of movement and your physical body will do most of the ‘work’ for you. Above all the act of eating and drinking allows of no mediator whatsoever between you and Christ himself.
The idea of eating God is truly shocking – that God should give himself so fully, so directly, so unequivocally, to you and me, and we receive forgiveness, redemption, health, salvation, life everlasting.
Nicholas Turner is the Rector of the Parish of All Saints, Broughton-with-Elslack.