Eucharistic disunity

Some parts of the secular press had a field day on Maundy Thursday, parading before any who cared to read about it the deep wound at the heart of the Church – division in the very centre of the Sacrament of Unity. The half-truths were bandied about, as so often is the case, before there could be opportunity to assess their accuracy. After all Pope John Paul’s encyclical Ecclesia de Eucharistia was only signed by him on that very day.

There was nothing, ecumenically speaking, to be found in the document that was not already apparent to the informed, but this lessens neither the scandal nor the pain. Walton Empey, Church of Ireland Archbishop of Dublin, is reputed to have said in response, ‘At times like this I feel that Jesus is weeping and the devil is doing a dance.’

Yes, it is Our Lord who is wounded afresh in his living body, though of course not definitively since the victory is already his. Such wounds are nothing new in the sometimes sad history of the Church. As early as the second and third centuries Origen was pointing out the distress caused to Our Lord by the disunity of his followers at the Eucharistic table by our sinfulness.

He is commenting on Matthew 26.29, when, directly after consecrating the cup of his blood at the Last Supper, Jesus says, ‘I tell you, I shall not drink again of this fruit of the vine, until I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.’ Origen remarks:

How then can he who is the ‘advocate for my sins’ drink the wine of gladness when I am saddening him with my sins? How far can he who ‘draws near to the altar’, to make expiation for me the sinner, be joyful when his sadness for my sins is constantly increasing? ‘With you’, he says, ‘will I drink it in the Father’s kingdom’ (Matthew 26.29). As long as we do not act so as to ascend to the kingdom, he cannot drink alone the wine he promised to drink with us. He therefore is in grief as long as we persist in error.

How to desist from our Eucharistic disunity is outside our unaided capacity, however.

Shortly before the encyclical appeared the Reverend Professor Nicholas Sagovsky, an Anglican participant in recent ARCIC discussions, said in an interview:

I think that the people who started the work of ARCIC 30 years ago, really thought we would be sharing the Eucharist by the year 2000 … But I think the whole time-frame has now shifted. I’ve no idea what has to happen for us finally to share the Eucharist

Despite any suggestions we might care to make, divine intervention would seem the only ultimate answer. But what would Origen say?

Maybe we need to look at things more from his standpoint. Hans Urs von Balthasar sets the context well when explaining something of Origen’s understanding of the sacraments:

Everything that takes place in the earthly order of salvation is sign and sacrament, mirror and mystery of what is completed in the eternal order of salvation … even the sacraments of the Church are, in all their true effectiveness, only shadow of the eternal sacrament … The Eucharist is the image of the heavenly banquet, the liturgical sacrifice the image of the eternal sacrifice.

We know this, of course, in theory, that at length the sacraments will cease, to adapt the words of the well-known hymn; but what of now? We must be faithful to conscience and to what we can have no doubts about where the authenticity of our particular Eucharistic worship is concerned.

Above all we must be humble and not antagonistic, penitent and at prayer, while seeking for what draws us together as we ask for the grace of unity in God’s good time and way. ‘Be aware of this’, Origen says:

as long as one remains in this life, one looks ‘through a mirror, darkly’ (1 Corinthians 13.12) and is a little sheep which is led around by the shepherd. But when one passes over to the world to come, one comes ‘face to face’ before the truth, and takes one’s seat at the spiritual banquet, according to the words: ‘And I will prepare for you a covenant so that you may eat and drink at the table of my Father in truth’ (cf. Luke 22.29–30). Then will the never-ending sacrifice … also be better offered. For then will the soul be better able to stand unceasingly before God and offer a ‘sacrifice of praise’ through the high priest who is ‘priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek’.

A Sister of the Community of the Holy Cross, Rempstone.