John Twisleton provides an eye-opener on the transformative power of the eucharist
Going day by day to the eucharist makes me something of a consumer, and this fact is evidenced when I arrive at church and do not get what I expect (e.g. the time has changed, it’s a longer school Mass, or the heating has broken down). More profoundly, that consumerist approach to the sacred mysteries is impacted by liturgical changes like the obligation to listen and reflect upon the daily homily or keep quiet after Communion. These important elements seem geared more to serve my own needs than to what is historically at the centre of the eucharist: the pleading of the sacrifice of Christ for the suffering and triumph of the cosmos.
Seeing such profundity beyond brief action with scripture, bread and wine is the gift of catechesis and engagement with holy priests and people who over the course of my life have for me lifted the veil covering the sacred mysteries. In recognizing the power of Christ’s sacrificial prayer to which my intentions are joined day by day I have gained confidence in a transformative dynamic summarized in Our Lord’s promise that ‘I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.’ (John 12.32) All people but also all things, as St Paul writes of all things being ultimately put ‘in subjection under Christ, so that God may be all in all.’ (1 Cor. 15.28) Such, ultimately, is the power of the eucharist!
The best three windows into eucharistic sacrifice are the writings of St John, St Paul and the letter to the Hebrews. It is paradoxical that John, whose gospel does not record the institution of the eucharist, provides such awesome insight into its meaning and power. His gospel is one of grace through encounter with the living Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God who draws disciples into his love for the Father (John 17.21) as ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (1.29) whose ‘flesh is true food… blood is true drink’ (6.55). It is to John we owe the sacrificial image used in eucharistic liturgy of Christ as the Lamb of God combining images of the Passover lamb (Christ’s death coincides with Passover in John’s chronology) the sin-offering and the scapegoat carrying away sins on himself. This Johannine tradition is further reflected in Revelation 13.8 which speaks of Christ as the lamb ‘slain from the foundation of the world.’ In the eucharist, besides partaking of Christ and his indwelling with the Father in the Spirit, we offer ourselves in union with his all-powerful sacrifice that is cleansing the world of sin at his and our prayer.
Relating Christ’s institution of the eucharist, St Paul records his sacrificial words: ‘This is my body that is for you… this cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ Paul adds his own sacrificial interpretation: ‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes’ (1 Cor. 11.24–26). In the previous chapter the apostle had challenged idolatry among the Corinthians and in so doing had spoken, by way of contrast, of the godly eucharistic sacrifice: ‘Pagans sacrifice to demons and not to God… you cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons.’ (1 Cor. 10.20–21) Paul’s phrase quoted earlier ‘proclaiming [or showing] the Lord’s death’ is a powerful summary of the implication of the separate consecration and receiving of bread and wine which John Wesley saw as ‘a converting ordinance.’ Showing the Lord’s death to God on behalf of the cosmos has been understood not only as anticipating but as expediting Christ’s return. To Paul we also owe the understanding of Christians being Christ’s Body of which Christ is the head and God’s call to believers ‘to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship’ (Rom. 12.1b). This last call is taken up in Christian devotion where the eucharistic sacrifice is seen as both Christ’s and ours.
The letter to the Hebrews centres on Christ’s sacrifice linked to his death once for all and his priesthood which operates eternally ‘through the power of an indestructible life… and through the eternal Spirit.’ (Heb. 7.17, 9.14) Hebrews thrills with the saving power of Christ’s priesthood which Christian tradition naturally came to associate with the eucharist. In Hebrews, Christ is a priest for ever in the same sort of way John describes him as the Son for ever and with the same implication for believers called to offer themselves with Christ to the Father. Though this letter has no direct reference to the eucharist and in stressing the all-sufficiency of the cross warns against any sense of the eucharist repeating Calvary. it opens a window to its transformational dynamic and to the heart of God. In his booklet ‘The Christian Concept of Sacrifice’ Michael Ramsey reflects on the force of Hebrews with reference to an illuminating saying of P.T. Forsyth: ‘There was a Calvary above which was the mother of it all.’ Ramsey continues ‘we certainly get the idea in Hebrews that Christ’s sacrifice in time and history had an eternal root. He was doing, as man’s priest in time and history, something that he could not but do because it belonged to his eternal essence to be doing it.’ Hebrews opens a window to obedience as the inner motive of sacrifice, Christ’s and ours at the eucharist, as it quotes the psalmist: ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God.’ (Heb. 10.7)
When I participate in the eucharist it is like getting on a celestial lift. Though it is a brief journey timewise—a few minutes when it comes to specifically pleading Christ’s sacrifice—I am aware that people and needs already on my heart get lifted to God with powerful consequences. With John I see the lifting of Christ in bread and wine drawing the cosmos to him: ‘the bread of God which (also) comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.’ (John 6.33) With Paul I am lifted with Christ through the separate consecration and display of bread and wine imagining a showing, a piercing through the Church walls, of divine love to irradiate the suffering world. With the author of Hebrews I am aware of my prayer and obedience being taken up into Christ’s perfect offering and obedience with that of his whole body, that in the eucharist I am ascending ‘Mount Zion, come to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to his sprinkled blood.’ (Heb. 12.22–24)
Attending the eucharist day by day is edifying, yes, as we engage with the special selection of scripture, join intercession for those on our hearts and, above all, receive Holy Communion in Christ’s body and blood. It is also transformative of much beyond ourselves through our joining in worship ‘as on Mount Zion’ in solidarity with the sacrifice of Christ which has solidarity with the suffering and joy of the whole world: ‘May this Sacrifice of our reconciliation, we pray, O Lord, advance the peace and salvation of all the world.’ (Roman Catholic Eucharistic Prayer III)
Does the frequency of the eucharist matter? That quotation from a Roman Catholic prayer might imply the world would be less peaceable without regular Mass. In the middle ages bringing peace to the departed became an incentive for multiplying celebration of the eucharist for those who could pay priests, a practice which fuelled the Reformation. Less frequent celebrations have come about in Anglican and Protestant churches where it is argued that more spaced and well-prepared celebrations can increase and not decrease eucharistic devotion. Participating in the eucharist daily is somewhat counter to this reformed tendency, though there are exceptions such as the frequent attendance at Communion brought about during the Methodist revival.
Words crack in speaking of Christ’s sacrifice. The Creed is silent save in speaking of his crucifixion being ‘for us.’ It is left to eucharistic prayers, manuals of devotion, hymnody and theologians to voice, as adequately as words can voice, our day by day sacramental entry into Christ’s abiding work for the salvation of all.
As an Anglican I was brought up with the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) reordered or supplemented by the Roman Canon to make the eucharistic sacrifice explicit in the age-old offering of the consecrated gifts to God. As a BCP celebrant I announce to the congregation that I will be adding the Prayer of Oblation to the Prayer of Consecration. In this way, having signalled the change in the elements of bread and wine through use of Christ’s words, the Father is called upon ‘mercifully to accept this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving’ which is the body and blood of Christ. The lifting up of both elements in the doxology at the end of the prayer is the age-old visual expression of this.
‘Common Worship Eucharistic Prayer B,’ like ‘RC Prayer II’ based on the third century apostolic tradition of Hippolytus, is more explicit than the BCP about the eucharistic offering: ‘As we offer you this our sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving (we) bring(ing) before you this bread and cup.’ In my days of service in Guyana we prayed using the ‘Church in the Province of the West Indies Prayer B’ which was akin to ‘RC III’: ‘We offer you, in thanksgiving, this holy and life-giving sacrifice. Look with favour on your Church’s offering… make us a perpetual offering to you.’
Though Anglican eucharistic liturgy bears the scars of the Reformation with the studied ambiguity of some prayers, it keeps an important emphasis on both Christ’s sacrifice and Paul’s call for believers to be formed as ‘a living sacrifice.’ Eric Mascall makes this constructive summary: ‘To the question which has caused so much dispute among Christians: “Is anything offered in the Eucharist, and if so who offers what?” The all-inclusive answer is not just “Jesus offers himself” or “Jesus offers us” or “we offer Jesus” or “we offer ourselves” or “we offer bread and wine”, but “the whole Christ offers the whole Christ”, an answer which can be seen to include, in their right places and proportions, all the others.’
Mascall’s synthesis echoes the age-old Orthodox liturgy which pleads at the consecration: ‘We offer you your own from your own in all things and for all things.’ A similar understanding is voiced in the Anglican-RC agreement on the nature of the eucharistic sacrifice that in the sacred mysteries: ‘We enter into the movement of Christ’s self-offering.’
It is the perception of the eucharist as the God-given transformative action it is that draws me day by day into its orbit, which is one of both Christian mission and renewal: ‘For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ (1 Cor. 11.24–26) As often as we celebrate the eucharist we advance the work of salvation through no simple transaction but a showing of Christ crucified and risen mysteriously effective for both mission to the world and the renewal of church members.
This mission aspect is very clear to me: how Jesus uses the participation of the faithful in the eucharist as a means of bringing the world into what he wants it to be. So many times I have been able to look back days or weeks later at the fulfilment of intentions I have taken to the eucharist, even concerning world crises. As the Orthodox priest and author Alexander Schmemann expresses it: ‘When man stands before the throne of God, when he has fulfilled all that God has given him to fulfil, when all sins are forgiven, all joy restored, then there is nothing else for him to do but give thanks. Eucharist (thanksgiving) is the state of perfect man. Eucharist is the life of paradise. Eucharist is the only full and real response of man to God’s creation, redemption and gift of heaven. But this perfect man who stands before God is Christ. In him alone all that God has given man was fulfilled and brought back to heaven. He alone is the perfect eucharistic being. He is the eucharist of the world. In and through this eucharist the whole creation becomes what it always was to be and yet failed to be.’
So far as the church renewal aspect of the eucharistic sacrifice it is hard to improve for a summary on a rich paragraph from St Augustine’s great work The City of God: ‘That whole redeemed community which is the congregation and society of the saints is offered as a universal sacrifice to God by that High Priest who also offered himself in suffering for us in the form of a servant, that we might be the body of so great a Head.’
Day by day we have an invitation to participate in a blessing and distribution of bread and wine that impacts the cosmos through the eucharistic sacrifice of Jesus who died in our place and comes here and now, there and then, to be in our place and that of the whole world before our Father. His institution of the eucharist calls forth obedience—‘do this in remembrance of me’—but also, more profoundly, obedient self-offering of his own for our salvation and that of the whole world: ‘See, God, I have come to do your will, O God.’ (Heb. 10.7)
Fr John Twisleton is a retired priest ministering in Brighton.