Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The Eucharist: A Window into the Holy

We are going to talk about sacraments as we understand them in the Episcopal Church and in most mainline churches. I start with a disclaimer – it is this passage from Paul:

1 Corinthians 13: 12-13
For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

The disclaimer is this: We understand this, at best, only dimly. All of the arguments over the centuries about the meaning and efficacy of sacraments really should start there: We see this only dimly. We get it, but only partially. Notice though, Paul says this has something to do with love. We are called to see all this through the lens love. Hold that thought So let’s get started:

The basic definition of a sacrament:

An outward sign of an inward grace.

We are physical, material beings. We understand things physically. We need to touch things. God gets that, and shows his actions physically for us. The church word is incarnational. The ultimate act of incarnation is God come to earth as fully human in the person of Jesus. God continues to be with us incarnationally through the sacraments.

Again, to keep this simple: The sacraments should be thought of as windows to the Holy, as tangible, physical places to touch God. The sacraments can get overly complicated, but really that is their purpose – as gifts from God allowing us to touch God.

The sacraments are not magic acts; they are ways for us to live fully into the life of grace.

The sacraments, as they have been long recognized by the church are:

Holy orders, or ordination
Reconciliation, or confession
Unction, or anointing the healing
Eucharist, or Holy Communion

The Episcopal Church has its roots in the English Reformation, as does the Methodist Church. And from our roots, we consider two sacraments to be the most important, to be the sacraments from which all else flows, and it is those two sacraments I am going to focus on: Baptism and Eucharist.

The other sacraments are optional for leading a Christian life. Baptism and Eucharist are not optional to live into the fullness of being a Christian.

Last week we looked in depth at baptism; this week we look at Eucharist:


1 Corinthians 12: 12-14
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. Indeed, the body does not consist of one member but of many.

Eucharist is an outward extension of our baptism. You will notice in that passage from Paul, one seems to flow from the other, Being washed in baptism into drinking from the Spirit. Does this sound mystical? You bet it is.

In our baptismal covenant, we pledge to share in the bread and wine of Eucharist.

The word “Eucharist” is Greek for “Thanksgiving.” It is also known as “Communion” or Holy Communion. It is the ritual meal we share remembering the Last Supper.

Some churches use only real bread and real wine, while others use a cracker and grape juice, while others use a combination of those items. The early church used bread wine, cheese, milk and olives, fish, and whatever other foods people brought.

By whatever words you call it, and by whatever food you use, that is what I am talking about now. And like the argument over how much water makes a baptism, let me suggest that arguments over whether to use wheat bread or grape juice also miss the point of the Eucharist. So let us go a little more deeply into this…

To really understand the Eucharist, we have to get really, really basic again. We start with a meal, but not just any kind of meal.

To get this, I want to start by reaching far, far back to a time before Jesus, to a time before Moses, to a time before the Bible, to a time before the written word. Long ago, tens of thousands of years ago, I think people would sit around the campfire, and share a meal, and they would tell stories.

They would tell the OLD stories of people long ago and how God had saved them despite the odds. They told the old stories and by telling them, the old stories came alive for them, and the old stories became their stories, too. The ancient people didn’t listen for entertainment, they listened to remember the stories because the stories were about them.

Think about it: What are we doing in church. We are sitting around the campfire – the candles – and we are hearing the old stories – the Bible – and we are making those stories our own story. We are remembering in the same way the ancients remembered the stories of salvation of old.

We don’t read the Bible in church to worship the bible, We read the stories to make the stories of God’s saving grace our story. That is the point of a sermon, by the way – to help illuminate the old stories – to make the stories come alive.

This way of remembering is underneath everything about the Eucharist. This way of remembering, in fact, is a gift we get from the Hebrews. The Jewish way of remembering is not just a mere recitation of old facts to be filed away. Rather, this kind of remembering – this Jewish way of remembering – has everything to do with our Eucharist.

For Christians, the ultimate story is the story of Jesus going to the Cross, dying, and then coming back to life among his disciples – the Resurrection -- Easter. We tell that story in our Eucharist and we sit at the table at the Last Supper by our remembering at the Eucharist. It is not just any ole’ meal; it is the meal before the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is the meal of Easter.

Our Eucharistic prayers are generally based on the version of the Last Supper found in Luke, and whomever the writer of Luke may have been, he or she was a follower of Paul (and yes there is a theory that Luke was written by a woman, a topic for another time). Let’s look at Luke’s version of the Last Supper:

Luke 22: 14-20
When the hour came, he took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves; for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” Then he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

Jesus uses the word remembering and he means it in this very Jewish way that I’ve been using the word. And by remembering it the way we do, in our Eucharist, the story of Easter becomes our story.

By our remembering, the Resurrection of Jesus becomes ours. That is why the Eucharist is the cornerstone and the culmination of our worship on Sunday. Every Sunday is a remembering of Easter, and we become Easter people again and again by remembering Easter every Sunday through our Eucharist of bread and wine, shared again and again.

Think of the Eucharist as a window that opens, if only for a few moments, a way for you to touch these ancient events and make them your own. Recall I said earlier that the sacraments are incarnational? That we pray with our whole being? Well, in the Eucharist we are remembering with our whole being, we are remembering in an incarnational way – through the words of the ancient story, and through the sight and smell and taste of the bread and wine. We remember with our whole physical being. We become part of the story through our remembering.

When we come to share the bread and wine of communion, we are not just consuming as individuals, we are also sharing in this remembering meal with each other. We share it with everyone who joins us in church; and we share in the meal with everyone in every church on that particular day. That is the meaning of communion – to be in community with all the faithful.

And guess what? We are sharing in this meal not just with each other, but with everyone who came before us and everyone who will come after us. Let me say that again: It isn’t just a handful of people in this room today, but everyone who ever has been is at the table with us, and everyone who is to come.

The Eucharist is a sign of how profoundly interconnected we are. Everyone we love who is no longer physically with us is at the table in our Eucharist. We are surrounded by a “cloud of witnesses” every time we come to the Table.

We say that God’s kingdom is here now but not yet fully here. The Eucharist is a sign of that. We get a taste of the Kingdom in our Eucharist, and sure sign of the heavenly banquet yet to come. Some say the Eucharist is an appetizer of the banquet; I think the word “appetizer” sounds a bit trivial, but you get the idea.

And this gets more interesting. Go with me a little further:

Thomas Aquinas, the great Medieval scholar and saint, put it this way: Aquinas said we are not souls inside of a body, but bodies inside of a soul. We are not souls inside of a body, but bodies inside of a soul. Our souls extend beyond ourselves and they are connected to each other and to everything in the universe.

So when we share this Eucharist, we share it with all creation and we share in a tangible way the fact that we are interconnected.

We are remembering not just any meal; we are remembering the Last Supper before the death of Jesus Christ – we are recalling the terrible suffering of Jesus. We are remembering the pain humans inflicted upon God, and we are remembering that we are all connected to each other through that pain.

So go another step with me. The Eucharist brings not just food for our own journey of life, but a challenge as well. We share in the pain of the world, the hunger of the world, and we are challenged to do something with that. The world’s hunger becomes our hunger through the Eucharist.

Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori puts it this way, “God’s body is pained and when we get that we might understand how to bless the whole world.”

Much blood has been spilled over the centuries by Christians fighting other Christians about what happens in the Eucharist – is the bread chemically changed into Jesus or is it a mere symbol. All of those arguments miss the point.

Richard Hooker, the great reformer of the English Church in the 15th Century explained that the point of the Eucharist is NOT how the bread and wine is changed; the point is how WE are changed by sharing in the bread and wine. And as we are changed, we can be the hands and feet and heart of God blessing the world.

Basic structure of Eucharistic prayers

Look up Eucharistic prayer A p. 361

Eucharistic prayers all follow roughly the formula of remembering that the first eucharistic prayers of the early church with much variation. The eucharistic prayers, to be eucharistic prayers, contain:

Table Grace – “The Lord be with you” – and an acclamation of God’s glory and our faith in it – “Lift up your hearts…” It is a way of thanking God and bringing us to the Table, making us a part of what comes next. It is based on a Jewish table grace; it is typical of the oldest known Jewish table blessings which were dialogues like this one. Think of the Eucharist as your entry into the Jewish Shabbat, the Day of Sabbath. That is how this is intended.

Amnesis – The general remembering of God’s creative acts, our part in it, our falling away from God, and Jesus’ coming to save us. This remembering is also specific by putting us at the table at the Lord’s last supper with his disciples. We are there at the table as disclipes.

Epeclesis – The blessing of the bread of wine, or “words of institution” where the priest asks Jesus through the Holy Spirit to be with us in the bread and wine – “sanctify this bread…” Notice also in Prayer A the priest says “sanctify us also…” – we ask Jesus to be in us to make us holy. As we go on, you may notice some Eucharistic prayers have a weak epiclesis, or none at all (some of the African Anglican prayers have none).

Please note a few wrinkles in all of the Eucharistic prayers: Each Eucharistic prayer (except C) contains a blank space for what is called the “Preface.” The preface is inserted after the first responses, and changes by the season or special occasion (baptism, marriage, death etc.). Look at p. 377-382 for the prefaces.

Now let’s look at each of the eucharistic prayers in the 1979 book:

Rite I – The older Elizabethan language

The Rite I Eucharistic Prayer begins on p. 323. The opening salutation is more elaborate than Rite II, and it contains the Jewish shema, on p. 324 (which I rather like). The eucharistic prayers begin on p. 333. Eucharistic Prayer I is longer, wordy, and the emphasis at the end is on our “manifold sins.”

Eucharistic Prayer II is shorter, a bit more to the point, and echoes Prayer B in Rite II. There is no mention of “manifold sins.” This prayer emphasizes that “the whole church may be made one body with him.” The nuance is a bit more the church as corporate and not just composed of individuals; The word “testament” is replaced with “covenant.”

Note that both have the “Prayer of Humble Access” on p. 337, where we again declare we are sinful. This is generally done in Lent.

Rite II – Contemporary (for the 1970s) language

Begins on BCP p. 355. There are four distinct prayers in Rite II:

Prayer A, p. 361, is the briefest and most to the point; it is written as a contemporary and succinct version of Prayer I. The emphasis in Prayer A is “the mystery of faith.”

Prayer B, p. 367, contains language including prayers for saints, and the emphasis is more on the church and the people of God in this together, as in Prayer II. The language about saints is meant to expand our understanding of our communion to include all those at the Table including those who have died. The prayer is the closest to the Prayer of Hippolytus, and was written primarily by the Rev. Frank Griswold, who later became Bishop of Chicago and then Presiding Bishop of the United States.

Prayer C, p. 369, which was written especially for the 1979 book by Capt. Howard E. Galley, emphasizes God’s creation and uses a call-and-response similar to Eastern churches. Prayer C has no preface. It also has the epicelesis in the wrong place.

Prayer D, p. 372, the longest, is an adaptation of an Eastern Orthodox rite dating from the time of Basil the Great (d. 379); and the emphasis is on service. This prayer is also authorized for use in the Roman Catholic Church, hence it is the most widely used eucharistic prayer in Christianity. Eucharistic Prayer D, on p. 375, contains spaces to include the Prayers of the People in the middle of the Eucharistic prayer (so you would not do the Prayers of the People in the ordinary place in the service if doing Prayer D).

Please also notice that Rite II contains two versions of the Lord’s Prayer, p. 364, the more traditional “Our father, who art in heaven,” and the newer “Our father in heaven…”

In truth, neither is completely true to the original Greek (the newer version is closer), but we can save those issues for another time. The argument can be made that we ought to be doing a Rite II Lord’s Prayer with Rite II, and Rite I Lord’s Prayer with Rite I. But the drafters of the 1979 BCP bowed to the reality that for some people the Lord’s prayer was not the Lord’s unless the Father “art in heaven.”

A deeper question than style should be why the Lord’s prayer is in this place in the Eucharistic prayer. Remember I mentioned to you that the Lord’s prayer in the Early Church was used most frequently as an exorcism prayer. It’s placement here in the Eucharist is, arguably, to ward evil away for just a little while, long enough for us to share in the bread and wine of our Communion meal before the realities of the world come rushing back at us.

The Lord’s prayer, as it is repeated in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, do not contain the final benediction “For the kingdom, the power, and the glory are yours…” Those words come from 1 Chronicles. The Lord’s Prayer really ends with “deliver us from evil.” Period. And that emphasizes its purpose here in the Eucharist.

You will find the Lord’s Prayer that way with the shorter ending in some of the “offices,” and it is to those places we now turn…

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