Concluding our series on 'Holy Habits', Dr Chris Bartley, one of our parish's Lay Readers from St Dunstan's Edge Hill, reflected on our inheritance of, and participation in, the Eucharist:
It is sometimes said that the Eucharist makes the Church. All-age services, Messy church, services to mark the beginning of the judicial year, Harvest Festivals, Evening Prayer – you name it – they all have a place, but it is the Eucharist that makes the Church. For it is here that we are drawn together to do for once exactly what Jesus told us to do – 'Do this is remembrance of me'. The Eucharist relates to something that actually happened. Its celebration connects us with both the original event, and with all those who have taken part in it ever since. The Eucharist is indeed a holy communion, for here - with each other - we begin to participate in the very life of the Trinity.
The word ‘eucharist’ means giving thanks. Thanks to God that we are alive at all. Thanks to God for all the blessings of our lives. Thanks to Jesus, who sacrificed his life - for us. Thanks to Jesus, whose example and teachings inspire and nurture us. Thanks to Jesus, who shows us what God is like. Thanks for God’s inestimable love to us and all people, for the means of grace and the hope of glory.
The bread and the wine are tokens of food and drink - necessities for our survival as physical beings. We thank God that it is through his goodness that we have them to offer. More than that, the bread represents the Jesus’ body broken on the cross, the wine is his blood shed there. We are drawn closer together and closer to God as we remember the life of Jesus our saviour. We call to mind and dramatically re-enact our lord’s self-sacrifice, his passion, his death and resurrection. We participate in – we take our parts in - an act of remembrance in which the bread and wine become more than tokens and more than symbols. For the priest, who speaks and acts on behalf of the people, invites the Holy Spirit to bless them:
Lord you are holy indeed, the source of all holiness. May your Spirit make these gifts of bread and wine holy, so that they become for us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.
It isn’t the celebrant that blesses the elements, it isn’t the assembled church – it’s the Holy Spirit. Blessed by the Spirit, the elements become more than signs.
The cup that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?
As we are drawn to the altar we are drawn closer one to another:
We who are many become one body, for we all share the same bread.
We become one holy communion, one fellowship, when together we partake of the one bread. We start to become what we are intended to be when we are brought into relationship with the godhead, and thence into proper relationships with each other.
These are some of the ways in which the Eucharist makes the Church. We are the people of thanksgiving. We will be sent out to proclaim the words and works of God; to bring life to others and light to the world. We may indeed be redeemed sinners, repentant sinners, forgiven sinners; we may feel better, we may be spiritually refreshed and renewed, illuminated and enlightened, empowered;- we may even for the time being have achieved a measure of self-forgetfulness - but first and foremost after our Eucharistic involvement with our saviour and with each other we go out into the world as people who realise that God is real & that our lives have value because God made us and loves us. We leave as people who have turned aside and glimpsed eternity or in other words recognized that there are absolute values. We go out into the world as people who have been forgiven, re-configured, and in-formed by grace. And this reformation informs our relationships with and our attitudes to others.
We remember and we give thanks for Jesus’ self-sacrifice – his legacy to us, our inheritance. That is the meaning of the Greek word diathēkē that is translated as ‘testament’ or ‘covenant’ sealed by Jesus’ blood – by his death on the cross. That legacy – wisdom, grace and blessing - is received at the resurrection - when humanity comes into its inheritance.
The Church teaches that it is by Christ’s blood that we are set free from sin and death. Jesus’ sacrifice of himself was made once for the sins of the whole world. What are we to make of this? I suggest that that it is Jesus’ life as well as his death of Jesus that is God’s response to the disorders of our human condition. The Lamb of God removes the sins of the world – which I take as meaning that Jesus shows us a new way of being human - as persons in communion with the Blessed Trinity and each other, and not as self-seeking individuals turned in upon ourselves, resentful and suspicious of others. We could not have saved (or healed) ourselves. We are too far gone down the path of self-absorption for that. So God took the initiative in calling us back to him. God was born as man and showed us what a truly human life looks like. That act of pure grace ended on the cross. That is what people do to God. That is the refusal of love. What is our response to the cross? In the first place, the sheer horror of the crucifixion should dispel any optimistic illusions about human nature. Shaken out of complacency, we pray that we may be inspired to live as God wants us to live: to be less self-absorbed; to care about others, responding generously to their needs; to let forgiveness come naturally; to seek justice and mercy. It is the deeds, the words, as well as the death of Jesus that are the sacrifice, the offering – that which He offers - and it is a legacy for us. His legacy, our inheritance, is the new way of being human. For that we are giving thanks.
When we receive the body and blood, the very life our Lord, we share in his being – we perpetuate his resurrected life.
How? There’s an influential line of thought that says that when the priest says, ‘do this in remembrance of me’ the bread, while still looking like bread, and the wine, while still having the outward appearance of wine, undergo changes in their nature so that they really become the body and blood of the Lord. This is what’s called transubstantiation. It means that a thing of one kind is replaced by a thing of another kind. The bread and wine are invested with a sacred aura. The priest works the magic.
Let me suggest another way of thinking.
Man does not live by bread (and wine) alone, but they are needed for the survival of our physical life. But they are not enough if we are to flourish. If we are made in the image of God, we need a form of nourishment – from relationship and communion with God. We have a choice: we may feed ourselves, sustain ourselves from our own resources and seek to survive as individuals, living for ourselves and concerned about others when it suits our interests
We can accept our inheritance, and live for the greater glory of God: giving the glory to him and not to ourselves. In the light of Christ we can see our lives as having the possibility for transformation into something quite different. We can draw on a communion of love and share a personal life together and with God, receiving our nourishment and support from his spirit. When the priest says:
‘Lord you are Holy indeed, grant that by the power of your holy spirit these gifts of bread and wine may be for us the body and blood of our lord Jesus Christ’
we are asking not only that the gifts change but that they change us too. We ask that the Holy Spirit makes the legacy really present. The Spirits changes the bread and the wine so that we receiving them are enabled to become Christ-like. We pray that the Spirit changes our lives by redirecting us towards God, transfiguring our values, and gathering us all into the life of God. When we pray that we may be made partakers of his body and blood, we are asking that with the spirit’s help we may become the resurrected life of Christ that is perpetuated in his people. We are asking that we may become Christ-like, endeavouring to live as he lived. We are asking that we may all share in the inheritance of the fruits of Christ’s works. We are not just asking for ourselves as individuals – we are asking the same for each other – that gathered into one by the Holy Spirit we may all share the resurrection life.