the St mary magdalen school of theology is  a network of women and men who read, pray, and teach the Christian faith. 

Sacraments: Eucharist

Sacraments: Eucharist

In this, the second entry in our series on sacraments, Fr Angus Ritchie writes about the eucharist as a means through which we participate in the death and resurrection of Christ, and a foretaste of his coming again in glory.


The sacraments, as Fr Ken Leech put it, are not “freak events” in a world which otherwise “runs on quite different rules.” They are a foretaste of God’s new creation, showing us what the world has been made for, and what it will ultimately be [1]. The time of the Church’s sacramental life falls between that of Christ’s decisive victory over sin and death and the time in which the whole creation will enter into the fruits of that victory - when the powers of death are finally destroyed and he is “all in all” (Colossians 3.11).

The memorial acclamations in our Eucharistic Prayers point to the threefold dynamic of the Eucharist: remembering his sacrifice on Calvary (“Christ has died”), drawing us into the presence of the Lord (“Christ is risen”) and offering a foretaste of eternal glory (“Christ will come again”).

 

Christ has Died: Remembering his Sacrifice

At the Last Supper, Christ both interprets his death on Calvary as a sacrifice and he commands his Church to be fed and formed by that sacrifice until he returns in glory.

As Benedict XVI explains, the impulse to offer sacrifice to God (or to the gods) lies deep within all human cultures:

In all religions, sacrifice lies at the heart of worship. But this is a concept that has been buried under the debris of endless misunderstandings. The common view is that sacrifice has something to do with destruction. It means handing over to God a reality that is precious to man… But this immediately raises the question: What pleasure is God supposed to take in destruction? Is anything really surrendered to God through destruction? [2]

Only secondarily, because of the Fall, does sacrifice become associated with atoning for sin. For us to be united with God, we must be delivered from the “state of separation, of apparent autonomy, of existing only for oneself and in oneself.” There is no sacrifice which human beings can offer God in their own power, in order to end this estrangement. In Christ, God has become the sacrifice (1 Corinthians 5.7).

If ‘sacrifice’ in its essence is simply returning to love and therefore divinization, worship now has a new aspect: the healing of wounded freedom, atonement, purification, deliverance from estrangement… Worship is directed to the Other in himself, to his all-sufficiency, but now it refers itself to the Other who alone can extricate me from the knot that I cannot untie. [3] 

As Christ told his disciples on Maundy Thursday, the bread consecrated at the Eucharist is his body broken for us, and his wine is the blood shed for us, for the remission of our sins. We receive it entirely as a gift. Everything which is offered on the altar – the bread, the wine, the body and the blood which it becomes - is a gift from the One “who alone can extricate me from the knot I cannot untie.” 

Nicholas Poussin.  Christ instituting the Eucharist .

Nicholas Poussin. Christ instituting the Eucharist.

 

Christ is Risen: Drawing us into his Presence

From the earliest times, the majority of Christians have taken Jesus’ words at the Last Supper literally. In the words of J.N.D. Kelly, "Eucharistic teaching, it should be understood at the outset, was in general unquestioningly realist, i.e., the consecrated bread and wine were taken to be, and were treated and designated as, the Saviour’s body and blood" [4]. The doctrine of the Real Presence, though expressed in different ways in Orthodoxy (both Eastern and Coptic) and Roman Catholicism, is affirmed almost universally for the first fifteen centuries of the Church’s life. In the Eucharist, Christ is not merely remembered or spoken about. He is encountered. In the words of Herbert McCabe

We begin with a ceremony in a church and find ourselves in the Kingdom; no longer simply talking or thinking about Christ but in his bodily presence. [5]

The ‘unquestioningly realist’ hermeneutic of the Church Fathers is founded in St Paul’s treatment of Jesus’s words in his First Letter to the Corinthians. He explicitly warns against “failing to discern the body” (11.29) and asks rhetorically “The cup of blessing 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?” (10.16). 

St Paul uses the formula of “receiving” and “handing on” with reference to two pieces of eyewitness testimony: the narrative of Jesus’s institution of the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11.23-25) and of Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection (1 Corinthians 15.3-4). As Benedict XVI notes, St Paul must have received these when he stayed with St Peter in Jerusalem for fifteen days to “consult him” (Galatians 1.19). These two pieces of eyewitness testimony form the “very heart” of the Apostle’s thought:

On the one hand, they testify that the Eucharist illumines the curse of the Cross, making it a blessing (Galatians 3.13,14), and on the other, they explain the importance of Jesus’ death and Resurrection. In Saint Paul’s Letters, the “for you” of the Institution of the Eucharist is personalized, becoming “for me” (Galatians 2.20)—since Paul realized that in that “you” he himself was known and loved by Jesus—as well as being “for all” (2 Corinthians 5.14). This “for you” becomes “for me” and “for her [the Church]” (Ephesians 5.25), that is, “for all”, in the expiatory sacrifice of the Cross (cf. Romans’ 3.25). The Church is built from and in the Eucharist and recognizes that she is the “Body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12.27), nourished every day by the power of the Spirit of the Risen One [6].

St Luke draws this same connection between presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and in the life of the Church. In the encounter at Emmaus he is revealed “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24.13-35). St Luke tells us the primitive Church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2.42). The Church participates in the life of Jesus, to such an extent that (as Beverley Roberts Gaventa shows in her commentary) the “Acts of the Apostles” might more accurately be called the “Acts of God” throughthe Apostles [7]. The Church which feeds on Christ sacramentally now makes his sacrifice present. St Stephen’s words of martyrdom echo those of Christ upon the Cross, and when Saul persecutes the early Christians, Jesus does not ask “why are you persecuting my disciples?” but “why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 7.60, 9.4). After Pentecost, the disciples do not merely follow Jesus. Filled with the Spirit, and nourished by the Eucharist, they participate in his life and mediate it to those around them.

The concepts of participationand mediationare vital to understanding Christ’s presence in both Eucharist and Church. The Eucharist is not an additional sacrifice offered by the Church that somehow competes with or complements the sacrifice offered on Calvary. It is a participation in that sacrifice. What is true of Christ’s presence in the Sacrament becomes true of his presence in the Church. As we feed on his life-giving sacrifice, we receive the grace to mediate his life to the world. In St Augustine’s words, the Eucharist is unlike all other foods because, instead of our eating turning it into our flesh, it turns us into Christ’s.

This understanding of participation and mediation enables us to avoid two key theological pitfalls. Without it, our understanding of the Eucharist either makes it into a mere commemoration of the sacrifice of Calvary, or implies that it is somehow supplementing that sacrifice. Likewise, without understanding the life of the Church as a participation in Christ, the relationship between faith and works is seen as extrinsic (leading either to a valuing of faith at the expense of good deeds, or the equal and opposite error of justification by works).

Tohave faith is to participate in the life of Christ, from which good works inevitably flow. As St James says, “I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2.18). St Paul likewise grounds his ethic not in external rules, but in these relationship between the Church and Christ: reminding the Corinthians that their bodies are “temples of the Holy Spirit” and “members of Christ” (1 Corinthians 6.15,19). Although the language is different, this same relationship between ontology and ethics is at the heart of Johannine theology. Its ethics flows from the disciples’ “abiding in” Christ (John 15.4), and the materiality of the Eucharist is integral to that process of abiding. “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6.53).

 

Christ will come again: A Foretaste of Glory

When we receive Christ in the Eucharist, we not only remember the sacrifice of Calvary and are drawn into his risen Presence. We also receive a foretaste of the union which is to come; when the Church is joined to him in the marriage banquet of the Lamb (Revelation 19.6-9).

Jesus’s repeatedly used images of meals - especially feasts with “the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame” (Luke 14.21) to describe God’s coming Kingdom. The Eucharist is a foretaste of that eternal fellowship. As we see in the Acts of the Apostles, it summons the Church to that same eschatological witness in our sharing of the means of life here on earth. It is no coincidence that the primitive Church is described by St Luke as sharing its goods as well as breaking bread together (Acts 2.44-47). Its sacramental life flows out into its wider stewardship of the good things of creation: these too are handled in a way that draws human beings into relationships which reflect and participate in God’s sacrificial love. 

Faithful witness to the life to come inevitably leads to conflict with the powers which dominate and oppress in our present age. As Herbert McCabe explains, “Christ will only be at home in the Kingdom of the future” for this world will always be resistant to his piercing and truthful witness. In every age, “he is to be found in those who unmask he present world, those in whom the meaninglessness and inhumanity and contradictions of our society are exposed” [8].

In the Johannine books, some of the Bible’s most mystical language about union with God exists alongside some of its most sombre language about the Church’s conflict with the powers of this world. To drink the new wine of the Kingdom is to drink Jesus’ cup of suffering. As we feed on Christ in the Eucharist, we are drawn into his life of sacrifice.

The final chapters of Revelation promise us an end to both suffering and sacraments. The Eucharist looks forward to God’s new creation, in which all tears are wiped away, and both heaven and earth are renewed – so that the whole material order shows forth the divine life, and God can dwell with his people for ever. There is no need for a Temple in that city, for the whole creation is drawn into an eternal sacrifice of praise:

So, Lord, at length when sacraments shall cease,

may we be one with all thy church above,

one with thy saints in one unbroken peace,

one with thy saints in one unbounded love:

more blessèd still, in peace and love to be

one with the Trinity in Unity.


  1. Ken Leech, Prayer and Prophecy (DLT, 2009)

  2. Benedict XVI, The Spirit of the Liturgy(Ignatius Press, 2000)

  3. Ibid.

  4. J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (AC Black, 1977)

  5. Herbert McCabe, “Eucharistic Change,” Priests and People(June 1994)

  6. Benedict XVI, Saint Paul (Ignatius Press, 2009)

  7. Beverley Roberts Gaventa, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: Acts of the Apostles(Abingdon Press, 2003)

  8. Herbert McCabe, God Matters (Bloomsbury, 2000)

 

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