What is the Eucharist?
As we continue to live our lives in quarantine, government ordered or otherwise, and are temporarily absent from our churches the talk of the town, or Facebook at least, has centered around the Eucharist. Now that so many of us are unable to receive the Eucharistic Meal, something that we have possibly taken for granted, the inability to receive the Body and Blood of Christ has given us reason to evaluate this most sacred rite within the Church and question what its purpose is.
Eucharistic theology comes in many forms and most of those forms are present within the Episcopal Church. The two main forms are Real Presence, where we believe that the Bread and Wine mysteriously become the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ; and Memorial we were believe that the Bread and Wine remain Bread and Wine but are a reminder for us of the Last Supper and the sacrificial death of Christ upon the Cross. The main reason that these two beliefs are held by the Anglican Tradition is because of Blessed Queen Elizabeth I. When Elizabeth took the throne of England she was faced with many challenges. Her country was divided between Roman Catholics and Protestants. The Roman King of Spain wanted her dead and was threatening to invade England (which he tried and failed with the Spanish Armada). The Pope had her excommunicated which gave license for anyone to assassinate her. She was unmarried and without an heir making her a target for anyone in the royal lineage to kill her and take her throne. The treasury of England was low making the country weak economically and militarily.
Elizabeth needed to unite England and one way to do this was to unite all Christians under the same banner. During what we call the Elizabeth Settlement, Her Majesty re-established the Church of England and made attendance compulsory. It is said that Elizabeth did not care if you were Roman Catholic or Protestant, we were all worshiping in the same church and using the same Book of Common Prayer. To please both Romans and Protestants, the Eucharistic prayer in the prayer book of the time and in the prayer book of today, vacillates between Real Presence and Memorial. For example:
Wherefore, O Lord and heavenly Father, according to the
institution of thy dearly beloved Son our Savior Jesus Christ,
we, thy humble servants, do celebrate and make here before
thy divine Majesty, with these thy holy gifts, which we now
offer unto thee, the memorial thy Son hath commanded us to
make; having in remembrance his blessed passion and precious
death, his mighty resurrection and glorious ascension;
rendering unto thee most hearty thanks for the innumerable
benefits procured unto us by the same. (pg. 335, bold mine)
And here we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves,
our souls and bodies, to be a reasonable, holy, and living
sacrifice unto thee; humbly beseeching thee that we, and all
others who shall be partakers of this Holy Communion, may
worthily receive the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son
Jesus Christ, be filled with thy grace and heavenly benediction,
and made one body with him, that he may dwell in us, and
we in him. (pg. 336, bold mine)
As you can see above, there is place for both views within the Anglican Tradition. That being said, I would like to dedicate the remainder of this blog to elucidate my theology of the Eucharist which, unsurprisingly, is Anglo-Catholic and falls heavily in the camp of Real Presence. You do not have to agree with me, but at least you will gain an understanding of where I am coming from and why I insist on performing the Mass even if it is virtual.
The Holy Eucharist, being the second part of the Mass, is the greatest prayer of the Church. During
the Eucharist the priest, who is ordained by a bishop in Apostolic Succession, performs two functions. In one capacity, he/she represents the people. During our public worship, the priest stands before the Throne of God and lifts up the prayers of the people on behalf of the people. The priest gathers all the individual and corporate prayers of the Church and expresses them to God through the written words of the Mass. It is because of this that the word ‘amen’ becomes of great importance. ‘Amen’ means something like ‘So be it,’ and when the people say ‘amen’ at the end of the prayer they are asserting that what the priest is saying, on their behalf, is the truth.
The second function of the priest is to operate in persona Christi which means ‘in the person of Christ’. That is, when a priest is performing the sacramental duties of his office, that priest is operating as if he were Jesus Christ. While this idea may blow our minds, it actually solves a lot of problems. When a priest pronounces absolution in private confession or in corporate confession, like during the Mass, one might ask the priest why he/she has the power to absolve sins. If we do not accept the theology of in persona Christi then we have to jump through hoops to give an explanation. We may say, “Jesus forgives you, but I make the pronouncement in His Name.” or “Jesus forgives you, but I am assuring you of His forgiveness.” In this view the priest is just the messenger and has no real authority but if we believe that during the absolution the priest is acting in the person of Christ then the theology is simple. When asked the same question a priest could say, “I’m not forgiving you, but Jesus is through me.” Simple and much more profound.
So then, when the priest is praying the Words of Institution, “For in the night in which he was betrayed…”, it is Christ Himself who is speaking through the priest. The priest has no power to consecrate the Bread and Wine of himself but only because Jesus acts through the priest in that moment. Lastly on this topic I will say, if you think that a priest believing he/she operates in the person of Christ is haughty, just imagine the fear and trembling the priest endures when he/she realizes what is happening. To operate in the person of Christ is, for me, a great honor but also a tremendous burden that forces me to stay humble.
Given that the priest operates in persona Christi then the Bread and Wine become the actual Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. There are many theories as to how this occurs including transubstantiation and consubstantiation, but I am comfortable with the original Anglican belief that is shared by the Orthodox, that of Divine Mystery. I believe 100% that Jesus Christ becomes physically present in the Bread and Wine and that Bread and Wine is then really transformed into the real Body and Blood of Jesus. How? I don’t know and I’m okay with that. Just like hot dogs, I don’t have to know how they’re made I just know that they are good.
Along with the real manifestation of Christ in the Bread and Wine, the Eucharist is a re-presentation of the Crucifixion. Some arguments against the Mass is that we are sacrificing Jesus on the Cross all over again. Wasn’t His sacrifice once and for all? Indeed it was. We are not re-sacrificing Jesus on the Cross, rather, through the mystery of the Divine Liturgy at every Mass we return to the Cross for the first time. The Eucharist is a re-presentation of the Cross and Jesus’ death for the sins of the world. Also, during the Eucharist, while we are present at the Cross, we are also present in the eschaton and are surrounded by the millions of saints past, present, and future, not to mention all the angels.
By receiving the Eucharist, we are taking part in this Heavenly Meal and are claiming for ourselves the forgiveness of Jesus upon the Holy Cross. In eating and drinking the Body and Blood of Jesus, our hearts are open, and God floods us with His grace transforming us more and more into His likeness. You’ve heard the phrase, “You are what you eat?” So, it is with the Eucharist! When we feast upon the Body and Blood of Jesus, we become more like Him.
So, to recap. The Eucharist makes present again for the first time the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. The priest in representing the people lifts all the prayers, joys, hurts, fears, etc. up to God and in acting in the person of Christ the priest makes present the real Body and Blood of Jesus in the Bread and the Wine. As we consume the Body and Blood, we do so with the Church Triumphant, the Church Expectant, and the Church Militant all together in joyful worship of Christ. The grace of God is poured into our hearts through receiving this Sacrament and we are transformed to be more like Jesus.
Therefore, I take the Eucharist seriously.
In this pandemic the next question you might ask is, “But what if I can’t receive the Eucharist because I’m stuck at home?” While this question will be addressed more fully in another blog post later, suffice it to say now that if you desire to receive the Eucharist but are unable to do so through no fault of your own, you may be assured that God understands and His grace will be given to you just as it would be if you received it physically.
I hope this post helps you understand the Eucharist a little more from the Anglo-Catholic perspective and perhaps it has given you a deeper appreciation of what we do every Sunday.
Till next time, peace, love, Jesus.