Monday, May 23, 2011

Eucharistic Spirituality

A Lecture given at All SS Episcopal Church, Rehoboth, Delaware in Lent 2011.
Anyone who knows the works of Joachim Jeremias, Dominic Crossman and Marcus Borg will recognize my great debt to these scholars, though doubtless, many others of my past teachers also can be overheard; this is especially true of Roland Walls, who died recently. He was a great New Testament scholar, and my first guide to the study of the Gospels and Epistles.

What is 'Spirituality'?

A consideration of what part the Eucharist plays in the spiritual life might help us to get a better understanding of what “spirituality” means. I say this because I sometimes get the impression that the popular use of the word is to express something ethereal, something untouched by the messiness of matter. It also often seems to imply an activity, or perhaps an attitude, that is intensely private, solitary and personal; if this really were the case, it seems fairly clear that the Eucharist, which is public, corporate, shared, would not be all that helpful in the spiritual life.
Since it is fairly generally agreed that the Eucharist is an essential factor in living the Christian life, it seems that we need to have a rather clearer understanding of what precisely we are talking about when we use the phrase, “the spiritual life”.

Meaning of 'Spiritual Life'

The word itself has acquired a much broader meaning in the contemporary religious scene than it has in the biblical writings. This can, I think, be illustrated by browsing the “religious” section of any sizeable bookshop. In the sub-section labeled “Spirituality”, we shall find books on Yoga; cosmic meditations; the importance of crystals in the spiritual life, and, quite probably books on “self improvement” through spiritual exercises. Now, I do not want to belittle this very broad understanding of spirituality, and it is laudable that people seek for goals beyond a crass materialism. My point is that this is not what is meant when we speak of “eucharistic spirituality”.
So before directing our thoughts to the Eucharist, I want very briefly to look at the way the spirit is presented in the Bible.

Spirit in the O.T.

In the very first paragraph of the O.T. writings the book of Genesis gives a kind of preface to the long story of God’s dealing with humanity, we hear the words:
“Darkness covered the face of the abyss while the breath of God swept over the chaos”. (Gen. 1.2)

In Hebrew the word is ru’ach. This is the Spirit of God, and it is used to describe God acting in and on the material universe. It is the dynamic behind all the living things that appear as the story goes on. But the early bard/theologians focused particularly on human beings. In the first account, humans are said it be in the “image of God”, endowed with reason, will and conscience; in the second account, God breathes into “his nostrils the breath (ru’ach) of life”. The Hebrew understanding of human nature was very different from the that developed in Greek philosophy: the giving of God’s breath (spirit) did not create , as it were, two components for a human being, the material and the spiritual, but what we might call a psycho-somatic unity.

The Eucharist – Preliminary Points

It should, I think, be clear that this has profound implications for our understanding of “spirituality”, and we need to keep that in mind as we turn to consider the importance of the Eucharist in our understanding of spirituality. Louis Weil begins an essay on the Eucharist by saying,
“ [T]he eucharist is the action which most fully embodies the many dimensions of the Christian faith” (Christianity, Complete Guide p.395).

This is an excellent characterization of the Eucharist; I would like, however, to amplify the phrase “many dimensions” by an explicit mention of the dimension of prayer. It seems to me that the eucharistic service is one of the best frameworks for prayer that we have. It is important to note that this refers to the service as a whole and not just to a few sentences, the so-called ‘words of consecration’, that became the center both of bitter controversy and also an incredibly narrow kind of spirituality; I will return later to consider this point.

Eucharist – Medieval

We tend to see the Eucharist viewed through the lens of the medieval period, but by the fourth century much of the original context and significance of the early church’s celebration had been transmuted into an intense concentration on the Presence of Jesus in the elements of bread and wine. Moreover an actual eating of even a symbolic meal at Communion (‘making my Communion’) became extremely rare. The congregation stood around in the pew-less nave until the bell sounded: then all attention was on the elevated Host and Chalice. One of the main targets for the Reformers’ discontent (to put it mildly) with the established church was the many aspects of the Mass, which they believed had significantly departed from primitive practice, and, more importantly, from the foundational beliefs of the earliest communities. In this they were more or less correct, but since the Reformation, we have learned a great deal more about the background to the Eucharist, about the views of the early believers and about the way they celebrated this central act of worship. Their insight is,however, clearly expressed in the re-naming of the Mass as the “Last Supper”.

Meals in Judaism & the N.T.

It is on the central importance of the meals, not just the final one, however, that Jesus shared with his closest followers to which I want to direct our attention. It is here, I believe, that we can see most clearly the meaning of the Eucharist for the Church, and it is here that we understand its unique importance for our corporate and individual spirituality. It is here, too, that we penetrate a good deal of later, overlaid material, and get to the heart of Jesus’ message: something one might suppose was important for our own spirituality.
I think we all appreciate the social importance of meals we share together; there are the gatherings for big occasions, Christmas, a birthday, or a victory celebration of a football club. But on a much more regular basis we share family meals, though we hear increasing laments that they are an endangered species. For a majority in contemporary society these meals have great social significance, but no religious connotation. When we turn to Jewish society in Palestine at the time of Jesus’ ministry, nothing could be further from the truth.

Food as Total Sustenance

The Hebrew understanding of human nature as a material and spiritual amalgam meant that a shared meal nourished the whole person, not just the muscles and other tissue. It should be noted, however, that ‘amalgam’ is hardly strong enough: there is no hint of “mixture” in Hebrew thought. Thus, as Judaism developed from an early Israelite base, meals began and ended with a “blessing”, which in Hebrew means a thanksgiving. The first thanksgiving was when the host broke up a large pita-like bread. It could be your own prayer, but various fixed forms also developed which thanked for the bounty of the earth and for sustaining us, but often included metaphorical extensions. One was a prayer for the gathering back together of all the Jews scattered in the Diaspora of the 5th to 2nd centuries. Wine had also become part of the normal diet, though meat (lamb or goat) was normally served only on festival occasions. Most obviously, a Lamb dish was an essential ingredient in the most special meal of the year, the Passover. Just as the breaking of the bread was invariably accompanied by a Thanksgiving, so the first cup of wine was blessed before being shared round, as was a final one at the end. (It may be that Luke’s puzzling variation, where he adds a second cup, may be closer to the actual form of the Last Supper) The prayers connected with the cup, often reminded those present of the vine as a symbol for Israel.

Jesus’ Meals – Key to Understanding the Message

As scholars have discovered more and more about the life and religion of Judaism, it has become clear that it is a mistake to concentrate all our attention on the final meal that Jesus shared with his disciples: it was, rather, the last of a long sequence. True, it was special, and Jesus gave, as was customary, a special Passover Thanksgiving for the shared bread and the common cup, but it had a very clear context in the life of that embryonic community.
There are far more references to Jesus’ table fellowship, both during his ministry and after his execution than you might realize. Furthermore, the reports of his radical actions are often linked to these meals: he did not follow the required ritual of hand washing (Mk. 7.1-5; Mt. 11.35); here, as is often the case in the recording of Jesus’ meals, some central teaching is delivered at the meal; he points out that hate and a whole catalogue of sins do not come from the food we eat, but from a disordered human will; so Mark comments, “Jesus declared all food clean”, a radical rejection of Judaism.
The rules of fellowship not only decreed what you could and could not eat, they also regulated with whom you could share a meal. In his practice Jesus was, in effect, giving an answer to a pressing contemporary question: “Who is a true member of the chosen People of God?” His answer was so radical that it was one of the main factors in his eventual execution as a heretic. Everyone is a member of God’s family he said, even those who are excluded by your purity laws. This is clear in Mt. 9.10f:
“As he sat at dinner in the house, many tax collector and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples”.

The Pharisees began to criticize and ask the disciples why Jesus flaunts the traditions and laws. Jesus hears this and responds,
“Those who are well do not need a doctor, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous but sinners”.

An Inclusive Community

It is also clear that the issue of Jesus’ table fellowship was a focus of orthodox criticism as a saying recorded by Mt, & Lk. makes clear. John came, he said and because he was ascetic you accused him of demonic fanaticism;
I am here enjoying the spiritual blessing of shared meals and you say: “‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!’”. (Lk. 7.31ff.). Marcus Borg sums up the importance of Jesus’ teaching and actions as follows:

“[T]he meals of Jesus embodied his alternative vision of an inclusive community. The ethos of compassion led to an inclusive table fellowship, just as the ethos of purity led to a closed table fellowship. Ultimately the meals of Jesus are the ancestor of the Christian eucharist”. (On Meeting Jesus Again 1994, p.56).

Inclusive Teaching & Acts

Once we understand the importance of these table fellowship stories, much else in the acts and teachings of Jesus becomes clearer. So many of the parables make the point: the Good Samaritan story rejects racism; the Prodigal Son teaches God’s acceptance of sinners; the Laborers in the Vineyard says clearly that supposing one belongs to a specially favored group is an illusion
Not only does Jesus’ teaching reject exclusiveness, so do many of his actions: healing lepers and mad people was, in effect, bringing them back into God’s family from which Judaic purity laws excluded them. Perhaps the most dramatic statement in action is Jesus’ turning out the tourist traders who had virtually taken over the court of the Gentiles; quoting Isaiah Jesus drove them out, “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all the nations” (Mk.1.17).
The idea that unclean Gentiles should have access to Judaism’s holy place must have caused a good number of pursed lips and narrow looks.

All this is quite enough to explain the fury of the orthodox establishment, which led to the decision to get rid of such a heretic.
And at the end, Mark has an editorial comment of staggering insight. As Jesus died, Mark reports, “The veil of the Temple was rent in two”. The Holy of Holies is opened to all people. Everyone is called to come into the Kingdom of God.

The Eucharist and the Church

Here we have all the ingredients that went to produce the act of worship, which both gave solidarity to the embryonic movement, but also was a powerful formative influence in its growth. There is just one more factor of paramount importance: it was the occasions after his death when the gathered disciples are reported to have been assured of his presence with them, (which in rather an academic way are labeled “Resurrection Appearances”); significantly several of these are in the context of sharing food (Lk. 24.41ff; Jn. 21.9ff.). Most important is the account of the meeting on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24.30f) which ends with Luke’s reporting that “He was known to them in the breaking of the bread”: in effect, they recognized that the Risen Jesus was still presiding at their table fellowship, still offering them the assurance of God’s love, still reminding them of the love in action in making people whole again and still calling the whole of humanity to come into the realm of God’s loving rule.

Summing Up

Where, then, do we look to find Eucharistic spirituality? Although it might not seem so, I think I have been demonstrating the answer all the way through.
Let me try in a few brief theses to highlight the salient points.

1) At the centre of the Eucharist is the Resurrection faith;

2) At the center of Jesus’ life is the long tradition of Hebrew religion, particularly the teaching of the Prophets, but illuminated by a deep and personal closeness to God.

3) At the center of the ministry of Jesus is a devoted group of disciples who regularly share their fellowship at the common meal, to which, contrary to tradition, all are welcome.

4) The openness of these meals is all of a piece with Jesus’ teaching and message. All people are the children of God, not just a chosen race. The God with whom Jesus is seen to be intimately close is a compassionate God who requires justice and love in all human dealings, and whose will it is to unite humanity under the Rule of God.

5) Several sayings in the reliable traditions of Jesus’ teaching, use the common meal as a metaphor for the end age, the completing of God’s plan and the banishing of sin.

6) The shared meals gave material and spiritual sustenance, provided by the food eaten and the fellowship shared: they are spirituality for the whole person.

7) After his death, the disciples re-assemble and continue the table fellowship with the deep conviction that Jesus still presides at the meal, reinforcing his teaching, reminding them of the parables and leading them into new insights.

At this point I need to break into the list of theses to mention, however briefly, the important place of the Holy Spirit in all parts of the N.T. References are most apparent in the Fourth Gospel, the Acts of the Apostles, and Paul’s letters, strongly suggesting the importance of this dynamic force at work in the earliest communities. There is not time to look further, but it is important to note that the concept had considerable fluidity at this early stage. The Holy Spirit is not always distinguished from the Spirit of the Risen Lord, and Paul often makes little distinction between the Holy Spirit (of later doctrine) and the Spirit of Christ. So to the final thesis:
8) In the service that came to be known as the Eucharist, the gathered community were sure of the Presence of Jesus, the Savior and Messiah; this was the same as the Presence of God’s Spirit among them, the very Spirit that breathed over the waters of chaos, bringing into being an ordered universe; the very same spirit that God breathed into humans, forming them in the divine image.

The Spirituality of the Eucharist

The Spirituality of the Eucharist is that we gather in table fellowship, as big and small communities have gathered, first in Europe, and then world-wide: in that gathering, we are intensely aware that this Presence and this Power are with us, and at every Eucharist we are reminded that this sacramental sharing is a foretaste of the heavenly Banquet, to which God calls all people:

“In the fullness of time, put all things in subjection under your Christ, and bring us to that heavenly country where with all your saints, we may enter the everlasting heritage of your sons ad daughters” (Eucharistic Prayer B, B.C.P. p.396).

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