Saturday, November 7, 2015

"Take it; this is my body"

Today I ran across a very insightful piece by Church historian Kelly Pigott on Patheos' Faith Forward blog. The post is entitled "Where the Reformation Got it Wrong about the Eucharist."

In his post Pigott observes- "But as odd as it may sound, perhaps it’s easier for us to talk about what happens to the bread and wine than it is to do the real work that communion demands, which is to follow Jesus by becoming living sacrifices." I agree with this statement. I also agree with many other points made in the post. It is because I agree with these points that I think it's important for us to reflect on and seek to understand this great mystery of our faith.

Even though he ends it by citing Henri Nouwen, Piggot's post is not a Catholic apologia, far from it. He is a self-identified Progressive Christian. While he may not go as far as asserting "what happens to the bread and wine" doesn't matter in the least, he doesn't think it matters that much. Along with many other Catholics and quite a few non-Catholics, I would point out that there is an indispensable aspect of receiving holy communion that empowers us to make of ourselves living sacrifices as Scripture enjoins us to do (Rom 12:1). In other words, the je ne sais quoi that makes the Eucharist what it is, what Pigott calls it later in his post, "spiritual food." Hence, grasping, at least to some extent, "what happens to the bread and wine" cannot be beside the point, even if at times in the Church's history it has led to division and perhaps even to violence. The absurdity of the Eucharist being a source of division and violence should not be lost on any Christian.

When I consider how dispensable the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper, has become for many Christians today, I don't think, either from a Protestant or a Catholic perspective, anymore de-emphasis of the central act of Christian worship is necessary. In other words, it doesn't seem to me that contemporary Western Christianity is being suffocated under the weight of too heavy a theology of the Eucharist.

One of the best aspects of Diarmaid MacCulloch's magisterial biography of Thomas Cranmer was his all-too-brief expositions of Cranmer's thinking about the nature of the Eucharist. MacCulloch does not really do the matter theological justice, which is not the purpose of a biography nor the task of an historian. I look forward to reading some of Dr Ashley Null's work on Cranmer's private theological notebooks, as well as some of his published work on Cranmer.

While it may be a stretch for many Catholics, Trent's definition of transubstantiation was something new in the sixteenth century and was promulgated only after the various splits we call the Reformation had occurred. While this is a relatively straightforward fact, it is one that is all too easily forgotten by would-be Catholic apologists. Transubstantiation seeks to go beyond the mere "what" of the Eucharist by attempting to explain, at least to some degree, the "how." Defined dogmas are explanations of mysteries. However, a mystery is never exhausted by its dogmatic definition.

The best way I have found to explain this in my own preaching and teaching is- At the end of the day, the only empirical evidence that the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus Christ are the lives of those of us who partake of it. Hence, I appreciate Pigott fleshing this out more fully (pun fully intended):
Many modern Christians have been led to believe that worship will satiate us, like the gorged feeling one gets after eating a super-sized combo meal. The truth is, true spiritual food . . . burns us, like the hot coals on Isaiah’s lips. It breaks us, like when Jacob wrestled with God and his hip was dislocated. It frightens us, as when Moses hid his face when he heard the voice speak from the burning bush. It reveals our neediness more than anything else, as Job discovered when he proclaimed, “By the hearing of the ear I heard Thee, and now mine eye hath seen Thee. Therefore do I loathe [it], And I have repented on dust and ashes.” (Job 42:5-6, Young’s Literal Translation)

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