Friday, June 25, 2021

Taste and see that the LORD is good. But is he safe?

I am more than a bit baffled by what seems a sentimental, domesticated, and na├»ve understanding of God, Jesus, and the Church as the body of Christ, and, therefore, of the Eucharist. God is perfect love and truth, perfect goodness and beauty. That perfect love, truth, goodness, and beauty is more awesome and wilder than Niagara Falls, the Grand Canyon, or a powerful summer thunderstorm. If you think about it, it is daunting to imagine being in the presence of such given our own unlove and untruth. And yet, we believe God desires to draw us into the divine Presence and make us able to bear it. Making us able to bear that Presence—and even participate in it—is no small or comfortable thing. God is not just a warm bath of affirmation. God is a consuming fire prepared to burn away the dead wood of our sin (all that is unlove and untrue) making way for new growth or to melt us down and draw off the dross, refining us into the glorious beings of freedom, love, truth, and peace we are meant to be. That is why “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). As C. S. Lewis famously wrote of Aslan/Christ, he is good but that does not mean he is safe.

I think here of Annie Dillard’s famous dissuasive to supposing God is tame, in Teaching a Stone to Talk:

On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sun- day morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake some- day and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.

If, as we often claim, we “believe what we pray” (lex orandi, lex credendi: the rule of prayer is the rule of belief), we would do well to attend to the logic of the liturgy which suggests a certain caution in coming into God's presence, particularly to receive the Body and Blood of our Lord. As Moses drew near to the strange sight of the burning bush, he was commanded to remove his sandals for he was on holy ground. Just so, symbolically, as we move through the eucharistic liturgy, we stop periodically to remind ourselves that we are approaching holy ground and that doing so is an awesome thing. The one into whose presence we are coming is awe-inspiring and, while not wholly unknown, remains a mystery beyond our comprehension. We are aware of our failure to live lives of love and truth and trust, and thus of the distance between us and God.

Though it is not often read these days, an exhortation before the rites of Holy Eucharist in the Book of Common Prayer reads, in part:

if we are to share rightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament. I therefore call upon you to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves care- fully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup.

For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it improperly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body. Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord. (BCP, p. 316)

The liturgy is like an elaborate spiral dance in which we symbolically circle around and around the altar, drawing closer to the eucharistic mystery. At intervals in the dance, we stop to acknowledge our ignorance and sinfulness, and ask for God’s mercy as we proceed deeper into the holy mystery. In the Collect for Purity, we ask God to cleanse the thoughts of our hearts that we may perfectly love him and worthily magnify his holy Name … and we dance a little closer. We sing the Gloria, the Kyrie, or the Trisagion, each of which asks again for mercy – closer still. Then, after hearing God’s word read and proclaimed, we confess our sins against God and our neighbor, receive the promise of forgiveness, and exchange the peace, before dancing yet closer to the altar of the Prince of Peace. And on it goes—acknowledging God’s presence as holy (the Sanctus) and asking for forgiveness (the Lord’s Prayer). In every case, we acknowledge that we do not really know what we are up to, that the One with whom we are dealing is holy, and that we are ignorant, sinful and broken people in need of forgiveness and healing. And yet, by God’s amazing grace, we are invited and encouraged to draw near with confidence “to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16)—a confidence that avoids presumption because it is born in baptism and trusts that the one who demands our transformation, loves us beyond our imagining.

More here: Baptized Into Eucharist

Wednesday, June 23, 2021

Whose Table is it? Who is the Host and Who the Guest?

Altar, St. Paul's Episcopal Church, Plymouth, Wisconsin

The Roman Catholic bishops of the United States have voted to draft guidance on the sacrament of the Eucharist, advancing a push by conservative bishops to deny communion to President Biden and other politicians because of their support for legalized abortion. I am wary of criticizing another traditions application of the logic of their teaching. I will only say I think it unwise and I suspect that it has less to do with the logic of Roman Catholic teaching (the Pope has cautioned against such a move after all) than it has to do with the peculiar dynamics of American politics and culture war mentality.

The actions of the Roman Catholic bishops have prompted a larger discussion in their church and in others about the nature of the Eucharist. In particular, the question “Whose table is it?” has been raised. But, the answer to that question is less simple and less straightforward than some memes and soundbites suggest. Whose table it is depends on who is the host and who is the guest.

The ultimate host of the Eucharistic Feast is God, the mutual giving and receiving that is the Holy Trinity, manifested in Jesus and his self-sacrificial way on the cross. To eat at the table of this Host is to participate in the life of one who wills to reconfigure us in his own cruciform image.

But there is a penultimate eucharistic host, namely, the Church, the body of Christ itself, re-membered in mutual communion. If the Church is the penultimate host of the Eucharist, who then is the penultimate guest? Paradoxically, it is again God. In the Eucharist, the body of Christ, the Church, is both guest and host, and the divine Host is also the Guest.

We invite (as our guest) the Holy Spirit to “descend upon the gifts that they may be the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant.” Because the Guest is nothing less than the Holy Mystery at the heart of all, we pray that we might be sanctified by the same Holy Spirit “that we may faithfully receive” this Guest in the “gifts of God for the people of God.” We pray to be sanctified so we can faithfully receive this Host because, as Chrysostom writes, it is more awe-inducing than Elijah calling down fire from heaven in his contest with the priests of Baal for the Church to dare to call down the Holy Spirit upon the altar of the Eucharist.

It is significant that in the gospels Jesus is most often the guest at the table of others rather than the host. And as Zacchaeus and Simon the Pharisee discovered, hosting Jesus brings us face to face with the radical, life-altering expectations of Jesus. Likewise, as ones who have been incorporated into the community of hosts through baptism, we have some inkling of who our guest is and the expectations that Guest places upon the community that seeks to accommodate him.

As host and servant of Christ, the Church is the “steward of God’s mysteries” (1 Corinthians 4:1). And therefore, the Church has a stake in how the Eucharist is celebrated and administered. The altar is also the Church’s table because God has so authorized the Church.

Is it not marvelous, this mutual hosting? That God is both Host & Guest while empowering the Church to also be guest & host of the same feast is one way God invites the us to participate in the life of the Trinity which is itself mutual giving and receiving, hosting and guesting. It does raise the question, though. What does it mean to be good guests and good hosts?

Next: Taste and see that the LORD is good. But is he safe?