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The Roman Catholic bishops of the United States have voted to draft guidance on the sacrament of the Eucharist, advancing a push by conservative bishops to deny communion to President Biden and other politicians because of their support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?

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