Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Article 28: Supping with the Lord

Today's article should be a fun one. It tackles all things related to the Sacrament of the Eucharist:


XXVIII. Of the Lord's Supper
The Supper of the Lord is not only a sign of the love that Christians ought to have among themselves one to another; but rather is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ's death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.


Transubstantiation (or the change of the substance of Bread and Wine) in the Supper of the Lord, cannot be proved by Holy Writ; but is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions.


The Body of Christ is given, taken and eaten in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.


The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was not by Christ's ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up or worshipped.


First off, one will note that the words "Eucharist" or "Holy" or "Communion" are never used. Only the terms "Lord's Supper," "Sacrament,"and "Body/Blood of Christ" are used to refer to this sacrament. Even after the Restoration and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the "Lord's Supper" is what this sacrament is always referred to in the 1662 prayerbook. "Eucharist" apparently smacked too much of Popery, even after Cromwell and the Puritan excesses had largely been purged from the Church of England. 


At issue in this Article is Eucharistic theology, or more precisely, "what actually happens with the bread and wine during Communion?" This was a particularly hot button issue from the Reformation on. One would think that since the sacrament is ultimately a mystery, then people would not get so bent out of shape on the issue, but they do, over and over again. 


Personally, I find the subject of which Christian group believes what on the subject to be a study in irony. Usually what I have observed is that the groups of Christians that generally tend to have a more metaphorical  or mystical interpretation of Scripture suddenly become literalists, and the literalist/fundamentalist crowds suddenly become all metaphorical when interpreting what Jesus meant when he said, "This is my body/This is my blood." 


Case in point: the Catholic church believes in what is known as Transubstantiation, which is alluded to in the second paragraph of this Article of Religion. Catholics going back to Aquinas and earlier, take Jesus literally when he says of the bread, "This is my Body." Now, by saying that, transubstantiation does not mean that the bread and wine cease to be bread and wine in any scientific sense. You can still take a consecrated host and look at it under a microscope and it will appear to be bread. Many Protestants failed to understand that the true doctrine of Transubstantiation is grounded in Aristotelian and (to an extent) Platonic philosophy. 


In other words, transubstantiation has to do with the change of the bread and wine's philosophical substance.  It's philosophical nature ceases to be bread and wine but becomes the Body and Blood of Christ. This is the same as saying a living person is a human being and not simply a bag of organs and blood and water and minerals. An individual human being is what my philosophical substance is once I have the breath of life breathed into me. Yes, you can still look at me under a microscope and I will still appear to be that bag of organs and blood, but my philosophical essense is not that. I am an individual; I have a will, I have a personality. That is my substance. The organs, blood, and all are what Aristotle referred to as the "accidents," which really means something much different that the derogatory modern English parlance of the term. Accident in the original Latin meant "chance" or "happening."


In the Eucharist, the bread and wine have their philosophical substance transformed, hence the process of trans-substanti-ation.Their philosophical substance is changed into the Body and Blood of Christ where the bread and wine are the exterior "accidents" remain to mortal eyes unchanged, just as a human being is much more than the sum of its visible parts. 


Most Protestants did not get this. To be fair, I think on a practical parish level, the Catholic church was not particularly good at explaining this concept because, particularly in the Middle Ages, there was a lot of local superstition that grew up around this idea. People misunderstood that Consecration was not a "hocus pocus" that turned bread and wine into something other than bread and wine physically, like some charlatan magician that turns a bouquet of flowers into a 10 foot long handkerchief.


Martin Luther began tweaking that concept (philosophy not being one of his strong suits) into what some referred to in some circles as Consubstantiation, though this is somewhat inaccurate. Luther taught that the Body and Blood of Christ were "truly and substantially present in, with, and under the forms" of consecrated bread and wine (the elements), so that communicants eat and drink both the elements and the true Body and Blood of Christ himself. Hence the elements were labelled, and somewhat erroneously, as having a con-substance, in other words 2 competing philosophical substances simultaneously; there were both bread and wine and the body and blood. Luther actually preferred the term "sacramental union."

Now the Reformed Protestants took still different approaches. Some groups following the Zwinglian approach basically viewed the meal simply as a symbolical meal, where the Last Supper is oddly reenacted as some sort of Memorial. This is a gross oversimplification, but it will suffice for this discussion. Though John Wesley himself held to the Article of Religion above, and the United Methodist Church still officially endorses the view, practically speaking, many Methodist churches in the USA for many years until recently have functionally practiced Communion as a Memorial meal, though Wesley himself was adamant that you take Communion as frequently as you can.

Calvin, however, was somewhat opposed to this, as Calvin was really sacramental in his own way. To Calvin, both faith of the partaker and the work of the Holy Spirit were both needed to make the Sacrament of Communion effectual in any meaningful way.  The 'experience' of Eucharist, or the Lord's Supper, has traditionally been spoken of in the following way: the faithful believers are 'lifted up' by the power of the Holy Spirit to feast with Christ in heaven. The Lord's Supper in this way is truly a 'Spiritual' experience as the Holy Spirit is directly involved in the action of 'eucharist.' Calvin believed that Christ was really present, but it took an act of faith on the believer for the effect of Eucharist to have any real meaning to the partaker. Without faith, the act was simply a person eating bread and wine like any other eating of bread and wine.

With that understanding, one can see the Calvinist fingerprints on this Article. We are called to "rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ..." In other words, we have to bring something to Communion, i.e. our faith, and the Holy Spirit makes the Sacrament meaningful. The thinking being that the Sacrament is not completely front loaded, so to speak, like we are taking Communion like some magic potion from a wizard that will turn us from a toad to a Prince charming.

Regardless of whatever you think about this theology of meeting God halfway in the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper for it to be effectual, you still hear echoes of this in the 1979 Eucharistic Rite. The Priest says, "The Gifts of God for the People of God." Then there is an optional phrase, "take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your heart by faith with thanksgiving." I had to fill on once for an ELCA parish some years ago for a mid-week service. They specifically told me before the service not to dare use that phrase when inviting people to Communion because Lutherans don't hold to that rather Calvinist view. Again, the thinking being that if you don't take the Sacrament by faith, then its ineffectual. I personally, always say that part, mainly because that's how I memorized it (I've always done it that way!) When I start trying to do something else other than what I have memorized, I get liturgically disoriented, and Communion is not the best place to have your mind go blank as a Celebrant.

Maybe I should rethink saying that part because I, being a good Anglo-catholic, really have no problem with Transubstantiation in the true, philosophical sense. I do believe the philosophical substance of the bread and wine is the Body and Blood of Christ. I keep reserve Sacrament or consume it because it has become sacred. I don't just take the "used" wafers home and put peanut butter on them for a tasty after church snack. Whether people have faith or not when receiving Communion to me is somewhat irrelevant to the effectiveness of the Sacrament.

At the very least, I believe there is Real Presence, which should always be respected.

1 comment:

Mr. Mcgranor said...

Hocus Pocus --Zwinglian