Category: hope

“Love bade me welcome”

He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer”

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It’s been a funny day. A good day, but a painful one, involving working through some stuff and facing up to something that I don’t want to talk about in a public forum. My reason for mentioning this at all is that I went to communion this evening with a keen sense of need, of brokenness and failure, and of the sheer ambiguity of life; and receiving holy communion made sense. By this I mean the sacrament made sense to me; part of what we mean by calling the eucharist a sacrament is that it always makes sense, it always communicates the reality it signifies, quite regardless of our thoughts or feelings about it.

This in itself is something I find very helpful. At a time when there’s a widespread tendency to think about religion in experiential terms, the Church’s calm insistence that the eucharist is not a means to get the warm fuzzies, and that these in turn are not a prerequisite for reception, is something I – as someone not prone to bouts of religious enthusiasm – find a relief. But it is interesting to me that today, of all days, Corpus Christi (in England and Wales at least*), the act of reception spoke to me.

It was, I think, that this meal, given by a frightened man at a time of fracture, betrayal, and uncertainty, with tension and provisionality at its heart, not only reflected back at me my own situation, but it also communicated God’s solidarity with our situation, both messed up and wonderful as it is. Yet that solidarity is transformative, Christ doesn’t meet us where we are at solely to be with us amidst the mess, but to point forward beyond it all, and to strengthen us to journey through it.

This might seem a peculiar way for a Catholic to talk about encountering the eucharist. Isn’t the point of our eucharistic faith that Christ is truly present in the sacrament, and once we’ve acknowledged that, doesn’t the rest of it fade away into insignificance? Well, it depends what you mean. The presence of Christ in the eucharist is absolutely central to our faith and practice, yes. But our faith is that Christ is present under the signs of bread and wine. We need both aspects of the eucharistic faith – sign and reality – they stand or fall together. Signification is not in competition with the real presence, as though each were aspects of the eucharist making opposite demands on our fragile attention, it is the vehicle of Christ’s presence with us. It is through the signs that Christ is truly present. In one of his hymns for today’s feast, St Thomas writes,

Here beneath these signs are hidden
Priceless things, to sense forbidden,
Signs, not things, are all we see.

Flesh from bread, and Blood from wine,
Yet is Christ in either sign,
All entire, confessed to be.

The eucharist is not bread and wine, it is the Body and Blood of Christ (I take this, by the way, to be a matter of faith – anyone who didn’t antecedently believe the Catholic faith – ought to think that it is bread and wine, since everything observable – chemical structure, function, and so on – suggests that it is). However, it is important that it is bread and wine that it is not. These signs are part of its meaning, they show us who Christ is, and what he does.

This signification works on so many levels. Again, I find one of St Thomas’ texts helpful:

O sacred banquet!

in which Christ is received,

the memory of his Passion is renewed,

the mind is filled with grace,

and a pledge of future glory is given to us!

 

It is not accidental that this is a meal given at a moment of betrayal, in which the Host is broken, as one of the central actions, suggesting both sharing and the broken body of an executed criminal. “The memory of his Passion is renewed”: the central means by which the Risen Christ is given to his people is not one unambiguously short through with glory, something that really would be the opium of those people, given that they continue to suffer, die, and wrestle with complicated and confused lives. Just as his body continues to bear his wounds, so his presence with us is tinged with his full identification with us in the reality of our lives, as they are. That is a genuine comfort in a way that a triumphalist rite could never be.

It’s good, and as far as I’m aware, a unique claim of Christianity, to have the comfort of a divine person who has been through it all and worse. Still, when all is said and done, knowing that one is not alone in the murk is good, but doesn’t get one out of the murk. Hence, the eucharist is also a “pledge of future glory”. It speaks of that future Kingdom in which God, who is love, will be all in all, not in spite of our lives and agency, but through their co-operation with God’s grace. In several places in scripture this Kingdom is imagined as a banquet, and so the eucharist anticipates it by presenting us with a meal. In so doing it is a sign of hope; and all of us need hope.

 

It is as a meal that the eucharist both recalls the past and prefigures the future. There’s been quite a lot of disquiet about emphasising what people insist on calling the meal aspect of the eucharist (there is no such thing, the mass is a meal: it would be nonsense to talk about the human aspect of me, I am a human being, there is no remainder). In part this is because the societies in which the loudest voices in the Church live are ones that have lost any sense of the importance of shared meals, these being indulgences that take up time which could be spent making money. But it is also because people can’t hear the mass described as a meal without hearing the word ‘just’ in front of it. And this is where I complain.

The eucharist is a meal (a banquet, a convivium, from ‘living together’). Yet to say this is not to deny for one moment that it is a sacrifice, a sacrament, or any number of other things. To say that it is a meal, in which food – Christ himself -is shared is immediately to relate it to community. Again, the word ‘community’ is one that we’ve become increasingly unable to hear without the word ‘just’, a confusion that is tied up with the wholly inadequate language of ‘horizontal’ versus ‘vertical’ understandings of liturgy (as though God were ‘up there’, or somehow competed for space with the community and its actions: a very odd idea indeed). To say the mass is concerned with community is not to say for one moment is that it is something we do by our own efforts, because it feels good, and which is thoroughly under our control and our property. The community that celebrates the mass, through its ordained priests, is a community that is given to us, born out of love. It is central to the meaning of the eucharist that we receive it as part of a communio, a worldwide fellowship. I am given grace as one of us, my life, my journey is tied up with that of the rest of the Church.

So, part of what is communicated in communion is that I am not alone. I, as one of us, am on a journey, a journey which leads from the Cross to the future banquet. On that journey, like the people in the dessert, we are fed with manna so that we can journey on. The eucharist is not given as a final goal, like all sacraments it will cease. It is provisional, given to us in our broken, confusing lives. It puts those lives into the context of a greater narrative of Love, and gives us strength to live on, for the future.”For here we have no abiding city”.

Behold the Bread of Angels,

For us pilgrims food, and token

Of the promise by Christ spoken

*I don’t like the fact that Corpus Christi is kept today, rather than the preceding Thursday, in England and Wales. But it is.

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Everything in heaven

I like the feast of All Saints. In part, I think, this is because of the time of year at which it falls: the golden leaves, the crisp evenings, and the promise of Christmas approaching. However there’s something about the content of the celebration which appeals to me as well. It’s a feast on which any number of themes converge. One of these is the eschatological dimension of Christian life: the liturgy develops a picture of us as a pilgrim people, not yet at home, being beckoned by the saints to the future Kingdom which they already enjoy. Here we have signs and symbols, there we will have the unmediated reality. So, for example, the prayer after communion asks that we

may pass from this pilgrim table

to the banquet of our heavenly homeland

Similarly Abelard’s hymn for the feast contains the verse:

Now, in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high,
We for that country must yearn and must sigh;
Seeking Jerusalem, dear native land,
Through our long exile on Babylon’s strand.

We’re not yet where we fully belong; we are still – as the Salve Regina puts it – in ‘this veil of tears’. Life as it is, with its pain, its loss, and its injustice is not ultimate. Instead, what is ultimate is the risen humanity of Christ, shared with the saints in communion with him. Abelard, who had more than his share of reasons to think of his life as a Babylonian exile, develops a theme that speaks to me, and I imagine to most people. This can’t be all there is: a desperate proto-prayer, transformed by hope into the resolute this isn’t all there is. It’s a thought shot through with tension, much like Leonard Cohen’s cold and broken hallelujah: simply affirming the heavenly Jerusalem doesn’t abolish the Babylonish exile. If we rejoice because of the future, we do so in a present that often gives us precious little to celebrate.

If this spirituality of the future is appealing, it ought also to provoke a healthy dose of critical scrutiny. For aren’t we too close to comfort to Marx’s opium of the people, Freud’s wish fulfilment, and Joe Hill’s Pie in the Sky When You Die?

Possibly. There certainly are ways of receiving this tradition which provide a tacit baptism for present injustices, reassuring the victims that everything will be alright in heaven, but that in the meantime the poor will always be with us. But I think that this cannot be the authentic way of receiving it, for if it were there would be a conflict between the imperatives of hope, and those of love, which there cannot be. So instead, I want to claim that living in hope, which is really all that the ‘Babylon’s strand’ poetry is about, makes us more able to live lovingly in the present.

The first reason for this is quite a simple one: hopelessness is utterly disempowering. If we have no sense that things could ever be any better, if our every effort seems simply like an irrelevant pebble in a sea of human mess, cruelty, and oppression, then cynicism, even nihilism, will often as not follow. “Without vision the people perish”. The belief that not only will everything end well, but that in the most fundamental sense that it already has – the future glory of the saints is simply the sharing of what was already, finally, and decisively achieved at the empty tomb – frees us from the paralysing fear of failure of futility. That the ultimate victory is, and will, be won by God does not – of course – license us to sit back content in the belief that somebody else has sorted it out, so we don’t need to. That belief only makes sense if God is somebody in the same sense that we are, an inhabitant of the universe whose agency could possibly compete with our own. The conviction that this is so, shared by those US evangelicals who see concern for climate change as a form of apostasy and by Richard Dawkins (who, in a relatively uninteresting twist, doesn’t actually believe that the emasculating deity exists) has a biblical name: idolatry.

A more interesting reason for thinking that a healthy dose of eschatology makes us better inhabitants of the present is that it allows us to say something about the sheer meaninglessness and horror of human sufferings for which there is no prospect of worldly redemption, for which no restitution, no political change could be a remedy. Such are death and loss, the illnesses, the fractured relationships, the missed opportunities that spread throughout the fabrics of our lives like the shattering of a thin pane of glass. Faced with the utter senselessness of it all, the temptation is to try to impute meaning to these events: artificially imported meaning, forced on events from the outside to save an inadequate account of reality – a word for this in a non-theological language is ‘ideology’. And ideology, because it distorts our view of the world, perverts our capacity to love.

So, the dead soldier is no longer the frail friend and lover, as sinful as the rest of us, a good laugh in the pub, admirable just in as much as he was ordinary, forced into an army by economic circumstance or conscription. He is now a hero; the cause for which he died was a just one, and war must be continued lest he died in vain. Then again, the death from cancer was not so much the horrible, random consequence of events at the cellular level, but rather God’s loving way of calling the patient home (a piece of grotesque sentimentalism which cannot be true, if the word ‘love’ used of God is in any way continuous with its ordinary sense). Nor was that accident that left you in a wheelchair a tragedy, it was the Lord opening the door to new opportunities, brother. Don’t feel anger, give thanks! Heaven, on this kind of view, is an afterparty for the emotionally repressed.

The truth is that we do not need to lend these things meaning: they have no meaning of themselves, but their victims have ultimate meaning, loved unconditionally as they are by the God who first loved them into being. And the truth will set us free.