Tag: eucharist

Corpus Christi

Today’s feast is focused in the first place on a person, not on a doctrine. We celebrate Jesus, present to us as our food and the source of our communion in the Eucharist. This however is likely to prompt doctrinal reflection. How, we might naturally ask, can what seems to be bread be the Body of Christ? Indeed, in what sense of the word ‘body’ could this even conceivably be so? Nor are these questions merely possible: non-Catholic Christians ask them frequently, as do various non-Christian critics of Catholicism, often in less than polite tones. For many people, transubstantiation sits at the top of a list of ridiculous things believed by Catholics. This, it should be urged, is not unreasonable. (And I speak as a defender of the doctrine).

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As is so often the case, what critics reject with regard to the Eucharist is not what the Church believes. Roughly, their target is the thought that at the moment of consecration God makes some bread vanish, and replaces it with human flesh, disguised as bread. Thus all those pious stories about bleeding hosts and gushing prose about the ‘prisoner of the tabernacle’.

The Church rejects this view, in spite of the aggressively professed orthodoxy of some of its champions. Christ is not present on the altar as I am present at this computer keyboard. The ‘species’ of bread is not a disguise, but a sign. Christ is not vulnerable, or constrained by, his eucharistic presence. In fact, most of our talk of the Eucharist has to take the form of denials: ‘he is not present like this’, ‘this is not bread’. The purpose of these denials is to preserve the coherence of our trust in the Lord’s promise to be present with us in the Eucharist. We cannot understand the nature of that presence itself, because that would be to understand the Lord’s Risen Body and the nature of the creative act by which he is made present. As the hymn puts it, “thou art here we ask not how”.

And that he is here is central to the Catholic faith. We express it, not primarily in words but in a way of life – genuflecting, kneeling, burning incense, going from the Mass to be the Body of Christ in the world. However, we do need to believe the claim behind these actions (“This is my Body”). On that subject I can do no better than recommend Elizabeth Anscombe’s excellent essay On Transubstantiation.

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One body

During the prayer for peace at today’s Mass, which I was attending whilst on holiday in a very Tory-voting part of the country, I found myself pondering the fact that I’d probably be actively campaigning against much that my fellow congregants hold dear in the run-up to June’s election. Isn’t there some kind of tension here? We pray for, express (at the sign of peace), and are given as sacramental gift (in the eucharist) the unity amongst us and yet struggle against each other when Mass is over. I’ve written about this before: I think there is a tension, but I think it is a tension that goes with living in the in between times – between the inauguration of God’s Kingdom in Jesus Christ and its fulfilment at the end of all things.

There is a type of politics, sadly current in Britain and affirmed frighteningly by today’s French presidential election result, which does seem to me as incompatible with Christian peace and unity in the here and now, however. This is opposition to migrants. When I receive the eucharist alongside people of different political allegiances, I take myself to be part of an ongoing human project with them, to be living alongside them, and to be part of a local church with them, in communion with our bishop, and with him with Rome and the church internationally. When an adherent of anti-migrant politics receives the eucharist alongside a migrant they simply cannot take this attitude consistently with their beliefs, which set them in opposition to what that sacrament both signifies and effects.

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Catholic churches in Britain are amongst the most diverse communities in the country. This is as it should be: we are a sign of the coming Kingdom, where people of all races and language worship before the Lamb. Sadly, I suspect, the very clear symbolism of our congregations doesn’t always have the impact it should on the ideas of some of their members. The question is: how do we change that?

The turmoil before the Kingdom

I’ve not written anything for this blog for ages. This is because of the political situation in the UK. As a Labour Party activist, firmly on the socialist left on that party, things are very hectic – the current internal strife is well known, and the surge in racism after horrendous immigration-focused referendum campaigns demandds a response.

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The kind of politics I’m engaged in at the moment involves conflict (in fact, I think this is definitive of politics as such, but that’s an argument for another occasion). I find myself organising against, protesting against, attacking, and proposing motions of no confidence in Party figures. That opposing organised racism similarly requires a certain political aggression is, I suspect, less controversial. Yet notes of disquiet might be sounded about the role of a Christian in all of this. Aren’t we supposed to be beyond all of that? To turn the other cheek, to love our enemy?

I do feel a tension here. And I think it’s a tension that ought to be felt by any Christian who is seriously engaged in trying to transform the world (as every Christian, and for that matter every human being, should be). What follows is a brief apologia for how I see political action. It is not original. My take draws heavily on Herbert McCabe’s ‘The class struggle and Christian Love’ (published in God Matters), and I’ve also learned a lot from things Terry Eagleton has written.

There is some ground clearing that can be done fairly swiftly here. Love is not the same thing as being nice: an elision common in English Christianity – Catholics are mercifully a bit less prone to it than some others, but by no means immune. And a commitment to peace, which for Christians is the eschatological gift of God, is not the same thing as having a perpetually wet, pacific, disposition. Untold damage has been done, holding back oppressed peoples’ capacity to demand better lives, by the preaching of the opposite views – in the scriptural words ‘crying peace where there is no peace’ – often by people whose eagerness to call up militaries and governments to live peaceably is less obvious.

Resolute opposition to wrong is something that is characteristic of those lives that scripture and tradition hold up as exemplars for Christians. The same gospel that contains the Sermon on the Mount also has Jesus call the scribes and Pharisees a ‘brood of vipers’. It is just as well that conflict seems to be part of lives lived well, since it is unavoidable. There has never been a human society which has not contained it, and there will not be until that divinely human society known as the Kingdom is fully established as a reality (which establishment, I should be clear, I believe to be indispensably a matter of divine grace; I do not think socialism is the Kingdom, under socialism we would still fall out, misunderstand one another, grow distant, and die). Our present form of society, capitalism, is premised systematic conflicts of interest: between firms, between bosses and workers, and between workers themselves, competing for work. It also gives rise to conflicts between nation-states in the grotesque form of war.

This is a very good reason to oppose capitalism. Conflict may, to some extent, be unavoidable. But systematic conflict as the very basis for a society is something else. It is a serious barrier to those skills for human flourishing that tradition has called virtues. Conversely, it tends to make us self-interested and competitive, which the same tradition – against the fashionable talk of entrepreneurship – has regarded as indicative of vice. I don’t believe any of this, I should say, because I am a Catholic – to paraphrase something McCabe wrote elsewhere, I don’t think people should be socialists because I am a Catholic, but because I am a socialist. I have a certain understanding of how society works, based on observation, study, and thought. This understanding true just in case society does in fact work in that way. I could be wrong. But if I am not wrong, then I think anyone committed, as Catholics are, to human flourishing ought to seek to do away with our present form of society. And that will involve conflict, albeit conflict aimed at ending a particular, widespread, form of systematic conflict.

And yet, I go to Mass as part of a Church which contains oppressor and oppressed, bourgeois and worker. I receive Holy Communion, the gift of the life of the coming peaceable Kingdom, as part of this Church and therefore both express and cement my fellowship with its members. This is important. Conflict is not the final reality, the unity of the human race in Christ is – ‘I look forward to the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come’. The communion of the Church is a sign of this, and it provisionalises all our struggles and all our plans at the present time. In so doing, it doesn’t devalue them, or give us reason to abandon them in favour of ‘pie in the sky when you die’. Yet it makes them part of a bigger, more universal narrative. And that, somehow, should affect how we view those with whom we, rightly, fight. It’s difficult to say how, exactly, or at least, I find it difficult. It certainly doesn’t motivate a retreat back into the Home Counties gospel of niceness. But at the very least it should give us a sense that bitterness or inflexibility should not be part of our politics, and that – somehow – every human being’s interests need to be ours. Having such a sense will make us better, not worse, agents of change.

The feeling of tension in all of this is, though, unavoidable. Not least because it is a tension that signifies the ‘now and not yet’ reality of the Kingdom. It is, in other words, the tension of the gospel.

“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.