The sacraments can be understood as where the body of Christ “happens”. In baptism a new member of the body is “made” by incorporation. In the Eucharist the body happens in more ways than one. It is the feast by which we remember the life, death, and resurrection of the one whose historical body was broken for us. It is the feast in which the bread and wine become for us the body and blood of Christ. And it is also the feast by which the body of Christ, the Church, is both re-membered and fed on the body of Christ in the bread and wine.
This understanding of Eucharist as transformation is expressed on page 316 of the Book of Common Prayer, “[I]n these holy Mysteries we are made one with Christ, and Christ with us; we are made one body in him, and members one of another.” To partake of the Eucharist is to submit to the process of being both ingodded and inothered. This is what Augustine was getting at in his well-known exhortation, “Behold what you are. Become what you see: the Body of Christ, beloved of God.” (Homily 57, On the Holy Eucharist). Augustine adds that when we consume the body of Christ in the bread and wine, we do not so much transform that food into our bodies, as we are transformed by it into his body.
Participation in the Eucharist is not simply about experiencing God’s consolation. It is that. But it is much, much more. It is about transformation. It is part of our conversion process on the way to what the Eastern Christian tradition calls theosis – our being made capable of being “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 2:4) - capable of bearing the absolute love, goodness, beauty, and joy of God. We expect to be transfigured, or as Dante would have it, transhumanized into glory.
We cannot, and dare not, expect that transformation, while good and desirable, to be easy or painless. Indeed the imagery of scripture suggest otherwise. Through Jeremiah, God promises, “Therefore, thus says the LORD of hosts: ‘Behold, I will refine them and test them, for what else can I do, because of my people?’” (Jeremiah 9:7, Cf. Zechariah 13:9 & Malachi 3:3). I suspect that, however wonderful the image of beautiful silver, shining brightly might be, the ore does not necessarily welcome the heat of the crucible. In John 15:5, Jesus says, “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.” But, before that, in verse 2, he promises, “Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, God takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit God prunes, that it may bear more fruit." We rejoice in the promise of more fruitful lives. But, does the branch necessarily welcome the pruning? In truth, we do people a disservice if we invite them to the Eucharistic table as if there was no promise (and warning) that it entails refining, pruning, and transformation.
PART VII - Whose Table?
It is sometimes suggested that since the Eucharistic table is God’s table it is not for us to decide who can participate. But, given the logic of the liturgy, one might more reasonably suggest, that because it is God’s table, we should not be glib in our own participation nor in inviting others to participate. Indeed, one might wonder if an open invitation is not more presumptuous in its certainty of our own adequate knowledge and goodness, or at the very least, that it presumes a particularly cheap grace. It suggests a notion of God that is altogether domesticated and sentimental.
Annie Dillard famously warns against presuming that God is tame:
“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 Sunday 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 someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.” - Teaching a Stone to Talk
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 to the Lord’s Table. 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 that in our ignorance, we are like children playing with nitroglycerine. We are also aware of our failure to live lives of love and truth and trust, and thus of the distance between us and God. As noted before, the Exhortation found before the Rite of Holy Communion found in the Book of Common Prayer warns against coming to the Eucharistic table unprepared.
The liturgy is like an elaborate spiral dance in which we symbolically circle around and around the altar drawing closer and closer to the great mystery of the Eucharist. At intervals along this spiral dance, we stop to "take off our sandals" and acknowledge our ignorance and sinfulness. And we 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 out hearts that we may perfectly love God and worthily magnify his holy Name. And we dance a little closer. Then we sing the Gloria, the Kyrie, or the Trisagion; each of which asks again for God’s mercy. And we dance a little closer. After hearing God’s word read and proclaimed, we confess our sins against God and our neighbor and receive the promise of God’s forgiveness. We exchange the peace, recognizing that we cannot go to the altar of the Prince of Peace unless we are being and making peace ourselves. And we dance a little closer. In the Sanctus we declare that we know the one in whose presence we are is holy. And we dance a little closer. Before the breaking of the bread, we say the Lord’s Prayer in which we again ask for forgiveness. And we dance a little closer. Again and again, 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 mercy. By God’s amazing grace we are invited and encouraged to “with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:16). But that confidence is born in baptism and is not the same as presumption. Our liturgy reminds us that we are all always in need of mercy if we are to gather in the Presence.
As "stewards of the mysteries of God" (1 Corintians 4:1), it is indeed the Church's vocation to see that those who come to those mysteries are aware of what they are doing and assure that they are prepared through initiation into those mysteries via baptism.
Next: PART VIII, Hospitality