Thursday, July 31, 2008

Liminality of the Eucharist

This is a repost, the article was published in the now defunct Resonate Journal. I needed to reference it for my research, thought you might enjoy it.

Liminality of the Eucharist

There is a mall here in Ottawa where I enjoy sitting with a coffee and my Bible. I am convinced this is one of those places the ancient Celts would say is thin. That is a place where the veil between heaven and earth is so sheer that one almost stumbles through it to the other side, and into the very presence of God. I’ve stumbled across the threshold in that mall a few times now so just going there gives me a sense of expectation and longing. That mall is a place I want to experience with eyes wide open.

The Eucharistic Community

In the community I pastor we have been exploring the corporate Eucharistic experience. I have had the privilege of hanging out with some very cool Roman Catholics over the years. Their passion for the Eucharist has stirred up in me a deep dissatisfaction over the whole Protestant minimalist approach to this practice. I realize that I had been missing out on something good – and it had little to do with theology and a lot to do with expectation. For my Catholic friends the Eucharistic celebration is a thin space. In the sacrament they are actually encountering God and participating in God’s life. What is even more exciting is that their liturgical structures foster this expectation and create an environment where God actually shows up.

There is a lot of fear that can rise up whenever we talk about the Eucharist in this way. Many Protestants have been prejudiced with a notion that a sacramental theology excludes salvation by faith alone. This is the fear that the sacraments hijack the role of faith in the life of the believer. Many are scandalized at the notion that anything more than flat allegory happens at the communion table. And as a result it is no wonder that, since the time of Luther, there has been very little liturgical reformation in terms of the Protestant communion.

Maybe there is some validity to this fear because personally I now find the typical Protestant communion, with its little cups and little squares of bread, to be quite absurd. We need to ask the question: “What are we afraid of?” Are we afraid that God might really show up? Are we afraid that we might encourage people to recognize in the bread the body of Christ broken for them? Or that they realize, through the wine, that the blood of Christ seals the deal of a whole new covenant with God? These are legitimate fears. When God shows up things change and that can be hard to deal with. Just think of the frustrated disciples leaving for Emmaus; when they recognized Jesus everything changed.1

Many of us recognize that if we want to see healings, then we have to make space for them in our lives and communities. We need to ask in order to receive. We recognize that in the tension of these times we do not always see the things we long for – but that doesn’t stop us from asking, hoping and expecting. We can be comfortable with things like healing prayer, but still neglect a God given space for life changing encounters.

Not everyone will participate in the healing space, but almost everyone will participate in the act of communion. Jesus brilliantly tied His saving work to the most basic of human actions – eating and drinking. God “uses material things like bread and wine to get the new life into us. We may think it is rather crude and unspiritual. God does not.”2 In fact it is hard to think of any spiritual action that is more inviting and natural, yet also so meaningful. In order to overcome the fears that cause us to shy away from creating this space for Eucharistic encounters, let us examine some of the benefits that such a space can give our communities.

Shaping Eucharistic Encounters

The most basic benefit, and likely the most appealing, is the didactic nature of rich spiritual actions. Recently I attended a mass at a local Charismatic Catholic community. In the mass we were given the opportunity to write our troubles on a piece of paper and then toss them into a garbage bin set at the foot of the cross. It was a poignant moment in the service. After everyone was done the priest took the bin around asking who would like to have their burdens back? There were no takers. Actions like this make a dramatic impact on the participant. A richer vision for the Eucharist provides fertile ground for just such an impact.

When the elements of the Communion are small, they loose a lot of their potential impact. The richer the experience the more it will impact the participant. Recently in a home group we were celebrating the Eucharist and I happened to look down to see crumbs everywhere. I was scandalized. Not because I felt it was literally God underfoot, but because the whole thing was so messy. I realized that this made me very uncomfortable. In that moment God began showing me how comfortable I’d grown with the cross. The cross was almost a flippant part of my conversation, instead of the scandalous extent of our Great Lord’s love. This teaching moment would have been lost in small elements that possess no possibility for messiness.

There are many such moments in the Eucharist. Moments where we suddenly get what God is trying to show us, where the veil over our eyes is pulled aside and we catch a glimpse into the very heart of eternity. The Eucharist is only equaled by baptism in its rich potential for such an encounter. Our efforts at teaching are but letters on the page – it is not until the Living Word infuses them with presence that they burst to life in our veins invigorating our spirituality and passion for God. Those travelers to Emmaus found their hearts burning within them. Yet, it was not until the Living Word Jesus was recognized that the words propelled them to change their course of action.3

This invitation to change is the second benefit of a rich Eucharistic experience. The theological debate about the location of “real” presence need not find an answer in order for us to have a real experience with God. We are often so afraid of being deceived that we throw out the potential that maybe God will show up if we ask Him. Like most Protestants, I am not comfortable with the veneration of a host (wafer), but unlike most Protestants I expect to encounter the real presence of Jesus whenever I partake in the bread and the wine. In our fear we have done a disservice to the hungry masses, longing for real experience, real encounter. We have failed to believe that when God shows up everything changes.

You might suggest that we already have a space for encounter in our songs of worship or even some other aspect of our corporate liturgy. Corporate singing is quite accessible, but not everyone feels they can or should sing. Everyone eats and drinks. Jesus marries mystery to the mundane in a way that invites all of us to have that intimate encounter with Jesus. I like to think our community does intimate worship in song fairly well. When we had our first communion service in our newest home group, the response that struck me the most was “I liked it because it was intimate.” There is something about the invitation of the table that draws us into God’s presence. When we sing we exhale, lifting our voice and breath up to God. But when we eat and drink we take into ourselves the very meaning of the elements, taking God into ourselves in a very intimate way. I am convinced that we need to treat the Eucharist as a part of our corporate worship.

The third benefit might stretch our operative theologies. (Despite the challenge it is something very important for a full and rich Eucharistic experience.) When we celebrate the Eucharist we unite with the celebration of the Church throughout all of Salvation History. The reason this notion is a problem is that a connection has been made to the crucifixion in a way that suggests the Mass is a re-enactment of the sacrifice of Jesus and that in the celebration Jesus is perpetually offered in sacrifice for our sins.

Some conceptions and theologies of the Eucharist conform to this understanding, but there is another way of approaching this, one that I believe works with both understandings of the Eucharist. We see the participant as sharing in the collective memory of God’s saving action, participating in the reasonable response of deep gratitude that is the Eucharistic celebration. This participation in the shared collective memory is often called anamnesis, which is Greek for memory lifted up.

When we see the Eucharist as an invitation to participate in this anamnesis then we are acknowledging a connection with both the historic Christianity of the Last Supper and the fulfillment of history in the coming Kingdom Feast. The Last Supper narratives in the gospels represent the ways that the primitive Christian communities celebrated the Eucharist. It is not until the fourth century that the Eucharistic forms begin to become overly complicated. At that point we see the addition of venerations, processions and other ceremonial actions.4 Looking at the pattern of the gospels there is the implication that the Eucharistic event is both a memorial and a moment of recognition and that both are received with thankfulness as the word eucharist suggests.

The God Who Invites

But the idea of a memorial does not adequately capture the sense of anamnesis. It simply implies that we remember what God has done, give thanks and go on with our lives. But there is something deeper at work here.

There is an open door in the Eucharistic experience. God stands on the other side and beckons us across the threshold into that dangerous space where He is present. The latin word limina means threshold, and so this Eucharistic experience is a liminal experince.

The whole history of the Church is about this struggle at the threshold. When we celebrate the Eucharist we are standing with the whole of a great cloud of witness, seeing not only the accomplished work of the cross – but the invitation into the Kingdom work of the Church. God stretches out His hand and says of the bread, “behold what you are, become what you see.”5 This is memory come to life in the believer: the recognition that we too participate in this thing called Salvation History. This has the potential to really impel the participants into all that the Father has in His heart for them.

When we celebrate the Eucharist, we are inviting an encounter with the Living Word. We are inviting a visit from the God who changes everything – including our hearts and minds. We are participating in the rich heritage of the Christian Church – joining our hearts with the faithful before and after us in holy declaration that all Jesus has done for us makes a difference in our lives.

By celebrating the Eucharist, we are opening ourselves to stepping across the threshold between this world and the next – into the very presence of God. And we are letting the Word teach us through profound act and action. In the Eucharist we find a thin place just waiting to be experienced. The celebration of the Eucharist will be a place where you will want to keep your eyes wide open.

1 Luke 24:13-33.
2 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (Glasgow: William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd., 1944), 62.
3 Luke 24:33.
4 Paul F. Bradshaw, In Search of the Origins of Christian Worship (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 216.
5 Eucharistic formula usually associated with St. Augustine.

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