Eucharist, and the stuff that matters

Supper at Emmaus. Triptych #1 of polyptych from 9 parts, 2007. Lambda print, Diasec on Dibond, wood frame, 191 × 363 cm.jpg

A pastoral letter by Trevor Hart, to the congregation of Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church, St Andrews, Scotland

One of the things that sets Christianity apart from most other religious traditions is the centrality and the value it places on the body. Not anybody’s body in particular, but the flesh and blood reality of what it means to be a human being in a world created by God with all sorts of thoroughly ‘material’ aspects. The world was created by God, the Creed tells us, as a reality made up of things ‘visible and invisible’ – things that can be touched and seen and heard and tasted and smelled, as well as others that can’t. So ‘matter’, we must suppose, matters to Christians because it matters to God!

Not for us, therefore, the elevation of some purely ‘spiritual’ reality as an ideal, as though the thing we should long and hope for most is the escape of our ‘souls’ from their current messy and inconvenient entanglement with the world into which our bodies enmesh us. That’s a very common idea in all sorts of other religious and philosophical traditions. But it has nothing to do with Christianity. For Christians, we need to remember, God is to be apprehended and grasped most fully not by leaving our bodies behind (or even, for the time being, straining to do so by screwing our eyes tightly shut and blocking their world out), but precisely when God himself ‘takes flesh’, so making the stuff of touching, tasting, smelling, hearing and seeing his own in a radically new way. And doing so in a way that accommodates God’s own reality to the limitations of our human condition and our human knowing, not merely as a temporary measure, but permanently! (Jesus does not leave his body behind when he returns to the Father, but takes our whole flesh and blood humanity home with him into the Father’s presence.) And, of course, the ‘life eternal’ that God tells us is both our purpose and our promised end is not some wraithlike spectral existence bereft of substance, but something more solid, more real, more substantial even than the world we know and experience now. It will not be the disembodied survival of ‘souls’, but the resurrection life, enjoyed in a material creation restored by God’s love.

The eucharist or Lord’s Supper, so central to our usual diet of worship, is one point in our life together as the ‘Body’ of Christ where all this is paramount and taken fully seriously. Here, instead of mere words – of which our worship already contains plenty! – God calls us to take physical things (bread and wine) and to do physical things with them (breaking, sharing, eating and drinking). And as we do this together in the flesh and blood reality of our gathering as a congregation, God etches the meaning and the reality of the gospel into our hearts, minds and, yes, our bodies in a way that goes far beyond anything which words alone could ever communicate.

The ‘sensory overload’ of eucharist as distinct from some other forms of worshipping is, in other words, a divinely mandated bodily practice; and our bodily presence, bodily proximity to one another, and bodily involvement with solid, flesh and blood elements (taking, breaking, giving, receiving, eating and drinking) are all essential rather than incidental to its meaning. To strip away these things, to take our bodies out of the equation, or even to reduce the multi-sensory experience to one of seeing and hearing alone, is, I believe, to end up with something that is no longer eucharistic worship at all. Worse still, it risks complicity in the wider cultural and religious myth that tells us that disembodied realities are the only ones that really matter at the end of the day.

If anything like the current health crisis had occurred thirty years or more ago (that is, across most of human history), Christians would not have been able to share eucharist together, nor, indeed, any other form of worship. Our generation, with its technological prowess, enables those of us equipped with computers, tablets and smartphones to be ‘virtually’ present to one another. I don’t doubt that this is something to be grateful for and to give thanks for. It is certainly better than doing nothing. But virtual reality is not ‘virtually (‘more or less’) reality’, but in reality a far cry from reality itself. Its modes of rendering us ‘present’ to one another fall woefully short of the embodied engagements and relationships for which we were created, and which are the stuff not just of life but of ‘life in all its fulness’.

So, let’s by all means celebrate the power of Zoom and other bits of clever software that enable us to enjoy this pale reflection of things when the reality of things themselves is not available. But let’s never mistake their thin surrogates for a viable alternative to our embodied dealings with one another. And let’s not pretend that those things to which our bodily presence and participation together is essential rather than merely desirable can carry on perfectly meaningfully for the time being via such fleshless, virtual provision.

That’s why, in this time of exile, although we shall continue worshipping together in ways that Zoom does make meaningfully possible if not exactly as we would choose, I shall nonetheless not be doing what some clergy are doing — that is, livestreaming themselves saying the eucharistic liturgy. For the reasons outlined above, I do not believe this is a meaningful thing to do; indeed, I think it risks (unintentionally, of course, but genuinely) missing the point of eucharist altogether, and encouraging the largely un-Christian notion that disembodied, non-material, so-called ‘spiritual’ (or in its more secular version ‘digital’) realities are not only perfectly satisfactory but may even be what really matters most. They are not and cannot be! Not for Christians at least.

So, bear with me, and join me as your Rector in looking forward to our eventual return from eucharistic exile, when among many other things we shall rejoice in our ability to celebrate the eucharist together once again, and in doing so become more fully who God intends and desires us to be as the Body of Christ.

[Image: Raoef Mamedov, Supper at Emmaus. Triptych #1 of polyptych from 9 parts, 2007. Lambda print, Diasec on dibond, wood frame, 191 × 363 cm. Galerie Lilja Zakirova, Heusden, Netherlands.]

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