By Jonathan Massimi
I am an Anglican, but I am not a cradle Anglican. My life as a Christian began in the Pentecostal Church. My early faith was formed in a context that emphasized a life rooted in the Word and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Such an emphasis shaped our worship, where the music paved the way to the sermon, and the sermon, to the altar call. The altar was the place where we met with God and He with us. It was an encounter where tears were a sacrament.
The carpeted stairs at the front of the sanctuary was where I believed one encountered God. Through an experience at L’Arche Daybreak, that would change. At a service lead by a Jesuit priest, Christ was revealed to me, in a little bread and a sip of wine, served by a man with Downs Syndrome. Placing this moment into a Pentecostal “liturgical framework,” I would say it was akin to an altar call experience. The difference here was, I wasn’t inviting Christ into my heart, rather, he was inviting me into His.
Through participation in the Lord’s Supper, the Eucharist, God invites us into His life. Through the bread and wine, He educates our palates so that we may taste his presence in our lives and in our world.
From the beginning, the celebration of the Eucharist was an essential part of the Church’s worship (Acts 2:42). The Acts of the Apostle also indicate that this celebration occurred on the first day of the week (Acts 20:7). Luke 24:30-31 alludes to the fact that this meal was more than a memorial observance. Rather, it was the means by which Christ became present to his followers. In addition to Christ’s presence, this intimate gathering allowed the faithful to be present to one another through fellowship, prayer, and service (Acts 2:42-47).
For many Christians today, to break bread and to drink wine remains the central Christian act. It is considered an observance that connects the faithful to the past, present, and future. In terms of the past, it connects the Church to that little group of disciples who first celebrated it with Jesus. Looking forward, the Eucharist becomes for the Church a foretaste of God’s intended future, a time where all will be gathered for the Marriage Supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:6-9). In the present, the congregation is spiritually nourished, sustained, and guided by Christ’s presence, while being formed as his Body. These are perspectives on the Eucharist that have been shaped by the biblical text and the Church’s worship. I believe that to adequately understand the Eucharist, one should place it into its liturgical context. For it is through our worship that we truly come to understand what we believe. Or to put in colloquial terms, “The proof of the Eucharist is in the eating”.
Historically, the Celebration of the Eucharist is made up of two parts: (1) The Liturgy of the Word and (2) The Liturgy of the Eucharist. For the purposes of this study, I will focus on the latter.
Gregory Dix, in his book The Shape of the Liturgy, maintains that the Liturgy of the Eucharist conforms to the traditional fourfold shape which corresponds to the actions of Jesus at the Last Supper. These actions are Taking, Blessing, Breaking, and Giving. These movements are given liturgical expression in the Offertory, the Eucharistic Prayer, the Fraction, and the Communion respectively. This is a structure that is represented in the early Eucharistic rites and has been present in the life of the Church throughout its history (Dix, 1986, 44ff).
At the Offertory, the gifts of Bread and Wine are presented. In this act the congregation is also offering themselves up to God. The blessing of the Bread and Wine begins with a dialogue between the Celebrant and the congregation. The Celebrant then consecrates the Bread and Wine, setting them apart for God’s use. The Celebrant offers praise to God and the congregation joins by singing the Sanctus. An ancient hymn of praise is taken both from the writings of Isaiah in which he has a vision of worship in heaven and the moment of Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday (Isa 6:3; Matt 21:9). Then the Celebrant repeats the words that Jesus spoke at the Last Supper and prays that the Holy Spirit would be present and active in the people and in the Bread and Wine, transforming both into the Body of Christ.
There is a diversity of views concerning what happens at the moment of Consecration. However, many would agree that the Eucharist is not simply a recalling of history. It is a Sacrament. A Sacrament can be defined as something visible and tangible in the world, in this case, Bread and Wine, through which God discloses himself. Simply put, Christ becomes present.
One cannot pinpoint the exact moment this occurs. Rather, we must look at the entire process. When we do what Jesus did, and by using his words, he becomes associated with the Bread and Wine. The gifts brought to the Table are transformed and given back to us as vehicles of Christ’s life and presence. There is an interesting reciprocity embedded here, in that when we give our gifts to Christ, he, in turn, gifts us with himself through the Meal. Making the Eucharist somewhat of a gift exchange. This to say, what happens at Consecration is not mere sentimentalizing about something that is in the past; it is a true re-membering, a calling back into our reality of the one eternal sacrifice of the Cross while also being a means by which the Church looks forward to the consummation of the Kingdom; where we will once again be gathered around the Table (Rev 19:6-9).
After the Bread and Wine have been consecrated it is given to all baptized Christians. Those who wish to participate come forward where they receive the Host and Chalice. Once all have received, the Celebrant will lead the congregation in prayer followed by a Doxology. Strengthened by Scripture, nourished by Sacrament, and having been attuned to God’s presence at Table, the faithful are then sent out to be attentive to Christ’s presence in the world with the following words, “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
In going through this Order of Service, I believe the Liturgy offers some important insights for the Christian life.
The first thing the Liturgy teaches us is that worship is primarily about God. This notion finds expression in the Liturgy based on the fact that the Eucharist is the culminating act within the service. Our songs, sermons, and gifts are all taken up into our source of life, Jesus Christ, who sustains us with his presence made manifest in the Bread and Wine. In consuming these elements we also come to understand the Eucharist as a formative act.
Through our Eucharistic worship, the Church becomes the Body of Christ and is formed as a visible manifestation of the Kingdom before a watching world. Norman Wirzba expands on this notion in his book Food and Faith when he writes,
Creatures are currently living a deficient form of life. What they need is the healing and strengthening of membership, a healing in which the church, understood as the continuation on earth of Christ’s practices or way of being, has a vital role to play. When this healing takes place, a healing that is glimpsed at the Eucharistic table in the eating that people do, relationships are transformed so that they witness to true life (Wirzba, 2011, 147).
As a witness, those who gather around the Table experience a reordering of life. Once they lived as individuals, now they are part of a Body, where there is a mutuality and reciprocity among its parts (1 Cor 12:12-27). In addition, there is a call to live a life, not marked by conflict, but by peace. This notion comes to the fore when believers exchange the Peace. That special act where the faithful are bringing into the present the peace and unity that characterizes the future Kingdom. In relation to this, the Liturgy also helps us to see the Eucharist in an eschatological light. Wirzba notes, the Eucharist is “the site where people, having consumed Jesus as their food and drink, are re-created by Christ and so taste a slice of heaven” (Wirzba, 2011, 149). A taste of the heavenly banquet.
Finally, in receiving the Bread and Wine, Jesus Christ, we learn how to receive the other as a “gift.” As mentioned, the Eucharist contains within itself reciprocity, whereby we not only receive the other, we also give of ourselves as Christ did. Therefore,
When Jesus broke bread and shared the cup as the giving of his own body and blood, and then asked his followers to “Do this in remembrance of me,” he instituted a new way of eating in which followers are invited to give their lives to each other, to turn themselves into food for others, and in so doing nurture and strengthen the memberships of life (Wirzba, 2011, 153-154).
Hence, in the Liturgy, we encounter a way of being for and with one another.
In celebrating the Eucharist our lives are re-ordered as we re-member. Our wills are shaped to desire what God desires and to love what God loves. In participating in the Eucharist, I have come to learn that the way to God’s heart is through our stomachs.
Jonathan Massimi, D.Min lives in Ontario, Canada where he serves as an Anglican Priest, is a supervisor of community centers for the city of Kitchener, and community organizer. He holds a Doctor of Ministry in Contextual Theology from Northern Seminary in Lisle, IL. He is married to Erika and together they have three children.