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Using quotes from T.S. Eliot can be as dangerous as lifting a quotation out of context from the New Testament! But here is the continuation of the title of this letter, from Burnt Norton, the first of the poems of the Four Quartets -

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

And Eliot continues -

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present. At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;
Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is ...
And do not call it fixity,
Where past and future are gathered ...
Except for the point, the still point,
there would be no dance,
and there is only the dance.

Whatever Eliot may have understood as 'dance' he at least intends it to mean that all our energies are engaged in the present moment, the 'now'. For each of us, at a particular moment, that idea can be stimulating or threatening. To live in the present moment, for that moment in time, is not easy. Always to be wishing some other moment in the future rather than the present one leads to disenchantment with life. But the acceptance of the 'now' enables us to come to a balance of living in the body as well as in the mind. It is the 'still point' in life, the centre of the wheel, that enables the constant movement of living in the 'now', the dance.

The disadvantages of institutional religion are that the 'now' has almost always, in the process of the ages, been smothered by the past. 'Time past', in the form of the essential continuity of tradition, has overcome 'time present'. Most of all this has enveloped the person of Jesus. Either he has become a lonely figure of the Palestine of two millennia ago - most particularly the Sunday School stories of the early 20th century - or he reigns in absentia from the heavenly regions of Dante in the time of the pre-Copernican view of the universe with the earth at its centre. The authors of the New Testament in their responses to the risen Lord unwittingly demolished that view of the universe before its time! Heaven, earth and hell appeared not to exist for them!

The Lord of the universe was with them in a transcendent presence and even if they were looking for the imminent revealing of his person to the world in glory that did not prevent them living and worshipping in the present mode of the 'now'. As we know, the crisis came when it became obvious that the parousia, the revealing in glory and the perfection of all things in Christ, was not going to happen in their life time. The acceptance of this delay became the necessity of the ordering of the church in ways which have continued to the present day. That in itself is not a bad thing. The mission of Christians to represent fully the gospel of the kingdom of the Father depended to a large extent on the ability of the church to engage with people in the succeeding centuries.

Today, however, from the point of view of people outside the church (and in the West this is the majority of the population), the traditions of Christianity both in its institutional ordering of itself as well as in its dogmatic theories that go back to the 5th and 6th centuries, is that Christianity has no relevance to the present time. That may or may not be a reasonable criticism. But it is an opportunity for us as Christians to look at ways in which we may bring the 'now' back into the worshipping traditions of the church - to live once more as those who have faith in the present Lord rather than in the Lord virtually inscribed as 'absent' in the traditional formularies and in our worship of recent times.

One way of beginning lies in the worship which is at the heart of Christian faith, the eucharist. Instead of the usual understanding of 'attending' eucharist we might better use the words Living the Eucharist. Its origins lie in the meals Jesus had with his disciples both before and after his death, according to the authors of the gospels. It was the celebration of his life rather than his death - they were to remember him, not his death. So the stories of the two disciples on the walk to Emmaus and the breakfast by the lakeside recounted in John point to the reality of a celebration with the Lord rather than of the Lord. A simple fact which could revolutionize our approach to celebrating eucharist. The human dynamics of responding in person to the risen Lord inviting us to worship, present with us in the 'now', from the beginning, rather than only later in reception of the meal in the bread and wine, could be incalculable.

As I have mentioned before, the main obstacle to living the eucharist in this way, lies in the early 16th and 17th century importation of pews in the nave of the churches, necessary for the reformation ideas of worship as educative in the listening to sermons. While this modification of the layout of churches everywhere has yielded some wonderful fruits of the orator's art as, for example, in Cosin and Lancelot Andrewes in the 17th century, it inhibits the living of the eucharist as I have described it. But where there is the will to live in the 'now', ways can be found to overcome these difficulties.

There are problems too in the form of worship that we have inherited down the ages. Today maybe there is need for fewer words, less reading and more participation by true expressions of the relationship between the risen Lord and ourselves and with each other. The origins of eucharist lie in relationships. To be true to that we need just imagination and courage and - yes, love!

At the end of Matthew's gospel there is what is probably the author's own, rather than Jesus', words -

I am with you always, to the close of the age.

It is a declaration of the early disciples' convictions - a determination to live their faith bodily in the present time. It could become ours, too.

© Aelred Arnesen

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