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Eucharist ~ focus of faith
The slightly indistinct picture above, (taken during the performance), of an extract from the dance, Living the Eucharist, expresses something of how we have become independent of this essential relationship in faith with Jesus. Jesus, on the left, is curious as to what the other three dancers are up to. They, on their part, continue in what they are doing quite independently of Jesus, perhaps not even realising that they are being watched. What are
they engaged in? © Aelred Arnesen
Perhaps it could be prayer - supplication - in any case there is energetic engagement in what they think that they are doing - whatever that is. Their whole self is engaged. The main statement in the dance was that Jesus, the transcendent Lord, invites us to share in the meal of Eucharist with him and is present all the time in our worship. But what we see here in this picture, is that Jesus is effectively excluded from what the dancers are engaged in.
Christian worship began with the resurrection appearances and the meals the first disciples shared with Jesus, the transcendent, risen Lord. The stories in the New Testament of Jesus' appearances are faith stories. People in the first century were not necessarily less sceptical than people in the 21st century of tales about 'ghostly' appearances.
The details of these stories - Jesus, appearing and disappearing, going through closed doors, eating broiled fish, breaking bread with two disciples, inviting fishermen to 'come and have breakfast' - were the only way anyone could put into words what had happened to them in meeting Jesus, risen and transformed from death.
What is important about these stories is not the details - how, anyway, can we corroborate them? - but the actual response of faith which these first disciples made to Jesus' overtures. Everyone can make their own decisions about the life and death of Jesus - what he did and why he died - but because no one, as far as we know, witnessed the actual resurrection of Jesus, faith is finally the only possible response rather than a decision through discussion and argument.
But we can also take into account others, throughout history, who say that they have faith in Jesus the risen Lord because they have met him. Paul claims to have met Jesus on the road to Damascus and he later asserts, "Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?" (1 Cor. 8:9) Archbishop Donald Coggan is said to have asked candidates for ordination, 'When did you meet Jesus?'
It is not an easy question to answer honestly and without embarrassment for faith is not also without human doubts - but it does go to the heart of what it means to be a Christian. We now need to look briefly at the history of the Eucharist throughout the centuries to explain how other factors came to take precedence over the original understanding that Jesus, the risen, transcendent Lord, was present throughout the meal.
Up to the time of bishop Cyprian of North Africa, in the middle of the third century, the only evidence we have is of the Eucharist celebrated by everyone with a person who in early years could have been one of the Christian prophets, or later the bishop of the place, who acted as the co-ordinator and spokesperson during the service.
There is no evidence that the narratives of the Last Supper were mentioned in the rites - it took some time before the written gospels reached all parts of the Middle East. There was no mention of Christ's saving death but there is evidence that communion was with the risen Lord, using the terms 'flesh'(rather than 'body') and blood - presumably meaning that in communion they were united with the life of the risen Lord.
Beginning with Cyprian in about 250 CE, we find evidence of the bishop or priest celebrating the Eucharist for rather than with the people. And along with this development, there were ideas that the Eucharist was the offering of Jesus' sacrifice to God. There is no obvious reason for this regression back into the old Jewish ideas of priesthood and sacrifice.
But the gospel literature was now more widespread and the accounts of the Last Supper with the command to 'do' this in remembrance would be well known (and
beginning to be taken literally as commands) even if the actual Last Supper words of Jesus were not used in any celebration of Eucharist, as far as the evidence goes, until the late fourth century.
So in the first three hundred years there seems to have been a wide variety of usages with no one centralised account of how the Eucharist was being celebrated. This changed at the end of the fourth century when the classical forms of the rite were written down and then embellished and used for the next 1200 years - different in East and West.
It was between the 8th and 12th century that suggestions were made that what 'happened' at Eucharist was the changing of the bread and the wine into the 'body' and 'blood' of Jesus as received in communion while the elements of bread and wine remained unchanged in their outer appearance. What was happening here was a focussing on the elements of bread and wine rather than on any relationship between the risen Lord and ourselves as participants in the meal. The early understanding of Eucharist as the focus of faith had by now receded.
What lay before Christendom from then on was a rite which went back to the words of Scripture as literal command to 'do this'. Looking at the New Testament critically it is not certain that the Last Supper narratives could have been the springboard for the new Christian worship. In many ways, Jesus' actions at the supper were more like the actions of a prophet showing what would be coming to pass soon - on the analogy of Jeremiah. In fact only one text in Luke, and in Paul's own account, is there any mention of the command to 'do this'. Matthew and Mark have no record of the command.
By the 16th century the ideas of priesthood, sacrifice and a change in the bread and wine sparked off the widespread condemnation of reformers in Europe and in England. But while the abuses of the Middle Ages were removed the basis of Eucharist as somehow a repetition of the Last Supper remained.
There were some in the Church of England who wished to conserve a sense of the 'mystery' of the Middle Ages' embellishment of the rite of faith, but everywhere there were differences of emphasis on the meaning and when the Eucharist or, as it was more commonly called, the 'Lord's Supper', (named presumably after the Last Supper), was celebrated. Generally there continued the Mediaeval rare communion of the people, which had been only once or twice a year.
Despite the recent revision of the Eucharistic rites and the fact that it is widely celebrated more often than ever before, the inner connection of communion with the Last Supper narratives has been retained as the considered, essential heart of what we come to 'do'. Far be it for this person to dictate what we should be doing! But the one element which could be considered as the heart of Eucharist - the inter-relationship with each other as disciples of Jesus and with him as the person who invites us to celebrate and is with us throughout the rite - remains to be restored.
For there remains in the rite as we have it today in most churches, an emphasis on the mediaeval focus on the elements of bread and wine. This is strange by everyday standards of what is important in a shared meal. While a meal in society necessarily considers the food as really quite important, it is the relationship between the people invited which is the actual reason for coming together. It was not different with Jesus' meals with disciples and strangers during his life.
In many ways it is these meals he had before his death which help us to understand the meals the disciples had with Jesus and each other after the resurrection. 1600 years of replication of the Last Supper have left their mark on the Christian mind as on the many artists who depicted the Last Supper as the clue to Christian celebration. We have seen that we do need to begin with the idea that the Lord is not absent from us in our Eucharists - the idea of 'remember me', taken literally, suggests absence rather than presence.
As we have depicted in the dance, Living the Eucharist, Jesus, the risen, transcendent Lord, is the true focus in our worship at the meal. It is only faith and the graceful love of the Lord that can assure us of the truth of this. Paul, in one of his more 'mystical' modes cries out about the openness which we have as friends of Jesus, and is an assurance for us that worship is about people -
... we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
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© Aelred Arnesen