1. EUCHARIST WITHOUT WORDS
The Unspoken Language of the Eucharist
St Nicholas Church, Lincoln – 8thJuly 2018
A little less than two thousand years ago a Galilean prophet and wonder-worker named Jesus gathered with his closest followers to celebrate the Passover meal. According to documents written within living memory of the event, during the course of this meal Jesus took a piece of bread, gave thanks, broke it, and said ‘This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ Later he took a cup of wine and said, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’
This so-called ‘Last Supper’ of Jesus with his friends is the reason that we celebrate the Eucharist. We do it because Jesus told us to. But that observation, although true, raises far more questions than it answers about this act of Christian worship. Today we begin an exploration of these questions. How does what we do Sunday by Sunday connect us to that Passover meal so many years ago? What did Jesus mean by those odd words – ‘this is my body; this is my blood; do this in remembrance of me’? What does any of this have to do with the way we live our lives in 21stCentury Britain?
I want to begin today by exploring the unspoken language of the Eucharist. When you come to a Eucharist here at St Nicholas, one of the things you quickly notice is the words. There are lots of them. There is a pamphlet, called an Order of Service. There is a Weekly Sheet, which has the words of the bible readings and a couple of prayers. And there is a hymn book. Even if you ignore the sermon (which I don’t encourage!) there are several thousand words said or sung in each celebration of the Eucharist. But these words are not, in themselves, the Eucharist, and the meaning of our celebration is contained as much in the things that are notsaid as in the things that are.
One helpful way of unpacking this is to see the Eucharist as a storyabout ourselves and our God. It is a story about our need of God’s grace and mercy, and how God has responded to that need. Like all good stories, there is meaning not only in the words that people say, but also in the things that they do, the places in which they do them, and the objects they use. There is meaning, too, in the structureof the action, the sequence of events, the plot, if you like, of the narrative. All of this is important in the Eucharist, as it is in every story. But the Eucharist is also, I believe, a story that comes true in the telling. We tell this story not merely to be reminded of things that we may otherwise forget, but so that the promises of God may be fulfilled in us right here and right now.
The story of the Eucharist begins as we gather together and remind ourselves that we need God’s grace and mercy. Unlike other groups, we are not defined by shared interests or tastes – our collective identity is found in our shared need of God’s help. All this is reflected in, and underlined by, the way we dress and the objects we bring into church at the very beginning of the celebration. The white robes worn by the priest and altar party are signs of our baptism, and so remind us of our need of repentance, forgiveness, and the gift of God’s eternal life. The processional cross begins to direct our attention to Christ, who is God’s full and perfect response to all our needs.
But how does God respond to our need in Christ? The Eucharistic story contains two distinct but inseparable answers to that question. God responds to our need first by speaking to us. The Word of God is a phrase that means two things. It means the Bible, but it also means Jesus Christ, the living Word of God. That is why the next section of the Eucharist is the ‘Liturgy of the Word’. In this part of the celebration we hear the Bible read aloud and explained. Our motivation is not intellectual curiosity, but rather a recognition that the Word of God is one of the ways in which God responds to our need of his grace and mercy. In the Eucharist, there is alwaysa reading from the gospels, those parts of the Bible that tell us about the life of Jesus. The gospel reading is given special prominence and reverence, underlining the double-sense in which the Word of God is being made present to us. It is one of the moments where the Church of England encourages everybody to stand. Sometimes the gospel is carried out into the main body of the church building and proclaimed from there. The reader may make the sign of the cross on the gospel book, and kiss it. These actions emphasise the point that our Eucharistic encounter with the Bible is all about God being made present to us in Christ.
Reading and reflecting on the Word of God, however, only takes us part of the way. It tells us aboutGod and what God has done. That goes a long way to meeting our need of God, but, like the two-edged sword that it is, the Word of God also draws our attention to the fact that our need of God is not something that the written Word of God alone can meet. And that carries us forward into the next section of the Eucharist, the Liturgy of the Sacrament, in which God meets our need of his grace and mercy by offering us forgiveness of our sins and the gift of his own eternal life.
Here we tell a story within a story, the story of the ‘mighty works of God’, culminating in the self-giving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. We tell the story of that ‘Last Supper’ that Jesus shared with his friends, and as we do so we re-enact it in some sense. We take bread, we give thanks for it, and we break it. We take wine, and we bless it, and we share it. We eat and drink in remembrance of Jesus just as he commanded us to do.
All this is done in a place that is set aside for the purpose – the altar. This table isn’t used for anything else. It is done using objects that are set aside for the purpose – the sacred vessels for the bread and wine. These vessels aren’t used for anything else. The reverence that these objects are shown isn’t reverence for them as objects, but for the purpose to which they have been consecrated.
The priest who presides at the Eucharist may also wear special clothes called vestments. Although they may be ornate and valuable, these essentially mark the priest out as a servant. The chasuble (which my children used to call the ‘holy poncho’) is the distinctively Eucharistic vestment, and it represents the yoke of Christ. Priests are servants of Christ and of his people.
As the story of the Last Supper is told, the priest may also use a number of gestures intended to convey the sense that what God has done for us in Christ is becoming a reality for us right here and right now. The priest does not causeanything to happen to the bread and wine. Rather, the priest prayson behalf of us all that God will send the Holy Spirit so that bread and wine may be to us the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ. The gestures reflect our confidence that God answers that prayer.
At the climax of this part of the story, the bread is broken. The breaking of bread is, of course, an action that speaks of sharing, of communion. But the body of Christ is present in this action in two ways. It is present in the bread that is broken, but also in the people who are gathered. The brokenness of the bread echoes our brokenness as people, even as it offers us Christ’s healing and restoration.
Then we eat and drink. Eating and drinking are actions that are necessary to life, and in the Eucharist that is true spiritually as well as physically. In the Eucharist, we are at the very least remindedthat Christ’s sacrifice on the cross has won a victory over sin and death, that as he returns to us from death he offers us forgiveness of sins and a share in his resurrection life. For me, though, it is more than a reminder. I believe that when we celebrate it faithfully what God has done for us in Christ comes true for us in the Eucharist.
The final part of the celebration is the blessing and dismissal. Spoken or unspoken, there is a commission implied in this. What God has done for us in Christ has implications for how we should live in the world. We are sent out, as one of the prayers puts it, to live and work to Christ’s praise and glory. We are to continue to live in the truth of the Eucharistic story.
I’ve tried to suggest to you today that the unspoken language of the Eucharist, tells a story, one that comes true in the telling. It calls us together out of our disparate, individual lives as those who are united by their shared need of God’s grace. It draws us into a sustained encounter with God, in Word and in Sacrament, in which God meets our need in Christ. It sends us out with words of blessing, and with a job to do – what God has done for us must be shared with a world that is in desperate need of grace.
In the name of the Father…