Preached by the Rev. Miranda Hassett, April 2, 2015
We recently created some new welcome leaflets for our church, and one of them is titled, “What do Episcopalians Believe?” Seeing a photo on Facebook, one member of our congregation quipped, “We believe in food.” She’s right. We do. We believe in food. We believe in preparing good food, sharing it with each other, eating together.
We also believe in this holy meal we share every Sunday, the Eucharist. If you come from another church or tradition, regular Eucharist might not have been a thing; and in the years before the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, in many parts of the Episcopal church Eucharist was monthly, not weekly. But since the liturgical renewal of the ‘60s and ‘70s, celebrating the Eucharist has become central to the lives of our churches, as it was in the earliest days of the church. We believe in this holy and symbolic meal by which we follow Jesus’ instructions, every week, to do this in remembrance of him.
Now, when I say symbolic, I don’t mean that the Eucharist is symbolic of Christ’s presence. It is not exaggerating to say that wars have been fought over whether the Eucharist is rightly described as symbolic, and what that means. In our church, our understanding, our teaching, is that in the sacrament of the Eucharist, Jesus is not just present symbolically, or in memory. There is something more than mere symbol or memory going on. Jesus is present in reality, in some way that is mysterious, ineffable, and true.
My daughter occasionally likes to hold a tea party, as one does, and when she pours tea from her pink plastic princess teapot into my pink plastic teacup, she will often remind me that the tea she is pouring is NOT, as a parent might mistakenly believe, pretend; instead, she says, it is invisible but real. Invisible but real. That is more or less what our church teaches, what I believe, about the presence of Christ in our sacrament of Holy Eucharist.
So when I say that the Eucharistic meal is symbolic, I don’t mean it’s symbolic of Jesus. I mean that it’s symbolic of a meal. Remember the little holy wafers many churches use? – we use them now and then. Someone quipped once about those wafers, “I can believe that it is Christ, but no one will convince me that it is bread.” Now, most of the time, we use something rather more like real bread here, but still, that little morsel of bread and sip of wine isn’t much like a real meal.
One of the things we do on Maundy Thursday is connect those dots again, as we re-tell the story of the first Last Supper, when Jesus gathered with his friends for one more meal together. That really was a shared meal, sitting or lying around a table together, laughing, telling stories, sharing memories and hopes, singing songs, and eating.
In the early decades of the church, the Eucharist was celebrated that way – as a community meal with a special meaning and holiness. The community meal became separated from the ritual meal fairly early on, however, apparently because of class differences within the churches. Listen to what Paul writes in the eleventh chapter of the first letter to the church in Corinth: “I cannot commend you, because when you come together, it is not for the better but for the worse…. For when you come together as a church, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. …. What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those among you who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you for this behavior?… My brothers and sisters, if you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation.”
It seems that everyone was brown-bagging it, bringing food from home, and the rich brought lavish meals – including beverages – and the poor sometimes had nothing, and people were not sharing; and this was creating divisions and ill feelings within the Christian community which were hurting their Eucharistic fellowship. Can you imagine that? It would never happen at St. Dunstan’s! …
So over time, the church’s leaders said, we can’t do this anymore. Sharing a holy ritual meal is fine, but sharing an honest-to-God supper with each other, across all our differences of circumstance – that’s just too complicated and hard. What a sad and human story. And so the Eucharist became separate from the meal, became this attenuated little ritual feeding, a bite and a sip.
But we put it back together, the meal and the Eucharist, once a year, at Maundy Thursday. And we celebrate the Eucharist in the context of our conversations, our sharing with our neighbors, passing the bread and wine just as we pass the olives and the grapes, sharing Christ’s body and blood with the person with whom you’ve just been chatting about weather and family and garden plans. This one evening, once a year, we restore an ancient unity, the sacrament of the holy meal and the holiness of an ordinary meal in fellowship.
We’ll take a little time now, before we continue in our worship, for more conversation at table. I invite you to share memories of a shared meal that’s important to you – a time when people gathered at table to share food and companionship. It might be a particular memory that comes to mind, or it might be something that’s a regular part of life, something you do every year with family or friends that’s important to you. What’s special about it? or memorable? A sacrament is the outward sign of some inward grace or blessing; would you describe the meal you remember as sacramental? …
Maybe another year:
Our Universe is Eucharistic in its nature. Since the “great flaring forth” 13.7 billion years ago, all beings have been engaged in the exchange of energy. Everything arises, has its manifest time, and then surrenders itself to become food for another to arise into being. Each of us enters into a sacred trust upon receiving the energy given us; if wise, we use that energy for the furthering of the Universe adventure, then relinquish our life so that others may come into being. From stars to mites, everything eventually becomes good food so that life might continue.
We might describe the miracle and mystery of photosynthesis with curiously familiar language: a prokaryotic cell learned to eat the sun, storing that life energy to later release it to another so that life might continue. Is that not what we do in our liturgical ritual: eat of the Son that we might remember life was given in order to give us life?
-Sister Catherine Grace CHS