A Newcomer with Questions
Last year Lori came to church one Sunday. The following Sunday she returned. After the service she explained to me that she, her husband and their two young sons had just moved into the area, and they were searching for a church to join. I loaned her a prayer book and asked her to contact me if she had questions. Three weeks later Lori emailed me with a list of questions about what the Episcopal Church teaches. Uh-Oh.
There were a number of questions about the differences between Christian denominations. Finally, there were two on Holy Communion. The question about how to receive Communion was easy to answer, but there was another that I found difficult. – “With respect to the Holy Eucharist – transubstantiation or something else? What do ‘episcopols’ believe?” Uh-Oh.
I thought it wasn’t a good idea to go into a long treatise on the Eucharist, so I decided to respond briefly, but with the door open if Lori wanted more information. I wrote back that Anglicanism has generally seen fit to use the term “the real presence” of Jesus Christ without being too specific about how Jesus is present at the Holy Eucharist. Basically, I avoided the question regarding what happens to the bread and wine. Maybe this was best. I’m pleased to report that the whole family joined our church, and that Lori has an important role in our Christian Education program!
Still, her question was important and deserves consideration. This article is my attempt to return to Lori’s question and provide a more adequate response about the presence of Jesus at the Eucharist.
A Little History
From the Medieval period up to the 16th century ‘reformations’, the Roman Catholic Mass (especially for clergy) became increasingly centered on producing the miraculous transformation of bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Jesus. And since the laity did not normally receive Communion, popular religion became more and more focused on the worship of the Sacrament from a distance. In time, the Elevation of the Host became the high point of the Liturgy.
There were any number of precipitating factors for the Protestant Reformation, but certainly part of the agenda of the 16th century reform movements included the Holy Communion, or Lord’s Supper. Reformation theology, to this day, places a heavy emphasis on the active faith of the believer: Holy Communion is intended to be received inwardly – personally – not just worshiped from afar.
From this Protestant perspective, the Lord’s Supper is a memorial meal honoring Jesus, the one in whom Christians were (and are) formed as a community. During the communion service the faithful are intended to remember the saving ‘work’ of Jesus: That he suffered, died and was raised for our salvation. When we ‘re-member’ ourselves in Jesus, he becomes present in our hearts.
The Episcopal Church, heirs of the English Reformation, has surely inherited this aspect of Protestantism. For instance, the “worthy reception” of Communion has had a place in the Book of Common Prayer (BCP) from the very first edition in 1549 all the way up to our own 1979 revision.
On the other hand, we ‘episcopols’ are inheritors of the Catholic tradition as well. In our prayer book, and by the common practice of many parishes, we make it clear we believe that the bread and wine undergoes a change during the Holy Eucharist. The celebrating priest is directed by the prayer book to touch the bread and chalice during the Prayer of Thanksgiving. If there is not enough of the Sacrament for everybody, the priest prays over additional bread and wine in order to “consecrate” it also to be the Body and Blood of Jesus. And in many parishes, the Sacrament is “reserved” in a special place to be taken to the sick or home-bound.
The protestant “Memorial Meal” point of view tends to view the presence of Jesus at the Eucharist as dependent on the sincerity of the gathered believers. The “Catholic” position has the merit of upholding the reality of Jesus’ presence at the Eucharist, regardless of the “feelings” of those present, but seems to depend on a miracle brought about by the consecration of the elements by a validly ordained priest.
Is there a way to understand the presence of Jesus at the Eucharist that avoids both a reliance on sentiment, and the language of a performed miracle? I think there is, and it comes from an unlikely source.
St. Thomas and the Medieval Craft Tradition
St. Thomas Aquinas (c. 1225-1274) is credited with the doctrine of transubstantiation. Using categories taken from Aristotle, Thomas argued that even though the Eucharistic elements look and taste like bread and wine, they undergo an essential change. His explanation became the normative teaching in Roman Catholic theology.
The doctrine was later repudiated in Anglicanism (see Articles of Religion, BCP, p. 873). I have no intention of defending the outmoded metaphysics of transubstantiation, but I will say that when Thomas actually describes how Sacraments work – how they make us holy – he becomes much more persuasive! Instead of focusing on a miracle of change in the bread and wine, Thomas uses a marvelous analogy. He says God the Creator is a Craftsman, and that God intends to save us just as a master-craftsman would: God uses tools!
Pursuing this analogy Thomas explains that everyone is familiar with two types of tools. First, there are so-called “attached” or “connected” tools. These are the parts of our body that we can direct, like eyes and hands. Second, there are “disconnected” tools that we can employ, like a hammer or saw.
Thomas goes on to say that God the Father, the great Master-Craftsman, uses Jesus’ humanity as God’s perfect (connected) tool to redeem the world. And further, that Jesus himself uses the Sacraments as His (disconnected) tools to accomplish the will of the Father throughout the generations. (Summa Theologiae, Part III; The Road To God, Q. 62, Art. 5)
The Eucharist: Carpenter Jesus and His Holy Hand-Plane.
This craft-tool analogy has significance for me personally. Before I became a priest I worked as a cabinet-maker for twenty years. During that time I enjoyed making my own tools as a hobby. My favorite pastime was making wooden hand-planes. A well made and tuned hand-plane is capable of removing a tissue-paper thin shaving of wood the entire length of a board. The surface that remains is so smooth it often requires little further polishing.
I am going to suggest that we think of the Holy Eucharist as a kind of holy hand-plane of God. During the Divine Liturgy the People of God are shaped and transformed by the presence of Jesus Christ. If this is an apt description it may also serve to reconcile the Reformed and Catholic positions on the presence of Jesus at the Eucharist.
From this perspective, we might say that, at the Eucharist Christians offer themselves to God. Then, God’s only begotten Son, Jesus Christ, transforms his People – making them holy- (smoothing out the rough and damaged places) through the means of His own Body and Blood. The presence of Jesus at the Eucharist is a genuine miracle of God’s Grace, which also elicits our active will and participation. Praise be to God!
Fr. Gorchov is the rector of St. Paul’s Church in Troy, NY
An earlier version originally published in the Albany Episcopalian (2003).
Copyright MIGorchov 2003