Virtual communion: Christ and the means of grace

This morning, the Free Methodist Church I attend celebrated virtual communion. The pastor admitted to not being sure about what it means theologically, but he wanted to do it at this time, to celebrate Christ’s death and resurrection through the sacrament of Holy Communion. So we all had our tiny cups of grape juice and bits of bread at home.

I’m not sure about this theologically, either.

And I don’t know what John Wesley, who had a high view of the sacrament and recommended receiving it weekly (as often as possible, in fact), and would receive it daily during Christmastide, himself, would have thought, either. His sermon “On the Duty of Constant Communion” is worth reading, though!

Nonetheless, a few thoughts that I had about doing this ran as follows.

At the most basic, if we set aside the questions of Real Presence and what a sacrament is, Holy Communion — we can all agree — is a memorial of Christ’s precious death and glorious resurrection. Therefore, even if someone were to definitively prove that there was no mystery in the bread and juice I consumed this morning, no special grace or Presence of the Lord, it would still service as a vibrant and tactile reminder of our salvation.

That alone might make it worth doing, so long as we aren’t cheapening the sacrament in doing this. (Are we?)

My next thought, however, tells me that, in fact, Holy Communion, even from a symbolist or memorialist position (which I do not hold), is never “just” bread and wine, and never “just” a remembrance. Through the enacting of the recapitulation of the Last Supper and recollecting the body broken and blood shed, in reading and praying the very words of Scripture, the words of the Word, we encounter Him. He meets us.

And in receiving bread and wine in faith, we encounter Him. He meets us, enters us.

Now, is it the same as when we are truly the ecclesia, the assembly of God’s people, constituted precisely in being taken out of the world and gathered together in one place and, as Christ’s mystical body, mystically consuming His body? No, I don’t think so. I’m not sure I can articulate how it is different.

Different isn’t wrong, though.

Taking up dear John Wesley again, he preaches in The Means of Grace that there are three chief means of grace:

  1. Prayer
  2. Reading the Bible
  3. Holy Communion

He says:

By “means of grace” I understand outward signs, words, or actions, ordained of God, and appointed for this end, to be the ordinary channels whereby he might convey to men, preventing, justifying, or sanctifying grace.

In a service of virtual communion, we are engaged in at least two out of three means of grace. So when we eat that bread and drink that wine, when we hear our minister pray the words of sacred Scripture, the words of institution from Our Lord Himself, when we pray the other prayers — I think we meet with Jesus.

Reading Clement of Alexandria, in fact, I am realising that the Church Fathers are not always uniform in their interpretation of Scripture (no surprise), and I also realise the polyvalence of certain passages, especially John 6 — “I am the bread of life,” etc. I cannot, at this stage of church history and raised an Anglican, I cannot read John 6 as anything but Eucharistic. Clement of Alexandria, I have found, reads this sometimes as Eucharistic, sometimes as about encountering the Word in Scripture, sometimes about meeting Him in prayer.

All three of Welsey’s means of grace are means of encountering Jesus as the Bread of Life from John 6, as far as Clement is concerned.

I have also noticed that the mystic and ascetic Evagrius Ponticus also sees encountering Christ at prayer as equal to meeting Him in the Eucharist. Furthermore, Origen also believes that we can meet and commune with Christ in Scripture as well as we can in the Blessed Sacrament.

So, at this weird moment in history, when virtual communion is all we can get — Jesus will be there with us, in us, through us, for us.

Taste and see that Lord is good. (Ps. 34:8)

Digital resources for the daily office during your daily confinement

In yesterday’s post, I mentioned that a Desert monk of the fourth-century Egyptian desert would have spent most of his or her time confined to the cell praying and reading Scripture. In particular, in fact, they were devoted to praying the Psalms. One example of many:

Oblige yourself to practice the discipline/attention of the psalms, for that will protect you from being captured by the enemy.-Isaiah of Scetê Ascet.
logos 9 (p.84)/Sys. 5.53. (Cited by John Wortley in his article “How the Desert Fathers ‘Meditated’“)

Evagrius writes:

The singing of Psalms quiets the passions and calms the intemperance of the boy. Prayer, on the other hand, prepares the spirit to put its own powers into operation. –Chapters on Prayer 83 (trans. John Eudes Bamberger p. 69)

Prayer in the Egyptian Desert of antiquity happened at fixed times, and it involved singing Psalms.

This practice, variously called the divine office, daily office, liturgy of the hours, fixed-hour prayer, etc., is older than monastic asceticism, attested as early as Tertullian around 200 and the Apostolic Tradition a few decades later (I’ve talked about the latter at least once). Scot McKnight, in his excellent, readable book Praying with the Church, shows the New Testament and Jewish roots of this practice.

So if you’re stuck at home, alone, wondering what to do, seeking some tools to kill time and grow spiritually, maybe even seeking hesychia, here are some resources to help you pray the fixed hours of prayer, beginning with apps for your phone, then online resources, then digitised books.

Apps for your phone

Daily Prayer from the Church of England – This app has Morning, Evening, and Night Prayer in both BCP language and “contemporary.” It gives you the daily readings, including Psalms and both main lessons, and the Collect. This is an advantage over flipping through a BCP and a Bible for ease of comfort — an advantage all born-digital daily office resources tend to have!

iBreviary – This Catholic resource has the Roman Breviary in Italian, English, Spanish, French, Romanian, Arabic, Portuguese, Turkish, Ambrosian Rite in Italian, Monastic Rite in Italian, and Latin, both Tridentine and Novus Ordo. I use the Tridentine Latin, myself, but that’s because I’m old-fashioned and weird. It does the full round of offices of day and night.

Common Prayer – This ecumenical Protestant resource comes from Shane Claiborne, drawing from different traditions but also with a good amount of Scripture. It also means that there is more of an emphasis on social action in the prayers and meditations included. Morning, Midday, and Evening Prayer.

I see some Orthodox resources in the Google Play store, such as Orthodox Daily Prayers from the Orthodox Church in America, but I haven’t tried any out. I’m also sure Lutherans have come up with something, too.

Online Resources

Daily Prayer from the Church of England – Like the app but a website.

Celtic Daily Prayer – The daily offices of the Northumbria Community, providing Morning, Midday, and Evening Prayer. Typically rooted in mediaeval Irish and Scottish sources but with some Desert Fathers in it as well.

Celebrating Common Prayer – This is the daily office of the Anglican Society of Saint Francis with Morning and Evening Prayer as well as Compline.

The Synekdemos: Daily Prayers for Orthodox Christians – Provided by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Divinum Officium – This Roman Catholic resource appears to be similar to the iBreviary app noted above.

There are undoubtedly many others, but I’ve never used them!

Digitised Books

Coptic Offices – It seems only right (rite?), given our inspiration here, to include the daily office of the Coptic Orthodox Church, here translated into English.

Breviary Offices from Lauds to Compline – An English translation from mediaeval Use of Sarum, that is, the mediaeval English office. I do not know how easy this would be to use digitally!

The Lesser Hours of the Sarum Breviary – An English translation made principally to fill gaps in the Book of Common Prayer.

Orthodox Daily Prayers  – A 1982 publication from St Tikhon’s Monastery.

How to Lose a Generation: Against Tony Morgan’s Worship Quick-Fixes | John Ehrett

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/betweentwokingdoms/2020/02/how-to-lose-a-generation-against-tony-morgans-worship-quick-fixes/

The link above is to an article criticising a post about ways to allegedly bring in and keep more Millennials. Young fogey that I am, I might be a Millennial (b. 1983), and I agree that “church growth” models based on business models, that seek to gain and retain us based on better or hipper technocracy will fail.

So what will keep Millennials?

Jesus

Give us Jesus, or give us death. We want that old time religion. And a lot of us, staying put or running towards Anglicanism, Lutheranism, Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, seem to have found it. And we like it. Give me St Bernard or St Clement, give me the Blessed Sacrament, give me Jesus, over an Instagrammable “worship experience” any day.

Apologetics and theology

Medieval image of the Resurrection of Christ, seen in Vatican Museums

Over at Read the Fathers, we just finished Athenagoras the Athenian (c. 133 – c. 190; I do wonder about that name…), On the Resurrection of the Dead. Twice, at the outset of the work and at the ‘recapitulation’ in chapter 11, Athenagoras makes the point that defending the truth — in this case, that the dead shall rise — is less important than explaining it, that apologetics is of less value than doctrine. However, he notes that there is a place for defending the truth, since otherwise how can people come to grasp the doctrines?

This is an important thought, and one sometimes missed in certain circles. I am not making apologists themselves my targets here. From what I can tell, people like Ravi Zacharias and William Lane Craig do actually believe Christian doctrines, even if I take issue with Craig’s neo-apollinarianism. Nonetheless, based upon recollections from life as a teenager and undergraduate, many young people in the church never get beyond apologetics — proving that there is a God; arguing against evolution; arguing for the reliability of the Bible; etc., etc.

This is good as far as it goes — I agree with Little, you should Know Why You Believe. I also agree with, however, that you should Know What You Believe.

If apologetics passed for doctrine for some young people of my generation, perhaps it is no surprise that by the time we were thirty or thirty-five, many of my peers were no longer churchgoers or professing Christians or even basic theists. If your vision of who God is is supplied only by the cosmologial argument and not “fleshed out” (if you will) by the doctrines of the Incarnation and Most Holy Trinity, then how will mere apologetics stand up to the fierce polemic of some in this world, let alone the soft war waged upon us by comfort?

Athenagoras, for example, goes from arguing that there will be a general resurrection to why there will be, looking at the nature of humans, of God, and of justice. I have to admit that it is not the best treatment of the resurrection of the dead out there — so far, my favourite is Bishop Ramsey, The Resurrection of Christ. Be that as it may, whether one prefers Michael Ramsey or Athenagoras, appreciating the resurrection of the dead and truly affirming it as a Christian doctrine (something we do in both the Nicene and Apostles’ Creeds) requires more than just a defense that such a resurrection will take place.

To my mind, there are two main reasons for thinking about doctrine and theology. First, because it informs how we worship God. The second is like unto it, because it can inform how we live. Essentially, as Athenagoras says towards the end of On the Resurrection of the Dead (note that ‘Him who is’ is the Greek translation from Exodus of that I AM’, the second part of ‘I AM that I AM.’)

‘And we shall make no mistake in saying, that the final cause of an intelligent life and rational judgment, is to be occupied uninterruptedly with those objects to which the natural reason is chiefly and primarily adapted, and to delight unceasingly in the contemplation of Him who is, and of His decrees. -Translated by B.P. Pratten. From Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. 2. Edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1885.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight

Prayer (I) by George Herbert

Besides Caedmon, we also commemorate the great English language poet George Herbert in February — apologies that this commemoration is one day late. I present you his poem “Prayer (I)”, which I used as my definition of prayer in my sermon of February 16:

Prayer the church’s banquet, angel’s age,
God’s breath in man returning to his birth,
The soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage,
The Christian plummet sounding heav’n and earth
Engine against th’ Almighty, sinner’s tow’r,
Reversed thunder, Christ-side-piercing spear,
The six-days world transposing in an hour,
A kind of tune, which all things hear and fear;
Softness, and peace, and joy, and love, and bliss,
Exalted manna, gladness of the best,
Heaven in ordinary, man well drest,
The milky way, the bird of Paradise,
Church-bells beyond the stars heard, the soul’s blood,
The land of spices; something understood.

Rediscovering the Transcendent God: A way forward for the West

I recently wrote a post at Read the Fathers about Irenaeus and divine transcendence. Over there, I try to keep things a bit dispassionate. My main goal is to be a guide to reading the Church Fathers — who were they? what did they say? what do they mean? what was their context? Over here, on the other hand, my goal is also to go a step beyond that to ask:

And so what?

I broke my rule about dispassion in that post very briefly at the end, admitting as much, and writing:

There are some of us who believe that a failure to preach or believe in a transcendent God is part of the sickness now besetting the church in the West. Perhaps Irenaeus and the Fathers can be part of our cure.

Consider this. I was reading a news article not too long ago about the potentially amicable split in the United Methodist Church in the States. This article cited someone claiming that many millennials are leaving the church (not just the UMC but church in general) over concerns about gay/LBGTQ+ rights. The author made it sound like this was a cause for a majority, but given the ongoing haemmorrhaging of the Protestant mainline, there’s more to it than that. Apologies for not having kept track of this article to link to it.

So let’s look at both sides for a moment. When I mentioned to a pastor once about the church in Canada and the USA having lost its sense of God’s transcendence and this being a cause of church decline, he quickly set off in the direction of the declining mainline. I had to gently course correct him, because evangelicals are as guilty as the mainline, they just go about it differently.

We all tend to tame God. So if a lot of people who grew up in theologically and morally conservative churches are leaving over LGBTQ+ rights and issues, and not just going to liberal churches (some do, I admit; and some who do eventually slip away from the faith as well), somehow the God being preached and encountered at evangelical churches is not bigger than the wider culture.

We are not debating whether same-sex sex acts are sinful, nor whether the sacrament of holy matrimony should be restricted to heterosexual monogamy. I like avoiding trolls and so avoid this question on this blog. But let us, as a premiss for this thought experiment, take evangelical sexual ethics as granted. If a person finds that they are having trouble with this part of evangelical Christianity, leaving the Church, or least leaving the Christian faith, doesn’t strike me as an option if this person has also encountered the transcendent God.

If God is big enough, shouldn’t we be willing to hold unpopular opinions, or to spend time with Him — and even His people despite some discomfort?

It strikes me that if evangelical preaching of traditional sexual ethics is enough to drive churched people away, evangelicals haven’t been preaching enough Gospel, enough of the explosive truth that the untouchable, incomprehensible God Whose essence is unknowable came to us in the flesh in order that we might know Him. LGBTQ+ issues may be the presenting, conscious issue, but I suspect much more lurks beneath the surface when people leave.

Let us now consider the liberal churches, such as my dear, old Anglican Church of Canada. The Anglican Church of Canada, it turns out, is in such decline that if rates of decline continue (which they probably will not), there will be no members in 2040. Now, to be sure, many of us who grew up Anglican don’t darken the door of an Anglican parish on a Sunday morning because we find Anglicans exhausting, LGBTQ+ issues aside. Nonetheless, if the author of the article was right, it strikes me that liberal Anglican churches and United Churches should be flourishing.

Instead, two of the Anglican parishes in my neighbourhood have merged, and I noticed that at least one of the downtown churches has closed its doors during the decade I was away. If people were leaving evangelical and conservative churches over LGBTQ+ issues alone, would they not say, ‘But Jesus is worth it, I’m going to the liberal Anglican or United Church down the road!’

I think, instead, people are going nowhere. Maybe some people try a more liberal church for a while. But both sides have their own special tamed gods to preach instead of the wild God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Haven’t we all met the God of being nice from both liberals and conservatives? Or the God of self-help/pop psychology? The genie God of Joel Osteen? The God of moralism and legalism? The God of ritual perfectionism? The God of feel-good emotions? The God of social justice?

Or that sort of preaching that doesn’t really need God at all, but is an interesting bit of religious thought/ethics/philosophy/literary criticism/psychology?

Now, I believe that Scripture and tradition teach a moral code, and that we can’t just avoid morality in our Christian walk. And I think love and justice for the poor, downtrodden, beaten, and bruised is part of a sound, biblical moral vision. And it’s probably a good idea to be nice. And that Jesus can bring mental and emotional healing to our lives.

But do you know what else the God of the Bible, the God of Irenaeus, the God of the Nicene Creed has done?

He made everything out of nothing. (By everything, I mean the entire, majestic universe, from quasars to the quantum realm.)

He made a bush burn without being consumed. (And talked out of it!)

He parted the Red Sea.

He also entered history as one of us. The Mighty God became a helpless baby!

After performing many miracles, this Mighty God died. (‘Tis mystery all — th’immortal dies!)

He trampled down death by death.

With the lightning flash of his Godhead, he broke the gates of Hades.

He rose from the dead.

He ascended to the heavens.

He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.

And He invites us, poor, broken, dying, dead sinners to join Him in glory.

Not because we deserve it. Just look at the world around you. Does any of us really deserve glory? Left? Right? Centre? Rich? Poor? Young? Old? Think about.

But God, the Creator of the Universe, loves us so much that He took on flesh and died so that we could be with Him.

Let me tell you, this is a God Who is so much more thrilling than “5 Steps to a Better Marriage” (however helpful that may be).

Are we preaching Him and helping others find Him?

This question is one reason I write this blog and read the Fathers (and manage Read the Fathers!). We need to encounter this God Whom so many others have encountered, and bring His light to the world around us. For many, reading Irenaeus or Basil of Caesarea or John Chrysostom or Bonaventure or Gregory Palamas, or least meeting their ideas, is a gateway to worshipping the wondrous, transcendent God.

My sermon about prayer

I preached on Sunday! I chose to speak into the topic of prayer from 1 Thessalonians 5:17, ‘Pray without ceasing.’

You can listen to it at my church’s website or Apple Podcasts.

People seem to have liked it. One friend downloaded the Church of England’s Daily Prayer App. Another friend’s wife pulled Tim Keller, Prayer, down off the shelf. I, myself, have been more attentive at prayer as well.

The sources are my usual eclectic pot of Anglo-Patristic/Orthodox readings — John Wesley, George Herbert, St Augustine of Hippo, the Apostolic Tradition, the Book of Common Prayer, John Cassian, The Way of a Pilgrim, all get mentioned, and there is a certain underpinning provided by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware. Bloom’s book Living Prayer is one that I will spend my life on.

I hope that it is a blessing to your own prayer life.