Yesterday I made this video, but I wasn’t able to promote it on my blog. More shameless self-promotion for my upcoming Davenant Hall course, “Christianity Before Constantine”. Enjoy!
Pandemic regulations have shifted, so we can now have up to 43.5 people in our sanctuary for religious gatherings! Wishing to advertise tonight’s Maundy Thursday service, I rounded up the image below for use on Facebook:
I chose the photo because of the Renaissance fresco of the Last Supper from San Lorenzo in Milan (a church I visited because its fabric is Late Antique, even if not its decoration). After putting the details below the pic — Holy Communion, 7:30 — I went to type “This is my body…” in the upper left corner.
And then I realised that this blurry photo I took has more going on than I was thinking about. Because there, in the foreground, is a terracotta pieta, of the dead Christ with His mother. I think she’s cleaning His wounds?
Here’s the wild beauty of the Eucharist, friends. The night He was betrayed to suffering and death, the night before He died, Jesus took bread, broke it, and said, “This is my body.”
And then, the next day, they took His body, limp and dead, off a Roman cross. They tended His wounds. They placed His body in a tomb.
Jesus also said, “My flesh is real food, and my blood is real drink.” (John 6:55)
That body, that flesh, is present to us, really present, in the Holy Communion. It is a mystery to be received in reverence, as He imparts His very self and the fulness of His grace to us.
Today is the Feast of St John Chrysostom, so when I prayed Morning Prayer (using the Prayer Book Society of Canada’s Daily Prayer App!), the prayer included at the close, taken from his Divine Liturgy, stood out more than usual. This prayer is where Anglicans will have most likely seen his name, if ever:
ALMIGHTY God, who hast given us grace at this time with one accord to make our common supplications unto thee; and dost promise that when two or three are gathered together in thy Name thou wilt grant their requests: Fulfil now, O Lord, the desires and petitions of thy servants, as may be most expedient for them; granting us in this world knowledge of thy truth, and in the world to come life everlasting. Amen.
I have not delved into the secondary literature on late antique and Byzantine liturgy too deeply, but I do know that this prayer is also in the Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great — so either it is deeply traditional and included by both, or it is newer than both and incorporated later. Both are options; I do not have the facilities or research skills to answer the question.
Nonetheless, it is a great prayer, and it reminds us of how powerful a thing it is when we pray together, be it Morning Prayer or Evensong, a prayer before Bible study, family prayers after a meal, or a husband and wife before bed. When two or three are gathered together in Christ’s name, He will grant their requests. The next time your church service has a low turnout (as in, this coming Sunday, what with lockdowns and all), praise God for His mighty power that is present!
This prayer, as I noted above, is from the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, the Eucharistic liturgy used by the Eastern Orthodox Church as its regular liturgy. It is not quite as long as that of St Basil (but it’s still a time commitment, O Protestants who want things short and snappy), but it is beautiful and theologically powerful AND ancient.
When I say this liturgy is ancient, I’m not just repeating what an Orthodox priest once told me (although, in fact, I am). First, of course, the Words of Institution from 1 Corinthians 11, used in/adapted for traditional liturgies, are an actual apostolic liturgy. This passage is not St Paul’s own words; this passage, like a few others in his epistles, is a liturgical quotation. St Paul heard this at church — probably from St Peter and St James, frankly.
Second — setting aside for a moment the question of wording — the very structure of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom, like that of the Roman Mass, the Book of Common Prayer, the Divine Liturgy of St James, the Divine Liturgy of Addai and Mari, etc., matches what we find in first- and second-century descriptions such as the Didache and Justin Martyrs.
Third, various traditional parts of this liturgy pre-date St John Chrysostom: the sursum corda — that part of the liturgy that includes “Lift up your hearts” — and the Sanctus — “Holy, holy, holy Lord” — come immediately to mind.
Fourth, in an illuminating article the reference to which I do not have, Robert Taft demonstrates, using data analysis, that at least the anaphora of this Divine Liturgy, beginning with the sursum corda and continuing to at least the epiclesis is actually by St John Chrysostom, being his own reworking of traditional material from the Church of Antioch. Chrysostom died in 407, so this is also ancient.
Fifth, a variety of the prayers found elsewhere in the Divine Liturgy, while not by Chrysostom, can be traced to other ancient figures or ancient moments in history, such as Romanos the Melodist in the sixth century and John of Damascus in the eighth.
What’s the upshot of all this? Well, if you want to encounter ancient Christian worship, here it is. I mean, not entirely. For example, if you go to an Orthodox church, the icon screen and the serving of the elements with a spoon are mediaeval developments. But the vast majority of what goes on here is, in fact, ancient or has ancient precedent.
We are reminded of the power liturgy can have to help transform us by renewing of our minds. An example of how it shapes our theology is when it echoes Chrysostom’s work On the Incomprehensibility of God:
You, O God, are ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible, existing forever, forever the same, You and Your only-begotten Son and Your Holy Spirit.
Straight from there, we find some of the main themes of St Athanasius’ On the Incarnation being bodied forth:
You brought us out of nothing into being, and when we had fallen away, You raised us up again. You left nothing undone until you had led us up to heaven and granted us Your Kingdom, which is to come.
Throughout, the theology of the Eucharist and of salvation by Christ our God, is pressed home in the Divine Liturgy. At this moment in time, I see nothing in the Anaphora that should trouble me. Indeed, most Protestant liturgies I’ve met pale in comparison! This is a spiritual worship.
Also, and here I get controversial — what worship is shaping our congregations? Are we cutting verses to hymns because they’re too long? Swapping theologically rich worship for emotionally satisfying singing? Putting on a feel-good show but neglecting the spiritual act of worship? I encourage you to read this text and meditate on what you do on a Sunday morning, especially if you are clergy or a worship leader. What might change in light of the theological thunder of Chrysostom’s liturgy?
I circle back to the Prayer Book. The one question that has been lurking all day is — where did Cranmer get it? I mean, he must have had a copy of the Divine Liturgy of St John Chrysostom. Print? Manuscript? Where did it come from? How widespread were Byzantine liturgical books in England at the time? Who knows the answers to these questions?
On Sunday, my Northern Irish colleague who preached the homily brought in the concept of thin places (or thin spaces — I’ll stick with places) to his exposition of Revelation 7. I wasn’t there, what with my whole family ill with colds (although somehow it feels wrong to simply be ill these days), so I don’t know what he said. Nonetheless, given that it was All Saints’ Day on Sunday, when he mentioned that this was going to bring thin places into play, the thought crept into my mind that the saints are, in essence, thin places with legs. Moveable thin places.
But the Eucharist is the thinnest place of all.
Except I don’t believe in thin places, so let’s go through these ideas systematically — What is a thin place? Why don’t I believe in them? What is a saint? What goes on in the Eucharist?
What is a thin place?
A thin place is a place where people have intense encounters with God (or the numinous or whatever) that are stronger, more palpable, more clear than how they experience and encounter God elsewhere. In a lot of popular discussion of thin places, thin places themselves are objectively thin, that the numinous is more easily encountered there than elsewhere by anyone.
If the concept fits with historic orthodoxy, the thin places of Scripture would be Bethel, Mount Sinai, the Tabernacle, the Temple, and the thin places of Christian history would be places like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Mount Athos, St Antony’s Cave, St Peter’s in Rome, Canterbury, Santiago de Compostela, Lourdes, and other famous pilgrimage sites.
However, most people use the term in a looser, more subjective sense — thin places are where I feel God’s presence more tangibly. The chapel at Wycliffe College in Toronto, the Rocky Mountains, Bede’s tomb at Durham Cathedral. I take no issue with this concept as to whether or not it is true.
Why don’t I believe in them?
Nonetheless, after reading this thorough investigation of the topic by Mark D. Roberts, I came to the conclusion that there was no scriptural support for the idea that specific places in and of themselves are closer to God. Rather, God, Who is an entirely free Agent, has chosen to interact with human history at specific times and places.
Furthermore, I have been having trouble finding a source for the concept in the literature of Early Middle Ages, despite it being dubbed “Celtic” — but I am, as noted elsewhere, a Celto-skeptic, anyway. If someone could direct me to primary source literature on the topic, I would be grateful.
Third, if there were “thin places” in the Old Testament, Jesus destroyed them all. I am fairly certain that this is biblical theology — that, although God is a free agent, people before Jesus had to go to the Temple and that is where the Presence of the LORD truly resided. But in Jesus, who is God-in-Flesh, the veil was torn in two, and the Temple became unnecessary. Jesus, being the God-man, is a walking Temple. Wherever Jesus is, there is fulness of the Presence of the LORD. Roberts makes this point, and I keep coming back to it whenever people bring up thin places.
And where do we find the Body of Christ today? Two places: The mystical company of all his faithful disciples and in the Lord’s Supper.
What is a saint?
Saints, literally, are holy persons. They are those people who we know are already with Jesus beyond the shadow of a doubt. They lived and/or died here on earth in such a way that it was evident to everyone that the saints were especially close to Jesus.
The original saints commemorated and celebrated by the Church were those witnesses to Christ who died for the faith — martyr being a word for witness. Later, other Christians who had led noteworthy lives of holiness were also celebrated, adding the missionaries, monks, and mystics alongside the martyrs.
As a result of their closeness to our Lord and Saviour, God has performed miracles through saints, whether directly, as when St Peter says to the paralytic at the Temple, “In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!”, or indirectly, such as cloths blessed by the Apostles being used to heal the sick in Acts.
I am not, however, entirely sold on relics. Yet. But it makes sense to me that if there are places that are intrinsically closer to God, then they won’t be the Rocky Mountains but those Christian persons who dwell there.
It is the Christian, the holy person, the saint who is a thin place. No piece of creation is closer to God than any other.
There is only one other candidate for thin place that I am comfortable with, and that is the Sacrament of the Most Blessed Body and Blood of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ — the Eucharist, the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion.
In the words of St Ignatius of Antioch, the medicine of immortality.
The Eucharist, instituted by the Christ:
who, in the same night that he was betrayed, took Bread; and, when he had given thanks, he brake it; and gave it to his disciples, saying, Take, eat; this is my Body which is given for you: Do this in remembrance of me. Likewise after supper he took the Cup; and, when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all, of this; for this is my Blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the remission of sins: Do this, as oft as ye shall drink it, in remembrance of me.Book of Common Prayer, quoting 1 Corinthians
Is means is. Now, I am currently leaning towards Richard Hooker’s theology of the Eucharist, as explained in this post. However we parse the Real Presence, it has always struck me as sound, biblical theology. Where do we meet the risen, ascended Lord of the cosmos?
His body, broken by our teeth.
His blood, spilled into our mouths.
Whether we “feel” it or not.
Me versus subjectivity
In the end, I think I dislike the concept of thin places because of the subjectivity of it all. Christ, being the heart of creation as well as its creator, embraces the whole world, as in the Ebstorf map. If we start to think that he is actually more available to us on Holy Island or at Melrose Abbey or sitting on a Munro in the Scottish Highlands, then we’re missing Him singing off-key at church beside us, and maybe not realising what a dread and beautiful thing we do every Sunday morning with the bread and wine that are more than bread and wine.
Christ is objectively present in His body, the church, whether we like the Church or not.
Christ is really present in the Eucharist whether we feel it or not.
Thin places focus on how I feel closer to God and where I feel that I have encountered Him. And I’m not saying that God Himself has not made Himself palpable to people at various “thin places.” I can, myself, think of places where I have been more able to focus my thoughts and pray thereby becoming more aware of His Presence — some of the less famous churches of Rome where you can slip in and pray quietly and meet with God without hustling and bustling tourists and pilgrims.
I’m just saying that He is equally available in places where you may not be ready for Him — your fellow believer and the Eucharist, even at churches with poor singing, bad music, and wretched preaching.
The saints went to tombs and pagan temples to wrestle with demons and meet with God. They sought ugly, barren, barely sustainable places to meet with God. And they met Him. St Seraphim knelt on a rock, for Pete’s sake! (Actually, one could non-blasphemously say, “For Christ’s sake!”)
This is what the tradition hammers home to me all the time: God comes in power and can do so anywhere. Most of the time, it is not the physical place that matters but the spiritual.
Here’s a helpful and readable explanation of Richard Hooker’s doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It’s only marginally related to Coronavirus inasmuchas Anglicans who are missing the Eucharist right now actually are missing something Real, according to the English Reformation’s greatest theologian.
One thing I have enjoyed in my devotional life is carrying about a wee book of prayers which I have compiled. I use this little book especially before and after Holy Communion. It helps me focus my thoughts and heart, especially if I communicate in a setting that does not use the Book of Common Prayer.
Here’s one I found today in Ancient Collects and Other Prayers, Selected from Various Rituals by W. Bright:
Lord our God, the Bread of Heaven, the Life of the world, I have sinned against Heaven and before Thee, and am not worthy to partake of Thine immaculate Mysteries; — but in Thy divine tenderness do Thou vouchsafe me by Thy grace to partake of Thy holy Body and precious Blood, without condemnation, unto remission of sins and eternal life. –Liturgy of St. James
The ancient prayers are very good at keeping in mind our unworthiness and God’s grace at the Communion Table.
Consider also Charles Wesley, Hymn 28 from Hymns on the Lord’s Supper:
Author of our salvation thee
With lowly thankful hearts we praise
Author of this great mystery,
Figure and means of saving grace.
The sacred true effectual sign
Thy body and thy blood it shows,
The glorious instrument divine
Thy mercy and thy strength bestows.
We see the blood that seals our peace,
Thy pard’ning mercy we receive:
The bread doth visibly express
The strength through which our spirits live.
Our spirits drink a fresh supply,
And eat the bread so freely given,
Till borne on eagles’ wings we fly,
And banquet with our Lord in heaven.
Over at Read the Fathers, we encountered Irenaeus’ idea of recapitulation, or anakephalaiosis, for the first time yesterday. I blogged Unger’s discussion of the word from the notes to his translation as part of our journey through the Fathers. Recapitulation is a powerful, potent, idea in Irenaeus. It is the idea that all things are brought together under the head of Christ, united to Him, and transformed by him through his Incarnation. In particular, Jesus is the second Adam, and he fulfils all the promise that Adam held but at which the first man failed.
All things come together in Christ, human and animal, visible and invisible. The Incarnation is cosmic in scale, and by it we are able to become like God. In the Preface to Book 5, Irenaeus writes that God has
become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.
I first encountered the concept of recapitulation in Robert E. Webber’s book Ancient-Future Faith back when I first started getting into ancient Christianity, where he gives a good, succinct covering of the concept on pages 58-61. However, if memory serves me correctly, Webber also uses this term in reference to the Lord’s Supper in his book Worship Old and New.
As I recall, Webber’s idea in that book is that in the Eucharist, we recapitulate the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, I would say that we recapitulate the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus (and maybe Webber does, too?). The question that passed through my mind on the commute home yesterday was:
Is this a legimate use of Irenaeus’ concept?
The question is valid. St Irenaeus teaches that God the Word has been present in all of history, and His incarnation was part of God the Father’s plan for creation from the beginning. Thus, when God the Word, who is both fully a person and the ordering rationality of the universe, becomes human, this … ruptures (if you will) the cosmos, and all things are drawn to Him, and ordered under Him.
Can the same be said to take place on the Communion table? Or is Communion only recapitulation in a loosely analogous sense, or in a different sense entirely?
After all, what God the Word did in taking on flesh, dying, and rising again is utterly unrepeatable. As an Anglican, I embrace the words of the Book of Common Prayer:
Blessing and glory and thanksgiving be unto thee Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to take our nature upon him, and to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memorial of that his precious death, until his coming again. (Canadian BCP 1962, p. 82)
The key words:
a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world
At first blush, then, the BCP would tell me that whatever happens at the Communion table is ‘a … memorial of that his precious death’. But the BCP also teaches me that the bread and wine truly are body and blood, that Jesus Christ is present in the sacrament, that my sinful body may be made clean by his body, and my soul washed through his most precious blood.
Indeed, as the priest gives me the host, he even says, ‘The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life …’ Likewise the cup.
This is, in second-century terms, the medicine of immortality (St Ignatius of Antioch).
How can a ‘mere’ memorial hold such power? Indeed, from what I have read, it would seem that the whole ancient Christian witness proclaims that Jesus Christ communicates something of Himself, something of the benefits of his Incarnation, death, and resurrection through the most blessed sacrament of His body and blood.
But does this relate to recapitulation?
St Ephrem the Syrian points us the way forward. I quote Sebastian Brock’s splendid book, The Luminous Eye:
Ordinary time is linear and each point in time knows a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. Sacred time, on the other hand, knows no ‘before’ and ‘after’, only the ‘eternal now’: what is important for sacred time is its content, and not a particular place in the sequence of linear time. This means that events situated at different points in historical time, which participate in the same salvific content — such as Christ’s nativity, baptism, crucifixion, descent into Sheol, and resurrection — all run together in sacred time, with the result that their total salvific content can be focused at will on any single one of these successive points in linear time. (29)
Brock goes on to explain how Eucharist and baptism are a fulfilment now of the future paradise. In the chapter about Ephrem and the Eucharist, he also discusses the intimate relation between Incarnation and Eucharist, specifically the epiclesis, that moment in the liturgy when the priest invokes the Holy Spirit to descend upon the elements and make them into Jesus’ real body and blood:
The mystery that occurred at the moment of the Incarnation and the mystery that occurs at the epiclesis in the Eucharistic Liturgy are seen throughout all Syriac tradition as intimately connected. (108)
Take all of this together, and I would argue that the vision of sacred time found in St Ephrem means that when we partake of the bread and wine in the Eucharist, when we enjoy the benefits of Christ’s passion, this is because we are entering into sacred time. There is only ever one full and perfect sacrifice. There is only one Body broken for us in history, as part of the recapitulation of all things.
And we encounter that body and that sacrifice at the altar every Sunday.
Moreover, our whole liturgy of Holy Communion reenacts that sacred drama, draws us back into the biblical narrative, ties us into sacred time, and we find ourselves on Golgotha, with a silver chalice in hand to drink the Blood of our Creator.
This vision of time is not unique to Ephrem, I hasten to add. It is part of the theological rationale given in Leo the Great, Ep. 16, as to why baptisms should only occur in Eastertide — because the divine economy performed different acts at different times, and it matters that when we are baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection, we do so at the same time as the death and resurrection in history.
This also, I would argue, does away with an argument I once heard from a post-Catholic Baptist, that if Christ is offered up on the altar every Sunday in the Eucharist, then his sacrifice on Calvary was not complete — and this is not the God of the Bible.
Christ is only ever offered up once, and that one time happens every Sunday, because the Resurrection Day, the Eighth Day of the week, ushers us into sacred time, and we find ourselves at the Tomb with the women, bewildered, amazed, rejoicing.
So, this Sunday, when you lift up your heart unto the Lord and give thanks unto him (for it is meet and right so to do), when your priest offers up the gifts of bread and wine, and the sacred drama occurs all around you — you are not in 2020 but at the foot of the Cross. And you are not eating bread but body. And this is more than a reenactment but a recapitulation of all things by Christ Himself, the Host at this feast.
I cannot shake this idea of writing something deep and involved about eucharistic soteriology, so I just Googled “Richard Hooker on eucharist”, whereby I found this article from The Continuum on just that topic. It is mostly about Hooker’s understanding of the Real Presence in the Eucharist. Hooker (1554-1600), if you don’t know, is one of the greatest theologians of the Anglican tradition, and he is one of the people who really set the stage for what the Church of England would grow to be over time. He has been called a Catholic Protestant. Or perhaps a Protestant Catholic.
Anyway, I have lifted a quotation from the aforelinked article for your perusal, hoping that you can handle the Elizabethan English. It is worth reading. Hooker is a man of his age, and he does not shy away from vivid imagery such as ‘in the wounds of our Redeemer we there dip our tongues.’ The bit that relates to my research trajectory is at the end; I have bolded it for easy skimming. 😉
Let it therefore be sufficient for me presenting myself at the Lord’s table to know what there I receive from him, without searching or inquiring of the manner how Christ performeth his promise; let disputes and questions, enemies to piety, abatements of true devotion, and hitherto in this cause but over patiently heard, let them take their rest; let curious and sharpwitted men beat their heads about what questions themselves will, the very letter of the word of Christ giveth plain security that these mysteries do as nails fasten us to his very Cross, that by them we draw out, as touching efficacy, force, and virtue, even the blood of his gored side, in the wounds of our Redeemer we there dip our tongues, we are dyed red both within and without, our hunger is satisfied and our thirst for ever quenched; they are things wonderful which he feeleth, great which he seeth and unheard of which he uttereth, whose soul is possessed of this Paschal Lamb and made joyful in the strength of this new wine, this bread hath in it more than the substance which our eyes behold, this cup hallowed with solemn benediction availeth to the endless life and welfare both of soul and body, in that it serveth as well for a medicine to heal our infirmities and purge our sins as for a sacrifice of thanksgiving; with touching it sanctifieth, it enlighteneth with belief, it truly conformeth us unto the image of Jesus Christ; what these elements are in themselves it skilleth not, it is enough that to me which take them they are the body and blood of Christ, his promise in witness hereof sufficeth, his word he knoweth which way to accomplish; why should any cogitation possess the mind of a faithful communicant but this, O my God thou art true, O my Soul thou art happy!” Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity V.67.12
This is the great, central, catholic, classic teaching on the effect of Holy Communion in the life of the believer. This is what I want to expound..
This phrase came through my mind while reading 1 Corinthians a while ago, and I can’t get it out of my mind. I’ve decided to write at least something on it today, since it’s Corpus Christi — the feast of the Body of Christ, the Most Blessed Sacrament. Eucharistic, of course, is the adjective to describe Holy Communion, and soteriology is the -ology of salvation.
If I were to attempt something along these lines, I would start with my slow drift away from statements like Luther’s, that justification by faith is the whole Gospel. I would explain why I feel that, without denying justification by faith alone, there is a bigness to Gospel that extends beyond courtroom metaphors, that, once our juridical position with God is settled, we enter into relationship with Him. I would express concern about corners of Protestantism that cannot see salvation in any terms but justification by faith.
I would then discuss the different ways in which the Bible and the Greek language talk about the word salvation and related verbs, maybe even the word Saviour. This sort of philological pedantry can be fun, but there would be a bigger point related to the above, a point about how our theological battles of past centuries have diminished our understanding and appreciation of the greatness of Who God is and what He has done to save us.
All of this is preliminary, of course. One further preliminary, having laid a foundation, is to talk about participation in Christ in particular. I would use Scripture such as John 15:4, ‘Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in Me.’ (NKJV) I would also talk about the Fathers seeing salvation as a whole as participation in the life of Christ — in fact, not only the Fathers, but the whole pre-Reformation tradition.
I always think it’s worth time for us children of the Reformation to take stock of what came before, whether we agree with it or not.
I would now get around to Holy Communion, pulling out verses like John 6:53-55:
Then Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you.54 Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.55 For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. (NKJV)
More patristic, mediaeval, and Byzantine evidence would follow, of course. And I would talk about Martin Luther’s theology of the sacrament because it interests me, followed by Cranmer and the BCP. How does any of this related to the 39 Articles, and why should we care?
Then I would meditate on what this means for us. How is the sacrament of Holy Communion abiding in Christ? How is it salvific? How does this change how we live daily life, read Scripture, eat food, do church, love our neighbour? Because if salvation is a participation in the life of Christ, then it is a transformation of your own life.
Beginning with what you eat and drink.
Ages ago, when I was an undergrad, I was thinking about mysticism and the idea of union with God being the goal of mystical activity. And then I thought, ‘Well, wouldn’t that make Holy Communion the most mystical act of all?’ After all, whether you bring Aristotle into it or not, Holy Communion is an encounter with and union with Christ. This is, in fact, the explicit teaching of the Book of Common Prayer and the 39 Articles, so I’ve not turned Papist just yet.
Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite (ca 500), The Ecclesiastical Hierarchy confirms this idea (emphasis mine):
…it scarcely ever happens that any Hierarchical initiation is celebrated without the most Divine Eucharist, at the head of the rites celebrated in each, Divinely accomplishing the collecting of the person initiated to the One, and completing his communion with God by the Divinely transmitted gift of the perfecting mysteries. (ch. 3, trans. J Parker)
What matters here is not the initiation but the Eucharist — where the person who partakes is collected to ‘the One’. ‘The One’ is part of the Dionysian vocabulary for God, for unity and simplicity are two of the things he most associates with the Divine. Our union with God, then, is the goal of much in Pseudo-Dionysius.
Later he writes:
For the Blessedness, supremely Divine above all, although through Divine goodness it goes forth to the communion of those who participate in itself, yet it never goes outside its essential unmoved position and steadfastness.
Further, it gives to all, according to their capacity, its Godlike illuminations; always self-centred, and in no wise moved from its own proper identity. In the same manner the Divine initiation of the Synaxis [service of Holy Communion], although it has an unique and simple and enfolded origin, is multiplied, out of love towards man, into the holy variety of the symbols, and travels through the whole range of Divine imagery; yet uniformly it is again collected from these into its own proper Oneness, and unifies those who are being reverently conducted towards it. (ch. 3.3)
Here, Pseudo-Dionysius is doing at least two things. First, he is guarding the simplicity of the Godhead — don’t forget his apophaticism! Nothing can change God, not our union with Him, not His movement out to us. He is eternally Himself. I cannot help but think of Exodus: ‘I am that I am.’
Second, by participating in the Eucharist, we are participating in God, being united to Him, and being unified to one another.
I am still working through this treatise — there is likely more of relevance to come! Nonetheless, this is more than enough to mull over the next time you partake of the most holy mysteries of the body and blood of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, that oblation once offered, a full and perfect sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world. (If I misquoted the BCP, forgive me; it was by memory.)