Friday, April 22, 2011

Good Friday

It's rather busy here at the moment, so please forgive a very short blog!  I just wanted to say to you, my faithful readers, that I hope you have a very Happy and Blessed Easter.

My love to you all.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Real Presence of Christ

Last Wednesday was the last in our series of Lenten Studies on the Eucharist.  We were looking at the different approaches to the Eucharist developed at the time of the European reformation and then thinking about how we understand what is happening in the Eucharist when we celebrate it today.

It has become customary to contrast the Roman Catholic belief with the approaches of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin and despite some of the limitations of this approach and the generalizations that it leads to, this approach does have the merit of defining four broad views of the Eucharist.

The Roman Catholic view we discussed last week.  Essentially, at the start of the 16th century, Roman Catholics believed in the sacrifice of the Mass and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine.  It was this that the reformers in their different ways were reacting to.

All three reformers were agreed in rejecting the idea of Christ being sacrificed in the Mass.  They also rejected the restriction of communion to one kind, that is to the bread, for the laity.  After this, as is well-known, there was much disagreement.

Luther was nearer Roman Catholic Church in the way he believed in the real presence of Christ in the sacrament.  While rejecting transubstantiation, he developed an idea that was much like it.  Transubstantiation is the belief that the outward appearance of the bread and wine remain the same, but that the substance, the inner reality, are changed into the body and blood of Christ.  Luther suggested, as an alternative, consubstantiation.  In this the outward appearance of the bread and the wine remain the same, as with transubstantiation, but the substance, the inner reality, is BOTH that of the body and blood of Christ AND the bread and wine.  Luther was extremely insistent on the real presence of Christ's body and blood in the sacrament and took the word 'is', when our Lord said at the Last Supper, 'This my body' and 'This is my blood', quite literally.

Zwingli in his rejection of Roman Catholic teaching went to the opposite extreme and opposed any real presence of Christ's body and blood in the bread and the wine.  In his initial teaching, at least, the Lord's Supper was for Zwingli a symbolic meal.  The word 'is' for Zwingli in our Lord's words at the Last Supper meant, 'This signifies my body' and 'This signifies my blood'.  There is evidence of a more positive view of the Lord's Supper in his later teaching, but it is fair to say that Zwingli and Luther fell out over this in a big way with the result that Protestants were to be seriously divided over the meaning of the Lord's Supper, a division which remains to this day.

Zwingli's view has been caricatured as belief in the real absence of Jesus, which is unfair to Zwingli, but not to many of those who followed him.  It is a reminder that it is one thing to say what you are against, another to say what you are for!

It is to Calvin's great credit that he spent so much time in his writings trying to develop a positive doctrine of the Eucharist, focusing as much on what was happening as on what was not.  Like Zwingli, Calvin rejected the idea that Christ is in anyway physically present in the bread and the wine and so disagreed with Luther and his followers on this.  Furthermore, he was not afraid to say so!  Calvin, however, also worked hard to reach agreement over the meaning of the Lord's Supper with those who succeeded Zwingli and followed Zwingli's teaching.  His efforts were met with some success.

Reading Calvin, what comes across, to me at least, is that the Lord's Supper meant something to him on a more than intellectual level.  You get the impression that the Lord's Supper is very much part of his spiritual life and that without it he would feel spiritually impoverished.  He is not just writing in a theoretical way about Christian doctrine, but about something that is central to his experience of the Christian life.  This explains why for Calvin frequent participation in the Lord's Supper is so important.  Calvin alone in his day believed that the Eucharist should be celebrated and the sacrament received by believers on a weekly basis.  The Lord's Supper is something that for Calvin truly matters.

While Calvin agreed with Zwingli that Christ is not physically present in the bread and the wine, he rejected any idea that the bread and the wine were empty symbols.  He says that what they 'represent, they also present'.  He believed that Christ's body and blood are truly offered to us in the sacrament and that when we partake of the sacrament by faith, we spiritually feed on the body and blood of Christ.  Christ is thus really present in the sacrament albeit spiritually by faith.  We can describe the bread as Christ's body and the wine as Christ's blood because that is what they represent and what they offer the believer who by faith wants to feed on Christ.

I have said here before that for me this is the most helpful way of looking at the Lord's Supper.  If I may be so bold, however, I think I would like to go a little farther than Calvin at least in trying to explain our use of language.  At the reformation, the argument was very much over whether Christ's body and blood were present in the sacrament.  Again, at the risk of over-simplifying, some such as Luther said they were present physically and some such as Calvin, spiritually. There is still, however, a tendency to suggest that we must literally eat Christ's actual body and drink his actual blood whether we do this physically (Luther) or spiritually (Calvin).  Where I think Zwingli was on to something was in feeling uncomfortable with this understanding of the Biblical language.  I think his own understanding went in the wrong direction, but he is right to ask what the language means.

Surely the language of eating and drinking Christ's body and blood is metaphorical, that is, that what we are being invited to do when we are offered the body and blood of Christ is to participate in the benefits that Christ's death and sacrifice have obtained and made possible for us.  To focus on eating the body and drinking the blood whether we do this physically or spiritually is surely to stop at the sign and not to move on to where the sign is pointing.

Not for one moment do I want to suggest that nothing is happening in the Eucharist.  I believe absolutely in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and, to put it bluntly, that Christ is offered to us in the Eucharist in a way that he is not offered to us elsewhere.  The bread and wine by representing the body and blood of Christ, are presenting to us all the benefits of Christ's passion.  What we are being offered is not simply Christ's body and blood, in whatever sense, but an intimate communion with the person of Christ himself made possible by the body and blood of Christ.

In other words to stop at the idea of eating Christ's body and blood, perversely, is to limit the presence of Christ in the sacrament.  When Christ said in John 6:57 'whoever eats me, will live because of me' he meant far more than 'whoever believes in me will live because of me', but, surely, he also meant more than 'whoever has bite of my flesh and sucks my blood, will live because of me'.  Surely what he is referring to is a union between himself and the believer that is so real and intense that only the language of feeding on him is powerful enough to express it.

For this reason, I have no problem whatsoever in saying that, in the Lord's Supper, I eat Christ's body and drink his blood, but in saying this what I am saying is that Christ is so really and truly present that I am able to encounter him and receive him in way that transcends all speech and doctrine.

As Calvin said, 'I would rather experience it than understand it.'

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

The Fourth Lent Study: Audio

After a short delay, I can now post the audio for last week's talk on the Eucharist: From Real Meal to Medieval Mass.  I should say that these are not live recordings, but recordings made after the talk.  Actually, they are recorded by me here in my study!  This means they sound more read than delivered!  In the version delivered on the night, I take breaks to explain and develop points more than I feel able to here.  I hope that they are, nevertheless, reasonably clear.

I am quite pleased that I am at least getting hold of the technology of doing this.  Please let me know if there are any technical problems - as well as, of course, any comments you may have.

This is the link:

The Eucharist - Study 4: From Real Meal To Medieval Mass

Friday, April 08, 2011

From New Testament Meal to Medieval Mass

It was the fourth of our Lent Studies on Wednesday.  This week, we were looking at the transformation of the Lord's Supper from a Real Meal in the New Testament to a liturgical celebration focused on the elements of the bread and the wine as it has become.

It was perhaps inevitable, given the behaviour of some at the Church's meals, that the Church would find it necessary to regulate how the Lord's Supper took place as Paul had had to do at Corinth.  In the Didache, written at the end of the first century, or at least at the start of the second, there is the beginning of guidance for a service rather than instructions for a meal.  It is clear that formal prayers to be said over the bread and wine are beginning to take shape.

It is still, of course, fairly basic at this stage, but by AD150 we see in Justin Martyr (103-165) a clear structure emerging to the service.  The President still, Justin tells us, prays freely over the bread and wine, but there is a definite liturgical pattern to what happens.  In another work, the Apostolic Tradition, there is an example of what we would call now a Eucharistic prayer. Traditionally, the Apostolic Tradition has been seen by scholars as having been written in Rome by Hippolytus at the beginning of the third century.  It is believed by some recent scholars to be a composite work of material from between the middle of the second and beginning of the fourth centuries.  Whichever view is right, this is the earliest surviving example of a formal Eucharist prayer. This prayer has served as the basis for one of the Eucharistic prayers in the modern Roman Catholic Mass and the Church of England Eucharist.  It is this Eucharistic prayer we use here at Christ Church.

What is also interesting in the Apostolic Tradition is that provision is made both for a Eucharist with a prayer over the bread and wine and also for a Real Meal without the bread and the wine in a eucharistic sense.  This probably illustrates the point we have been making about how the Eucharist as a liturgical service separated itself from the Lord's Supper as a meal with the Eucharist becoming the main service and focus of the Church's worship.

For good or ill, the Meal eventually did die.  This was no doubt helped by the the conversion of the Emperor Constantine in AD315.  The Church was now able openly to aquire buildings in which to meet.  This led to a more formal celebration of the Eucharist with the liturgy for it becoming both more elaborate and fixed with additional prayers being added to it.  Some of these prayers we still use today.  Although it is important to note that there was not one liturgy everywhere, but rather different families of liturgies.  These had much in common, but there were also significant differences.  In the West, not surprisingly, the Roman liturgy would eventually become the predominant one for the celebration of the Mass.

Over what we call the medieval period other developments took place:

1.  The Mass was seen as a sacrifice being offered by the priest for the benefit of those present or even dead and absent.  Perhaps 'seen' is the wrong word as the offering took place away from the worshippers often behind a screen.

2.  The Mass thus became as much about performance as it did participation.  The benefit was there irrespective of whether the congregation ate the bread or drank the wine.

3.  In this performance of the Mass, the bread and the wine were believed to become the body and blood of Christ in a real way.  While there were occasional arguments about how this happened, there was no argument that it did happen.  The view, of course, that became most accepted was that of 'transubstantiation' most notably as was expressed in the writings of St Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).  It is worth stressing that the doctrine of transubstantiation is not so much an argument that the bread and wine become Christ's body and blood, but how they do so.

4.  This emphasis on the Mass as the performance of a sacrifice in which the bread and the wine were changed into the body and blood of Christ meant that not only did people not have to eat and drink the converted bread and wine to gain benefit, but that it was desirable for them not to as these were by their very nature holy and not to be taken lightly.  The consecrated elements became primarily not something to be eaten and drunk, but worshipped and reserved.  Ordinary believers would only take communion once or twice a year and even then only in one kind, the bread.  It was not worth the risk of spilling the wine.

Such then was the situation in 1500 at the beginning of the sixteenth century.  However, over the next 100 years or so the Church was to divide over its understanding of the Eucharist not just between Roman Catholics and Protestants, but between Protestants themselves.  The Protestants were agreed in rejecting the sacrifice of the Mass, the worship of the elements, and that it was wrong to deny the cup to lay people.  They could not, however, agree on what was happening in the Eucharist, if anything, and in what way, if any, Christ could be said to be present.

The extremely virulent dispute between Luther and Zwingli over this probably ensured that protestantism could not be a united movement.  Criticism of the Mass by Protestants in turn led to a hardening of attitudes within the Roman Catholic Church which at the Council of Trent reaffirmed traditional Roman church teaching.

This brings us then to our last study next Wednesday when I will ask what it is we think is happening and what it is we are doing when we celebrate the Eucharist each week.  To help us answer this I intend to look at the main approaches as they were developed in the sixteenth century and to study John 6.

I will post the talks from Wednesday in audio form here in a day or two!

Monday, April 04, 2011

Happy Monday

It is a public holiday tomorrow here in Hong Kong which is nice!  I am hoping to use it to write up my next study for Lent.  In the meantime, here is the link to last Wednesday's talk.  It is in two parts!

The Eucharist - Study 3: A Real Meal (Part 1)

The Eucharist - Study 3: A Real Meal (Part 2)

Saturday, April 02, 2011

Happy Mothering Sunday

I am preparing now for our Mothering Sunday Services tomorrow.

Sadly, we are in danger of losing Mothering Sunday in favour of Mother's Day.  But Mothering Sunday is so much richer.  It embraces Mother's Day, but goes beyond it.  We remember, of course, our earthly mothers, but also our Heavenly Mother, the Virgin Mary and our Mother Church.

Tomorrow, I will be thanking my God, who mothers me, the Blessed Virgin Mary, who cares for me, my dear mother in the UK, and my wife, who always looks after me.  We will also be thanking all the countless mothers who are just being mothers, some who will be thanked and many who will be forgotten.

So for all our Mothers Everywhere, we ask our Blessed Mother to watch over them, keep them, and protect them.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Please Give Me Your Opinion

This is by request for some feed-back!

I have now found a way to put links to audio talks by me here on the blog.  Basically, you click the link and you are taken to a site hosting the talk.  All well and good, but a little bit pointless if no-one wants to listen to them!  Recording them so that they are 'listenable' to in this way does require a bit of effort on my part, which is no problem as long as I am not speaking into (virtual) space!

So if you listen to the 'trial talks' and find it in principle a good idea (I know it all needs refinement), could you post a comment or send me an email (I know that not everyone likes leaving comments)?

In our Lord's Day, if there were ten people who were willing to meet together on the Sabbath, there could be a synagogue.  The idea being that they would tithe (give a tenth of their income) to fund a Rabbi, who would then be in a similar income range to themselves.  Don't worry, there will never be appeals for money here, but if there are ten people who find it a reasonable idea.  I will go ahead and try to get better at speaking into the microphone!

Tune in at Easter to see the result!