Wednesday, August 18, 2021

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Here is the transcript of my podcast for this week, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary

Reading: Luke 1:46-55

In the Anglican Church Calendar, August 15 is called quite simply, ‘The Blessed Virgin Mary.’ The calendar thus does what Anglicans do best, it ducks a difficult question. For the majority of Christians in the world, however, it is more commonly known as, ‘The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary.’ Orthodox Christians refer to it as, ‘The Dormition of the Mother of God’, that is, the ‘falling asleep’.

August 15, then, marks the death of the Blessed Virgin Mary, or, to put it more accurately, what many believe happened to the Blessed Virgin Mary at the end of her earthly life.

Most Protestants, of course, don’t believe anything happened to the Blessed Virgin Mary that doesn’t also happen to every other believer at the time of their death. The Blessed Virgin Mary, they believe, is no different to us, and so the day will pass without so much of a mention of her by most Protestant churches and believers. The Anglican Church mentions her, but leaves it at that.

In the Roman Catholic Church, the doctrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary has only relatively recently acquired the status of being the official teaching of the Church. It was before that a ‘pious belief’; something that many believed and which it was OK to believe, but not something that was the official teaching of the Church.

That changed in 1950, when Pope Pius XII, in the apostolic constitution, Munificentissimus Deus promulgated the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary as a dogma of the Church. This was only the second time in the modern era that a Pope had proclaimed a doctrine to be infallible. The first was the Immaculate Conception by Pope Pius IX in 1854, another doctrine that concerns the Blessed Virgin Mary.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church describes the Assumption in this way:

‘The Immaculate Virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of death.’ (Paragraph 966)

It needs to be stressed that although the promulgation of the doctrine is recent, the feast itself is very old, perhaps even, as many Roman Catholics claim, the oldest feast celebrating the Blessed Virgin Mary. What Pope Pius XII did was to make it obligatory for Roman Catholics to observe it and to believe in what it celebrates.

It is fair to say that this is one of Protestants’ worst nightmares. Not only do they reject utterly the idea of the Blessed Virgin Mary as ‘Queen of Heaven’, the idea that a Pope can decide the matter goes against the doctrinal anarchy that Protestantism celebrates above all else. The cry, ‘It is not for the Pope to tell me what to believe!’ is at the heart of the Protestant protest. Whether the Pope gets it right or wrong is, for Protestants, somewhat beside the point.

Well, I am perhaps being a bit naughty here, and to be completely honest, I personally would have preferred it if the doctrine had remained a ‘pious belief’. But we are where we are. Leaving aside, then, questions of authority and who gets to decide who believes what, what can we say about the doctrine itself?

The last we hear of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Scripture itself is in the book of Acts after the Ascension of our Lord and before the Day of Pentecost. The disciples are gathered in an Upper Room where, St Luke tells us:

‘All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.’ (Acts 1:14)

The assumption in Acts being that the Blessed Virgin Mary was herself baptized in the Holy Spirit. But, after that, we hear no more of her. We do, however, hear quite a lot about her family. As we have just heard, St Luke makes reference to our Lord’s brothers as being amongst those praying in the Upper Room. One of them, St James, went on to become the leader of the Church in Jerusalem. The others were well-known preachers of the Gospel. St Paul can make mention of the ‘brothers of the Lord’ in a letter to the believers in the Church at Corinth (1 Corinthians 9:5) and expect them to know who he is talking about.

But what of our Lady herself? We sort of know where she lived after Pentecost. We are told that on the Cross our Lord entrusted his mother to the care of the Beloved Disciple and that, from that moment, St John tells us, he took her into his home (John 19:26-27). The most probable identification of the Beloved Disciple is the Apostle John. We know from St Paul that the Apostle John was one of the pillars of the Church in Jerusalem (Galatians 2:9). His brother, the Apostle James was killed there (Acts 12:2). We could have guessed the Apostle John’s importance from the central role he had in the earthly ministry of our Lord, being closely associated, as he was, along with his brother, with the Apostle Peter. The three apostles in the Gospels form something of an inner core amongst Jesus’ disciples.

But we know literally nothing else for certain about what happened to her after Pentecost. Church tradition is itself divided. One tradition says that the Blessed Virgin Mary died in Jerusalem in the 40s of the first century. There is a Church to commemorate the place of her death by the Garden of Gethsemane. Another tradition says that she went to Ephesus with the Apostle John and died there. It’s impossible to know for sure, although I personally tend to the Ephesus tradition.

There have been those who have thought that the Blessed Virgin Mary did not die, but when, as Pope Pius XII put it, the ‘earthly course of her life was finished’ that she was ‘assumed’, while still alive, to heaven. Although his words could be interpreted this way, this doesn’t seem to be what Pope Pius XII intended. No less a figure than Pope St John Paul II, in a general audience in 1997, made that clear, adding:

‘Could Mary of Nazareth have experienced the drama of death in her own flesh? Reflecting on Mary’s destiny and her relationship with her divine Son, it seems legitimate to answer in the affirmative: since Christ died, it would be difficult to maintain the contrary for his Mother.’ (General Audience, Wednesday, 25 June 1997)

What seems certain, then, and not in dispute today, is that ‘Mary of Nazareth’ did die, although many prefer to refer to it as ‘falling asleep’ or ‘dormition’. It is what happened next that causes all the argument. For Protestants, her body would have been buried, and it would, like all other human bodies, have decomposed, while the Blessed Virgin Mary, like all the dead in Christ, waited for the resurrection of the dead.

For Roman Catholics, and those who believe like them, however, the Blessed Virgin Mary’s body did not decompose but was ‘assumed’, that is, taken up into heaven, without suffering the decay that is common to all mortal bodies. It is important to note that Roman Catholics believe that the Blessed Virgin Mary was ‘assumed’, that is, this was not something she did herself, but something God did for her. Now, in heaven next to her Son, they believe, she reigns as the ‘Queen of Heaven’.

Basically, then, what it comes down to is whether there is any on-going role for the Blessed Virgin Mary after her ‘dormition’, that is, after her death. Protestants are increasingly willing to honour the Blessed Virgin Mary as an example of discipleship and to acknowledge her obedience to God’s Word in bearing Jesus. But that and no more. Many believers, however, want to go further and see her assumption into heaven as the beginning for her of a new ministry of intercession and care for believers.

Does it matter? It does if you are a Roman Catholic, as it is the official teaching of the Church. It does if you are a Protestant who sees any mention of the Blessed Virgin Mary as the first step to idolatry. For others, it remains more of the ‘pious belief’ it was before Pope Pius XII’s intervention.

Personally, I am sure that our Lady herself won’t lose any sleep over us not believing in her assumption, not, of course, that she does sleep if the doctrine is true. And I am also sure that our Lord won’t mind us honouring his mother in this way, even if we are hesitant about some of the details of the way it is expressed.

But before it seems like I have fallen into the typical Anglican position of ‘believe what you like as long as you are nice to everyone’, let me say that even if we don’t think the details of the way the assumption is often thought of are quite right, and are not happy with language describing Mary as the ‘Queen of Heaven’, we shouldn’t be so quick to dismiss an ongoing role for the Blessed Virgin Mary in the ministry of the Church.

I don’t know if any of you watched the video Megan Markle made for her 40th birthday. In it, she describes her ‘40x40 initiative’. She is encouraging 40 of her friends to give 40 minutes of their time to help and support women getting back into the workforce after the pandemic.

At about the same time last year, at the Private Asset Manager’s awards, the event’s founder, James Anderson talked about how well working from home because of the pandemic was going. He said that it should help firms re-engage ‘with a highly competent, skilled workforce that currently has been sitting at home twiddling its thumbs and looking after the next generation’ meaning mothers.

It is interesting to compare the different reactions to what they both said. Megan’s words were seen as a feminist statement, while James’ words were condemned as unbelievably sexist. In fact, although they expressed themselves somewhat differently, they were both saying exactly the same thing. Both were working on the assumption that a woman’s place should not be in the home raising children, but in the workforce competing alongside men.

Now where women see their place is, in my opinion at least, entirely up to them, and it not up to either Megan or James to tell them. Indeed, the reality is that many women simply don’t have a choice; they have to work outside the home in paid employment every hour there is just to survive and put food on the table. However, what is somewhat more sinister is not just the issue of geography, but the negative implication of both Megan and James’ remarks concerning motherhood.

Heaven forbid, according to James, that women should find looking after the next generation more fulfilling than looking after rich clients most of whom just happen to be men. And heaven forbid, according to Megan, that women should prefer to stay at home with their children rather than pursuing the dream of becoming a celebrity princess.

But what is it that has led to two such disparate figures feeling the need, by implication at least, to denigrate motherhood? And they are by no means alone in the way they think. If you think that is extreme, ask yourself what would be said to a girl at school if, when asked what she wanted to do with her life, she said she wanted to have children and be a mother. ‘Yes’, but what do you want to do?’ would most likely be the reply.

How then have we got to where we are in how we see motherhood and where does feminism fit into this? It is customary for social commentators to talk about feminism in terms of waves. Each of these waves has dramatically changed the position of women in society. Over the past hundred years or so, for example, women have achieved access to education and right to vote. The availability of contraception and the legalization of abortion has made it possible for women to have the sexual freedom that men have always had. Equal pay and increased opportunities have allowed women to pursue careers once only open to men. As a consequence, instead of a woman’s place being seen as in the home raising children, it is now seen as being outside the home competing with men on equal terms.

However, despite all the legislation and newly found sexual freedom, women still struggle to reach the same levels of pay and positions in the workforce as men. In secular society, the glass ceiling may be cracked, but it is still in place. The problem, then, is now seen by many feminists as being about male power and institutionalized violence against women, which exists in patriarchal structures deeply embedded in society.

The result of all this is that no matter how much we may talk about how important children are, motherhood itself is seen as a problem to be solved rather than a calling to be embraced. For a woman, having children is viewed as a disability that they have to find ways to overcome if they are to be taken seriously.

How, though, have these social and political developments in secular society affected the Church?

Essentially, the Church has mirrored what has been happening in society. Feminists in and out of the Church have criticized the Church for being both sexist and misogynist. The feminist critique of the Church has often been justified. When I was lecturing at College in the UK, I taught a course on Women and Christianity. One of my aims with my students was to show that the Church has not valued women as part of the body of Christ in the way it should. It wasn’t difficult. The Church has all too often in the past both justified and been responsible for the abuse of women.

On the positive side, the Church has begun to realize this. On the negative side, however, is that the Church’s response to past failure has been simply to adopt the approach of society around us. This is to be seen, for example, in the campaign for the ordination of women, the demand for women to be promoted to positions of authority in the Church, and the calls for an end to what is seen as sexism in our liturgy and language about God.

The Blessed Virgin Mary herself has not come out of this well. Amongst theologians of both sexes, there has been a questioning of the part the image of the Blessed Virgin Mary has played in the oppression of women. The figure of Mary is seen as passive, submissive, and subservient. Mary, it is argued, didn’t choose her role, but was given it, accepted it, and limited herself to it. The accusation is that the Church for its part has used this image of the Blessed Virgin Mary to ensure that women behave like her.

As a result, people have turned away from the Blessed Virgin Mary as a role model and have turned instead to another Mary, St Mary Magdalene. St Mary Magdalene is portrayed in feminist iconography as a woman who is active, independent, and assertive. She is seen as someone whose image and example is challenging, liberating, and empowering. The modern image of St Mary Magdalene, in the way it presented, is, of course, a false image and not a true representation of the historical Mary Magdalene, but, no matter, it is one that has gripped people’s imagination at both a popular and scholarly level.

There is much more that could and should be said, but as we celebrate the Feast of the Assumption, I simply want to make a plea for us to reclaim the image of our Lady, the Blessed Virgin Mary, as an icon for both women and men. ‘God sent his Son, born of a woman’ (Galatians 4:4), and the Blessed Virgin Mary, rather than seeing her role as limiting, saw it as the highest promotion possible: far higher than becoming an asset manager for the rich or a media princess.

The Blessed Virgin Mary said that God demonstrated in his choice of her that he was the God who puts down the mighty from their seats and exalts the humble and meek (Luke 1:52). We think on the Feast of the Assumption of God’s exaltation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and how, in his choice and exaltation of her to be the ‘mother of God’, God has also exalted the role of mother that she accepted for herself. In Mary’s fiat - her words, ‘Let it be unto me according to your word’ - the Blessed Virgin Mary, for those who follow her, not only broke, but smashed in pieces the glass ceiling of human oppression.

So, to women who are mothers or who are contemplating becoming one, the Blessed Virgin Mary would say to pursue whatever career you feel God is calling you to, but not to be afraid to value motherhood over it. And to the men, the Blessed Virgin Mary would say to stop seeing motherhood as a handicap that holds women back and makes them less valuable either in the home or in workplace.

As believers, we need to stop seeing motherhood as a disability to be overcome, but as a calling to be valued and affirmed. This doesn’t mean going back to seeing a woman’s place as being in the home, unless, that is, the woman herself sees it as being there. It does mean that the Church, at least, should affirm the dignity of women as women and that includes a woman’s capacity to give birth and to be a mother.

Our Lord said to the Beloved Disciple, who in St John’s Gospel is both a historical person and a symbolic figure, ‘Behold your mother.’ In the early 1960s, the Roman Catholic Church convened Vatican II, a Council of the Church to renew its life and teaching. At the end of the Council, it was another Pope, Pope Saint Paul VI, who commended to the Church as a whole the title, ‘Mother of the Church’, for Mary.

For those of us who see an ongoing role for our Lady in the present, this description is a good way to see her. And she is not only the Mother of the Church, but our Mother too. One who prays for us ‘now and at the hour of our death’.

The Blessed Virgin Mary, in her acceptance of the angel’s announcement to her, provides us with a model of obedience. What she said concerning her Son to the servants at the wedding in Cana of Galilee, she says now to us all, ‘Whatever he tells you to do, do it’ (John 2:5). The Blessed Virgin Mary always directs our attention and obedience to her Son.

We honour the Blessed Virgin Mary, then, not out of desire to worship her or because we assume something about her that’s not true, but because we value her and value her prayers for us as a mother, our mother, as together we seek to follow her Son.

May she, who is ‘full of grace’ and who all generations call blessed, pray for us.

Hail Mary, full of grace,
the Lord is with thee:
blessed art thou among women
and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
pray for us sinners,
now and at the hour of our death.


Monday, August 09, 2021

St John’s Gospel and the Eucharist – Part Two

This is the second part of my podcast on St John's Gospel Chapter 6 and the Eucharist.

St John’s Gospel and the Eucharist – Part Two

At the end of part one of this podcast, I said that there are two different questions that we need to answer as we think about chapter 6 of St John’s Gospel: firstly, is Jesus talking here in chapter 6 about the Eucharist, and secondly, is Jesus really present in the Eucharist? I suggested that in looking at this chapter, we need to begin with the first question and that only when we have answered it should we address the second and discuss the relevance, if any, of chapter 6 to our understanding of the celebration of the Eucharist today. It is to these two questions, then, that I now turn in part two.

Too much that is written about the relationship of St John’s Gospel chapter 6 to the Eucharist is based on assumptions already made by the writer without any attempt to understand what St John intends by the way he has reported Jesus’ miracle and Jesus’ teaching after it. We need to try to understand the chapter on its own terms.

Firstly then, whatever we think the chapter’s relevance to the Eucharist may or may not be, we should all be able to agree that Jesus’ words, at the very least, are a call to people to believe in him and not simply to believe in him intellectually. The vivid language challenges us to depend on Jesus in the way we depend on food for our physical existence. In chapter 6, there is the first of Jesus’ famous ‘I am’ sayings. Jesus makes this first ‘I am’ saying the theme of his teaching in the synagogue. Jesus says:

‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ (John 6:35)

Bread represents the food we need to survive. Jesus is saying that for us to survive eternally, we need to be completely dependent on him for life. He explains that the life he gives us comes out of his death.

We need to be clear that Jesus, in his teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum, makes his sacrificial offering of himself the source of the life he offers to those who come to him. It is on the basis of his death that he gives life to those who believe in him. Without his death for us, there is no life for us; and unless we accept the saving significance of his death for us, we won’t receive his life. This is very important for us to understand as there are many, including many Church leaders and theologians, who want to downplay the importance of Jesus’ death. No matter how we interpret John chapter 6 in relation to the Eucharist, Jesus makes absolutely plain that his sacrificial death is central to what he came to do and to what he offers us now.

Secondly, though, does St John intend us to see in Jesus’ words, in chapter 6, a reference to the Eucharist, and, if he does, how are we to understand the relationship between Jesus’ words and the bread and the wine of the Eucharist?

Personally, I think St John would have to have been very naive if he didn’t realize that his readers would inevitably make a connection. If every time believers met, they ate bread and drank wine because of Jesus’ actions at the Last Supper and if, as they did so, they recalled his words over the bread, ‘this is my body’, and over the cup, ‘this is my blood’, surely it would be impossible for them to hear Jesus’ words in chapter 6 and not relate them to the Eucharist?

No matter how much commentators may argue that Jesus’ words don’t have to be understood as referring to the Eucharist, it is hard to see how anyone in the early Church could fail to make such a connection. That being the case, the most likely understanding of chapter 6 is that St John intended for us to make the connection. Furthermore, the way St John portrays the feeding of the 5,000 as itself a Eucharist suggests that he means us to understand the teaching of Jesus that follows as applying in some way to the Eucharist.

Thirdly, the problem, then, is that having accepted that St John must have intended for people to make the connection, what exactly is the connection? Roman Catholics would argue that the plain way of understanding Jesus’ words is to see Jesus as saying that it is literally by eating his flesh and drinking his blood in the Eucharist that we receive eternal life.

This, though, raises the question of whether we can receive the life of Christ apart from the Eucharist. It is a similar question to asking whether we can experience salvation without being baptized. The answer given by most believers to the question about baptism is that, theoretically, we can be saved without it, but that the New Testament does not envisage any believer not being baptized. It is a question the New Testament writers would not understand because they would never separate the two. Baptism is the God appointed means by which we express our faith and receive forgiveness. It is the same with the Eucharist. The Eucharist is the God appointed means by which we feed on Christ and receive his life. The Eucharist is, in this sense, as the Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church expresses it, ‘the source and summit of the Christian life’ (CCC 1324).

Fourthly, however, even if we establish a connection between chapter 6 and the Eucharist, there are still many believers who simply cannot accept that Jesus’ words mean that in the Eucharist there is actually anything real and substantive taking place. For them, the Eucharist, although important, is important as a symbol. It is indeed a symbol that points us to Christ and to our need to depend on him. The language is vivid and the symbol a powerful one, but, they would argue, we are not to think that, in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, we are actually eating Christ’s body and drinking his blood. Jesus’ language in St John’s Gospel chapter 6, they think, is metaphorical, even if it does connect with Jesus’ words at the Last Supper and with the Church’s celebration of the Eucharist.

It is impossible here to go into the detail needed to deal with this issue properly. However, it would be dodging the question not to ask whether St John intends us to see Jesus’ language as being purely metaphorical or whether there is more to it than that.

Roman Catholics certainly believe that Jesus is not just using a dramatic metaphor. In fact, their understanding is the very opposite. They believe that in the Eucharist there is a literal eating of the body of Christ and a drinking of his blood. It is an approach that has the advantage of being clear and plain. At least you know where you are with it. It is not, however, without its problems. Again, this is not the place to go into all the wider issues, but one issue that is relevant to our consideration of chapter 6 is the question of why eating Jesus’ body and drinking his blood in a literal sense would make any difference to us.

This is where the metaphorical approach is at its strongest. The bread and the wine represent the body and blood of Christ given for us and for the forgiveness of our sins. It is not Christ’s flesh and blood in and of themselves that save us, but our Lord’s offering of himself as a sacrifice for our sin: ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!’ (John 1:29). It is by participating in his death through faith that we receive his life.

Are, then, the bread and the wine of the Eucharist simply a visual aid to faith? While they may not put it as plainly as this, it is what many, if not most, believers of all church traditions really think. Bishop Robert Barron, who is a Church leader I greatly respect, refers to a survey in the United States that suggested that 69% of Roman Catholics think the bread and the wine of the Eucharist are just symbols of the body and blood of Christ.

So, should we too see the bread and the wine of the Eucharist as symbols and nothing more? In answering this question, the New Testament itself does not give us a lot to go on. However, St Paul is highly suggestive. He writes:

‘Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord.’ (1 Corinthians 11:27)

St Paul continues to tell the Corinthian believers that some of them have got sick and some have died because of their abuse of the Lord’s Supper (1 Corinthians 11:30).

Now insulting symbols can itself be very serious. We have seen here in Hong Kong, for example, how seriously China takes the abuse of national symbols. Does St Paul understand the Corinthian believers’ behaviour in a similar way, that is, in terms of insulting the symbols of Christ’s death? Or is he speaking about something even more serious still?

Immediately before these words in chapter 10 of 1 Corinthians, St Paul warns the Corinthian believers against participation in idol worship. What is interesting is the way he dismisses it. He doesn’t say that participation in idol worship is incompatible with being a member of the Church and a follower of Jesus. St Paul instead writes:

‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?’ (1 Corinthians 10:16)

St Paul tells the Corinthian believers that they cannot ‘drink the cup of the Lord’ or ‘partake of the table of the Lord’ and also take part in ceremonies in a pagan temple (1 Corinthians 10:21). While by no means conclusive, St Paul’s language suggests to me at least that he sees the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper as more than symbols, no matter how important symbols can be, although I should say that many would not agree with me.

What I personally find interesting is how the first believers themselves understood these words and came to understand the Eucharist as a result. From the end of the first century, in the writings that have come down to us, there is a very realistic understanding of the Eucharist that goes way beyond seeing the bread and the wine in purely symbolic terms. St Ignatius, for example, writing at the very beginning of the second century describes the Eucharist as the ‘medicine of immortality’ (Ephesians 20).

If you had asked St John himself how he understood Jesus’ words, I doubt whether he would have had a fully developed theological explanation as to how Christ is present in the Eucharist. As with St Paul in 1 Corinthians though, the language St John uses strongly suggests that he understood Jesus’ words to be more than a metaphor. Certainly, from the very beginning, the Church understood them as being more than just a metaphor.

My own belief is that in the Eucharist, Christ is really and truly present in a special and unique way and that in it and through it we are offered the life of Christ, made possible by the sacrificial offering by Christ of his body and blood.

Again, asking whether this life is available outside the Eucharist is like asking whether you have to be baptized to enter the Church. The answer to the question about baptism is that baptism is the way God has chosen for us to enter the Church and to receive his forgiveness. In a similar way, what is offered to us in the Eucharist is not simply the flesh and blood of Christ in a literal sense, but all of Christ and all that he has made possible by his death for us. Quite simply, in the Eucharist, we receive Christ.

Understanding the relationship between the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist and the elements of bread and wine is undoubtedly difficult, but as Calvin put it, 'I would rather experience it than understand it' (Institutes IV.17.32).

By describing the bread and the wine as symbols, we risk making them empty symbols, mere visual aids to faith that can be easily dispensed with if we don’t find them to our liking. Bishop Robert quotes the American writer, Flannery O’Connor, who responded to someone who said the Eucharist was a symbol with the words, ‘Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.'

At first, we may find such a statement shocking. But, ironically, this is precisely what has been the attitude of many church members during the pandemic. They wouldn’t express it in these words, but, in practice, this this has been how they have thought. Many have not found it hard not receiving bread and wine in the Eucharist and have been able to switch to online services with little difficulty. We may have missed seeing each other, but the bread and the wine? Not so much.

This is in stark contrast with the constant complaints that we have heard about the restaurants being closed and how hard we have found it to be restricted in other ways. It is perfectly reasonable that people should have been worried about meeting together during a pandemic, but we have been selectively worried. Not being able to receive the bread and the wine of the Eucharist has not been a major concern. After all, we think, it’s only a symbol. The supermarkets remained open and sold the bread that perishes. The churches remained shut and failed to offer the bread that endures to eternal life.

The last thing Jesus did before he was betrayed was to have a Meal with his disciples at which he told them that the bread was his body and the wine his blood. They were to do this, he said, in remembrance of him. It seems an awful lot of trouble to have gone to simply to give his disciples some symbols by which to remember him, however meaningful they may be. This mattered to our Lord; it is tragic that it doesn’t matter to us too.

The response to this may be to claim that we in the Church had no choice because it was a government decision to suspend church services. True, perhaps. But other government decisions during the pandemic, even when they have been accepted by people, have been accepted with pain and sadness, and often in protest. Where has been the sadness and pain at being denied the bread and wine of the Eucharist?

Here at Christ Church while services were suspended, the consecrated bread and wine were still offered every Sunday from the ‘reserved sacrament’. I would like to be able to report that we were overwhelmed by people seeking spiritual nourishment during such a worrying time. Sadly, many preferred instead to go shopping.

After Jesus had finished his teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum many of his disciples were unhappy with what he had said. ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’ was their response on hearing Jesus’ words (John 6:60). Many, St John tells us, stopped following Jesus as a result (John 6:66). Jesus asks the twelve apostles: ‘Do you also wish to go away?’ Simon Peter answers for them:

‘Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.’ (John 6:68)

At every Eucharist, Jesus’ words of life are spoken again to us; Jesus invites us to eat and drink in remembrance of him and to feed on him, for his flesh is true food and his blood is true drink (John 6:55). Jesus promises that those who eat his flesh and drink his blood will have eternal life and that he will raise them up on the last day. As often as we ‘eat the bread’ and ‘drink the cup’ together, we ‘proclaim his death until he comes’, because it is only by, through, and in Jesus’ death that we have life, and only by feeding on him that we can abide in him.

May we, then, accept his invitation to eat him and so to live because of him.


Saturday, August 07, 2021

St John's Gospel Chapter 6 and the Eucharist (Part One)

We are in Year B of the Lectionary that gives us the readings for our services. During the Summer in Year B, the Gospel readings for five consecutive weeks all come from chapter 6 of St John’s Gospel. Rather than do separate podcasts on each of the Gospel readings, I have decided to record one on the whole chapter!  The podcast is in two parts.  This is the transcript of the first part.  I will post the second early next week.

The Eighth to Twelfth Sunday after Trinity

Reading: John 6:1-21

One of the most amazing passages in the New Testament is from St Paul’s first letter to Corinthians. In chapter 11, verses 23-26, St Paul writes:

‘For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.’ (1 Corinthians 11:23-26)

We are so familiar with these words that we rarely pay much attention to them. They are, however, really quite remarkable. They were written by St Paul to a Church he founded in Greece around AD51. The reason why he wrote them was because at the regular meeting of the Church, which centred on a Meal, believers were eating their fill of food and getting drunk with wine without waiting for the poorer members of the Church who could not get there on time.

There are a number of incredible things about what St Paul writes.

First, from this passage, we learn that just twenty years after Jesus held the Last Supper with the apostles in the Upper Room in Jerusalem and told his disciples they were to do this ‘in remembrance’ of him, pagans who had become believers were obeying his command in a Greek city many miles from Jerusalem.

Secondly, we learn that the Meal itself, which St Paul calls the ‘Lord’s Supper’ (1 Corinthians 11:20), was the central focus of the church gathering and provided the context for everything else that took place. To put it another way: the worship of believers in Corinth centred on a Meal modelled on the Last Supper and celebrated in obedience to Jesus’ command.

Thirdly, St Paul writes that Jesus’ words and instruction at the Last Supper, which St Paul had handed on to the Corinthian believers and upon which they based their meeting, had also been given to him. This means that the practice of holding the Meal and the explanation of it was widespread amongst the churches. Jesus’ institution of what we now know as the Eucharist had become an essential part of what people were taught when they became believers.

Fourthly, we only know today how important the Eucharist had become in the early Church because of the way some believers were abusing it. In fact, St Paul only wrote this passage in first Corinthians about the Eucharist in response to the abuse of it that was taking place at Corinth. References to the Eucharist are missing from the rest of St Paul’s letters, despite St Paul telling us how important the Eucharist was both to him and to Church.

So how do we explain this silence in the New Testament about something that was clearly so important? The explanation seems to be that the Eucharist was so well-known and was universally so highly regarded that there was no need to mention it. The need only arose when there was a problem.

Why am I discussing a passage in St Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth when our Gospel reading is from chapter 6 of St John’s Gospel? It is because what we learn about the Eucharist from St Paul’s letter to the Church in Corinth helps to explain a puzzle in St John’s Gospel.

Each of the other Gospel writers record what are known as the ‘Words of Institution’. These are Jesus’ words over the bread and the cup and his command to do this in remembrance of him. St John, however, does not record these words in his account of the Last Supper. He records the Last Supper taking place. He describes Jesus’ action in washing the disciples’ feet as they arrived for it and Jesus’ teaching at it in what is now known as the Farewell Discourse. St John does not, however, relate the actual ‘Words of Institution’ themself.

Given how important these words of Jesus were in the early Church, this seems a strange omission by St John. They were so important that St Paul was taught them when he became a believer and was himself so convinced of their importance that he passed them on to his own converts. Why, then, did St John leave them out of his Gospel? It is inconceivable that St John didn’t know of them. After all, even pagans far from Jerusalem knew of them. St John himself, even if we don’t think he was one of those who were physically present at the Last Supper, was clearly familiar with the Gospel traditions contained in the other Gospels. What, then, is the explanation for St John leaving these words of Jesus out of his account of the Last Supper?

Firstly, St John may have felt that given how well-known Jesus’ words were, there was no need to repeat them. St John also clearly knows of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist, but he doesn’t directly describe Jesus’ baptism either. St John refers to Jesus’ baptism, but seems to assume that his readers know all about it without him having to go into all the details. St Paul seems to make a similar assumption about the Eucharist when writing to his own churches.

Secondly, however, many commentators feel that St John doesn’t so much leave out Jesus’ words at the Last Supper as report them a different way. Rather than repeating what everyone knew already, St John instead reflects on their meaning, and he does this, many believe, in his account of the feeding of the 5,000 and Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue at Capernaum after it.

The feeding of the 5,000 appears in all four Gospels, but each of the Gospel writers have their own approach to it. St John’s approach is particularly distinctive.

Firstly, St John closes chapter 5 by talking about Moses (John 5:45-47). He begins his account of the feeding of the 5,000 by telling us that Jesus went up ‘the mountain’ (John 6:3). Moses, of course, famously went up the mountain to receive the Law. St John also tells us that it was nearly Passover (John 6:4). This was the time of the year when the Jewish people celebrated their deliverance from slavery in Egypt and remembered their time in the wilderness. St John is inviting us to understand what he is about to tell us in the light of the story of Moses and the people of Israel in the wilderness. There are references to this story throughout chapter 6.

After Jesus has fed the people with the loaves and fish, St John writes that the people began to say:

‘This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.’ (John 6:14)

The people see Jesus as the prophet that Moses had said God would one day raise up who would be like him (Deuteronomy 18:15-19). Jesus has to withdraw from them to prevent them making him King and starting a rebellion.

Secondly, because of the way St John relates the feeding of the 5,000, it also takes on the character of a Eucharist. St John makes a point of writing that it was nearly Passover (John 6:4). It was at Passover that Jesus instituted the Eucharist. Interestingly, in describing what takes place, St John doesn’t say that the people ‘sat’ on the grass; he writes that they ‘reclined’ on the grass (John 6:10). (The different Bible versions don’t always reflect this in their translation.) St John uses the same Greek word here that he uses to describe the disciples’ posture when eating the Last Supper (John 13:23, 25). St John also tells us that Jesus ‘gave thanks’ over the bread (John 6:11). The word he uses is the same word as that used by St Luke and St Paul to describe Jesus giving thanks over the bread at the Last Supper (Luke 22:19; 1 Corinthians 11:24).

Having established both the links with story of Moses and the people of Israel in the wilderness and also the character of the feeding of the 5,000 as a Eucharist, St John relates Jesus’ teaching in the synagogue in Capernaum.

In his teaching in the synagogue, Jesus refers to God’s provision of manna for his people during their time in the wilderness and he speaks of the bread of God that comes down from heaven and gives life to the world (John 6:33). Many of those in the synagogue were part of the 5,000 who had been fed with the loaves and fish and, not surprisingly, have come seeking Jesus. They ask him to give them this bread always (John 6:34). Jesus then makes a startling claim. He says to them:

‘I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.’ (John 6:35)

Jesus explains how he is the living bread come down from heaven. Those who ate manna in the wilderness still died (John 6:49). The bread that Jesus will give is his flesh for the life of the world (John 6:51). Whoever eats this bread will not die (John 6:50, 58). Understandably, those present don’t understand and ask how Jesus can give them his flesh to eat. Jesus replies in the following words:

‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.’ (John 6:53-58)

These words have divided commentators, especially commentators since the time of the European Reformation in the 16th century.

Firstly, there are those who think that these words are to be understood as a vivid metaphor for believing in Jesus. What Jesus is teaching, they argue, is the importance of believing in him and depending on him if we are to receive eternal life.

Secondly, others, such as those of the Roman Catholic and Orthodox traditions, argue that these words refer directly to what we now know as the Eucharist. They see these words as St John’s version of the ‘Words of Institution’. This means, they believe, that Christ is really and truly present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. This is how, they think, we eat his body and drink his blood. On this understanding of the Eucharist, the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Christ. What Roman Catholics call ‘transubstantiation’ is a miracle that they believe happens at every celebration of the Mass.

While it is clearly possible to hold both of these views together, many who follow the first interpretation reject out of hand the idea that Jesus is talking in any way about the Meal he commanded his followers to observe.

To complicate the picture, there are those who don’t think Jesus is talking about the Eucharist here in chapter 6, but who, nevertheless, think that Jesus is really and truly present in the Eucharist.

There are, then, two different questions that we need to answer: firstly, is Jesus talking here in chapter 6 about the Eucharist, and secondly, what relevance, if any, does chapter 6 have for understanding the Eucharist? In looking at this chapter, we need to begin with the first question and only when we have answered it should we go on to talk about its relevance, if any, to our understanding of the celebration of the Eucharist today.

It is to these two questions that we will turn in part two.