By Matthew Gunter
In the sacraments the body of Christ “happens.” In baptism a new member of the body is “made” by incorporation. In the Eucharist the body happens in several ways. It is the feast by which we remember the life, death, and resurrection of the one whose historical body was broken for us. It is the feast in which the bread and wine become for us the body and blood of Christ. And it is the feast by which the body of Christ, the Church, is re-membered and its members feel. “[I]n these holy Mysteries we are made one with Christ, and Christ with us; we are made one body in him, and members one of another” (American BCP, p. 316). Thus, in the well-known Augustinian exhortation: “Behold what you are. Become what you see: the Body of Christ, beloved of God” (Homily 57, On the Holy Eucharist). And Augustine adds that when we consume the body of Christ in the bread and wine, we do not so much transform that food into our bodies as we are transformed by it into his body.
Participation in the Eucharist is therefore not simply about experiencing God’s consolation. It is that, but it is much more. It is about transformation. It is part of our conversion process on the way to what the Eastern Christian tradition calls theosis: our being made capable of being “partakers of the divine nature ” (2 Pet. 2:4), capable of beating the absolute love, goodness, beauty, and joy of God. We expect to be transfigured, or as Dante would have it, transhumanized into glory.
We cannot, and dare not, however, expect that transformation to be easy or painless. Indeed, Scripture suggests otherwise. Through Jeremiah, God, “the LORD of hosts,” promises to “refine” and “test” us; “for what else can I do, because of my people?” (Jer. 9:7; cf. Zech. 13:9 and Mal. 3:3). As wonderful as beautiful, shining silver is, the ore does not welcome, we might say, the heat of the crucible. To be sure, in the words of Jesus: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). But, before that, in verse 2, he promises: “Every branch of mine that bears no fruit, God takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit God prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” In this light, we do people a disservice if we invite them to the eucharistic table without the warning, and promise, that potentially painful pruning will precede transformation.
It is sometimes suggested that since the eucharistic table is God’s table, it is not for us to decide who can participate. But given the logic of the liturgy, one might just as reasonably suggest that because it is God’s table we should not be glib in our own participation or in inviting others to join us. Indeed, one might wonder if an open invitation is not more presumptuous in its certainty of knowledge and goodness, reflecting a form of cheap grace. It evokes an altogether domesticated and sentimental “God.”
I think here of Annie Dillard’s famous dissuasive to supposing God is tame, in Teaching a Stone to Talk:
On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping God may wake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us out to where we can never return.
If, as we often claim, we “believe what we pray” (lex orandi, lex credendi: the rule of prayer is the rule of belief), we would do well to attend to the logic of the liturgy which suggests a certain caution in coming to the Lord’s Table. As Moses drew near to the strange sight of the burning bush, he was commanded to remove his sandals for he was on holy ground. Just so, symbolically, as we move through the eucharistic liturgy, we stop periodically to remind ourselves that we are approaching holy ground and that doing so is an awesome thing. The one into whose presence we are coming is awe-inspiring and, while not wholly unknown, remains a mystery beyond our comprehension. We are aware of our failure to live lives of love and truth and trust, and thus of the distance between us and God.
Though it is not often read these days, an exhortation before the rites of Holy Eucharist in the Book of Common Prayer reads, in part:
if we are to share 1ightly in the celebration of those holy Mysteries, and be nourished by that spiritual Food, we must remember the dignity of that holy Sacrament. I therefore call upon you to consider how Saint Paul exhorts all persons to prepare themselves carefully before eating of that Bread and drinking of that Cup.
For, as the benefit is great, if with penitent hearts and living faith we receive the holy Sacrament, so is the danger great, if we receive it in1properly, not recognizing the Lord’s Body. Judge yourselves, therefore, lest you be judged by the Lord (BCP, p. 316).
The liturgy is like an elaborate spiral dance in which we symbolically circle around and around the altar, drawing closer to the eucharistic mystery. At intervals in the dance, we stop to acknowledge our ignorance and sinfulness, and ask for God’s mercy as we proceed deeper into the holy mystery. In the Collect for Purity, we ask God to cleanse the thoughts of our hearts that we may perfectly love him and worthily magnify his holy Name … and we dance a little closer. We sing the Gloria, the Kyrie, or the Trisagion, each of which asks again for mercy: closer still. Then, after hearing God’s word read and proclaimed, we confess our sins against God and our neighbor, receive the promise of forgiveness, and exchange the peace, before dancing yet closer to the altar of the Prince of Peace. And on it goes —acknowledging God’s presence as holy (the Sanctus) and asking for forgiveness (the Lord’s Prayer). In every case, we acknowledge that we do not really know what we are up to, that the one with whom we are dealing is holy, and that we are ignorant, sinful and broken people in need of forgiveness. And yet, by God’s amazing grace we are invited and encouraged to draw near with confidence “to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4: 16) — a confidence that avoids presumption because it is born in baptism.
Even so, the practice of inviting all to the eucharistic table without regard to baptism is often expressed in terms of “radical hospitality.” What shall we make of this?
Hospitality is certainly a gospel virtue. And the God revealed in the history of Israel and the ministry of Jesus is himself hospitable. We are encouraged to “welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed [us], for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7). While that particular exhortation is about members of the body of Christ welcoming one another, the Letter to the Hebrews encourages a broader hospitality: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for thereby some have entertained angels” (Heb. 13:2).
Hospitality is certainly an essential mark of any church. It is not clear, however, that opening eucharistic fellowship to the unbaptized is a good means of practicing such hospitality, nor that it is in fact hospitable or radical to do so.
Thinking of the Eucharist in terms of hospitality calls for some reflection on who is the host and who is the guest when we gather at the altar. Of course, the ultimate host is God, revealed in the self-giving love of the Trinity, manifested on the cross in the sacrifice of Christ. To eat at the table of this Host is to participate in the life of one who wills to reconfigure us in his own image.
Second, there is a penultimate eucharistic host, namely, the body of Christ itself, re-membered in the practice of communion. To host anyone, we must have a sense of identity and place. A welcoming place is rich with stories, rituals, and history. It is never simply a physical space, but a place alive with commitments and relationships. Accordingly, as Christine Pohl observes:
Boundaries help define what a household, family, church, or community holds precious. However, the modern world is deeply ambivalent about boundaries and community. Although we yearn for home and a place to belong, often we find ourselves more comfortable with empty space where we can “sing our own song” and pursue our own plans. Hospitality is fundamentally connected to place — a space bounded by commitments, values, and meanings. Part of the difficulty in recovering hospitality is connected with our uncertainty about community and particular identity (Making Room, pp. 135-136).
If we are not clear about our own identity and the identity-forming nature of the Eucharist, we have nothing to offer but what Henri Nouwen called “a bland neutrality that serves nobody” (Reaching Out, p. 99). It mistakes mere pleasantness for deep hospitality. And since it avoids the scandal and offense of particular, bounded identity, it is not very costly or radical.
If the penultimate host of the Eucharist is therefore the Church, who is the guest? Paradoxically, it is again God. 1n the Eucharist, the baptized are both guest and host, and the divine Host is also the Guest. We invite the Holy Spirit to descend upon the gifts that they may be “the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant.” Because the Guest is not lung less than the Holy Mystery at the heart of all, we pray that we might be sanctified by the same Holy Spirit “that we may faithfully receive” this Guest in the “gifts of God for the people of God.” It is significant that in the gospels Jesus is most often the guest at the table of others. And as Zacchaeus and Simon the Pharisee discovered, hosting Jesus brings us face to face with the expectations of Jesus. Likewise, as ones who have been incorporated into the community of hosts through baptism, we have some inkling of who our guest is, and the expectations that he places upon the community that seeks to accommodate him.
Elizabeth Newman identifies “a pervasive feature of late modernity: a gnawing homelessness, a lack of a sense of place. 1f we are truly to envision and embody a faithful hospitality, we must see how deeply our current understanding and experience of ‘home’ and ‘place’ have up to now prevented us from living a profound hospitality ” (Untamed Hospitality, p. 34).
This is particularly true in contemporary America where our hyper mobility means few of us live in the communities in which we were raised, surrounded by and connected to family and neighbors with whom we have long history and a sense of place characterized by particular customs and traditions. Absent that sense of place, we are reduced to detached individuals roaming context-less space as tourists and consumers. The public space of the shopping mall is the clearest manifestation of this condition, but it is pervasive.
If we are not careful, our worship will reflect and reinforce that formation and that training. And then
we will be unable to offer Christian hospitality, a practice that relies on a sense of place, a shared tradition, one in which we are not strangers in the universe (or to each other) but part of God’s good creation, created so that God might love us and so that we might in return love God, each other, the stranger, and even the enemy (Nouwen, p. 44).
In such an environment, what does our practice of Eucharist signify? Inviting anyone to participate wherever they are on their spiritual journey reinforces the ideology of the individual as consumer. It signifies that a church is like other public spaces where individual consumers go to satisfy a felt need. The church is then like a sort of religious restaurant with spiritual food on the menu catering to individual customers who come and go through its public space. Is this costly, or “radical”?
Far better to communicate to newcomers that here is a place where people belong to one another and to God, who gives them an identity as members of a diverse body with many members, “made” in baptism and Eucharist. Accordingly, the Church promises, after Jesus’ own pledge, that he will be present as Redeemer and Judge in the waters of baptism and in the bread and win e of the Eucharist.
To reserve the Eucharist for those who are baptized does not limit God. As Luther insisted, Jesus — risen and ascended — is present everywhere and can surprise us in our cabbage soup, if he so desires. Indeed, I agree with Sara Miles, in her book Take this Bread, that God has so surprised even the occasional unbaptized eucharistic communicant. We need not try to protect the purity of the Eucharist.
The discipline of reserving the Eucharist for those already baptized is, however, about maintaining the very boundaries of identity that make a place in which to be formed as a community that can properly practice hospitality. And it is about being honest about who we are called to be as members of Christ’s body, and respectful of the real otherness of those who are not yet committed to the loyalties of such a communion.
The body of Christ is a eucharistic community with all that that entails; and we are baptized into Eucharist.
The Rev. Matthew Gunter is rector of St. Barnabas’ Church, Glen Ellyn, Ill. This article was first published in the August 1, 2010 issue of The Living Church.