A few weeks ago, I read James Mumford’s essay in a recent issue of First Things entitled “Going to Church in America.” And ever since, my mind began to mull over the fact that the article articulates an unintentional emphasis on the catholic/protestant divide with such a blasé attitude. No doubt part of Mumford’s purpose was to exclaim about the wonders of looking for a church and actually finding it full of people, a situation about which Episcopalians and many other know only too well.

But the divide that his article belies, of course, concerns the nature of the Eucharist. The broad strokes of this historic teaching lead necessarily to a subsequent claim: namely, that it is this act that constitutes the Church when it gathers on the Lord’s Day. What Mumford describes about the church he attended contains much that is good and right for a church: people from different walks of life and backgrounds; coffee; rich preaching; music (which is what he calls “worship”) that is actually doxological; a congregation that is genuine.

The answers to the questions, “What is the Eucharist?” and “What is worship?” overlap a great deal. To be sure, the two are not synonymous. There is a great deal of worship that is not the Service of Holy Communion. But all proper worship is eucharistic. Alexander Schmemann unpacks this with profound depth in his minor classic For the Life of the World. The first definition of the human creature, he says, is homo adorans: a mortal is first a priest. The Son of Adam or Daughter of Eve “stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his [sic] act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with this eucharist [i.e. thanksgiving], he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him” (15).

To be human is to be a priest, to bless God for all that is gift in this life, which is to say, everything. “All things come of Thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given Thee.” To be a priest is to make an offering in thanksgiving, a sacrifice of everything that is a gift. As Schememann writes elsewhere, sacrifice is not first about killing and death, but about life. Love and sacrifice are the twin lungs upon which communion between persons is sustained. In philosophical language, love and sacrifice are both an ontology, a way of being, and not feelings or isolated acts.

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This line of approach begins to indicate why worship of the Creator of Heaven and Earth cannot be limited to song, as luminous and transcendent as music can be.

Colin Dunlop helpfully offers a very straightforward way to bring all of this together in his slim volume Anglican Public Worship. What Jesus offers with the entirety of his life is perfect worship to the Father, the complete sacrifice of his will to that of the Father (cf. John 5:30; 6:38-39; Heb 10:7-9). This living finds its apex in the mystery of his Passion, Death, and Resurrection. But it is the entirety of his life that is properly lived as both priest and victim (think of the Litany: “By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation…submission to the Law, Agony and Bloody Sweat…glorious Resurrection and Ascension…Good Lord, deliver us.”). Among other things, both the Resurrection and Ascension speak of the Father’s response to the Son’s worship. Here is worship that is perfectly acceptable to God, so much so, that human nature was welcomed by the Father “into that Holy of Holies from which sin had hitherto excluded it: man is at last brought face to face with God” (Anglican Public Worship, 24).

Dunlop suggests that Jesus’ claim, “No one comes to the Father, but by me,” has a very tactile and concrete meaning. When we pray, we do so in union with Jesus, saying “Our Father;” we make all our prayers, “through Jesus Christ our Lord.” But Dunlop is even more bold: “We have to realize, when we have the urge to pray, that there is only one prayer in heaven or earth which prevails with God, the prayer of him ‘who in the days of his flesh…offered up prayers and supplications with strong crying and tears unto him that was able to save him from death’ [Heb 5:7]” (25).

When St. Paul explains that the bread and cup which we bless is a sharing in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16), he most certainly means a sharing in the fullness of his life as perfect priest and victim, perfect Son, the servant of the servants of God. It is no accident that Jesus goes so far as to say, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me” (John 4:34). Schmemann is thankfully correct when he observes that secularism has not been able to transform the meal into something strictly utilitarian: “A meal is still a rite—the last ‘natural sacrament’ of family and friendship, of life that is more than ‘eating’ and ‘drinking’” (For the Life of the World, 16).

The Eucharist is the fullness of human life that is made for communion with God. There we are graced to join in union with the perfect sacrifice that Jesus offered on earth and ever pleads at the Father’s right hand. In the Eucharist, bread and wine retain their symbolic power of the entire created order for which we give thanks. But we find them joined to the inestimable gift of the Son, who made himself an eternal oblation. And to this we join our selves, our souls and bodies, a sacrifice of the whole Christ (sacramental and ecclesial) joined to the love made known to us in creation, “offering Thee Thine own from Thine own,” as the Byzantine liturgy says. This sacrifice is incorporated into our mortal frames, so that they too will be a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving for the life of the world, which is the glory of God.

Every parish and every priest must take great care: for if the other goods and vocations of the Church supplant this fact, everything—absolutely everything else—suffers. Evangelism, community, encouragement, catechesis, service: each are non-negotiable, but the Eucharist cannot be conformed to their image. They can and will be secondary results of the Eucharist and only if they flow from it are they acceptable to the Father.

The image is a tenth-century ivory leaf panel of the Forty Martyrs of Sebaste from Constantinople, now Bartoldi 574 in the Skulpturensammlung und Museum für Byzantinische Kunst, Berlin. It is in the public domain.

About The Author

Fr. Matthew S.C. Olver (PhD, Marquette) is assistant professor of liturgics and pastoral theology at Nashotah House Theological Seminary and a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. Fr. Olver’s research interests include liturgical theology, the place of Scripture in early liturgical composition, ecclesiology, sacramental theology, and ecumenism.

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You always write so beautifully, Matthew, and I recognize all the above as in keeping with a postliberal traditionalist description of how the Church is constituted by the Eucharist. I wonder, however, as the good evangelical you also are, how you would think about the following in the context of this account and my citation of Barth below? 1. How do we assure the freedom and sovereignty of God? 2. How do we assure the perfection of Jesus Christ’s person and work? 3. What are you assuming philosophically about the human capacity to participate in the divine here, and how… Read more »

Good thing you just asked some simple questions!

Thanks, Matthew. As always, simply a joy to read your prose. I believe you answered #2 implicitly with your reading of Col 1.24. Barth’s concern, as you know, is with any suggestion of a mediation between Christ and the human agent that suggests Christ’s work is incomplete. As he says, the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit in giving life are “two forms of the same factor” in which Christ’s mission is eternally perfect. I ask about participation not because I want a philosophical answer but because, as you know, I follow Barth and most… Read more »