When I arrived in Oxford in 2001, I became aware of myself as a liturgical creature. I had always gone to church but suddenly I was worshiping more often and more intentionally than ever before. I had applied to Magdalen ahead of all other Oxford colleges for two reasons: First and by far foremost, it was where C.S. Lewis had lived and worked. Second, it was large and beautiful. During the summer before I left for Oxford I had begun exploring Anglicanism, but it did not occur to me that colleges had church services or that I would participate in them. Every day.
No sooner had I knocked on the door of the porter’s lodge than I met my college chaplain, Fr. Michael Piret, who almost immediately became a great mentor. He invited me to a small, said Eucharist attended by a handful of pious types who would become my closest friends. I had never been to a Mass, and I loved it.
After a week or so, term started, and Choral Evensong began. I remembered seeing a fancy and quite old-fashioned thing that looked vaguely like a worship service in the film Shadowlands, Richard Attenborough’s biopic of Lewis. I was blown away to discover that this thing was on offer outside my doorstep every night of the week. I never missed it.
But there was one service, also in our college chapel, that took some time for me to attempt attending: Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament. If you’ve never heard of it or seen it done, watch this 2011 video from Trinity Episcopal Church in Red Bank, New Jersey:
My pious Oxford friends toddled off to a similar version of this service every Sunday evening, while I went back to my room and worried about them a little bit. For a whole term, I resisted. Surely holding up a wafer and waving it around was beyond the pale. Even for “these Anglicans,” it had to be a fringe thing.
And then one week, with courage supplied by a glass or two of sherry, I went along. It was spooky and smoky. When I saw the monstrance moving for the first time, bells ringing, backlit only by candles, I did not know whether I was in heaven or on earth. Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament quickly became an indispensable part of my piety in our Anglican collegiate chapel. I learned it was done (and had long been done) alongside the Daily Office and the Holy Eucharist by many other Anglicans too. I loved it. And then I began exploring why I should love it — or rather, why I shouldn’t not love it.
Article XXVIII of the Articles of Religion famously states: “The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.”
“Well, phooey,” I thought. “It is beyond the pale.”
But then I investigated further. Sure enough, Benediction is not commanded, as the Eucharist is; but did Christ forbid it? No. I picked apart Article XXVIII (not knowing then about John Henry Newman’s Tract 90), and felt relieved.
Of course, Article XXVIII clearly means to dissuade us from things like Benediction. But just because the practice is caught up in Reformation battles of piety, why should we feel bad about doing it now?
As I have argued here before, and as Fr. Sam Keyes addressed on Friday in a different way, so-called adiaphora ought to be our friends. Why not celebrate everything we get to do rather than mope around about bare essentials?
We can admit that some things (like Benediction) are kind of weird; and in doing so, we draw attention to the fact that what Jesus did command — the Sacrament — is extremely weird. Consider John 6: at every instance when Jesus had a chance to turn his opponents toward mere symbol and away from real presence, he demurred. In fact, he intensified the emphasis:
The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat (φάγητε) the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat (τρώγων) my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day” (John 6:52-53).
“Eating” (τρώγων) is far from a metaphor. We are not just eating, but gnawing on Christ like animals, as Bishop Robert Barron elaborates here:
Eating our Savior is weird. And wonderful. And necessary.
But does hoisting Jesus up in a brass contraption and waving him at his people do something beneficial to us? Yes.
Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). The evangelist comments: “He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die” (12:33).
The death that Jesus died is the death we re-enact every Sunday morning. We lift Jesus up from the altar and — in obedience to John 6 — we eat his flesh and drink his blood. Really. And the mere sight of the really present, sacramental Jesus is good for us too. He is a feast for the eyes as well as the belly: “Whoever sees me sees him who sent me” (John 12:45). The very sight of Jesus fulfills Israel’s expectations in the Church.
In the Old Testament, the problem of not seeing God accompanied by the promise of seeing God looms large in the imagination of the people. There are many near-misses, close approximations, or dream-like experiences. Among them, God appeared in pillars of cloud and fire (Ex. 13, Num. 12); Moses saw God’s “back,” and not his face (Ex. 33); Isaiah saw the Lord in a vision with “the train of his robe” filling the temple (Isa. 6).
Yet there is hope for a fuller view: Ps. 27 (“Hide not your face from me”), Ps. 121 (“I will lift up my eyes to the hills”); and perhaps most significantly in Job, whose hope is echoed in our Anglican burial liturgy: “And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (19:26).
As St. Augustine was keen to emphasize, eternity is seeing God. Old Simeon declares in the presence of baby Jesus, “Mine eyes have seen thy salvation” (Luke 2:30). Mary Magdalene declares to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord” (John 20:18).
For us who were not there in the first century, seeing is slightly different. Jesus tells Thomas, “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe” (John 21:29). Likewise, St. Paul reminds us, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face” (1 Cor. 13:12). And again, “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7).
We have not seen as the disciples did. And yet we are not left in the dark; nor is eternity outside our experience in the present age. In Jesus really present in bread and wine, eternity has begun in the worship of the Church, which is a foretaste of what is to come. When a priest waves a consecrated host at you, forever is now. Today, our eyes may see him whom every eye will see when he comes with the clouds (Rev. 1:7). The long-hoped-for light of God’s countenance shines upon you.
Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament is weird and wonderful. It is good for your soul and part of our Anglican heritage. Be not afraid.