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:

Advertisement

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.

About The Author

Andrew Petiprin is Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Tennessee. Andrew and his wife, Amber, live with their two children and two cats in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of Truth Matters: Knowing God and Yourself.

Related Posts

16
Leave a Reply

3 Comment threads
13 Thread replies
0 Followers
 
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
7 Comment authors

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  Subscribe  
newest oldest most voted
Notify of

I like the whole “smack in the face” this is to Western materialistic rationalism. The charge of “superstition” should not bother us at all. We do “wierd” as Fr. Petiprin says. And it is wonderful! But…does it follow that because when we eat the bread and drink the wine we are eating and drinking Jesus, that it is Jesus when we place “the bread” (how in the world is the styrofoam-like substance that constitutes communion wafers in any way bread?) in a container designed for viewing? Does a theory of “Real Presence” demand such a conclusion? I am a strange… Read more »

David Chamberlin

I was brought up in the RC church, and attended Benediction most Sunday afternoons with my Dad, I even served as an altar boy at these services. I had no idea what was going on! I’ve since been ordained in the Church of England, having had an evangelical conversion, and find the idea of real presence pretty troubling. Although (please don’t be shocked by this) last Sunday I had nearly a whole consecrated communion bread roll left over after morning service (no styrofoam here!), and had a real struggle with myself as to whether I could eat it as part… Read more »

Andrew Petiprin

Charlie, I won’t speak for Fr. Olver; but for my part, I don’t see Benediction as requiring too technical (technological?) an explanation of real presence. Sure, we don’t want to think of the Eucharist as a grace pill (to borrow from something I heard Nathan Jennings say) and therefore Benediction becomes a sort of visual alternative to the ingested remedy for what ails you. I think, rather, that believing in real presence simply means that the Sacrament is always what it is and we are always transformable by it. The normative experience is in the context of our weekly sacrifice… Read more »

By technological, I am referring (obliquely) to our desire to understand how a thing works and then use that knowledge. Generally not a bad desire on our part – I really like our understanding of pain and how certain substances can make working on teeth much less painful! So that Jesus is “really present” in the Sacraments, we go from that to saying the bread outside the context of the Eucharistic sacrifice must still be Jesus. But to what degree is the whole point of the bread becoming Jesus so that we can eat him? I am tempted to argue… Read more »

One small point, which I think helps get to part of the issue here: In your baptism-in-a-public-pool analogy you call into question the validity of baptisms performed the following Monday because they would involve “just water in the pool again.” My understanding, though, is that all that you would need for valid baptisms are the proper matter (washing with water, whether by aspersion, effusion, or immersion), the proper form, (“I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit”), and the proper intent (to do what the church does). The particular liturgical… Read more »

My intent (!) was to point out the importance of “proper intent.” My contention is that when the intent is no long to eat the elements, proper intent has ended.

Andrew Petiprin

Charlie, this paragraph speaks to me to the rest of what you’re saying: “So that Jesus is “really present” in the Sacraments, we go from that to saying the bread outside the context of the Eucharistic sacrifice must still be Jesus.” I would simply say that there is no context for the bread consecrated on the altar outside of the Eucharistic sacrifice. We’re not just doing something with “left overs,” but reserving what cannot be anything other than Jesus for distribution to the sick and, at times, Benediction. And this is important: You use a priest’s host in the monstrance… Read more »

This then would be the heart of the disagreement: “I would simply say that there is no context for the bread consecrated on the altar outside of the Eucharistic sacrifice. We’re not just doing something with “left overs,” but reserving what cannot be anything other than Jesus for distribution to the sick and, at times, Benediction.” I had wondered if the idea that “there was no context outside the Eucharist” would be in play. No doubt this is part of the difference I have with the meal/sacrifice question. For me, the meal component is critical. Distribution to the sick carries… Read more »

I have found this discussion fascinating and edifying. Thanks to both of you. A few thoughts: Charlie, it seems that you are articulating a receptionist approach to the eucharist. Is that correct? Obviously this has a long and venerable tradition within Protestantism and slight variations of this were widely held among Anglican divines. Even the 1549 Eucharistic Prayer never speaks of the change of the bread and wine: only that “with thy holy spirite and worde, vouchsafe to blesse and sanctifie these thy gyftes, and creatures of bread and wyne, that they maie be unto us the bodye and bloude… Read more »

I might be receptionist by accident, but I would attempt to eschew (key word: attempt) the individualist nature of that view. My beef is a metaphysical one: everyone should stop trying to explain metaphysically what is happening, beyond, as Trent puts it, Christ is “truly, really,” but instead of “contained” (a spatial metaphor) and “substantially” (not sure exactly how to label this metaphor), just say “sacramentally present to us.” [Purposes a-e are quite excellent!] I have taken to heart what I learned from T.F. Torrance, that it is the embedded metaphysic that often causes the difficulty, not the doctrine itself.… Read more »

Receptionism isn’t necessary individualistic at all; it simply claims that Christ’s real presence is communicated when those who come in faith receive the Sacrament. It’s not where I come down, but I don’t think it should be rejected because it’s said to be individualistic. In order to claim–as has been the wide belief by Catholic and Orthodox Christians–that Christ is fully present, analagous language is inevitable. In fact, it’s inevitable in all theology. Which is why theology has always maintained that there is always a distance because our language about the Divine and God as God in in Himself. The… Read more »

Maybe not necessarily individualistic, but more than just leaning in that direction. You can soften the temptation to individualism by using corporate language, but it is still tempting to claim it is Jesus when *I* eat it. Not really that big a deal, interesting you jump on that. The biggest problem is that it makes fuzzy the ontological claim that you and I both affirm that the reality of the bread and wine is altered. As you say, the implications and duration of that alteration is what’s in question. “Analogous language is inevitable” Indeed, and the failure to recognize that… Read more »

Additional Directions (BCP pp 406-407)

“If any of the consecrated Bread or Wine remain, apart from any which may be required for the Communion of the sick, or of others who for weighty cause could not be present at the celebration, or for the administration of Communion by a deacon to a congregation when no priest is available, the celebrant or deacon, and other communicants,reverently eat and drink it, either after the Communion of the people or after the Dismissal.”

Couldn’t one look at the permanence of presence as signifying the totality of sacrificial love offered in the Eucharist? The permanence is not a scientific or technological explanation. It’s the very transformation of bread and wine into a permanently available icon of divine love made accessible to human senses. Ultimately that’s what St. Thomas meant by transubstantiation. After all, no remotely intelligent Aristotelean could speak about a substance that changes into another substance while keeping accidents. I know there would still be disagreement with transubstantiation as doctrine accounting for this permanent presence. But I don’t teach this permanence or doctrine… Read more »

Ah! Looks like you’ve been to the Oratory! :-)

[…] so that parishioners can see it during a particular type of service. I was recently reminded by this article that (at least in the High Anglican church) this service is called Benediction, and that even […]