During a recent Choral Evensong at Sewanee’s All Saints Chapel, a verse from Psalm 34 sung by the visiting choir caught my attention: “Taste and see that the LORD is good; happy are they who trust in Him!” (v. 8) Coverdale’s translation of the first clause moves me even more: “O taste, and see, how gracious the Lord is.” The thought of grace as something that not only can be received, but also tasted and seen, opens up concepts of God perhaps never before imagined. I find Coverdale’s translation to be an invitation to delve deeper into the wonder that is God. If one is open to the mystery, one cannot help to feel and taste God’s grace, for it is, indeed, good.
I mention this because this past Sunday many Episcopalians observed the Feast of Corpus Christi, a Western Christian solemnity commemorating Christ’s institution of and real presence in the Eucharist. Promulgated in 1264 by Pope Urban IV in his bull Transiturus de hoc mundo, Roman Catholics observe it as “The Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ” on the Thursday following Trinity Sunday in places where it is an obligatory holy day, or the following Sunday in other places. Anglicans in the Church of England and several other Communion provinces list this solemnity in their calendars as “The Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion.” This is not the case in The Episcopal Church, where though Corpus Christi is not an official observance, many still observe it as a major holy day, using the 1979 Prayer Book’s optional “Of the Holy Eucharist” votive readings.
We ask God in the Eucharist:
Send your Holy Spirit upon these gifts that they may be the Sacrament of the Body of Christ and his Blood of the new Covenant. Unite us to your Son in his sacrifice, that we may be acceptable through him, being sanctified by the Holy Spirit (Eucharistic Prayer B, BCP, 369).
Anglicanism traditionally holds that Christ’s real presence results from a definitive change in the bread and wine. Many of us hold differing views from that of historic Anglicanism. Don’t worry; this will not become a debate on that issue. But what we know for certain is that at the center of the Eucharist is Jesus. And with Jesus’ real presence we know the Eucharist to be different from any ordinary meal. His presence in the bread and wine awakens the realization of God’s offering of grace to us, that “all will be made alive in Christ” (1 Cor. 15:22).
Our experience of Jesus in the Eucharist and basking in all its mystery is summed up in the concept of anamnesis. This Greek word, which means “recollection,” is found in Jesus’ Eucharistic mandate, “Do this in memory of me.” Originating from Plato’s philosophy, this word originally described the remembrance of things from a supposed previous existence. Within theology, anamnesis refers to the Eucharist’s memorial character in recalling the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. With this one word, Jesus says to us, “Do this to make me present.”
Through anamnesis we enter into the paschal mystery, as the eucharistic prayer brings into our time those things Christ has accomplished. We recall Christ’s saving deeds in such a way that he is really present with and in us and we with and in him. We see how “God proves His love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). Our reception of the Eucharist connects us to Christ who has died, risen, ascended to the Father, reigns in glory, and will come again, and who also connects us to each other as the Church throughout all time and space. Paul says, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26).
Christ’s real presence moves the hearts of all who receive the Eucharist to serve their neighbors in the love Christ has for all, imparting within them the self-esteem to love themselves. “Almighty and everliving God … send us out to do the work You have given us to do, to love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ our Lord” (Post Communion Prayer, BCP, 366). “By this,” Jesus says, “everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:35).
In older versions of the Prayer of Humble Access, there was a line that has been removed from our current Prayer Book (I wish it had remained), wherein was prayed “that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his Body, and our souls washed through his most precious Blood” (BCP , 82). The Eucharist is the tangible sign that Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2). In Christ’s real eucharistic presence is his promise of everlasting life to all who believe in him.
We should take care not to approach the Eucharist “for solace only, and not for strength; for pardon only, and not for renewal” (Eucharistic Prayer C, BCP, 372). Jesus requires our participation to be more than a mere performance. He requires serious participation because he in his entire self, Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, is in it. “You are my friends if you do what I command you” (Jn. 15:14).
The early 20th century Anglo-Catholic bishop Frank Weston once said
You have your Mass, you have your altars, you have begun to get your tabernacles. Now go out into the highways and hedges and look for Jesus in the ragged and the naked, in the oppressed and the sweated, in those who have lost hope, and in those who are struggling to make good. Look for Jesus in them; and, when you have found Him, gird yourself with His towel of fellowship and wash His feet in the person of His brethren (“Christ in the Sacrament and in the Slum,” Love’s Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness (Oxford University Press, 2001), pp. 561-562).
In Christ’s real presence is the commission to be his Body in the world that loves and serves others as he loves and helps us still. That is our call through anamnesis — to do Jesus’ will on this earth.
Let us all, then, rush to receive our Lord’s body and blood in the Eucharist, doing so with all our hearts, minds, and wills. With Christ present with us, let us “taste, and see, how gracious the Lord is.”
The Rev. Brandt Montgomery is the Chaplain of Saint James School in Hagerstown, Maryland.