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Benediction is good for the (Anglican) soul

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.

16 COMMENTS

  1. 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 (!) Evangelical in that I do not disapprove of the practice of Benediction on the grounds of the charge of “superstition.” I object because it makes Jesus presence in the bread and wine too technological. Does Fr Oliver’s comment,

    “Simply that after Berengar, we see a tendency in Western eucharistic theology to overemphasize the transformation of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ — and more broadly, to emphasize what we get — such that the Eucharist’s doxological and thanksgiving character is muted.” (“Further facing into the Eucharist: A friendly response to Bishop Martins”, Aug 2)

    apply here?

    • 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 as a technological explanation is actually entirely fair.

      Rather, it is the way to speak about the radical self-gift of Euchariatic presence, without becoming a cannibal.

      It is the extension of divine doxology beyond the Mass into every element of human life.

      At least, this is how I would respond as a Roman to the concern above, which does seem to implicitly a “Roman” account of Eucharistic theology.

      I am also someone, of course, who would never disagree with Fr. Olver. The problem to me is that the doxological dimension was left behind in explaining what constitutes the permanence of presence.

    • 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 of praise and thanksgiving. Jesus is really there and he really transforms us when we take him into our bodies. But Benediction doesn’t cheapen that – it intensifies it.

      • 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 here the point of intention: as long as the intent is to eat the break and drink the wine, it is Jesus body and blood. But when that is no longer the intent, those elements are no longer sacraments.

        Stretching to an analogy: if a church rented the city swimming pools to preform baptisms on Sunday, you could not go on Monday and every time someone jumped into the pool yell, “I baptise you in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” and be able to claim those are valid baptisms. The water that was “sancti[fied]…by the power of… Holy Spirit” now is just the water in the pool again.

        Someone who knows better can tell me, but I think this is my Lutheran roots showing.

        Now the funny thing is, I can see this practice, even though I don’t agree with a premise, as a worthy devotional aid. Just as I believe that the “left overs” after Eucharist are no longer sacraments, I do believe they warrant careful treatment. If for no other reason than to protect the conscience of the one with a “permanence” view or to prevent misuse of the elements, but lacking that, those elements participated in the holiest thing humans ever have access to. The greatness of the Eucharist is enough to invest the materials used with higher dignity. So as a reminder of the fact that I did in fact eat the bread of life and drink from the cup of salvation, that these did become for me the Body and Blood of Jesus, the remaining bread can be a a powerful focus that intensifies the remembrance of the past Eucharist and builds anticipation for the next.

        • 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 at Benediction, so you have to consecrate an extra one during the mass. That is, you look forward to the holy gifts’ continued holy purpose. It’s all part of Eucharistic living – a perpetual feast for the whole person. It’s all a continuum with peaks each Sunday – I would add here the benefit (though again, not mandatory nature) of weekday masses. It all flows from the abundance of the Sunday sacrifice that cannot be anything other than it is and that we seek to see overflow into the rest of the life of the Church.

          • 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 with it intention to eat, and Benediction does not.

            I don’t see anyway at the point to bridge the gap between a Catholic and a “Lutheran” (or what ever I am) understanding.

          • 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 of thy moste derely beloved sonne Jesus Christe.” Not until the 1764 Scottish book (and subsequently for us in the American church) do we have a change in language: “vouchsafe to bless and sanctify, with thy word and holy Spirit, these thy gifts and creatures of bread and wine, that they may become the body and blood of thy most dearly beloved Son.”

            Second, Fr Petiprin’s position (and mine, I should add) is clearly the one laid out by the Council of Trent. In Session 13, Chapter 1, the Council teaches that Christ is “truly, really, and substantially contained in the august sacrament of the Holy Eucharist” and that his presence is not “according to teh natural mode of existing,” as Christ does at the right hand of the Father, but “sacramentally present to us in His own substance which, though we can scarcely express in words, yet with out understanding illumined by faith, we can conceive and ought to firmly believe is possible to God.” In Chapter 2, that the purpose is to a) “remember his wonderful works,” b) “to show forth his wonderful works,” c) “to be received as the spiritual food of souls,” and d) serve “as an antidote that we might be freed form daily faults and preserved from mortal sins”, e) “to be a pledge of our future glory and everlasting happiness, and thus be a symbol of that one body of which He is the Head and to which He wished us to be united as member by the closest both of faith, hope, and charity. In Chapter 4, it states that Christ is present by means of a chance of substance, which the church has called transubstantiation (though Adoration and Benediction need not necessarily imply change; one could believe that Christ’s real sacramental presence is joined to the bread and wine). Finally, in Chapter 5, they state: “In accordance with a custom always received in the Catholic Church, [all the faithful of Christ may] give to this most holy sacrament in veneration the worship of ‘latria’ which is due to the true God. Neither it is to be less adored for the reason that it was instituted by Christ the Lord in order to be received.” After this, the Council makes it clear that the sacrament should be reserved of the sick. That the sick are considered after the worship of the Lord in the sacrament is noteworthy. even more intersting is that the collect for Corpus Christi (included for the first time in the Anglican BCP in 1979 on pp 201 and 253) is a faithful translation of the Latin original:
            “Deus, qui nobis sub sacramento mirabili
            passionis tuae memoriam reliquisti,
            tribue, quaesumus,
            ita nos Corporis et Sanguinis tui sacra mysteria venerari,
            ut redemptionis tuae fructum in nobis iugiter sentiamus.”

            God our Father, whose Son our Lord Jesus Christ in a
            wonderful Sacrament hath left unto us a memorial of his
            passion: Grant us so to venerate the sacred mysteries of his
            Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves
            the fruit of his redemption; who liveth and reigneth with
            thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.’

            Notice the verb is “venerate” rather that “worship.”

            In all of this, there is yet to be an argument for Benediction, however. It seems that devotion to the Lord in the sacrament came from the fact that the Sacrament as reserved for the sick, which presumes of course that nothing else need be done to the bread for it to be the Body and Blood for the sick to whom it is administered.

            But it seems that an additional argument needs to be made for one to DO something with the sacrament, like bless people. It seems to me that this point is when Charlie’s concern about “technology” comes in: using the Sacrament to do something.

            I wonder, Charlie, if adoration of the Lord’s sacramental presence might be acceptable, even if Benediction is ruled out? And Fr Petriprin, how might you help Charlie cross the bridge from possible adoration to Benedicting?

            Thanks, all.

          • 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.

            “I wonder, Charlie, if adoration of the Lord’s sacramental presence might be acceptable, even if Benediction is ruled out?”

            I feel down right scholastic saying this, but the reserve sacrament, “kept to minister to the sick” is a proper focus for adoration. This would seem to need careful catechesis.

            I’m also tempted to say that when the Eucharistic minister takes the elements to the sick or shut-ins, those elements are like Schroedinger’s cat. They are in a superposition between just bread and wine and the Body and Blood. Now I am using a quantum mechanical metaphysic!

            Again, the key point is the attempt to specify that which should not be specified. When Trent said, ” though we can scarcely express in words,” they should have stopped there and taken their own advice!

            And I hope you see why the concept of meal is so important to me. The way for the Consecrated elements to Benedict me, is for me to consume them.

            I am pessimistic as to Fr Petriprin’s chances for getting me across this bridge, but one area that might at least open possibilities is to bring in a Pneumatology into the discussion. First articulating how the Holy Spirit is involved with the Eucharist “proper” (we have already highlighted a difficulty with boundaries), the Holy Spirit’s role going forward is one with rich potential to the discussion. To say that the Holy Spirit is in some way the “Benedicting One” goes a long way to removing the problems with a technological approach.

          • 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 reason for further explanations is almost always the rejection of a previous position. Hence Trent attempts to try and explain why they take the position they do. The Reformers also do the same thing; many of them going into great detail into the “how.”

            But one need not get hung up on the “how” language to answer the question: can we accept that after the eucharistic celebration, the bread and wine remain Christ’s Body and Blood?

            I’m confused how the reserved sacrament is a proper focus for adoration but (as you write) “that when the Eucharistic minister takes the elements to the sick or shut-ins, those elements are like Schroedinger’s cat. They are in a superposition between just bread and wine and the Body and Blood.” What’s the basis for this claim? This is one of those places where we don’t one to get into original (i.e. individualistic) ideas. It’s unlikely that we’re going to say something that is both novel and the best explanation. The question is why the concern that after the eucharistic celebration, the bread and wine remain Christ’s Body and Blood? That’s the central question with which to wrestle.

          • 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 the language is analogous can lead to problems. I don’t like the via negativa much, I want to say something positive. So you caught me thinking out loud using the language of quantum mechanics. It’s a joke, son! Quantum mechanical language is just as analogous as spatial analogies, etc. We could build a whole Eucharistic theology around the metaphysics of quantum mechanics. It would serve to highlight some of the mystery involved, hence the language of superposition. But it would be more analogous language that tempts us to think there is no distance between God and the language we use to describe him (it is times like these I wish I understood Wittgenstein better).

            “It’s unlikely that we’re going to say something that is both novel and the best explanation.” On the other hand, doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results is “a” definition of insanity. The patterns for these debates were fixed in the crucible of the fires of the Reformation. Is it time to break out of the ruts that have formed over discussions of the Eucharist (of course Thoreau pointed out how hard that is)?

            “But one need not get hung up on the “how” language to answer the question: can we accept that after the eucharistic celebration, the bread and wine remain Christ’s Body and Blood?” The question “Why?” then seems more important than the question of “How?” Why does the bread and wine become the Body and the Blood? You should know my answer! It is so that we might “Eat the flesh of the Son of Man, and Drink his Blood” that we might have Life. Why does it *remain” the the Body and Blood after the meal is ended? But that assumes that it does so remain, and the question is does it remain. How do you answer that without recourse to asking how?

            So maybe I am of the Receptionist viewpoint, with the understanding it is the community surrounding the Eucharistic celebration for whom the Bread and Wine *truly* becomes and is, the Christ’s Body and Blood.

            And if I have to carve “Hoc est enim corpus meum” on the table, I will.

          • 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.”

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