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One needful thing

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.

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.


  1. 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 does that philosophical assumption protect our theological claims about the alterity of God?
    4. How do you assure that you are not placing the sacrament as an intermediate causative step between Christ and the human agent, and how does that comport with a Christocentric pneumatology in which Christ himself constitutes his Church eternally (and thus pre-temporally) through the gift of his Spirit directly to those he addresses in his election? As Adam Neder, commenting on Barth (CD IV/4 29) puts it, “the de jure participation in Christ is the de facto participation in Christ, and the Holy Spirit is the teleological power of this transition. Thus, the work of the Spirit:

    is not a different work, a second work alongside, behind and after the work of the reconciling covenant action of the one God accomplished in the history of Jesus Christ and manifested in his resurrection. It is the one divine work in his movement, its concrete reference, to specific men, wherein for the first time it reaches its goal. The work of the Holy Spirit is concerned with the Word which manifests this history in its access and entry into the hearts and consciences of specific men.

  2. Thanks for your comments and and very thoughtful engagement, Craig. I’m grateful!

    First, on the freedom/sovereignty of God. This is Barth’s major concern with catholic sacramental theology and honestly it is simply a place where I wholeheartedly disagree with him. When St Leo says that the visible life of the Redeemer has past over into the Sacraments, I take him to mean (in consort with the wider tradition) that this is true because this is what God has willed for the Church. God has willed that the chief, normative means by which we are able to be joined to Christ’s earthly ‘leitorgia’ to the Father is the Eucharist.

    Second – say a little more about your concern/question. Not sure I understand.

    Third – Out ability to participate in God at this point is limited and partial. Thus we speak of “union” with God that is qualified by “sacramental.” We are untied to him in the way that a sacraments joins a person to God. Thomas makes these kinds of (proper) distinctions all the time, starting with all his qualifications in the first 12 questions of the Summa.

    Your fourth question connects up here with the third quesiton as it concerns the matter of ‘mediation.’ I think Chauvet is right (and I say this cautiously as I’m sure there are aspects of this that I haven’t considered) that all our relating to God at this point is mediated (whether my sacramanets, our bodies, by language, etc). There is not unencumbered knowing or access (hence Chauvet’s trenchant reading of Luke 24–three times people seek Jesus, but in order to have access that must accept the “presence of the absence” of his death body in order to receive Him mediated–in explication of Jesus in the Scripture, in the breaking of bread). That is to say, part of what it means to stand on this side of the general resurrection is that our creaturliness entails the necessity of mediation. This is different than the (broad strokes here) Protestant concern with Catholic theology about priests or the saints standing as mediators to God, to imply that Jesus isn’t enough to get to God and need other mediators (not the Catholic position, but how it was read, of course). I know you are a student of Chauvet and while I take issue with him at various places (particularly his full-frontal against western metaphysics in “Symbol and Sacrament”) I think that his argument is that what it means to be human is to relate to ‘the other’ symbolically and thus in a mediated form. The declaration in John’s first Epistle is that when he appears we will “see Him as He is.” Which is to say, now we DON’T have full or direct access to God precisely because of our creaturliness, not because Christ’s work isn’t complete or sufficient, but because God hasn’t brought it to the complete telos that will be when Christ appears, we are made like unto Him, and he is “all in all.”

    The language about the Eucharist constituting the Church is hyperbolic, at least to a degree. The Church’s isn’t ontologically constituted in the Eucharist but rather is manifest in that moment. There, the Eucharist’s symbolic function is (among other things) to mediate the reality of the Church as a kingdom of priests; because we are, by grace, part of His Body, which means we are priests because we are joined to the High Priest and we are ‘victims’ insofar as we are joined to Christ and offer “our selves, our souls, and bodies as a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice” and by grace “confirm” this truth in lives that are confirmed to Christ and law of the Gospel.

    Thus, by God’s grace because He willed it to be so by the Spirit, we are joined to the one saving act of Christ. There is no adding to it except but what St Paul means when he says that “in my flesh I complete what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church” (Col 1:24). I take this to mean that the work of Christ cannot be viewed as complete in a rigid forensic way, but that his Work is relational all the way down: he offers us not a verdict on our sin, but Himself–a sharing in His victory over sins and death, his union with the Father, his submission to the Father’s will, etc.

    This is obviously not articulated in philosophical language, which is I think what your wanted. Nonetheless I hope it haltingly makes a bit more clear what I think is witnessed by the Scripture and the Church.

    Thanks again, Craig.

  3. 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 Protestant theologians in a skepticism toward descriptions requiring a “substantialist form of ancient metaphysics as applied to the problem of an ontology of the person,” as Bruce McCormack put it. I could not quite tell whether my meter should have pegged in what you said, because it seems you walked a careful line that avoided the concern. I think Barth is, as Derek Woodard-Leyman concluded his dissertation, “the Protestant Aquinas,” and so they agree on most things, though they express them differently. And so I as a Barthian would say “of course” to you paragraph about mediation. I said as much in my blog post the other day when I said the Word is expressed to the profane through the profane. There must be mediation precisely because God is wholly other.

    My own reading is that the language of fellowship – which is congenial to Thomas, too – best describes our participation in Christ in such a way that the distinction between Christ and the human and the consequent problem of noetic access to knowledge of the good is preserved. I think that’s actually where Barth’s concern lies – and not with the idea of mediation through priests per se. Put another way, I suspect Barth sees our participation closer to the conjunctive description of Augustine than the hierarchical description of Pseudo-Dionysius. The mediation is through all fleshly things that are given as means leading us to the one thing that is worthy of enjoyment. And so Barth is ultimately democratic, as was Hooker, and for the same theological reasons, I think.

    I am especially grateful for your description of the church’s constitution in the eucharist as hyperbolic. That entire paragraph is a treasure. And I wish I had the capacity to write it as you did.


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