Acts 2:14a, 36-41; Ps 116: 1-3, 10-17; I Peter 1:17-23; Luke 24:13-35
I was in my final year of seminary the day the planes crashed into the World Trade Center. Once we had taken it in, my classmates and I moved around in a kind of daze. The world for which we had been trained — safe, fat, predictable — had fallen to dust, and we felt remarkably unprepared for the world into which we were actually to be sent. We held each other; we cried, at lot; we prayed. We opened ourselves to the brokenness in our parishes and in our selves.
And then, a few weeks later, a few of my friends and I decided to go apple picking. It was a perfect fall day, the sky so blue it seemed a new kind of light. We moved among the gnarled trees, gently debating merits of McIntosh and McCoun. When we had gathered enough — more than enough, really — we went back to my friend April’s apartment where we cooked a feast together: apple sauce, acorn squash stuffed with sausage and apples, and my friend Christie’s first-ever apple pie. As we gathered around the table, we could feel the damage dropping away. It’s not that the losses were no longer real; it’s that they were, somehow, no longer the only thing — not even the biggest thing. Alongside the loss, there was community, friendship, laughter, beauty, innocence — the grace of gathering at a table with people we loved. And as we broke bread and shared stories and looked on one another’s faces, we knew it was going to be all right, somehow. There was Someone Else at the table, someone we could not see with our eyes, but whose Presence all of us felt in our hearts. We were not alone in this new reality, and we never would be.
Maybe you’ve had a meal like that, one in which the ordinary goodness of being with people you love suddenly deepened into sacrament, into a sign of the presence of God in your life. I hope you have. For myself, that dinner was Emmaus — that mysterious evening after the horror of the crucifixion and the strange rumors of resurrection when a few disciples broke bread in the presence of stranger and realized that there was a way to go on. That the death of Christ did not define their world — or, that it did not define their world alone. Alongside loss, there was presence, mystery, resurrection, new life — a new and shocking way of being intimate with God.
That presence is what we now celebrate as Eucharist — a ritual so simple and frequent that it is easy to overlook the wonder of it. Yesterday, on Earth Day, we were invited to consider the necessity of what is wild in this world: the forests, the oceans, the wetlands, the undomesticated creatures of this world which, in ways we are only now beginning to understand, sustain the areas of life which we had foolishly thought were under our control. Eucharist is God untamed. Rebecca Solnit describes art as “the woodlands of the psyche, the unexploited portion, preserving the diversity, the complexity, the systems of renewal, the larger whole.” (“In Praise Of,” Orwell’s Roses) I would say the same of Communion: it is the quiet mystery which makes us whole. It is the mystery which makes the world whole.
Oceans of ink have been spilled trying to explain what happens in Communion, and each tradition has its own theory: transubstantiation, consubstantiation, impanation, a memorial meal…you name it; someone has thunk it. And because the Anglican Church includes people from a wide variety of spiritual heritages, a range of understandings is always present when we gather. Nevertheless, the Anglican Church does have its own teaching, and it’s one that I love. It’s called Real Presence. At a time when the nations of Europe were tearing one another apart on the battlefield to determine (in part) which understanding of our faith would have dominion, the Anglican divines pulled back from the fray to focus on what Christ had actually commanded: he commanded us to love one another. And so, instead of focusing on one mechanism or another for Christ’s presence in the sacrament, the church teaches us to honor that Presence as mystery. We are to believe that Christ is really present in the sacrament; that Christ is there for us; and to accept that God’s ways transcend our understanding. We are encouraged to approach Christ’s Presence not with logic, but with reverence. We accept that some things exceed the grasp of our reason; that love is primary among those things; and that, faced with Christ’s offering of himself in bread and wine and in the person of our neighbor, the most faithful response is to welcome him and to adore.
In choosing bread and wine as the means of his presence, Christ honors our full, incarnate humanity. As embodied people, we need to eat and to drink — and we need more. We need the beauty, justice, song, and friendship which keep our souls alive. And that works in both directions. It is possible to fight for justice and still to be cold and hungry; it is possible to eat three meals a day in warmth and safety, and for your soul to become a withered husk.
Perhaps that is why Communion is such a strange meal: You could eat those wafers by the handful, and they would not contain enough calories to keep your body and soul together if you were starving. This is non-utilitarian eating — and in its apparently uselessness, it gestures toward the More — all those non-utilitarian things which make and keep us human. During the Spanish Civil War, when soldiers on all sides were filthy and starving, apparently the Communist soldiers used to psych out their opponents by pretending they were eating better than the Fascists. They’d call out, “We’re eating buttered toast over here! Buttered toast!” (Solnit, “Buttered Toast,” Orwell’s Roses) It wasn’t true, but for me, their cry points toward the ways feeding can be so evocative. “Buttered toast” summons up an image, not just of food, but of home and comfort, of cups of tea on a rainy afternoon, just as, in another culture, “fresh chapati!” might conjure not just the scent of charring flour, but the murmur of aunties laughing in the kitchen.
But Communion is about more than memories: it is about reality itself — reality as pervaded by the grace of God and sustained only by divine mercy. When Christ said, “This is my body, given for you,” he was not using metaphor. He said what was true. Sister Wendy Beckett writes, “there [on the altar] we have Jesus giving himself totally to the Father and taking us with him. Then we can almost see, acted out before us, what the Spirit is trying to effect in our depth” – that is, our own unconditional offering of ourselves to God, allying ourselves with what is real in this world, with what it true and life-giving and substantial, so that we, too, may give life. (Sister Wendy, “Simple Prayer”)
St. Peter writes, “You have been born anew, not of perishable but of imperishable seed, through the living and enduring word of God.” (I Peter 1:23) He was speaking of baptism as a genuine rebirth, and the Eucharist is the imperishable bread which feeds us in our growth. Beckett calls us to “immers[e] our poverty in the strong, objective prayer of the” Eucharist. “Objective,” because sacraments are a way of praying with objects: the bread and wine are not dispensable — but “objective,” too, because Christ is objectively present. It’s not just something we believe; it’s the one place in creation where we can reliably say we actually touch the presence of God.
This presence frees us and heals our souls and sustains us and gives us grace; it also changes us. If our central rite is a claim that God is deeply invested in the things of this world, then we must invest ourselves, too, if we are to grow into the likeness of God. We cannot eat the bread of Christ and remain indifferent to the hunger of others; we cannot remember his crucifixion without being aware of how many in our own time are bound to crosses which take an appalling variety of forms. We cannot bless wheat and grapes without being mindful of the earth and of the hands which grew them. God’s love active and concrete in the Eucharist is a summons to make our own love active and tangible. As St. Peter urges us, “Now that [we] have purified [our] souls by … obedience to the truth so that [we] have genuine mutual love, [let us] love one another deeply from the heart.’ (I Peter 1:22)
Each week, we kneel or stand by our neighbors to receive Christ’s body and blood. We stretch out our hands, not knowing what God will place in them: the bread of hope or of affliction, the wine of tragedy or of joy. And we do not know what is in the heart of our neighbor, either; we may not even know their name. And yet, we come in trust, and we come together. Could anything be more like life? Open your hands, take the life that is Christ, and live.