Real Presence

Yesterday I booked air tickets for Luisa and I, and our boys, to fly to Perth to be with our family for Christmas.  It will be the first time that I have seen some of my family for a couple of years, and so we are all looking forward to the time which we will have together.

Whenever my family gathers for a meal it feels a little like a multi-faith dialogue conference. My Grandmother, once an Anglican in the Church of Ireland now aligns herself more with the Salvation Army. My step father, born a Jew, and then a Seventh Day Adventist Minister is now an agnostic philosopher. My aunt is a lapsed Baptist.  One side of my family have retained their Jewish heritage, whilst parts of the other are largely indifferent to religious beliefs.  Some members have joined and indeed been ordained in a modern denomination which tries to link Catholicism with Science, and Luisa and I represent the living Anglican tradition at the table.  A friend who joined us for dinner when we were still living in Perth commented afterwards that it was like being at a meeting of the Parliament of World Religions, and we certainly enjoy as a family all the debate and discussion which goes on. It is always good to be together, and it is especially good to be together for meals.

Eating and drinking are essential for our living – whether for humans, or for animals.  But in human living they are more than necessities. We can satisfy our hunger by hurriedly eating a McDonalds Extra Value Meal as we run from one activity to another, but whilst that may fill our stomachs, it will certainly do little else for us.  We eat together with our family and our friends, we share meals together as a Church because eating and drinking are essentially social activities. Eating and drinking together cement our friendships, and strengthen our sense of community.  That is why we have festive meals, birthday parties and wedding banquets.  Taking time to eat together and to be with each other is a sign of the value which we place on community.

Food and drink feature largely in human life,  and so they feature too in the Bible, indeed Biblical meals normally have a special significance. When Jesus eats with people, he turns water into wine, he welcomes those un-welcomed by the rest of society, (like the tax collectors) and he teaches his disciples.   That “special significance” is true not only in the New Testament but in the Jewish Bible (the Old Testament) as well.

Today the Church gives us the Festival of Corpus Christi to focus especially on a meal which spans the Old and the New Testaments, and which continues in our worshipping lives Sunday by Sunday.  The words “Corpus Christi” mean “the Body of Christ,” and in our Anglican calendar we more properly call this festival, “Thanksgiving for Holy Communion.”  It is one day in the year when we deliberately set aside time to focus on the Holy Communion which we experience each Sunday as the Sacred Meal of the Eucharist is celebrated here.

For some Christians the Last Supper, the Eucharist, the Mass, is so important that it is celebrated every day. For others it is so important that it is celebrated just once a year.  In the churches of some of our Protestant brothers and sisters the Holy Communion is never celebrated without the washing of each other’s feet, (that symbolic act which we encounter in our liturgy on Maundy Thursday,  Which reminds us that at the first Holy Communion, the one celebrated by Jesus himself, the washing of feet was an intricate part of what went on). We have lost something by breaking the connection between those two symbols.

At that first Last Supper, Jesus performed with ordinary food and drink an act of Jewish prophetic symbolism. The bread he took and broke was himself: he was to be given as a sacrifice on the cross for the whole world. The wine in the cup was his life blood: it was to be poured out for all humanity on that cross.  Jesus dramatically enacted his death in advance, and told the disciples what it meant, so that they would be prepared for it.  He took an old Jewish meal and transformed it into an act which looked not to the past, but to the future.  He taught through the bread and the cup, (signs of his body and blood) that he was being offered as a sacrifice that would inaugurate a new covenant, a new relationship between God and the disciples.  Eating the bread and drinking the wine meant that they would have a share in what he did and who he was.

The bread was his body – himself. The wine was his blood – his life – and all those who shared in that body and blood, were to share as well in the Kingdom of his Father.  The disciples of Jesus went on eating and drinking together after his death. But once a week, on the first day of the week – the day of the resurrection – they met to eat and drink specifically in remembrance of him, to proclaim his death and its meaning.  They took bread and wine, gave thanks to God over them for all that Jesus had done, and all that he meant, and shared them in a ritual meal.  At first they called it the Lord’s Supper, because they met in the evening. Soon they called it the Eucharist, which means the thanksgiving, (as we do today), because the prayer that they said over the bread and wine on Sunday morning was a thanksgiving for all that God had done for them in creation and redemption, and continued to do in their common life together.

Their sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving was given material form in bread and wine, symbols which they had inherited from their Jewish tradition, but which in some way also looked a little like the body and blood of which they spoke.  They offered these gifts to God in prayer and in remembrance of the sacrifice which Jesus had offered.   They ate the broken bread and drank the cup of wine, not as ordinary food and drink, but as the body and blood of Christ: the names which Jesus himself had given them the night before he died.  Christians have gone on eating the bread, the body of Christ, and drinking the wine, his blood, as the central act of Christian worship.  We are not, of course, cannibals – although in the early centuries of the Church’s life its enemies accused it of eating slices of murdered baby and drinking human blood.

So what, then, do we mean when we say we receive in Holy Communion the body and blood of Christ?  Christians have disagreed, and still do disagree, about the meaning.  For some of us there will be a belief that  the bread and the wine are in a very real way transformed into the body and blood of Christ.  When we celebrate the Mass together what appears to be bread is actually Christ’s body, and what appears to be wine will become his blood: transubstantiation.   For others of us there will be a belief that the gifts on the altar as we celebrate the Eucharist together, will remain bread and wine but God will be present around them in a special way which is different from how God is present everywhere else in the world.  The bread and the wine will be surrounded by God in a most holy and different way: consubstantiation.  The third broad group of ways of understanding the Lord’s Supper, the Holy Communion, (which again some of us here will hold), is that there is nothing special or different about the bread and the wine on the altar except that they become a symbol for us, a reminder for us of all that God’s love in Jesus has done for us: they serve as a memorial for us, as we remember the life of Christ.

Within our Anglican tradition all of those views, and beliefs, have been embraced and rejected by different groups at different times. Within this Diocese there are similarly a broad range of approaches to our Eucharistic worship, which is sometimes signalled in whether we use phrases like “The Lord’s Supper,” or “Holy Communion” or “Holy Eucharist,” or “The Mass;” and all of those terms are used in different Anglican congregations in this Diocese.  As Anglicans we generally believe (whichever way we specifically talk about it) in the experience of the “real presence.”  In some sense we encounter Christ in the consecrated bread and wine in a different way from the encounter we have when we eat normal food. There is a depth of encountering the presence of God which is contained in and around, (or hidden in and around )the bread and the wine.

Last weekend Luisa and I were fortunate enough to be invited to, and to attend, an outdoor performance of “Jesus Christ Superstar” in one of the vineyards at the lower end of the Hunter Valley. It was a cold and blustery night, and at one stage we all (including the performers ) had to run for cover because of the rain. But it was a stirring performance.  Whether you listen to classical music, or jazz or country or pop – whatever style it is – you know that there is a sort of quantum leap between listening to a CD of that music or being a part of a live event.  It does not matter how good your music player is at home, whether you have enhanced speakers or surround sound facilities, no CD will parallel the experience of a live performance.  When you are in the same place as performers, who are making music – live – for you, as I was last weekend, you know that you are not listening to a recording.  Presence is important. We know, do we not, when we are being present to other people.  If we just think about our community here for a moment, we know those people who will be present to us in conversation after the service this morning and those who won’t.

So when we talk about presence, we know what it means: and it means the same thing when we talk about Christ’s presence with us in Holy Communion.  We might disagree about the theological mechanics of how it happens, but we believe (as Anglicans) that Christ will be “really present” with us in our Eucharist today. Really present, like live music, and open conversation, and not “nearly present” like a recording, or a conversation which just goes through the motions.  But we need to remember too, that the Eucharist is not just something that happens on the altar, it happens in each of us – we are the body and the life blood of Christ. Every Sunday we say together that we the Church are the body of Christ (we will say it again this morning).  Whatever we might believe happens around the altar, the most important thing about the real presence of Christ as we break bread together, is that that real presence is not in some magical way just around the table, it is supremely in us.  And that means that if we cannot find the strength through anything else to be truly present to ourselves and to each other, we can find that ability here in our worship.

It is precisely for this reason that in the 1960s altars and priests moved places in the Eucharist. After the Second Vatican Council, (almost overnight for our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters) priests were instructed to turn around and to move altars forward so that they faced the people.  At the heart of that liturgical move was a reminder,(a correction to previous Church theology)that now saw the people as central to the Eucharist, and not merely the priest and the holy things on the altar.  Christ’s real presence in us as we break bread together gives us the freedom to be true to ourselves, and to be truly present to one another, really present to one another’s joys and sorrows and needs.  The real presence is not just focused around the bread and wine, it is by the Holy Spirit of God, revived and renewed in each one of us.  The love of God – really present in us – means that we can in turn be really present to each other, and not just to each other here in the Church but to our neighbours and work colleagues as well.

On this great Festival of Corpus Christi we give thanks for the Holy Communion which we share each week, not just with God through the bread and the wine, but with each other, through the real presence of the Holy Spirit at work in each one of us.  At this and at every celebration of the Lord’s Supper around the world today Christ will be truly present in the body of his Church.  The challenge for us is that whilst that same presence renews and revives us at this holy meal, this is not a private affair, God is not just present to keep our club going, for our own sake.

Christ will be truly present at our Eucharist to drive us back into the world, where we are called to be truly present to ourselves, and to each other, and to the needs of those around us.

Be present, be really present Jesus Christ our great High Priest, as you have been present with your Church throughout the centuries. And make yourself known to us at this holy celebration in the breaking of the bread and in the wine.  Amen.