Liturgy Matters - Part X
We have reached the moment in the Eucharist where we break the bread, so that it may be shared - a symbol of the broken body of Christ on the cross. As we sing the Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), we are reminded of the Passover sacrifice of the lamb, a text that connects the breaking of the bread with Christ's brokenness on the cross - Christ the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world. It becomes for us the healing of our own brokenness. We are then invited to receive both bread and wine. This is an invitation to all who are baptized - not just those who have been confirmed. This has recently been recognised once again in the Anglican Church, that baptism is entry to communion.
The history of confirmation is mostly a practical one. Traditionally, it was called 'the sealing' and took place as part of the end of the baptism, probably with an imposition of hands by the Bishop, and led straight into receiving first communion. Only after the fourth century, when Constantine's conversion to Christianity led to an explosion of the growth of the Church, and where Bishops (especially in the larger European Diocese) could no longer get round everyone immediately, did this latter part of the baptism get separated off. Gradually, the gap between baptism and the sealing / confirmation widened, so that they became two separate occasions, connected to different parts of a person's life. It is absolutely right that baptism is the entry point for receiving bread and wine, and right that this should be extended to children also (why invite the children to a meal - the Lord's Supper - and then not let them eat?!). Indeed this practice used to be common place, and always has been in the Orthodox Church, where babies are given communion on a teaspoon (hence the phrase, 'to be born with a silver spoon in one's mouth.' We ask that if you have a child who is baptized and would like to start receiving communion, please come and have a word with us, and we will talk you through it. Equally, for those adults and children who wish to come and receive a blessing instead, they may do so.
May I insert a practical plea here? It has become increasingly common for people to hold onto the wafer and dip it into the chalice, for whatever reason there might be - often it is connected with considering this to be a more hygienic way of receiving. In fact, this is not so. The high alcohol content and silver of the chalices are (purportedly!) able to counteract any unsavoury germs people are worried about! However, what is more pertinent is perhaps this: fingertips are known to be far more prolific carriers of germs, and to dip one's fingers into the cup is in fact far less hygienic than receiving directly from the cup. Dipping the wafer has become only recently something people have started to do - can I ask that you might reconsider this, and return to receiving directly from the one cup, as we have always done.
As we have been exploring the shape and meaning of the whole Eucharist service, we have seen that it is the entire service together which is important in understanding the Eucharist. Nevertheless, this is the high point of the drama. In some sense, we recognise the real presence of Christ, in the consecrated bread and wine, and therefore 'we feed on him in our hearts by faith.' There may be a prayer beforehand, recognising it is not by our own worth, but by God's grace, that Christ gives himself to us. Then we are invited to come and receive him. Michael Perham in New Handbook of Pastoral Liturgy says, 'The giving of the bread and the cup is a solemn moment of encounter with Christ. However we understand it precisely, we are sharing principally with him, renewing our participation in his death and resurrection, and receiving his life into our life.'
I have been asked various times, what are we supposed to believe when we say the bread and wine are the real presence of Christ? What does that phrase mean? I shall therefore quote at length what may be a helpful passage from the Companion to Common Worship, Come to the Feast.
'Christians have interpreted the presence of Christ in the Eucharist in a variety of ways. The presence of Christ is a sacramental presence: there is an outward and visible sign - the bread and wine - which hides the inward and spiritual grace - the body and blood of Christ, and the forgiveness of sins which that brings. From earliest times, Christians have denied that the Eucharist is a cannibalistic meal: some have held that in some way Christ is physically present under the appearance of bread and wine, and others have believed that the presence is in the hearts and minds of those who faithfully give thanks and eat and drink the bread and the wine.'
Whilst I believe that, yes, Christ is present in the Blessed Sacrament of consecrated bread and wine, you can see that there are ways you may view and approach this. We are Anglican for a reason - we live with a spectrum of views and always find a via media, a middle way, and so it is not surprising that the text goes on: 'Yet others have held positions between these. Anglicans have generally taken the view that the precise nature of the presence of Christ is a mystery, a position summed up in words attributed to both John Donne, Dean of St Paul's (1573-1631) and Queen Elizabeth l (1533 - 1603):
'Twas God the Word that spake it,
he took the bread and brake it;
And what the Word did make it,
That I believe and take it.'
The liturgy of the sacrament closes with the post communion prayer, another collect which brings together all that has just transpired, and often followed by a prayer of thanksgiving we say together.