Today we did an Instructed Eucharist. This is a normal Anglican Eucharist service, the same as we do every Sunday, but with a commentary on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. We learn about the meaning of the colours, the liturgy, our prayers, the readings, our gestures, the things on the altar, and why we do what we do.
We continue with our series on the Bread of Heaven, this week focusing on John 6:51-58. In today’s passage, Jesus dives into the deep end of his teaching so far, focusing squarely on himself as the bread of life, and calling us to eat of his flesh and drink of his blood. This is a difficult reading:
“Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.”
Jesus appears to confront us this almost cannibalistic image to make intangible spiritual truths as tangible and tactile as possible, even to the point of being gross. He is speaking of the Eucharist (communion, Lord’s Supper, Holy Mass). He wants us to understand that we obtain eternal life by filling ourselves with his presence. By making him an essential part of ourselves. Thus, eating his flesh and drinking his blood is a metaphor or image to help us grasp how seriously he wants us to allow him to fill us up spiritually and diffuse through every cell of our body and every thought of our mind.
When we let Jesus into ourselves, we have life eternal in ourselves. But if we refuse to let him in, we have no life in us. This is what he says in verses 53 and 54. When we let him in, we will have deep, lasting life and we will be raised up again to new life on the last day. He says in verse 56 that when we allow him in, he will come make his home in us. The NIV says “you remain in me and I remain in you”, but this ‘remain’ means to ‘take up dwelling in’, to ‘make your home in’. Jesus dwells in us – in our body, in our mind, in our emotions, in our spirit.
Jesus says that his flesh is real food and his blood is real drink. Some churches think of the eucharist bread and wine as symbols of his body and blood. Others think of them as actual flesh and blood. Our church thinks of them as bread and wine that have been transformed in such a way that the real presence of Christ is present in them. They are real bread and wine, and also real flesh and blood – Jesus makes himself present and available to us in these elements, so that we can feast on him. Jesus says, at the last supper, “This is my body” and “This is my blood”, yet he is sitting right there, alive and without any loss of flesh or blood. So, this middle way between symbolism and transubstantiation is the most workable way of understanding his meaning. Jesus is genuinely and actually present in the bread and wine, but the bread and wine are still bread and wine, and yet far more than just that. We call this consubstantiation, which means both substances at the same time. This is a sacrament: “An outward and visible sign (baked bread) of inward and spiritual grace (bread from heaven), given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace”.
Bruner (2012, p. 436-437) summarises his passage like this:
“Here it is; here I am; take a good look; this is it; the Great Heavenly Visit is now right here in front of you in this little space. You are very privileged to have access to this cosmic, once-in-a-lifetime event. You are looking straight at the meaning of life. This is what it is all about.”
Today is Maundy Thursday, the first of a trio of days called the ‘Triduum’, which includes Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday – the three days before Christ’s resurrection on Saturday. On Maundy Thursday evening we usually have a service that commemorates and celebrates two key events in Jesus’ life this day: the Last Supper and the washing of the disciples’ feet. These are two enormous demonstrations of the great, extravagant, generous love that Jesus has for all of humankind.
The Last Supper is a symbolic enactment of Jesus’ giving of himself to us – his body and his blood. He is about to pour himself out for humanity, and indeed for the cosmos. And so he takes and blesses bread and wine and gives them to his disciples as a metaphorical giving of himself to us, so that we have within us – which is why we consume the bread and wine – the presence of Christ.
During a Eucharist service, when I distribute the host – the body of Christ – I say the words, “Receive the body of Christ, broken for you, because he loves you.” I want people to experience that this bit of ‘bread’ is a tangible manifestation of Christ’s great love for them. Sometimes, I even press the host into the palm of their hand, until the person pushes back against me, to give an unmistakable physical experience of the presence of Jesus being pressed into their body.
The washing of the disciples’ feet speaks most clearly of Jesus’ servant attitude. He did not come to be glorified or worshiped or exalted. Rather, he came to serve. And this service is vividly demonstrated in his taking off his outer clothes, putting a towel around his waist and getting down on his knees to wash the feet of his followers. It shows again his self-giving and self-sacrificial love, and his willingness to give the whole of himself for our salvation.
In these two acts – the Last Supper and the foot washing – Jesus reminds you that he loves YOU. You who are reading this right now! Say your name out loud now ______________ and hear this message: God love you ______________ . He loves you profoundly and generously, utterly and unconditionally. Try to remember this during the rest of the day.
To help you remember, I suggest you periodically press your thumb into the palm of your other hand and think the words, “This is my body, broken for you, because I love you.”
Figuring out the Anglican communion service (known as the Holy Eucharist) can be quite a challenge, particularly for those of us who did not grow up Anglican. So many words in the prayer book, sit-stand-kneel-stand-kneel-sit and all the robes, chalices, bowing and crossing – it can leave you feeling quite overwhelmed and confused! Many of those who have been members of the Anglican church for many years have forgotten what everything means – we just do what we’ve always done, often without understanding why we’re doing what we’re doing. Many people who are not familiar with the sacramental tradition find it all far to elaborate and ritualistic – a real turn-off.
Because of this, our church decided to run an ‘instructed Eucharist’ – this is our second one. It is a regular Eucharist service (though a little trimmed down to keep it not too long) with commentary provided as we go along, to explain what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. The Anglican service offers some unique experiences of worship, different from most Protestant and charismatic churches. While it is not for everyone, it may still be interesting – even if you’re not Anglican. We are not a very ‘high’ Anglican church – just regular folk who love Jesus and who are members of a small Anglican community church.
Click here to watch a video extract of the setting up of the communion table and the prayers leading up to the Eucharist
(Apologies for the poor visuals. The original video was quite shaky. YouTube has kindly removed the shake by keeping the picture steady but moving the frame around. It’s a little odd, but at least Father Aaron is not shaking anymore!)
Thanks to Lynda Smith for the photograph of an outdoor Eucharist at our parish, held in November 2012.