The Mysterious Being of Eucharist

The first activity in which I participated as Pastor of Durand UMC actually happened before my official September 1 start date. Laurie C. invited me to accompany her and pastor Jim to Medina for the Communion Service. I have since ministered with Laurie’s team to do the memorial service and another communion service. These spaces, alongside visiting with two other church members currently tethered to their homes, have been profound in beauty, in deep self-reflection, and in formative impact on my soul.

A conviction I have – developed many years ago after understanding on a deeper plane how powerful it is to see and be seen by someone – is that if I really believe each person I interact with bears God’s image, it is on me to look.

I knew that many of these image bearers at Medina also possessed brains that were very full, while major portions become increasingly inaccessible. So my very first prayer as I walked into the communal gathering space was for God to help me see each person – really see. Questions popped into my mind such as, “what is this person like?” “how did she spend her time before coming here?” “who are the people who love him?” “what is she hearing right now and processing?” And let me tell you – when I chatted with these human beings after the first service, they came alive. Their gracious welcoming words, the gorgeous, detailed stories of life and history and Durand and the world – was breathtaking.

After last week’s service Laurie, Dee and I took the bread and cup around to several other residents – one of whom is 102 and a ½! She was ill and quite visibly in great pain. But when Laurie started telling me about her wonderful smile, she did not hesitate – she beamed, quick and bright as any child might. It was magical – she even sang with Dee (who never claims to have a gift for singing – but what a gift she brought that day!)

We met with a few other divine image-bearers, but then came to one gentleman – not a member of our church, but willing to take communion. While most residents often carry with them varying degrees of confusion due to variations on cognitive decline common in the aging process – and this lovely man displayed some of this – but as soon as I uttered the words of institution, his countenance visibly brightened, sitting taller, alert. After consuming the elements, made the sign of the cross over his torso.

The body and blood of Christ, embodied by this gorgeous human being, made visible through the sharing of the communion table.

My mother and I are always having conversations about matters of God, the church, Theology, the psychology of theology – you know, typical mother-daughter topics. Not long ago she asked about my perspective on the meaning/implications of the Eucharist (she spent growing up years in a Congregational church, then Baptist, and then for most of my time at home we were members of an Evangelical Free Church)

I was reminded of John Zizioulas’ work, Being and Communion. The event of celebrating Communion, while a distinctive element in most churches that name Jesus as the Christ, is the source of too many divisions when the question of its essence emerges. Zizioulas offers some clarity (as far as we are capable of understanding such mystery!) He begins in the beginning: “The celebration of the eucharist by the primitive Church was, above all, the gathering of the people of God…that is, both the manifestation and the realization of the Church. Its celebration on Sunday—the day of the eschata [“last, end”]—as well as all its liturgical content testified that during the eucharist, the Church did not live only by the memory of the historical fact—the Last Supper and the earthly life of Christ, including the cross and the resurrection—but it accomplished an eschatological act. It was in the eucharist that the Church would contemplate her eschatological nature, would taste the very life of the Holy Trinity; in other words she would realize [humankind’s] true being as image of God’s own being.”[1]

This is precisely what the Medina resident experienced – though of another faith tradition – one in which I would not be allowed to participate – still. He tasted the very life of the Holy Trinity, realized – accomplished, drew himself up into that true being as image of God’s own being.

Zizioulas continues: It was “an event constitutive of the being of the Church, enabling the Church to be.” So, to participate in eating the bread and drinking the wine has implications far surpassing the question of what constitutes the bread when certain words are uttered. That is, it is not merely ingesting food and drink blessed and transformed (the degree to which this occurs is a gamut too great to negotiate here). The rite profoundly evokes the very nature of Christ’s Body and transports to a single moment of all time, beginning to end. It “manifests the historical form…[i.e., “tradition”] through the life, the death and the resurrection of the Lord, as well as through the ‘form’ of bread and wine and a ‘structure’ practically unchanged since the night of the Last Supper…. [It] realizes…the continuity that links each Church to the first apostolic communities and to the historical Christ….”[2]

But, to only consider Communion in the context of history and as expressed as institution, is not “the true eucharist.” The action of the Holy Spirit during the invitation to the meal, “is not founded simply on its historical and institutional base, [rather] it dilates history and time . . .” Don’t you just love that phrasing – dilates history and time?! Our pupils dilate to accommodate dwindling light so that we can see better in the darkness; a woman’s cervix dilates so that it can accommodate an emerging human being! a precious new life birthed into existence! So the eucharist dilates history and time “to the infinite dimensions of the eschata, and it is that which forms the specific work of the Holy Spirit. The Eucharistic community makes the Church eschatological.” Isn’t that beautiful?! It dilates history and time infinitely, yet, now. It is the entire work. yet. present. It is the Kingdom—on earth.

When we gather together to participate in Communion, it is important to ponder why we continue to make the effort. We are not just performing a ritual our Book of Discipline outlines. “It manifests the Church not simply as something instituted, that is, historically given, but also as something con-stituted, that is constantly realized as an event of free communion, prefiguring [bringing into existence] the divine life and the Kingdom to come.” It eliminates the institution-event dichotomy when “Christ and history give to the Church her being, which becomes true being each time that the Spirit con-stitutes the Eucharistic community as Church…. It is not the sacrament completing the word, but rather the word becoming flesh, the risen Body of the Logos.”

The word – this has profound implications for speech. Luke 10:16 “whoever listens to you listens to me, whoever rejects you rejects me, and whoever rejects me rejects the one who sent me.” The word becoming (all things new, perpetual, ever new, becoming) flesh, the risen Body of the Logos, a taste of the very life of the Holy Trinity, it is being the life of Christ’s body, it is enabling the church into being – this Word is enabled into being in each of us. When someone listens to my words . . . what does she hear? When I speak to another person, what is communicated to him? The eucharist reminds me “eat, drink, do this remembering Jesus” that I am part of bringing into being the very life of the resurrected Christ. Do the words that come out of my mouth reflect that?

One further implication I am compelled to note. The Eucharistic community, by being Church when participating in this meal, affirms the power that Christ’s life, death and resurrection unleashed—far above all powers and dominion—and makes null the structures that creates the chasm between poor and rich, male and female, Jew and Greek. “there is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.” (Gal3:28) When we enter and participate in the Eucharistic community, we detonate a power beyond comprehension—of course, the trigger for unleashing this unfathomable power is Love.

So, I am a bit bewildered by how little impact this event has on our churches—on me. The Eucharist was given and con-stituted to prove the work of Christ in that none would be hungry or have excess. Right? When a person comes into my office seeking a food voucher, what do I see? Is he trying to “game the system,” is she trying to spin a tale to convince me she is in great need of the help? Or do I see this individual – noticing, paying attention to what is unique, seeing the beauty that makes this person human?

Communion is meant to be an example, a practice – and practice is so that we become really good at something – practice the sharing of bread and drink. God shared God’s very life, God’s being with us, created us with a fragment of God’s very image – so that we would live into being the community that is the Holy Trinity.

Yet, how often do I allow words to tumble out of my mouth that are not of Jesus – life-giving? And, do we not more often participate in extraordinarily homogenous communities? How might our honest and earnest consideration of this inform our ritual?

One phrase I heard most often when speaking with the divine image-bearers Laurie and Dee and I visited with is “it is confusing” or “sometimes I’m so confused” as she recalled a past event, tried to explain something of her family or the church. Jesus said, “do this remembering me.” Not a static, discrete moment of recollection: aha! Yes, I remember Jesus, and then moving on with the rest of my day.

Remembering – implies being active, perpetual, movement . . . corporate – together. Julian of Norwich, the 14th-century English mystic in a vision, heard Jesus say to her that he rejoices eternally because he was able to suffer for our sake out of love. That her life would become a true communion of life with those who are in need. Reflecting on her visions she writes: “Would you learn to see clearly your Lord’s meaning in this thing? Learn it well: Love was his meaning. Who showed it to you? Love…. Why did he show it to you? For Love’…. Thus I was taught that Love was our Lord’s meaning” (Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love, Chapter 86)

Today is world communion Sunday. Is it enough that we remember into being the life of Christ, of the church, of each of us – into those who live in our neighborhoods, in Durand? God, in God’s infinite capacity to Love – as the very essence and power of Love – made me, made you with a unique character of God – and then, gave an aspect of being to be enfleshed, human so that the Spirit of God could enter into, occupy the space in which we now exist, separated from God’s self, out of God’s presence and occupied the space that we understand as hell – out of God’s reach – so that I never need be out of God’s presence; so that you are never out of God’s reach; so that we can bring into being, live into the very life of the Holy Trinity – to be who we are most truly. Together.

All over the world today, the Church is asking herself in all the beautiful variety of being church – what does that mean for us? How are we to live into being, as we are remembering Jesus in this sacrament, how are we to live into being the Trinity here and beyond – together? Last Sunday, a beautiful member of this community based on some things I mentioned in the sermon recommended I read, Small Great Things, by Jodi Picoult. It’s a really great novel expertly navigating the difficult terrain of addressing prejudice and privilege – particularly for those of us who benefit just by being born in a certain location or with ones skin color or gender or brain processing. It’s about really seeing things as they are, and not just doing good things, but being a part of making things right. We’re not going to solve anything right here, right now. But I am already having amazing conversations about what you are already doing here and ideas for the future. I look forward to more conversations in the days to come.

Be a Gardener.
Dig a ditch. Toil and sweat.
And turn the earth upside down.
And seek the deepness.
And water plants in time.
Continue this labor.
And make sweet floods to run,
and noble and abundant fruits to spring.
Take this food and drink,
and carry it to God as your true worship.
–Julian of Norwich

[1]John D. Zizioulas, Being as Communion (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985). 21.

[2]Ibid., 22.

Zizioulas, John D. Being as Communion. Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1985.