Project Canterbury

The Touch of Christ: Lectures on the Christian Sacraments

By Granville Mercer Williams, S.S.J.E.
Rector of St. Paul's Church, Brooklyn, New York

New York: Edwin S. Gorham, 1928.

Chapter V. The Holy Eucharist

WE are baptized but once, but again and again we come in Holy Communion to receive the very gift of God Himself in the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar. It is not due to any depreciation of Baptism, it is not due to any lack of veneration for the august Sacrament whereby we are made members of Christ, children of God and inheritors of the Kingdom of heaven, that Christians feel and know that in the Holy Eucharist we achieve and experience a growing knowledge of the wonder and beauty of Christ's presence, "different from that which is found in any other sacrament." [Quick: "The Christian Sacraments," p. 187.]

The bitter controversies which have centered both about the Sacrament of the Altar and the nature of the Sacramental presence we may hope and pray are passing away, as men of good will seek to "taste and see how gracious the Lord is," rather than justify some purely arbitrary view of how and when God should give to men His gifts of grace. It is in a spirit of reverent awe and love that we should approach this subject, in the same spirit which surrounded that last sad meal, when Jesus looking forward to His shameful death on the Cross instituted what He termed the New Covenant; and took the bread, and gave thanks and break it, declaring it to be His Body, and took the cup and gave thanks, and gave it to them, declaring it to be His Blood.

In considering Holy Communion, I should like to begin by setting before you words from two different sources which are not what we might expect a priori.

The first are the words of the Roman Catholic Lorenzo Scupoli, taken from his wonderful book, The Spiritual Combat, written in 1589 and approved by many generations of great Catholic theologians and saints. Scupoli accepted, it need hardly be said, all the official Roman teaching in regard to the Eucharist, yet when he came to expound the value of Spiritual Communion, that is to say Communion accomplished by an act of love and longing apart from any reception of sacramental Communion at all, he could write: "Spiritual Communion may be even more advantageous to us and acceptable to God than many Sacramental Communions, when the latter are received with imperfect disposition. As often then as you shall dispose yourself and prepare for spiritual Communion, you will find the Son of God ready to give Himself with His own Hands to you for your spiritual food."

And then on the other side, I should like to report some words uttered at the Lausanne Conference of 1927 by Pastor Wilfred Monod, Honorary President of the National Union of Reformed Churches in France. Here is a man who stands poles apart from Catholic tradition, yet hear him speak!--"Huguenot by tradition, brought up in the Reformed Church of France, a disciple of Calvin, of Zwingli, even in the actual domain of the spirit of George Fox, unfaltering in my filial devotion to them, I grow, nevertheless, more sensible of the value of the Sacrament. . . . "The Aspects of the Holy Supper are innumerable. All the summits of the Christian faith are reflected in the Sacrament as a circle of mountains in an Alpine lake. In the region of mystery it finds the highest mystical faith. It nourishes the social ideal of the prophet. Lastly, in the moral sphere, it furnishes a constant call to the pardon of sin, to purity, to courage, to the spirit of sacrifice. It exercises a firm discipline on thought and conduct. Revival meetings and sermons of awakening will become less important in any parish where the flesh and blood of the Holy Sacrament circulate silently from family to family and from soul to soul." [Quoted by Sir Henry Lunn in "The Review of the Churches," vol. iv, pp. 509, 510.]

The Eucharist has its roots and its origin in the words and actions of Jesus in the Upper Room on the last night before his betrayal and death. We have considered and rejected reasons which some scholars advance for divorcing the Sacrament from Jesus, and making it a mere heathen importation into Christianity. Taking its roots in the Jewish Berakha, the "blessing" or rather thanksgiving to God which was uttered in Jewish households before partaking of any food, connected with the sacrifice on Calvary by the inherent symbolism of the broken bread and outpoured wine and the words by which our Lord identified it with the New Covenant which was to displace the ancient sacrifices of the Jewish religion, it developed in meaning and significance as Christians came in time to recognize the meaning and significance of Him who had instituted it, even Jesus Christ. Judaism and Jesus are a sufficient explanation of the Eucharist. [Frank Gavin: "The Jewish Antecedents of the Christian Sacraments," pp. 113, 114.] By this act Jesus himself invested His coming death with that redemptive and sacrificial significance, which was fully to be realized by His followers only after He had passed into the heavens. "This is my body which is broken for you." "This cup is the new covenant in my blood." "This is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many." It was an acted parable, pregnant with meaning. It gave the key to the tragedy of the morrow. It transformed a sordid execution into a sacrifice for sin. It pointed to the glory of the Cross.

And it was no mere empty symbol. It was intended to be, as it became, a means whereby the followers of Jesus through the ages could re-present to themselves and before God, that "full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world." The Eucharist is preeminently the Christian Sacrifice. As early as the end of the First Century the prophecy of Malachi, which foretold that among the Gentiles "in every place incense and a pure oblation should be offered," was applied to the Christian Eucharist. The mystical, sacramental, but real identification made by Jesus Himself between the gifts and creatures of bread and wine and the broken Body and outpoured Blood of Calvary, caused the Christian at the Eucharist to be mystically present at Calvary itself.

"The Cross of Christ on Calvary, which was to the Jews an offence and to the Gentiles foolishness, shines out before the eyes of the faithful. 'As often as ye eat of this bread and drink of this cup, ye do shew the Lord's death till he come.' (I Cor. xi, 26) This 'showing' is not merely a praising and glorifying in words, but a dramatic setting forth and rendering present of the sacrifice of Calvary. Yea more, it is a partaking in that suffering and that crucifixion. The Pauline passion-mysticism is not confined to the individual experience of the Christian, but has its place also in the cultus. Ignatius of Antioch (c no A. D.) gives unambiguous testimony to the cultural passion-mysticism of early Christianity. He sees, set up in the Eucharist, ... an altar of sacrifice; there takes place for him ... a real sharing of the suffering and dying of Christ. It was from this cross-and-passion mysticism associated with the Eucharist that Christians drew the strength to endure cruel martyrdom. To die the martyr death is nothing less than to drink 'the cup of the Lord,' to become, 'the pure bread of Christ.' Even as the eucharistic celebration is an inward and mystical dying with Christ, so, conversely, a real dying for Christ is the celebration of a eucharistic sacrifice." [Friedrich Heiler, "The Spirit of Worship," p. 33, 34.]

This profound evaluation of the meaning of the eucharistic sacrifice in the Early Church from the pen of the distinguished Lutheran theologian, Frederich Heiler, offers us a guide to a true grasp of this mystery. The primary significance of the eucharistic sacrifice lies precisely in its identification with Calvary, an identification suggested by our Lord's own words, a dramatic showing-forth of the Lord's death. But for the benefits of that sacrifice to reach us, for the sacrifice to be effective for us, there must come with the pleading of that sacrifice an offering of "ourselves, our souls and bodies," a readiness to recognize the call to take up the Cross, a desire to give ourselves and not to spare, a willingness to lay down, if need be, even our lives for Christ's sake. It is this double aspect of the sacrifice, the pleading and re-presentation of Calvary, and the offering of ourselves along with and because of this, that forever prevents the genuine Catholic doctrine of the Sacrifice of the Mass from being superstitious, or capable in any sense of being termed a "blasphemous fable" or a "dangerous deceit."

As Jesus Himself was responsible for the belief among Christians of the reality of the eucharistic Sacrifice, so too it was the words of our Lord which are responsible for the belief in the Real Presence of Jesus in the Holy Sacrament of the Altar. It was He who took the bread and wine and said, "This is my body," "This is my blood." The faith of Christians has discovered and knows that those words are very truth.

"Word made Flesh, by word he maketh
Very bread his Flesh to be,
Man in wine Christ's blood partaketh:
And if senses fail to see,
Faith alone the true heart maketh
To behold the mystery."
[St. Thomas Aquinas.]

For the presence is a mystery. It is not a material presence, it is a spiritual presence. It is not vouchsafed to the senses, it is manifested to the believing heart. It is not the less real because it is spiritual. We may apply to the presence of Jesus in the Holy Eucharist, the words which the Apostle Paul uses in another connection, "We look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal, but the things which are not seen are eternal."

Already before any of the Gospels were Written, St. Paul had reminded his converts that the cup of the Eucharist is "a partaking of the blood of Christ," and the bread of the Eucharist is "a partaking of the body of Christ," that to eat or drink unworthily is to be "guilty of the body and blood" and that he who eats and drinks "without discerning the body," "eats and drinks judgment." St. Ignatius of Antioch at the end of the first decade of the Second Century describes the Eucharist as "the flesh of our Saviour Jesus Christ, which suffered on behalf of our sins, which the Father in his goodness raised." St. Justin Martyr, writing at Rome about the year 150, tells us that the Christians of his time have been taught to regard the Holy Sacrament as "both the flesh and the blood of the Jesus who was made flesh." These words and others like them, for quotations might be multiplied, and above all the words used by our Lord Himself are the charter of our belief that the bread and wine of the Eucharist do indeed become, as He declared them to be, His Body and His Blood.

To go further, and enter into a detailed examination of various later theories as to how our Lord thus comes to be in His Sacrament would take us too far afield and cannot be attempted. There are theories of "virtualism," "consubstantiation," "transvaluation," "transmutation," "transubstantiation," and many more. Of these, perhaps it might be well to speak briefly only of the latter, since it is the official teaching of the Church of Rome and the term has also been accepted by the Orthodox Churches of the East. The principal objection to the use of the term "transubstantiation" in my opinion, is that it suggests to the average hearer the very doctrine of the Real Presence which it does not teach. For substance to most of us means stuff,--matter. We say that a thing has "not much substance," we mean it lacks stuff. So when we are told that the doctrine of transubstantiation teaches "that the whole substance of the bread and wine is transformed into the substance of the Body and Blood of Christ," we seem to be dealing with a gross and carnal idea of the Presence of Christ in the Sacrament, an idea which easily gives rise to "many superstitions." It was this carnal idea of the presence of Christ in the Holy Sacrament, which gave birth to many repulsive stories of mediaeval "miracles" of bleeding hosts and other similar manifestations, which can and ought to have nothing to do with the presence of the glorified Christ in His Sacrament.

But we ought also to remember that the Roman Catholic and Orthodox Churches in using the term "transubstantiation" do not intend to teach any such erroneous views. The substance of the bread and wine which becomes the body and blood of Christ, is "substance" in the terms of the Aristotelian logic; it is the altogether intangible and basic reality lying behind all the outward and tangible and material "accidents" manifested to our senses. "It is entirely clear," writes the cautious Anglican, Canon Quick of Carlisle, "That . . . Anglican objections [to a doctrine of transubstantiation] ... do not hold against the strict theory of Trans-substantiation elaborated by the schoolmen, perfected by St. Thomas Aquinas, and made by the Council of Trent the basis of the official teaching of the Roman Church. For in this theory it is made abundantly clear (1) that the Body and Blood of Christ are not present in the Sacrament, either as in any way occupying space, or according to their proper and natural mode of being; and (2) that the consecrated elements do truly retain every reality of bread and wine which it is possible for any bodily sense to perceive, and that therefore the appearance of bread and wine are in no sense illusory or deceitful." [Quick: "The Christian Sacraments," p. 250.] Both charity and truth require that, whatever our own opinions, we should recognize that no Christian Church today teaches any but a presence of Christ in the Sacrament which is truly real because truly spiritual.

It is sometimes urged against those of us who believe in the reality of Jesus' presence with His people in the Holy Sacrament that such a belief has a harmful effect in causing us to forget His presence elsewhere in His universe, and especially His abiding presence in our hearts. The only possible answer to this is to assert as strongly as we can that indeed it is not so.

"When men shall say to thee: Lo! Christ is here,
When men shall say to thee: Lo! Christ is there,
Believe them: yea and this--then art thou seer
When all thy crying clear Is but:
Lo here! lo there!--ah me, lo everywhere"

The author of those lines was a man who believed mightily in the Blessed Sacrament, the author of those lines was a man who valued greatly the precious truth of the Real Presence of Jesus in His Sacrament, the author of those lines was a Roman Catholic--Francis Thompson!

It is because of the Real Presence of Jesus, because of the mystic Sacrifice of Jesus in the Eucharist, that the devout soul finds the consummation of her eucharistic joys in receiving the Communion of the Body and Blood of Christ. Holy Communion is first of all communion with one another, it is the Sacrament of Brotherhood. Christians may still be outwardly divided, it may not be, and is not yet possible for all of us to partake of the Sacred Gifts at a common earthly altar, but as we receive the Sacrament we are lifted in our partaking from earth to heaven, we pass to the altar on high, and are joined to all the great family of God, to all the Holy ones gone before us, to all faithful Christians in every corner of the world. It is John Keble who sings:--

"No distance breaks the tie of blood.
Brothers are brothers evermore,
Nor wrath nor wrong of deadliest mood
That magic may o'erpower.
Oft, ere the common source be known
The Kindred drops will claim their own
And throbbing pulses silently
Move heart towards heart by sympathy.
So is it with true Christian hearts;
The mutual share in Jesus' blood
An everlasting bond imparts
Of holiest brotherhood.

It is the Sacrament of Brotherhood, but it is also the very gift of God Himself. It is Jesus Who comes to us in all His might and power and love and tenderness. Sometimes we may sensibly feel and know His coming. Sometimes all will be dark, the path thorny, His presence as it were hid from our spiritual eyes. Yet still we come and will continue to come to this Divine trysting place, for He has told us that He will meet us there, and His Word is true.

"Author of life divine,
Who hast a table spread,
Furnished with mystic Wine
And everlasting Bread.
Preserve the life thyself hast given,
And feed and train us up for heaven,

Our needy souls sustain
With fresh supplies of love,
Till all thy life we gain,
And all thy fulness prove,
And, strengthened by thy perfect grace,
Behold, without a veil, thy face.'"
(Charles Wesley)

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