Wednesday, May 22, 2013
An Ecumenical view on Churches view of Eucharist: A critical discussion .
This paper is an attempt at looking at the Eucharist, its meaning and relevance for the church today. How relevant is the Eucharist when seen from the view of various churches? Is the Eucharist which is supposed to unite Christians also the divisive element among churches and people? What then is the future of the Eucharist in the context of the changing needs of the church in India? How should churches change in their view of the Eucharist and what changes should be made in the Eucharist so that both churches and the Eucharist complement each other?
“The Holy Eucharist is a sacrament and a sacrifice. In the Holy Eucharist, under the appearances of bread and wine, the Lord Christ is contained, offered, and received.”1 Furthermore “The Sacrament of Communion is a Holy Sacrament by which the believer eats the Holy Body and Precious Blood of Jesus Christ, presented by the Bread and Wine. This Sacrament has the greatest importance among the Seven Church Sacraments. It is sometimes called the ‘Mystery of Mysteries’ or the ‘Crown of Sacraments’; for all the Sacraments are crowned by the Eucharist.”2
How the Eucharist is interpreted
Eucharist is the Lord’s table or the coming together of people around the Lord’s table commemorating the event of the sharing of bread and wine by Jesus Christ with his disciples. The event is also given importance because it is about the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ. The commemoration present in the verse “Do this in remembrance of me” suggests that we have to come together and partake of the elements (the body and blood) to be one in Christ. In the early church there was an understanding that “Thus the bread and wine in the celebration actually united the participant to Christ and to all true Christians. In this way, the eucharist not only symbolized but actually effected the unity of Christians in Christ. Participation in the eucharist, therefore, was the appropriate ritual of adherence to the unity of the church. Those who refused to accept the behavioral obligations which accompanied eucharistic fellowship were outside the church and would be excluded from the kingdom of heaven.”3
Eucharist also suggests a faith proclamation or expression whereby the church declares what it believes and how it believes. The dogma or teaching of the church is expressed clearly and the eucharist forms a clear form of this expression. In this sense the eucharist is a clarity of where one stands (which side of the fence) and what one is prepared to do. The eucharist has become limiting because it is now institutionalized in and therefore only available within gated communities or denominations. What was earlier available in open, free spaces (as in the feeding of the four thousand and five thousand) is now available in limited spaces which are not fit for such eucharist events. Philip Sheldrake explains this phenomenon and says “The trouble is that some versions of a theology of spirituality of the Eucharist concentrate on building up the community of the Church in and for itself. In this case the Eucharist ends up as the celebration of the spiritual equivalent of the well secured “gated communities”…”4 He further says “To live eucharistically beyond the church doors commits us to cross the boundaries of fear and prejudice in an embrace of strangers in the public square in whom we are challenged to recognize the Real Presence of God.”5 In a positive way Eucharist is also a celebration or coming together whereby the people who belong to a particular group or community commune together to celebrate the oneness they possess and the one they believe in. This is a celebration of their history, tradition, story, and growth.
Eucharist is a food for the way whereby church members are given strength to do good and profess their mission statement to the world. The eucharist becomes a great opportunity whereby the people are called forth to do this good by being part of a community of faith. “Whoever eats My Flesh and drinks My Blood has eternal life and I will raise him up at the last day. He who eats this Bread will live forever”6 As food develops the body and keeps it healthy, so too the spiritual food, which is the Holy Body and Blood of Christ, strengthens the soul so that it may grow continually in grace. “It provides remedy to the soul, body and spirit, as we say in the Offertory Mystery: “That they (Holy Body and Precious Blood) may become to us all for participation and healing and salvation for our souls, bodies and our spirits”.7
Eucharist is a memory. Memory can be selective but it is still memory. It is a memory of what has happened. This memory is kept alive so that no one forgets what happened and how we are linked to that. It is a memory that Jesus Christ lived, died and resurrected for us. This has been initiated into our collective memory and the eucharist keeps this memory fresh and alive by making us repeat what we have learnt as children. It is also a memory of the sacrifice through protest of Christ and the similar protests that are present in our own society. The Eucharist becomes a time when we then link the past, present and future through this memory.8
The eucharist is also associated with food and with the great commission of sharing food. Limited means are not the problem but the mind to share what we have makes the eucharist a beautiful act which teaches us that poverty and hunger are human made and not natural. It also teaches us that Christians are called to do away with poverty and hunger and not accentuate it and increase it. Those of us who think that poverty and hunger are not the concern of the church have got the commitment and call of the church totally wrong. One has to therefore know that the act of the eucharist strengthens us to do good and this meal for the way keeps us in the path of goodness. It gives us the promise of eternal life : It provides growth in the Spirit and spiritual perfection and life in Jesus Christ, for He said: “For My Flesh is food indeed and My Blood is drink indeed .... As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me”.9 Jesus was quite explicit with this attitude to share. “When people do come together for a meal, it’s not just to nourish their bodies but to enjoy each other’s company, to build up their relationships, to share what’s been happening in their lives. Food gives life, so the sharing of food is the sharing of life. Jesus invites us to share in his divine life when we accept the sacred food he provides for us. Jesus ate meals with people of all levels of society though he showed a preference for eating with the lowest classes. Not only was this most unusual it was breaking one of the strict taboos of Jewish culture.”10 Monika Hellwig says that “The simple, central action of the Eucharist is the sharing of food- not only eating but sharing.”11
Church and churches in India
The church is a gathering of people who belong to a subscribed faith proclamation. The gathering will be a part of what the group stands for and is a visible union of people. The church also suggests that there is but one church and therefore divisions are not part of this. It also means that there is an attempt to make the church as part of a visible union and all people are brought under this union with or without their permission. The usage of church also suggests that there is a union of different people and communities who are in different places and under different cultures. The usage then could be misleading and will cause a misunderstanding as to what the church actually means. It could also be that several denominations will use it very loosely but actually only mean the existence of their own denominational church.
Churches on the other hand suggest and explicitly state that there are not one but several churches. This could also mean that every church has truth present but will also have things which may not be accepted by other churches. This means that there are several representations of one truth. Just like we try to get an inter-religious understanding of life, we then try to get an inter-denomination, ecumenical view of life. It is also argued whether the churches come under the church.12
Churches in India are divided into the mainline, traditional, ritualistic, free, protestant, Orthodox, Catholic, Pentecostal, free and various other groupings.13 Some accept others unconditionally, conditionally and in and for certain things. In many cases a total coming together and working with each other happens in the time of some sort of persecution from other religions or from the government in the form of any legislation or special measure being followed. Each church then has its own set of beliefs, traditions, liturgy and Eucharistic model. Each church has its own understanding of the nature of the bread and wine during the eucharist and its transformation and the extent of the transformation. Every church also then has the case of acceptance in which some condition is put forth to be a part of the eucharist undertaking whereby the body and blood of Christ is given and shared on the completion of a particular clause. The belief in the nature of the bread and wine and its transformation into the body and blood of Christ itself forms a basis of division instead of unity between churches. This division is played out very strongly in the case of different churches where this becomes a very emotive and strong case of how people understand the very concept of unity.
Churches are also divided on the lines of caste and colour whereby this becomes a basis for exclusive churches which then do not accept people who they feel do not fulfill certain conditions for membership and communion during eucharist. The concept of church brings everyone under one umbrella but the challenge is that it is a concept which is hollow and not true. Unless everyone is brought under the one umbrella, it cannot be one church. The other way of looking at it would be to say that everyone is different in their own way and the struggle is to bring about unity in this diversity. Church, ecclesia and communion becomes a way of understanding the possibilities offered by the church/churches but it also brings out challenges which ask for a critical view of the church as well. This is the case in India as well where there are so many different churches. Each church is unique in its own way and people of one church do not necessarily have much idea of people of other churches and their eucharist service. This short coming many a time prevents any actual ground unity.
Challenges facing the church and possibilities for the future
Can the eucharist lead to unity rather than being a divisive element? Should we thus broaden the very horizon of the eucharist as an official act in the church or should it be seen as much more expansive and elaborate? Has the eucharist from being an act to instil the habit of sharing in people become an act which is a part of institutionalized religion? This is now further and farther from sharing and does not truly and fully make people understand the concept of sharing as part of Christian witness.
As part of the commission of Jesus to his disciples to do this in remembrance of him, the passage in the bible is referred to as the last supper. One critical part of this was the feet washing which Jesus performed. In it he tells Peter that unless Peter allows him to do this, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. This then suggests that feet washing becomes the epitome of humbling oneself and therefore without this humbling and humility one cannot hope to be a part of the true Eucharist experience. Even when we do feet washing it is limited to men and to certain men only. The true spirit of the feet washing goes much beyond this and is suggestive of washing the feet of a representation of people belonging to all genders, communities, regions, and caste.
Eucharist today also has some problems with the concept of purity and untouchability. Purity and untouchability form the basis of caste and race divisions. Anyone who comes to the Lord’s table should be given the body and blood. It is not our decision and prerogative as to who should be given and who should not. We are not supposed to decide the fashion of distribution too. The problem of purity existed in the early church as well. “When Christian rituals of baptism and eucharist were performed outside and in opposition to the unity of the church, however, they not only failed to sanctify but polluted their participants in the same way as the idolatrous ceremonies of Roman polytheism.”14
Different denominations are comfortable within their own comfortable spaces and do not want to risk any sort of problem by thinking outside the box. This forms a problem as it only brings about name sake ecumenism without really taking any risks as far as property, churches and wealth is concerned. The challenge of full unity and the fear of failure prevents small attempts at church unity. “Sykes suggests that Christianity is an 'essentially contested concept' and that what Christian unity amounts to is 'contained diversity'. He characterises Christian identity in dynamic terms: 'Christian identity is … not a state but a process; a process, moreover, which entails the restlessness of a dialectic, impelled by criticism. ' For Sykes, it is imperative that the community in which this process is worked out is a community held in unity by common worship.”15 On the other hand “for Chretian Duquoc, the churches are 'provisional societies', whose provisionality consists in 'the condition of innovation, of continual creation, of presence in changing situations'. He finds that it is 'in the positive acceptance of plurality that the churches, by their capacity for communion, bear witness to the ultimate.”16
Eucharist does bring about the possibility of commonness and unity among churches when common causes are taken seriously. “One of the major concerns of the early Church was for the Eucharist to be a sign of unity, especially when persecution threatened to divide the assembly. Eating from the same loaf, drinking from the same cup, gathered around the same table – these were symbols of a united people. This sense of belonging is still very important today.”17 Communities have to work together for this. “The liturgy is an act of the community. This is even indicated in the etymology of the term "liturgy" - leitourgia - service of the people. It is not a clerical solo performance but a concert of the whole Christian community, in which certain of its members play a special part, in accordance with their different charisms and mandates.”18
Eucharist also shows Jesus breaking himself and showing his brokenness for the sake of people. Unless we break bread we are not the true followers of Jesus. Breaking bread and ourselves is possible when we stand for the right causes. This can be done through liberative ecumenism. Such ecumenism looks at various challenges like caste, gender and ecological violence that face us today. We then come together in a unified expression against such violence.19
One can look at the future from the perspective of what can be done. Stanley Harakas suggests “that the main aim of ecumenism should be to bring about unity and not anything else. It does not involve human knowledge, ground realities but the unity which exists in God.”20 He suggests a moving beyond a dogmatic rigid model for ecumenism through the Eucharist. Gideon Goose on the other hand suggests using emancipatory theory for disassembling structures of dominance, dependence and inequality.21 Erin Michelle Brigham uses the communicative action theory of Jurgen Habermas to suggest how change can be brought about. “Habermas suggests that communicative rationality avoids the pitfalls of relativism and positivism, providing a helpful framework for addressing our post-metaphysical age. On one hand, the framework of communicative rationality acknowledges that truth is historically located and open to critique. On the other hand, it affirms the rational character of knowledge, opening the possibility for reaching a shared truth through inter-subjective understanding.”22 The concept of a people’s Eucharist may also suggest a future course of action. This may come about by a movement from below which has the blessings of the church hierarchy as well.23
3. J. Patout Burns Jr., Cyprian the Bishop, Routledge: London, 2002, p. 172.
4. Philip F. Sheldrake, Explorations in Spirituality. History, Theology and Social Practice, Paulist Press: New Jersey, 2010, p. 176.
6. John 6: 54, 58.
8. Margaret Scott, The Eucharist and Social Justice, Paulist Press: New Jersey, 2009, p. 76.
9. John 6:55,57
11. Monika K. Hellwig, The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World, Sheed and Ward: Lanham, 1992, p. 2.
12. G.R. Evans, The Church and The Churches, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1994, p. 29.
13. M. Thomas Thankaraj, Indian Christian Tradition in Religions of South Asia, An Introduction, Sushil Mittal and Gene Thursby (eds), Routledge: New York, 2006, p. 195.
14. J. Patout Burns Jr., Cyprian the Bishop, Routledge: London, 2002, p. 132.
15. Nicholas Sagosvy, Ecumenism, Christian Origins, and the Practice of Communion, Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2000, p. 201.
16. Ibid., p. 202.
19. Martin L. Daneel, Liberative Ecumenism at the African Grassroots, in Fullness of Life for All: Challenges for Mission in Early 21st Century, Inus Daneel, Charles Van Engen and Hendrik Vroom (eds), Rodopi: Amsterdam, 2003, pp. 324, 325.
20. Stanley Harakas, What Orthodox Christian Ethics Can Offer Ecumenism, Journal of Ecumenical Studies, Volume: 45. Issue: 3, 2010, p. 376.
21. Gideon Goose, Ecumenism and Interreligious Dialogue Seen through an Emancipatory Theory, Journal of Ecumenical Studies. Volume: 42. Issue: 2, Spring 2007, p.280.
22. Erin Michelle Brigham, Communicative Action as an Approach to Ecumenical Dialogue, The Ecumenical Review. Volume: 60. Issue: 3, July 2008, p. 288.
23. A point in case is how the NCCI meeting in April, 2012 experimented with an unconventional method of the Eucharist which resulted in everyone partaking of it.
(This paper was presented in the Ecumenical Christian Centre (ECC), Whitefield, Bangalore to a group of theological students on 15-5-2013)
Picture courtesy http://resurrectionde.org/new/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/PrayBelieveLivetheEucharist-001.jpg