John 6: Real Presence

Sunday 12th August 2012
Year B, The Tenth Sunday after Trinity
St Peter's, Woodmancote
John 6:35
John 6:41-51

Every radical movement which intends to bring about change for the promotion of the common good is subject to the unscrupulous manipulation of extremists whereas, we might remark in passing, movements against the interest of the  common good are much more ruthlessly prosecuted. There were no fringe anarchists at Hitler rallies but we can all recall instances where mass movements for good causes have been hi-jacked by extremists. Last year when I was leading a march in London to protect disabled people from Government cuts we were plagued by the banners and the slogans of the Socialist Workers Party whose primary concern was not disabled people but the attempt - no matter how futile - to overthrow the democratic state.

As we all know from our own experience that it is wrong and even dangerous to judge a mass movement according to the antics of extremists, it is wise to apply the same caution to the events of the past, and I particularly have in mind here the antics of some 16th and early 17th Century Protestant extremists who parodied the ritual of the Medieval consecration of the Eucharist, characterising it as sacrilegious sorcery or theatrical magic. This satirical parody has led many to believe that there was a sudden break at the Reformation between a Catholic understanding of the Sacrament of the Eucharist and a a new, much more reverent, Protestant theological outlook, but the real situation is much less clear cut. Both Luther and Calvin had a very strong sense of the real presence of Christ in the Sacrament and in spite of pressure from a few much more radical divines - later retrospectively characterised as 'Puritans' - the Book of Common prayer that emerged in 1562 early in the Reign of Elizabeth I maintains that outlook although the language is, admittedly, somewhat clouded by the requirements of political expediency in establishing a unifying, state church under the Crown. There were, as I have noted, some religious thinkers, from early on in the Reformation, like Ulrich von Zwingli, who denied what we will provisionally call the 'real presence' of Christ in the Sacrament but the argument between most reformers and traditional Catholics revolved around 'how' the 'real presence' operated in the Sacrament rather than questioning the fundamental reality, as they saw it. The real division, when it came, was more radical than anything contemplated by most  theologians in the 16th Century: the intellectual 'enlightenment' triggered by the philosopher Rene Descartes, radically split what it thought of as the reality of human experience from the divine and mysterious. All over the Reformed part of Western Christendom, but most notably in Germany and Britain, the liberal enlightenment 'hollowed out' the mysterious richness of sacramental theology which reacted symbiotically with the reformed Roman Catholic intensifying of Eucharistic doctrine, so that each side became ever more extreme.

The real casualty of this 'hollowing out' was, of course, the Eucharist itself as the central institution of Christian worship but we should not overlook the necessarily related collateral damage to a tradition of Eucharistic theological enquiry stretching back to our own Archbishop Anselm of Canterbury (c1033-1109, r1093-1109). In spite of the jeering of those Reformation parodists, the Medieval enterprise to understand the 'how' of the Eucharist deserves proper consideration which cannot  be dismissed in trite support or denial of the concept of "Transubstantiation", a totemic idea which has come to mark the Protestant/Catholic divide. Four great  theologians, Giles of Rome (c1245-1316), Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), Duns Scotus (c1250-1308) and William of Ockham (c1288-c1348), notably struggled to understand the mechanics of the Eucharist in the light of the philosophy of Aristotle which came to dominate later Medieval Western European thinking, much in the same way that theologians since Darwin have tried to understand the Christian mission in terms of the hegemony of empirical science. How could the body of Christ be said to be in the consecrated bread? In what sense was Christ in the bread or of the bread different from God's  omnipresence? In what sense did the Holy Spirit operate through the priest at the altar?  And in what way was the receiving of Jesus in the bread and wine an occasion of divine Grace? These issues gripped theologians, priests and people  in the three centuries before the Reformation much more than we are gripped today by the existence or otherwise of the Higgs-Boson particle. Contemporary physics is a matter of understanding life on earth; but a proper understanding of the Eucharist was a matter of eternal life.

For all but the professional theologian, or even historian of theology, the Medieval discussion of Eucharistic mechanics might  be well left alone but that does not spare us as 21st Century Christians from considering what the Eucharist means. To say, for example, that what some Christians call The Lord's Supper is simply a theatrical re-enactment of Jesus' last meal on earth but not a Sacrament, calls into question the way we read Scripture. To say, on the other hand, that what other Christians call The Mass is a Sacrament which is dependent on the action of an ordained Priest, calls into question both the role of the Holy Spirit in Sacrament and our own role in receiving the sacred elements. To adopt an ideological position on a false reading of history and a superficial reading of Scripture is not an acceptable stance for a seriously committed Christian.

Beyond doubt, the giving by Jesus of himself in bread and wine operates through the power of the Holy Spirit and is ineffective without our maturing sense of consent. A baby in the Eastern Orthodox Church will be sustained by the Eucharist because that is what Jesus promised, but growing old requires growing up and our naivite is no longer excused. That sense of our own reception of Jesus in the Eucharist must place a high responsibility on us which we cannot in some mechanistic way confer on the Priest at the Altar who is, after all, standing as our representative. If we are a sceptical congregation then what is our priest representing? Those jeerers  who accused priests of magic because they believed that the Eucharist only inhered in personal commitment forgot that Eucharist is a meal of solidarity, God's with us and ours with each other.

The heroic mistake - if we want to characterise it as such - of the Medieval theologians was, as people of  their time, to wrestle with the mechanics of a mystery. Rather than being dismissive of or indifferent to their endeavours, we might better be urged to try to allow our commitment to Christ in the Eucharist to be absorbed into the glory of its mystery.