Mechanics and Mystery

Sunday 16th August 2015
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Family Eucharist
Proverbs 9.1-6
John 6.51-58

the nature of the Eucharist, which many think is the subject of this Chapter of John, people say "I don't believe in Transubstantiation" and, if I'm in a generous mood, I let it pass; but sometimes I react by asking what Transubstantiation is, and how it differs from Consubstantiation and if the person believes in neither, what does he think the Priest is actually doing during the Consecration.

The second aspect of wisdom, after caution, is to work out the sort of question we are asking. I know this sort of approach is often ridiculed, as in the Monty Python aphorism "It depends what you mean by 'mean'!" but in this case is the question mechanical, a question about how the bread and wine somehow acquire the presence of Christ. But surely you can't ask a question beginning with "how" unless you have some idea about the "what". If you ask: "How does the bread and wine 'become'" - a word I use with some caution - "the body and blood of Jesus" then I am entitled to assume that the questioner believes that it does and is simply puzzled about the mechanics. Wisdom, in this case, dictates that we spend far more time on the "what" rather than the "how" and the reason for this is that the Gospels, anticipated by Saint Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians, one of the earliest documents of the New Testament, almost certainly written before any of the Gospels, all state clearly that Jesus took bread and wine and declared them to be his body and his blood. Whether or not this was a symbolic declaration, connected with the instruction of Jesus, that we should enact this ritual in his memory, by the 5th Century, with the powerful advocacy of Saint Augustine of Hippo, the words had been taken literally to mean that the bread and wine were, literally, the flesh and blood of Jesus; and in the 12th and 13th Centuries this in turn led to a whole discussion about the mechanics which can be loosely classified as a debate about "Transubstantiation".

Meanwhile, the other important definition of "The body of Christ" promoted by Saint Paul went into near oblivion. Paul insisted time after time that the followers of Jesus were the body of Christ, a proposition only revived strongly in the Western Christian Church in 1944 with Henri de Lubac's great book Corpus Mysticum which argued that the body of Christ is not localised in the Eucharist but is generalised in the Church which is gathered in the Eucharist. In other words, what matters is the presence of Christ in us, which we might characterise as the Holy Spirit, which is gathered up by Jane, our President, in the Eucharistic Prayer. In that sense the word "President' makes more sense than "Priest", although the English meaning of "president" is somewhat more hierarchical than what the concept implies; but there are quite enough ugly words in the Church of England without me trying to coin another.

Let me, then, end with a caution and with an encouragement. The caution is that this language of theology is speculative, dealing, as it does, with a mystery. Then the encouragement: the study of theology is like no other study because it arises out of our relationship with God rather than simply investigating a theoretical relationship from the outside. We start with faith and then explore its mysteries which, I hope you will agree, takes even more application and imagination than the mechanics of bridge building. When you go home today, pick up your Bible and read Chapter 6 of John; and if you are totally satisfied that you know exactly what it means and if you feel it speaking to you in an animatedly spiritual way; then, job done. But if you find the language puzzling and the meaning not entirely clear, you might want to consider what to do about that.