Thursday, June 03, 2010

Discerning the Body and Blood of Christ

Today is the day on which the feast of Corpus Christi is observed. It was my joy to preside at the Mass for the eve of this feast last night. It is not officially part of the calendar of the Episcopal Church, but it does appear in that of some other Anglican provinces, including the Church of England, as The Day of Thanksgiving for the Institution of Holy Communion (Corpus Christi). The 1979 Book of Common Prayer does, however, include an optional proper (“votive Mass”) Of the Holy Eucharist, which it designates as “especially appropriate for Thursdays”, thus enabling communities that wish to observe the feast to do so with formally authorized texts. So while I’m grateful for this provision, I still believe it should be an official feast day of the “red letter” (or, more recently, “bold print”) variety, up there with apostles and evangelists, at least, and probably “feasts of our Lord.”

There are myriad reasons why this is so. I personally like the language of Vatican II, which speaks of the Eucharist as the “source and summit” of the Christian life. The Church is reconstituted afresh at the altar during every celebration—hence “source”—and the Church is ever straining forward toward the eschatological vision of the messianic banquet, of which every Mass is an anticipatory foretaste—hence, “summit.” The Church is then never more herself than when gathered at the altare dei. Everything else we do—formation, fellowship, service—springs from the Eucharist and leads us back to the Eucharist.

By far the most eloquent exponent of this insight into the Eucharist that I am aware of is the late (Anglican) Benedictine scholar Dom Gregory Dix. His magnum opus, The Shape of the Liturgy, is bone dry for long sections. But when he decides to wax poetic, he deposits a gem that can only be contemplated breathlessly. The most glorious of those gems is this:

Was ever another command so obeyed? For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it to extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacle of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth. Men have found no better thing than this to do for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold; for armies in triumph or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church; for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; for the wisdom of the Parliament of a mighty nation or for a sick old woman afraid to die; for a schoolboy sitting an examination or for Columbus setting out to discover America; for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover; in thankfulness because my father did not die of pneumonia; for a village headman much tempted to return to fetish because the yams had failed; because the Turk was at the gates of Vienna; for the repentance of Margaret; for the settlement of a strike; for a son for a barren woman; for Captain so-and-so wounded and prisoner of war; while the lions roared in the nearby amphitheatre; on the beach at Dunkirk; while the hiss of scythes in the thick June grass came faintly through the windows of the church; tremulously, by an old monk on the fiftieth anniversary of his vows; furtively, by an exiled bishop who had hewn timber all day in a prison camp near Murmansk; gorgeously, for the canonisation of S. Joan of Arc—one could fill many pages with the reasons why men have done this, and not tell a hundredth part of them. And best of all, week by week and month by month, on a hundred thousand successive Sundays, faithfully, unfailingly, across all the parishes of Christendom, the pastors have done this just to make the plebs sancta Dei—the holy common people of God.

The point could be made both more precisely and more concisely, but I can’t imagine it being made more compellingly.

Now, to shift attention in a way that may seem abrupt, but, upon closer examination, perhaps not so … the Presiding Bishop published yesterday, in the form of a pastoral letter to the Episcopal Church, her response to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Pentecost letter, which was made public last week. As a statement from a Primate of the Anglican Communion, it is disappointing, at least, for its historical and theological naiveté. However, it is not my intent here to comprehensively “fisk” the PB’s effort; that is being done admirably elsewhere. Rather, I want to focus narrowly on the final paragraph of the letter:

As a Church of many nations, languages, and peoples, we will continue to seek every opportunity to increase our partnership in God’s mission for a healed creation and holy community. We look forward to the ongoing growth in partnership possible in the Listening Process, Continuing Indaba, Bible in the Life of the Church, Theological Education in the Anglican Communion, and the myriad of less formal and more local partnerships across the Communion – efforts in mission and ministry that inform and transform individuals and communities toward the vision of the Gospel – a healed world, loving God and neighbor, in the love and friendship shown us in God Incarnate.

Rarely is the nature of the battle for the soul of the Episcopal Church, Anglicanism, and Christianity itself, more starkly evident than in this paragraph. At first blush, it seems harmless. The first sentence uses biblical language (from Revelation) in its reference to “many nations, languages, and peoples”. But she twists words that, in their original context, denote the universal and inclusive character of the whole people of God through space and time, and employs them to designate only the Episcopal Church, and to make the political point, “Who needs you, Archbishop? We’ve already got our own international ‘communion’.” This would be insidious even if it were substantively true, but it’s not. With the exception of Haiti, TEC’s presence in the 14 non-USA countries in which it has a presence is miniscule. To say “We’re in fifteen nations” as evidence of the internationality of TEC is a deceptive ploy that works only among those who don’t examine the facts.

But the real nugget is this: “…our partnership in God’s mission for a healed creation and holy community”, and later, “a healed world, loving God and neighbor, in the love and friendship shown us in God Incarnate.” Again, on its face, there doesn’t seem to be anything to argue with here. What professing Christian could be opposed to a “healed creation” and “holy community”? What’s not to like about “loving God and neighbor”? Unfortunately, this says nothing wrong in itself, but it says too little if it is taken as a capsule of the Good News which it is the Church's privilege to share. It is nothing more than re-packaged and warmed-over Social Gospel liberalism of the sort advocated by Walter Rauschenbusch in the late 1800s. In this view, Jesus is not so much a divine savior as a powerful exemplar, one whose holy life of love and concern for the poor and sick and outcast inspires his followers to work for justice and peace until, gradually, the Kingdom of God is ushered in and all people dwell in freedom and love. It was predicated on the notion of constant incremental improvement in human social behavior. The cataclysm of World War I, of course, pretty much destroyed this thesis, and World War II drove the point home.

What’s missing from the Social Gospel is a connection to the Paschal Mystery, and the practices (including the Eucharist) that are flow from it, rooted in the incarnation, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, and the sending of the Holy Spirit as the Church is constituted., all seen as God’s definitive saving and redeeming intervention in the human predicament. It is God who brings about his own Kingdom, in his way and in his time. The Church’s vocation is to announce that Kingdom and model it, but not to take responsibility for making it happen. Yes, God has a “mission” of reconciliation, and, yes, the Church’s mission is congruent with God’s own mission. But the Church’s mission has a finer point on it. We take our place within the missio dei not by reforming society (an effort of which the Millennium Development Goals are the Presiding Bishop’s favorite sign), but by being an alternative society, a sign that says to the world, “Things can and will be different.” We live out that semiotic [one of my favorite words—look it up!] vocation in a number of ways, all of which, by the way, spring from and lead back to the Eucharist.

Alas, like the cyborgs in the Terminator film series, the Social Gospel keeps reappearing, and the Presiding Bishop’s pastoral letter is its most recent iteration. It is, sadly, not a wrong vision, but an inadequate vision. It is not as much anti-Christian as sub-Christian. It fails to discern the Body and Blood of Christ. This Episcopalian thinks we can do better. We must do better.


Sports Dave said...

Fr. Dan,

That's a breathtaking passage from Dix above - could you point me to a page number?


Daniel Martins said...

Dave--p. 744 in the original edition (1943). At any rate, it's about ten pages in from the beginning of the last chapter.

Ren said...

I am suddenly reminded of the work being done by Bill Cavanaugh on the Eucharist as modeling a counterpoint to contemporary politics and economics. Of course, Cavanaugh is "Roman" and therefore should be ignored.

I also remember a talk I attended by +KJS here in Manila where little was mentioned of the centrality of the Eucharist or of worship in general in the mission of the Church. It was about something else. You pointed it out correctly.

It saddens me moreover that the Radical Orthodoxy school of theology, which has its roots among English Anglo-Catholics, has found more fertile ground among Reformed theologians in the Midwest than with Anglican/Episcopal ones. It is perhaps because the "Social Gospel" is one of the things this tendency counters.