The presence of the future

cup_paten_spiritThis post follows on from yesterday’s on the twenty-eighth article about the Eucharist. I don’t particularly want to get stuck in the Reformation debates. As I noted in that post, the development of Anglican spirituality in Eucharistic hymnody, as well as the development of theology in the structure and content of Eucharistic rites, has moved beyond those debates in many respects. Sometimes this movement has meant recovering parts of the mediaeval tradition, more often it has entailed returning to the liturgy of the patristic era.

The single most influential text in this reshaping of modern liturgies is the historically problematic Apostolic Tradition, once almost universally attributed to Hippolytus and located in early third-century Rome, but now disputed as to both provenance and date. The Eucharistic Prayer from the ordination rites described in this underlies both the English Anglican Eucharistic Prayer B, and Roman Catholic Eucharistic Prayer 2 (= South African Anglican Prayer 3) and provided a pattern more generally.

In the days when our liturgies were being revised, scholars tended to see a mainline development within the Church towards a common structure. Nowadays, as in biblical studies, and early Christian studies more generally, the fashion is to stress historical diversity, in theology, in liturgy, and in life. Something of that diversity has begun to be reflected in the Common Worship prayers, with their more varied structures.

There are still recognizable theological differences between RC and Anglican liturgies, but it is nonetheless possible to talk of a common Western rite. In this rite there is a renewed emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit and the eschatological horizon. As noted yesterday, in Anglican rites, there is also something of a move away from a “magic words” approach to the narrative of institution, although the way the words are performed puts more or less emphasis on particular parts of the prayer.

In some of Common Worship’s eucharistic prayers the invocation of the Holy Spirit to consecrate the elements precedes the institution narrative, in common with the Roman rite. This is most noticeable in prayers B & E. There a greater focus on the words and actions of Jesus with the elements remains relatively natural, and fits the logic of the prayer.

In two others (F & G) this epiclesis (invocation of the Spirit) noticeably follows the narrative and anamnesis (remembrance), after the fashion of some Eastern rites. In these two examples most clearly, the whole prayer is treated as consecratory, rather than any particular element within it, so that it is the response of God to the prayer that is seen as efficacious and transformative. This logic is not always well reflected in the ceremonial, which is often identical with the previous (and more traditional) pattern, or some variation on it.

The Reformation debates, by contrast, focussed heavily on the words of institution alone. This was always going to be problematic at one level. In Jesus’ words as narrated in Paul and the synoptic gospels, we have a metaphor (the language of body and blood) applied to symbols (bread and wine) representing an event yet to happen (the sacrifice of Calvary).

The early seeds of rationalism had already been sending up their first green shoots in the Renaissance, which would come to full flower in the Enlightenment. At the time of the Reformation people are already beginning to struggle with this combination of metaphor, symbol and representation. So one ends up with the entirely inappropriate and wooden literalness of discussing whether Jesus’ risen body can only be in one place at one time.

In this post-Renaissance context, transubstantiation had itself become problematic. First, of course, because it was poorly understood, and seemed to the new humanists to encourage magical views and superstition. Secondly, because it was always problematic to envisage substance (inner intelligible reality) independent of its accidents (material outward appearance). Thirdly, and perhaps above all, because the new humanists had no patience with the Aristotelian metaphysics from which these categories were taken, but were often neo-Platonists in a new guise. As such they seemed to miss the point that for St Thomas, transubstantiation insisted that the change in the elements could only be known by faith, and not by the senses.

In reframing this question it seems to me that the forward-looking direction (to God’s final kingdom) of the Eucharistic celebration needs to be taken into account quite as much as the backward-looking direction (to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross). This is part and parcel of the biblical narratives in the Synoptics and Paul:

He said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you, I will not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he said, “Take this and divide it among yourselves;  for I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.” (Luke 22:15-18 – the last verse is paralleled in Matt and Mark)

For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes. (1 Corinthians 11:26)

This future orientation also picks up the Passover theme, which is a historical remembrance of a liberation into future freedom. I place myself with those who see “remembrance” as having a forward looking dimension. When God remembers things, he acts in the present and future according to his past pledges. And in prayer, God’s people may invite him to remember these promises (see e.g. Ps 20:3-4, Ps 74:2, Ps 132:1, 1 Macc 4:10, 2 Macc 1:2) and be faithful to himself.

There are interesting parallels (for those of us who think Paul’s language in Rom 8:32 and Gal 2:20 justifies them) in later Jewish traditions about the Binding of Isaac. In those, the prayers not only assume Isaac’s binding is an effective sacrifice, but invite God to remember this sacrifice and respond favourably to his people. It is, I judge, impossible to think in terms of any remembering of Jesus and his sacrifice that is not also a remembering before God, and therefore an invitation to God to act in accordance with this ultimate example of his faithfulness that Christians call a new covenant.

The supper, then, has a prayerful and forward-looking orientation, which is precisely why the work of the Spirit is invoked in its celebration. The Holy Spirit is the mode of our participation in the resurrection of Christ, and the one through whom we begin to experience the life of the world to come. Our language of transformation used about the elements, that they may truly feed us with the life of Christ, the bread of heaven, is seen against the horizon of the power of God who promises, in fidelity to his work in Christ, to transform all things.

Christ is truly present in the elements, because his life is the life we share by the Sprit now, and in eternity. They focus the promise of God’s transformation on real material things, real food and drink, as a foretaste of the promise that the world has a future in which we shall be nourished by Christ without sacramental mediation, and that’ God’s continuing remembrance of and response to Christ’s sacrifice, and his own covenant promises, will change all things.

These tokens of creation are transformed as vehicles of Christ’s presence, as a promise that we will be saved not out of the world, but with all creation. It is in this context that we may speak of (Schillebeeckx’s rather ugly term) transfinalization, not simply as a change in purpose, though it is that, but as a change oriented towards that final horizon when God will be all in all, and all creation’s substance will be shot through with the divine life.

3 Replies to “The presence of the future”

  1. Doug that’s a fascinating commentary. But it raises a problem or question: does the C of E have a coherent Eucharistic theology? Your comment on the differences in the prayers could be interpreted as suggesting there are different theologies in each. But surely we need to assume there is coherence and that the epiclesis has one meaning and that that meaning is in line with the theology of the BCP?

    1. (edited when I got to a PC and some electricity) It’s a fair question, Ian, and thanks for commenting, but while I would like the C of E to have a coherent Eucharistic theology, and I would like it to be mine(!), I honestly think that anyone who argues that it’s theology is fully coherent, can only do so by suppressing or even de-churching the voices of those they disagree with.

      More cynically (cynical, moi?), I doubt that any text that has been argued over word by word by a rather large synod, some of whose members are not very theologically well-versed, but are nonetheless church-party-politically opinionated, will ever be that coherent.

  2. Eucharistic Prayer G has, over the years, become very meaningful to me. F too is powerful. These days I find A & B technical and ploddy. let’s forget C, shall we! Ash Wednesday only!

    It is so important to see whole rite as consecratory – I think that was what Cranmer was trying to achieve, even if his over emphasis on our sinfulness spoiled it. The big thanksgiving prayer, usually part of the anaphora, coming after receiving communion was quite brilliant and startling.

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