Author Archives: Stephen

Violence and the Banquet: Proper 23, Year A

Stephen R. Shaver
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, San Francisco, CA
October 12, 2014
Proper 23, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary (Track I)
Exodus 32:1-14
Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23
Philippians 4:1-9
Matthew 22:1-14

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In a pastoral care class during my last year of seminary a wise guest lecturer handed out a simple, tongue-in-cheek card entitled “Ten Modest Suggestions to Keep Your Vocation in Good Health.” Under the title was a small notation: “suitable for framing.” I’ve found it so helpful that I did in fact frame it, and when I’ve been in parish ministry I’ve kept it somewhere in my office. The suggestions include things like “Say the Daily Office” and “Keep your financial life in order” and “Keep your promises” and “Remember it’s not about you and you’re not entitled to anything.” And they include my favorite: “Don’t dismiss the tradition. You are not smarter than it. Wrestle with it until it blesses you.”

It’s a reference, of course, to the story of Jacob in the book of Genesis, who wrestles all night with a mysterious stranger only to find out that it’s the angel of God. And it’s a good word for us as Christians, who live within a great historical tradition, and who need to continually find ways to move into the future without coming unmoored from who and whose we are.

Sometimes it’s scripture that we need to wrestle with until we get a blessing. As Anglicans we believe scripture is holy and inspired; the Holy Spirit breathes through it and speaks God’s Word to us. But that doesn’t mean we believe it’s inerrant, or self-interpreting, or free of the biases and limitations of its human authors. So it takes wrestling sometimes to discover where God’s Word is for us in a particular text.

Today’s parable from Matthew’s gospel is one of those, I think. It’s not often that we get a glimpse of how a parable of Jesus was told and retold in different ways by the first few generations of Christians before it got written down. But with this one, we do—because it so happens that Luke’s gospel has a simpler and quite different version of this same story. Luke’s version has a man who decides to throw a wonderful banquet. The people he invites turn down his invitation with various polite excuses. So, because he’s so determined to throw a fabulous party, he sends his servants out instead to go out onto the streets and bring in everyone they can find. End of parable. It’s an appealing image of God’s overwhelming, inclusive grace. I like this parable. Maybe you do too.

I don’t find it as easy to like Matthew’s version. Because Matthew has taken the basic, skinny bones of this story and hopped it up on steroids—into a parable of rage and retribution. Now the man is a king who’s throwing a wedding banquet for his son. But when he tells his guests that dinner is ready, instead of just declining his invitation, they beat and kill his messengers. That unusual response might be our first clue that we’re on very strange territory in this parable. Next, in turn, the king massively escalates the violence. He mobilizes his army, wipes them out, and burns their city to the ground—all, apparently, while keeping dinner warm, because he then sends out another round of messengers. This time no one is bold enough to say no. But then—and here I find myself imagining him like a medal-chested dictator, toying with the squirming guests at his gold-plated gala—he singles out a poor fellow who has shown up underdressed and has him clapped in irons and sent to the gulag.

What kind of parable is this? What kind of God is this? Is the king supposed to be God? Are we the guests? And what is God going to do to us if we don’t wear the right robe? For that matter, what is the robe? Is it baptism, belief in Jesus, good deeds? The conventional readings of this parable overlay and compete with one another. And it can be hard to hear the gospel, the good news, through all the violence.

Now the scriptures were written by people: faithful people, people who loved God and sought, under the Spirit’s inspiration, to make sense of their experience of God in the places and times where they lived. And the anonymous Christian who compiled the gospel we know as “Matthew” lived in a violent and turbulent time. Most commentators think he—and it probably was a “he” in this case—was a Jewish believer in Jesus, one who had studied the Hebrew scriptures and come to believe that the crucified and risen one was the Messiah. He and his community understood themselves as faithful Jews, but they also welcomed Gentiles who had come to believe. Meanwhile, they struggled to understand why most of their Jewish sisters and brothers weren’t accepting their invitation to join this messianic community.

And in the midst of all that, there was a revolt against the Roman Empire, and the Roman army responded by flattening Jerusalem and burning the Jewish Temple to the ground.

It’s that trauma, and this particular group of Jewish Christians’ attempt to make sense of it, that most scholars believe has affected the way this parable was told and retold in Matthew’s community. Matthew has taken this parable and made it into more of an allegory: God invites the people of Israel to the Messiah’s banquet, but they reject the message of the prophets and finally of Jesus himself, and kill him. In Matthew’s understanding, then, the destruction of the Temple is God’s judgment on the people’s rejection of that invitation.

We can have compassion for Matthew and his point of view without being willing to share his interpretation of what happened. For one thing, Matthew is a Jew. And it is when we are members of a group, and then feel betrayed by our sisters and brothers within that group, that we can come to criticize it most violently. Maybe you’ve experienced this in at least a small way. Maybe, like me, you’ve found yourself at some point making an angry or dismissive comment about a group you belong to: perhaps “Americans” or “San Franciscans” or “Episcopalians.” In the trauma of the destruction of Jerusalem, Matthew comes to feel this way about his own people, Israel. He comes to believe that the church has replaced Israel as God’s chosen people. Not all the books of the New Testament have that point of view. Paul has a very different understanding, for example. But for too many centuries, Christians have often used a simplistic form of Matthew’s point of view to support anti-Semitism and all kinds of violent exclusion of those who didn’t accept Jesus as Messiah.

Now a parable isn’t simply a code meant to be deciphered: it’s a story through which the Spirit speaks to us. And so there is always more than one way to read it. There may well be true and worthy lessons to be drawn from this story if we read it in the conventional way, with God as the king and us as the guests. For example, God’s invitation isn’t free. It costs something, and we can refuse it. And the consequences of refusing God’s invitation are serious. But if we literalize this one reading, we can end up with all kinds of implications about God that just aren’t workable. Because the king in this parable also behaves in ways that simply don’t match the personality of the God we know from the rest of the scriptural story. Think of the God we meet in the Exodus lesson today, whose anger burns hot when the people turn to a false god, but who is quick to change his mind and forgive the people rather than destroying them. Think of what Matthew himself writes, elsewhere in his gospel, about Jesus teaching his disciples to forgive seventy times seven times. And think of Jesus, the very incarnation of the personality of God, who refuses violence and forgives his enemies right up to the cross itself.

Who is Jesus in this story? Perhaps he’s the bridegroom, the son who never actually appears in the parable. But perhaps he might show up in more than one place. In fact, if there’s any character in this parable who most resembles Jesus, it might just be the man at the end. Like Jesus, he’s silent in the face of his accuser. He’s bound hand and feet and cast out into the darkness. If we read this parable with Jesus as the innocent victim, we might discover something totally new here about God—the God who shows up in the most surprising places, in solidarity with everyone who is terrorized or tortured or excluded.

It turns out, maybe, that Matthew is writing scripture in spite of himself. Because a parable is never about just one thing. And sometimes when we wrestle with it Jesus gets in there somehow, the good news gets in somehow, where we least expect.

Who are the ones we would rather ignore? Who are the ones who are being cast into the outer darkness? Whose city is being destroyed? Who might we ourselves rather not find ourselves next to at the heavenly banquet? It might be that each of these people is Jesus for us.

Jesus is the bridegroom, and he is also the speechless man. And he is the robe, the wedding garment God has already provided for the whole world. And he is even the food for the banquet itself, whose foretaste we celebrate today. And in Jesus there are no scapegoats, no outcasts.

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For insights behind this sermon, including the image of wrestling with scripture and the reading of Jesus as the man bound hand and foot, I’m indebted (as I often am) to the work of Paul Nuechterlein and others over at the Girardian Lectionary Page.

Collects in Common

This evening I went to Vespers at Incarnation Monastery here in Berkeley. On Mondays this community has a very simple evening prayer liturgy that includes an extended time of silent meditation. This was my third time there and every time I’ve been glad I’ve gone.

I was surprised and delighted when the officiant read the collect for the day. Since this wasn’t a feast day, it was the same as the collect for this past Sunday–and I realized it was the same collect we use this week in the Episcopal Church. Here’s the Roman Catholic version:

O God, protector of those who hope in you, without whom nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy, bestow in abundance your mercy upon us and grant that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may use the good things that pass in such a way as to hold fast even now to those that ever endure. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

And here’s the version in the Episcopal Prayer Book:

O God, the protector of all who trust in you, without whom nothing is strong, nothing is holy: Increase and multiply upon us your mercy; that, with you as our ruler and guide, we may so pass through things temporal, that we lose not the things eternal; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.

According to Marion Hatchett, this collect comes from the supplement to the Gregorian Sacramentary that was compiled around 790 under Charlemagne. It was revised by Thomas Cranmer and then revised again for the 1979 Prayer Book. I have to admit I find our version more prayable; here as elsewhere, the new Roman Catholic translation from the Latin leans heavily toward literality at the expense of prosody. I’m grateful for the prose gifts of Cranmer and for the fact that the 1979 revisers modernized his language without losing its limpidity. But far beyond all that, I’m charmed to find our two churches praying this collect in common this week. After 500 years of liturgical reshuffling, it doesn’t happen that often.

 

The Invasive Kingdom: Proper 12, Year A

Stephen R. Shaver
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA
07/27/2014
Proper 12, Year A, Revised Common Lectionary
Genesis 29:15-28
Psalm 105:1-11, 45b or Psalm 128
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

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Last weekend I was at a family wedding in South Carolina. As soon as I stepped out of the airport I was struck by the climate, by the overall feeling of things: the heat. The humidity. The chirping crickets. And all around, the green, green, green. So different from the golds and greens of our California hills and evergreen forests: there it was deciduous trees, and vines growing on the deciduous trees, and more vines growing on those vines. Driving down the freeway was like being in a tunnel between two walls of solid vegetation. So much of that, of course, is thanks to just one plant: kudzu. It started as an ornamental plant and ground cover crop imported from Asia. Well, it covered the ground, all right. It’s been called “the vine that ate the South.” It spread to become one of the most successful invasive species ever.

Now we don’t have kudzu here in California. But we do have invasive plants of our own. When I go running on the Bay Trail or the Ohlone Greenway I see big bushes of thorny blackberry and wild fennel. Those are both plants that people cultivate, and that produce delicious things to eat; but they also easily escape and grow wild and take over all kinds of places where they’re not wanted.

It’s hard to contain an invasive species.

A single stand of fennel ...

a wild, weedy fennel plant

a brambly blackberry bush

a brambly blackberry bush

“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed that someone took and sowed in his field,” says Jesus. And we nod our heads, having heard this parable before, perhaps, most of us: the tiny seed becomes a big tree, God can make great things out of little things, very inspiring, next parable please. We in our place and time can so easily miss what Jesus’ hearers would have noticed right away: the utter strangeness of this example.

For one thing, it’s not the most impressive of examples. A mustard plant grows to be something like a big bush. You could charitably describe it as a tree, maybe. In this version of the parable Jesus does that, but he hedges his bets by also calling it “the greatest of all shrubs”—a phrase that always makes me smile in its modesty, sort of like the slogan of my former hometown of Reno: “the biggest little city in the world.” But Jesus had plenty of other symbolic possibilities to choose from. In fact, he seems to be intentionally reworking an image from the Old Testament books of Daniel and Ezekiel in which a nation like Assyria or Babylon or Israel itself is compared to a cedar of Lebanon: a towering, vertical giant in which the birds of the air find shelter. So Jesus is ignoring the image of the cedar, an image as obviously available to him in his place and time as a giant redwood would be in ours, and instead comparing God’s kingdom to something like a really big blackberry bush.

And just like that blackberry bush, mustard is extremely prolific, to the point of being invasive—even of being basically a weed. You might choose to cultivate it, but if you did, you’d put it in a plot by itself, carefully segregated away from the rest of your garden. To sow it on purpose in the middle of your field, as Jesus is apparently suggesting the person in this story does, would be to invite disaster as it starts to grow all over everything, transgressing your neatly planned rows and crop boundaries, growing through and around all your other plants in a big, bushy mess. The greatest of all shrubs, indeed.

In Godly Play, that wonderful way of telling sacred stories to children, the materials for parable stories are always kept inside wooden boxes that are closed with lids. That’s because a parable isn’t always easy to get into. Sometimes, no matter which way we turn it, we can’t find our way in, and we just have to come back another time. And even when we do find our way inside a parable, there is always more there waiting for us to come back and discover it.

Sometimes in Godly Play children will call a parable a “terrible.” And there’s wisdom in that too, because there is something transgressive about a good parable. It’s like that with the next one too: the woman takes three pecks of flour—a huge amount of flour, about fifty pounds—and mixes in yeast, which throughout scripture is almost always used as a symbol of impurity. What does it mean, this yeast of impurity, working its way invisibly through the flour until all of it is leavened? And what of the sneakiness of the person who finds treasure in a field and, instead of telling the owner, rehides it for just long enough to go and buy the field at market price?

Today’s gospel reading has things to teach us about how God makes big things out of little ones, yes. But there’s another dimension to these parables: they are about slowness and imperceptibility, but also about contamination. Jesus in these terribles is telling us that the kingdom of heaven is not at all what we might have expected. It’s not like a cedar of Lebanon, not a superpower like Assyria or Rome or the superpowers of our own day. Nor is it a well-behaved garden plant that grows in its proper compartment. It is like an invasive weed that grows unpredictably, messing up our carefully planned boundaries and rules; sometimes seeming to do nothing for a long time, then bursting out with new shoots in a new direction; sometimes growing close to the ground and hidden, sometimes stretching towards the sky for all to see.

It grows from the smallest of seeds: a single man on a cross, rejected, ignored, and impure. And from that seed it has been growing for thousands of years, and it is still growing today. Our call is to become branches of this invasive kingdom, to take part in this contamination of love that is spreading through God’s world. You might say the kingdom of heaven is going viral. You might not always know it is there. But it is growing wherever people are proclaiming good news and doing the work of love.

This week again shells are falling in Gaza and rockets in Israel. On both sides are many who believe that peace can only come through violence and the eradication of the other, or else through creating firm and unbreakable boundaries between Palestinians and Israelis—and I am thinking here of spiritual boundaries, even more than the physical ones which also exist: spiritual boundaries that keep relationships from forming so that people know one another only as enemies and not as human beings. But there are also those people on both sides who are working to create peace as an invasive species.

Twelve years ago the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem and the Middle East began a program called Kids 4Peace. Jewish, Christian, and Muslim kids from Palestine and Israel come together to build friendships and travel together to attend summer camp, along with American kids, in the United States. They do arts and crafts and activities and all the things that kids do at summer camp; they have fun together, learn about one another’s families and traditions, and learn the skills of dialogue and peacemaking. Right now there are 400 young people involved in the program. Many of them tell stories of the friendships they’ve made across boundaries and the ways their lives have been changed. One young Palestinian who participated and later became a counselor in the program said, “I consider us farmers, planting peace seeds in the kids’ hearts.” It’s a small kind of thing, so far: a shrub, not a cedar. But you never know what will happen when the kingdom of heaven starts to break out in somebody’s field. What birds will it shelter? What boundaries will it cross?

fennel in greatest-of-all-shrubs size?

fennel in greatest-of-all-shrubs size?

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Kids4Peace is a great organization; my friend Josh Thomas is the Executive Director and many people I admire are directly involved as officers, board members, and staff. Do go and check out their web page to learn more about their work, and please consider supporting their mission with your donations as well as your prayers.

Ascension: Fractals and the Liturgical Year

It’s been a long time since I posted anything other than a sermon here. Not surprisingly, my activity on creative projects is inversely correlated with the academic semester being in session. As I move out of coursework into a less structured part of my program, I hope I’ll be able to be on this page a little more frequently. We’ll see.

Last night I went to celebrate the feast of the Ascension at the Church of the Advent in the City. One of the best things about Anglo-Catholic parishes is that they tend to take the liturgical year very seriously. Ascension Day is a principal feast of the church. It’s right up there with Easter, Christmas, and Pentecost as a day the Prayer Book envisions us celebrating with all our liturgical and programmatic resources. But many of our congregations tend to neglect it because it always falls on a weekday (Thursday, to be specific, forty days after Easter Sunday).

That’s a shame, from my perspective. These feasts can be terrific occasions for congregational fellowship and for helping people encounter the church’s year more deeply. I remember being a child and being excited and curious when from time to time we would go to church in the evening on a schoolnight–what was going on here?

The Ascension is worth celebrating. It’s a feast of paradox when we celebrate both the real absence and the real presence of Christ. Absence: Jesus no longer present with us here, visible and touchable, as he was to his friends both during his ministry and in those mysterious appearances after his resurrection. Jesus exalted to the right hand of God, preparing a place for us as we await the day when the love of God triumphs completely over evil and death. Jesus longed for and not seen.

Yet also, presence: Jesus with us always, even to the end of the age. Jesus present in the sacraments, touched and tasted. Jesus present in the Word proclaimed, in the faces of the gathered church, of all who suffer and whom we are called to serve, and of every human being created in God’s image. Jesus filling all things, his gracious presence immediate to all of creation so that every crag and wave and creature resounds with the cosmic song of the Logos. The Ascension is a holy paradox indeed.

As I was teaching a short segment on the liturgical year a few weeks ago with students at CDSP, I brought in a picture of a head of romanesco. Romanesco isn’t in season in May, so it had to be a picture only:

http://littleaesthete.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/02/6.jpg(image from http://littleaesthete.com/romanesco-broccoli-the-fascinating-vegetable/)

This unique (and tasty) cauliflower is a fractal in vegetable form. The cone-shaped head is composed of lots of cone-shaped florets, each of which is made of lots of cone-shaped buds. Those buds have tiny buds on them, and so on. It’s recursive: the shape replicates itself at level after level. The whole and the parts interact in a pattern of beautiful complexity and order.

The liturgical year is a little like this. The shape of Christian worship is the paschal mystery: the pattern of self-giving love that is the very life of the Holy Trinity. For us that pattern is seen most centrally in the death and resurrection of Jesus. It is seen also in his incarnation, his life and ministry, teaching and healing, in the ascension, in the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost, and in the lives of faithful followers ever since. In worship we encounter that paschal mystery at the lifelong level of our individual birth and death; at the yearly level as the cycle of feasts and fasts comes around again and again; at the weekly level as the Lord’s Day brings us to gather again with sisters and brothers at the holy table; at the daily level as we pray with the evening and morning light.

If the church year is a romanesco, the Prayer Book calendar sees the principal feasts–Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Trinity, All Saints, Christmas, Epiphany–as big florets. These are the hinges of the annual level, shaping each year into an encounter with the paschal mystery in its different instantiations. Then there are Sundays, each one a paschal feast in its own right, punctuating our lives at the weekly level. Then come those days called “major” feasts: these are celebrations of New Testament events and saints, like the Transfiguration or the Visitation or St. Mary Magdalene. One of the treasures of our common life that I think many Episcopalians aren’t aware of is that it is on these three types of days that the Prayer Book envisions all our parishes celebrating the eucharist. Principal feasts, Sundays, major feasts: these are the particularly eucharistic days, celebrations of the paschal mystery in its many facets.

Then there’s the daily level–the ordinary day-in-and-day-out of life. This is what the daily office is for: praise and prayer in the everyday, the people of God joining together in the common prayer of the church celebrated in parishes or in households or on buses. There can be a place for the eucharist at this daily level too, if a parish has the resources for it; weekday eucharists are an ancient and venerable part of liturgical history. That’s where what the Prayer Book calls “days of optional observance” comes in. It’s at this level that Episcopalians have spent a lot of time in discussion recently. But it’s important not to get so stuck wandering around in the buds that we lose the shape of the whole romanesco.

How many of our parishes celebrate regular weekday eucharists, maybe at noon or in the evening, once or twice a week, and yet skip holding principal eucharistic liturgies on the Ascension or the Epiphany?

What might it look like instead to celebrate these feast days with all the festivity we can muster, doing our best through planning and publicity to make sure these are central events in our congregation’s life, and taking the opportunity for an evening gathering to share food and drink and conversation together?

All Souls: The Shroud Cast Over All Peoples

Stephen R. Shaver
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA
11/1/2013
Year C, All Faithful Departed (Eve), Revised Common Lectionary
Isaiah 25:6-9
1 Corinthians 15:50-58
John 5:24-27
Psalm 130

On this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast of rich food,
a feast of well-aged wines strained clear.
And he will destroy on this mountain the shroud that is cast over all peoples;
he will swallow up death forever.

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If you go to Jerusalem, to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, just in front of you as you walk in you’ll see a long, flat stone on the floor, surrounded by candlesticks at each corner, with a row of lamps hanging above.

This is the Stone of Unction; the anointing stone. It commemorates the anointing of the body of Jesus, after he was taken down off the cross, before his burial. If you stand nearby and watch, you’ll see people coming in: pilgrims, locals, Christians from all around the world, the pious, and some of the just curious as well. Many come in, go straight to the stone, kneel or prostrate themselves, and press faces and hands against it, kissing it, venerating this symbol of the loving care of Jesus’ friends for his crucified body.

Some people do more than this. Especially among Orthodox Christians, it’s customary to buy a linen shroud to save for one’s own burial, and to bless it by bringing it to the Anointing Stone. As you lay out your shroud on the cool, long, flat stone, you unite your own death with the death of Christ. And then you have your shroud: something to take home, knowing it will one day be spread out over your body when it lies in death, a tangible symbol that your own death is wrapped up in that of the one who has gone before you.

It’s said that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is the only religious building in the world that is built around a tomb with no one inside. There are lots of shrines and temples and churches built around tombs, of course; but most of them are significant because of the body that is inside. This one is significant because of the body that’s not inside. Jesus had a burial shroud of his own; the resurrection stories tell us that the disciples found it lying rolled up in the tomb. Somehow, in the mystery of that holy night, Jesus took off his burial shroud and put on immortality.

But tonight we commemorate all those whose tombs are still full, all those who still sleep beneath their burial shrouds.

We all die.

We are dust, and to dust we shall indeed return. You and I and all seven billion people on the surface of the earth today, along with the hundred billion or so who have come and gone before us. Set against the history of time, each of those individual stories can seem impossibly small. And yet each one is irreplaceable and unique. They are for us, of course. Each of us knows and loves people who have died. Most of us have loved ones in mind and in heart tonight. And our faith insists that they are no less known and loved and irreplaceable in the heart of God who made them and who knows every hair that ever grew on their heads.

Death is hard to face: our own, and that of those we love. There are some deaths that seem good, or at least fitting: deaths that come peacefully, without struggle or pain. And there are many deaths that do not seem good at all: the death of a child; the death that comes through violence, through war, through sudden disaster; the death that comes too early; the death, sometimes, that takes too long to come. Our deaths are as unique as our lives. But each death, even the ones that come easily, is a loss. It leaves a hole in the fabric of humanity. It leaves a hole in the hearts of those who grieve.

We come together each week to celebrate a liturgy that puts us directly in touch with the deep mystery of life and death. We do this in remembrance of someone scripture calls the firstfruits of those who have died: the only one, so far, who has passed through both death and what God has in store for us after death. We have so little idea of what that is that we can only talk about it in pictures: the prophet Isaiah’s rich feast on the holy mountain; the book of Revelation’s picture of the holy city, a new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven. When we celebrate baptism we proclaim the Apostles’ Creed, which insists that we believe in that very mysterious phrase, the “resurrection of the body.” St. Paul uses the analogy of a seed and a plant: the risen identity that is to come is continuous with the physical people we are now, just as a plant is continuous with a seed and yet also different altogether.

Now St. Paul had seen the risen Jesus—and yet he never describes what he saw. He can only resort to this language of poetry and mystery; the reality is too great for simple visual description. But he knows that it is Jesus whom he saw: the one who has passed through death and out the other side, and who holds our own destiny in his loving hands.

The dead will be raised, says Paul, and we will be changed: this perishable body will put on imperishability; this mortal body will put on immortality like a garment.

At Christian funerals we drape the caskets of our loved ones with a special kind of shroud: the plain white pall that recalls the white robe in which we clothe the newly baptized. When we are baptized we really and truly “put on Christ.” And when we die, we carry that garment with us. So, for Christians, even the very shroud we wear in death is a token of the garment of immortality. God will transform our burial shroud into the heavenly wedding robe. And we will put it on when the trumpet sounds, to wake us into new life, and to call us to the great banquet.

For now we live by faith; but in the resurrection of Jesus we have God’s pledge that there is yet more to come. On that day, at that table, the LORD of hosts will make for all peoples a feast, an abundant feast that never ends. But even now, at this table, we have a foretaste of that feast of rich food; of well-aged wines strained clear.

Proper 23, Year C: Becoming Fully Human

Stephen R. Shaver
St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, Berkeley, CA
10/13/2013
Year C, Proper 23, Revised Common Lectionary
2 Kings 5:1-3, 7-15c
Psalm 111
2 Timothy 2:8-15
Luke 17:11-19

“The saying is sure,” Paul says.

He’s an old man, imprisoned for the sake of Jesus Christ: held tight in chains of iron, looking ahead to the day of his martyrdom, looking back on his ministry, holding tight to what he knows to be more firm and more true than any chain. Maybe he quotes a fragment of praise they are used to singing in one of his churches: or maybe he simply coins these lines himself: either way, he knows the saying is sure. “If we have died with him, we will also live with him. If we endure, we will also reign with him.” For everything that we suffer in Christ, there will be a far more glorious reward. The parallelism of the poetry leads him onward: two lines on the promise of reward: and so now he turns to the consequences of failure. “If we deny him, he will deny us.” And then a surprise: “If we are faithless, he remains faithful: for he cannot deny himself.”

Hear this stunning, astonishing contradiction: from one line to the next everything has changed. Paul starts with reward, moves to punishment—but then is unable to stay there as the joy, the effervescence, of God’s unquenchable love wells up and overflows in him.

I imagine him, there, in his cell, dictating: starting the line, perhaps, intending the parallelism—then being surprised himself at what comes out of his mouth: “If we are faithless—he remains faithful!

“For he cannot deny himself.”

We are so deeply connected to God in Jesus Christ that we are actually part of his very self. Yes, as Christians when we are baptized we are grafted into the very life of Jesus Christ and become part of him, part of his body. And his love for us surges through every cell of that body and cannot, will not let us go.

 

What kind of God is this who holds on tight to us in spite of our faithlessness?

This is the God we meet in the story of the prodigal son: the story of a father who showers an inheritance on his child, watches with longing as his child rejects his love, wanders far off and squanders all the gifts so richly given, and then waits with eager yearning, ready to welcome the faithless child back with love and honor and lavish feasting the minute he comes back within sight. This is a God who gives gifts freely, who cares not a bit for dignity, whose concern is not for his son to perform good behavior but simply for his son’s presence, the child he yearns for, in whom he takes delight.

 

We need to hear that yearning in Jesus’ voice in our gospel today as he asks, wistfully, longingly: were not ten lepers healed? And where are the other nine? Did only one come back to give thanks and praise to God?

It is so easy to come to this story, shaped by our culture and our experiences, and to read it as a moralistic fable about giving thanks as an example of good behavior. Maybe we were taught to write thank you notes when we were children for gifts that didn’t particularly excite us—or for gifts that did excite us, so much so that it was much more appealing to be somewhere off playing with the gift than to sit down with a pen and paper and diligently produce the required token of gratitude. Now thank-you notes are a good and lovely thing. And it is right and it is important to teach children to be polite and considerate. But this is not a fable about our need to write thank-you notes to God. This is not a lesson teaching us that we had better say our proper prayers of gratitude when God gives us something or else God will probably not be in the mood to give us something next time. This is a story of the overflowing love of God, that depends not one whit on our own merits but simply on the fact that we are God’s children on whom God delights to shower an inheritance. All ten of the lepers are healed. The gift is given with no strings attached. In fact, the other nine are just doing what Jesus told them to do: go and show themselves to the priests. But one, this Samaritan foreigner, finds something else happening within himself: that overflowing love of God is welling up into a desire of his own, an answering love that has to be expressed in praise. And that answering love is what you and I were created for. The Samaritan has begun to be fully human.

 

Alexander Schmemann, the great Russian Orthodox theologian, wrote that human beings were created to be the priests of creation.[1] Our vocation is to be the voice of everything that God has made: to offer it all back to God in thanksgiving and praise.

J and I share our home with a small calico cat named C. She is a good cat, and much beloved by us: and I think she also loves us in the way of loving that is proper to a cat. She can curl up with us and purr. She can meow at us conversationally; and she can ask, in her own way, with great insistence, to be fed. One thing she cannot do, though, is give thanks: at least not on her own. A cat doesn’t have words or language. It takes a human being to be the articulator of the thanksgiving that we offer on behalf of the whole creation: sun and moon, land and sea, plants and animals and all that is. This is what we will do here in a few minutes, when we offer the Great Thanksgiving: because of course that is what the Greek word eucharist means: thanksgiving. We are created to be eucharistic beings. And as Father Schmemann says, none of us succeeds: like Eve and Adam, we all fall away from our priestly calling to live lives that are an offering of thanks and praise. But in Jesus God has done what we could not.[2]

Jesus has become the first of all humanity to be truly eucharistic. In his birth, ministry, healings, eating and drinking with sinners, voluntary suffering and death, and glorious resurrection and ascension, Jesus’ entire life is one mighty offering of thanksgiving and praise. Into that offering we have been incorporated as bodily members of the living Jesus Christ: and in him we begin to offer his own sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving in our own lives. We do it haltingly, stumbling and falling away, but even when we are faithless he remains faithful: for he cannot deny his own self. If we let it, his abundant life within us will overflow in ways we can only imagine. It will transform how we live: how we treat our brothers and sisters, how we spend our money, how we use our time, who we understand ourselves to be.

We are here to celebrate Eucharist. We are here to offer thanksgiving. We are here to be transformed, like the Samaritan, to become truly human. Glory and praise to this lavish God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: who yearns for us with an overflowing love.

Screen Shot 2013-10-13 at 2.58.25 PM


[1] See, among many other places in his writings, For the Life of the World, 2nd ed. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s, 1973), 92-94.

[2] For the Life of the World, 37.

Trains, Buses, and a Physical Prayer Book

Derek Olsen posted a thoughtful essay on Episcopal Cafe earlier this week about the continuing value of a physical edition of the Book of Common Prayer, even as parishes increasingly move toward locally printed worship booklets and as digital technology makes it easier and easier to customize liturgies (in authorized and less authorized ways).

Thinking about Derek’s point that a collectively agreed-upon text almost demands a physical instantiation, I’m reminded of what city planners know about the difference between train lines and bus routes.

In a lot of ways, trains and buses do the same thing. They move people along a predetermined route with certain designated stops along the way. Buses are easier to maintain and more flexible, though; and they use the same road infrastructure that’s already there for cars. In the middle of the 20th century many streetcar lines were replaced by bus routes. In fact, outside my old Seattle apartment on 14th Avenue on Capitol Hill, you can still see the lines in the asphalt where the old streetcar tracks were removed and paved over.

But the very flexibility of buses can also be a downside: because commercial development doesn’t tend to follow bus routes in the same way it does train routes. Why? A bus route can be changed anytime by the decision of a transit authority. But because a train or trolley depends on fixed physical infrastructure that can’t be easily moved, it represents a commitment to that location. Open a coffee shop or drugstore next to a train station and you’re likely to benefit from foot traffic for years to come. Open it next to a bus stop and you could be looking at a very unpleasant surprise next month or next year when the bus line switches to the parallel street two blocks over.

Trains, streetcars, and the like have been making a major comeback in recent years in many cities. (Seattle, of course, is a prime example.) Sometimes these projects are criticized as nostalgic, hipster-friendly, gentrification-fests: and there’s truth to some of that assessment. Slick new trains carry more cachet than the good old buses that are the faithful backbones of most cities’ transport networks. In certain cities I’ve lived in (ahem, Atlanta and Dallas) buses are used in large part by people who can’t afford cars. Meanwhile, the light rail systems in those cities serve major business and shopping destinations and cater to commuters and tourists. The result is a self-fulfilling cycle and a textbook study opportunity for societal racism and classism.

But I digress–because what I want to say about the prayer book has to do not with the complex social dynamics of transport policy but with that much more basic difference: bus routes are moveable; train routes stay put. From a media-format perspective, buses are digital; trains are print. And like a set of physical tracks embedded in the ground, a physical prayer book represents commitment. A digital set of liturgical resources that live online–even if they’re approved by the General Convention–is easy to change. A physical book that lives in every parish isn’t.

We’re a church with a collective polity, especially when it comes to liturgy. I’d argue that this is part of the charism of Anglicanism (and, of course, of other catholic traditions): we make decisions about our worship at a communal level, not an individual level. This doesn’t mean that there’s no room for adaptation, experimentation, customization: quite the opposite. What it means is that we set the parameters for that flexibility together, as a whole church, through the provisions established in the Prayer Book and its authorized supplements. So get out there and experiment! Try new musical styles, new ways of using space, richer ritual embodiment. Heck, try new texts: if it’s not the primary Sunday service, the BCP’s Order for Holy Eucharist allows you to write your own eucharistic prayer or use New Zealand or the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom or just about anything you want to do. The point is that it’s the fact that we have some collectively-agreed-on parameters that allows creativity to be generative and not chaotic.

To return to the bus/train analogy, train stations make excellent starting and ending points for bus routes. It’s the predictability of the fixed that allows the flexible to flourish.

Feminist Hermeneutics and Jamba Juice

Last weekend J and I went for a long run and stopped afterward to refuel ourselves with a delicious sugar-bomb smoothie. This was the first time in a while we’ve done this; back in Seattle, when we were training for our first (and only) marathon, we would go pretty regularly to Emerald City Smoothie near our old place on Capitol Hill. Our closest source for a smoothie now happens to be a Jamba Juice, and so it was that I found this artifact:

kidsmoms

What caught my attention was “Kids and moms agree.” No dads, of course.

This is something that registers particularly strongly with me as J and I are thinking about having children in the next couple of years. Both of us want to be actively involved with caring for our kids, and to do what we can to make our work schedules flexible enough for that to happen. But if there’s one of us who is more likely to spend more time at home with kids, it’s me. J makes a lot more money than I do, for one thing; and her work is an 8-to-6 schedule, whereas some of mine can be done from home and with flexible hours.

I don’t mean to pick on Jamba Juice too much. “Mom” as shorthand for “parent” is everywhere in our culture. In many ways the prominence of mommy culture in books, blogs, and media is a great thing in that it raises the profile of caring for children as crucially important and meaningful work. Nor do I feel the need to complain as if I were being oppressed and marginalized here. To the extent men are “left out” of the child care scene, it’s because our societal values have privileged men and asssumed they would be doing the more prestigious, more “male” jobs in the marketplace. The Jamba Juice flyer is just a reminder of how far we still have to go before caring for children is seen as both equally valuable with other kinds of work, and something that people would naturally want to participate in regardless of gender.

Paul, Tradition, and 1 Cor. 11

“Did Jesus institute the Eucharist at the Last Supper?”

That’s the title of a fairly recent essay by the prolific and astute liturgical scholar Paul Bradshaw. As it happens, you can read a great deal of it, or maybe the whole thing if you’re lucky, through Google Books’ preview function. Bradshaw summarizes a great deal of recent work–his own, and that of others like Andrew McGowan–which suggests that the origins of the Eucharist are much broader than a single Last Supper event but lie in the overall meal practice of Jesus throughout his ministry.

In itself, that’s not an altogether new thesis. It goes back through the work of NT scholar Norman Perrin and even in some ways to Hans Lietzmann’s 1920s work (Messe und Herrenmahl). But one of the most important pieces Bradshaw has added is his analysis of the Synoptic Gospels’ institution narratives. He has shown–to my mind, pretty convincingly–that each of the three gospels probably had a source for the Last Supper which did not include Jesus’ words identifying the bread and cup with his body and blood, but which focused on eschatological sayings: “I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until I drink it anew in the kingdom of God,” and similar. The author of Mark had the institution narrative as a separate tradition and added it as a discrete chunk to the Last Supper scene. The authors of Matthew and Luke later followed suit.1

Where did the institution-at-the-Last-Supper tradition come from, then? The most obvious candidate would seem to be Paul, who includes it in 1 Corinthians 11. If Mark got it from Pauline church sources, that might leave Paul as the single point-source for this particular story: although it ends up appearing in four different places in the NT, it’s quite possible that each of those four accounts can be traced to Paul’s version. So where did Paul get this tradition? Bradshaw outlines the two possibilities: “either from a Christian source that he believes to have preserved a trustworthy version of what Jesus actually said and did, or alternatively by some sort of direct revelation.”2

Last Supper

photo by Steve Gray/TheRevSteve

Now there are always theological implications to history. Good historians try to be aware of their own theological preconceptions and to question them, but our theological outlooks still inevitably constrain what historical possibilities seem likely to us; and, conversely, our historical reconstructions will tend to have an impact on our theology. In the case of eucharistic origins, the work of Bradshaw, McGowan, and others over the past few decades has rightly emphasized the diversity of early Christian meal practices and undermined the oversimplifications that liturgists have sometimes tended to create.3 Theologically, these results tend to suggest that we might do well to emphasize the celebratory, common-meal dimension of the eucharist more and to move away from a narrowly paschal emphasis that sees it only as a commemoration of Christ’s death.

With that shift in emphasis I’d tend to agree. And yet, of course, it is always possible to overstate a case. This is what Gordon Lathrop cautions us against in his essay “The Reforming Gospels: A Liturgical Theologian Looks again at Eucharistic Origins.”4 Noting his own location as a Lutheran for whom the “theology of the cross” is always critically important, he accepts most of Bradshaw’s historical reconstruction but suggests that the more Pauline emphasis on the cross, even if it was not originally a part of some meal practices, functioned as a reforming word to the proto-Christian-meal-assemblies, insisting that it was the Crucified and Risen one who was being celebrated and that this meal must never be celebrated to the exclusion of the poor and those who suffer. As a liturgical theologian, Lathrop accepts the importance of careful historical reconstruction but reserves the right to make value judgments about what has happened in history: liturgical theology is always normative as well as descriptive. And so for Lathrop Paul’s emphasis on the connection between the Lord’s Supper and the cross is important and worth maintaining even if the historicity of an institution narrative taking place at the Last Supper is questionable.

What I wonder is this: does Lathrop actually go farther than necessary in discounting the possibility of that historicity?

He opts pretty strongly for the second of Bradshaw’s two possibilities as to where Paul received the story of the institution narrative: not as oral tradition from Christians before him, but “directly in a vision or revelation from the Risen One or . . . from a prophet or prophets who have spoken in the name of the Risen One.”5 Lathrop’s basis for this is that Paul “does this kind of quoting [of oral tradition] nowhere else,” and that Paul usually uses the word kyrios (Lord) “to mean the Crucified-Risen One,” that is, the one he has met in his own visionary experience of the risen Christ.

I think what Lathrop has in mind here is passages like Galatians 1:11-12, where Paul argues that his gospel didn’t come to him through human beings but as a direct revelation from his encounter with Christ. But in this case Paul is talking about his “gospel”–his conviction that Christ is risen Lord and that he, Paul, has been appointed by Christ as primary missionary to the Gentiles, who can be fully included in God’s covenant–a conviction that did indeed surely come to him through direct visionary encounter, and that created significant conflict between him and more conservative members of the Jewish Christian movement.

Yet there are other places where Paul does seem to cite tradition that he has received from those who were “in Christ before [he] was” (Rom. 16:7). The best-known is 1 Cor. 15, where he cites the tradition of Christ’s death and resurrection appearances (and goes out of his way rhetorically to “reach across the aisle,” emphasizing that this is tradition he shares with Peter and James).6 Paul uses formal, language of “receiving” and “handing on”; these terms would later be used by rabbis to describe a technical process of transmitting tradition from one generation to another. Notably, these are the exact same verbs in 1 Cor. 11 to describe the institution narrative.

Lathrop is right to point out that Paul’s inclusion of the phrase “from the Lord” in 1 Cor. 11 may seem to change the meaning somewhat. After all, if he is really citing tradition here it would be more natural for him to say “I received from Cephas and James” or “from those who were apostles before me.” So the wording here might weigh in favor of a “direct revelation” interpretation. But before making that call, I think it’s worth considering the partial parallel of another passage: 1 Cor. 7. Here Paul is giving counsel about marriage: and throughout the entire chapter he makes a clear distinction between commands “of the Lord” and his own judgment. What’s noteworthy is that it seems highly likely that the commands “of the Lord” he is referring to here are, indeed, pieces of oral tradition: because here Paul’s careful distinction actually matches up quite well with traditions in the Synoptic Gospels that are at least not verbally dependent on Paul. Moreover, Paul seems to privilege this oral tradition that he has from Jesus over his own judgment, although he still believes his judgment is in accordance with “the Spirit of God.

Does it really matter whether Paul received the institution narrative as oral tradition or through a visionary experience? Yes, and no. No, because if Christians believe that Paul really did have an encounter with the risen Christ (and we’d better!–or else half our New Testament is of highly dubious value), and really did at times have mystical experiences inspired by the Spirit of God, then there’s no reason not to consider this revelation of a profound connection between the Lord’s Supper and the Lord’s death to be theologically meaningful for us as well, even if it was idiosyncratic in the earliest church. But yes, because as 21st-century people we also simply value historic factuality more highly than mystical experience. And that’s not a bad thing. Even Paul, after all, seems to have made a similar evaluation in 1 Cor. 7.

From my own reading of Paul so far–and I should say upfront that New Testament is a secondary field for me, that I’m early on in my Ph.D. program, and that this reading may well change at any time!–my sense is that he believed he had had a single, unique encounter with the risen Jesus. He considered this encounter to be on the same level as the resurrection appearances to Peter and the other apostles: a historical face-to-face “seeing,” even if hard to describe. Then, throughout his life, he had other visionary experiences in the Spirit. It’s not clear to me, though, that he would describe these as “seeing the Lord” or that he would elevate the content of these to an equal status as that of oral tradition he had received.

There’s a methodological question at work here as well. One often hears in New Testament studies that Paul was “not interested in the historical Jesus”: that his theology is based completely on his experience of the crucified and risen Christ, and that since he never knew Jesus in the flesh, he had little interest in details about Jesus’ earthly ministry. There is  considerable truth to this–but like any meme, it can be oversimplified and underquestioned. Paul doesn’t often refer to tradition about Jesus’ ministry, even in places where it might support his theological arguments, and so it seems likely that he didn’t have encyclopedic knowledge of the kinds of traditions that show up later in the gospels. But that doesn’t mean that he had none at all, and it doesn’t mean that he had no interest in the historical Jesus whatsoever.

From a different point of view, we might even see Paul as our most reliable source about the historical Jesus. We know that he had firsthand personal acquaintance with Peter, James, and likely others who had known the historical Jesus. And we have several letters that are certainly by Paul. We have nowhere near that level of clear authorial identity, nor clear connection at just one remove with the historical Jesus, in any of the gospels.

Kevin BaconPaul may have been more than six degrees from Kevin Bacon, but he was one degree of separation away from Jesus.

Paul is silent about the historical Jesus most of the time. But there are a few places where he is not. It seem to me that–making allowances for all his theological presuppositions, his apparent ignorance of a great deal of tradition, his agenda to defend his own apostolic status, and so forth–there is still a good argument to be made for taking Paul seriously when he does seem to be making historical claims about a Jesus whose actions were less than 25 years in the past at the time of his writing.

What does all this mean? I’m not completely sure. Perhaps that even if the Last Supper institution story has a point-source with Paul, we ought not to write off the possibility of some historicity for it. Now, this wouldn’t explain why the synoptic authors ended up in possession of a different Last Supper tradition focused around eschatology and impending betrayal, nor why John ended up in possession of a footwashing-and-discourse Last Supper tradition, neither of which mention anything eucharistic.

This semester I’ll be participating in the foundational New Testament area doctoral seminar, which is focusing on–you guessed it–1 Corinthians. At first when I learned this I was disappointed, because I’ve already done coursework on Paul and would have liked to spend some time focusing on the gospels or on the non-Pauline epistles or Revelation. But with these questions rolling around for me, maybe spending some more time with 1 Corinthians will end up being providential after all. As far as NT books are concerned, it’s certainly one of a liturgist’s best friends.

  1. Bradshaw notes that his analysis draws from the earlier work of Xavier Léon-Dufour. See “Did Jesus Institute,” 12-17; the same analysis is given in greater detail in the first chapter of Bradshaw’s Eucharistic Origins (London: SPCK/New York: Oxford, 2004). []
  2. Bradshaw, “Did Jesus Institute the Eucharist at the Last Supper?”, in Maxwell E. Johnson, ed., Issues in Eucharistic Praying East and West: Essays in Liturgical and Theological Analysis (Collegeville, MN: Pueblo, 2010), 12. []
  3. In particular, these oversimplifications have come from the magisterial, profoundly important, but often idealizing work of the mid-20th-century Anglican scholar Gregory Dix. []
  4. Worship 83:3 (May 2009), 194-212. []
  5. 202-203. []
  6. Here I’m drawing on an exegesis I wrote for coursework on Paul last year, which you can read if you want. []

Breaking the Body? Episcopalians and the Fraction

During our liturgical theology seminar at the GTU in the spring semester we spent a week or two discussing the great medieval allegorists like Amalar of Metz and William Durandus, who found rich (if often tenuous) symbolic meanings in almost every word and movement of the liturgy. The discussion got me thinking about the ways Episcopalians today tend to talk about, and to enact, the breaking of the bread in the eucharist.

I’ve been in places–and maybe you have, too–where the priest breaks a piece of bread quickly, almost violently, then holds it aloft while proclaiming triumphantly, “Alleluia: Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us!” It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the fraction rite is meant to be a reenactment of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross–especially if the sharp snap of a wafer lends its aural emphasis to the proceedings.

Sometimes this understanding is explicitly reinforced by teaching or printed material. I’ve seen bulletins with marginal glosses like this:

As the bread is broken, we take time to ponder the holy mystery of the Eucharist. The host, which is the large wafer that the celebrant holds up, has become the body of Christ, and now is broken, symbolizing for us Jesus’ broken body on the cross.

For those of us whose only (or main) experience of Episcopal liturgy has been with the 1979 prayer book, it can be startling to realize that the previous book didn’t include a fraction rite after the eucharistic prayer at all. Instead, the rubrics called for the priest to break the bread during the prayer, at the words “he brake it,” in keeping with Anglican practice since 1662.

By restoring the breaking of the bread to a point after the eucharistic prayer, the 1979 book restored an older pattern common to both Western and Eastern Christianity. It also helped make it clear that the eucharistic prayer is just that–a prayer, addressed to God–rather than a dramatic reenactment of the Last Supper in which the priest tries to mimic the actions of Jesus step by step. Instead, the entire prayer corresponds to the “giving thanks” of the institution story, and the breaking happens afterward, in preparation for distributing communion.

So far, so good. What’s interesting is the way this breaking of bread tends to attract different interpretations to itself. At its heart, it’s a functional action: if you’re using a single loaf of bread, it has to be broken in order to be shared. But even within the pages of the New Testament there are many theological interpretations associated with the fraction. For Paul it’s a sign of unity. In Luke it’s a moment of epiphany when Christ is recognized, hearkening back to the earlier breakings of bread in his earthly ministry. Later liturgical practice would see another theological interpretation begin to arise: if this bread that has been consecrated by prayer has become for us the body of Christ, then it’s natural to see the “breaking” of that “body” as in some way reminiscent of Christ’s suffering and death on the cross.

Reminiscent it is indeed, and can be so in a very moving way, giving rise to all kinds of fruitful meditative possibilities: here is Jesus, giving himself for me and for all of us; why, even bread must be broken in order to be shared. It’s just like what he says in John’s Gospel: only if a grain falls into the earth and dies can it bear much fruit. God, give me the grace to give myself away in love as you give yourself to me . . . And so on. When we participate in the liturgy, we’re being immersed in a world of interlocking, overlapping symbols and metaphors that can combine and enrich one another in unexpected ways. This is a good thing. As Robert Taft points out, we can and must look at the same eucharistic table at different times and see it as “Holy of Holies, Golgotha, tomb of the resurrection, cenacle, . . . heavenly sanctuary,” and much more.1

Photo by bobosh_t

Photo by bobosh_t

Something different happens, though, when we take one of those reflections and pin it down as the meaning of the fraction. Soon the central purpose of the action–the sharing of a common loaf–gets lost, as do the core New Testament associations of unity and Christophany. Instead we can find ourselves in more allegorical territory, seeing the fraction as a ritual reenactment of Jesus’ death on the cross and the “breaking” of his body. This interpretation (John’s caveat about Jesus’ body not being broken notwithstanding!) became prominent in later classical and medieval understandings. From that symbolic interpretation, it’s a short step to the inference that what’s going on in the mass is the repetition, over and over again, of the slaying of Jesus at the hands of the priest.

This was the kind of interpretation Luther battled against. He saw the fraction rite as altogether optional and perhaps undesirable, since it lent itself to this somewhat gruesome understanding of a Jesus who had to be sacrificed over and over again, in contrast to the “once and for all” of the Letter to the Hebrews. Of course, by the time of the Reformation, the use of separate wafers rather than a single loaf at the infrequent times when members of the congregation received communion meant there was no longer a functional purpose for the fraction rite at all. And so, following the Reformers’ general vision, the Anglican prayer book tradition never had a separate fraction rite until the reforms of the twentieth century. The 1552, 1559, and 1604 books said nothing about any breaking of the bread at all.2 Then in 1662, when a series of manual acts was put back into the prayer, the breaking of bread was put there as one of them.

So here we are as present-day Episcopalians. We have an honest-to-goodness fraction rite for the first time since 1549; and for the first time since many centuries before then, we have a situation in which most of the congregation is in fact receiving communion each week. We are perfectly primed for a rediscovery of the breaking of the bread as a holy moment of epiphany and a tangible symbol of unity. And, yes: as long as we are speaking of bread as Christ’s body and then in the same moment breaking it, in a meal remembering the cross and resurrection, there will always be rich possibilities for meditating on Jesus’ self-giving sacrifice in connection with that breaking. But we do better not to canonize that secondary symbolic possibility as the primary meaning of the fraction.

Howard Galley, one of the framers of the 1979 prayer book, has noted a bit wryly that the drafting committee didn’t envision the unintended consequences that might arise from choosing “Alleluia: Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us” as the first recommendation for a fraction anthem. The phrase on its own can seem to reinforce the idea that the priest has just sacrificed Christ. Yet the text in its entirety carries a very different message. It is the first line of Pascha nostrum, a characteristically Anglican hymn that celebrates the resurrection in lines taken from Romans and 1 Corinthians. We sing the whole thing during Morning Prayer in Eastertide, and it is a ringing affirmation of the once-and-for-all nature of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, which needs never to be repeated–although at every eucharist we commemorate it, celebrate it, participate in its benefits, are incorporated into it:

Alleluia.
Christ our Passover has been sacrificed for us;
therefore let us keep the feast,

Not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil,
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. Alleluia.

Christ being raised from the dead will never die again;
death no longer has dominion over him.

The death that he died, he died to sin, once for all;
but the life he lives, he lives to God.

So also consider yourselves dead to sin,
and alive to God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Alleluia.

Christ has been raised from the dead,
the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

For since by a man came death,
by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.

For as in Adam all die,
so also in Christ shall all be made alive. Alleluia.

Photo by Lorianne DiSabato

Photo by Lorianne DiSabato

(If you want, you can read the original reflection paper that inspired this post.)
  1. Robert F. Taft, “The Liturgy of the Great Church: An Initial Synthesis of Structure and Interpretation on the Eve of Iconoclasm,” Dumbarton Oaks Papers 34/35 (1982): 74. []
  2. The 1549 book does mention in its rubrics that the bread should be “devided . . . and distributed,” but without any ceremony; it is treated as a functional act of distribution. []