Teaching about the Eucharist

While preparing our new website for Holy Cross, Davidson’s Mains, it became clear that it had three main functions. One was to provide easily accessible up-to-date information about us and what we are doing, for example if you were visting Edinburgh and wanted to come to Mass in an Anglican Church you should find all the basic information you need on the front page. Another was to give an attractive impression of who we are, to share our values and make it clear that you will find a good welcome here even if you are not a church-geek or a believer. The third function, which became clear as we put the site together, was to provide basic Christian teaching online.

Not all would agree that this third function is the business of a parish website (in the Scottish Episcopal Church we don’t officially have ‘parishes’ as we are waiting for the Presbyterians to give them back after they stole them in 1690; the last attempt to retrieve our parishes at swordpoint ended badly in 1746 and so now is probably the time to accept that our ‘charges’ are actually ‘parishes’). I do, however, think that basic Christian teaching is a useful component of church websites because there is an increasing ignorance of it among the Scottish population and even within the Church.

Doctrine is implied in even the most basic website. These simple screenshots of the more sophisticated sites of two large and flourishing Episcopal churches in Edinburgh each carry doctrinal freight – even if it also raises questions for the cognoscenti. Are these two churches associated respectively with the Evangelical Alliance and Forward in Faith and with the theological positions of these groups? (the answers are: Yes; No).

Having doctrinal content in a parish website can counter ignorance. Simply saying that same-sex couples may marry in our church, on a page explaining Christian marriage, counters the popular view that the Church is homophobic – some churches are but ours insn’t. One can also gently point out that the Bible is a divinely-inspired source of life and salvation, but it is not an infallible guide to history or science and it does contain historically conditioned teaching that is morally reprehensible today. The importance of countering false views of Christianity is that they are stumbling blocks for people, hindering them from coming to Christ. Middle-class ‘inclusive’ Christianity of the type often found in the Scottish Episcopal Church and Church of Scotland can be so devoid of Christian content that it is unable to discern between life-giving truth and life-denying error and so has nothing to offer a society that needs Christ.

If this seems too negative, it does have a positive side. In ministry I have spent a lot of time telling people ‘you don’t need to believe that’ and ‘that’s not real Christianity, it’s made up by weird American Evangelicals’. The secularisation of our society is a complex phenomenon but it is encouraged by some defensive Christian responses to modernity. If we can put aside such deformations, we can enable the light of Christ to shine forth in all its life-giving glory. A few lines on a website, in a society where people get most of their information online, can help with this.

Online presence can help our mission. I am aware that websites are only a part of this and are old & static, but they have their place, as an electronic version of a church noticeboard. They can also help deepen the faith of Christians. At our diocesan Synod recently, a fellow priest stood up to speak in a discussion of liturgy. He said that as we were an ‘inclusive church’ we should have a liturgy for people like him who don’t believe what is said in our Scottish Liturgy, that by the power of the Holy Spirit the bread and wine of the Eucharist become the body and blood of Christ. He thinks that the bread and wine of the Eucharist do not become the body and blood of Christ. Sadly, this was not an attempt at irony, and, while some were scandalised by the comment, it did not seem right to point out to him in Synod that there are other churches in Scotland that would welcome Zwinglian Ministers. It does, however, reveal that we need to be more intentional in Christian formation and especially in formation for ministry. Sharing basic Christian teaching online can help this.

In the life of a church there are various opportunities for sharing sound teaching. We can do so in sermons, in formation courses like ‘Alpha’ and ‘Pilgrim’, in discussion groups, through theological education institutions like the Scottish Episcopal Institute and in the Liturgy. The lockdowns have shown us the importance of our online presence and websites, as repositories of information, are a prime site for sharing what we believe. Below is the section on the Eucharist from our new Holy Cross website. It is not perfect, and we do not at present have any good images of the congregation at worship, but it is an introduction to the mystery of Christ in the Eucharist.

The night before he died, Jesus gathered his twelve Apostles in a room in Jerusalem. He took bread and wine, told them these were his body and blood and gave them the command to ‘do this in memory of me’. By this he offered the sacrifice he was to accomplish on the cross the following day. Ever since then Christians, led by priests ordained by the successors of the Apostles, have obeyed this command.

An Anglican Benedictine monk, Dom Gregory Dix, wrote of this amazing fact:

“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… ; 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 Saint 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.”

Whenever we come to the Eucharist we are part of this story.

What is the Eucharist and why is it so important for Christians?

The Eucharist is a sacrifice. We offer to God the Father the gifts of his creation, bread and wine. By the power of the Holy Spirit they become the body and blood of Christ which we eat and drink. In the Eucharist Jesus offers the sacrifice of his body and blood on the Cross to his Father and we share in this offering. ‘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 sacrifice was done once for all on the Cross two thousand years ago, but Jesus our High Priest continues to offer it beyond time in the heavenly Sanctuary. The Eucharist re-presents in time and space this eternal sacrifice, by Jesus’ command, as a source of life for us (Luke 22.14-20; Hebrews 7.23-27; 9.11-14; Revelation 5.5-10). The Eucharist is thus called ‘the Holy Sacrifice’.

The Eucharist is the real and living presence of Christ among his people. Jesus said of the eucharistic bread and wine, ‘this is my body… this is my blood’ (Matthew 26.26-28) and ‘my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink’ (John 6.55). Jesus said to his disciples ‘I am with you always, to the end of the age’ (Matthew 28.20) and one of the ways he is present is in the consecrated bread and wine of the Eucharist. At Holy Cross the Blessed Sacrament is reserved continually in the aumbry, the golden cupboard in the east wall of the Church, for the communion of the sick and as a focus for prayer and adoration. The Eucharist is thus called ‘the Sacred Mysteries’ and ‘the Blessed Sacrament’.

The Eucharist is the sacrament of unity. The Eucharist makes the Church by uniting us to Christ and to each other. Jesus said, ‘unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day… Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them’ (John 6.53-54, 56). Paul said, ‘The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a communion in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a communion in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread’ (1 Corinthians 10.16-17). The Eucharist is thus called ‘Holy Communion’.

The Eucharist feeds and strengthens us to go out into the world and serve God and our neighbour. Jesus said, ‘I am the bread of life, whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty’ (John 6.35). As we all kneel together at the altar rails, this sacrament reminds us that we are all equal and equally loved by God and are called to go out and love each other (John 13.34-35). The Eucharist is called ‘the Mass’ from the Latin ‘missio’ meaning a sending out.

The Eucharist gives us a taste of heaven. At every Eucharist we join ‘with angels and archangels and the whole company of heaven’ (Scottish Liturgy 1982). We join them as they sing around God’s throne and altar in heaven and the Lamb that was slain (Hebrews 9.11-14, Revelation 5.5-10). The Eucharist is called ‘the Lord’s Supper’ because it was instituted at the Last Supper and anticipates the wedding feast of the Lamb in the heavenly Jerusalem (1 Corinthians 11.20; Revelation19.9). It is called ‘the Eucharist’, from the Greek word for thanksgiving, because in it we are taken up into this great cosmic act of thanksgiving to God.

O sacred banquet, in which Christ is received, the memory of his passion is renewed, the mind is filled with grace, and a pledge of future glory is given to us.

O God, who in this wonderful Sacrament have left us a memorial of your passion, grant us, we pray, so to venerate the sacred mysteries of your body and blood that we may ever experience in ourselves the fruits of your redemption. Who live and reign for ever and ever. Amen.

Holy Cross

One thought on “Teaching about the Eucharist

  1. Many thanks Stephen. I’ve commented elsewhere on the substance of your text, which I think is excellent, but I wanted to echo your preference for the use of the word ‘parish’ over ‘charge’. I always use it for a number of reasons: it’s a word people recognise; it gives a sense of place; other traditions in Scotland other than the established Kirk use it.

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