How should we prepare to partake in Eucharist?

Some years ago, I wrote a short essay explaining different views of what is happening in the Eucharist, and what it means for Anglican Christians. Judging by statistics, it is the most popularly read article on my blog, and you can find it here.

Today, a friend of the blog sent me the following email:

"I sincerely thank you for this. It is by far the best instruction I've ever received on this subject. You have outlined all these interpretations of the Eucharist in a clear, non-judgmental way that stimulates the reader to think about his conclusion rather than attempt to force one upon him.

I am a convert to Roman Catholicism but am seriously thinking of returning to the Church of England due mainly to my skepticism about transubstantiation, which was rather badly explained to me by a priest at my initial instruction several years ago. For this reason I haven't taken communion for three or so years, during which time I have been reading, thinking, praying in an effort to find answers. Reading your explanations was almost like receiving manna from heaven!"

So, this very kind email-- which is much kinder than the blog deserves-- raises the pastoral question:

How should we prepare to receive the sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood through the elements of duly consecrated bread and wine?

Here is what I wrote to the kind reader:

Thank you for the kind words. Did you run across my teaching on my blog?

In my humble opinion, the preparation for the Eucharist is NOT metaphysical (fully understanding the supernatural mechanics of the meal) but rather the preparation IS moral (being in a state of reconciliation with Christ and his Body).

Take "normal" food as an example: To eat dinner with me, I do not require you to know how the proteins, carbs, and other nutrients work to receive nourishment from it. Heck, I don't even care if you don't know the name of the food or use the wrong utensils. But I WOULD bar you from eating in my house if you were a total jerk to myself and my family.

The same is true with Christ, as far as I can tell. Even a mind as great as St. Thomas Aquinas himself only had a smidgeon of the full truth of all that the Eucharist is. We are all seriously deficient in cognitively understanding the mystery of the blessed sacrament. Although, I will say, some understandings of the sacrament are on a much better trajectory toward the full truth than others (i.e. Those that affirm Christ's personal presence in the sacrament).

Yet, no matter how much or little we understand, it is still a drop in the bucket of the full truth. But Christ welcomes us all anyway, just as he welcomed saints and sinners, whores and tax collectors, Pharisees and scoundrels to eat at his table during his earthly sojourn.

All our Lord required was that people be in state of repentance and hospitality to dine with him.

In the same way, I would encourage you to partake of the sacrament if your conscience is right with Jesus and at peace with others. You will never fully understand it with your mind, but you are always welcome to receive his Love in your heart.

And that was where I left it in my email back to the person who wrote the note to me. And that is where you can leave this essay if you are satisfied, because I am about to get philosophical, Biblical, and a little nit-picky.

Because in retrospect, I would like to add a few things of a Biblical and philosophical nature to this reply. I think that the final line of my email could be taken in a pietistically dichotomous way that implies that the human mind and heart are fundamentally at odds, and that God values the heart over the mind. This is not quite what I meant to imply.

In my fairly classical theological anthropology, the human self (or "soul") has three primary dimensions: First, the mind, which cognitively understands what reality IS; Second, the heart, which affectively imagines what we SHOULD or ought to do in reality; Third, the will, which volitionally chooses, causing us to ACTUALIZE our potential in a certain direction (a certain purpose). All of these dimensions overlap and draw on each other: What should be depends on what is, and what we could do depends on what we should do, and what is possible. Furthermore, all three are finite. We are limited in our understanding, in our imagining, and in our choosing. None of these dimensions of our self has an "infinite" line directly to God-likeness (although, as St. Augustine and others note, they do form a kind of limited analogy, or finite likeness, to the Triune God).

So with those concepts defined and named, how would they apply to the Eucharist?

I would start with St. Paul's familiar admonishment to the Corinthian church in regards to partaking the Eucharist from 1 Corinthians 11.20–34. As you read, note where I have pointed out key Greek terms, especially in verses 27-34:

[20] When you come together, it is not really to eat the Lord’s supper. [21] For when the time comes to eat, each of you goes ahead with your own supper, and one goes hungry and another becomes drunk. [22] What! Do you not have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you show contempt for the church of God and humiliate those who have nothing? What should I say to you? Should I commend you? In this matter I do not commend you!

[23] For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, [24] and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” [25] In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.” [26] For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.

[27] Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord unworthily [ἀναξίως - anaxios] will be answerable for the body and blood of the Lord. [28] Examine [δοκιμάζω - dokimazo] yourselves, and only then eat of the bread and drink of the cup. [29] For all who eat and drink without discerning [διακρίνω - diakrino] the body, eat and drink judgment [κρίμα - krima] against themselves.

[30] For this reason many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. [31] But if we judged ourselves [διακρίνω - diakrino], we would not be judged [διακρίνω - diakrino]. [32] But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined [κρίνω - krino] so that we may not be condemned [κατακρίνω - katakrino] along with the world. [33] So then, my brothers and sisters, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. [34] If you are hungry, eat at home, so that when you come together, it will not be for your condemnation [κρίμα - krima].

In this passage-- which is the only of this specificity anywhere in the New Testament-- we first note that Paul's primary concern is not metaphysical. He is not chiding the Corinthians for not understanding what is going on in the Eucharist. Rather, he begins with a moral concern: People are mistreating, humiliating and depriving one another in the context of worshipping Christ in a ritual that re-members his sacrificial gift of Love.

Second, we note that "body" as used by Paul has two overlapping referents which are brought together in this act of worship: First, clearly body refers to the bread (and wine) of the meal itself. The passage makes it clear, as also the passage one chapter earlier when Paul says: "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing 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 Co 10.16–17]

But also this body is the Community of the Church, for "we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread." And then the following chapter is Paul's famous discourse on the Church as the Body of Christ, with many members united in Christ by the Spirit [cf. 1Co 12].

So, Paul is giving the Corinthian community a command with a meaning that paradoxically embraces two poles (similar to how light is irreducibly both a particle and a wave in physics). We are to "discern the Body, which is fully present in the gathered Community, and fully present in the meal which nourishes the Community". The "Body" at stake in this passage is irreducibly dual, and references BOTH the Community AND the Elements. It is a "Dual Body".

Thus, Paul is not chiding them for mis-understanding this "Dual Body" with the faculty of their mind, but rather mis-using the "Dual Body" in their heart and with their actions (or will).

This point is really brought home by the third observation I would like to bring to bear on this passage: The vocabulary that Paul uses is overwhelmingly moral, and not metaphysical. The Greek term for moral excellence or virtue is "axios". In verse 27, Paul begins by telling the Corinthians they were approaching the "Dual Body" in a way that was "anaxios", that is to say, un-worthy or un-virtuous.

Paul then exhorts the Corinthians to "examine themselves" using the Greek term dokimazo, which is overwhelmingly used by Paul to speak of examining and critiquing one's moral performance and spiritual motivations in light of the will of God [cf. Rom 1.28; 2.18; 12.2; 14.22; 1 Cor 3.13; 11.28; 16.3; 2 Cor 8.8, 22; 13.5; Gal 6.4; Eph 5.10; Phil 1.10; 1 Th 2.4; 5.21; 1 Tim 3.10]. Indeed, across Greek moral philosophy and politics, the word dokimazo takes on the meaning of being tested for moral or practical worthiness [for instance, see Liddell Scott Lexicon].

Finally, Paul uses a whole raft of words for judgment, discernment, and condemnation which come from the "krin-" family of words (krina, krima, diakrinw, katakrino, etc). These words are used across the New Testament, across Greek culture, and even across the Greek translation of the Old Testament to refer to moral judgments of worthiness, and consequences for those judgments (such as acceptance or condemnation).

The point of all of this linguistic background is to compare it with metaphysical language. If one looks at Greek passages that attempt to describe the nature of ultimate Reality, the essence of God, and the human response of understanding and participation in these metaphysical realities, one will quickly notice that the language is quite different. It is clear that Paul is not trying to make some statement about our knowledge (Greek: gnosis, ginosko), understanding (Greek: epignosis) or ideas (Greek: oida, eidon) about the nature (Greek: physis) of God's essence (Greek: ousia, hypostasis), or Jesus as God's image (Greek: eikon) or Word (Greek: Logos). If you want a taste of metaphysics in the New Testament, I would turn instead to John 1, Hebrews 1 or Colossians 1.

Rather, it is clear that Paul is chiding the Corinthians for their moral relation to the "Dual Body" of Christ, and not their cognitive relation to his "Dual Body".

This is not to say that cognitive knowledge is not important. Some cognitive ideas get us closer to enacting moral duties and spiritual practices than others. For instance, if we have cognitive concepts of "Body", "God", "Christ", "community", "bread", and "wine" it will help us immensely in identifying what we are supposed to do, and be, in reference to these realities. Furthermore, if we have a metaphysical understanding that God is in Christ, and Christ is truly present in the Community AND in the Bread and Wine, it will help us properly relate to these realities. And to push it further, it will be hard to fulfill our moral and spiritual potential if we accept cognitive explanations of Reality which de-tether God from Christ, or which detach Christ from being present either in the Community or in the Meal. That is to say, it may hinder us from treating the Community and the Meal with the dignity they deserve if we do not believe God is really present, through Christ, in them.

And yet-- you knew the "and yet" was coming-- the cognitive explanation is derivative as a tool to help us effectively practice the presence of Christ in Community and in Worship. Our cognitive mental understanding is a means to get us to End of the experience, the encounter, with the living God, fully present in Jesus. That "End" is discerned affectively, in our "heart", as we affirm that we "should" put Christ above all things, and we "ought" to treat others as children of God. This "End" is enacted volitionally, with our "will", as we seek to live into the "should" and "ought" we affectively discern.

So, if life is something like a Journey ever deeper in Love with Christ, it is our "mind" that understands the map (where our destination is), it is our "heart" that plots the course (the route we should take), and it is our "will" that moves us along the Path. But the point is that we should make the Journey. The point is to enact and embody Christ's Love as best we can. And even if we may be a bit fuzzy on the map and the directions, we can still put one foot in front of the other with Jesus guiding us.

Thus no matter how much we know of the metaphysics of the Eucharist, no matter how deep we dive into the physics of the universe, all is for nought if we are destroying one another and denying the Love of God. In fact, Paul follows up all his references to the "Dual Body" with his passage on Love in 1Corinthians 13, which says this very thing: No matter how much knowledge we have, no matter how many mysteries we fathom, no matter how much spiritual power we may boast, if we do not have Love, it is all for nothing.

And this is precisely where I come to when interpreting Paul's command to "discern the Body" as we partake of the Eucharist. This is not a command to "first understand the metaphysics of the meal, and then partake". No. It is rather a command to first discern our moral and spiritual relationship with one another in the Community, and with the Lord who is at the center of the Community, present in the meal that binds us together.

So, as a priest I do not quiz people-- nor ask them to quiz themselves-- on what metaphysical mechanics they ascribe to the Eucharistic meal. I do not ask people to specify in what exact manner Christ is present in the meal, under what metaphysical model, at exactly which time in the ritual of consecration. I do not ask people to define the mystery of the Mass using the metaphysics of Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Barth, Hegel, Popper, Wittgenstein, or Quantum Physics.

Rather, these are the types of questions I would propose to someone in examining themselves before they partake of Christ in the sacrament of the Eucharist:

Are we ignoring, denying, harming, or hating any other member of the Body? Have we confessed our sins against one another and against God? Have we sought, insofar as it depends on us, to live in peace and harmony with one another [cf. Rom 12.18]? Are we in a state of hatred, resentment, rejection or apathy toward God and God's Love shown in Christ?

If we can answer these questions worthily, virtuously, and repentantly, with a good conscience in the sight of Christ, then I believe we are fully prepared to partake of the sacrament.
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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.