Thursday, March 08, 2007

The Experience and Reality of the Lord's Supper in Protestant Churches

Alan, a brand new seminarian for his diocese (please pray for him!) asked me to read over some reflections of his on the Eucharist and to point out where I felt some corrections could be made. This shows humility on his part, and I respect his willingness to be faithful to the Church regarding a topic he does not fully understand. Humility and orthodoxy: two hallmarks of a good priest! I hope that my comments are helpful.

I’ve been reading and thinking over your post from 30 January 2007 regarding the Holy Eucharist. It, along with the comments, are very informative. Having been raised in what might be described as a “mainline, non-denominational, New Testament church” – celebrating what we called “The Lord’s Supper” – has always been something that held a special place in my heart. Even more fully so as I began my “Journey to Rome”, and was welcomed fully into celebration of the Eucharist.
I am glad that my post and the subsequent comments were helpful to you. It is good to see that you consider the Catholic Eucharist to be a fuller participation in the Lord's Supper. This will be good to keep in mind as we continue.

From a very young age, I remember feeling (so much more than thinking) that divisions in Christ’s body on Earth must deeply pain the heart of Christ. That feeling was, in more ways than I can describe, what led me home to the Church.
Indeed, division in the Body is painful both to Christ and to his apostles. Jesus prayed for unity (cf. Jn 17), and this is one of the four marks of the Catholic Church. She is ONE, and there is great multiplicity among all Christians who are not united to His vicar, the Pope.

Along the way, I have often reflected that there are so many ways in which the broader family of Christianity are the same. Ways that we don’t recognize. And – when we’re willing to get behind the belief that the divisions themselves are “right” (mostly because we’re comfortable with them) – and if we’re willing to look at what we’re defining as the differences, many of them are sometimes just shadows on the wall. At the very least – the differences aren’t always as pronounced as collecting them into words like “transubstantiation” or “consubstantiation” would seem to make them.
Well, first of all, you said we need to be willing to "get behind" the belief that divisions are right. Usually when you "get behind" something, you approve of it, but I'm guessing you meant to say that we should reject this belief that divisions are okay.

That said, I do agree that Catholics have many things in common with other Christians. This is good to keep in mind when engaged in ecumenical dialogue, and you seem to have an especially ecumenical approach. That is fine, as long as you are not ignoring our differences for the sake of unity. Some differences do simply amount to semantics (especially in the debate regarding faith and works). But, there are others that cannot be considered simply "shadows on the wall."

Yes, the Lord's Supper is special to most if not all Christians. But, what are we receiving in this Supper? Jesus said, "unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you" (Jn 6:53). This makes the differences between transubstantiation and consubstantiation in fact very important because we must be sure that what we are receiving in the Eucharist is the very same thing that Jesus wished to give to us so that we may have life in us. Our life in Christ is at stake!

Growing up, in our communion, we used crackers and grape juice. We celebrated “communion” every Sunday. It was the “high” part of our service. It was a moment of intense reverence, reflection, and recollection. We weren’t taught about transubstantiation. We were taught that we were doing the exact same thing that Christ had done. Gathering as a family around a table. Accepting gifts that started out as common “meal stuff” – gifts that were offered to us by Christ Himself. That these gifts were offered in memory of the most Precious Sacrifice. And that doing so sustained us as Pilgrims until our journey in this world ended.

But, as I reflect back, I realize – we always knew that there was something “special” taking place in our celebration. That what was “special” about it was not our doing, but rather Christ’s doing – in that moment. We didn’t “consecrate” the elements, we didn’t reserve or reverence them – but as we partook of them, we just knew there was something “special” that was nourishing our spirit – and oh yeah, it just happened to be in the form of what might “accidentally” (to use Aristotle’s phrase) nourish our bodies.

Of course, there are many things missing from my “communion” celebration of my youth. (If nothing else, the species weren’t consecrated… and I didn’t recognize or accept them as such.) But, what I experienced as a child and young adult in the church I was raised in, is not as different as so many of us seem to want to claim. I don’t mean to offer apologetic for protestant “communion”. Only to point out that “transubstantiation”, “consubstantiation”, and whatever word might be used for the theology that describes what I participated in as a youth – well, they aren’t as different as they seem.
Again, I affirm that a communion celebration can still be very meaningful for a Protestant. I'd imagine that most of them get a lot out of it.

Now, what you seem to be saying is that, regardless of whether or not it's transubstantiation, consubstantiation, or purely symbolic, the Lord's Supper can still have great meaning and impact in a person's life, and that's what is important. In other words, the differences between transubstantiation and consubstantiation are not as important as the fact that the believer is touched by the experience. If that is indeed what you are saying, then I don't agree with it. I think that, in virtue of what the believer is actually receiving and what this reception actually effects in his life, the experiences of the Protestant and the Catholic are markedly different, even though they may both walk away feeling edified.

You were in a "mainline, non-denominational, New Testament church." Your participation in the Lord's Supper may have been a very moving experience, but when you consumed the elements of your supper, what did you receive? It was crackers and grape juice, my friend. Nothing more and nothing less. You may have performed the same body movements of Jesus and the apostles, but, did you really do what they did? Were you really faithful to Jesus command to "Do this in memory of me" when you ate crackers and grape juice? Jesus didn't give his apostles those things. He gave them his very flesh and blood, the same flesh and blood that stood before them. He held himself in his hand. It is a mystery beyond compare and I dare say that "mainline, non-denominational, New Testament" churches do not participate in that mystery.

From this we move to the effects of your reception of crackers and juice. Yes, I don't deny that you felt you were closer to God and doing something profound through your supper. But, in reality, what did it actually effect in your life? You may have received grace from this experience. I affirm the perogative of God to give grace to whomever he wills, and I acknowledge that he gives it to Christians who are not in full communion with the Church. But, you did not receive grace particular to your celebration. God did not institute your celebration as His very instrument through wish to give grace to man. There is no assurance of receiving grace through your celebration.

Bryan commented in my earlier post that, when he was an Evangelical, he always felt that he had to use some “spiritual muscle” to make the Eucharist have meaning in his life. He had to do the work in making it meaningful because, at the ontological level, nothing meaningful was taking place. As a non-denominational Christian, you had to attach the meaning to the event because at the end of the day, you didn't do anything more than what I could do in my kitchen. BUT, in the Eucharist, Jesus does the work. Whether we attach any meaning to it whatsoever, when the Priest consecrates the bread and the wine, they truly, really, substantially become the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus Christ. If I approach him without being in a state of mortal sin, he actually enters into me. He forgives my venial sin. He unites me to Himself and to the other members of the Body..........and all this, regardless of how "warm and fuzzy" I feel.

Now, I hate to degrade your experience. I honestly do. I know how meaningful it was to you. I say all this only to show that there are in fact more differences between our experiences than you may imagine, and that these differences are very important.

In some ways, the “difference” lies in mystery that can only be reasoned and philosophized so far. What happens when those called to newness of life by Christ Himself gather together to celebrate his Perfect Act of Love? What actually does Christ accomplish in these special moments? How are we nourished spiritually as we participate?
This all depends on the nature of our participation, as I hope I have already shown.

The Magisterium provides answers that I do not doubt or question. I wholeheartedly believe that I receive in the Eucharist the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord. My goal is just to point out that Christians of many traditions answer these “mysterious questions” in ways that aren’t, when you get down to it, so very different than Mother Church. And, isn’t there something to gain for the Body of Christ – the universal Body of Christ, including those who may answer these questions somewhat differently – by all of us looking first at what the differences really are? And also finding and accepting what is the same? And seeking, with brotherly love and charity, to find how and where and in what ways we are alike? In those actions, don’t we do our part in what must be the Spirit’s work to help us find unity among the Body of Christianity?
It is always important, in an ecumenical setting, to emphasize our agreements. This helps us to feel a greater regard for one another and it keeps us from viewing the other party as the enemy. This emphasis is also important because what we have in common can be the foundation upon which two parties are brought to agreement on the issues in which they differ.

So, you are right in saying that it is good to discover the ways in which we are like. But, you also said that we should "look first at what the differences really are." Like I said, sometimes they are small. Sometimes they don't actually exist at all. But, other times they are very real. I categorize the differences in our celebrations of the Eucharist under the "very real." We cannot forget our areas of agreement. But, we also can't forget our differences, and we have to look at them openly and honestly if we are ever going to be the Body of Christ that Jesus intended the whole world to be.

I hope that helps. For more on the Eucharist, go here.

Pax Christi,


Unknown said...

I've been thinking more about this too. Perhaps the "Lord's Supper," with the theology most Protestants attach to it, functions more like a sacramental rather than a sacrament? That is to say, where the Consecrated Elements convey Christ to us in a real, physical way; the "Lord's Supper" is something that God uses in a teaching way? Something that Protestants learn more about God through, rather than receiving grace through?

Just a thought,
Bryan @ THEOdyssey

Alan Carter said...


Hi - it's "Alan" from this post. Again, thank you for the time and effort in putting together your blog entry.

You really summed up in your words what I have found to be true: "I think that, in virtue of what the believer is actually receiving and what this reception actually effects in his life, the experiences of the Protestant and the Catholic are markedly different, even though they may both walk away feeling edified.
That says what I was trying to say much better than I did.

I believe that God was worked to provide something to me in the Communion services of my youth. And, likewise, I deeply KNOW there is something substantially different in what I experience in receiving the Eucharist.

Though there are many ways to know the reality of what happens when we receive the Eucharist - theology, scripture, Tradition, and more - there's one fundamental way I knew (even before being welcomed into the Church) that there was something different: my own experience.

Thanks again... And yes - please pray for me. :-) And all who are seeking to follow God's call in their lives, as priests, apologists, mothers/fathers, teachers, or wherever their call may lead.

Jason Ramage said...

I'd say Protestants who receive Communion with a humbleness of heart are receiving grace through the act. They aren't receiving the same graces we receive, but I think many Protestants would call it a "grace-filled moment."

I'm surprised at hearing my Baptist friends talk about receiving Communion and how much of an intimate moment it is for them with God. I never felt anything like some of them do, but it does show that God is far bigger than the sacraments. Of course, they are part of His Creation :)

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