Advent is the four weeks before Christmas–more precisely, three full weeks plus whatever fraction of a week is needed to get us to Christmas. We are now in week 3. This Sunday is traditionally called “Gaudete” – that is, “Rejoice”. The dominant theme of this Sunday is rejoicing. The intro to the liturgy is Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”. For this week the purple vestments are swapped out for pink or rose-colored vestments. If you have a pink candle in your Advent wreath, this is the week when you light it.
What we usually do around here during the Advent season is pick an Advent-related topic and talk about it for four weeks. This year we are going through Rowan Williams’ book Being Christian: Baptism, Bible, Eucharist, Prayer. Williams, formerly the Archbishop of Canterbury, unpacks these four items as basic markers of Christian identity. Christians differ, in some cases quite significantly, on what these things mean and/or how they are to be practiced, yet all Christians practice them in some form or fashion.
This week we will look at what Williams has to say on the Eucharist, alternatively known as Communion, Holy Communion, the Lord’s Table, and other things.
For Christians, to share in the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, means to live as people who know that they are always guests – that they have been welcomed and that they are wanted. It is, perhaps, the most simple thing that we can say about Holy Communion, yet it is still supremely worth saying. In Holy Communion, Jesus Christ tells us that he wants our company.
For Williams, the Eucharist is the sacrament of hospitality. Williams takes us to the story of Zacchaeus (Luke 19) to show us how Jesus not only extends hospitality but draws it out of others in ever-expanding circles.
In other words Jesus is not only someone who exercises hospitality; he draws out hospitality from others. By his welcome he makes other people capable of welcoming. And that wonderful alternation in the Gospels between Jesus giving hospitality and receiving hospitality shows us something absolutely essential about the Eucharist. We are the guests of Jesus. We are there because he asks us, and because he wants our company. At the same time we are set free to invite Jesus into our lives and literally to receive him into our bodies in the Eucharist. His welcome gives us the courage to open up to him. And so the flow of giving and receiving, of welcome and acceptance, moves backwards and forwards without a break. We are welcomed and we welcome; we welcome God and we welcome our unexpected neighbours.
There is much diversity of thought and practice among Christians concerning the Eucharist. Some believe it is a symbol while others believe it is more than that and the elements are the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. Some celebrate it every week while others celebrate it once a month, once a quarter, or even once a year. Regardless, one thing all Christians are agreed on is that through the Eucharist we eat and drink with the risen Christ. That is the heart of it all: that at the Lord’s Table we meet Christ and share a meal together.
We can see, then, that when the risen Christ eats with the disciples it is not just a way of proving he is ‘really’ there; it is a way of saying that what Jesus did in creating a new community during his earthly life, he is doing now with the apostles in his risen life. We who are brought into the company of the apostles in our baptism – which, remember, brings us to where Jesus is to be found – share that ‘apostolic’ moment when we gather to eat and drink in Jesus’ presence. And that is why, throughout the centuries since, Christians have been able to say exactly what the apostles say: they are the people with whom Jesus ate and drank after he was raised from the dead.
Holy Communion makes no sense at all if you do not believe in the resurrection. Without the resurrection, the Eucharist becomes simply a memorial meal, recalling a rather sad and overpowering occasion in the upper room.
…There is indeed a certain sombreness about some ways of celebrating the Eucharist (and a bit later on, I’ll suggest why that is not always inappropriate). But the starting point must be where the apostles themselves began, eating and drinking with him after he was raised from the dead, experiencing once again his call into a new level of life together, a new fellowship and solidarity, and a new willingness and capacity to be welcomers themselves.
Williams then unpacks how the Eucharist connects us with God as Giver. In going back to the original event which started it all, we see Jesus giving thanks on the very night before he was about to be handed over, stripped, beaten, and then crucified. By giving thanks, Jesus connects this with the reality of God, saying that this is ultimately rooted in who God is as Giver.
If Jesus gives thanks over bread and wine on the eve of his death, if Jesus makes that connection between the furthest place away from God, which is suffering and death, and the giving and outpouring of his Father, and if in his person he fuses those things together, then wherever we are some connection between us and God is possible. All places, all people, all things have about them an unexpected sacramental depth. They open on to God the Giver.
This also has implications for how we view the material world, not as objects there for our blind consumption regardless of consequence, but as things graciously given to us by God the Giver. This view of things has implications for environmental policy which would doubtless make many conservative evangelicals very uncomfortable, but which must be considered nonetheless.
Not only does this way of looking at things change our view of the material world, it also has implications for our view of other people. Ultimately, it forces us to look at others in Christian community, even those who are least like us and whom we may dislike the most, and say “There is someone whose company is desired by God.”
There is one other element of the Eucharist which Williams unpacks in detail, and that is the theme of repentance. Repentance is needed because, though we are there because our company is desired by God, we are also there with the capacity to betray God and everything He represents. Many liturgical churches begin the Eucharist portion of the service with the words “On the night he was betrayed…”. It is incumbent upon us to confront this capacity within us to betray and forget all the good gifts God has given us. Thus, Williams says, the Eucharist is not a reward for good behavior but rather the food we need to prevent ourselves from starving as a result of our self-enclosure and self-absorption.
Williams brings all this together in a poignant quote, with which we will close today:
In many of our churches it was once thought that receiving Holy Communion was something you should only do when you felt you had made ‘proper’ preparation. There was a time in the nineteenth-century Roman Catholic Church when weekly communion was something your confessor might allow you to undertake if he thought you were doing well. And there is still, in many parts of the Christian world, a kind of assumption that Holy Communion is something for ‘the holy’. All that I have said so far should remind us that Holy Communion is no kind of reward: it is, like everything about Jesus Christ, a free gift. We take Holy Communion not because we are doing well, but because we are doing badly. Not because we have arrived, but because we are travelling. Not because we are right, but because we are confused and wrong. Not because we are divine, but because we are human. Not because we are full, but because we are hungry.
And so that element of self-awareness and repentance is completely bound up with the nature of what we are doing in the Holy Eucharist: the celebration and the sorrow, the Easter and the cross are always there together. And as we come together as Christians, we come not to celebrate ourselves and how well we are doing, but to celebrate the eternal Gift that is always there, and to give the thanks that are drawn out of us by that Gift.