The Whole Christ and the Eucharist

Just as crucial as the concept of substance to our account of the eucharist is the concept of persons. With this concept we can understand that we are both distinct and particular persons, and that that we are in communion with one another and not threatened by it. The theology of the ‘Whole Christ’ is a theology of persons in communion and thus a theology of the Church, this specific communion of sanctified persons. With his account of the ‘Whole Christ’, Augustine is the great exponent of this theology of persons in communion with God. What does Augustine mean by the ‘Whole Christ’?

[Douglas Knight What is going on in the Eucharist? Can the doctrine of the Whole Christ help? Cheyneygates ‘Work-in-Progress’ 24 April 2008]

On Sunday morning three pieces of Scripture are read – from the Old Testament, followed by a psalm from an epistle, followed by a hymn, and the gospel, and the whole lot followed by a sermon. But in my church at least, the sermon discusses just one of the these readings, the gospel usually. Can we leave the others out without losing something?

A second point: in my church the sermon does not mention what is coming next, which is chiefly the eucharist. In fact the sermon overlooks all that is going on in the service, the intercessions, absolution and peace. Why doesn’t the eucharist get a mention in the sermon? We do get to hear about the supper Christ celebrated with his friends, but this supper is not linked to the Passover, Israel’s escape from Egypt, or to any priestly conception of sacrifice. But without reference to these, we don’t get much sense that God is acting for us here in this supper. Could these two things be connected, so that is it is because the sermon does not connect all three lessons from Scripture, and connect them to everything else that is going on in the service, that our account of the eucharist is so modest?

Our diffidence might be a response to the problems created when the eucharist is so tightly drawn around the elements of bread and wine, that it turns into the vexed issue of substance and transubstantiation. The language of substance and its transformation is crucial, but inasmuch as it has been the sole conceptuality it has been asked to do too much.

But just as crucial as the concept of substance to our account of the eucharist is the concept of persons. With this concept we can understand that we are both distinct and particular persons, and that that we are in communion with one another and not threatened by it. The theology of the ‘Whole Christ’ is a theology of persons in communion and thus a theology of the Church, this specific communion of sanctified persons. With his account of the ‘Whole Christ’, Augustine is the great exponent of this theology of persons in communion with God. What does Augustine mean by the ‘Whole Christ’?

‘Christ’ here is the full Christ, the whole Christ; that is, Christ, Head and body. When Christ speaks he sometimes does so in the person of the Head alone, the Saviour who was born of the virgin Mary; but at other times he speaks in the person of his body, the holy Church diffused throughout all the world… Whenever you hear the voice of the body, do not separate it from the voice of the Head; and whenever you hear the voice of the Head, do not separate it from the body; for they are two no longer, but one flesh.
(Expositions of the Psalms, Volume 2 (New York: New City Press 2000) trans. Maria Boulding, ed. John Rotelle. Psalm 37).

How does this relate to the eucharist? Here are three brief lines from Augustine on the eucharist:

If, therefore, you are the Body of Christ and His members, your mystery is presented at the table of the Lord, you receive your mystery. To that which you are, you answer: `Amen’…Be a member of Christ’s Body, so that your `Amen’ may be the truth.’ (Sermon 272)

‘There you are on the table, there you are in the cup’ (Sermon 229).

‘If you receive them well, you are that which you receive’ (Sermon 227)

So I want to suggest how this sacramental ontology of persons in communion can help us look at the eucharistic service as a whole and so give us a wider perspective on this bread and cup. Today I am going to stay with the gathering of these persons around the priest who holds aloft the eucharistic elements whilst the people gather and process towards him.

1. Gathering and procession
On Sunday morning I am drawn out of my house, across Hackney to Church. There I am summoned with many others up the aisle to the altar where the priest holds the loaf above us. The Lord calls and we come: we are a people called and gathered, and we are a people in procession.

This procession tells us that we are not yet what we will be. We are in movement, an event that has started, is ongoing, and points to what we cannot yet see, a future that we are not in control of. We are being formed and transformed, so we cannot yet claim to be human in the full sense, but we and when we have been, we will be human at last. We are changed by our encounter with other Christians in the Church, and transformed, individually and corporately, by being gathered, reconciled with one another and brought into one body. In this way Christian hope, and an eschatology, is built in.

I stand some way back in this procession. Many more mature Christians are ahead of me, so I can only just make out the altar, where Christ is, is seated at the right hand of God. From him the procession of the Christian people winds all the way down through history to where we are here in this present generation. Christ is the head of this procession, which the Holy Spirit holds united to him.

This procession is also a supply chain or conveyor belt by which good things are passed from the Christians ahead back down to us. What they receive, they pass on to us. Whatever they receive, it makes them a distinct people, different from the wider world. This communion of persons made holy very slowly mediates this holiness to us, so that we may come to share in their holy fellowship.

Now I will resort to an analogy. At intervals my computer declares that it needs updates, which it then calls down and installs and so at intervals its functionality is increased. It asks for these, I consent, but the whole happens because out there somewhere is an entire software industry dedicated to raising the functionality of my computer.

In the same way the sacraments are instalments of holiness, which is to say increased functionality with the holy communion of Christ. The installation of one instalment after another serves to transform me from a self-absorbed individual to an out-turned being who after many years of receiving love finally also becomes able to give it.

What is more, these instalments of holiness, come to us in the form of persons, the specific Christians in front of us, sanctified, that is to say, dedicated to us to do us good. The saints of the Church, amongst whom are the specific people of my church, serve me, pass these gifts on to me, teach me about them and bear my sins whilst they do so. They are the service of Christ, to me. In the cup is love, which is Christ’s love, and also theirs.

Turning up at the eucharist makes a difference. It is worth conceptualised this in this palpable way, to avoid any sense that the process of our sanctification is so spiritual that it cannot be described at all, or that it is so interior to us that it sidelines the Christians around us, or the forms of our worship and life together. The eucharist is not a sideshow to a more real inner and private process going on in the individual Christian in isolation from the Church.

2. The Whole Christ
Christ stands at the front. His people both already stand before him, and they continue to march towards him. They are with him, and they are a people on the way.

Jesus comes to us, anointed – ‘christed’, we might say – with his entire people. The Holy Spirit glorifies Christ by uniting all others to him as members of his body. He considers them his glory, so we cannot have him except as he is Christ, that is, glorified with his whole people, and thus we cannot have him without receiving them.

Christ worships the Father
Every Christian worship service is the worship and service of Christ, so this worship is not our primarily our work but his. What we take to be the words of the Church, and so our words, are first the speech of Christ. He worships the Father. The whole worshipping Christian body is one single person – Christ.

Secondly, he opens his side of this relationship to us, so we are able to worship in his person. When, in the nineteen-fifties, there was the prospect of union of the Churches of Scotland and of England, the greatest British theologian of the twentieth century, Thomas Torrance, attempted to draw our attention back to the high priesthood of Christ (Royal Priesthood, Scottish Journal of Theology Occasional Papers, 1955). Christ is doing the worshipping and we are simply piggy-backing on him. If we took this point, our worship would be less Pelagian and much of our anxiety about our worship might be removed.

Christ prays and speaks for us. He supplies us what we need. He frees us from all other liturgies by which we give ourselves away to other masters. He perfects us and presents us to God, so the eucharist is presented by Christ.

It is received by the Father. Since, being unable to serve ourselves, we need service, the Son has set himself to serve us. Christ, whom the resurrection shows can never be coerced or compelled, has become our servant, and he continues our servant forever. He makes us perfect and presents as such to God, so we are the sacrifice he presents to God. ‘This sacrifice is ourselves’, says Augustine ‘Such is the Christian sacrifice: the multitude – a single body in Christ’ (City of God 10.6). The eucharist is two things: it is the Son’s eternal conversation with the Father, and it is his service to us.

3. The people of the resurrection
So when we talk about the people who are gathered at the eucharist, we have to say both, that they are with Christ, and that they are on the way, and therefore not yet entirely there. The body is, and isn’t, present. Let us say how it is there.

Christ is here by the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit holds Christ distinct from us, not separate, but certainly out of our grasp, beyond the powers of our perception. And the Holy Spirit brings us here before all these other people and holds this disparate and implausible community together, making it one body. The Holy Spirit hides Christ from us, and reveals him to us, bit by slow bit, in the persons of whom this community it made up.

Christ present these people to me. He sends them ahead of himself, so I have to meet them first, until through them I have become ready to meet him. They are on the way to us. Perhaps there are two streams of people coming towards us, or one stream made of two sets of people. On the one hand are all the people of the world, bringing with them all sorts of invitations and demands. And on the other is that dedicated set of people who are bringing us something from Christ.

This little gathering, the Church, is all the evidence I get that Christ is drawing all humanity to himself. The resurrection is the demonstration that the Spirit has united us to Christ and, in him, to one another. No created power, not even death, can tear Christ away from God, tear us away from Christ, or oblige Christ to let go of us. So the resurrection of Christ is promise and warning of our own future resurrection: the Spirit who raised him from us will also raise us to him. This resurrection is hidden within the present world, and the worship of the Church is the place where we tumble upon this secret.

The unity of Son and Spirit, evident in the resurrection, holds all these otherwise incompatible persons together in the love and communion that is the Church. In the Church we learn to see one another patiently, not only as we presently are, but also as we may be, and thus together with our future. We need the mediation of a specific group, the saints and teachers of the Church, to enable us to grow until we become able to receive all persons as good. Christ with the Holy Spirit is in the cup.

The Church is that vast assembly made up of all the members of Christ, both those who for us are in the past and the future. They want us to take up our place with them. This assembly, that is future to us, will make itself present to the present world in Christ and in the Spirit, all at once, at the judgment. In the incarnation we have a preview of this coming together of all things. And this future assembly makes itself present to us now, little by little, as his incarnation is continually set before us in every eucharist. The resurrection that raises us to Christ, will also raise us and bring us face to face with all men. He now sends us all these people ahead of him to us, so our resurrection, imperceptibly underway since our baptism, consists in meeting these saints who already make up his glorious body. So, because Christ is with the Holy Spirit in that cup, the saints, their whole sanctified people, are in that cup.

Only the people of the resurrection can suffer and experience the passion, and become intercessors for the world, and experience and acknowledge its redemption with worship and thanksgiving. In the prayers of the eucharist we ask God to give us all those whom we are waiting for, and so make this body complete. We mourn for those who are not yet present, for their absence means that we ourselves are not yet present as we want to be. In our intercessions and offertory prayers we raise them.

So we are at some distance from the real presence understood in terms of transubstantiation of sacramental elements. This plural, eschatological, catholic and participative ontology of persons removes some of the difficulty from the eucharist. The wafer is the eschatological body, that is to say, it is the completed assembly gathered around Christ, that eschatological body, and so it is our glimpse of the future.

4. The one loaf – the tangible body
But it is not only persons, but also creation, that is being gathered and redeemed. The eucharist give us our foretaste of this redeemed and complete creation. We therefore have to talk about things and bodies, and about their substance or natures.

Every human being, being a creature with a body, embodies creation. Each of the bodies which make us visible and present to one another, constituted of all the vegetable and animal bodies we consume, is itself a gathering of the material elements of creation. In the Eastern Orthodox side of the Church Christians bring bread to the eucharist, some of which is consecrated and offered in the eucharist, some of which is distributed and consumed after the eucharist, as their fast ends. Notionally, this bread is from their field, oven and their own labour – a physical token of them.

We have commuted these tokens to money, but we bring it to distribute amongst the poor, and so to those who have chosen their poverty as part of their service to us, our own in-house monastics, the clergy. We could also bring physical tokens of ourselves and leave them at the altar.

But even if we don’t bring any explicit offering, your own body, made up of all you have consumed, is itself a gathering of material elements. Creation is included and consummated in the eucharist in the form of all the bodies of those present. To show that the whole material creation is included, we have to talk about substance.

Creation is good, that is the place made for us, in order that we may truly and properly meet one another, so it is the proper calling of creation, and of every material thing in it, to be the medium of man-with-man and man-with-God. Our materiality is good, and all the particularities of our own bodies are good and will be redeemed. As we bring them to the eucharist they receive their proper place and significance: we no longer have to bear them and their deficiencies on our own, but the body of each of us is received as the gift of Christ and so as the affair of the whole assembly.

We are embodied persons. Our bodies are the form in which we are available to one another, the medium of our communion. We have to talk about the material elements, from which our bodies are made, and the practices of self-control by which we become more than simply bodies. We need to indicate that we are a people in process, being transformed from their present fractured nature to their complete, future, nature, and so being raised from one functionality to another, raised that is, from being individuals trapped within in our own selfhood, to a creature who receives love and who loves, a person enabled to reach out to other persons, a catholic being. Your body, together with all its diseases, somatic and psychological, is the gift of God to us, indeed it is Christ to us, so we may never tire of its service.

When we are talking about the eucharist and persons, we do so in terms of people and of priest. We cannot think of the one without the many, the priest without his people, or the people without their high priest. Christ does not appear without us, and so we see him as always with us, God-with-man, so this theophany is a theandry.

When we talk about the eucharist in terms of creation and the material bodies, that make us up, and so of this bread and wine, and that oil and water, and even that coffee and biscuits, we have the discourse of nature and substance. These two discourse of persons and material bodies are both required. The people around the priest holding these physical elements, ‘which earth has given and human hands have made’, make a single theophany, the presence of God to creation. The elements of creation are taken up to form the figure of man, this person clothed and embodied in material creation.

The priest who holds aloft that large round disc locates Christ for us in these several ways. As we process up towards that loaf, we become integrated into the body that he has raised for and opened to us. We are the many fragments, whom brought together, are made into this one bread, pure and indivisible, our crumbs united to make one loaf, the divided become indivisible, opposites are united, all different divisions of the world are brought together.

5. Disdain for the body
But Christ is not yet all in all, the body is not complete, and our account of his presence with us must include an account of his present absence. Christ waits now, and it is us who keep him waiting; he will continue to wait until the very last and least are in. With Christ we pray the prayers of those who have received no acknowledgement or mercy from any other master; we sing the psalms of lament, groaning with those who groan but don’t know who to address their groans to. In every eucharist we have to acknowledge the imperfectness of our communion, praying by name for those from whom we are separated.

When the congregation of my Church is gathered in worship we say that Christ is with us, although, without faith, no evidence of him imposes itself on us. The degree to which we find one another unattractive and not very Christ-like comes from this dark and incomprehensible way in which Christ presents himself, crucifying our expectations as he comes. In each of these unlovely people at the altar rail Christ says, ‘Do you see me, do you love me’?

All human beings give themselves away – we cannot help ourselves. If we do not give ourselves to Christ and to all his body, we give ourselves away in some other way, and to some other power. Either we love and adore God and give ourselves to him, which is to say give ourselves back to him, or we direct all that love and adoration to other objects, thereby making idols of them. I just cannot hold my adoration in. I too readily give myself to the darlings and delights of the media, but so grudgingly give myself to the people of the church. All our whole consumer culture is a vast displacement activity for this true love.

To denigrate the Church is to fail to recognise Christ. When I declare that the Church is too full of old people, demand that it demonstrate its relevance, and search for a fresh emergent and more real Church consisting of separate congregations for young people, I reveal my disdain for the body of Christ. I need you to help me overcome this desire to distance myself from this body. When I decide that the Christians around me are too exclusivist, traditionalist and fundamentalist, or otherwise just too muddleheaded, you have to tell me that they have had fewer educational opportunities than I have, and that if they are the weak, we who are the strong have to wait for them. For if we go ahead ‘without waiting for anyone else’, we fail to ‘recognise the body of the Lord’, and so eat and drink division on the Church and judgment on ourselves. You have to name my disparagement of the rules and habits of the Church for the antinominianism and Gnosticism it is. We have to fast and abstain together at the appropriate point in the calendar and learn all the practices of self-control that make each of us more than just our own bodies. Until we keep the fast, and wait for each other, the joy of the feast will elude us.

All the persons I want to shun are in that cup, so it tastes bitter to me. But the cup is bitter for the whole church as long as it is served by a clergy who leave it with the impression that it is not the body of Christ, but that Christ is elsewhere. According to his promise Christ is primarily identified with the gathered community who call on his name. Christ is not be identified only with the periphery: our search for new categories of the excluded (identified by their own antipathies to their own or others bodies) removes our gaze from this body, so that it, the gathered Church, becomes the most neglected and marginalised. This particular gathered body is the primary presence of Christ to the world.

Just as there are always two cities and two liturgies, that of Christ and that of all masters, so there are always more than one cup set before us, the cup of Lord and the cup offered by other masters and their moral environments. Since they have no resource of their own, what other masters offer us they have taken from others, so when we eat with them it may be the poor whom we are consuming. Then we come to the altar with who knows what debts, our lifestyle sustained at what long term cost. We do not know whether the food that has nourished and ultimately constitutes our bodies has come from producers in plantations on the other side of the world, who have not been adequately recompensed for what they have provided, whose own bodies are not adequately nourished. It may be that even the material of my own body belongs to others. Could it be that I have been consuming them and when the Lord looks at me, it is their voices that he hears?

When we feed from the body and cup of Christ, and refuse all sorts of other food sourced from other masters, the whole body thrives, the true bread is passed on, and those downstream of us receive it through us. The eucharist not only gives us what we need, but it takes away from us what we don’t need or cannot manage: it is a stripping, purification and healing in which this strong medicine drives out all these other spirits. We are being divested of all that does not properly belong to us, and over the long term the eucharist takes away our taste for other cups. If we receive this bread, say Amen, break it and pass it on we are forgiven and become members of the body that we have been promised.

6. Sacrament and word
All the elements of the eucharist are to be found in our contemporary church and worship, but badly connected. We need to bear the fragments we have up to the altar where they can be restored and become a seamless garment, that single loaf.

So what, in practical terms, am I suggesting? I am suggesting that what is in the cup is the whole body of Christ, and this body must appear in the sermon too. The procession of the whole Christian people, through the liturgical year, through Scripture and through the world is to be expressed by the sermon. We said that the service is first Christ’s service to us. It is his service to God in that Christ directs his worship to him and to no other master, and it is his service to us in that he bears us to God. This liturgy and service is his love song to us, and the hymns we sing echo this love song of God to us. It is all our task to say that we are not him, that Christ is distinct from us, and we are able to do so because Christ has determined that we are with him, and that we are him. We cannot consider the Christian people apart from Christ, or Christ apart from them, so what the Christian people is doing, saying and above all singing is our primary data.

What is the purpose of the sermon? It is first to link together all three readings from Scripture. Only by linking all three readings and psalm do we show that Christ is the fulfilment of the promise made to the specific sets of people who appear in those Old and New Testament readings. And the sermon links in together all the other elements of the service, by pointing out here a verse of the hymn, there a sentence or response, and referring back to the readings of previous weeks and forward to the readings for coming Sundays.

The purpose of the sermon is to connect all the readings, the Old Testament and New Testament together, so that each part of the bible will serve as the hermeneutics through which we read every other, so that Scripture as a whole will provide the hermeneutic by which we understand our own world. It is for the sermon to interpret all that happens to us together and individually, in the light of the evangelical narrative that unfolds through all the readings of the year. So the sermon helps us follow our own progress around the year, and so learn that the whole Church is together on pilgrimage, marked by the liturgical calendar. The people of Israel and every generation of the Church are our guides on the path that we are taking together.

Clearly there is vastly more to be said on this subject. There are other models and analogies which come out of Scripture in their profusion, each set of readings giving a particular ‘take’ on what is in the bread and the cup and thus who we are, this week. Nonetheless, the bread and cup are always the resurrection, the eternal unbroken life and unity of Son and Spirit. The resurrection spells itself out as our passion, which is our slow release from our various hates and our growth in love first for the saints and then for all without exception.

We are looking for a eucharistic, sacramental, theological ontology, one that is dynamic and eschatological, plural and personal, and which takes creation, materiality and our embodiedness seriously. Augustine has showed us the way.