Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Easter Theophany, Part 1 of 3: Eucharist

     I have always resisted studying theology. I've always had a very strong and direct experience of the presence and love of God, and it has seemed kind of offensive to the nature of the relationship to treat God as an academic subject. As if we could "know" our Creator intellectually. As if we could definitively "know" anything about the Beloved, or one another, or even ourselves. So I haven't studied theology in any systematic way, and I'm not going back to read the relevant parts of the catechism before posting this, either. 

    That said, I'm going to invite readers to share their theological reflections on this blog post and the next two, about different aspects of a beautiful mystical experience I had in church on Easter Sunday morning. I want to explore more deeply some of the theological implications of the Easter Sunday "theophany," as well as themes that run through my whole life with God. I would love to hear your thoughts, either in the comments or using the contact form.

    Note: although I talk about "visions" for want of a better word (feel free to suggest one!), they're never really visual, or they are barely so. At most, I might see a difference in the quality of the light, or a movement of light. I'm not seeing Christ seated on his throne with little baby cherubs flying around! That's not how my brain works, I have very little visual imagination even in ordinary life. In a mystical "vision" I often feel touch or movement, but I'm not seeing pictures, at least not with my bodily sight. Emotion yes, definitely: bliss, love, awe, gratitude. And often, words, or a definite concept, some insight, with a phrase that encapsulates it for me, with which I can bring it back to my memory with all the sensory and emotional qualities of it. Such as, this past Easter Sunday, "the church is full of God." The main thing is the absolute conviction these "visions" bring. It's like the conviction you feel during a dream, about the craziest things, except that in mystical vision the conviction stays just as strong after the experience is over. My first "parting-of-the-veil" happened when I was 18 years old, and my conviction about it has never diminished.


    So. On Easter Sunday, the monastery church was full of God.

The place was super-saturated with God, the air was thick with the Divine Presence. I mean, it felt thick, like water is thickened by gelatin. And the light! Of course, it being Easter Sunday, every light in the church was turned on, and all the candles. But it wasn't just illuminated, it was luminous. It was glorious. And it was palpable at times, as I say, like a physical thickening of the air with Glory. It was magnificent!

    This glow, this sensual awareness of the fullness of the presence of God in the Church, waxed and waned throughout the Mass. Maybe with my attention? Because also, I was paying attention to the Mass and participating in it. But the vision lasted throughout the whole service, and I could see the luminous afterglow for a week or two before it faded to memory.

    Of course, the church is always full of God. All of Creation is always full of God, saturated with God, inextricable from God. Creation did not only come into existence by its Creator, but it continues to exist in its Creator, entirely. But this seems to be the nature of a mystical experience: the active omnipresence of God was made manifest to me on Easter Sunday, as an overwhelming fullness of the Divine Presence within the church where I was worshipping. The church was transfigured.


    Then, when the offertory procession approached the altar with the bread and wine for the Eucharist, I knew, with perfect conviction, when I looked at the bread and wine, that they were already consecrated when they reached the altar. The gifts were consecrated already, before any of the Eucharistic rite had been performed by the priest and assistants. Before any of the magic words had been spoken.

    Which was such a beautiful way of reminding me that it is God who consecrates the bread and wine, who transforms them into his divine substance, who chooses to become incarnate again every day of the year not as a human being, but as food for his beloved human beings. A reminder that the words of the rite are not magic words. The priest is not a magician, casting a spell, conjuring God to do his bidding by saying the right words with the right gestures in the right order.

    The priest, along with all of us present and faithful, are participants not in a self-directed act of alchemically transforming lead into gold or bread into God, but in a living relationship, a loving interchange with One whose love is expressed in a never-ending gift of his divinity to us. We offer God bread and wine, made out of the wheat and grapes that God gave us. But although the priest sometimes refers to the gifts as the "sacrificial offering we make unto You," in fact, it is God who makes the sacrificial offering to us, by transforming these simple things into God's own Body and Blood, so that He can be incorporated into us, so that his divinity can be commingled with our humanity. 


    But here's the question I'd like to explore, hopefully with some of you priests and theologians out there: if the gifts were already consecrated, by God, before the rite took place, then what is the purpose of the rite? Why did I feel, even in that moment on Easter Sunday, that it was still essential that the ritual take place? Why do we say that the sacrament of the Eucharist is "valid" only if it is celebrated by a validly ordained priest, and only if the right words are said? What is the role of the priest? What does the sacrament of Holy Orders actually confer on him, if it's not the power to turn bread into God? What actually happens, step by step, in the performance of the rite of the Eucharist?

    To be clear: I believe deeply in the sacrament, for reasons that have nothing to do with reason. This was not, in fact, my first Eucharistic vision. It is central to my spiritual life. I never give very much thought to the other sacraments, but I do accept that priestly ordination is a prerequisite for the celebration of the Mass. It is in the priest's hands that God incarnates again, day after day, in the form of food to be received by us and incorporated into our bodies. He gives Himself to us, to be united to us body and soul, day after day. In that shared communion with our Creator, we who participate are also in communion with one another, we are knit together in our union with the one God. It is an overflowing of God's love for all her creatures, and if we also receive it with love, then that love can flow out among and beyond our community into the world.


    Back to Easter Sunday. The words in which I understood this thing to have taken place: "the gifts were already consecrated when they reached the altar" -- is there room for some interpretation of the word "consecrated"? I took it to mean transubstantiation, but might that be a two-part process? It is initiated by God, but only really completed and effective when it is properly carried out by us? With reverence and gratitude, and the respect that we show by going through all the motions as they are laid down in the rubrics?

    I'm probably treading on all kinds of heretical lines that were already laid down centuries ago! But here is what I'm thinking: the Mass is neither mechanical (like a magic spell) nor transactional (something we "earn" by doing the right things). It is a relationship. God gives Godself to us in love. If we do not receive God in love, then the relationship falters instead of being built up. Going through the whole ritual of thanksgiving (which is what the Greek word "eucharist" means) is our way of showing respect and reverence not only for the Gift but for the Giver, for the Love with which it is given. The Gift is God's to give to us, but the union between us and God that is offered by it, the relationship between God and the people, that is not built unilaterally by God. It requires our consent and participation. 

    And as for the role of the priest, it seems to me that it might have to do with the communion among the people. The Mass is not celebrated by each one of us with God alone. It is a gathering of us all into one, in our common union with the one God. The priest presides for us, speaks for all of us, distributes the Gifts among us. To undertake that role, he goes through years and years of discernment, study and training. He also has human flaws, fragility and weaknesses, and in some cases, he may personally be in a state of really grave sin. But he is the one ordained to preside, and it can be an act of holy humility to trust him, to de-center oneself and be present as just one among many. And this can build unity among us. It's not just about me and God!

    On the other hand, letting the priest stand "in the place of Christ" is not supposed to be infantilizing. We see this distortion in both priests and communicants sometimes. What is this thing that some people have, of wanting to get down on their knees and stick out their tongues, to be fed like baby birds? Can you really imagine Jesus going around that last Passover table feeding the bread to his disciples like that? "Open up, Baby!" in that babytalk singsong voice of a mamma trying to feed her toddler? No, we all have a priestly character from our baptism, and it is for us to receive the free gift of God as mature souls, with understanding and love, and the willingness to give ourselves in return. Designating the priest to hold the center of the community, investing in his education and training, and both supporting him and holding him accountable in his simple humanity, should build all of us up as community together. 


    And we are all, in this Communion, transformed into God.... "You are what you eat!" God surrenders Godself into food for us, to unite with us, but also to fundamentally change us. God became human, so that humans might become divine. The sacrament is initiated by God, and like the sun and the rain He gives it to us all regardless of deserving, regardless of gratitude or carelessness. But we, then, we have to surrender to that exchange, we have to be willing to be purged of our pettiness, in order really to be transformed, don't we? We perform the ritual, not because it is we who turn the bread and wine into God by our words and gestures, but because we are reaching out to meet God's self-gift willingly, desiring it and grateful for it. In love. It's all, all about love, always, with God!


    I guess I've wandered far enough into theological speculation for today. Please tell me what you think! What am I missing? What else? 


Peace, Love & Joy