Thou hast ravished me with longing, O Christ, and with Thy divine love Thou hast changed me. But burn up with spiritual fire my sins and make me worthy to be filled with delight in Thee, that I may leap for joy, O gracious Lord, and magnify Thy two comings. Into the splendor of Thy Saints how shall I who am unworthy enter? For if I dare to enter the bridechamber, my vesture betrays me, for it is not a wedding garment, and as a prisoner I shall be cast out by the Angels. Cleanse my soul from pollution and save me, O Lord, in Thy love for men.Preparatory Prayers for Holy Communion
“Uh, Fahhh-ther, the Bible says that the sacrament of the Lord’s supper is only a symbol or a mere remembrance.” I can still hear my nagging, self-righteous challenge from so long ago. As one of the few fundamentalist, Protestant Christians in an all-boys Roman Catholic high school, my biblical challenges in a class on sacramental theology came often and not always welcomed. I was especially bothered by what the priest would teach concerning what the Roman Church calls the sacrifice of the Mass; i.e., that in consecrating the bread and wine into the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, we the faithful are not merely remembering Him like some historical event or person, but re-presenting Him in this particular moment of time. In other words, whenever the Mass is celebrated, the timeless work of salvation, the Paschal Mystery (first time I learned this word “Pascha” from a Catholic priest) of Our Lord’s death, burial, Resurrection and Ascension is brought again from the timeless into this present moment of time.
This doctrine of the timeless breaking into time again and again by the words of some priest struck me then as just extra-biblical, magical nonsense. The work of Christ has been completed, I insisted, and our participation in that work is merely spiritual, each believer coming straight to Jesus without the need for any other human mediator or any magical sacraments getting in the way. I felt secure in my belief, needing only a local congregation of those who believed the same way I did to support me and bring me closer to Jesus. I felt secure in this belief until that community of faith and several others before and after it fell apart and ceased to exist. This loss of community lead me later to question my earlier rejection of what theologians have termed the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
Then in college, I rediscovered the Liturgy and sacraments that I had at first repudiated. I was searching for something more solid and reassuring than the spiritual syllogisms and formulas I had memorized and could argue for in high school. Could it be that my assurance of salvation and personal relationship with Christ had something to do with the sacraments, especially the chief sacrament of the Eucharist, and maybe less to do with arguments? I started attending an Anglican church near college where a group of friends were also on a similar faith journey to discover something more solid than the traditions they had grown up in. There I heard a prayer that began to reveal to me how the Lord was present in His sacrament:
Almighty and everliving God, we most heartily thank thee, for that thou dost vouchsafe to feed us, who have duly received these holy mysteries, with the spiritual food of the most precious body and blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ; and dost assure us thereby of thy favour and goodness towards us; and that we are very members incorporate in the mystical body of thy Son, which is the blessed company of all faithful people…Prayer of Thanksgiving- Book of Common prayer, order two
I prayed this prayer, but not yet with all my heart. Something was still holding me back from believing it in total. I was so fully formed in my fundamentalist dialectic of historical and literal interpretation that again, these beautiful words about the simple elements of bread and wine becoming something divine rang hallow in my ears.
I confessed my struggle one spring afternoon to our campus chaplain who also was the rector of the that little Anglican parish I was attending. He was struggling to explain to me a mystery that is ultimately unexplainable, but in any case, at least help me to overcome my blindness. At one point in the conversation, I felt a break-through; for what he was saying reminded me of something I had long ago dismissed. I drew the diagram that my Catholic high school teacher had drawn for us explaining how the timeless One in the Holy Eucharist condescends to our realm of time every time the Mass or Liturgy is celebrated. I asked him if that was how it is, and his silent nod was all I needed to break the spell.
That day, I flew out of his office; I floated around campus. I gazed in a new kind of wonder at God’s creation and ALL the various means of grace that he provides to us sinners for our salvation. I felt like St. Apostle Paul whose encounter with Christ left him physically blind until his enlightenment removed the scales of that blindness, or like Keith Green sings of his own conversion, “waking up from the longest dream…” Now that I have become Orthodox, I pray for this wonder to deepen into a ravishing longing that is spoken of in the opening prayer. For divine eros calls the soul to a much deeper communion than mere head knowledge.
Today on Great & Holy Thursday in the Orthodox Holy Week, we commemorate the institution of the Mystical Supper by our Lord Jesus Christ. May He who condescended to our human weakness transform us by His holy mysteries to become sons and daughters of the Most High God. Kalo Pascha to all! A good and blessed celebration of Christ’s holy Resurrection this Sunday!
Was reminded of this post recently on one of my favorite comparative liturgics podcast: https://www.ancientfaith.com/podcasts/areopagus/paschal_problematizing
In this episode, they mention Christians who believe in Christ’s sacrifice as “One and done.” Thank God for this more timeless understanding.