Eucharistic Presence -- Bringing the Future into the Present
Many Protestants, including my own tradition, tend to understand the Lord's Supper or Eucharist in terms of remembrance. We take quite literally, Jesus' statement, as Paul recounts it, at the institution of the Lord's supper: "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me" (1 Corinthians 11:24). We treat it as a meal of memorial, with reverence often turning into sober solemnity, as if the one we remember is long dead and buried. This position emerged in response to overblown doctrines of "real presence" that dominated medieval Catholicism.
But what if we understood Eucharistic presence differently? In wrestling with N.T. Wright's Surprised by Hope, I've made the discovery that Wright is very focused on the resurrection -- and an embodied physical resurrection at that. Although I wouldn't follow Wright in all of his positions on the resurrection, I do think he's on to something. And, if he is correct that we should see heaven and earth as overlapping, so that future overlaps with the present, then this might have some implications for how we experience the Lord's Supper/Eucharist.
Wright points out that if we stop with remembrance, simply emulating the gathering of the Disciples as they shared in a last with meal, then we miss out on much of the meaning of the supper. He writes:
To make any headway in understanding the Eucharist, we must see it as the arrival of God's future in the present, not just the extension of God's past (or of Jesus's past) into our present. We do not simply remember a long-since dead Jesus; we celebrate the presence of the living Lord. And he lives, through the resurrection, precisely as the one who has gone on ahead into the new creation, the transformed new world, as the one who is himself its prototype. The Jesus who gives himself to us as food and drink is himself the beginning of God's new world. At communion we are like the children of Israel in the the wilderness, tasting fruit plucked from the promised land. It is the future coming to meet us in the present. (p. 274).
I find this idea of tasting the future promise in the present intriguing. As one who embraces the idea of presence at the table, this is quite helpful. When we gather at the table, sharing in bread and cup, we do so in the hope of the new creation. The question then is this: how does this happen in our celebrations. Can we create the experience, or do we simply allow God to make this presence known to us? Indeed, how do we know when we have tasted the fruit of the promised land of the new creation? And finally, what should this lead to in our lives?