Becoming Christ's Body in the Eucharist
There are Christian traditions that believe that when consecrated the elements of bread and wine/juice become the body and blood of Christ. There are other traditions that believe that the bread and wine are merely memorials of Christ's death and burial. For those of us who are Disciples of Christ, there is a tendency to take a memorialistic perspective, one that emerged largely in reaction to the more literalist understandings of the real presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements.
There is another way of looking at the eucharist, one that holds on to the idea of presence without locating that presence in the elements themselves. The idea here is that the presence of Christ is found in the body -- that is the congregation. And the congregation isn't simply the institution of the church, but the gathering of the body of Christ around the Table.
In a book published nearly 20 years ago, Keith Watkins explored in some detail the patterns of prayer at the Table. He did this so as to challenge Disciples to examine their practice so that the meaning of the meal can be understood and lived out. Too often our time at the table is sloppy and irreverent, but more importantly our practice often has little theological grounding.
Among the implications that Keith notes in his connection of the eucharist to the doctrine of the church as body of Christ is that "in the celebration of the eucharist, the congregation becomes what it already is: Christ's body."
He goes on to define what this means (I'm including a rather extended quotation from Keith's book Celebrate with Thanksgiving):
The way that the Sunday service is structured and the contents of its several parts are the means by which this realization takes place. Congregants assemble from their separated lives in the world. The order of worship focuses their attention upon God and upon God's love and justice. Despite the distractions and sins that have accumulated during the week, worshipers are drawn once again into the orbit of God's redeeming love in Jesus Christ. They listen to readings from scripture that tell the stories of God's work long ago. They hear a sermon showing how God continues to work in these same ways in life today. By now, the people have been welded together again into a strong and unified assembly. They are now ready to bring their life in the world more directly into God's presence. In the prayers of thanksgiving, confession, and intercession the people remember what has taken place as they have tried to live faithfully through the week. All is offered God with the entreaty that God's will for creation and all it's creatures will be fulfilled.
The intentions of these prayers are also expressed in the the physical elements that now become the focus of the service. Offerings of money and the bread and communion-wine for the eucharist are brought to the table. Together these emblems depict the natural world of "blood, sweat, and tears," and of wheat and grapes, now converted into new forms. The labors of natural life become the substance of purposeful life in families and communities. The foods of the earth are converted into bread and wine, manufactured products that increase their nourishing properties and our joy in using them. All of these meanings are compressed into the procession that brings these elements to their place upon the holy table.
At this point, the congregation and its leaders approach God in prayer. They tell the story of God's creative and redeeming work, the story that reaches its climax in Jesus' death upon the cross and everlasting life wit God. They express in words their sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving that the entire service seeks to present to God. They ask that Christ's life in them be renewed and that they be strengthened to be the body of Christ in the world. They they receive back the bread and communion-wine as sure signs that God has heard their prayer and will answer it. At this point, the eucharist is complete and the church has once again become what it already is: the body of Christ. (Keith Watkins, Celebrate with Thanksgiving, Chalice Press, 1991, pp. 38-39).
As you can see it's not just the prayers or the elements, but the way that the service itself is formed that helps provide the context for the congregation to become the body of Christ at the table. As I read this, I realize that our practice at CWCC doesn't mirror everything that is present in Keith's discussion. We don't have the procession of the elements nor do we have prayers of confession or of the people. After the sermon I offer a Pastoral Prayer, something that has emerged over time and has largely replaced the other forms of prayer. We have a prayer at the offering and we have a prayer for the elements. But the basic order is present, as we move toward a climax at the Table, for it is there that community gathers to receive a sign that Christ is present in their midst. I'd like to invite a conversation about ways in which we can strengthen our practice at the Table so that we might become more fully the body of Christ on earth.