I was very honored this year to be asked to present the keynote to the St. Michael's Liturgical Conference. Here's the paper I presented - sorry for the typos and bad grammar. I haven't really "fixed" it yet for publication, but it will appear in an upcoming issue of the bride.
Paper: Ministering the Medicine of Immortality
It was about three years ago that I walked into the sacristy following the Sunday mass and Brian, our vicar at the time, was giggling. You must understand how alarming this was! Brian is 6’5” tall and just about as broad – built like a football player – and there he stood, giggling. “What is up with you?” I asked. And his response astounded and amazed me. He said: “What a job I have! I get to pour eternal life down people’s throats! Is that great or what?”
I get to pour eternal life down people’s throats. Now we won’t ask for Fr. Fenton’s opinion of vicars assisting in distributing our Lord’s body and blood – we all KNOW what Himself thinks of that! But Brian’s observation is one we want to dwell on as we ponder the topic of ministering the medicine of immorality to the sick and the shut-ins, to those who are at death’s door and those who have simply been given a solid reminder that death is coming for them one of these days. What greater gift can be given to those who live in the valley of the shadow of death than that very body and blood which once went into death, beat the stuffings out of it, and came out again alive and immortal, made incorruptible, imperishable, full of glory, goes into them? To place that Body and that Blood into the mouths of the sick and dying is to impart to them the life that does not end.
John six obviously looms large in this whole way of thinking. We recall how our Lord in that chapter kept pushing the envelope. When asked: “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?” He didn’t say: “Oh, you misunderstood me. I was speaking metaphorically.” No. He pushed back: “You think that’s bad, what about this: Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood you have no life in you. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life and I will raise him up on the last day.” Right there would be enough to scandalize a Jew forever, but He pushes further yet: “My flesh is real food; my blood is real drink.” And then further: “As the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so He who eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like your fathers ate the manna in the wilderness and died. He who eats this bread will live forever!”
I don’t care to get into the whole John 6 debate, but merely to note that anyone who thinks John 6 is not Eucharistic is blind and deaf and should be dumb! The point, however, that Lutheran theologians would make about John 6 should be kept in mind: the passage cannot merely be taken to speak of the oral eating and drinking of the Eucharist, for surely it is possible to eat and dink not unto eternal life, but unto condemnation – 1 Corinthians 11, you know. To conclude that John 6 is not Eucharistic is not the answer; the answer is that John 6 refers to a faithful eating and drinking of the life-giving flesh and blood of the Eternal Word made flesh.
PATRISTIC WITNESS AND UNDERSTANDING – IGNATIUS & JUSTIN
From John 6, it seems the most natural thing in the world that St. Ignatius, himself a disciple of St. John, would pick up the image and give it the form that remained constant in the Church’s heart and mind ever since. Writing to the Ephesians, he said: “I will continue this preliminary account for you of God’s design for the New Man, Jesus Christ. It is a design which provides for faith in Him and love for Him, and comprehends His Passion and His Resurrection. I will certainly do this if the Lord reveals to me that you are all, man by man and name by name, attending your meetings in a state of grace, united in faith and in Jesus Christ (who is the seed of David according to the flesh, and is the Son of Man and the Son of God), and are ready now to obey your bishop and clergy with undivided minds and to share in the one common breaking of bread – the medicine of immortality, and the sovereign remedy by which we escape death and live in Jesus Christ forevermore.” (Ephesians 20, St. Ignatius of Antioch)
Here the Eucharist is denominated as “the medicine of immortality, the sovereign remedy by which we escape death and live in Jesus Christ forevermore.” John 6 pushed to the max. Eternal life put in the mouth and poured down the throat. But Ignatius points up the problem that we must look at today. He speaks of this medicine and remedy being distributed in its normal setting: the meetings, where united in faith and subject the bishop and presbyters and deacons, the one common bread is eucharistized and thus transformed. The setting for the giving of the medicine was in this case the Holy Liturgy, the Divine Service. But what of those who are too ill to attend? What of those who are absent from the Divine Service and yet craving its gifts? How are they to be served?
It was an enormous difficulty in the earliest church because the very nature of the Eucharist itself was that it was the manifestation and gift of Church as Church. By the reception of the Body of Christ, the many were made into one body, because all ate of the same bread and all drank of the same cup. The unity of the Church was manifested, her nature as a communion of love was shown by the exchange of the peace. And a point often overlooked is that no one who could commune ever considered it a private matter. Communion by its very nature was NOT private, even though it always was intensely personal. Schmemann notes that St. Paul commands: ‘let a man examine himself and…” – well, and what? Decide whether or not to eat? Not today, Lord. I’ve got this sin I’m holding onto. No! “Let a man examine himself AND SO EAT.” The practice that became common place in later centuries - the baptized attending and not communing - would have been utterly incomprehensible in the earliest Church. You might recall how in the Didascalia, if the peace gets stopped because brothers won’t share it, and the priest cannot then and there resolve the difficulty, the brothers are tossed out. Excommunicated in every sense of the word, until the difficulty has been resolved, because you can’t bring into the Sacrament of the Church’s unity as the Body of Christ and the Gift of Forgiveness, disunity and unforgiveness. And all those who stayed after the Peace were those who received the Body and the Blood of the Savior and so constituted the Church.
So, if everyone who can, did commune, was expected to commune, wouldn’t imagine NOT communing, the problem of those unable to be there but yet truly part of the community that that Sacrament realized, becomes acute. We get the first hints in Justin Martyr of how the Church sought to address this difficulty:
“Then we all stand up together and offer prayers; and as we said before, when we have finished praying, bread and wine and water are brought up, and the president likewise offers prayer and thanksgivings to the best of his ability, and the people assent, saying the Amen; and there is a distribution, and everyone participates in the elements over which thanks have been given; and they are sent through the deacons to those who are not present.” (First Apology 67:5)
So in those days, if sickness kept you from the Holy Eucharist, you could count on sharing in the Service. Sometime after the liturgy was wrapped up in the gathering, you’d have a knock at your door and Brother So and So would be there with the “elements over which thanks had been given” to give them to you, to manifest your unity with the Church in the one body of Christ, and to impart to you in your hour of need the hidden riches of the living Christ, imparting to your body, frail or diseased or even dying, the undying Body and Blood of the Son of God, bringing you communion with Him who is living and who is Life.
Sadly, a change began to creep into the Church’s practice, a change quite contrary to her lex orandi. A change I alluded to earlier. It became customary for the faithful NOT to commune at every Divine Liturgy, and with this grew the notion that the Sacrament was especially important upon the deathbed. It was to be one’s viaticum, the food of the pilgrim eaten to assure the way home. Natural, in a way, to highlight its nature as “medicine of immortality” but what a tragedy to think of it largely as restricted to the end of one’s struggle with sickness and death. And with this grew a fear of missing out on the viaticum – much of which lies behind even the phrase in our litany when we ask to be spared “a sudden and evil death.” Sudden, because then no time to prepare and evil if deprived of receiving the Holy Eucharist to bring us safely home.
LUTHERAN WITNESS TO MEDICINE OF IMMORTALITY
Luther and the Lutheran Symbols responded to the problem of infrequent communion, but sadly did little to remedy the problem of thinking of communion as an individual choice. Certainly the notion of the medicine of immortality is abundantly witnessed to in early Lutheranism. We don’t have time this morning to cover everything, but I do want to look at a number of important passages, both from the Symbols and from the chief dogmaticians that show how lively remained the teaching about the remedy of immortality among the Lutherans of those days.
First, we should note how the Apology speaks in Article X. Contrary to certain Nestorianizing pastors from Texas, we find there this stunning declaration: “In the Lord’s Supper Christ’s body and blood are truly and actually present. They are administered with those things that are seen, bread and wine. We speak of the presence of the living Christ, for we know that ‘death no longer has dominion over Him.’” That is, the body and blood that we receive are indeed the body and blood of the Crucified who was taking away the sin of the world, but they are also at the same time the body and blood of the Risen One over whom death has lost all its dominion. He can never die again. And so what is put into the mouth of the communicant is a body and blood that long ago conquered sin and trounced on death. It is a pledge of resurrection.
This theme is even more apparent in the Larger Catechism:
“For St. Hilary also has said, ‘If anyone has not committed sin for which he can rightly be put out of the congregation, he ought not stay away from the Sacrament, lest he should deprive himself of life.” LC V:59
“We must never think of the Sacrament as something harmful from which we had better flee, but as a pure, wholesome, comforting remedy that grants salvation and comfort. It will cure you and give you life in soul and body. For where the soul has recovered, the body also is relieved. Why, then, do we act as if the Sacrament were a poison, the eating of which would bring death?” LC V:68
“They should regard and use the Sacrament just like a precious antidote against the poison that they have in them.” LC V:70
A gift of life, then. A wholesome remedy that cures and gives life to body and soul, and a precious antidote against the poison of sin and death.
How important this Sacrament is, then, to those who are experiencing sickness and facing death! What is the thought that comes immediately to mind in such a case? I am reminded of, well, let’s call him John. John all his life has been stalwart Lutheran. He knows his doctrine and he knows it well. He understands the Catechism down pat. Yet when sudden stroke came to him, do you know what he told his wife? “I guess God doesn’t love me anymore.” Certainly the sick and homebound are profoundly susceptible to this temptation of despair. Running right with it is the fear: “What sin have I done that has brought this upon me?” And Satan is only too happy to remind them of all the likely candidates.
So here another aspect of the Sacrament kicks in that is vital for those in such peril. This is how the Augsburg Confession puts it:
“They are signs and testimonies of God’s will toward us. They were instituted to awaken and confirm faith in those who use them.” (Article XIII:1,2)
God’s will toward us means “God’s good will toward us!” I have a confession to make. For the longest time I have misunderstood John 3:16. You see, I have thought of it like this: “God loves me BECAUSE of what Christ has done for me.” Which means, of course, that God doesn’t really love me. He loves His Son, and as long as He keeps me tucked into Son, well then, He can love me because He looks at His Son and not at me. Me, when He looks at, He hates. This summer I saw how wrong I was about it and it was such a glorious “a-ha!” John 3:16 does NOT say that God loves me because of Christ did for me. It says the exact opposite. It says God loves me and THAT IS WHY Christ did what He did for me. It is the REAL me that God loves, and the manifestation of that love is in the gift of His Son.
Hand in hand with that went the awesome recognition that the Cross of Jesus Christ did not CHANGE how God felt toward me; as though God could change! Rather, His cross MANIFESTED how God felt toward me. It showed in an undeniable way that I am an object of the divine love, that He would go so far as to shoulder my sin to forgive it and to die my death to destroy it.
Now, take all of that and bring it to the Sacrament and you get what was a joyful “a-ha!” to the early Lutherans. The Sacrament of the Altar does not CHANGE how God feels toward you; it MANIFESTS God’s love to you. It shows you His great good will toward you in the gift of His Son’s body and blood for you! So when the pastor brings the medicine of immorality to the sick and the dying, he is bringing to combat their doubt of His love and their fear of their sin, an irrefutable testimony that God is FOR that sick or dying person. That He LOVES them and loves them with a love that is stronger than any of their sin and certainly stronger than death, the love manifested in sending the Savior into flesh and blood that He might give them life through the offering of that flesh and blood. The Sacrament is the testimony of Romans 8: “Nothing in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
This body and blood, this medicine of immortality, was a theme especially beloved of the great Lutheran dogmaticians. I only intend to reference three of them, but that should be enough to put to flight the nonsense that the imagery of medicine of immortality is somehow less than Lutheran.
Martin Chemnitz first. Consider these words: “But we teach that because we have been so alienated through sin from the life of the Deity that our weakness cannot bear Him to be dealing with us except through a medium, therefore He assumed our nature in order that through that which is related to us and consubstantial with us the Deity might deal with us. And thus the humanity of Christ is the connection between us and God Himself, as Cyril says, and as we shall demonstrate more fully later on in the book cconcerning the hypostatic union. Therefore, in order that we might be able to lay hold on Christ more intimately and retain Him more firmly, not only did He Himself assume our nature but He also restored it again for us by distributing His body and blood to us in the Supper, so that by this connection with His humanity, which has been assumed from us and is again communicated back to us, He might draw us into communion and union with the deity itself. And from this it is possible to understand what is involved when by disputations the substance of Christ’s flesh is carried from the Lord’s Supper out of the world.” (Lords Supper, p. 188)
So Christ’s flesh being removed from the world, taken out of the Eucharist, would be the loss of life itself, because His flesh and blood are the connecting point between us and the life of God Himself.
Further, Chemnitz writes: “The human of Christ, its limitations having been set aside, has been removed from all the miseries and injuries of this world and now resides in the glory of the Father. But our nature, although according to the promise we have the hope of glorification, is still befouled with uncleanness, oppressed with miseries, and exposed to all the darts of Satan, the world, and the flesh. As a result our faith is under the cross and still terribly tossed about by temptations. Therefore in the Supper Christ offers us His own body and blood which have been exalted above all miseries into the glory of the Father. He does this in such a way that through them He joins Himself to this miserable nature of ours, so that with this most present and sure guarantee and seal He may give us the certainty that He does not wish us to remain in these miseries forever but that we shall someday be conformed to His glorious body which He offers to us now in the Supper a seal of our own coming glorification….The canon of Nicea calls the body and blood of Christ we receive in the Supper symbols of our resurrection – a most appropriate name, for the ancients spoke of identifying tokens which were given to guests so that they might possess them, carrying them around with them, and show them so that they might be recognized as a guest and thus be received and treated in a friendly and hospitable way under the legal right of need and hospitality. Thus the Son of God willed that in His Supper there might be certain symbols to identify our flesh, by which we might be recognized and posses the right of need and hospitality in the heavenly fatherland, so that we might be received there and treated in the a friendly and hospitable manner. Further, this identifying symbol is not only the bread and wine which the ancients knew were consumed and then cast out into the drain, but the very body and blood of Christ,by which we are admitted to the heavenly fatherland, which our Lord now holds and governs, and they are the surest symbols of our own resurrection and glorification.” (Lord’s Supper, p. 191)
What comfort then to be given these most certain tokens – I think of them like the buzzer at Red Lobster that tells you, your table is ready and assures you a place and a meal – by which we are recognized as Christ’s own and welcomed in the end to His marriage feast!
So much for Chemnitz, let’s our turn attention to Gerhard. The medicine of immortality was a favorite theme of his. He wrote of it extensively in both Sacred Meditations and in Meditations on Divine Mercy. I might note that he’s positively schizoid when it comes to his dogmatic treatment of the Supper. Give me Gerhard the contemplative and man of prayer, but you can keep his dogmatic works!
First, from Sacred Meditations:
“So in this Holy Supper we have the true tree of life again set before us, that sweet tree (Ez. Xlvii.12) whose leaves are for medicine and whose fruit is for salvation; aye, its sweetness is such as to destroy the bitterness of all afflictions, and even of death itself.” Sacred Meditations, p. 103,104
“This is the only sovereign remedy for all the diseases of our souls; here is the only efficacious remedy for mortality; for what sin is heinous but the sacred flesh of God may expiate it? What sin is so great but it may be healed by the life-giving flesh of the Christ?” Sacred Meditations, p. 105, 106
“Marvelous is the goodness of our Saviour, that He not only assumed our human nature in His incarnation, and carried it with Him to His throne of heavenly glory, but that He also gives us His own body and blood to nourish our souls unto eternal life.” Sacred Meditations, p. 98
“How can the Lord ever forget those whom He hath redeemed, those whom He hath nourished with His own body and blood? He that eateth My flesh and drinketh My blood, dwelleth in me and I in him. (John 6:56) Sacred Meditations, p. 99
“Great indeed is the honor put upon our bodies, insomuch as they are the dwelling places of our souls redeemed and fed by the body of Christ, and are the temples of the Holy Ghost and the abodes of the adorable Trinity. It cannot be that they should ever remain in the grave, since they are thus nourished with the body and blood of our Lord. He is the wonderful bread of life. We partake of it and become one body with Christ. We are members of Christ; we are animated by His Spirit; we are nourished with His body and blood. He is the bread of God which cometh down from heaven and giveth life unto the world.” (John 6:33) Sacred Meditations, p. 99, 100
“This is the bread of grace and mercy, of which, if any man eat, he tastes and sees that the Lord is good and, of His fullness receives grace for grace. He is the bread of life, not only living, but life-giving (John 6:58); so that he that eateth of Him shall live forever. This is the bread that came down from heaven, nor is it only heavenly in its own nature, but to all who partake of it, in the spirit and with saving faith, it will give a place among the heavenly guests at the marriage supper of the Lamb; aye, heavenly guests they shall be, because they shall never die, but be raised at the day.” Sacred Meditations, p. 100
“Thus this Holy Supper will transform our souls; this most divine sacrament will make us divine men, until finally we shall enter upon the fullness of the blessedness that is to come, filled with all the fullness of God, and wholly like Him. What we have here only by faith and in a mystery, there we shall enjoy in reality and openly. These bodies of ours which are now the temples of the Holy Spirit, and are sanctified and quickened by the body and blood of Christ dwelling in them, shall be crowned with this glory that in them we shall see God face to face. This holy remedy heals all the gaping wounds that sin hath made; this life-giving body of the Son of God overcomes every deadly sin; this is the sacred seal of the divine promises, which by God’s grace we may exhibit at the great judgment; in the sure and sufficient pledge of eternal life thus given to us do we glory.” Sacred Meditations, p. 111
Note the thorough Theosis of Gerhard’s theology here! And the theosis doesn’t link to human exercises of piety, but to the divine gift of the Supper as a holy remedy! Just two short citations from Meditations on Divine Mercy:
“Life itself dwells in this body, and this life restores me to eternal life and makes me alive.” Meditations on Divine Mercy, p. 86
“True faith is absolutely necessary when approaching the Supper for the sacramental eating so that which was instituted for life is received by us for life. Therefore, I approach this heavenly Meal with true faith, firmly convinced that the body I eat is the one given into death for me, that the blood I drink is the blood shed for my sins…. The Good Shepherd will not allow the sheep, fed by His body and blood, to be devoured by the infernal wolf.” Meditations on Divine Mercy, p. 87
I love that last imagery. The wolf has a hole in his belly and we are given the proof of it every time we receive the body and blood that punched that hole right through death and with the body and blood the promise that we too shall walk out of that hole – not some piece of us, but the whole of us, healed, transformed, and glorified!
The last dogmatician I’d like us to hear from is David Hollaz, and the remarkably prayer with which he ends his chapter on the Eucharist:
“Almighty Lord Jesus Christ, source of life and immortality…I pray You to make me, unworthy as I am, worthy through Your grace; impure as I am to make me clean; naked as I am to clothe me, so that Your Body, so full of divine power, and Your most precious Blood may not become for me, Your servant, the occasion for judgment or punishment, but a memorial of the death You underwent for me, a strengthening of my faith, a proof of the taking away of my sins, a bond of closer union with You, an increase of holiness, the basis of a glad resurrection and a pledge of everlasting life. Amen.” (Translation by A.C. Piepkorn in The Church, p. 136)
Here Hollaz confesses the Lord Jesus in the sacrament to be the source of life and immortality and the sacrament itself to be the proof of the taking away of sin, a bond of closer union with Christ and the basis of a glad resurrection and a pledge of life that does not end.
DISTRIBUTING THE MEDICINE OF IMMORTALITY
Given such a Lutheran understanding of the medicine of immorality, we must turn to the practical question we hinted at in the beginning of how to provide this sovereign remedy for those who cannot be present in the offering of the Divine Service. The ancient Church had the answer that the Sacrament was immediately carried from the altar to the sick, and this was the ministry of the diaconate. Over time this changed a bit and the Sacrament instead of immediately being carried to the sick after the divine service was instead brought from the reserved sacrament to those who asked for it, usually at death’s door, and by then it was administered by the presbyters since the diaconte all but vanished in the West as a discrete order, becoming instead the penultimate step to the priesthood.
The Reformers did not recover the notion that all present who can commune should commune at every celebration to constitute the Church. What they did recover was a lively sense that this Sacrament should not be received just a few times a year and upon the death bed, but that its frequent use is vital to strengthen the faith of Christian people under the trials of life, and among the trials we face sickness and death loom large. So it was inevitable that the Reformers would take thought on HOW to bring the Sacrament to the sick.
Two approaches arose. And advocates of either approach saw difficulties with the other approach, but did not feel justified in condemning the other side. The first approach, it was largely a return to the practice of the ancient church, and it took shape in Mark Brandenburg. Reed gives a synopsis of the Brandenburg Church Order of 1540: “A sick person, unable to be present at the Mass, may be communicated in church at another hour if notice has been previously given; or if he be quite ill, the minister, wearing a surplice, and preceded by a sacristan with lantern and bell, shall take the sacrament to him directly from the altar at the conclusion of the congregational service and communicate him at home, after receiving his confession.” Reed, p. 101
Obviously the debates of “extra usum” reared their ugly heads. For those who defined the “action” of the Supper as confined to the moment of reception in the service, the Brandenburg approach was pure catholicizing, opening the door to Corpus Christi processions and the like (probably not aided by the fact that in Brandenburg Corpus Christi – sans procession – was retained in the Church calendar).
Luther offered his opinion about this one day at the table. As always, one has to take his words with a healthy recognition that we don’t know how beer he had consumed before spouting off. In any case, it was shortly after the publication of the Brandenburg Order and in the presence of Cordatus, a preacher from Brandenburg (perhaps BECAUSE of the presence of preacher from Brandenburg) that Luther was asked for his opinion on the Sacrament being carried to the sick. He opined:
“We don’t think it should be done. To be sure, one must allow it for a while. The practice will probably be dropped, if only because they have no ciborium. What should be done about it? In our churches, too, there’s a debate about whether [elements of] the sacrament should be carried to another altar for consecration. I put up with it on account of several heretics who must be opposed, for there are some who allow that it’s a sacrament only while it’s in use; what is left over and remains they throw away. That isn’t right. We let somebody consume it. One must never be so precise four or five steps or when kept so-and-so many hours. What does it matter? How can one bless the bread for each and every one? We also retain the practice of elevating the sacrament on account of several heretics who say it must be done so. It must not be done so, for as long as one is engaged in the action even if it extends for an hour or two or even if one carried it to another altar or, as you do (he said this to Cordatus) across the street, it is and remains the Body of Christ.”
So Luther bears testimony to the fact that although he doesn’t like the practice and hopes it doesn’t last, it’s still the Body of Christ when “carried across the street.” What developed in Saxony and in most places where the Reformation came was instead the practice of consecrating fresh bread and wine with the Words of Institution in the presence of the sick person. The Church Orders usually provided an exhortation to the sick person providing a theology of sickness and death (really pretty horrible when you read them) and then time for confession and absolution followed by the Our Father and the recitation of the first half of the Words of Institution, which serve not only to consecrate but as a distribution formula, and then the second half of the Words and distribution of the holy Blood. The rite frequently concluded with a prayer of thanksgiving, a psalm (23 was big) and the Aaronic benediction.
Let’s ponder for a moment or two the strength and weaknesses of either approach of ministering the medicine of immortality. The strength of the first approach, that of the Ancient Church, is first off that it IS that of the Ancient Church, and such an argument should carry huge weight with those who insist that they have received NOTHING in doctrine or ceremonies contrary to Scripture or the ancient Church. Second, because it comes from the ancient Church it bears witness, perhaps unwittingly, to that prime concern of those days that the Sacrament of the Altar constitutes the very Body of Christ: by placing that Body into us it makes us one with that Body. And third, it avoids the difficulties inherent in “establishing a second altar” in a parish, if you will. Fourth, it clearly confesses that the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable, not just over Israel, but over every gift and naming that He performs. So when He has called the bread is Body, He doesn’t take stopwatch in hand and announce when He plans on yanking the Body out again. The weakness of this approach is the strength of the other: the communicants would not necessarily hear the holy Verba, the Words that give the sacrament. The Lutheran answer, I believe, would simply be that the Words of Institution should be recited to the sick and shutins as the formula of distribution.
As to the other approach, the one that actually predominates in Lutheranism and always has, its great strength is simply that the sick are permitted to hear the Verba and to witness the consecration for themselves. Another plus is that the sick usually got a bit more of the Divine Service to participate in too. How much varied from place to place, and likely from pastor to pastor depending upon the actual physical state of the sick. Its weakness above all is that it disconnects the sick’s communion from the communion of all the faithful in that place. It gives them comfort and blessing, to be sure, for it remains the medicine of immorality, but it has no apparent connection with what the parish did that day, or if during the week, that previous Lord’s Day. Finally, the refusal to reserve is not a problem in the face of consuming all the elements, but it is certainly a denial of the Sacrament itself when the elements after the celebration are treated as mere bread and wine – when the Lord’s blood is tossed into the trash in dozens of plastic abominations and when the consecrated hosts are mixed back in with the unconsecrated as though they were just bread. At bare minimum, the Body and Blood that remain should be set aside in discreet containers against the next communion, when they should be distributed first to the people, and by no means “consecrated again.”
My preference is obviously for the first, and using the Verba as the formula for distribution. If the size of one’s parish permits, it would be a glorious practice to carry the Sacrament from the Altar to the sick and shut-ins each and every Lord’s Day and on other festivals. They would soon realize that they are not alone, but part of a Body, the Body of Christ, and that their fellow members care for them so much that they would not see them deprived of the LIFE that is in Christ’s most holy body and blood.
You will recall my mentioning Vicar Brian Holle at the beginning of this paper. I’d like to return to the thought he expressed: “I get to pour eternal life down people’s throats.” Alexander Schmemann, in his absolutely awesome little book, For the Life of the World writes about bringing the church’s sacrament of healing, which includes the communion of the sick. It’s a longish quote, but utterly worthy to be heard in full. Wisdom! Let us attend!
“A sacrament – as we already know – is always a passage, a transformation. Yet it not a ‘passage’ into ‘supernature,’ but into the Kingdom of God, the world to come, into the very reality of this world and its life as redeemed and restored by Christ. It is the transformation not of ‘nature’ into ‘supernature,’ but of the old into the new. A sacrament therefore is not a ‘miracle’ by which God breaks, so to speak, the ‘laws of nature,’ but the manifestation of the ultimate Truth about the world and life, man and nature, the Truth which is Christ.
And healing is a sacrament because its purpose or end is not health as such, the restoration of physical health, but the entrance of man into the life of the Kingdom, into the “joy and peace” of the Hoy Spirit. In Christ everything in this world, and this means health and disease, joy and suffering, has become an ascension to, and entrance into this new life, its expectation and anticipation.
In this world suffering and disease are indeed ‘normal,’ but their very ‘normalcy’ is abnormal. They reveal the ultimate and permanent defeat of man and of life, a defeat which no partial victories of medicine, however wonderful and truly miraculous, can ultimately overcome. But in Christ suffering is not ‘removed’; it is transformed into victory. The defeat itself becomes victory, a way, an entrance into the Kingdom, and this is the only true healing.
Here is a man suffering on his bed of pain and the Church comes to him to perform the sacrament of healing. For this man, as for every many in the whole world, suffering can be defeat, the way of complete surrender to darkness, despair, and solitude. It can be dying in the very real sense of the word. And yet it can also be the ultimate victory of Man and of Life in him. The Church does not come to restore health to this man, simply to replace medicine when medicine has exhausted its own possibilities. The Church comes to take this man in to the Love, the Light, and the Life of Christ. It comes not merely to ‘comfort’ him in his sufferings, not to ‘help’ him, but to make him a martyr, a witness to Christ in his very sufferings. A martyr is one who beholds ‘the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God’ (Acts 7:56). A martyr is one for whom God is not another – and the last – chance to stop the awful pain; God is his very life, and thus everything in this life comes to God, and ascends to the fullness of Love.
In this world there shall be tribulation. Whether reduced to a minimum by man himself, or given some relief by the religious promise of a reward in the ‘other world,’ suffering remains here, it remains awfully ‘normal.’ And yet Christ says, ‘be of good cheer, I have overcome the world’ (Jn. 16:33). Through His own suffering, not only has all suffering acquired a meaning but it has been given the power to become itself the sign, the sacrament, the proclamation, the ‘coming’ of that victory; the defeat of man, his very dying has become a way of Life.” For the Life of the World, pp. 102-104.
To make this man a martyr, a witness. The Church makes this man a witness by her own witness to what she feeds into him: a medicine stronger than death; a remedy that wipes out sin; a Life that can never end and is the promise of glorification. Christ will not forget the one into whom He has entered with His body and blood. The Church witnesses that the end of such a person will be resurrection and joy without end. “I get to pour eternal life down people’s throats.” Amen and Amen!
23 September 2005