The reading for yesterday, Monday in the Third Week of Easter, in one of my most instructive resources, “Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church,” by J. Robert Wright, Professor of Ecclesiastical History at General Theological Seminary in New York, is one that has most influenced my understanding of the Eucharist. (On Amazon, this book is now going for $150 in “Used-Good” condition and for $450 New. If you have a copy, treasure it. It’s really gone up in the past two years.)
The reading, from the First Apology of Justin, Martyr at Rome c.167, is where he explains that “the food that our flesh and blood assimilate for their nourishment becomes the flesh and blood of the incarnate Jesus by the power of his own words contained in the prayer of consecration.”
I’ve quoted this writing before, in 2013 on February 26, and promised then to touch on it again. It is for me like a “unifying field theory” in physics. My focus this time is on something that I was taught in my years in the Roman Catholic Church. I didn’t understand it at the time, but didn’t really try to; I just followed the admonition not to be late. It was this, that it isn’t a “valid Eucharist” if you come in to the service just in time to receive the sacrament and miss the readings and the prayers. While I understood the lack of reverence in doing so, I didn’t get the “valid” part until reading Justin. What I take from it is that “the food…that we assimilate,,, becomes the flesh and blood of … Jesus… by the power of the words … in the prayer of consecration” to the extent that we, in our minds and spirits, are shaped into the mind and spirit of Christ by the lessons and the prayers. To miss this transformation of ourselves wrought by the lessons and the prayers, is to treat the Eucharist like some magical thing, like being touched by a magic wand.
I’m recalling that sometime in the medieval period such magical thinking was so pronounced that people in large cities with several churches would discern the various times at which the sacrament was distributed in each, devise the most efficient route from each to each, and run through the town from church to church just in time to get to the communion rail to receive the host and dash off to the next one. I don’t think this practice went on very long. It was so unseemly and smacking of superstition that the church stopped it by pronouncing that the Sacrament should be received only once a day. You might have heard that and wondered where it came from.
“God our Father, whose Son our Lord Jesus Christ in a wonderful Sacrament has left us a memorial of his passion; Grant us so to venerate the sacred mysteries of his Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruit of his redemption … Amen. [The collect written by Thomas Aquinas for the Feast of Corpus Christi.] Book of Common Prayer, page 252.
Ron Hicks, Parish Verger, St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Washington DC, 21-April-2015.