Neighborhood Sacramentology: Liturgy and the Table

In the previous ‘Neighborhood Sacramentology’ post, we looked at the question of who may administer the Eucharist, and we addressed the question in terms of validity, and in terms of priesthood. Working with only those two criteria, I concluded that any baptized believer is a priest, and a priest may validly administer the Eucharist.

Those are not, however, the only criteria. When we gather together for worship, we always have convictions about what our worship is, what it means. We embody those convictions in a set of expectations about what we will actually do, an order of service — or to use the historical term, a liturgy. The liturgy and the beliefs about worship reflect one another. (I am speaking ideally here. In reality, our liturgies often embody beliefs and expectations we do not hold, either because we were taught the liturgy but not the underlying foundation of beliefs, or because we simply weren’t reflective about the liturgy.)

By being a reflection of our beliefs and inner life, liturgy is drama, an acting-out of our understanding of worship. Only it is performative drama, like a wedding ceremony. The smallest details of the wedding ceremony may be carefully planned to adequately represent what is happening on the wedding day, but on the wedding day, the ceremony does not just represent the beginning of a marriage. It also accomplishes what it represents.

Likewise, our liturgy does not simply represent worship; it is worship. As custodians of the liturgy, we have a duty to attend to the details so that the real worship of the church is adequately represented in the liturgy.

This means that when we turn to the question of who blesses and distributes the bread and wine, we are not simply dealing with matters of priesthood and validity. We are also casting for a role in a drama, and the role for which we are casting is Jesus Himself.

We need to recognize at this point that we have departed from “right and wrong” territory and embarked into “wisdom” territory. We already understand that any baptized believer can validly step up and represent Christ; in fact, that is exactly what we are all called to do in daily life. The question now is, “Given that anyone could, who is the best choice for the role in the liturgical drama we are carrying out?”

The answer, of course, is Jim Caviezel.

I kid, but to make a point: obviously, you have to choose from the talent you have available. You may feel strongly that it should be an ordained priest, but if you haven’t got one about, what will you do? You may personally feel it should be a man, but if you’re at a women’s retreat with five other churches and they plan to observe communion, you will be offered the elements by a woman. At that moment, the relevant question is not “Shouldn’t this be a man?” but “Shall I break table fellowship with five churches’ worth of my sisters in Christ over it?” No, you shouldn’t.

Now, for what my $0.02 is worth, I do think that a man should represent Christ in the liturgical drama, just as I believe the Prayers of the People should be led by a woman, representing the Bride. I also don’t really want to see a production of Romeo and Juliet where Romeo is played by a woman, or Juliet by a man (even if that’s how they really did it in Shakespeare’s day). Gender matters, and God was pleased to present Christ His Son not just as a man, but as the man, the new Adam, and to cast His Church as the Bride of Christ, the new Eve, the mother of all living on the New Earth. I believe this imagery ought to be honored and reinforced, especially in our worship.

That said, there remains the Jim Caviezel problem. This post is called Neighborhood Sacramentology for a reason, and we have to work with what we have. I once heard a story of a group of Russian Orthodox clerics who wanted to observe the Eucharist in the gulag. In their tradition, the Eucharist is served from an altar that contains the relics of the martyrs, and of course, they had neither altar nor relics in the gulag. These men, each one imprisoned for his faith, looked at one another and thought, “We’re all martyrs here!” So they laid one of their number on a bench and served the Eucharist off his chest.

While I don’t feel a need for the relics of the martyrs, that’s the spirit. Given that we’re doing our liturgical casting from the people we have handy, let’s be as clear as possible about what we’re seeking to represent, and then make the wisest decision we can with the resources at hand.

I ended the last Neighborhood Sacramentology post with a question: When should we observe the Eucharist? The observations above don’t answer that question, but they give us some better questions.

1. What are we doing (and representing) at the Lord’s Table?
2. How do we embody that in a given context?
3. In what contexts is the Table appropriate? Are there some contexts where it is required or prohibited? If so, what are they?

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