UNIVERSITY SERMON

Preached before the University of Oxford, at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin,
on Sunday, November 7th, 1971, by J. R. Lucas, Fellow of Merton

I take my text from Iris Murdoch, towards the end of her novel, The Bell. "But what did, from his former life, remain to him was the Mass ... The Mass remained, not consoling, not uplifting, but in some way factual ... It simply existed as a kind of pure reality separate from the weaving of his own thoughts" (p. 309 Penguin), where the hero, Michael, is losing all faith in God, and is finding that nothing matters very much.

But the Mass remains, in some way factual, it exists, as a kind of pure reality. In some way factual, as a kind of pure reality. Iris Murdoch is very cautious in qualifying her words. Christians have found it extraordinarily difficult to devise words to say what they want to say about their rite. Although the Holy Eucharist has been, to outside observers, the most distinctive characteristic of the Christian religion from Pliny the Younger until Miss Murdoch, and to those within its fellow-ship, the most central and sustaining part of the Christian life, yet it has also been a chief cause of dissension and focus of disunity between the warring sects of Christ's divided body. The reason why many loyal Anglicans today cannot welcome union with our fellow Christians in the Methodist Church is that they do not believe the Lord's Supper can be celebrated except by a priest episcopally ordained in the Apostolic Succession. The reason why we cannot kneel at the same altar as our fellow Christians in the Church of Rome is that they are obliged to talk of a sacrifice in terms which do not ring entirely true to Anglican ears, and believe that God's presence can best be expressed by the doctrine of Transubstantiation, whereas we hold, in the words of the 39 Articles that Transubstantiation "cannot be proved by Holy Writ, is repugnant to the plain words of Scripture, overthroweth the nature of a Sacrament, and hath given occasion to many superstitions."

Few Roman Catholics would deny that there have been superstitious practices associated with the Blessed Sacrament: but if they were to enquire what alternative doctrine the Church of England had to put forward, they could justly complain that although we are very clear about what we do not believe, we are cautious to the point of obscurity about what we do believe. For the most part we have been content to echo Queen Elizabeth I:

`Twas God the word that spake it,
He took the bread and brake it,
And what the word did make it
That I believe, and take it.'

The attitude of the Church of England has been one of loyalty rather than belief. We have gone to the Early Service because Christ told us to, and we think we ought to do His bidding in ritual liturgy, as well as workaday life. It has been a service, a leitourgia more than anything else, with a corresponding unclarity about how else what we were doing was to be described. For the last four centuries our Eucharistic Theology has been "if not Transubstantiation then what?"

I do not think we have been entirely wrong to be so uncertain in our belief. The Holy Spirit has been guiding us into this region of truth by not letting us accept good answers to bad questions, in order that we might ultimately learn not to ask those questions but attempt to frame better. And although all our questions will be too crude, and all the analogies inadequate, that I shall draw from the homely, if not particularly humble, circumstances of our Oxford life, yet I think we ought to ask fresh questions, even at the risk of giving wrong answers, both as a working out of the doctrine of the Incarnation, and as an escape from the frozen attitudes of ancient quarrels, which often have rested on assumptions we ought not to have made. If the question is asked whether the Mass is factual or not, there is a profound truth in saying that it is in some way factual. But merely to ask this question is to beg many others. Facts are not the simple things plain men take them to be, nor are they at all worthy to bo worshipped. Reality is even more misleading. If any one asks us we cannot deny the reality of the Mass or that there is a Real Presence of God at the Eucharist. Not even the most extreme Protestant professes a doctrine of the Real Absence. But the word 'real' was made up by the philosophers from res, a thing, and has never lost its thingly overtones. Things not only exist in their own right independently of us, but also are what we can manipulate for our own purposes. In their attempt to assure us that God was indeed with us at the Holy Communion, and not merely that we had subjective impressions of His presence then, the Schoolmen made

out the consecrated elements to be so thing-like that they could be carted around and exposed, like talismans or secret weapons at the time of battle. In talking about God we are constantly needing to use, and are constantly tempted to misuse, the language of things. God, like a thing, is independent of us, stable and reliable, a Rock which endures from one generation to another, on which we can stand and in which we can shelter. But God, unlike a thing, can never be merely used, because He is a person and more than any of our contrivings can control.

If we, as theists, believe that the universe is fundamentally personal in character it follows that our ultimate understanding will not be in terms of things, which occupy space and may or may not possess certain properties, but of persons, who characteristically do things. Action, not substance, will be our most important category of thought. It is a truth too long neglected by philosophers. Since the time of Descartes, philosophers have taken a very inactive view of the mind, and have shut themselves up in their rooms, cogitating hard and wondering whether they have a sufficiently clear and distinct idea of the external world to be justified in believing that it exists.

But we do not learn much about either ourselves or the world, unless we abandon inactivity, and try and do things. We learn by trial and error, failure and success and our starting-point for understanding our own essential nature should be not cogito, ergo sum as Descartes thought, but rather ego ergo ago, I, therefore I act. Christians are bidden to be doers of the word and not cogitators only. Action has the further, logical advantage in being a much less exclusive category than sub-stance. An action can be correctly described in many different ways, as raising one's arms, shaking somebody else's hand, making up a quarrel, and carrying out a Christian duty. These descriptions do not exclude one another, in the way that if we describe a substance as pure sodium chloride we exclude the possibility of its being also described as calcium carbonate. And so, too, the Eucharist, if we regard it as an action, can be described in many different ways without their being inherently incompatible with one another. If we say that we are making a memorial of Christ's most precious death, we are not thereby precluded from saying also that the minister, as alter Christus is presiding at the heavenly banquet, or that the priest, on behalf of the whole Church, is offering up the sacrifice of the Mass.

Actions are non-exclusive in another way, too. The fact that an action is mine does not prevent it from being yours also, as when you ask me to do something for you. We say that Solomon built the Temple, or that William of Wykeham built Winchester, but do not mean to deny the labours of the many masons and craftsmen who fashioned the stones, and laid them one upon the other. They also built the temple, they also built Winchester. A man often acts through the willing cooperation of the others, and can be with them responsible for what is done. And so, too, what is done in Church not only can be described in many ways, but can be said to be done by many and sometimes different, people - by the congregation, by the priest, by the visible Church militant here on earth, by the whole Church, by Christ on the same night as He Was betrayed, by Christ now, risen, ascended and in glory.

In the Church of England the dominant understanding of ths Eucharist has been in terms of doing, a simple doing in obedience to Our Lord's command, a service, the Early Service, to which, in George Orwell's picture of England, old maids would bike through the mists of the autumn mornings. "Do this ... " He told us, and therefore we do it, beseeching God, in the words of the prayer book, to accept this our bounden duty and service, and in the uglier but more emphatic words of Series III "...as we follow his example and obey his command...Therefore, 0 heavenly Father, we do this... " And since we are doing this at Christ's command, He is doing it too. We are building up the life of the Church, and through our actions, the intentions of the Founder of Christianity are being put into effect, as those of other founders and master-builders have been. Even by the most secular of reckonings Jesus started something when He took the bread and wine, and shared it round. And a large part of what we feel as we go to Church each Sunday is that we are fellow-workers with Christ, in carrying out His injunctions, as we and our predecessors have done Sunday by Sunday, in a continuous succession, every single week, since Thursday, April 6th, 30.A.D., or whenever it was that the Last Supper actually took place.

The Eucharist is a doing, but it is not only that. Although it has been a merit of many loyal laymen in the Church of England to stress the note of simple obedience, it has also been a defect, in that it has played down the special character-istics of the Eucharist, and its place in the Christian life. If the Early Service is seen just as a service of the Church, there are other services equally suitable to be rendered to the Lord as well as many secular duties we believe we ought to discharge in accordance with His will. We do not obey well if we obey blindly, and if we are to do this in remembrance of Him, we must think afresh and try to understand what it is that we are doing. Let us therefore return with Iris Murdoch and observe a celebration, as it were, from the outside. Undoubtedly it is an activity, a social activity, not a manufacturing process. People are saying things, sometimes to one another, sometimes together. Something is being eaten, something drunk. Something is being given, and something given back, and the proceedings evidently mean something very significant to all concerned. These bare descriptions, not only doing, but doing together, saying, eating, drinking, giving, being given back, meaning, are the strands which Our Lord, and at His bidding, the Church have woven together in instituting the Eucharist. We cannot expound it as being merely an action, a corporate activity, a teach-in, a common meal, an offertory, a reception, or a symbolic rite, for it is more than all these. Nevertheless, it is these. These were features of the Last Supper, as they had been of the Passover in Ancient Israel, which enabled it to be what Our Lord intended it to be, and it is these features that have enabled the Eucharist to be the focus of the Church's corporate life on earth and the main way whereby the individual Christian can enter into a relationship with God.

The Last Supper was a meal. The sharing of a meal is the most fundamental sort of sharing for human beings. Many other values may be cherished by many men in common -a love of England, or of mediaeval architecture or of mathematical logic: but not every-one loves England or mediaeval architecture or mathematical logic, and any corporate activity centred on these as their focus of common concern would necessarily be select-ive and exclusive. But we all know that we need food and drink, and therefore all value food and drink. To offer a man a morsel or to give him a drink is a gesture that cannot but be taken as a token of good will; and to join in eating and drinking is to engage in a common activity which each man, however individualistic his standpoint, must regard as desirable and good. And although it is possible to satisfy one's bodily hunger in isolation, it is in another sense very unsatisfying to do so, and the solitary eater, like the solitary drinker, is an object of pity and compassion. Wherever possible we eat and drink in company, and only in company is either really satisfying.

We can understand the Eucharist in part as the Fellowship meal of the Church. Christians draw round the common table of the Church for much the same reasons and in something of the same spirit as members of a College Dine together in Hall. It both expresses and helps to build up a sense of community and a feeling of fellowship, a recognition that we because we cherish certain values in common therefore we want to maintain together a common life. Indeed, even when we are dran together by a shared sorrow, we still find it appropriate to express our fellow feeling by also eating and drinking together. The Last Supper was the funeral bakemeats for Our Lord's death, and the weekly Eucharist parallels in part the "year's mind", when we remember the departed, and in our sadness also rejoice. On such occasions it is natural and correct to ascribe the activity of those present to the influence of the deceased, and even to say that he brought about the things that they do. Merton College owes its existence to Walter of Merton and would not have existed but for him, and has, at least to some extent, been the embodiment of his spirit. We may also go further and say, more metaphorically? that the dead man still lives in the memory and activity of his friends, or the teacher in the minds of his pupils, or the founder in his foundation. This is not to claim immortality. Rather, it is once again to view human beings as, primarily, agents, and therefore to say that they are what they do, and hence also what they achieve through the agency of other men's actions. The spirit of Socrates lives in the intellectual friendships and philosophical discussions of his disciples, especially when they are all gathered together in his name, and doing the things he wanted them to do and had in his own time done himself. And so too the Christians, when they express their corporate solidarity by eating and drinking together, may also remember their master, and feel that he still lives in their common life.

But it is a very thin life. Jeremy Bentham hoped that the young men of University College, London, would continue to be convivial after his death and spare a kindly thought for him, but added the further provision that his corpse, which was to be embalmed and kept in University College, should attend these parties, so that he might be present in the flesh. It is a macabre idea, but expresses the sense of inadequacy of being there merely in spirit. If the Lord's Supper were merely a fellowship meal in which Christians looked back to the Passion and remembered Jesus Christ, it would be similarly inadequate: but the Lord's Supper is not merely a get-together of lime like-minded friends, because the Last Supper was not merely that. The disciples were not merely dining together, they were dining with God. And the Lord's Supper is not merely a commemoration dinner which we eat with other Christians to commemorate our departed Lord; it is also the Lord's because, in the light of the. Resurrection, He is present and we are dining with Him at His high table, as we look forward to the future and not only back to the past. It is the Lord Mayor's banquet, with the Lord Mayor present, and everyone celebrating his accession to power.

The future is very different from the past. We can keep on commemorating the same event, but we cannot keep on inaugurating the same era. I can only once come of age., a wedding can only once be celebrated, and the Second Coming, when it comes, will come only once. It follows that the celebration of the Eucharist which we, in accordance with our Lord's command, repeat day by day or week by week, cannot be exactly the inaugural banquet of Christ's accession. We can, in part, see in the Eucharist a foretaste of a greater banquet yet to come: we can liken it to the Queen's Accession service, a thanksgiving for Christ's triumph, which is still, and will continue to be, effective in our lives; but in order to get the full force of the immediate forward-looking aspect of the Eucharist we have to make a slightly sophisticated change of reference. Rather than think of it as the Lord Mayor's banquet, given by a particular Lord Mayor, we need to compare it with a more generalised celebration of inauguration. In our culture we should compare it with New Year parties. These can be repeated, and yet are indisputably oriented towards the future. As we see the New Year in, we do not suppose that 1972 will be an entirely new sort of existence in contrast to 1971: our celebration is not tied to the particularity of the year, but to the generality of the newness. And in the Eucharist we celebrate the fact that we are granted newness of life, not merely as a matter of secular fact, but in the life of the Spirit. Thanks to Christ's death and resurrection, we can go forward in confidence and look to the future in hope. A new possibility having been opened for us by Christ, we are realising it for ourselves every time we share the Lord's Supper with the brethren, and Ta men opiso epilanthanomenoi tois de emprosthen epecteinomenoi (cf Phil. 3, 13B), forgetting what is behind, reach out to that which lies ahead. The Eucharist is not merely a memorial of things long past, but is the expression of a doctrine of epectasis, and an effective implementation of it in our lives, a weekly New Day's party to celebrate the fact that by virtue of the Resurrection we shall always be finding new things to do, new things worth doing, new ways of making each his own contribution, new treasures still of countless price, new thoughts of God, new hopes of heaven. Not only Illic, as Peter Abelard said, but equally Hic, ex sabbato succedit sabbatum, Perpes laetitia sabbatizantium.

Although the Last Supper was a Supper, and some of the earliest celebrations of the Eucharist may have been real meals, there was from New Testament times on-wards a tendency to whittle down the meal to a purely symbolic form. Some of the reasons were practical. In addition to those of decorum given by St. Paul, a real meal is relatively costly, and the early Church did not have the odd two hundred denarii available to ensure that all should be filled. Banquets, although real, tend to be expensive and exclusive. If the poor are to be able to be filled with the good things from the Lord's Table, only nominal amounts of bread and wine can be handed out, which must act as tokens of what is being given us. But this attenuation of the Supper to the Eucharist both requires and automatically heightens a symbolic interpretation. Just because we are not getting very much to eat and drink, we are impelled to understand what we are doing as not being merely eating and drinking. There is a tension between different requirements. Unless the Lord's Supper is celebrated by our really eating food and really imbibing drink, we lose the basic principle that it is a good thing for every one who joins in: but unless we are prepared to sit loose to the satisfaction of our bodily hunger and thirst we may lose sight of the principle that it is something more than merely physical satisfaction.

In the Eucharist, especially in the congregational liturgies of England and America, we give, and are given. It is a natural instinct, and a very familiar one here in Oxford, where every don likes to make a contribution to his own subject. The harvest festival motif is powerful even in our own unspiritual age. It is natural, especially for laymen, whose vocation is to serve God by means of mundane activities in the secular world, to offer their work to God, not only to give thanks for material benefits, but because, especially in the modern world, only if we are sent out into the world in the power of His Spirit, can the tedium of everyday work be made endurable. After a week of repetition work at Cowley, or even of tutorials that are sometimes somewhat stodgy and of committee meetings that are less than totally in spiring, we offer our work to God, and ask Him to make it His because only so can it be worth doing and supportable. It is right to understand the Eucharist as a giving. But giving is peculiarly liable to the corruption of the human heart. It easily degen-erates into trading or expands into presumption. If we are lawyers we may start think-ing of the offertory as a quid pro quo, or like Cyprian, as a sort of court fee that has to be paid for the right of audience with the Almighty. And even where there is no element of payment, we may hesitate to assume that we are so much on a level with God that we can send him presents, and may say with David (I Chronicles, 29:14) "What am I, and what is my people, that we should be able to give willingly like this?" And hence many Christians have come to think that only God can be offered to God, since only Christ can speak for us in the heavenly places. But although we can see why people have been led to view the Eucharist in this light, we ought to be cautious in following them. It seems to presuppose a false doctrine of the Atonement, and has often obscured other more basic, Eucharistic truths. The Eucharist is a giving. We give bread and wine, we give time and thought, we dedicate our work, we dedicate ourselves. We can call it a sacrifice. But if we do we should understand it in terms of the definition which St. Augustine gives in the tenth book of The City of God. "A true sacrifice is any act that is done in order that we may cleave in holy union to God".

When the Reformers were trying to reformulate their understanding of the Eucharist, Luther stuck on the words Jesus actually used, ``Hoc est corpus meum", and felt impelled to continue construing the Eucharist in terms of substance and things. But Jesus did not actually say ``Hoc est corpus meum'', nor even touto esti to soma mou. What words He actually used we cannot say for certain, since we do not know whether He would have spoken in Hebrew or in Aramaic at the Last Supper. But in either case, the words He used - zeh beśari or den bisri would not have carried the connotations of corporeal substance that the words "Hoc est corpus meum" did for the Schoolmen. The words that came over into Greek as soma would often have been more a reflexive pronoun, myself, omauton9 in the Semitic original. If we continue to translate Our Lord's words as ``This is my body" we must give 'body' the sense it has in the words 'everybody' 'somebody' 'anybody', rather than the sense it bears in a Coroner's court; and at present it could be better rendered by the slang phrase ``This is me", as said by an author pointing to a copy of his magnum opus, by an architect pointing to his masterpiece, a composer during a performance of his symphony, an Arnold or a Thring referring to his Rugby or his Uppingham.

When a person puts himself into his work or gives himself entirely to a cause or an institution, there is a sense both of achievement and of sacrifice. The work is what he has done and is the fulfilment of all his actions; but he has been able to accomplish it only at some cost. And so it was with Jesus Christ. In earthly terms the visible Church is Our Lord's achievement, and the fellowship of Christ's religion is centred on the communion of its members with one another and with God in the sacred sharing of the bread and wine. In this sense, Our Lord's words at the Last Supper, ``This is me", were the literal truth. The Communion service is Christ's doing. But at a greater cost. Christ instituted the Lord's Supper, and we continue to celebrate it, only because He then gave Himself for us on the Cross, and was raised from the dead by the Father. He consecrated not only the bread, but the wine, and not only gave Himself in the Thring sense, but gave His life in the literal sense. Body, basar, bisri, may be understood in the sense of sacrifice; blood must be so understood. Christ's words mean not only that He is pouring His being into the Church constituted by the sharing of the Holy Communion, but that this can be so only because He is going to pour out His life on the Cross.

And this is the ultimate reason why Mass remains in some way factual, and simply exists as a kind of pure reality, separate from the weaving of our own thoughts. It is based on the fact of the Crucifixion and the reality of tho Resurrection. Not only are we doing what Our Lord commanded when He said "Do this ...", but it was in order that we should be able to commune with God and with one another that He came down from heaven, and each celebration of the Holy Communion is both an extension of Christ's achievement and a further expression of what it cost Him,

Et juges gratias de donis gratiae
Beata referet plebs tibi, Domine,

to Whom also, together with God the Father and God tho Holy Spirit,
be ascribed all honour, power, dominion and might, henceforth and for ever, Amen.

click here for ch.1 of Thinking about the Eucharist, London, 1972

 

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