Eucharist is more like the kitchen of a house (where we are cooked) than the front porch of welcome. But we have to try to combine these two functions in our Sunday morning. This is not easy. But to try to do this represents an attempt to let the same miracle as the incarnation happen: to represent what is ‘other’ to what is ‘us’ and have it embraced.
I was speaking recently to a person who is relatively new to Anglican worship and they said something like ‘Well there is a lot of rigmarole and what you do is very far removed from every day life.’ So within this comment lie two questions. One has to do with what we are doing exactly in the Eucharist, and the second has to do with the distance my conversation partner feels when they compare what we do and how we do it with ordinary life’.
This deserves a response because it touches on our mission. The first thing has to do with the question “Does what we do matter?’ I think it does. If you look at the preface to Mattins or Evensong as we have them in the 1662 Book, it says that we are doing three things: we are hearing God’s Word, we are giving thanks to God, and we are asking God for what is needed for the body and our soul.
This is the basic structure of Reformed worship. You can find it in all Reformed Churches throughout Europe, but also in Pentecostal Churches. In both, what people are doing is the same. There is a long sermon and readings from the Bible, but there is also lots of music and singing, and some prayers. In terms of structure, there is no difference between Mattins and Hillsong.
But the Eucharist is a different thing from these two structures. We could have the structure of ‘hearing God’s word and prayer’s’ and add a call to conversion, and ask people to come down the front to give their lives to God. This would be a service where the aim of the action is not only for us to hear God’s word and be confirmed in our faith or judged for our failures, but that the sermon would be trying to convert us, or re-convert us. That is, the object of the preaching is to move the people from one place to another.
This is what the Eucharist aims to do too, but instead of having one go at it (the sermon) there are two (sermon and Eucharist). A good way to think of this is to say that the Eucharist is the repeatable part of our baptism. In a baptism a person is moved from one life to another. From not ‘being in Christ’ to ‘being in Christ’. The result of this is that the person is given a ministry in the Church. They express their reconciliation with God and others by sharing ‘The Peace’ (See Romans 5:1) and are invited to God’s heavenly banquet where as the hymn says ‘God himself is present’.
The Eucharist is a repetition of this process. It wants to take us somewhere: from pride to repentance, from enmity to reconciliation. It wants to re-immerse us in the life of Christ. That is why what we do can’t just be ‘made up’ each Sunday, because the steps involved in repenting and reconciling need to be present.
This is why the Eucharist feels different from ‘ordinary life’. Much of ordinary life does not involve these steps. But the truth of the matter for Christians is that the Eucharist is a very concentrated and symbolic form of ‘ordinary life’. In ordinary life we learn to live ‘in Christ’. We learn to hear when we have missed the mark and to be vulnerable to one another. We learn how to ask for forgiveness and to be reconciled. We learn that God says ‘Who will go for us, whom shall we send, and in our intercessions and responses at the end of Church we say ‘Here am I, send me!’
If a person comes not knowing that this is the journey that they will be asked to take, then they are going to find it strange. But if, understanding this process, one gives themselves to it, then a Sunday morning becomes a place of profound change, transformation, and joy. For me the Eucharist is a ‘conversion engine’, or as John Wesley more elegantly put it ‘a converting ordinance’.
The other thing to say about the difference between the Eucharist and ordinary life is that God is not us! The Philosopher Feuerbach said that all our ideas about any god are projections of our own selves on the heavens. So that worship is a form of self delusion. People who are after the truth are of course not deluded, so don’t worship!
But if God really is ‘not us’ then to enter into the presence of God is to enter into something that does not look like the ordinary life of us. To enter into the presence of God is an action that draws us out of ordinary life, only to plunge us back into it, changed!
The Celtic peoples used to talk of ‘thin places’. These are places where access to the ‘other world’ is easier, because the barriers between us and it are ‘thinner’. So it is with Church. Each Church building is as ‘thin place’ because it represents ‘not us’, but also because of its familiarity to those who have been instructed. It is also a ‘thin place’ because of the memory of the thousands of people who have encountered God in it. But it is also an exceedingly ‘thin place’ because God promises to be with us as we gather and do as Jesus commanded us to do. To take this seriously as a premise for worship is to begin to prepare ourselves for something very special. But this is a presupposition of our coming, not the result of just ‘rolling up’. No one just ‘rolls up’ to meet he queen, and then says ‘well I didn’t get anything out of that!’ Instead the opposite is true. The ‘rigmarole’ associated with meeting the queen heightens the expectation of the encounter. How much more is our encounter with the living God in the Eucharist to be anticipated, expected, and prepared for.
But this leaves the matter of style unattended. Just as ‘Hill Song’ and Mattins are different forms of the same thing, so there are different forms of Eucharist. Previously the Eucharist was seen to be celebrated by the priest alone. He was called ‘the celebrant’. The role of the majority of people was to ‘attend’ or to ‘hear’ the mass. These days it is more important for everyone to be able to participate. It is as if, in our building we are pushing the ‘line of participation’ back from the steps, toward the front door.Today the priest is a ‘presiding officer’ (president) over the celebration of everyone. As well we are seeking to welcome newcomers, so we have to give them the opportunity to participate as easily as possible, without destroying the structure. That is the hard part. Some churches have abandoned a basic Eucharistic structure for the ‘hearing of the Word and prayer’ and then changed the music so that it looks as much like like ‘ordinary life’ as possible. We are trying the harder thing. To allow for mystery and ‘non-ordinariness’ in the Eucharist. To maintain the power of the Eucharistic (baptismal) structure itself, but also to welcome newcomers as they come through our front door. Eucharist is more like the kitchen of a house (where we are cooked) than the front porch of welcome. But we have to try to combine these two functions in our Sunday morning. This is not easy. But to try to do this represents an attempt to let the same miracle as the incarnation happen: to represent what is ‘other’ to what is ‘us’ and have it embraced.