Today, I want to focus on something that we do, every week, year in and year out. I'm speaking of course, about the Mass, or the Holy Communion, or the Lord's Supper, or the Eucharist....whatever your favourite name for this service is!
Actually, all these different names are important...because they spring out of the ongoing debates in the church, all around the world, about the primary meaning of this liturgy. Those who use the word 'Eucharist' are drawing from the Greek word 'eucharistia' which means 'thanksgiving'. For them, the key moment of this service is the eucharistic, or thanksgiving prayer, during which the people of God are reminded of God's actions in the world and in their lives through Christ and the Holy Spirit. The Eucharist is where we give thanks to God for the sacrificial death of Christ, and commit ourselves to live new lives following his example.
For those who prefer the term Holy Communion, it is the more 'communal' aspects of the service which are important. Through the liturgy, the 'community' comes together, and communes with God and one another, before going out to love and serve the Lord in the community. It is that 'communal' emphasis that has led the Church of England to mainly prefer the title 'Holy Communion' than some of the other options. We are a parish church, called to serve a certain parish, in a certain community. We invite others to an ever more Holy Way of being in communion, and in community.
The Lord's Supper is a term mainly used by the 'non-conformist' churches - those who do not conform to all the teachings of the orthodox and catholic versions of Christianity. Most Lord's Suppers are a very stripped-back, bare version of the liturgy. The main focus is the meal of bread and wine, which is consumed (mainly) as a memorial of Christ's death. A ‘Lord's Supper’ tends to focus on the meal as a historical event, rather than (as the traditional churches teach) something which is still happening today.
For a non-conformist, (and for most evangelicals) the bread and the wine are merely tokens, rather than something which by the Holy Spirit, is mysteriously transformed into the body and blood of Jesus - whether that is meant spiritually or literally. The piece of furniture on which this happens is called the Lord's Table, rather than an Altar - because non-conformists prefer to believe that what happened once cannot be repeated again. For them, the sacrifice of Christ was made once for all, and cannot be repeated. Those who prefer the term Altar claim that in some spiritual sense Christ continues to sacrifice himself again and again for the life of the world...and therefore, the place on which this Sacrifice is made present would be called an Altar.
There are many, many other names for this central feast of the Christian Church, and many many ways of interpreting all the different elements that it includes. For example, some Christians call this 'The Table of the Lord' - the 'Mensa Domini'. Some call it 'the Lord's Body' - the Corpus Domini. Some call it the 'Holy of Holies' - the 'Sanctissimum', or the 'Eulogia' (the Blessing) or the Synaxis (the Assembly). And there are others!
The main alternative that I suspect you have all heard is of course ‘The Mass’. There are debates around where that particular title came from. One idea is that the word comes from the same root as the word 'Mess' - as is used on ships all over the world. It’s the place of 'the Meal' - so the The Mass is The Meal. Another suggestion is that ‘Mass’ comes from the Latin words of dismissal, at the end of the service: "Ite, Missa Est', which directly translates as 'Go, the dismissal is made'. In other words…'You are sent' - emphasising that having received the spiritual nourishment of the Eucharist, we are sent out into the world 'to love and serve the Lord'.
And all of this is very interesting...especially to a geek like me! But of course, the real question is this: what is the Service for?! What is its fundamental purpose? Why do we do it, and why should we continue doing it?
Surprisingly, one of the most profound answers that I've found to these questions comes from an Atheist…
The philosopher Alain de Botton has written a description of what he calls 'the Mass', which is well worth hearing. (This is part of his book "Religion for Athiests: A Non-Believer's Guide to the Uses of Religion"). He argues that Atheists need to learn from the Church. For example, he praises the Mass for the way that it brings people together in community around a meal. He points out that with declining church attendance we have seen an exponential rise in Restaurants - But, he points out, Restaurants fail to "introduce patrons to one another, to dispel their mutual suspicions, to break up the clans into which people chronically segregate themselves”. The focus is on the food and the decor, never on opportunities for extending and deepening affections”.
In contrast, de Botton says these things about the Mass...” Those in attendance tend not to be uniformly of the same age, race, profession or educational or income level; they are a random sampling of souls united only by their shared commitment to certain values"
The Mass "should inspire visitors to suspend their customary frightened egoism in favour of joyful immersion in a collective spirit - an unlikely scenario in the majority of modern community centres"
These are all brilliant observations, I think. De Botton goes on to suggest the formation of Agape Restaurants, where patrons are mixed up, and forced to sit with people they don’t normally mix with. They should be places where people are challenged to think about life, and their place in it.
I rather like the idea of Agape Restaurant. In fact such restaurants already exist in many churches. We have one, just like that, in Havant, in the Pastoral Centre with the Methodist Church. So does the Portsdown Community Church, at the Beacon. There’s also the Meeting Place at the URC. This is what Authentic Christians do - we take a simple idea from the normal plane of modern existence...in our case, the idea of eating together. Then we transform it, with God's help, into something holy, by introducing the idea of community - teaching people to love their neighbour as they love themselves. We give every visitor a warm welcome, and the chance, if they wish, to think about the deep questions of existence.
And that is what the Mass, or the Holy Communion, is ultimately about. It's the place where people from all walks of life can come together, united by a common Vision of what the world could be like. We are united by a common understanding that none of us is free of sin, and we all need to give and receive forgiveness...from God and each other. We are united by a common meal, in which we take into ourselves the very stuff of God, in bread and wine; we take in sustenance for the next stage of our life...whether that be the next day, or the next month.
And we do other vital things too. Together, we recite historic words of faith, like the Creed. Many of us might struggle with the actual theology of some of the words we recite, but nevertheless they tie us to the previous generations who have believed before us. Together we offer up the world, in all its chaos and pain, and challenge ourselves to be part of the solution to the world's problems. We share peace with each other...even with people who we would normally not think of as friends. And together, we commit ourselves to going out in the name of Christ, to love and serve the world.
What could be a more appropriate and magnificent thing for followers of Jesus - to do?