One of the more remarkable features of the classic Anglican Eucharistic rite, often omitted from modern prayer books, is the Exhortation that the priest gives to encourage people to receive the sacrament in a worthy manner. The Exhortation comes just before the call to Confession and in its various forms (there are three options) it includes clearly articulated language about both the great benefits and dangers of receiving Holy Communion:
DEARLY beloved in the Lord, ye that mind to come to the holy Communion of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ, must consider how Saint Paul exhorteth all persons diligently to try and examine themselves, before they presume to eat of that Bread, and drink of that Cup. For as the benefit is great, if with a true penitent heart and lively faith we receive that holy Sacrament; (for then we spiritually eat the flesh of Christ, and drink his blood; then we dwell in Christ, and Christ in us; we are one with Christ, and Christ with us;) so is the danger great, if we receive the same unworthily. For then we are guilty of the Body and Blood of Christ our Saviour; we eat and drink our own damnation, not considering the Lord’s Body; we kindle God’s wrath against us…
The benefit of the sacrament is that we “spiritually eat the flesh of Christ, and drink His blood” which makes us one with Christ. There is a hint here of what the Eastern Orthodox call the doctrine of theosis, the idea that our sanctification is brought about by our being united with Christ and made one with Him so that Christ shines through us and we take on His characteristics, much the same way that a blade that has been placed in a fire will glow with warmth even after it is pulled out. This is echoed in the prayer of humble access in which we pray that God will allow us “so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us.” There is a cleansing that takes place in the Eucharist, just as there is in Baptism, but the effect of that cleansing is amplified. Through the Eucharist, we are made to dwell with God, not just in His presence, but as a part of Him, just as He is in us. When God came to rescue us from sin and death, He made Himself like us by taking on our flesh. In the Eucharist, this action is reversed. We are lifted up into Him, being made one with Him in our spirit.
Objections to Spiritual Eating
The Exhortation describes the act of partaking in the sacrament as a “spiritual” eating of Christ’s flesh. This language is repeated in the post-communion prayer which includes a thanksgiving to God for giving us “the spiritual food of the most precious Body and Blood of thy Son our Saviour Jesus Christ.” Critics sometimes assert that this means that Anglicanism holds a purely memorialist understanding of the sacrament since that which is spiritual must clearly be at odds with that which is material. This assumption is further bolstered by the fact that the rite emphasizes over and over again the need to receive the sacrament in faith because it is only by faith that we actually receive the benefits promised in the sacrament. Therefore, critics conclude, we are not talking about a real, objective presence of Christ in the sacrament. The presence of Christ is dependent on the mind-set of the believer. All that the individual communicant receives in his or her mouth is bread and wine, since the physical elements undergo no change. If the communicant has faith, the communicant will also be given Christ’s Body and Blood to feed on in his or her heart. But if the communicant does not have faith, he or she will receive only bread and wine and not Christ. The grace of the sacrament, therefore, is dependent on us rather than on God.
Response to Objections
The problem with this line of criticism is that it ignores some fairly significant parts of the rite that indicate that Christ’s presence is not dependent on us at all. First, as we see above in the Exhortation, there is an acknowledgement that by receiving the sacrament without faith we “eat and drink our own damnation.” As we discussed in the previous article, this admonition comes from 1 Corinthians 11. If there is no real and objective presence of Christ in the sacrament, it is difficult to understand how or why reception of it by a non-believer would injure that person so drastically.
More to the point, however, is the sentence of administration. In Cranmer’s first prayer book in 1549, the priest administered the bread with the words, “The Body of Our Lord Jesus Christ which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life.” In the 1552 revision, under the influence of a much more Zwinglian spirit, the words were changed to reflect a purely memorialist understanding of the sacrament. The priest placed the bread in the communicant’s hands saying, “Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee and be thankful.” But in 1559 and ever after, the 1549 language was restored so that both sentences are said together. The memorialist language of the second sentence remains true no matter how one conceives of the presence of Christ in the sacrament. However, the language of the first sentence definitively asserts the real and objective presence of Christ, not just in the heart and mind of the believer but also in the bread and wine. If the bread is not really the Body of Christ and the wine is not really the Blood of Christ, the priest is rendered a liar and the rite becomes internally incoherent.
So then, “spiritual food” and “spiritual feeding” cannot be interpreted to mean that there is no local presence of Christ in the sacrament at all. The spiritual reality of how we receive is not in contradiction with the objective and even the material reality of how Christ gives Himself to us in the sacrament. Rather, it is precisely the coming together of the spiritual and the material that results in our ability, as creatures who are both spiritual and physical, to feed on Christ and receive the benefits of His passion.
Resurrected Bodies are Spiritual Bodies
The problem for many of us in grasping this is that we have been formed in a secular culture and sometimes even in a church culture that embraces the Gnostic idea that the spirit and the flesh are two radically different things that are necessarily opposed to one another. And since our era is dominated by materialism which brashly asserts that only the things we can quantify with our senses are real, we come to believe that the spiritual is somehow less real than the physical. But if that were the case, God would be less real than rocks since rocks are pure matter and, as John 4:24 tells us, God is pure spirit. Rather, as Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15, that which is spiritual is that which is beyond the power of sin and death:
Someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body… So is it with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven…
Christ Himself as a resurrected man is now “life-giving spirit,” and yet He has not ceased to also be human. On the contrary, the spiritual nature of His Body makes Him more human. While Adam is just dust, Christ is much more because His body has become spiritual. In the resurrection, the very material that makes us up will have the transcendent qualities that now are only the property of the spirit. The material will no longer be separable from the spiritual. All will be fully integrated. All will be made whole.
Nevertheless, while Christ has already gone through this change, we who have been baptized into Christ remain stuck between two worlds. We have been regenerated and given the Holy Spirit, which means that our souls have been cleansed of sin and brought back to life, and yet we remain in the fallen world in which we continue to have to face the reality of decay and death. And that reality has a hold on us, dragging us into sin over and over again, leaving its mark upon our flesh. It is only if our souls have been washed clean by the washing of Baptism and faith has been kindled in our hearts that we have a hope of feeding upon the Resurrected Body of Our Lord which is now fully glorified and no longer subject to death’s influence. That does not mean that Christ is not objectively, fully, even materially present when the bread and wine are placed in our mouths. But it does mean that if we are to actually receive in any way the benefit of such a gift, we must have spirits that have been reborn and cleansed of sin. It is not enough simply to receive with the mouth if the heart remains unmoved.
You Are What You Are Able to Eat
A crude example will perhaps serve to draw the distinction more clearly. I have a medical condition which prevents me from digesting certain foods properly, including pineapples. Now, this is a shame because I really like pineapples. If a piece of pineapple was placed in my hands right this second, it would certainly be objectively a pineapple. I could chew it up and swallow it and I would have taken pineapple into myself. Nevertheless, because my body is flawed in such a way that I cannot digest the pineapple properly, I will not actually be able to feed on it. I will not be able to gather from it nutrition. In fact, I may very well have a negative reaction, which in my case would cause me to wake up in the middle of the night gasping for breath. I am not equipped in my person to feed on pineapple, even if I were to receive it.
The Body and Blood of Christ that comes to us in and through the consecrated bread and wine is a glorified body, a spiritual body. It requires a glorified spirit to be able to properly receive it and feed on it. But that does not mean that Christ is not really, truly present, in an objective way, by His own free gift of Himself. The spiritual nature of the Body does not make the Body any less of a real Body. Nor does our need to feed spiritually, through faith, make any difference in the reality of the gift that is given in the sacrament.
Spiritual food is real food. There is only one way to eat it and only one chef who prepares it. Blessed are we to be called to keep the feast.