Monday, May 09, 2011

Reserving the Sacrament

In my church we reserve the Sacrament. For those of you unfamiliar with the practice, reserving the Sacrament means that we set aside the consecrated bread and wine of the Lord's Supper for future use. It's a helpful practice, especially for those of our shut-in members. We can then take a part of the Sunday's table fellowship to them so that, in effect, they share the same Meal with all of us.

Reserving the Sacrament is tricky for Anglicans because (to my knowledge) it is a Catholic practice tied to the doctrine of transubstantiation. Transubstantiation, put simply, means that in the Eucharistic prayers, God replaces the substance (the 'is-ness') of the bread and wine with the substance of Christ's Body and Blood. While the elements still look, feel, and taste exactly like bread and wine, their reality is Jesus himself: body, blood, soul, and divinity.

The Anglican Church in its historic formularies repudiated the doctrine of transubstantiation as "repugnant to the plain words of Scripture," (Article XXVIII) but it is important to note that the difference with Rome on this matter was a dispute over the means of Christ's presence, not the fact of Christ's presence. Article XXVIII goes on to say that the Body of Christ "is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper , is Faith."

Embarrassingly for contemporary Anglican practice, the Article continues, "The Sacrament of the Lord's Supper was not by Christ's ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped."

So, we have the catholic practice of reserving the Sacrament. An early Anglican formulary denies that this practice is part of Christ's ordinance. This is, strictly speaking, true. Christ's ordinance includes the Words of Institution and the elements of bread and wine. But, as Anglicans since at least Hooker have maintained, just because something is not explicitly ordained by Christ does not mean it is disallowed. We have to ask whether the practice is repugnant to Scripture, that is, whether it in some way denies or goes against the grain of the story of Christ as told by the Bible.

In other words, we have to ask, as George Sumner did with the indelibility of Holy Orders, whether or not we can find an evangelical argument for this catholic practice. Is there something to which reserving the Sacrament bears witness that we find essential, good, and in accordance with the Scriptures? I think there is.

In brief, reserving the Sacrament means that what happens in space and time matters and continues to matter for our spiritual lives.

Ultimately, there is but one death in space and time that gives meaning to, shapes, illumines, and redeems space and time: the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. As bearers of a Protestant tradition, most Anglicans would say that Christ's death is once-for-all. It does not need repeating. What happened in that specific space (on a cross outside the walls of Jerusalem) in that specific time (somewhere around AD 30) matters for all space and time, and it matters not merely as a spiritual event but as a spatio-temporal-spiritual event. What happened in space and time mattered and matters.

In an analagous way we can move to the consecration of the elements in the Eucharist. Some say that the Bread and Wine are just signs. They carry meaning only insofar as they are part of the worship service. Afterwards, the elements could be fed to the dogs because there is nothing special about them at all. In other words, what was once special and important in space and time falls away from that use once the context has passed. Should the materials be saved for the next celebration of the Lord's Supper, they would be prayed over again, just like the previous service had never happened.

But, those of us who reserve the Sacrament maintain by the practice that what happened in a specific place (at the altar at my church in Toronto, for instance) at a specific time (somewhere around 11:45 am on Sunday) continues to matter, even after the worship service ends. The elements, though not changed substantially, still bear the significance of consecration. That past event continues to have significance - once-for-all significance, even - in the case of these specific elements.

Whatever we think about the means by which the Sacrament is Sacrament, reserving it bears witness to an understanding that what happens in the past matters, that bread and wine once set aside are not automatically returned to secular use as soon as the service is over. Reserving the sacrament claims a historical connection with the bread and wine's consecration in  space and time, which in turn claims a connection with the once for all consecration of Jesus Christ upon the cross. As St. Paul says, "The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a sharing in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a sharing in the body of Christ?" (1 Corinthians 10:16, NRSV).

Reserving the Sacrament means that we believe that things of supra-historical (spiritual) significance can happen in and as space-and-time realities. Reserving the living signs and symbols of Body and Blood claims something about the reality, tangibility, materiality, personality, and individuality of the Cross. Because Christ's consecration on the Cross was once-for-all, we practice a once-for-all consecration of the elements that enable our sharing in Christ's consecration by the power of the Spirit in faith.

What do you think about reserving the elements of the Lord's Supper for future use? How does your church practice?

1 comment:

Eclipse said...

While I have no experience with reserving the sacrament, reading your post triggered a few ideas in my mind. I think "...reserving it bears witness to an understanding that what happens in the past matters, that bread and wine once set aside are not automatically returned to secular use as soon as the service is over." is the most powerful statement you've got in this entire post, because I think it comes very close to the scriptural reflection of how we are to live our lives. Too many Christians treat their own lives/bodies in this same fashion. Once out of church, it is returned to its secular use. If I could change the topic of that quote, I might do something like this:

"...reserving yourself bears witness to an understanding that what happened in the past matters, that once outside the church you are not automatically returned to secular use as soon as the service is over."

This seems to connect very well with Romans 12:1-2 in my mind:

"1 Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. 2 Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will."

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