The Eucharist is the thankful celebration of God’s presence with his people in Jesus Christ. The celebration is not a repetition of an ur- event; instead, time is collapsed into the eternal moment in which creation and redemption are thankfully expressed in Christ’s life, death, Resurrection, and ascension. To share in it, to celebrate it with Christ, is to be a thankful person committed to working toward what that means for one’s treatment of the world, of other people, and indeed of oneself. One emerges from the event of the sacrament in Christ, free to serve the world with love in peace and justice. As the priest says at the conclusion of the service to all those assembled (and to all Christians wherever they are), “Go forth in the power of the Spirit to live and work to God’s praise and glory.”
The form itself is instructive. The Eucharist begins when one presents oneself, for by one’s bodily presence among members of the community of faith that Christians call the Church, the believer acknowledges the presence of God, or at least, he or she acknowledges that he or she is committed to exploring what it means to remember and celebrate God’s presence. The thought is brought to mind that we come into God’s presence; his presence preceded ours. Our presence, let alone our moral worth, did not cause God to be present. We are responding to, grasping, an invitation that he graciously offers. When these thoughts are taken with the seriousness they merit, they open questions that stir the heart as well as puzzle and intrigue the mind. And they raise, above all, the fundamental question, who am I that God should choose to associate himself with me and with the rest of this community among whom I find myself? Indeed, who are we as humankind that God should choose to associate himself with us and all those among whom we find ourselves? What is this world in which we are set, and how does God come into the picture?
These questions provoke a sense of our incompleteness, inadequacy, and unworthiness, as well as the need for greater self-knowledge, remorse, the confession of sin, and a desire for forgiveness. The term “sin” is open to gross misunderstanding, probably due to the Church’s comparatively recent practice of encouraging regular—even weekly—confession to a priest, which developed into a silly recalling of trivial matters of no real consequence. It reinforced a vision of God as always on the brink of withdrawing his affectionate concern and encouragement. Nothing could be further from the truth. In the sacrament of penance, we are made aware of God’s continuing, forgiving presence, not of our failures.
The fact is that, as St. Augustine realized, but for God’s eternal presence, there would be no sense in life at all, let alone the appreciation of the good things one already knows, such as the nourishing experiences of love and friendship. Herein lies the background in which a new language of faith is developing. The celebration flows naturally through the “Gloria” (the voicing of gratitude to the Trinitarian God), followed by readings from Scripture that reflect the development of Christian religious experience drawn from the Jewish Scriptures, the earliest Christian writings of the Epistles and the Gospels. The theme is taken up in a sermon by the priest, who attempts to reconfigure our common experience in the light of Christ’s vision of God’s presence in a world he is creating. All is gathered together in intercessory prayer, where the health of the whole world is brought to mind and commended to God’s gracious care. A sign of peace is then exchanged along with the offering of the whole of creation in the matter of bread and wine, which is then consecrated by Jesus’s words on the occasion of the Last Supper. This culminates in the solemn sharing of the bread and wine, the body and blood of Christ, and Christ’s sending of the Church out into the world to bear witness to God’s presence as it shares its thankfulness with all people.
Certain claims are implicit in the celebration. It is not simply the persons who are present at a particular celebration who are involved but all God’s people—past, present, and future. The celebration is therefore what we may call a sanctification of time and a recognition of the vital importance of the historical process. As I have said, there can be no such thing as repetition: each time the Eucharist is celebrated, it is the one and only event of Christ’s sacrifice and Resurrection with which the whole Church associates itself; indeed the one and only celebrant of the Eucharist is Christ himself, represented in the person of the priest, whose ordination is specifically for this purpose.
The event of the Eucharist culminating in the dismissal is a dynamic, living celebration of the true nature of human experience, dependent as it is on God’s relationship with his creation, and the acceptance of the authority that flows from God’s commitment of himself to the perfection of the world. The celebration is therefore proleptic— concerned with a future in which the whole Church, on behalf of all humanity, is to take its part in transforming the world so as to make real God’s relationship with his creation.
Thankfulness, like faith itself, is proleptic, as it anticipates and enacts the future in principle and in practice: “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Heb. 11:1). This seemingly blind confidence expressed by the writer of the epistle to the
Hebrews in fact makes it plain that the person of faith is an intentional actor in the process of transformation, not a passive observer of something achieved by an outside agency. God is not an external power but a present authority with whom the believer is invited to cooperate. Gratitude is likewise a transforming power that effects a future change of direction and brings about a new state of affairs. There is plenty of evidence to confirm this, which makes mere compliance unsatisfying and personally unrewarding. Hence, as Ward wrote, “It is important for understanding the Christian way of life to cultivate the faculty of gratitude and nourish it as much as one can” (Ward, 1967, p. 20). This raises the very interesting question of whether gratitude can be nourished and, if so, how. It surely can. It is a question to which attention should be given in every person’s education and in the education of the professional.
Is there any other ritual in which we can share that will remind us of the importance of gratitude and will actively increase our capacity to be grateful? Actually, it seems that humankind cannot do without rituals. Humans may or may not be religious, but whether they are or not, they will still, I suggest, draw their strength from traditional practices that are recognizably religious. For example, the Communist Party in the German Democratic Republic (DDR, Deutsche Demokratische Republik) adopted a ritual—the Jugendweihe—which had been developed by secular societies in the nineteenth century as a substitute for the confirmation found among Roman Catholic and Protestant Churches. Authorities in the DDR required even Christians to take part or suffer in education and employment. The ceremony, normally at 14 years of age, involved promises to serve the state and all socialist peace-loving peoples, to deepen friendship with the Soviet Union, and to fight in the spirit of proletarian internationalism to defend socialism against imperialism. In response, the initiates were accepted formally “into the great community of working peoples, which, under the direction of the working class and its revolutionary Party, united in will and action, is building the developed socialist society in the German Democratic Republic” (World Heritage Encyclopedia, 2014). One cannot miss the flavor of confirmation in the public ceremonies that the state had developed: they too were proleptic in their determination to create a society of people committed to “making a difference” through acting with others in the party to make peace and build the DDR. The contrast with Christian initiation is striking: in the Marxist world, the promised transformation was a result of human action, whereas within Christianity, it is the consequence of bearing witness, in word and action, to the way the world is when seen as characterized by the gracious presence of God.
Ward interestingly remarked, “It is Christian conviction that life in itself is neither meaningful nor holy, but that it can be made meaningful and holy. Thankfulness consecrates it, makes it meaningful and holy” (Ward, 1967, p. 21). This honesty needs to characterize all our relationships, whether they are with God or with our fellow human beings, including, therefore, those that flow from our professional responsibilities.