Sunday, July 10, 2011

Theology Held in the Hands

For some, theology is primarily a mental exercise, giving ascent to formulations and propositions that summarize or articulate Christian doctrine. There is nothing wrong with this per se, for it is often asserted that Christianity may be more than mere propositions, but it is never less. However, when theology is thought as simply a cerebral pursuit is when we think amiss. Theology can be as tangible and material as when "doubting" Thomas touched the hands and side of the newly resurrected Christ ("God with us"). To secure our redemption, God took upon himself full humanity in the Person of Jesus Christ. However, this is not the first time he has seen fit to use the material of this world to convey his power and presence. In fact, God has a very long track record of using material stuff to convey his spiritual presence. Sometimes, the reality of God can be held in one's hand.

In the Old Testament, "sacred objects" conveyed the presence and power of God in an object or instrument dedicated for Divine use and for his service. The staff of Moses, the Ark of the Covenant, the cloak of Elijah all were inanimate objects; yet God nonetheless used them in a way to clearly show he is present in the world, using material things to accomplish his work. Thus the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, the ultimate use of earthly "stuff" (full human nature and physiology) to express the full presence of God, is the culminating apex of a "Divine habit" demonstrable throughout time. For this reason we would completely expect that God would continue to use "stuff" to convey his grace and presence since no New Testament Scriptures bring this "habit" of God to a screeching halt. On the contrary, so evident is this practice of God in relating to his Church that the abuse of Communion (physical elements) would find some in the church at Corinth sick and others dead as evident judgments of God for misusing his "stuff." Therefore, we acknowledge that the reality of God (theology) is not merely a mental issue; it can have very tangible and material moments to it.

Of all that the Church practices, the most central example of this is the Communion service. This has always been true in the Church, the reduction of it to "merely a memorial" of Christ's sacrifice on the Cross is a relatively recent invention of Swiss Reformers from the 16th century. It has always been seen as expressing God's presence and conveying his grace to us in a manner that other rites do not. This is why abuse of this could constitute capital crimes according to the Spirit of God in relating to the Corinthians. The significance and power of Communion is such that it is no small matter to participate in serving it to God's people. Having been serving as a Chalice Bearer, I can say that the weight of it is not lost on me. Years of seminary classes and theological lessons are compressed within the moment that I hold the chalice in my hands and approach the nearest worshiper, preparing to offer them the "cup of Christ." At that moment, all that I've learned about God's grace, his habit of conveying his presence through material stuff, the history of the Church in celebrating his redemption together in Communion all come crashing over me. It's as though all of those concepts, lessons and truth could be compressed into a single moment and can be held in the hand and offered to another.

I liken this to a scene in "Iron Man 2" in which the character of Tony Stark spends time in his lab discovering a new element. For special effects, it's a rather impressive moment in the film in which Tony has the components of his research projected as holographic images before him, to be manipulated and controlled using his hands. In an instant of eye-catching imagery, Stark throws his hands wide to expand the view of his "element," filling the room with it's projected details in which he sits at the center. Turning around to behold it all, he basked momentarily in the discovery of it, then claps his hands together to once again reduce the image's size down to a single glow of light in his palm. Going from the exploded view to the singular view with the wave of his hand brings the whole reality of the element, which was far larger than him, into a compressed size that he can hold in one hand.

It is my favorite moment of the film (and occurs in the above clip at 3 minutes in) because of how it not only conveys the idea of sacraments, but also ministry moments in time as well. I've had plenty of instances like that when a quick event in ministry work seems to compress within seconds centuries of church history and doctrinal back-and-forth. All of this can happen when working in the Church during a worship service, and particularly during Holy Communion. I walk up to the rail to gently offer the cup to a Christian awaiting the Communion wine, easing it forward and reciting those comforting words to accompany offering this to God's people:

THE Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s Blood was shed for thee, and be thankful.

In that intimate moment, it is the privilege of the Chalice Bearer to lean in close to them to ensure a smooth and clean motion holding the cup to the lips of people. Often it means being closer into worshiper's "personal space" than is even needed of the Presbyter who must walk by placing bread in Communion bread in their hands (as is his exclusive responsibility). Nevertheless, in that second of connection, it is not me they commune with, but Christ; yet in the mystery of the Church, they and I do connect in that setting. The vertical connection to God and the horizontal connection among people are both pictured in the holding of a chalice full of communion wine to a parishioner's lips. Centuries of history, tomes written on theology, scores of Biblical passages all compress into that brief two or three seconds with each person. Certainly Tony Stark's exploded molecular view of theological reality is compacted down into the single act of leaning in to offer the cup. Theology is held in one's hands at that moment.

Not long ago, I was in the midst of this work during a Sunday morning Holy Communion service, when I noticed a visitor at the rail who I did not recognize. As I followed behind the priest, who was placing Communion bread in the hands of kneeling Christians, I approached this man with the cup of wine. To my surprise, he motioned to me that he had already had bread and did not expect to receive wine as well.

Now I had read that during Medieval times the Roman Catholic Church had fanned the flames of controversy by refusing to offer communion "under both kinds," offering only bread to the people and not wine as well. The Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries addressed this and rightly corrected it. Nevertheless, some Roman churches persist in using Communion as a means of sparingly offering God's grace because those approaching the rail should be more sober minded about it. Rubbish!! One dare not withhold that which Christ has freely offered and expect to escape his stern rebuke. I was at once both indignant that any had ever told this man that he could not have Holy Communion "under both kinds" and moved with compassion for him. How much had this practice taught him that God's grace is only partially offered to him? How much had he wondered about his worthiness to boldly approach the throne of grace with his petitions and prayers because of some Roman practice of keeping something back. ALL of Communion is meant to convey Christ's presence and grace to us as our hearts are caught into heaven in worship to "commune" with him where he sits at the right hand of the Father. I would NOT want to be on the receiving end of Jesus' displeasure at watching tangible, material, physical instruments of his own grace being withheld from people.

So there I was, offering the Chalice to this man that was not expecting to receive it. The exact exchange is important. He held up a hand and said, "thank you, but I had bread." Instantly my mind raced through my church history lessons to access a reason for which he might not expect this also. My response to him was, "it's ok. You can have this too." Of course, what I didn't say was, "and I don't care what loser told you otherwise!" Instead, I just smiled and offered God's grace freely to him. He beamed. He lit up like a man who had just been told he wasn't simply going to receive "part" of God's assuring grace that day, but ALL of it. Of course, I smiled wide as I leaned into him and offered him the cup. I felt a compressed version of the Reformation had occurred in those few seconds. Stark's molecular hologram compressed down and theology, centuries of it, could be held in the hands.

The Church has always recognized that the Gospel is communicated through symbol, sacrament and speech. Theology is not merely a mental pursuit. It is communicated through very tangible means sometimes, and even the realities of God's grace can be offered through sacraments offered and received in faith. In my duties so far, I've seen vast amounts of seminary training compressed into single moments, and events into the material, earthy "stuff" of worship elements. Indeed, God's still uses "stuff" to convey is presence and grace; and thus theology sometimes can be held in one's hands.

1 comment:

Tony Java said...

Holy Communion has never had an as such an impact on me as these last several months. Partly because of you, your thoughts on this subject and your execution of the Sacrament. Thanks