This is the fifth (and final installment) in a series of short reflections on our communion liturgy, in which the insights of several writers have been shared… and who better to turn to for the final word than Robert Farrar Capon?
t is not uncommon for people who are new to saint benedict’s table to ask about our theology of communion. Many of these, of course, come from various evangelical protestant backgrounds for which communion is generally a strictly memorial act. Some will have some vague sense that while the Anglican tradition has not taught the Roman Catholic perspective known as transubstantiation (which is a slightly more nuanced understanding than many protestants think, but that is another story altogether!), it does believe that more is going on in communion that a narrowly symbolic act.
Well, frankly the theology of communion is one of those areas where this tradition has tried to leave a great deal of room for a range of interpretations. We do say that Christ is truly present in the communion, but also understand that there are many ways in which people understand the idea of a “real presence.” I tend to think, though, that such discussions end up going down all sorts of blind alleys, and that we’re best to not get too caught up on the question of the mechanics of communion and better to simply celebrate it together in a manner open to the Spirit of God.
In an earlier piece of this series, I made the point that it is not particularly helpful to talk about the priest as being the “celebrant” of communion, for in fact it is the gathered assembly that does the celebrating. With his typical wit, Robert Capon pushes this image of celebration to the brink of absurdity, but stops just in time to let it be a powerful image of who and what we are. This is excerpt is from his 1974 book Hunting the Divine Fox, which was reprinted in 1995 in a collection entitled The Romance of the Word.
For in fact, there is no sense in which Jesus can be said to show up at Communion. Not in a natural sense, for the Mystery of the Word of which Jesus is the supreme sacrament was in the bread – and on the altar, and in the pews, and out in the parking lot, and down in the cesspool – twenty minutes before the Mass started and ten seconds after the world began. And not in a religious sense, because Jesus, in his Godhead and in his Manhood – crucified, risen, ascended, and coming again – is fully present in all the baptized. He doesn’t show up in a room from which he was absent. He sacramentalizes himself in a room in which he is already present. The bread and wine of Communion are not a peephole through which the church checks out some mysterious stranger who wants to come in for a visit. They are a mirror that the church holds up before her face to see the Mystery that is already inside her and at home.
And likewise there is no sense, secular or sacred, in which Jesus can be said to show up in the heart of anybody, believer or unbeliever, true or false. And once you’ve gotten that straight, isn’t it lovely to find the right reason for going to Communion again? You don’t go because the tankful of Jesus you got last Sunday has now been used up and you need a refill. You go to do precisely what the church has always been smart enough – or lucky enough, or guided enough – to call it all along: you go to celebrate the Holy Mysteries. It’s the image of the party again. You go to taste and see how gracious the inveterately hospitable Lord is. To share still another bottle of the great old wine he’s always kept your cellar full of. And to relish once again the old tall tale about how he came to his own party in disguise and served the devil a rubber duck. You go, in short, to have a ball – to keep company while you roll over your tongue the delectable things that have been yours all along but that get better every time you taste them.
So you see, that is what we’re celebrating.