Do we consider communion with the same importance that the Church across the ages has considered it with? Is there a way to see baptism today that might be closer to the intentions of the early Church, and possibly the historic Church? How would this change our worship celebrations?
Once again I find the questions for reflection from the session to be somewhat contrived. When we look across the broad spectrum of Christian traditions currently practiced in the world today, it is impossible to come to a single response regarding either the importance of communion in our churches or even a statement about how closely baptismal practices resemble the intentions of the early Church.
It is difficult to gauge the "importance" with which communion has been regarded over time. As we know, in medieval practices, the cup was often withheld from laity to prevent the possibility of spilling the precious blood of Christ, while rituals based on the understanding of even crumbs left over from the host as truly being the body of Christ were also common.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, those who practice communion as a meal of remembrance, observed out of obedience to Jesus’ instructions recorded in the New Testament may not approach the elements from a sacramental perspective or share in concerns over matters such as the "real presence" of Christ. Nonetheless, the practice of communion may still be as important within these traditions, providing an anchor point for the local congregation within the larger self-identity of the Church over time.
Rather than discuss these questions, I wish to bring up another point from the readings. While discussing the work of the Holy Spirit within the Eucharist, White discusses passages from the Church Fathers that move back and forth between what he defines as realistic and symbolic language. For example, St. Cyril of Jerusalem describes the work of the Holy Spirit as an agent of sanctification and change during the Eucharist:
"We call upon the merciful God to send for His Holy Spirit upon the gifts lying before Him; that He may make the bread the Body of Christ, and the Wine the Blood of Christ; for whatsoever the Holy Ghost has touched, is sanctified and changed…" (quoted in White 250).
White further points out that in the same text Cyril claims that the bread and wine are a sign (antitupon) of Christ’s body and blood (252) Augustine’s language around the Eucharist also can appear to be realistic in some instances but symbolic in others (252). None of this is in dispute. But the sentence that came up short for me comes next:
"Unfortunately, such ambiguity is no longer a possibility for us, but it is refreshing to see the latitude of expression still possible in the fourth century. The boundaries of acceptable terms were wide" (White 252).
As a person with training in both linguistics and theology, I take exception to White’s conclusion. It is a widely accepted that medieval scholasticism’s attempts to categorize and harmonize any and every theological question eventually led to an impossible state in which increasingly irrelevant questions were supplied with equally irrelevant answers. And the answers that the scholastics and their successors provided by way of transubstantiation, consubstantiation, real presence, and so forth have dominated much of the denominational discussion around what happens in the Eucharist for the last 500 years. But times are changing.
In the postmodern (or post-postmodern) world, the extreme complexities of medieval scholasticism are often simply irrelevant. Though the theories that earlier theologians addressed their own concerns, they do not provide useful solutions for our contemporary concerns. Most modern church-goers are completely ignorant of Aristotle and hear only wildly unscientific claims that bread and wine become a feast of human flesh and blood – an idea repugnant to us in any other context.
But if we sweep away the entire medieval framework and look again at the words of Cyril and Augustine, what we find is simply metaphorical language. Though we cannot ask them now, one might suspect that these early Church Fathers would be most dismayed to hear that their words have been couched in Aristotelian categories of form and substance – categories which they did not share.
Often our own presuppositions regarding the superstitious and pre-scientific worldview of the ancients contributes in no small part to the idea that they may have literally believed that the bread and wine became actual flesh and blood. Biblical scholars often challenge us to consciously study the symbolic language of scripture. Yet theological discourse has frequently appeared to forget that all God-talk is figurative in nature. It is with this understanding that I claim, contrary to White’s assertion, that the boundaries of acceptable terms are still quite wide – as long as we do not enslave ourselves to medieval systems of thought that have outlived their original purpose.
White, James F. Introduction to Christian Worship. 3rd Edition. Nashville: Abingdon, 2001.