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Our ‘bright sadness’: The Eucharist and Christian unity today

Fr Denis Stanley explores eucharistic faith, practice and dialogue among the different Christian churches in relation to our journey to Christian unity.
 
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During Advent, that season of incompletion and patient waiting, I set off one Sunday morning to attend the Eucharist at St Mary's Anglican Church in North Melbourne. Warmly greeted at the door with a parish bulletin, I had all I needed to follow the liturgy. Everyone joined in the opening hymn with gusto, bonding the assembly together. We listened to the Word and a carefully crafted homily, we knelt down for a time of thoughtful and challenging intercessions, the collection followed.
 
The altar was prepared, the bread and wine were brought forward while we took up another well-sung hymn. The Great Thanksgiving was prayed, the Our Father followed and then the invitation to Communion: ‘The gifts of God for the people of God. Come let us take this holy sacrament of the body and blood of Christ in remembrance that he died for us, and feed on him in our hearts by faith with thanksgiving’. I was left sitting alone among the empty pews, as every single person in the church joined the Communion procession except me. The whole celebration was a strange occasion of feeling perfectly at home, then being plunged into the role of awkward outsider. The Eucharist is called ‘the sacrament of Christian unity’. In that moment in St Mary's, I pondered that classic teaching. Of course, I knew why I should not receive communion. History and theology help me understand both what unites us and what still divides us. Yet the Advent season of incompletion and patient waiting for the fullness of the Lord’s presence crept in to sit beside me during that celebration of the Eucharist.
 
The Eucharist is indeed the sacrament of Christian unity. Jesus gathers his disciples in the Upper Room the night before he is given up to death, binding them together with the command to ‘do this in memory of me’. St Paul appeals to the fractious Corinthians: ‘We who are many are made one body, for we all share in the one bread and the one cup’. St Augustine teaches his people, ‘Remember that the bread is not made from one grain but from many. Many grapes hang on the cluster, but the juice of the grape is gathered together in unity. So the Lord Christ, wishing us to belong to him, consecrated on his table the mystery of our peace and unity’.
 
Yet ironically, and indeed sadly, the sacrament of Christian unity has become the source and sign of division among Christians. Our inability to receive communion at each other’s Holy Tables is the sign that a wider communion in faith has broken down and that the Eucharist itself—what Christians believe about the Eucharist—is a source of division too.  

In the fifty years since the Catholic Church’s formal entry into the journey of Christian unity at the Second Vatican Council, where has that journey led us in regard to the Eucharist? 

Firstly, today we possess a heritage of fifty years of theological dialogue on the Eucharist, fruit of great scholarship, patient listening to each other and a steadfast commitment to Christ’s will and purpose for unity. These dialogues of genuine encounter have made possible theological reflection that has moved beyond polemics to a sincere desire to understand each other in our agreements and disagreements.  

With the communities of the Reformation the dialogue has focussed strongly on the nature of the Eucharist itself. Significant theological dialogues at an international level and at a local level with the Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican and Methodist communities have provided us with documents that have clarified mutual misunderstandings, given us a common language to speak of the Eucharist, and pinpointed more accurately the differences that remain.1 These common statements speak of the centrality of the Eucharist in the life of the Church, the theme of anamnesis (memorial), the central role of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist and how Christ is present in the Eucharist. Here is but one example: the Anglican Roman Catholic Statement on the Eucharist speaks for both traditions in its common confession on the centrality of the Eucharist.

When his people are gathered at the Eucharist to commemorate his saving acts for our redemption, Christ makes effective among us the eternal benefits of his victory and elicits and renews our response of faith, thanksgiving and self-surrender. Christ through the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist builds up the life of the Church, strengthens its fellowship and furthers its mission. The identity of the Church as the body of Christ is both expressed and effectively proclaimed by its being centred in, and partaking of, his body and blood. In the whole action of the Eucharist, and in and by his sacramental presence given through bread and wine, the crucified and risen Lord, according to his promise, offers himself to his people. (Eucharistic Doctrine, 1971)2 

With the Eastern Orthodox Churches, the focus of the dialogue has been not so much on the Eucharist itself, in which we share a common faith, but on establishing a common faith in the nature of the Church, in order that we might share a common Eucharist to seal and perfect the unity of the Church. This is a little of what the Eastern Orthodox Roman Catholic Dialogue says about the Church and the Eucharist: 

  • The Body of Christ is unique. There exists then only one church of God. 
  • The identity of one eucharistic assembly with another comes from the fact that all with the same faith celebrate the same memorial, that all by eating the same bread and sharing in the same cup become the same unique body of Christ into which they have been integrated by the same baptism.3  
However, and this is my second point, these rich and thought-provoking dialogues on the Eucharist yet await a fuller reception into the Church’s life. They have brought us to a certain point so far on the journey of Christian unity, but are yet to have their full impact on bringing us to a deeper understanding of each other’s eucharistic faith and practice. They are now an inheritance that we can draw upon and which can orient us as we move on. ‘Take up and read!’ They can accompany us when we dare to walk together, because the fruits of theological dialogue must go hand in hand with grassroots ecumenism. We now need fewer theological dialogues on the Eucharist and more direct encounter with each other.
 
Finally, the last fifty years have brought us a deeper understanding of what the Eucharist is. This brings us joy. However, it has, ironically, sharpened our sense of pain. With what spirit might we embrace our present moment when Christians are friends in many ways, but still strangers at the Lord’s Table? The Fathers of the Eastern Church speak of charmolype—‘a bright sadness’, variously translated as a ‘bitter joy’ or ‘an affliction that leads to joy’; a spiritual state underlying the bittersweet experience of yearning and failing alike in the pursuit of spiritual joy.
 
In regard to Eucharist and Christian unity, this point on our journey must be enfolded into our spiritual lives. As the Decree on Ecumenism (1965) tells us, ‘spiritual ecumenism’ is the soul of the ecumenical movement:

This change of heart and holiness of life, along with public and private prayer for the unity of Christians should be regarded as the soul of the whole ecumenical movement, and merits the name ‘spiritual ecumenism’. (§8)

Finding ourselves present at the eucharistic celebrations of other Christians, but not receiving Holy Communion, will help us feel this charmolype, the bitter sweetness of where we now find ourselves on our journey. We need to feel the ‘bright sadness’ that both helps us give thanks for the unity we do share and goads us to pray and live for greater Christian unity; we need to remove our complacency and indifference and deepen our love for each other, and so remove the damage to mission. ‘Father, may all be one, just as you are in me and I am in you … that the world may believe that you have sent me’ (John 17:21).  
 
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Very Rev. Fr Denis Stanley is the Episcopal Vicar for Ecumenism and Interfaith Relations in the Archdiocese of Melbourne and the Chair of the Commission. He is a member of the National Council of Churches of Australia and the Victorian Council of Churches. He is also a member of the Australian Anglican-Roman Catholic Dialogue.
 
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References:
1 Cf. Cardinal Walter Kasper, Harvesting the fruits: basic aspects of Christian faith in ecumenical dialogue (London: Continuum, 2009).
2 The Final Report: Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission (London: CTS/SPCK, 1981), 12–13.
3 Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, ’The mystery of the Church and of the Eucharist in the light of the mystery of the Holy Trinity’, in Growth in agreement II: Reports and agreed statements of ecumenical conversations on a world level, 1982–1998 (Geneva: WCC publications, 2000), 657.
 
 
ARCHBISHOP'S OFFICE FOR EVANGELISATION 2017 © VERY REV. FR DENIS STANLEY  

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