By Their Work You have Been Threshed
In this excerpt from a sermon on the Lord’s Supper (Or the Eucharist) delivered by Augustine of Hippo to a group of Catechumens, (a Christian believer preparing for Baptism) the great bishop compares the process in which a seed becomes wheat, which ultimately becomes bread to the process in which these young Christians have been prepared by those who first proclaimed the gospel to them.
Call to mind what this created thing [bread] once was in the field. How the earth brought it forth, the rain nourished it, and ripened it into an ear of wheat and then human labor brought it together on the threshing floor, threshed it, winnowed it, stored it up again, took it out, ground it, added water to it, baked it, and only at that moment made it into the form of a loaf.
Call to mind also: you did not exist, you were created, you were brought together to the threshing floor of the Lord by the labor of the oxen, that is, by those who announced the gospel, by their work you have been threshed.
Taken from Augustine of Hippo, Third Sermon: Sermon Denis 6, 1–3, Tractatus de Sacramentis Fidelium, Dominica Sanctae Paschae, 20.
Celebrating Communion in Today’s Culture
What, for example, does it mean to celebrate the Eucharist as food (bread and wine) in a place where we are increasingly obsessed with and yet deeply afraid and ashamed of food, where we idolize and demonize food, where we are increasingly disconnected from the sensual pleasures of good food, and where we have gone a long way toward losing our sense of food as a blessing that ties us to life and others?
Or what does it mean to celebrate the Eucharist as body of Christ when our diets seem to be waging a war against our bodies (particularly against the bodies of women), when the ways in which we eat do not honor our bodies, or when our eating patterns seem indifferent to the suffering bodies of all the Lazaruses gathered at the edges of our tables, as well as all the Marthas waiting on these tables?
Patrick T. McCormick, “How Could We Break the Lord’s Bread in a Foreign Land? The Eucharist in ‘Diet America,’” Horizons 25, no. 1 (1998): 47.
Communion: Hosted by Jesus
Paul talks about “the table of the Lord” in 1 Corinthians 10:21. We are hosted by Jesus. In Roman Catholicism the bread itself is effectively the host, because it hosts the physical presence of Christ. But in the New Testament it is not the bread that is the host (of Jesus) but Jesus who is the host (of us). So the host is not on the table but at the table—it is, after all, the Lord’s Table. For Jesus is present by the Holy Spirit, and he invites us to eat with him as an act of friendship and a sign of love. The people who serve are simply Jesus’s way of getting the bread from the table into your hands.
I find this a really helpful way to think about what is taking place. When the plate or the bread is put in your hands, think quietly: “Jesus himself is giving me this bread. He is the host of this meal. This is his gift. This is a sign of his love. This is his embrace.” Using the hands of the person serving you, Christ passes the bread and wine to you because he wants to have communion with you and because he wants to reassure you of his love. He offers you an invitation to taste and see that he is good.
Death and Life in Your Hands
Let’s call her Roberta; she was clearly near the end of a very long journey toward death’s door. Roberta’s cancer was a particularly nasty variety; by now it had eaten its way into most of her vital organs. The scarf that concealed her balding head bore silent testimony to the radical regimen of chemotherapy her body had endured in a vain attempt to stave off death. She extended a weak hand and a wan smile to greet her pastor. Her skin was pasty and cold to the touch, her breaths labored and shallow, exuding the sweetly sour smell of impending death. Though her eyes were losing their luster she gladly, eagerly heard the word of God, clinging to every syllable. “Would you like the Lord’s Supper?” I asked. “Oh yes,” she whispered in her weak little voice.
We launched into the timeless ritual of all the faithful, Roberta and me. The meal that nourishes every saint throughout earthly pilgrimage all lifelong culminates in the Marriage Supper of the Lamb in his kingdom. So that dreary winter afternoon, from a makeshift bedside table set squarely in the valley of the shadow of death, Roberta received a foretaste of that eternal feast still yet to come. “Our Lord Jesus Christ, on the night when He was betrayed,” I began, consecrating the tiny bit of bread I thought she might be able to swallow. Together with a miniature chalice with its little sip of wine, these would be for her the very flesh and blood of Jesus, the sign and seal of her redemption and the promised resurrection of her worn and dying body. In this sacred meal Roberta would obtain not merely forgiveness, but also life in all its fullness already here and now on the very brink of death.
But then a logistical problem: how commune someone who could no longer lift her head? Gingerly slipping onto the edge of her bed, I gently wrapped one arm beneath her frail bony shoulders and lifted her feather-light torso, cradling her like some skeletal baby. With my other hand I placed in her mouth the gifts her Savior died to bring: the bread of heaven here on earth, the cup of salvation poured out for all the world. “Take eat, the body of Christ, given for you,” I said. “Take drink, his blood shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins.” Then a parting blessing with the sign of the cross traced on her ashen forehead with my thumb: “The body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ strengthen and preserve you in body and in soul unto life everlasting. Depart in his peace.”
And she did. Not right then, but not many days later we gathered to give thanks for all our Lord’s many mercies, to celebrate his grace, and then to commit Roberta’s body to the ground; earth to earth, dust to dust, ashes to ashes, in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection unto eternal life which God grants all the baptized who die in faith in Christ, the Living One.
But that day there in Roberta’s apartment as I packed up my communion case and bade farewell to her family and friends keeping vigil with her, one of them said admiringly: “You had death in your hands here today.” I’m not sure how I responded then. But here’s what I should have said: “Maybe so, but I also had life in my hands to bring.”
That’s what it means to be a servant of Christ. You get your hands dirty among his earthly-and earthy-people. But you do it because you have life in your hands to give them.
The Gettysburg Address & Identity Formation
Why is it that countless American school-children memorize the Gettysburg Address each year? Is it a simple civics lesson? An opportunity to learn about the Civil War, a turning point in American history? Yes, it is each of those things, but also much more. The memorization of that short (just two-minute) speech is also an act of identity formation. It is a chance for students to connect to both the ideals and the aspirations of the people who founded this country. This is how Lincoln begins his speech:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”
The Gettysburg Address provides an opportunity for every American child who remembers its words to internalize the values and aspirations of their country. As they recite the address, it becomes a part of them.
When the church goes through its liturgy each week, whether it be “high” or “low,” its people are engaging in similar identity formation, through a reenactment of the life of Christ and his call to the church. When we perform the sacraments, we also engage in identity formation, from baptism to the Lord’s Supper. We are reminded of our sin, God’s sending of His Son, and the sacrifice that leads to our reconciliation with the Father. All of this done through the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us.
Stuart Strachan Jr.
May This Body Nourish Us in Faithfulness
At a funeral Mass for a friend of Archbishop Romero who was murdered by the government because of her faith in Christ, Romero invited those present to follow this Lord who died, this God who sacrificed himself for others, this obscure Israelite teacher who, we confess, is the hope of the world.
Holding the host aloft, he said, “May this body that was immolated and this flesh that was sacrificed for humankind also nourish us so that we can give our bodies and our blood to suffering and pain, as Christ did, not for our own sake but to bring justice and peace to our people.”
Taken from: In Search of the Common Good: Christian Fidelity in a Fractured World by Jake Meador Copyright (c) 2019 by Jake Meador. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
If we are honest with ourselves, for many of us who celebrate the sacraments on a regular basis, at times we take them for granted. We lose sight of their nature to inspire and remind us of our covenant relationship with the Triune God. Thankfully, there are examples, especially from Missionaries to remind us of just how significant they are to those who get to experience them for the first time. Take for instance, the example of John Paton, a missionary in the 19th century to a cannibalistic tribe in the New Hebrides archipelago in the South Pacific Ocean (modern day Vanuatu):
For years we had toiled and prayed and taught for this. At the moment when I put the bread and wine into those dark hands, once stained with the blood of cannibalism but now stretched out to receive and partake the emblems and seals of the Redeemer’s love, I had a foretaste of the joy of glory that well-nigh broke my heart to pieces. I shall never taste a deeper bliss till I gaze on the glorified face of Jesus himself.
James Paton, ed., John G. Paton—Missionary to the New Hebrides: An Autobiography (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1891), 376, quoted in Philip Graham Ryken, Exodus: Saved for God’s Glory (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 915.
Seeing, Hearing, and Touching God’s Grace
Every Communion is an embodiment of God’s grace. We hear God’s grace in the words that are spoken. But we also see it, hear it, touch it, and taste it in the bread and wine. God in his kindness, knowing how frail we are, knowing how battered by life we can be, also demonstrates his grace in water, bread, and wine.
For Christians, to share in the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, means to live as people who know that they are always guests – that they have been welcomed and that they are wanted. It is, perhaps, the most simple thing that we can say about Holy Communion, yet it is still supremely worth saying. In Holy Communion, Jesus Christ tells us that he wants our company.
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Communion. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!