Beyond Language

There are times when language fails us. There are other times when we fail language and they are not the same thing.  Language fails us when we want to say something but there just aren’t the words available to express what is in our head, or what is in our feelings.

People ask me what I think about our baby daughter Annabel. I end up saying she’s amazing, or she’s the centre of our world.  I want to say something else, but I don’t know the words to express to others the joy of having her as part of our family life. Language fails me.  I visit people who are coming to terms with the reality that the person who was the centre of their loving, and at the heart of their experience of living has just died.  I want to say something that shows that I am with them in their pain, but I normally end up just being there, holding hands, being present. I want to say something else, but I don’t know the words to express to others what I want to say. Language fails me.  We have all had those kinds of experiences.

Then there are the times when we fail language. When the way that we use language just doesn’t do the job of saying clearly what language is supposed to communicate.  A week ago I was in Sydney at a training course about financial management. I am trying to get myself to a place where I can talk with some level of intelligence to Kay Sharp and Geoffrey Seccombe and Yvonne Hinde when we have Parish Council and Resourcing Team meetings.  Accruals, non-current assets, contingent liabilities.  This is language, but it is language that is coded in such a way that only the experts are supposed to understand what it refers to.  You need a specialised dictionary to be able to grasp what these aspects of language refer to, and certainly a more developed brain than I have.

For those of us who are not ‘in the know’ the way that words are used in any specialised field fail language. They don’t do what language is supposed to do – which is to convey something clearly to us.  There are times when we can end up more confused because of what has been said, than we would have been if nothing had been said at all.

So there are times when language fails us. And times when we fail language.

This is the weekend in the year when both of these realities – language failing us, and us failing language – come sharply into focus as we celebrate with the Church around the world the Feast of Corpus Christi, the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ.  It is also the weekend when language can lead us to be most polarised, most focused on our differences, within Christ’s Church.

Lady Jane Grey, who later as Queen of England presided over the shortest reign of just nine days, once visited Mary, who was to become Queen after her short reign, and eventually have her executed.  It is said that as Jane walked into Mary’s Chapel in New Hall in Essex she saw Mary bow to the Sacrament (the bread and the wine) on the altar.  ‘Why do you do that?’ she asked.  ‘I bow to him that made us all,’ Mary replied.  ‘How can he that made us all be there, when the baker made him?’ Jane said in response.  The cracks begin to develop…  Corpus Christi – that sounds a bit Romish for me.  If we Anglicans are going to celebrate Corpus Chrisi, does that mean that we accept all of the Roman doctrine that goes along with it? What about the Reformation?  The chasm expands.

Inevitably today, language will fail us, and we will fail language, when we try to express the inexpressible as we reflect together on the mystery that draws us together week by week as the Church in the worship of God:  the mystery that we variously call the Mass, the Holy Eucharist, the Holy Communion and the Lord’s Supper.

We will fail language when we use words such as Transubstantiation, Consubstantiation, Real Presence, Memorialism – the headings for the various movements of theological thought that try to help us to uncover what is taking place when we gather together as, and to receive, the Body and Blood of Christ.  And language will fail us when we try to explain the beauty and depth of a mystery for which words have not been created.  Remember the wise words of the hymn:  “Let all mortal flesh keep silence, and with fear and trembling stand”.  Keep silent, say nothing at all? You are not getting off that lightly!

Just because the language is difficult, doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try. After all the Early Church got themselves into all kinds of trouble with the language that they used, so we are in good company.  In the Early Centuries of the Church the two most common allegations against Christians were on the one hand that they practiced cannibalism, and on the other hand that they practiced incest.  It is not hard to see how these misunderstandings came about, particularly because the Eucharistic celebration in the Early Church was seen as secretive to those who were not members of the Church, because only baptised Christians were allowed to attend and participate.  The Christian language of brotherly and family love, and the language of eating the Body and Blood of Christ was interpreted by outsiders literally as the practice of incest and cannibalism.

Those two misunderstandings of language in the early centuries of the Church are more significant than we might think.

If we ever imagine that the idea of Jesus truly being present in the bread and in the wine upon the altar was a later human-made construction in the Church, we might do well to ponder how it was that it was that it was known, by the detractors of the Church, as one of the hallmarks of the earliest Christian communities.  If we ever imagine that proclaiming our love not only for God but also for one another as we gather in the Eucharist, is some kind of optional extra for people who like that kind of thing, then we do well to ask how that love can be optional for us, when it was known by those who opposed the Church as a defining element of the life of early Christians.

Words are hard, that has been true down through the centuries.  Let’s try a couple of images instead.

Firstly, a coffee cup.  Back in the 1970s, when there was a lot of liturgical innovation going on, Dorothy Day (the founder of the Catholic Worker Movement) invited a young priest to celebrate Mass.  He decided to do something that he thought was relevant and trendy. He asked Dorothy if she had a coffee cup he could borrow. She found one in the kitchen and brought it to him. And, he took that cup and used it as the chalice to celebrate Mass.  When it was over, Dorothy picked up the cup, found a small gardening tool, and went to the backyard.  She knelt down, dug a hole, kissed the coffee cup, and buried it in the earth. With that simple gesture, Dorothy Day showed that she understood something that is beyond words: she knew that Christ was truly present in something as ordinary as a ceramic cup. And that it could never be just a coffee cup again.

Secondly, an unconsecrated wafer fallen on the floor.  There is a story of a priest in his vestry who was pouring some unconsecrated communion wafers from a bag, to get ready for Mass.  Some fell on the floor. He bent down and picked up the stray hosts, just ordinary wafers, unconsecrated, to throw them out.  And he held one between his thumb and forefinger and showed it to the server standing beside him. “Just think,” he said, “what this could have become.”

Is any of this making sense?  Those stories are stories about the Sacrament, about Christ’s presence in the bread and wine.  About the preciousness of what we receive in Holy Communion, about its life changing nature.  But they are also stories about you and me, about what happens when Christ is present in you and me.  Now that is certainly more than words and language can bear, but it is true.

It was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, of South Africa, who said that when we greet each other we should bow or genuflect to each other as we do to the sacrament on the altar, not in worship of each other (that’s the last thing our egos need), but to acknowledge Christ within each one of us.  What can happen to a wafer, what can be held by a coffee cup, can happen to us, can be held in us.

What does it look like, when we, like bread and wine upon the altar, become vessels of Christ’s presence?  Three things certainly happen.

Firstly, we become an offering.   There is a great confusion about offerings in the Eucharist. Often we think that we are offering things to God that are ours, and we forget that he has already given us everything that we offer back to him. It is already his, not ours.  The offering of the Eucharist is both God’s to offer and God’s to receive.  And that is to be true for our lives as well.  If we have died with Christ in baptism, and been raised with him, then we are no longer our own, we are his. A living offering, made beautiful because it is the offering of Jesus at work within us. All that we do is an offering to the Father.  When God looks at you he sees Jesus. You are an offering to the Father.

Secondly, we become a thanksgiving. Corpus Christi is an odd Festival because it is a thanksgiving of the Eucharist, which is itself a thanksgiving.  We are a living thanksgiving of God’s work in us and in the whole of creation.

Thirdly, all of this is a gift.  It is not our Eucharist and not the Church’s Eucharist. It is God’s Eucharist, God’s feast, God’s gift to his world.  When we gather around God’s altar of grace we enter into the everlasting movement of his love towards us and all creation. In ordinary things transformed and given back to us in a new way we glimpse the ultimate renewal of creation when God’s purposes are complete.  In the crucified and risen Christ shown to us in this life-changing way, we touch what belongs to all of time and every place.  But we also touch what belongs to us personally and intimately, it is God’s gift to us.  It is a gift for everyone, but it is also a gift to you, personally given for you.

And as we ourselves become this offering, as we become this thanksgiving, we also both receive God’s gift, and become God’s gift for the world.

This is the heart of the Sacrament of the Altar: much more than words,  but headings to point us deeper into the mystery: offering, thanksgiving, gift.  Father Alan Ecclestone, the famous inner city English Priest, said: ‘What matters for praying is what we do next.’

Today we celebrate the Corpus Christi, the Feast of the Body and Blood of Christ, and we are reminded that after the prayers of every Eucharist, what matters is what we do next.  You and I are called to become what we eat.