Advent Read, Incarnation, and Eucharist Study

by the Rev. Jered Weber-Johnson

I love the Reverend Emily Scott’s new book, For All Who Hunger. It challenges me. It is a memoir of ministry and vocation, but it is also a deeply personal account of Eucharistic theology, wrestling with what it means to be and to receive the Body of Christ. Before her ideas hit the page, Scott places two quotes – simple, potent, and direct – that clue us in to the story she will tell. The first, just before the Author’s Note is from the fourteenth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus’ instructions to the disciples preceding his feeding of the thousands “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.” And then, at the beginning of the Prologue, this juxtaposing quote from the inimitable Flannery O’Connor “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” The Eucharist is more, she seems to hint, than spiritual practice or a symbolic meal. It is that central act of the Church, which, at base, is a community of people. Scott is both a Lutheran pastor and a church planter whose work has always driven her to bring the church to those on the margins. She writes “Church is not about transcending human things like warm food and chortling laughter. It is – or should be — about pointing to them as sacred. Our most human parts are also the most holy.” It stands to reason, at least in her estimation, that the practices of the church would be embodied, human, and relatable.

When Saint John’s begins our Advent series this year, we will undertake three separate but deeply important looks at the practice of Holy Eucharist through the lens of three separate books by three different authors, Scott’s being the second in that series. They represent much of the diversity of the church, different ages, genders, sexual orientations, experiences, educations, races, and theological perspectives. And orbiting around the outside of this diverse conversation will be the Advent theme of longing and expectation. For well over 6 months now we have not gathered for the central and defining act of Christians across time and place, the Lord’s Supper. And, we are hungry. But, it is also true that for many of us, we are not entirely sure we know why we hunger, what connections draw us to Holy Communion. What do we mean individually and what does the church mean collectively when we say “Eucharist”? 

The three books, like the authors who wrote them, approach this question in entirely different ways. First in the series, We Gather At This Table, by the Reverend Anna Ostenso Moore, priest in the Episcopal Church in Minnesota serving at Saint Mark’s Cathedral, uses pictures and wondering to draw children and readers of all ages into the mystery of Eucharistic life. She writes, 

“For thousands of years, followers of the way of Jesus have gathered and shared bread and wine. Like us, in ritual they sought to be near God and join in the Sacred Story of God Incarnate…Although we approach the altar for a variety of reasons, we enter with our whole selves into this great mystery.”

And finally, we will spend time with a popular catechetical text in Episcopal circles, by the Reverend Dr. James Farwell, The Liturgy Explained. In his book Farwell orients the reader first to the concept of ritual and rite, how communities interact with ritual over time, as they both evolve and change. Ultimately, it is a meditation on the transformative power of the central act of Christian worship, the Eucharist. Perhaps the most beautiful and poignant part of Farwell’s work is his reflection on the theology of “Real Presence”. He says,

“Christians believe…the Eucharist makes God present through Christ…because Jesus told his disciples, at the last meal eaten with them before his death, to eat bread and wine in this way in memory of him. The Jewish form of memory from which Jesus worked is one in which the past is not simply recalled but made present…Eucharist, then, is a sacramental ritual in which something — God’s presence…is not simply recalled as past, or pointed to as important, but enacted, made real in the community.”

We can’t be present right now with one another, at least not in the flesh, and so we cannot fulfill that which makes Eucharist what it is, or mean how we believe it means. But, we can gather in longing, perhaps satisfy some of our hunger, as we meditate together in Advent on the meaning of this meal and what it means for us to be and belong to the Body of Christ.

Originally published in the November-December 2020 Evangelist.

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