Once upon a time there was a Rabbi. Whenever he wanted God’s presence, he went to a special place in the woods, lit a fire, said some prayers, and did a dance. Then God would appear to him. When he died, his disciple did the same. If he wanted God’s presence, he went to the same spot in the woods, lit the fire, and said the same prayers, but nobody had taught him the dance. It still worked. God appeared. When he died, his disciple carried on the tradition. If he wanted God’s presence, he went to the same spot in the woods and lit the fire, but he didn’t know the prayers, nor the dance, but it still worked. God came. Then he died. He also had a disciple. Whenever he wanted God’s presence, he too went to the same place in the woods, but nobody had taught him how to light the fire or say the prayers or do the dance, but it still worked, God appeared.
In the end, he died, but he too had a pupil. One day this pupil wanted God’s presence. So he searched for the place in the woods, but couldn’t find it. And he didn’t know how to light the fire or say the prayers or do the dance. All he knew was how to tell the story. But it worked. He discovered that whenever he told the story of how the others had found God, God would appear.
In essence, this story explains how sacred ritual, liturgy, works. Judaism calls this “making zikkaron”. Christians call it “making memorial”. The idea is that a past event can be remembered, ritually recalled, in such a way that it becomes present again and can be participated in. How is this possible? We have no models in physics, metaphysics, or psychology by which to explain this. Like all ritual, it is beyond simple phenomenology. Ritual is best understood through metaphor, through story, as with the tale just told. God appears whenever certain stories get told.
This idea of making memorial can be helpful in understanding a very important aspect of the Eucharist, namely, the Eucharist as sacrifice. Among other things, the Eucharist is a memorial, a ritual re-enactment of Christ’s sacrifice of himself for us. Among all the dimensions of the Eucharist, this one, sacrifice, is perhaps the least understood. How is the Eucharist a sacrifice?
A sacrifice is any act of selflessness, of self-denial, which helps someone else. For example, the mother who freely gives up her own dreams of achievement so that her children might have her needed presence during their critical, nascent years is making a sacrifice for her children. They will mature more fully and healthily because of it. As Christians, we believe that Jesus, not unlike a loving mother, sacrificed his life for us, particularly in the way he gave himself for us in his death. Indeed we believe that we are “saved” by his death, by his sacrifice on Good Friday. But how? How can one person’s death help someone else, centuries later?
Through the Eucharist. The Eucharist, among other things, is a memorial of Jesus’ sacrifice for us, of his great act of “being broken”, of giving himself over in love. Properly understood, the Eucharist, as a ritual, gives us another kind of “real presence”. It makes present for us the reality of Christ’s dying as well as God’s response to that, the resurrection, and invites us to participate in that event. What the Eucharist makes present is not an iconic Christ to be adored or even consumed, but the reality of Christ’s dying nd rising as an event to be participated in. But how can we participate in an event now long past in history?
Through memorial, through “making zikkaron”. When we ritually tell the story of Jesus’ sacrifice (in the Eucharistic prayer, the very heart of liturgy) we experience the “real presence” of the event of Christ’s dying and rising. Moreover, that reality is given to us so that we might participate in it. How? We participate in Jesus’ sacrifice for us when we, like him, let ourselves be broken down, when we, like him, become selfless. The Eucharist, as sacrifice, invites us to become like the kernels of wheat that make up the bread and the clusters of grapes that make up the wine, broken down and crushed so that we can become part of communal loaf and single cup.
Occasionally when St. Augustine was giving the Eucharist to a communicant, instead of saying, “The body of Christ”, he would say: “Receive what you are.” That puts things correctly. What is supposed to happen at the Eucharist is that we, the congregation, by sacrificing the things that divide us, should become the body and blood of Christ. More so than the bread and wine, we, the people, are meant to be changed, to be transubstantiated.
The Eucharist, as sacrifice, asks us to become the bread of brokenness and the chalice of vulnerability.