Frequently, the complaint is made that our Christian gatherings, especially our Eucharists, are boring and devoid of a vital connection to life. Immediately, the temptation is to respond by attempting to make our Eucharists more lively, more interesting, more full of song, more joyous. This, I submit, just as frequently compounds the issue as solves it. However good these things are in themselves, the root of the complaint is that, in the end, good singing and better homilies notwithstanding, real life remains untouched.
Langdon Gilkey once commented that the task of Christian worship is not to celebrate the God of special religious places, but the God of ordinary places. This is equally true regarding ourselves. Worship must not just celebrate the heart that people feel they should bring to religious places, but the heart as it beats in ordinary places. Ordinary places contain some joy and some gratitude, but they also are filled with bitterness, suspicions, pettiness, paranoia, jealousy and more than enough heaviness. We come together from ordinary places with these things partially paralysing the joys of our hearts and, as we sit listening to the word and gather ’round the altar, these things do not automatically disappear. Our Eucharists, like our homes and places of work, are filled with suspicions, jealousies, judgements, paranoia and misunderstandings. We stand around the Eucharistic table with the same wounds we bring to our other tables. Worship, then, is meant not just to celebrate our joys and gratitudes: its task is also to break us open, to make us groan in anguish, to lay bare our paranoia, and to lessen the jealousies and the distance that sits between us. Here we are asked to be vulnerable before each other, to forgive and embrace each other. Bitterness, hatred, and suspicion are supposed to disappear..and liturgy is supposed to help that happen. It is on this point that our Eucharists are most anemic.
What’s wrong generally is not that people don’t sing and dance, but that people don’t break down. There is too little anguish in our Eucharists. To become one heart with each other involves anguish, the painful letting go of paranoia, selfishness, bitterness, hurt, jealousies, pettiness, narrowness of vision, aggressiveness, shyness and all those other things that keep us apart. If our Eucharists do not succeed in breaking down the barrier that separate us from each other, then we can never hope to succeed in breaking down these same barriers in the world. As Jim Wallis put it: “In worship, the community is edified…if it does not edify itself here, it certainly will not do so in daily life, nor in the execution of its ministry to the world.” Christ was effective because Christ was vulnerable. He was also often in anguish. It is interesting that the only ritual that Christ asks us to repeat over and over again is the Eucharist. In it, we remember him as broken, poured out, empty, heartbroken, frightened, humiliated, vulnerable, in anguish. To properly celebrate this ritual, we need to have in our hearts what Christ had in his at the first Eucharist. What was he feeling then?
Joy and thanksgiving. Yes. Love for those at the table with him. Surely. But beyond this, his heart felt anguish, deep longing and fear at the prospect of the pain that was now a certainty before intimacy and community could be achieved. It would perhaps do all of us good occasionally to leave the Eucharist and, instead of going off for a lively brunch with the folks, go off as Jesus did after the first Eucharist, to a lonely place to have an agony in the garden and to sweat some blood as we ask for the strength to drink from the real chalice – the chalice of vulnerability. Occasionally when St. Augustine would hand the Eucharist to a communicant he would, instead of saying, “the body of Christ,” say: “Receive what you are.” Augustine had perceived, for whatever reasons, that the words of consecration – “this is my body, this is my blood” – are intended more to change the people present than they are meant to change the bread and wine. For him, it was more important that the people become the real presence of
God, that they become food and drink for the worlds, than that the bread and wine do. That is, in fact, the real task of the Eucharist: to change people, to create out of us the real presence.
But this involves a painful breaking down of all that keeps us apart. At a Eucharist, we may not protect ourselves. Our hurts and hates must be revealed and absorbed. When this happens, hearts of stone will turn to hearts of flesh, bitterness to charity. But livelier liturgies, better homilies and more singing will not, by themselves, bring that about. The complaint that liturgy is meaningless goes deeper. At its root lies the fact that people will celebrate as a community only when self-protectiveness, mutual suspicion and macho posturing are first broken down. But that requires new birth.
In birth, there are tears and anguish. Before the real dance comes the anguish.