Spiritual Communion

Spiritual Communion

Maundy Thursday Reflection from Canon Tim Hewitt
Whether we call it the Lord’s Supper or Communion or Eucharist, all of these terms are ones which are found in the New Testament. You might say to yourself that you’ve never actually read the word Eucharist in the New Testament, but it is there. The word Eucharist is a transliteration into English of the Greek word (the language in which the New Testament was written) for the verb to give thanks. When we read the accounts of the Last Supper in the Gospels and in the writings of St Paul, we read that Jesus gave thanks when taking the bread and wine. This act of giving thanks is one of the core activities of the Last Supper and of Holy Communion or Eucharist in churches today. Giving thanks is one of four things that happen in every Eucharist. The four things are taking, blessing, breaking and sharing. During the Second World War a scholar by the name of Gregory Dix popularized this idea which has become well known as the fourfold action of the Eucharist. His point was that while people might debate the exact number of actions in the Last Supper itself, possibly say that there are more than four, the four specific actions of taking, blessing, breaking and sharing are the four things that all Christian churches do however the Eucharist is celebrated and whatever it is that they call it.
The important thing about these four actions is that they are not casual actions, but intentional things that Jesus did during the Last Supper, and which should be done in the celebration of the Eucharist, and considering the fact that we are where we are due to the coronavirus pandemic and not celebrating the Eucharist together this particular Maundy Thursday, they are four things that should be a focus for our prayers as Christians. Firstly, there is the action of taking, as we read it in English. It was more than just picking up a piece of bread but holding it for the disciples to see as the focus of what Jesus was saying and doing during Maundy Thursday and Good Friday. If you asked a group of people to translate this word took from the original Greek into English, some of them may well have written, held bread, rather than took bread. Here is something to be held for a while so that its significance may be realized.
Secondly, the Gospels tell us that Jesus blessed the bread or gave thanks for it, depending on which Gospel you read. In the English language we speak of saying grace, and in the Welsh language, blessing our food. Considering both these words deepen our understanding of these four actions of the Eucharist. The word blessed means to speak well of something, and is the same word from which we have the word to eulogize, or speak well of something. This second action of Jesus really gets to the heart of how we view our lives and the world around us. Do we speak well of life? Do recognize our blessings? The truth of the matter is that some people do, and some people don’t. One of the things that you learn from pastoral ministry as you get to know people well is that you know whether asking the question, ‘how are you?’ will provide a joyful response and the sharing of something good, or whether that person will use it as the chance to moan about their circumstances and everything else generally. I think of the person who was well known for answering the question, ‘how are you?’ with the answer, ‘a day nearer death.’ Whilst this is factually true, and whilst at the present time, it is good to remember the fragility of life, this was the constant answer they gave. Other answers are available, as the BBC would say!
This is not to say that all is sweetness and light, to borrow Matthew Arnold’s phrase. Recently, I filled in an online questionnaire for a psychology student’s research and a question asked whether I thought life was hard or easy. I decided to say that life is hard because we’ve all got hard work to do, and this is even true when we think of our leisure lives. Many of the things which are enjoyable in work or out of work only come about by serious effort, but this hard work can be rewarding. Life may be hard, but it can be rewarding at the same time. Yes, we can still speak well of so many things in our lives, our responses need not always be negative. This leads us to be matter of giving thanks. The word used for Jesus giving thanks goes well beyond the simple courtesy of saying thanks as politeness. This wasn’t a thank you for someone passing something to him during a meal. The word means showing gratitude and returning thanks. Here, the things that we have that mean we couldn’t do what we’d like to do without them come to mind. The things that would leave our lives poorer in some way if we did not have them come to mind. In the context of the Last Supper, there is the saving act of God towards his people in the Passover and later the crossing of the Red Sea on dry ground, the sustaining of his people through the desert and the crossing of the River Jordan on dry ground and the entering into a good land. Some things for which we are thankful are not just the bread we eat but might also be matters of life and death for us.
As we think of the breaking of the bread as the third action of the Eucharist, its symbolism of the body of Jesus broken on the cross comes to mind. Jesus says how his body is broken for his disciples. Therefore, this third action points us in the direction of others rather than ourselves. This is a natural step on from demonstrating gratitude as many of the things in life for which we are truly grateful involve the presence or work of others directly or indirectly in our lives. This works in a parallel way: Jesus breaks the bread in order to share it with his disciples, but they gather to remember the whole history of God’s people. This breaking of the bread calls to mind the immediacy of our lives, and the things and people and concerns closest to us, but also the place of history in our welfare and lives. Thinking of the current situation, when we can eventually go shopping to Cardiff, as we walk along Queen Street, we may well view the statue of Aneurin Bevan, the creator of the NHS in a different light, and the hospitals that are being built and opened at the moment to care for those suffering from Covid-19 are collectively called Nightingale Hospitals after Florence Nightingale, and her efforts to address the needs of soldiers wounded in the Crimean War.
A single loaf cannot remain unbroken when it needs to be shared amongst a dozen or so people. The breaking of the bread cannot be undone once it is done. The breaking of the bread symbolizes those things that will never be the same as they were before. Perhaps one of the illusions of the present circumstances is that things will get back to normal at some point. The truth of the matter is that they will not. Life will not get back to normal for those who lose loved ones due to Covid-19 or those whose businesses cannot survive months without trade or income. Placing life on hold for months may mean that when the play button can be pressed again, the paths chosen may no longer be available to us, and we will have to choose the different paths that are the only ones ahead of us. Health care and commerce will certainly change permanently in some way from now on, and some things in our own lives may never be the same from this time onwards. At least we can gain insight and comfort from knowing that we are not alone in this, it is a world-wide experience, but Jesus taking the bread and breaking it means that this is something shared by Jesus and God the Father. One thing that brokenness can do is help us to see that we are not the first or only people who suffer, no matter how much we like to think that we are when we suffer in some way.
One of the hard things that has to be accepted along with the realization that our problems are not unique is that we have something positive to share with others precisely because of our sufferings. The shared experience of suffering and how it might help others is the essential truth of the fourth action of the Eucharist in giving. The Last Supper is a symbolic meal which provided sustenance, nonetheless. The fourth action of the Eucharist prompts us to think about what we give to others in sorrow or in joy. What we give to others is not our woes, but the truths we discovered during our suffering that sustained us and that might sustain others along the journey which they must take now. Some of us are called in our work to use our skills and gifts and knowledge and experience in the service of others, and many of us may well do the same outside of our work. Whoever we are, we should not let the fact that we think we have no special skills gifts or knowledge beguile us into thinking that we have no experience to share with others. Although I’ve spoken about the people who like to think that their sufferings make them more unique than others, there are people who feel alone because they mistakenly think that they are the only ones who suffer in the way that they do. The giving of our experience means that they no longer need be alone.
Each disciple receives a piece of the bread, each disciple receives something. As Jesus broke the bread and gave its pieces to his disciples, each piece of bread would have been unique in its shape. Each piece was bread, yes, but each piece looked different. In a world of uniformity, where each piece of sliced bread seems identical, this truth can be lost when we think of what can be unique about what each person gives to others as part of their being a disciple of Jesus Christ. The origin of this uniqueness is what we have been given uniquely by God. It may be that we’ve never really thought seriously about this because of the uniformity of so many things in our lives, tending instead to notice what is different about ourselves (often negatively) in the light of others. Instead, what we should be is think about how others cannot be like us because they are not us and we are not them. Asking ourselves the question, ‘What price is my uniqueness?’ often helps us to see that the price to pay for us to be more like others is one that comes at a terrible cost to who we really are.

As I stated earlier, the four actions of the Eucharist – taking, thanking, breaking and giving – provide rich material for our lives of prayer and can be very enriching should we choose to make it so. We can see that these four actions are not only to do with Jesus but how we pray and what is in our prayers as Christians. While many people through the ages have composed and provided for us prayers of what we call Spiritual Communion, where we receive the grace of God through speaking the words of a prayer rather than receiving bread and wine, very few people have aimed at providing words of Spiritual Communion based on the idea of the four actions of taking, thanking, breaking and giving. One person who has sought to do this is the Franciscan priest and writer Richard Rohr. In his book, ‘Things Hidden’ he suggests that we take our whole life in our hands and thank God for it, share something of ourselves and nourish ourselves in the knowledge that we are participating in the very life of God. This is a slightly different interpretation from the one that I have explored so far, but Richard Rohr’s idea did prompt me to think about how the four actions might form Spiritual Communion for us given the time and circumstance we find ourselves in as Christians at the moment.
Here then, are some promptings for prayer:
He Took….
Hold before God your life this day your plans for today and tomorrow…
Hold before God what you would usually be doing today and tomorrow in different circumstances than now…
Hold before God something that you noticed today that you haven’t noticed before…
Hold before God something in your life that is quite simple, but stands for something deeply important to you…
He gave thanks…
Recall those people and things upon which you depend in daily life…
Recall how these people and things are part of wider, larger groups of people and activities…
Recall those things that bring you joy and hope and which are expressions of love…
Recall how the journey of your life has brought you to this point and for all that has enriched your life over the years…
He broke…
Ask God’s blessing on the people and things that concern you the most this day…
Be mindful of how things may be uncertain for you and for the people around you at the moment…
Be mindful of how your life and the lives of others and your circumstances and the circumstances of others have changed and are changing recently…
Pray that the grace of God may sustain you as the future unfolds for you…
He gave….
Recall what makes you unique as a person…
Recall what makes the place to which you belong unique in whatever way, whether that is the place you live or work or worship…
Recall the experiences of your life that can give encouragement to others in their need…
Recall how the love of God has been true for you…

May you know that the Lord blesses you and keeps you; may you know that the lord makes his face to shine upon you and is gracious to you; may you know that the Lord lifts up his countenance on you and gives you peace, and knowing these things, may you go in peace to love and serve the Lord in the name of Christ.