Be what you see, receive what you are

The title of this blog post was taken from a sermon by St. Augustine of Hippo, in which he was teaching on the Eucharist, (drawing on the text of 1 Corinthians 10 and 12).  His argument, in updated language, runs roughly like this:

Paul wrote that we, corporately, are the body of Christ.  If we are the body of Christ, when we go to communion, we experience not something alien to us, but something deeply profound about who we are.  In the prayers we say at the Lord’s table, we affirm this reality.  So, then, if the Eucharist tells us who we are, live up to what it tells us!  If we share in one bread, and we are one body, then practice that unity of which the bread speaks.

Augustine went on at length, as bishops are wont to do.  But his basic point seems to me to be worth thinking about.  So many Christians treat liturgy as irrelevant, old-fashioned, boring, empty.  And yet in carefully crafted liturgy, developed over two millennia in living praying communities, we often have access to the best fruits of the most wise reflection on what it means to be a Christian community, to gather for worship, to baptise, break bread and share a cup.  And these times of corporate worship are not meant to be discrete, cut off from the rest of our lives, but are meant to shape those lives in accordance with what we say and do together.  Liturgy at its best is truly transformative, containing within it ethical and missional imperatives which we work out over the rest of the day, or week, (or however frequently we attend church).

Recently, as I went through the process of interviews which would lead to me being ordained next year, I was asked to write an essay on “Why I am ready to be ordained.”  While I was thinking about that, I asked my supervisor, who had previously told me he thought I was ready, what criteria he looked at in making that judgement.  One of the things he highlighted as important was taking what we do as ordained ministers with the utmost seriousness; recognising that it is important, and being passionate about doing it well.

In what Augustine said, we have something of why I am passionate about liturgy, and the two sacraments in particular.  In them, we see and receive what we are in Christ; we are shaped more and more fully into his body here on earth.  This matters, for individual believers, for the church, and ultimately for the world.  And so I am happy to echo him here; seek out worship experiences in which you can be what you see, and receive what you are, which reaffirm and strengthen your God-given identity, and which impel you into the world as the body of Christ.

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