2017-07-12
What Happens in Holy Communion?
By Michael Welker
Eerdmans, 192 pp.

The Feast of The World's Redemption: Eucharistic Origins and Christian Mission
By John Koenig
Trinity Press International, 320 pp.

During the 20th century, Christians recovered the Holy Spirit. Not that the Spirit had ever been absent--and not that all that passes as "Spirit-filled" today is truly of God. But undeniably an imbalance had been righted, a willful blindness corrected, as Christians from Azusa Street to Seoul opened their hearts and raised their hands to be filled with the power of the living God.

Even if observed strictly from the perspective of a sociologist of religion, the worldwide impact of Pentecostalism and the charismatic movement more broadly is a phenomenon to be reckoned with, confuting the prophets of secularism. Indeed, the sociologist David Martin has suggested that the "global upsurge of conservative Protestant Christianity," largely of the Pentecostal variety, and the "parallel . . . upsurge in conservative Islam" were "the two main shifts in world religion during the second half of the twentieth century."

There are signs that, as we begin a new century, a comparable retrieval is under way. If the 20th century was marked by a charismatic revival that harked back to the first Pentecost, the 21st century, I believe, will be marked by a Eucharistic revival that recalls the joyful communal meals of the first Christians as described in Acts 2:46: "Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at homes and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved."

True, at the moment, a skeptic might gleefully observe, a Eucharistic revival seems extremely improbable. After all, never in its 2000-year history has the celebration of the Lord's Supper seemed so peripheral to the life of the church. German theologian Michael Welker sums up the current situation all too well in the introduction to his new book, "What Happens in Holy Communion?" Welker recalls congregations in North America where he experienced worship that was "particularly lively and exemplary in many respects" but where during the observance of the Lord's Supper "people simply stayed seated in the pews. Like airplane passengers being served by a flight attendant, they were offered crumbs of bread and tiny plastic cups of wine. The very thing that, according to ecclesial pronouncements, was supposed to be a 'high point' in the life of the church, appeared to me as a sad 'low point' in the life of an otherwise flourishing and most lively congregation."

Compare that account with Eamon Duffy's from his 1992 book "The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580": "The liturgy lay at the heart of medieval religion, and the Mass lay at the heart of the liturgy. In the Mass the redemption of the world, wrought on Good Friday once and for all, was renewed and made fruitful for all who believed. Christ himself, immolated on the altar of the cross, became present on the altar of the parish church, body, soul, and divinity, and his blood flowed once again, to nourish and renew Church and world."

We must be careful not to sentimentalize this medieval vignette, which--like the description of the first Christians in Acts--represents an ideal. Nevertheless, this ideal inspired enormous devotion across the centuries. How was that gift squandered? The Reformation? But both Luther and Calvin held a very high view of the Eucharist. Some will be inclined to blame "modernity." After all, you can hardly expect good modern people to believe in all that "hocus pocus" (a term that derives from a parody of the Mass: "Hoc est corpus"; this is my body).

Worse still, when one tunes in to the pressing debates that engage contemporary Christians, rarely is the Eucharist even on the agenda. It would be easy to get the impression that, with the exception of a few liturgists, hardly anyone in the church even realizes that something vital has been lost.

But how many church leaders at the beginning of the twentieth century foresaw the charismatic revival? Today, just beneath the surface, there is evidence aplenty of a deep hunger for a retrieval of the Eucharist. Within the last two years I have attended a number of "alternative" worship services, mostly arranged by young people, and in almost all of them celebration of the Lord's Supper has been central. Perhaps these young people are rebelling against the marginalization of Real Presence that has taken place in the bosom of the church, just as Pentecostals rebelled against the marginalization of the Spirit.

There is also a burgeoning literature--Protestant, Catholic, Orthodox--that testifies to an extraordinary ferment in the church. Welker's book is one notable product of that ferment. Returning to the Eucharistic texts in Scripture, he shows how many of the diverse understandings of Communion that have seemed irreconcilable are alike rooted in the biblical witness, where there is no final adjudication, no "either/or." The Orthodox tradition has perhaps been most successful in accepting this richness as it is given. For small-"o" orthodox readers, Welker's full-out rejection of the classic doctrine of the atonement will limit the applicability of his work but will by no means negate his testimony to the possibility of a new ecumenical, trinitarian understanding of "what happens in Holy Communion."

Another indispensable contribution to Eucharistic revival is New Testament scholar John Koenig's "The Feast of the World's Redemption: Eucharistic Origins and Christian Mission." Eucharist and mission? We're not accustomed to thinking of the two as intertwined. But Koenig's superb reading of what he calls "Feasts of the Church's Founding" shows us how such meals of celebration were central to the missionary outreach of the first Christians. A sense of overflowing abundance--"manifested . . . often in thanksgiving meals, especially in weekly commemorations of the last supper where Jesus' allusion to the banquet of the kingdom (Mark 14:15) would be highlighted"--powerfully attracted curious unbelievers. How different from the way Communion is typically observed today!

What is especially wonderful about Koenig's book is his refusal to pit the "spiritual" against the "practical." When the Church functions as it should, the two are inseparable. Hence among the first Christians the Eucharist could function at once as a form of outreach to unbelievers, an opportunity to gather and share gifts with the widows and the needy within the fellowship, and as "a Grand Intersection of all times and places." Koenig quotes the Anglican physicist/priest John Polkinghorne, writing on 1 Corinthians 11:26, that the Eucharist "is both the commemoration of Calvary and the anticipation of the heavenly banquet in the kingdom of God."

If a Eucharistic revival is indeed brewing, we can be sure that it will be attuned to all these dimensions of the sacrament instituted by Christ himself. We can be sure, too, that, just as with the charismatic revival, there will be a great need for discernment. But that is nothing new, for ever since the first generation of believers--as Paul's chastisement of the church at Corinth reminds us--Christians have managed in one way or another to spoil the feast, prompting correction. So it will ever be until the Great Banquet at which Jesus himself will preside.

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