Why do we share bread and wine together?

Some reflections on the Eucharist

We are hoping to be able to celebrate the Eucharist together very soon but whenever that happens it won’t be a return to normality.

We can’t yet sing together or  share the peace.

We will not be able to share the cup together and we will need to wear masks.

We will need to keep our distance.

For many of us worshipping together is an intimate event. We are very conscious that we are coming together in the presence of God to make space for Him at the centre of our lives, through prayer, singing and sharing bread and wine.

All of that has had to drop away over the last few months and we don’t actually know when it will be restored.

But today I want to share some thoughts about the importance of the Eucharist to us, how it’s absence might have affected us, and how we might all engage with it in this new era.

This Sunday’s readings have made this timely.

The first reading, from Isaiah 55, is a description of a great banquet provided by God for his people.

The Gospel , from Matthew, is the great story of the feeding of the 5 thousand.

Two acts of overflowing divine generosity which are nourishing to the body and inspiring to the soul.

Now just contrast that with what we habitually have done together on a Sunday morning.

And the desert we have been through over the last months and the future.

It is worth throwing in a reminder of the story from Exodus of God feeding his people with manna in the wilderness, which seems a particularly pertinent example of divine generosity.

I have always been fascinated by the medieval legends of the Holy Grail.

Do just put memories of Monty Python, Dan Brown, or Indiana Jones to one side for a moment.

In the earliest legends the Holy Grail was not a chalice but a dish. And it was imagined to be the dish of sharing that Jesus had used in the Last Supper, and just like in Isaiah and The feeding of the 5 thousand it was a mysterious source of food.

I am going to pause there before I continue.

I would like you to just think for a moment about what you miss most about not meeting together for the Eucharist.

And what it means to you.

During lockdown I have been very struck by the similarity between on line church and the church in the Middle Ages.

There were long periods of time when priests celebrated communion, virtually in privacy , behind a screen in church and those members of the parish who actually attended simply watched and listened from their seats. They very rarely participated in anyway and the highlight of the service for them was the point when the priest held up the holy sacrament in a sacred vessel for them to gaze upon.

You can find stained glass windows and paintings depicting this, with rays of divine light shining out from the holy sacrament into the eyes and souls of the worshipper.

So we have been where we are now before but not due to a health crisis but a mindset which elevated the role of the priest and disembodied,spiritualised the receiving of holy communion.

But as people have said to me this non physical, humanly separated, way of participating in the Eucharist has still at times been inspiring and of significance. And we find in the Grail legends that even a glimpse into the mysterious dish could be worth a lifetime of searching.

But this , I know, is very far from the experience of others. We yearn to be together. It was a movement in the Protestant churches lasting centuries which finally achieved the goal of people , apart from priests, being able to receive the bread and wine regularly, and to be involved in other ways, such as leading the prayers, giving the wine etc.

I really get annoyed by priests who talk about ‘ My Church’. It is always ours!

And the truth is that despite the attempts of some church thinkers to insist that they have the key to understanding the meaning of the Eucharist,and that those who think otherwise are somewhere on an arc between being misguided and heretical, I would make the more modest suggestion that it is a ritual that has evolved based on the teaching and practice of Jesus, into a huge variety of traditions, which continues to mean different things to different people.

And that that is not a bad thing.

But before finishing I want to return to where I started. With he  Holy Grail and God’s overflowing generosity as hymned by Isaiah and acted out by Christ in the feeding of the 5 thousand.

Whereas we often assume the Last Supper to be the foundation moment of the Eucharist. Christ’s command to break bread and drink wine in memory of Him.

This can divert our attention from how His taking of food and blessing it and sharing it pops up before that. It is exactly what happens in the Feeding of the 5 thousand.

Even if we do wish to focus on the Last Supper, it is interesting how traditionally more attention has been paid to the comestibles  themselves than what is done with them. The bread is shared, and the wine is shared.

One loaf is broken and shared out equally. The lips of everyone present touch the same cup, as it is

handed round.

I very recently discovered that there was a centuries long tradition in some churches of sharing water not wine. The point seeming to be again that it was the sharing of the cup that was most fundamental , not what was in it.

One of the criticisms that has been made of the Church of England is that it too readily abandoned public  worship for the sake of public health. Sometimes there is a grudging admission thrown in , that it has helped to provide food banks, which are seen as a very poor substitute.

At St Barnabas we too have done this, and I am very grateful to the members of this congregation and the wider community who have supported this. We are providing food for hungry young  families all through the school holidays.

Perhaps if we remember the abundant generosity of God and the centrality of sharing which is at the root and heart of a Eucharist we will see how appropriate that is.

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