A few years ago, when we were keeping half of our patronal festival (the other half, just after Christmas, being Holy Innocents) I inflicted on you a holiday quiz: about the apostle James the Great, about the long and fascinating history of St James Church Birch, and about the pilgrimage to Compostella, which I know some of you have experienced at least in part, and where today if you arrived in time you could see the botafumeirio, the giant incense burner swung the length of the nave by a team of sturdy men up in the roof: eat your heart out, Alan and Stuart. The quiz included some trick questions – for instance, mixing our James with the other one, who is either commemorated with St Philip, or if separately, relegated to the title of St James the Less. It was a self-scoring quiz; and the prizes were either a cream bun or (for the more piously inclined) a scallop shell – in both cases imaginary.
The imaginary cream bun was the standard prize of Norman Barnes, the inspiring and much-loved music master of my school in Sheffield. He would award it, for example, if you submitted as homework a Bach chorale harmonisation without the great sin of parallel fifths or octaves. Astonishingly, he ran a school orchestra of 80 and a choir of 200. . Another alumnus, with whom I overlapped, was Derek Williams, lauded as the best head prefect ever, who wrote the hymn tune San Rocco which we sang last week and which also featured in an excellent choral evensong from his Cambridge college, Selwyn, last week on the eve of Mary Magdalene (to be repeated this afternoon). His older brother Roger, also a musician, old Edwardian and Selwyn alumnus, was a member of the congregation here for a time – but that, as they say, is another story. A later alumna, incidentally, from co-ed days, was Emily Maitlis.
But today, on what is purportedly the First Sunday of Freedom, in place of a frivolous quiz and imaginary prizes, we must be more sober. So my text is taken from Holy Innocents' summer newsletter, issued last week: speaking of the phased removal of the signs of lockdown, it says the last signs [note those dread words: the last signs] will be the use of the chalice and the passing of a collection plate, and the making of coffee and tea. Whether or not these three activities are indeed signs of judgement day, they are of course quintessentially Anglican. Why else would we have a largish store of teacups and saucers bearing the parish crest, for the cup that cheers but does not inebriate? (They didn't do coffee in those days – and perhaps wisely, for in some parishes there have been bitter battles as to whether they should offer ground coffee as a sign of generous hospitality, or instant – Fairtrade or otherwise – since this is what most people have at home.) As for the collection plate, this is the only one of the signs of freedom that can be achieved electronically (something which Harry, like the newsletter, would encourage).
But it is the first of these signs – the use of the chalice – that really matters and which I want to focus on, mindful of today's gospel exchange between Jesus and the sons of Zebedee – James and his brother John:
Jesus said to them: Are you able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will indeed drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left, this is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” At that point, of course, they had no idea about what they were asking. The passage from Acts 11 spells this out.
Now if we want texts about sharing the eucharistic bread, we look to Paul in 1 Corinthians, but also to the gospel of John, where, although it doesn't have an institution narrative, there are dialogues about this eating, using some deliberately shockingly literal language: one verse might translate as unless you crunch the flesh of the Son of Man you have no life in you. It was important to make the point that the Lord's Supper is not just something that goes on in your head, but a genuinely physical activity – a chewing, a biting, an engaging with the gift of Christ, a taking him into the heart, just as in past times (as the psalms record) they chewed on the scriptures and found them as sweet as honey.
Bread of heaven, on thee we feed, for thy flesh is meat indeed.
Ever may our souls be fed with this true and living Bread,
day by day with strength supplied through the life of Christ who died.
As for 1 Corinthians, Paul exploits to the full the ambiguity of the term 'body' – the crucified and risen body of Christ, broken and shared, and the body of Christ which is his church and the result of this sharing, both individually and corporately. This enabled St Augustine's famous and wonderful words
If you wish to understand what is meant by ‘the Body of Christ‘, listen to the apostle saying to the faithful, ‘You are the Body of Christ and his members‘ (1 Cor 12:27). It is the mystery of yourselves that is laid on the Lord’s table; it is the mystery of yourselves that you receive. To that which you are you answer ‘Amen’, and in answering you assent. For you hear the words ‘the Body of Christ’, and you reply ‘Amen’. Be a member of the body of Christ, that the Amen may be true. If you have received well, you are that which you have received.
Now there are some parallel images with the languages of bread and wine: grain scattered on the hillside is brought together, ground and kneaded, to make one loaf; grapes from the vine are plucked and trodden and fermented for the shared cup. And St Paul says, the cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? He also has comments about vines – including some horticulturally dodgy stuff about cross-grafting, in relation to Jews and Christians. And some churches pick up Jesus' language about wine and wineskins, old and new, and call themselves 'New Wine'. But while we say you are the body of Christ, we do not directly say you are the blood of Christ. Why is that? Why do we use different images for the chalice?
'Flesh and blood', of course, go together: they express the full and unique life of a person – something real, something tangible, that we can touch and recognise. And that is significant in terms of what Jesus offered his disciples: at the supper, his whole flesh-and-blood self, in bread and wine at the meal with all its passover symbolism, and the next day his whole flesh-and-blood self in suffering on the cross: one and the same offering. (This is made very clear when on Maundy Thursday we reserve the consecrated elements to receive on Good Friday, marking the self-same offering.)
There is a long tradition in the Hebrew and other scriptures of blood as the life force. We see this in many of the temple rituals (where blood is sprinkled on the altar), in the ban on eating animal blood, and in the rules of animal slaughter (which Jews share with Muslims – kosher / halal meat). We may be squeamish about this, but it points us to the primary significance of the shedding of blood as the sign of sacrifice:
Vine of heaven, thy love supplies this blest cup of sacrifice.
'Tis thy wounds our give; to thy cross we look and live.
Thou our life! O let us be rooted, grafted, built on thee.
And indeed it is (unlike cups of tea) a sign of the end times: he is trampling our the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored (based on a chapter from Isaiah). So: like James and his brother John, we do presume to drink the sacrificial cup, in all humility; though unlike them we do not presume to claim special places next to the host of the banquet. For the eucharist is both sacrifice and celebration, a festival. The C17 theologian Ralph Cudworth memorably described it as a 'feast upon a sacrifice', joining together these themes of celebration and suffering. Time was, in the earlier days of the liturgical movement which stressed that the eucharist should be presented as a meal, a sacred banquet, that we had offertory processions when the people presented locally baked bread – the fruit of our labour – and wine (perhaps locally brewed) – the fruit of our leisure. Some of our so-called offertory prayers still reflect this slightly twee tradition.
In passing, the early Christians were accused of cannibalism for their very literal language about eating and drinking; and this lingers on in the notion that we must use red wine because, after all, it is the colour of blood, isn't it? Wrong: red wine was used at the Last Supper because that was an everyday drink (and it was rough, so water was added – which inevitably was later seen as a symbol of the blood and water that flowed from the Saviour's side, rather than a housekeeping matter). To avoid this over-literalism, we like other churches use amber or white wine: quality rather than colour is what matters (and I speak as one who once appeared on a a Channel 4 communion wine tasting slot).
To sum up, on the theme of the significance of the chalice:
- when lockdown came, we discovered (or re-discovered) the tradition of 'spiritual communion', for those who cannot be present at a celebration (and we continue to wave to you week by week). This has always been provided for by the Book of Common Prayer, and there are various texts and prayers for those who cannot for whatever reason physically receive.
- when churches re-opened, complex arrangements were made for those who attended to receive 'in one kind only' (again, covered by the assurances of BCP) – i.e. the consecrated bread (it might also in theory to the consecrated wine). This is something that most of our RC sisters and brothers have had to put up with for a very long time, except for special occasions; I have to say that when presiding I have really struggled with the fact I alone may drink from the chalice. But for now it has to be so.
- the ideal for which we long is that we may all receive broken bread (rather than carefully-sanitised wafers) and drink from the common cup (sanitised by alcohol and silver): this is the the fulness of communion to which James aspired.
Richard Young (Rector)