Essay

Advent and The Lord’s Suppper

By December 17, 2017 9 Comments
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By Tom Boogaart
A few years ago, an historic Reformed Church was celebrating its sesquicentennial and inviting various people to come and talk about the history and future of the Reformed tradition. I was invited to talk about the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.

Nothing I said was new, and nothing I said was particularly shocking. I talked about how we in the Reformed tradition affirm the real presence of Jesus Christ in eating the bread and drinking the wine. I added that we Calvinists, Lutherans, and Roman Catholics, while articulating the nature of Christ’s real presence in different ways, stand together against the Anabaptists who believe that the sacrament is merely a memorial service.

I went on to say that the dramatic moment of the celebration comes when the officiant speaks these words

Send your Holy Spirit upon us, we pray,
that the bread which we break and the cup of blessing which we bless
may be to us the communion of the body and blood of Christ.

I pointed out that this was the “heavens opening” moment in the sacrament and that this hoped-for advent of the Spirit was a continuation of similar advents recorded frequently in the Bible. One thinks immediately of Jesus’ baptism by John in the Jordan: “And when he came up out of the water, immediately he saw the heavens opened and the Spirit descending upon him like a dove….” (Mark 1: 10) We read of the heavens opening for Stephen (Acts 7:56), Paul (Acts 9:3), John (Revelation 4:1), Elisha (2 Kings 2: 11), and Jacob (Genesis 28:12), to name a few.

The Bible offers us many chapters in the grand story of God coming into the world. In it there is a door between heaven and earth through which the Spirit of God descends with the blessings of heaven and through which the people of God ascend to commune with their Savior. This grand story is an advent story.

At this point in my talk things got very quiet, and I saw the long look in people’s eyes. I asked what was wrong, and a man spoke up and said: “This is hocus-pocus nonsense.” What followed was a conversation in which those gathered said that they found it very hard to imagine a world with a swinging door between heaven and earth and to imagine that Jesus Christ could really be present in the communion service and fortifying them through the bread and the wine. Anyone could see that bread was and remained bread.

I was not surprised by this reaction. I and they live in the same world. All the rituals that constitute our lives—all the manufacturing and marketing, the fevered selling and buying, the accumulation and consumption of wares—tell us that bread is bread, that the material world is all there is. Over time these rituals convince us that there is no door between heaven and earth and there is no Spirit coming to transform bread into the body of Jesus Christ and transfigure the world with the glory of God. In such world there is no advent, there is only an exit. Christians hope to leave the material world behind and commune with Jesus Christ in some sort of spiritual soul-state.

Toward the end of our hour together, a woman raised her hand and said: “I do not know how this fits into our conversation, but I want to say that there are times when I am taking communion that I feel the love of Jesus, and it carries me through the difficult days.”

Her remark gave me hope that the ritual of the Lord’s Supper has power and that it can be a means for revitalizing worship and counteracting the gross materialism of our Western culture.

Tom Boogart teaches Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

Tom Boogaart

Tom Boogaart teaches Old Testament at Western Theological Seminary in Holland, Michigan.

9 Comments

  • I love this Tom. It is always so good to hear your words. Felt that way as your student lo these MANY years ago, and it gives me joy to still hear them here. God bless you. We NEED these words.

  • Chris Dorn says:

    Tom, thanks for this. I’ve been living with this subject for many years. I have urged the churches in the RCA to draw on the liturgical and sacramental wisdom there for us in what has been called the “great tradition,” as leaders like Howard Hageman tried to do in the past. The reaction you got to your talk shows that there is much work to be done here.

  • Anne Weirich says:

    Jesus is the door among and between many things and people. Wonderful reflection – thank you.

  • RLG says:

    I know you mean well, Tom. We want our faith to be real, something we experience, something tangible. But you are buying into subjectivity, a reality that exists only in your mind and is anything but objective. The man (and others like him) who said, “this is hocus-pocus nonsense,” was closer to the truth than you care to admit. The Baptists have it right on this count, in suggesting that the Lord’s Supper is a memorial meal (Do this in remembrance of me…). We are rational beings (as opposed to the rest of creation), and reason tells us to remember and trust the objective reality of Christ’s one sacrifice. Roman Catholics also believe that a specific grace is imparted by participating in the mass (Lord’s Supper), as with participation in the other Catholic sacraments. Theirs is a sacramental theology unlike Reformed theology. I’m afraid your suggestion (this article) opens the door of subjectivity to a feeling based and emotional religion. That would be a slippery slope. Use some caution.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Perhaps it is a lack of imagination that misses the mystery present in the bread and the wine. If we truly believe that we are already living on an earth that, although it is groaning, is being redeemed and moved toward the final coming, as are we, then this door between heaven and earth becomes a more profound proof of ‘God with us’.

  • Second, as surely as I receive from the hand of the one who serves, and taste with my mouth the bread and cup of the Lord, given me as sure signs of Christ’s body and blood, so surely he nourishes and refreshes my soul for eternal life with his crucified body and poured-out blood. (Heidelberg)

    For they (the sacraments) are visible signs and seals
    of something internal and invisible,
    by means of which God works in us
    through the power of the Holy Spirit.
    So they are not empty and hollow signs
    to fool and deceive us,
    for their truth is Jesus Christ,
    without whom they would be nothing. (Belgic Confession)

    But to maintain the spiritual and heavenly life
    that belongs to believers,
    God has sent a living bread
    that came down from heaven:
    namely Jesus Christ,
    who nourishes and maintains
    the spiritual life of believers
    when eaten—
    that is, when appropriated
    and received spiritually
    by faith.

    To represent to us
    this spiritual and heavenly bread
    Christ has instituted
    an earthly and visible bread as the sacrament of his body
    and wine as the sacrament of his blood.
    He did this to testify to us that
    just as truly as we take and hold the sacrament in our hands
    and eat and drink it with our mouths,
    by which our life is then sustained,
    so truly we receive into our souls,
    for our spiritual life,
    the true body and true blood of Christ,
    our only Savior.
    We receive these by faith,
    which is the hand and mouth of our souls.

    Now it is certain
    that Jesus Christ did not prescribe
    his sacraments for us in vain,
    since he works in us all he represents
    by these holy signs,
    although the manner in which he does it
    goes beyond our understanding
    and is incomprehensible to us,
    just as the operation of God’s Spirit
    is hidden and incomprehensible.

    Yet we do not go wrong when we say
    that what is eaten is Christ’s own natural body
    and what is drunk is his own blood—
    but the manner in which we eat it
    is not by the mouth, but by the Spirit
    through faith. (Also Belgic)

    RLG, your post reflects one branch of the Reformed tradition (Zwingli), but not the RCA’s confessional documents.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Unitedpastor, for your insight into the Reformed faith (beliefs). I was expecting such a comment from someone. So, the Reformed confessions support subjectivism, when it comes to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. I’m quite aware of that, and because it is subjectivism some participants feel the subjective reality of Christ more than others. It matters how open you are to an emotional experience of Christ’s presence. There’s nothing tangible or objective about such an experience. People of great faith and great love for Christ, who are not open to a subjective experience (a more reasoned faith) will feel nothing of Christ’s presence in the sacrament. The man in Tom Boggart’s article who thought Tom was engaging in hocus-pocus probably has as much faith as anyone else. He just saw the real (?) presence of Christ in his original death, a reasonable assumption. To see it in the sacrament is not.

    Perhaps, as Jan Zuidema suggested, the real presence of Christ is a matter of the imagination; and those who don’t buy into the real presence of Christ in the sacrament are lacking in imagination.

    Thanks again, Unitedpastor, for sharing your convictions. With as many Christian denominations as there are (thousands), I doubt that any one denomination has their theology all together correct. This sounds like one area in which we (Reformed) may have failed. I still think it is a slippery slope.

  • Your reply is fascinating, RLG. My point is, in the first instance, not mine at all. I merely quoted the RCA’s confessional standards. Their point, in turn, is not that Christ’s presence depends on our emotion or feelings (what you seem to imply by “subjectivity”) but that Christ is truly, objectively present in the supper by virtue of the inner testimony of the Holy Spirit. We are not re-offering a sacrifice, nor are we simply thinking about something that happened long ago and far away. I don’t know about the “door” metaphor – though, remember, the “door” is an opening – that wood thing with a knob is technically a “gate.” Sure, it’s a metaphor, and to the reductionist mindset, that may seem like hocus pocus. (You know the origin of that phrase?) But that it’s a metaphor doesn’t make it entirely subjective or meaningless. I concur with you that not one denomination contains all wisdom of the whole Christian faith. And I would agree with you that many (Reformed) have failed – but I would argue that ‘failure’ from the other side – from the side that requires the mind/imagination/memory to conjure up an event that happened long ago to apply it to today – i.e., from the side that sounds an awful lot more like a ‘subjective’ view of the Sacrament than the robustly pneumatological one that I would commend.

    • RLG says:

      Hocus pocus: or in the Latin, “Hoc est corpus meum,” meaning “this is my body.” The first to make such a speculation was John Tilloston (1630-1694). Otherwise, it was and is a magical formula used by magicians and jugglers. That might seem fitting.

      Referring to the Reformed confessions, you suggest that the real presence of Christ is not dependent on feelings, emotion, or the imagination, but that Christ is objectively present in the Lord’s Supper by the working of the Spirit. So, tell me, if this is an objective reality (which would not depend on me, but God), why don’t all Christians experience this objective reality? Why is it that Zwingliians (Baptists) don’t experience the objective reality of Christ in the Supper (because they think of the Lord’s Supper as a remembrance of a past reality)? Their faith is just a real and commeasurite to that of a Reformed Christian. I think this substantiates only the subjective reality in the Supper, in other words, a hocus pocus.

      All religions contain the element of the truly magical or supernatural; otherwise they wouldn’t be religions. When looking over the fence at other religions, Christians tend to say it’s hocus pocus, the same as they say about our religion and the real presence of Christ in the sacrament. They like us, have their divinely inspired Scriptures to insure the truthfulness of their religion. What is truth? We have reason, given by God, to help us there.

      So what’s next under the influence of the Holy Spirit, a robust pneumatology: speaking in tongues, miraculous healings apart from science (medical professions), the casting out of demons, the third wave movement, and all manner of miracles pronounced by the Catholic church? It still seems like a slippery slope.

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