Celebrating Eucharist: Making & Receiving

Rev. Jim Ryan, PhD  — jimryan6885@gmail.com

Co-pastor of Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community

Wauwatosa, Wisconsin 53213

Community blog:  https://maryofmagdala-mke.org/blog

The article, “Mystery Manifested: Toward a Phenomenology of the Eucharist in its Liturgical Context,” (https://doi.org/10.3390/rel10050315) is instructive to me and my community of worship, Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community, Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.  Christina M. Gschwandtner has presented a framework that goes far in description and exploration of what we experience at Eucharist every Sunday at 9:45am – our very own liturgical context, horizon, and intentionality.

But before I get too far ahead I want to acknowledge Gschwandtner’s valuable insight that Eucharist in its liturgical fullness is a plural religious experience.  The place and role of community in this experience is a sine qua non that, as Gschwandtner rightly points out, is all too often missed in the 30,000 foot altitude of philosophical aridity when it comes to exploring this phenomenon, this sacrament, this community-shaping event.  We are the ones who plan, prepare, anticipate, and periodically have heightened expectancy about our liturgical gatherings.  As the word eucharist translates we are the ones who are so thankful to see, pray, and sing with each other week-to-week.  What we do and how we surround ourselves in sacred space must give constant evidence of the lives we lead, the people we love and care for, the community members with whom we put into practice the lessons and challenges of Eucharist.

For reasons I hope will become clear later, though, I would have understood better Gschwandtner’s presentation if the title would have more clearly stated that she was presenting on the Reception of Mystery Manifested or, looking at her subtitle, “Toward a Phenomenology of the Eucharist in its Liturgical Context of Receptivity.  In her third to last paragraph she makes the point,

“Religious experience, at least liturgical experience and specifically Eucharistic experiences, emerges as a very deliberate and intentional directedness toward the phenomena, as an elaborate preparation and formation of intentionality as the inculcation of habits and dispositions that allow for receptivity.” (p.18)

Well, what if the context, the horizon, and the intentionality were actually about manufacture as well as reception?  What if the liturgical experience really was, as Jesus instructed and invited us, of our own making?  After all, Christ is us, we are Christ.  Therefore Eucharist is us.  More to be said later.  First, let’s explore.

Gschwandtner’s three part framework of 1) Context, 2) Horizon, 3) Intentionality is a nice fit of “hand-in-glove” for our gathering in and for Eucharist at Mary of Magdala Community where we are preparing for our 10th Anniversary in 2020!

First, as to context.  Gschwandtner writes that liturgical experience is that fully corporeal, sensory and affective phenomenon that occurs in a specific temporal and spatial dimension.  Consider that our gathering in worship is decidedly on the side of what has been termed, unfortunately, low church.  Gschwandtner’s references and applications of the tactile and emotive aspects of the liturgical experience (e.g. sanctuary, colorful vestments, incense, and the rest) are illustrative of an also unfortunately, but perhaps apt, termed high church.

Our spatial context is Wesley Hall on the campus of our host congregation, Wauwatosa Area United Methodist Church.  On Sunday mornings we arrive, most often, 45 minutes before the service begins to set up our worship space.  A circle of chairs (two rows all around), a piano placed just outside the circle not far from the presider’s chair, a communion table placed in the center of the circle, a wall hanging hung and positioned just behind the presider’s chair, a crucifix hung just in front of the hanging, a statue of our patron, Mary of Magdala, is placed on a table in front of the crucifix, and two large candles put to stand on either side of the hanging, a lectern for the Proclamation of the Word placed at the opposite end of the circle from the presider’s chair – this is our spatio-visual dimension.

Also, on a table just back of and to the side of the lectern (outside of the circle) are placed 2 patens containing bread and 4 cups holding the wine and grape juice that will be brought to the communion table at the Presentation of the Gifts.

Our temporal dimension is that we begin the Service at 9:45am (or thereabouts), we celebrate Eucharist over the next 90 minutes (or thereabouts) and we share beverages and munchies over catching up on each other’s week and life activities.  We take down what we have set up and return our worship space to the regular schedule of Wesley Hall.  We leave at Noon (or thereabouts).

This worship space, kept intentionally modest in sacred objects and adornments, fits us.  You see the “corporeal, sensory, and affective phenomenon” that occurs among us centers upon the liturgical experience of community at prayer through sharing on the Readings, reflection, listening to the Word (what we hear and what we speak), eating and drinking Sacramental bread and wine, singing and rejoicing – in short, making Eucharist.

Our context – while not very “churchy” in the usual understanding of what church has, holds, and offers – is maintaining/sustaining bonds of affection, care, and the testimonies of faith.

Second in Gschwandtner’s framework is horizon, the phenomenon that ritual experience within a specific liturgical tradition makes to occur as a range of vision and appreciation for the possible.  Much of what Gschwandtner refers to in this part of the framework includes expectancy of assurances that what occurs in liturgical experience will be both reassuring and challenging.

Our community seeks the horizon that balances a love for liturgical heritage (as in celebration of the Sacraments) with a progressive consciousness that commits to participation that is fully active, inclusive, and integrative.  Consciousness within a transitory worship space, such as ours is, is to look to each other for the revelation and manifestation of which Gschwandtner speaks.  When Gschwandtner references those “gestures and postures oriented to the sanctuary” our holy actions are aimed to the center of the worship space – necessarily including each other (we who form the circle) on our visual path of recognition of the communion table.  We experience our bodies as oriented toward the Eucharistic event.  Gschwandtner speaks of “burning candles, tasting the Eucharistic elements being the experience of affect oriented toward the broader liturgical context”  on the way to making real the horizon.

Within our circle, in our stripped-down, phenomenologically reduced vision, we focus and refocus this horizon simply because we look around only to see each other and all focusing on this Eucharist in which we fully participate and share.

The third leg of Gschwandtner’s framework is Intentionality.

“The entire hermeneutic and phenomenological horizon of liturgy shapes an intentionality that hopes for God’s presence, orients itself toward the divine in contrition and veneration, forms an attitude of expectation and receptivity for the gifts.  They signify, that is to say, have meaning and can be intuitively received, within that prepared and intentional horizon of liturgy.”

I quote this at length to draw home the point I made at the beginning that Gschwandtner’s focus of liturgical experience is the reception of Mystery Manifested.  My question is, “How did we get here?”  And I mean this in the most practical sense, as in “How did this Eucharist, these sacred elements, get to us so that we can venerate and fully partake of them?”  Also, “Who brings these gifts to us who are now to receive them?”  It’s clear in the tradition as practiced in Catholic and Orthodox churches (at least) that the priest says the consecrating words and brings the gifts to participants for their veneration and reception..

What if we who celebrate are the ones who make Eucharist?  What if the receivers are also the makers?  Impossible, you say.  Sacrilege, you say.  What do you suppose was happening among Jesus’ first followers when, in the absence of the travelling prophets (as spoken of in the Didache) it was the head of the household who presided at Eucharist?  And are we really to believe that these were Agape meals only about friendship in gathering and not real and actual celebrations of Eucharist, that is, of Christ present with and among those who gathered?

As I said, Gschwandtner’s tripartite framework works for me even in our very different liturgical context.  Applying context, horizon, and intentionality to our gathering in Christ, however, includes making along with receiving Eucharist.

Our community’s intentionality occurs when consecration of the bread and wine is done by all members saying the words of consecration.  The bread and wine is often held up by community members (non-ordained) as the words are said.  We also pray together the Eucharistic Prayer, we dwell upon the anaphoras, and we rejoice in anamnesis.

Gschwandtner’s view of making the liturgical context a phenomenon of reception is her recognition of the consciousness participants bring to the Eucharistic event.

“Isolating the Eucharistic moment from the larger liturgical context fails to take seriously the ways in which consciousness is prepared to experience or apprehend how it is directed toward revelation or manifestation, how it becomes the very context for manifestation.”

However, when that consciousness is oriented to a most basic relationship between ourselves and sacramental elements we at Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community practice a “stripped-down” Eucharistic experience whose context, horizon, and intentionality aims for directness, transparency, inclusion, belonging, and yes, even manufacture.

I noted at the beginning that Gschwandtner calls to our attention that liturgical experience is a plural religious event.  Our Mary of Magdala, Apostle to the Apostles Community (https://www.maryofmagdala-mke.org)  believes that it is the faith of the community that makes Christ’s presence possible rather than ritual words spoken by a cleric whose special character sets him/her apart as the one who makes Eucharist happen for the rest.  Faith expressed in this liturgical way is tactile and sensual, the consciousness of participation that is not only receptive but also co-creative.

Well, it seems my application may have crossed the phenomenological boundary into theological territory.  However, I am happy to go there to engage in the full celebration of both making and receiving Eucharist.

So, I stop here with a little help from John Caputo who in his Introduction to The Religious quotes Meister Eckhart,

“Let God be God in us.”

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