This is an article that I wrote a few years ago, before I became Orthodox. I didn’t get to publishing it, and once I had become Orthodox I hesitated to do so as it discusses issues that I was dealing with as a Catholic. However, I have shared it with a few people over the last few years, and some of their reactions have made me think that it may be worth making it available more broadly, hence my decision to post it here. However, I’m not posting it to initiate discussion or debate and so am closing the comments section on this post. While the issues that it raises were crucial for me at the time – and I still stand by everything that I argued – I am no longer Catholic and don’t really want to get involved in discussing these things now.

Eighteen years ago, on a rainy winter’s day, I attended Mass in a small village on the west coast of South Africa. The event is etched in my memory, for it is among the most “traditional” Catholic liturgies I ever attended. The elderly priest was regarded as something of a maverick by his religious confreres; he had been a leading progressive before the Second Vatican Council but had become resolutely opposed to many of the changes following the Council and was now left to do his own thing in this back-of-beyond fishing village. I presume that he must have used the Novus Ordo, for anything else would have been unthinkable at the time for a priest who, despite his oddities, remained in communion with his bishop and the See of Rome. But it was a liturgy unlike any I had experienced. While my memory is vague on details, the one thing that has remained with me is that not only did people kneel at an altar rail to receive communion on the tongue, but that an altar boy held a sort of plate under their chins in order catch any fragment of the Host that might fall.

If this liturgical detail has stuck in my mind, then that was partly because of my own reaction, and that of the friends who accompanied me. We were all theologically educated, post-conciliar Catholics. We cared deeply about the liturgy, had been formed by some of the best trends in liturgical renewal, and would certainly not have thought of ourselves as irreverent. Nor would we have welcomed the idea that we were snobbish – in fact I had just written a Master’s thesis that argued for the importance of rehabilitating popular religion. And yet what now strikes me about my own reaction is its extraordinary arrogance and insensitivity. For my reaction, like that of my friends, was to find the whole thing rather amusing, an example of the backwardness of this reactionary priest.

I suppose that we may have rejected such practices as “sacralism,” a useful catch phrase which could be a blanket condemnation of anything that appeared “old-fashioned,” but which could also have a more serious content. An opposition to an extraordinary emphasis on the eucharistic Gifts themselves was often rooted in not wanting to separate the Gifts from the community that celebrated and received them, and with the conviction that Christ is just as present in the assembly gathered for worship as He is in the Bread and Wine offered on the altar. And, in a broader perspective, this was linked to the conviction that we should not separate the sacred from the profane, that all of created reality is sacred, and that to place excessive attention on particular objects, actions or people, was to somehow relegate the rest of God’s creation to a profane status.

I have been reminded of this incident recently, for I have been attending Orthodox liturgical celebrations at which, when people approach the chalice to receive communion, a cloth is held between the chalice and their chins. It is the same principle that I had witnessed in that remote fishing village. And it is the most natural thing in the world. Far from being something quaint or odd, it seems to be simply a natural continuation of a ritual language that both gives expression to an over-arching symbolic and theological worldview, and which also reaches deep into the human heart, touching us at a depth that is inaccessible to a purely rational and utilitarian language.

As I have been reflecting on this – and on the shifts in my own reactions in which I have, rather disconcertingly, become increasingly uncomfortable with the casualness of much western liturgy – I have begun to realize that my earlier reactions reflected not only the arrogance of youth, but also the superficiality of an ecclesial milieu that was insufficiently aware of the deep roots of ritual in both the Church’s tradition and in the human heart. While recent decades have witnessed a resurgence of interest in ritual studies, with its fundamental recognition that human beings are ritual creatures, in a Christian understanding ritual can never be something neutral, which we can make up or reshape as we will. Rather, liturgy has a theological content as the maxim lex orandi est lex credendi – the law of praying is the law of believing – makes clear. Moreover, liturgy is not simply the application of theological truth to our ritual acts, but is rather the matrix that gives birth to theology, for, as poetry and ritual, liturgy has a particular role as bearer of revelation in that it is able to provide access to that which is beyond words. In this context, the care which people take in receiving Holy Communion is in itself a theological statement, a form of language, a statement about the ultimate importance of what is taking place.

I was struck by this on reading Jim Forest’s account of Dorothy Day’s  reaction when a progressive priest celebrated Mass using a coffee cup as a chalice: she kissed the cup and buried it in the garden, for, having contained the Blood of Christ, it was not longer fit to be used as an ordinary coffee cup. Forest comments that: “I learnt more about the Eucharist that day than I had from any book or sermon.” While I would once have been uncomfortable with Day’s reaction, seeing it as an example of a sacred-profane distinction – what, after all, is unholy about a coffee cup? – this now seems far too simplistic. Sacred objects and actions carry a world of meaning and messing around with them can have far-reaching implications.

However, raising such concerns in some contemporary Catholic contexts is no simple matter, given the role that liturgy often plays in a polarized Church. Thus any questioning of the implementation of post-conciliar reforms is all-too-often interpreted as a desire to return to the good old days of Tridentine liturgy. It would often appear that we are faced with a tragic choice between an ecclesially impoverished, clericalised, “reform of the reform” type approach which would seek to re-emphasise the Eucharist as a sacred object, on the one hand, and a liturgical renewal that has at best run aground and at worst disintegrated into ecclesial anarchy, on the other.

I recently spoke to a Dutch abbot, for whom I have great respect. He is theologically educated and spiritually and pastorally sensitive and not someone whom I would consider particularly reactionary. Yet he had recently introduced a change whereby the laity can no longer receive communion under both kinds at the Sunday Eucharist. I knew enough about the context of liturgical abuses that he faced to have a certain sympathy with his decision, but I told him that I found it a tragic example of the sort of false choices that contemporary Catholicism presents. Denying the cup to the laity is not only a turning back of the clock on the attempts at liturgical renewal, but it is also an ecclesiological statement about the nature of the Church and, moreover, a cause of the division between the Churches of East and West. Is this really the price one must pay to correct liturgical abuses? His response was that he was increasingly coming to see that the post-conciliar emphasis on the Eucharist as the people of God assembled in celebration was problematic and that the emphasis needed to shift back onto the Blessed Sacrament itself. Again, I know enough about the superficial ideas that are widespread in his context, whereby the Eucharist is reduced to a cozy feeling of “togetherness,” to have some sympathy with his reaction. But I nevertheless found his comments to reflect a tragic failure of the liturgical renewal in which the renewal of the liturgy was intimately bound up with the renewal of ecclesiology.

To speak of the Eucharist, is, of necessity, to speak of the Church, for the Eucharist is a recapitulation of the entire history of salvation in which the saving mysteries of Christ are made present for us. But the Eucharist is about more than history: it is also an eschatological event in which the Kingdom of God breaks into our world. Through it Christ’s historical and eschatological presence is actualized and we are constituted into His Body. Describing the liturgical vision Father Alexander Schmemann, David Fagerberg wrote: “Ecclesiology is Christology liturgically stretching forth in the Holy Spirit to its fullest length across history.” In the Eucharist we call upon the Holy Spirit to sanctify both the Gifts on the altar and also ourselves; indeed the whole point of the sanctification of the Gifts is that we who partake of them should be transformed into the Body of Christ. This very act of communion, as the name implies, involves being united to a living Body, which is neither simply an institution nor simply a group of like-minded, well-meaning people.

That a conflict should arise between reverence for the Gifts on the altar and reverence for the Body of the Church, suggests that we have missed the boat somewhere. Indeed, one could even suggest that such a false alternative is based on a distorted view, both of the eucharistic Gifts on the part of those who seek to emphasize them, and of the community of the faithful on the part of those whose emphasis on “community” is insufficiently rooted in the sacramental understanding of the Church. Indeed I have increasingly come to see that the shifts in understanding that occurred in the western Church in the late Middle Ages are themselves at least partly responsible for the false alternatives that we now face.

Cardinal de Lubac’s book Corpus Mysticum traces how the term “Body of Christ,” which had originally referred to the Church, was from the middle of the eleventh century applied to the eucharistic Gifts themselves. These had previously been referred to as the mystical Body of Christ but they now receive an objectified identity, becoming separated from the Church which comes to be seen as the “mystical Body of Christ”. Commenting on this development, Father Andrew Louth argues that:

Whereas in the traditional understanding, the true body of Christ had been realized in the celebration of the Eucharist that culminated in communion in the mystical/sacramental, in this late medieval understanding, the celebration of the Eucharist becomes the rite by which the priest effects the miracle of the true body of Christ, which then exists quasi-independently. The Church as a community recedes from history into the ‘mystical body of Christ’; the visible Church that remains splits into the institutional priesthood that has power to make present the verum corpus Christi and the laity.

It is, I suspect, this objectifying of the eucharistic Gifts, this wrenching them out of their proper context, that has led in part to a sort of liturgical positivism that – ironically and tragically – has emptied them of meaning. And with this went the development of a clericalism that has resulted in a backlash that resists any distinctions in the Church or which insists on seeing such distinctions in purely functional terms.

For, while the Gifts on the altar cannot be separated from the community that offers them, this is not just any community. Those who are reacting against some of the post-conciliar emphasis on the people of God who gather to celebrate the liturgy, such as the abbot I mentioned above, often have legitimate concerns. This is not just any group of people who come together. Nor do they have the right to do just anything. The celebration is not about “them” but has a specific content. If one reads the early Fathers such as Ignatius of Antioch and Irenaeus, then one sees that each local Church has a very specific identity. It is an ordered community that is gathered around its bishop through whom it is in communion with all the other Churches. This is not simply a matter of organisation; instead the bishop recapitulates the whole community in himself and makes it present. But he is also absolutely dependent on it and cannot be conceived apart from it.

To be forced to choose between prioritising the Gifts on the altar and the community of the Church is a false choice. The ecclesial and liturgical crises that we currently find in many places require a more thoroughgoing analysis and resolution than either “party” in the current polarisation is able to give. For both remain entangled in a sort of liturgical positivism in which the Eucharist is reduced to a “thing” which one then does or does not emphasise. Such a choice remains trapped within the categories of what Schmemann would call “this world,” whereas in the Eucharist the Church ascends to the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom that inaugurates a new reality. While objective and ecclesial, this reality also reaches subjectively into the deepest recesses of our being, into what the biblical and patristic tradition refer to as the human heart. For the Fathers of the Church, there is a correlation between the public liturgy of the Church and the inner worship on the altar of the heart. Through the ritual language that has deep roots in the Christian tradition and in the human psyche, the liturgy can reach those depths of the soul that remain inaccessible to our everyday rationality. And, somewhere in this process we discover that the objective and the subjective merge, that we can no longer objectify things in abstract terms, and that ritual is the bearer of a many-layered meaning that we do not necessarily understand but which enables us to pray in a way that we would not otherwise be able to do.