One of the things I have come to notice and which I often find significant when visiting Churches is whether or not the sacrament is reserved and if so, the extent to which is a focal point.
The practice of reserving the sacrament, of setting aside some portion of the consecrated elements after Communion was prohibited in many Protestant churches in the 16th century. The Thirty-Nine Articles that were set out to define the practices of the Church of England state that “the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped.” Referring there to the Roman Catholic practices.
Reservation of the sacrament died out amongst Anglicans until the 19th century which was a period of recovery of catholic practices including regular celebration of the Eucharist. The First World War was also significant when reservation allowed chaplains to give Communion in the trenches or on the battlefield to severely wounded soldiers.
In a Roman Catholic church, you are likely to see a tabernacle – a veiled box that contains the reserved sacrament. The word tabernacle is derived from the Latin for tent – a reference to the tent of presence which the Israelites carried with them as thy wandered in the desert and which contained, behind a veil, the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant and inside the tablets of the law given to Moses on Sinai and also a jar of manna, to always remind them that God provided bread in the wilderness.
Sometimes the host is reserved in a Pyx which hangs over the altar – there’s one in St Dunstan’s Chapel, in St Paul’s Cathedral, just up the road from St Bride’s.
Most often in Anglican churches though, as here at St Bride’s, you will see an aumbry – which is like a safe in the wall, again often with a veil. Sometimes the aumbry is clearly marked as a special place, for example with a perpetual light burning. Other times it is clearly neglected. I was once preparing myself for worship at a very beautiful chapel in Wales and was dismayed to find the aumbry was being used to store pens, a note pad and a box of matches.
But does any of this matter we might ask or is it all just the kind of trivial detail that those 16th century reformers aimed to free us from? Am I paying attention to something of significance when I look for the sacrament in the churches I visit or am I just distracted church traditions?
As we seek to address that question, it is worth remembering that when Jesus died, the Gospels tell us, the veil of the temple was torn from top to bottom. That’s the very moment represented in our altar painting of the crucifixion. That tearing suggests not only the grief of loss but also freedom, an unveiling, a release. For Jews the temple of Jerusalem had been regarded as the place of God’s presence on earth. For Christians there isn’t anywhere with that same significance but the Eucharist does have a special importance as the place where we receive Christ and are incorporated into his body.
In his book “Alive in God: A Christian Imagination” Timothy Radcliffe, former Master of the Dominical Order in this country, writes of the sacramental imagination. The principle of sacramentality he says is the fundamental conviction that the visible, tangible and historical material of the world around us is capable of revealing the intangible, invisible and immaterial presence of God.
That can be seen to apply to the universe as a whole, the world is charged with the grandeur of God as Gerard Manley Hopkin’s described it. But we have closed our eyes, interested only in how we can exploit the earth’s resources.
Now our service each week is structured around word and sacrament. The relative attention that’s given to each tells you a lot about any church and that can often be observed in the liturgy itself, in the act of worship, but also in the Church building and its decorations.
In the Hebrew scriptures the word of God, the Torah, is sometimes referred to as a form of nourishment. In the book of Ezekiel for example we read – son of man eat what is offered to you, eat this scroll and go speak to the House of Israel, then I ate it and in my mouth it was sweet as honey.
The word of God is the revelation of the love of God for the Jewish people, the revelation of what our lives, the whole history of the universe and salvation is about, and it is sweet as honey.
Jean Vanier observed that Jesus’s teaching in today’s gospel points to the importance of the word. Those listening to Jesus would understand that the bread Jesus was speaking about was the nourishing bread of the word of God. But Jesus leads them further. He is not just the word of God, enlightening their hearts and minds, he is the word made flesh, wanting to give himself to them as he is, in his incarnated person and to be present to them as a vulnerable friend through his flesh. “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” It was a difficult teaching, it divided those who followed him but the breaking and sharing of bread is the defining characteristic of Christian worship.
Now I am conscious that I haven’t really answered the question I posed. Is the reservation of the sacrament something significant? I’m certainly inclined to think it is but I recognise that people have different opinions and responses. I’ll share with you the words of Susanne Gutherie, a minister in the Episcopalian Church who’s meditation on instructive –
Sacramental objects teach me to see sacramentally. I see…altar guild members, priests, chalices and fair linens as an almost remedial lesson in caring for ordinary things. Architects create beautiful orderly spaces of worship to open people’s hearts to beauty in an unorderly world. Devout men and women eat the bread of Holy Communion in order to help awaken their consciousness to recognizing the bread of life everywhere.
If God lived in a tabernacle in a church only, I would never leave church. Liturgy lets me linger with the thought of Presence, then pushes me out of the door with the insistent dismissal to seek and serve God elsewhere, that is, in the places most difficult to perceive Divine Love. When I’m weary, I come back to renew the process, each Eucharist giving me, hopefully, a deeper and wider insight into the next adventure.
The Eucharistic host, so small, pale, a mere wafer of lightness, contains the universe. A worshipper becomes One with the universe, consuming this wonder within the body, a mystery angels dare not look upon. But we’re mistaken if we think we can contain the Holy in a tabernacle. The bread of life lives inside the least desired and least loved of humanity. Here is Christ’s True Presence.
In the franticness of life, it is hard to slow down enough to remember the Holy of Holies. If I do not reverence the Divine with all my being, how then, can I partake of the Holy and carry the Divine within myself, and then bear it out again into the broken, dangerous, suffering world? And while I know the Temple veil is ultimately torn, if I do not embrace the sense of Presence in the sacred space, how will I recognize it in the hubbub of life outside?
Jesus said, “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger and he who believes in me shall not thirst”.