This rambling comes out of a conversation with a very dear and close friend. Historical accuracy not guaranteed.
One of the archaic debates during the Reformation was the nature of the presence of Christ in the bread of communion. It has been suggested that Protestant parodies of the Roman Catholic belief in transubstantiation – that the bread literally becomes the body of Christ – are what inspired the magicians’ phrase ‘hocus pocus.’ Hoc est enim corpus meum (‘this is my body’) became “hocus pocus.”
What this trivium symbolises is not simply satirical wordplay, it strikes at the heart of what the Reformation was about: the disintegration of the theological authority of the Roman Catholic Church. What was held as the central feature of the Christian life, attending ‘mass’ (with its etymological rooting in the Hebrew ‘matza’ – the unleavened bread of the Exodus), became untenable, because it presupposed an account of reality that no longer made sense for the reality people actually live in. The central sacrament that was supposed to tether people to the God who was in Christ had become, in a word, magic.
This led many Lutheran and Reformed scholars to reflect deeply on how the practices of the Church encoded beliefs about the nature of God, and the nature of reality itself. Chief among these debates was the question of whether or not Christ actually became fully present in the bread at communion.
For many Lutherans, the rejection of Roman Catholicism was not intended to be an attempt to set-up a whole new Church, but rather to better anchor the Roman Catholic Church to the clear witness of Scripture and Reason. (Luther was forced out of the Church by the authorities, he did not straightforwardly initiate schism.) And so while it was unreasonable to see the communion bread itself literally becoming the body of Christ, Christ did nonetheless become fully present in the bread. After all, if this is the practice that Christ himself instituted, then this is the practice that holds together the worshipping life of the Christian Church.
For many in the Reformed tradition, however, this account of the presence of Christ in the bread failed in one major respect: it undermined the Christian commitment to the humanity of Jesus. The Lutheran retort that the Chalcedonian confession that Jesus was fully human and fully God seemed to err on the side of claiming that Jesus’ divinity overcame his humanity. For this reason Christ could be omnipresent, as God is omnipresent. The Reformed answer rejected this out of hand. To confess that Jesus is fully human and fully God is not to absorb his humanity into his divinity, but precisely the opposite: to recognise that humanity itself was an inextricable part of the Godhead itself.
It was not the case that the second person of the Trinity (who John’s Gospel names as ‘the Word’) came and took on human form. The confession that Jesus is fully human and fully God suggests that ‘the Word’ in themself is both fully human and fully God. The being and identity of the second person of the Trinity was defined in terms of who Jesus is, and not on their own divine terms. (John Calvin, foremost among Reformed theologians and leaders, even went so far as to say that if Jesus was raised bodily, then he sits alongside the Father in Heaven bodily for all eternity.)
This Reformed approach to communion, the nature of Christ, and the doctrine of the Trinity, seeks to reinterpret God in light of Jesus – and not simply to impose an existing account of God onto the person Jesus of Nazareth. The doctrine of God implied by this Reformed commitment is driven by the person and work of Jesus. The Reformed account of God takes seriously that Jesus exists to reconciled humanity to God, and to really do so. The sending (missio) of the Son, Jesus of Nazareth, reflects God’s relentless movement towards the world, proclaiming reconciliation between humanity and God. Jesus so commits himself to this work that he forgoes any connection between himself and God on the cross, giving up the very (Holy) Spirit that is the bond of love between the Father and the Son. Jesus chooses to stand in the place of condemned humanity, to be bound to sinful humanity, to hand himself over to the will of human cruelty, even at the cost of his connection to God — though he is God.
The Gospel is precisely that Jesus chooses to bind himself to humanity in love, expressing God’s relentless movement towards the world through enacting and proclaiming mercy and justice, for all of humanity. This leads to a rupture within God, a breaking of the temple curtain that separates humanity from God’s presence.
… and yet. The love of God is so strong that it overcomes this rupture, the Spirit is poured out, the presence of God does not leave Christ’s body abandoned. The effect of Christ binding himself to humanity is that humanity, paradoxically, becomes bound in turn to God. The love of God overcomes the rupture within Godself, it overcomes the distance between God and humanity. And it breathes the possibility of new life into the world.
This is the movement of God from cross to resurrection.
God binds Godself to us in Christ on the cross. And we are bound to God by the Spirit in the resurrection.
This work of Christ can only be understood by taking seriously that the humanity of Jesus as an inextricable part of who God is, it is precisely the life and love of God yearning to be reconciled with humanity. Jesus takes this yearning into the very being of God, by making humanity part of the very being of the Trinity.
This is why Christ can never be fully present in the bread of communion. Because precisely what makes the bread of communion a sign of the Gospel is that it points to the dignity and worth of humanity, the divine love that is poured out for humanity. No understanding of the bread which erases Christ’s humanity can truly welcome our humanity to the table.
Christ is, however, present in the world still. Christ is present as the Spirit is poured out to further God’s relentless movement of love, through mercy and justice. Christ is present in the salvific acts of saints from every culture, religion, and tongue. Those who come to the Father, by definition, come through Christ.
The communion table, and the bread that nourishes us there, is a testament to Christ because it is a testament to his humanity being bound up in the very life and being of God. It is on this basis that the communion table is one of welcome to humanity. It beckons us to hear the proclamation that God relentlessly moves towards us in love, through mercy and justice.
Forever, and ever. Amen.