The doctrine of the Real Presence – that the Body and Blood of Christ are truly present physically & spiritually in the Sacrament of Holy Communion – has some rather interesting results. (This post has nothing to do with the question of how that Presence works, such as transubstantiation.) Some of these results are practical and some are more… well, of spiritual concern.
First and foremost is the issue of permanency. The invocation of the presence of Christ is referred to as consecration, which means “setting aside.” The bread & wine are no longer simple bread & wine, they are/contain the presence of Christ. There is no caveat in the Eucharistic prayers saying that such presence is only to last for the duration of the worship service, so the question of left-overs becomes a significant theological inquiry. Bread & wine is food, and Christ’s body & blood are true food, so clearly the ultimate destination of all consecrated bread & wine ought to be the mouths of God’s people. In general, this is taken care of by making sure all consecrated bread & wine is consumed by the end of the service. But sometimes it isn’t. Why not? And what then?
Perhaps the top reason for putting away some of the consecrated elements in reserve is so that it can be taken to those who are home-bound, hospital-bound, or otherwise unable to be present at the worship service. This Communion of the Sick is a great pastoral practice going way back in various forms.
Similarly, administering Communion to those who are dying is also an ancient pastoral practice. You don’t want to go through the entire Mass at someone’s death bed just to give them Communion, so if you always keep some Reserved, you’re always ready.
But now you’ve got an issue: how do you store consecrated bread and wine? If we take seriously the belief that it contains the abiding presence of Christ, then we should take seriously the question of what to do about the Reserved Sacrament.
Some Old Testament parallels come in handy here. The Ark of the Covenant was (or contained) the presence of the Spirit of God in the midst of the Israelites. As such, it could only be approached under certain circumstances and was stored & carried in carefully prescribed ways that both respected and proclaimed the holiness of God. In our new covenant situation, we are free from a prescribed law; God hasn’t told us how to protect & proclaim His holiness as conveyed by the Sacrament. That doesn’t mean we don’t have to do it anymore; it means we’re old enough to figure it out for ourselves.
Sure enough, the Church has developed ways to store the consecrated bread (and also wine, though less frequently). For starters, the primary containers (or vessels) in which the consecrated bread & wine are stored are specially set apart for that purpose. Just as the Ark was properly placed in the Holy of Holies in the Tabernacle or Temple, Christians today place the Reserved Sacrament in nice containers (appropriately named tabernacles) in the church building. For those of us in low-budget situations it’s significantly scaled down, but the same theology is at work. Grace Anglican Church doesn’t have any building of its own, and very few items of property. Our reserved sacrament sits either in a nice pyx or in a portable Communion set, stored out of sight, at either my house or a parishioner’s office.
And yet, there’s still more to think about. The real presence of Christ – His body and blood – is sitting in a box in a desk in my living room right now. Yes, God dwells within the hearts of all his people, so we’re all holy temples in a sense. Yet we are more properly collectively one temple as the Body of Christ, and still yet, the Body and Blood of Christ are especially present in the Sacrament that He ordained. So while I can affirm that the Holy Spirit is with me and within me, I also recognize that sin is also with me and within me, still being cleansed. The Sacrament contains Christ’s body and blood untouched by sin. That’s why the Sacrament of the Eucharist is true food – it actually nourishes us with God’s holiness. (And that’s why the Eucharist is dangerous for the unbaptized – God’s holiness is poisonous to the wicked.)
In light of that, it’s kind of a big deal to have this special presence of Christ in our midst. How might one respond in faith to such a mystery? Stay tuned for more on this in my next post!