Continuing from my previous post, I’d like to reflect on how might one respond in faith to such a mystery as the abiding presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine. Previously, I explored some practical outcomes of the doctrine of the real presence, so now I’m going to zero in on a spiritual perspective. What do we do with the Reserved Sacrament? How ought we to behave around it? Since we take seriously the presence of Christ’s body and blood, it seems that having the Reserved Sacrament around makes for a great opportunity to be with Him.
A common devotion known as the Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament has developed over time to encapsulate the varieties of worship opportunities that the Reserved Sacrament affords. The brief summary is that a few verses of certain ancient hymns are sung, the bread is placed in a monstrance for all to see, some set prayers are said together, and then it’s open for private prayers for however long, before it’s put away again and a short Psalm is prayed or chanted or sung to close the worship service.
This form of Eucharistic adoration is a very Catholic sort of worship, and tends to put non-catholic-types on edge. Indeed simply as an Anglican I have to think carefully about this practice, because the 39 Articles at first glance seem to cast a disapproving eye on such Benedictions:
The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon, or to be carried about, but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same, they have a wholesome effect or operation: but they that receive them unworthily, purchase to themselves damnation, as Saint Paul saith. (Article 25)
The Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper was not by Christ’s ordinance reserved, carried about, lifted up, or worshipped. (Article 28)
The key words here are that the Sacrament was not ordained for these purposes. This is not an outright ban on such practices, but a recall to the real purpose of the Eucharist – to be the food unto everlasting life. I already took care to assert that fact in my previous post. All this talk of adoration and Benedictions are additional opportunities that stem from the proper Eucharistic worship of the Church.
Recently an Anglican priest wrote this helpful reflection on the practice of the Benediction from a Catholic Anglican perspective. In it he makes some very helpful observations about this tradition. I commend the whole article to your reading, though I will highlight a few thoughts here too.
Psychologically speaking, we need some concrete, visible manifestation toward which to direct our devotion; theologically speaking, this is already provided for us by our Lord’s gracious focusing of his presence in the Blessed Sacrament.
To some degree this is a personality thing. I am a very visual person when it comes to communication and worship, and very tactile and physical when it comes to relationships and love. So I, in particular, am a prime example of the value of the visible manifestation of Christ’s presence as a devotional aid. I know some other people are much less visual and tactile types, and this is less of a big deal to them, but nevertheless, we’re all physical beings. We can’t completely ignore our nature.
When this is understood, complaints about “idolatry” or “fetichism” are seen to be beside the point. Let us assure any who may be perturbed over such matters that we are not being so stupid as to worship a wafer, nor do we have such an archaic and myth-laden mentality that we believe the object before us to be charged with magical power. Rather, it is in and through the Sacrament that we adore Christ, because we, being men and not angels, have need of an earthly manifestation of the divine presence, and because he, in his grace and mercy, has promised to grant us his presence in this particular manifestation.
By this point that should have been obvious, but it was worth repeating.
Benediction offers a time for adoring the Presence of Christ in such a way as to seek nothing but the assurance that He is ever with us and to offer only that which we are ever commanded to offer: to love the Lord Our God with all of our hearts, all of our souls, and all of our minds.
If you’re a visual worshiper and/or favor the “physical touch” love language, then this is the most natural way to offer God prayer of adoration. Even if you’re not an especially physical sort of person, the Eucharist presence of Jesus is still a theologically natural opportunity or context for adoration. After all, the Benediction isn’t just a visual thing:
We do not simply gaze – though that is part of the act for we do look intently with admiration, thought, or surprise. Benediction is not the act of gazing alone though – it is the community’s adoration – the body comes together in love to give our attention, if but for a moment, to the One who calls us and who comes to be with us.
You see, it’s a communal opportunity to be in God’s presence in a special and powerful way, and offer him the praise that He rightfully deserves. But as I hinted earlier, it is also a deeply personal opportunity to be with God.
For some, that space may feel like a quiet time with Jesus as a friend. Others may find themselves thrown down in awe at the throne of grace. Others may be walking alongside Jesus on the road. Others may simply relish the absolute mystery of it all and watch the beauty of holiness unfold. Some may contemplate the Passion and others may know the joy of the Resurrection. Some may yearn for deeper relationship and others may know themselves not yet ready.
That’s part of the beauty of an encounter with God – He speaks to us in many different ways! And so our responses will often be various and different also. Yet, as in the Benediction, there are still touchstones of commonality as we respond to the presence of Christ in our midst, such as this prayer:
O God, who in a wonderful Sacrament hast left unto us a memorial of your Passion: Grant us, we beseech thee, so to venerate the sacred mysteries of your Body and Blood, that we may ever perceive within ourselves the fruits of your redemption; who lives and reigns now and forever. Amen!