The altar between heaven and earth

In looking back over more than thirty years of conversations about the Eucharist most of what my colleagues and I have discussed has revolved around three things: the relationship between the church’s practice and Judaism; the question of what happens to the bread and wine, if and when a priest blesses them; and the practice of the ritual itself.  All three are important.  But in retrospect, none of the three topics touches on the deeper assumptions behind the Eucharist.  Like the rituals in Jerusalem’s ancient Temple, the celebration of Eucharist is based on the conviction that God has a will for the shape of life in this world — what the Old Testament describes as “the righteousness of God.”  Ancient Hebrews assumed that God’s order prevailed in heaven, but that it was only partially and imperfectly realized on earth.  Everything has a place and everything ought to be in its place, but often it isn’t.  The Temple sheltered the altar between heaven and earth where the things that were out of place were put back where they belonged — souls and bodies were cleansed, sins forgiven, and relationships with God and humankind were restored.  The Temple and its rituals weren’t about earning God’s grace or assigning blame.  They were about making it possible for God to give the children of Israel the gifts he longed to give them.  The Eucharist has its own particular language for that, of course, but it is inspired and shaped by the same deep convictions about what God wants for us.  I never receive it or administer it without being moved by the gracious act of restoration that is the ritual we call Eucharist.

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