even greater

Yesterday morning, our sermon was on Hebrews 7:1-7, about Jesus being like, and even greater than, the strange biblical figure Melchizedek.  Among the more striking contrasts is that this ‘priest of the Most High God’, who was the agent rather than the recipient of blessing, was not Jewish, but was a pagan ‘king of Salem’.

I’ve often reflected on how this lovely figure does glorious and needed damage to overly-certain schemes of salvation and overly-narrow frameworks of divine activity.  God speaks, works and saves in ways that are outside our human understanding.  But my reflection yesterday was musing about how there may be a parallel with the bread and wine and the mysterious presence of Christ at the Eucharist.

Both of the human figures, Abraham the ‘great’ Patriarch and the ‘greater’ Priest Melchizedek, are transcended by the divine-and-human person, Christ, who is ‘even greater’.  There may be a similar progression with the elements of Eucharist.  Bread and wine (interestingly brought to Abram by Melchizedek!) had deep significance in Jewish history and liturgy, particularly in celebration of Passover, remembering the Exodus from Egypt.  These ‘great’ elements are taken up and given a ‘greater’ meaning by serving our remembrance of a second greater Exodus, achieved by a second greater Adam.  But both these are transcended by the ‘even greater’ presence of Christ himself who has instituted the meal as a place and event where he will be ‘known’ through, ever since the breaking of bread on the Emmaus Road (Luke 24).  Although the elements always retain the ‘mere presence’ of bread and wine even with their ‘great’ significance, through the divinely instituted celebration of the Supper, they are also ‘blessed’ with an ‘even greater’ additional Presence (both through the elements and flowing out into and among the people gathered); that of the One who is not mere bread and wine, but True Food and True Drink (John 6).

So in diagrammatic form:

Abraham < Melchizedek < Christ himself
and
Passover < Eucharist < Christ himself

epiclesis at a free church communion table

After taking bread, and before breaking and giving it to the disciples, Jesus blessed it.  We are given no text for his prayer of blessing, but this simple act is the genesis of what is called ‘epiclesis’; where a priest, minister, pastor (or in some traditions anyone) ‘calls down’ the Holy Spirit on the bread (and also the cup) in preparation for receiving Holy Communion (or ‘Eucharist’ or the ‘Lord’s Supper’).

The Roman Catholic liturgy goes (roughly) like this:

PriestBlessed are you, Lord, God of all creation.
Through your goodness we have this bread to offer,
fruit of the earth and work of human hands.
It will become for us the bread of life.
All
:  Blessed be God for ever.

Priest Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation.
Through your goodness we have this wine to offer,
fruit of the vine and work of human hands.
It will become our spiritual drink.
All
Blessed be God for ever.

As a pastor in a Baptist (‘free church’) congregation, there are (at least!) two things that will make a ‘free church epiclesis’ look different.  First, we do not follow a ‘set’ liturgy out of a prayer book (Anglican) or ‘missal’ (Catholic), so Baptist prayer at the table will be less uniform and more extempore, even if (as I strongly prefer) it follows a tradition or pattern.  Second, we do not affirm transubstantiation, so the word ‘become’ will seem inappropriate, even if many Baptists have and do affirm a spiritual presence of Christ the Host, amongst the ‘body’ of people gathered, at the table, and even somehow ‘with’ or ‘through’ the elements.

So here’s how I think a ‘baptist epiclesis’ might look like.

Minister (raising the bread or portion of it):
Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation.
Through your goodness we have this bread to share,
fruit of the earth and work of human hands,
Through this sign, we eat your flesh.

(raising the cup, or a representative cup)
And through your goodness we have the Cup to share,
fruit of the vine and work of human hands.
Through this sign, we drink your blood.