The cup and the bread are held up high so we can see and worship. The bread snaps as it is broken. The white circle lands softly in our palm. We caress the cup as it is handed to us. We taste the wafer and the wine, and the rich sweet aroma of the wine greets us as we drink.
Sight, sound, touch, taste and smell: five senses animate us as we come to Holy Communion.
And our five senses together trigger a sixth sense: that of memory. The heart of the ritual of Holy Communion brings vividly to mind all the hundreds, or thousands, of celebrations of the Eucharist that we have been part of. For me, they have been in parishes, in cathedrals, in homes, in school chapels and in the bush – everywhere Christians gather for the Lord’s Supper. Our memory reaches further back through generations of Christians to the night Jesus gave bread and wine as a presage of his death.
The memory of that night, the night he was betrayed, the night before he died, is strong, so strong that the events of the Last Supper reach forward into our time. We re-member Jesus, his disciples and his actions, and it’s as if they are happening here now. The scholars call this phenomenon of re-membering ‘anamnesis’ – the very opposite of amnesia.
There’s a paradox at work here. The Eucharist is focused on the material of bread and wine, and yet its heart is the presence of Jesus with us. This presence is in fact an aching, loving absence that Franciscan friar Fr Thaddée Matura calls An Ardent Absence . Some Christians speak of the Real Presence, others of the memorial meal, but the effect is the same. When we touch the bread, we name it the Body of Christ, but we are not touching the actual body of Jesus; the bread somehow invokes his presence with us.
This is the Easter mystery: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again. Jesus Christ is both absent and truly present. Only with the consummation of all things at the end of time will the absence and the presence be drawn together into one ubiquitous and unambiguous presence.
This Easter most of us will miss the Eucharist, the touching, the tasting and smelling, the gazing, the hearing. At best we will have disembodied seeing through the medium of a screen. But in these times of quarantine and physical isolation, the risen Lord is even more closely present to us. The Psalmist affirms,
‘The Lord is near to the broken-hearted
and saves the crushed in spirit. (Psalm 34:18)
And there is one rich gift, a gift of the Risen Word, which binds us all together. Words reach across the screen, whether in text like this, or the words spoken by a priest somewhere streaming the Eucharist. Because of Him who is the Word, these words have the power to hold us, to enfold us, to bring us into the presence of the Risen One.
Christ is risen.
He is risen indeed. Alleluia!