I said a few weeks ago that receiving Communion is always momentous. This is something I truly believe, and there is quite a lot I could say as to why I believe this. I'm sure I'll blog more about Communion as time goes on, not least because, God willing, I'll be ordained a priest next Saturday, but here's one thought to start us off...
'Stranded in the hall of mirrors,' opens a poem by the Christian writer Adrian Plass. It's been quite a while since I have stood in a hall of mirrors, but it's probably something that most of us have done at some point, and have laughed and maybe grimaced at our self-reflection while doing so. Halls of mirrors make for a good traditional fairground attraction because they exaggerate our features to the extent that we know that they're exaggerating; they make our heads ludicrously long, or our torsos ridiculously thick. We go away subconsciously assured that what we've just seen is not what we really look like; somehow the extremity of the exaggeration puts things back into perspective. We're not that fat, after all.
One of the occupational hazards of being human is that, like Adrian Plass in his poem (which can be found in this book), we are can find ourselves lost among the reflections of who we are that bounce off other people all the time. I'm not sure that there is any way around this; I'm not sure it's possible to have a conversation with another person in which a certain amount of reflection of the other doesn't happen. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, anyway; we are to encourage each other, to build one another up and to help one another see ourselves as we really are, loved and accepted and graced by God in and through Jesus.
But let's face it, some of the reflection of the other that happens within conversation falls far short of this ideal, and some of this conversational reflection can be as ludicrously exaggerated as any hall of mirrors (I could tell you a few funny stories). The reflection that really gets to us, though, is that which exaggerates our faults and weaknesses just enough for us to believe that that's what we really look like, that that's who we really are.
And this is to say nothing of the self-reflection that goes on within the hall of mirrors of our own minds; many of us, not least myself, are perfectly capable of twisting and magnifying our least attractive features to grotesque proportions, except that in this particular hall of mirrors our sense of perspective can be so lost among so many self-reflections that we can forget that the concept of exaggeration even exists. Stranded indeed.
This morning, I was serving as deacon at two Communion services, and as I was putting the chalice to lips, into hands and under outstretched wafers at one, and placing bread into upheld hands at the other, I thought back to a 'Creative Eucharist' that I had been involved with, a few years ago, at theological college, which had followed the liturgy of the German Alte Katholische church (more on them here if you're interested). At that service, as we had stood in a large semi-circle around the altar having received bread and wine, the priest had looked us in the eye and said 'Remain what you have received; the body of Christ.'
For me, it had been one of those moments of jaw-dropping, cosmos-reconfiguring truth dropping deeply into my soul. This is what it means to be a Christian, I realised in that moment; it's to remain what I have received here at this table, to live in the light of the knowledge that Jesus lives in me and I in Him, to know that I am part of the same body I've received here. If I could have formulated a response in that moment, it would have been an inarticulate but utterly genuine 'okay.' Remain what you have received, I prayed silently for each person this morning as they returned to their pews.
This line of thinking draws on the great St Augustine of Hippo, whose sermon on what happens when we take communion has, thankfully, been preserved. Augustine, drawing on St Paul's grand vision of the church as the body of Christ, says this:
"The bread is Christ's body, the cup is Christ's blood. If you, therefore, are Christ's body and members, it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord's table! It is your own mystery that you are receiving! You are saying 'Amen' to what you are...be what you see; receive what you are." (The full text of this commendably short sermon can be found here. It really is worth a read.)
Back to the hall of mirrors. As I say, all the time as we are surrounded by reflections of ourselves, both by those around us and within our own minds, like department store dressing rooms. Some of these reflections are flattering (some suspiciously so), some are warmly encouraging, some soberingly realistic, some stringently chastening, some ludicrously off-beam, some disturbingly close to our own fears and shadowy intuitions. We can't avoid this hall of mirrors; the best we can do is to walk through it with a sense of proportion and preferably with a couple of people who are good enough friends to tell us when we're losing our vision of who we really are.
What we see in the taking, breaking, blessing and giving of bread and wine, though, is something quite different: we see ourselves, as St Paul puts it, in Christ. We see ourselves as God sees us, in Christ; broken, and yet blessed; giving ourselves, and yet receiving back infinitely more in return; humble, and yet at the very centre of where Jesus is to be encountered in this world.
For a powerfully profound, but all-too-brief moment in the Eucharist, the hall of mirrors is replaced by the one reflection of a man on a Roman cross; broken, and yet blessed in ways the world cannot understand; giving of himself, and yet about to receive infinitely more in the bursting forth from the tomb; humble, yet at the very centre of where God is encountered in this world.
We see ourselves in the Eucharist, in Christ, in the brokenness and the blessedness, in the humility and the holiness of being a part of Jesus' body. May we carry this self-image in our hearts, and assess the truthfulness of each of the reflections of our own halls of mirrors by it. May we know ourselves to be what we receive; may we be what we see on the altar. May we remain what we have received. And may we say 'Amen' to who are.