by Graham Hellier
from Signs of the Times No. 40 - Jan 2011

I appreciated Anthony's thoughtful comments on my article 'This is my blood' in the October editorial. Perhaps I can take the conversation further. 

We agree as to the value of symbols but the difficulty in the Eucharist is that the language  is highly literalist. This matters greatly in a society as prosaic as ours. Only familiarity prevents us seeing that a literal understanding is as much a distortion, as if Jesus had offered an actual cup of 'living water' to the woman at the well.

Bread can symbolise manna or Jesus' teaching or Jesus himself or the gathered grains of the Christian community. Wine can symbolise Jesus' suffering or, as in the Passover celebration, life itself. At the heart of Anthony's concern is the need for some 'fixed point among the flux'; something objective, even incarnational. I share this concern and am happy to find something incarnational in physical things - but it is always there in the provision of creation and is not called down by priestly act.

At the Last Supper, it may be the breaking of the bread and the pouring of the wine that is symbolic. Certainly, the disciples would hardly for one moment have confused the elements themselves with the flesh and blood presence of Jesus. It is not clear in early Christian history when Christ's presence with his people was reduced and confined in the physical forms. Possibly it followed the rise of a new priestly caste, for they could then control the distribution of "Christ" and therefore the means of salvation. But all the dignity of theological language cannot hide the semblance of magic that this entails or the distortion of the resurrection presence it implies.

We have to choose between the symbolic and the literal. It is misleading to merge them as a 'mini incarnation'. When Paul Avis writes (in Modern Believing July 2010) that

'It is not straining matters to say that in Holy Communion, in receiving Christ we receive the Body of Christ, that is to say the Church, and are united with it,'

it is straining matters, even when supported by a convoluted argument from St Augustine! We don't receive Christ or the Body of Christ in the elements. God is already with us and we are Christ's body in a meaningful metaphorical sense, come together in remembrance and celebration.

The tangible forms of bread and wine are not a guarantee of objectivity and provide no handhold in themselves. The Christian community provides the key. There, where two or three are gathered together, is the effective witness to the incarnation; there is the 'focal and determinative' reality that Anthony seeks; there is the witness to the Real Presence of God.

Our faith may at times be a case of 'hanging on by our fingernails' but we can hang on, because the strong hands of the faithful community are ready to grasp and hold us.

Graham Hellier is a PCN member, a Church of Scotland minister and former Senior Master  at a Church of England School. He is author of Free Range Christianity published by Authorhouse.