Anamnesis — A walk into the Real Presence of Christ
The most rewarding part of my week usually is when I take the Eucharist to nursing home residents. A chance to pray together, to worship, reflect on Scripture and administer the Sacrament of Unction (anointing with oil) — this service as a Lay Eucharistic Visitor is an invaluable addition to my prayer life and spiritual routine. The apex of this experience comes when I deliver the Body and Blood of Christ. It is an inexplicably beautiful moment of shared physical, emotional, mental and spiritual space — we are in Communion with each other, with every other member of the Body of Christ who is, was or ever will be, and, in a direct and real way, with God.
Recently, this service was rewarded with one of those pearls of wisdom you receive if you spend much time around a nursing home. It was, I think, a special insight into the nature of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
It came after our regular service — a combination of Morning Prayer and Lay Eucharistic Visitation. As I was leaving, a wheelchair-bound resident I’ve been visiting for about a year caught me near the door.
“Did I miss church?”
I had already shifted gears into leaving, and my mind was two miles down the road to my next appointment. I was tempted to say ‘Yes,’ excuse myself and be on my way. Instead, I said ‘Yes, we’ve finished, but if you’d like we can still share Communion.’
“Well,” he answered, “I guess I better, just to keep things on an even keel.”
I wheeled him back into the dining room where we have services (in between meals and Bingo), and set the table for a slightly abbreviated version of the LEV service we’d just concluded. After he’d received the host, just as I was beginning the post-Communion prayer, he cut in, as he’s wont to do, with a story.
He told an anecdote of a man who was unaccustomed to prayer and church-going, who one day decided he’d better see what all this God stuff was about. The man headed out to his local church, and along the way, at the gas station, met a friend he knew to be a devout follower of Christ.
“I’ve gassed up my car, I made an appointment with that minister, and I am going to go talk to him and pray,” he told his friend. “What else do I need to do?”
“Nothing,” his friend replied. “You just show up and listen. From there, Jesus does the doing.”
“That is what Communion is for,” the nursing home resident told me, “to let Jesus do the doing.”
The purpose of Communion is to let Jesus Christ do the doing. I love that view of the Eucharist, because it properly frames Christ as the active agent in our salvation, and in what transpires — what we receive — when we kneel at the altar rail.
Jesus outlined the Eucharist, and what would transpire for us in Communion, in Luke:
And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.” Luke 22:19-20
There are many different views of this passage, and what it means for us and for the nature of the Eucharist. The point of difference revolves largely around the interpretation and usage of the word “remembrance,” drawn from the Latin memoria. For many Protestants, the remembrance of the Last Supper means to reenact, to remember in a mental sense, to memorialize the Biblical event — and it is not my intent to quibble with their interpretation. But, for those of us who believe and practice the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, “remembrance” has far more meaning than just remembering, or memorializing something in the distant past.
This latter distinction stems from the original Greek word that we’ve translated as “remembrance” — anamnesis. It is a Greek word that doesn’t have a direct translation to English, because it means something far more than just remembering a past event. Anglican Benedictine monk Dom Gregory Dix put it this way in his 1945 book, “The Shape of the Liturgy:”
… we have to take account of the clear understanding then general in a largely Greek-speaking church of the word anamnesis as meaning a “re-calling” or “re-presenting” of a thing in such a way that it is not so much regarded as being “absent,” as itself presently operative by its effects. This is a sense which the Latin memoria and its cognates do not adequately translate.
In other words, the original Greek term “anamnesis” does not involve remembering something absent — something confined to our past. Anamnesis does not connote simply memorializing something past. It means to make that past present. In the case of the Eucharist, that means to make Christ at the Last Supper present in the host, and to make us present at the Last Supper. As J. D. Crichton put it in his 1978 essay, “A Theology of Worship,” “In the liturgical mystery we are actualizing the past event, making it present…”
A way to envision this is a time line on a string, with past events and the present laid out in the linear fashion to which we’re accustomed. In an experience of anamnesis, as used in the Greek Eucharist account, that string is folded over, overlaying the past event onto the present.
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, Professor of Liturgy at Hebrew Union College in New York City, described this anamnestic overlayment of past onto present in a 2011 essay:
The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship calls the Greek word (anamnesis) “practically untranslatable in English. ‘Memorial,’ ‘commemoration,’ ‘remembrance’ all suggest a recollection of the past, whereas anamnesis means making present an object or person from the past.” What matters is this sense of “making present,” as if past and present coalesce into a single intensive experience of “now.” It is as if we are able to inhabit two separate points in time simultaneously. Time stops momentarily (and momentously), as “then” and “now” become the same.
When we kneel at the altar rail, time stops, momentarily and momentously, as we receive the Body and Blood of Christ. But, would Jesus have meant this in his use of the word anamnesis, as recorded in the Greek? Rabbi Hoffman suggests ‘Yes,’ as Jesus would have been familiar with, and would have been raised to historically and liturgically embrace the parallel to the Greek anamnesis, which comes down in Hebrew as zekher, or its variant zikaron. Again, from Rabbi Hoffman’s 2011 essay:
Jews do not use the Greek, but have the same ritual consciousness in, for example, the wedding ceremony where the concluding “seven blessings” (the sheva b’rakhot) invoke the idyllic Garden of Eden on one hand, and final redemption yet to come, on the other, collapsing them both into the current blissful moment under the wedding canopy.
In lieu of the Greek anamnesis, the specifically Jewish contribution is the parallel Hebrew word for remembrance, zekher (or zikaron, a variant that means the same thing). We hear regularly of a zekher with reference to the Temple, creation, leaving Egypt, and other events and realities of another era.
In a Jewish context, then, the use of anamnesis to convey a “making present” as opposed to simply “remembering” or “memorializing” would not have been out of line — it would have been, and is, appropriate to the context and import of the message.
If we accept this use of anamnesis, then, the consecration of the elements in the Eucharist is far more than a remembering. It is a re-presenting. A making present of Christ. In the host is the active agent of our salvation. The active agent of grace. The Word made flesh, who “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
This making present of Christ in the Eucharist is affirmed in the 1991 statement of the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission: “The elements are not mere signs; Christ’s body and blood become really present and are really given. But they are really present and given in order that, receiving them, believers may be united in communion with Christ the Lord.”
Union with each other and with the Real Presence of Christ. This is why we come to the altar rail. Unfortunately, even among denominations that profess the Real Presence, belief in this central tenet of Christian faith and liturgy seems to be in decline. A recent Pew Research study, which has gained considerable traction on social media, found only one-third of Catholics believe in the Real Presence of Christ at the Eucharist.
Actually, that’s not what the study said — though that’s how it’s been replayed on social media. The study, released Aug. 5, offered Catholics essentially a choice between “I believe in transubstantiation” and “the bread and wine are symbols of Christ.” Sixty-nine percent responded the elements are symbolic. But, those findings can be misleading (and I hope they are) because a lack of belief in transubstantiation doesn’t necessarily translate into disbelief in the Real Presence of Christ.
Transubstantiation, the belief that bread and wine physically change to become actual flesh and actual blood, is the prescribed doctrine of the Catholic Catechism. But, Anglicans, Lutherans and other Protestant groups that hold to the Real Presence believe in the Real Presence without the elements changing their physical nature — the doctrine of consubstantiation. Bread is still bread. Wine is still wine. Yet, they are infinitely more after consecration, because Christ is real and present in them. Thus, the slippage of Catholic belief in transubstantiation may represent decline of belief in that doctrine, but not necessarily a decline in the capacity of belief in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist.
That is possible — but unlikely. It is unlikely the two-thirds of respondents in the Pew study were parsing between transubstantiation and consubstantiation. It is far more likely they represent a wider societal decline in our ability to perceive and embrace anamnesis in the Eucharist — the most beautiful and important mystery every gifted to humanity.
In his 1978 book “Anamnesis,” political philosopher and professor Eric Voegelin dealt with the topic of anamnesis in both temporal and spiritual terms. Voegelin warns us when we lose our capacity to embrace anamnesis, to perceive the overlayment of past and present, to embrace the Real Presence of Christ, we reduce the infinite and omnipotent to our own temporal, limited human view.
“When consciousness of the cosmic bond of being as the background of all philosophy declines, there arise the well-known dangers of the dedivinized world and the unworldly God, the unworldly world as nothing but a nexus of relations between immanent things, and the dedivinized God reduced to mere existence.”
When we lose the ability to transcend our limited human view, when we abandon the gift of anamnesis God gave us in the Eucharist, we risk “dedivinizing” both God and God’s creation — or, at least, our ability to perceive God and the beauty and meaning of God’s creation. This new view puts us in the center of things — at the altar rail, in creation and in worship. If Christ is not present as the active agent in the Eucharist, then (forgive me, those who do not hold to the Real Presence), I fail to see how we escape the old trap of gnosticism. If the Eucharist is only a memorial, then I become the active agent, in my powers of memory and in my enactment of or participation in the liturgy. This is, I believe, not true. It cannot be.
I know I am not that powerful. I am not that knowing. Any source of truth and beauty, of love and virtue, I receive — at the altar rail, or elsewhere in creation — is of God, not of me. The gifts I receive at the altar rail, off the paten and out of the chalice, in the Body and Blood of Christ — those gifts are of God. They are real, because Christ is real and present. He is real and present, as He is real and present within me, and within you, or else faith is … a memorial.
I haven’t written this to dissuade you of your beliefs, but to state my own. I believe in the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Because, without the Real Presence, the altar is nothing but a table; church naught but a meeting hall; worship merely a respectful visit to the tombstone of our past, while we anxiously await the future. For me, Christ is real, and present. He is the active agent of all that is good. And I choose, in the Eucharist, to kneel, to listen, to receive. I choose, to paraphrase my friend at the nursing home, to let Christ do the doing.