Friday after Ascension Day
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One of the most fiercely contested issues in the history of Anglicanism is the nature of Cranmer’s mature view of Holy Communion. As the first Protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, he was the architect of the first two Church of England prayer books, and these liturgies, in one form of another, shaped Anglican worship well into the twentieth century. Although everyone must agree that ultimately the remembrance of our Lord’s death with bread and wine is a mystery, Western Christendom has divided into various rival camps over their competing understandings of how it works, and even what to call it. Is it properly the Mass, the Lord’s Supper, Holy Communion or the Eucharist (i.e., Thanksgiving)? Naturally, generations of scholars and church people have parsed the words of Cranmer’s services to see where Anglicanism stands amidst these divisions.
Cranmer did not make this task easy. He was at once Catholic and Reformed. On the hand, he was committed to the consensus of Apostolic teaching found in the New Testament and its summary in the early church creeds. He deeply respected the Church Fathers and studied them intensely. In particular, his theology was shaped by the writings of St. Augustine of Hippo and their emphasis on grace and gratitude in the Christian life. On the other hand, his studies in Scripture and the Fathers convinced him that the medieval scholastics had taken the church in a decidedly wrong direction. In the end, they had put more emphasis on human reasonings than the plain teaching of Scripture in establishing the way of salvation. They had also put more emphasis on human efforts than God’s grace to obtain it. Therefore, Cranmer was also at the same time a decidedly Protestant Reformer. Indeed, Cranmer embraced the Protestant Reformation not to jettison the Catholic faith, but as the only way to restore it to its true Gospel proclamation.
Consequently, generations of Anglicans have been left wondering how much of Cranmer’s teaching on Holy Communion reflects what is commonly thought of as Catholic, e.g., Christ’s bodily presence in what the people receive, and how much reflects a Protestant emphasis? And which Protestant emphasis? The Lutherans, who also held to a form of Christ’s presence in the elements? Or the Reformed (forerunners of today’s Presbyterians), who emphasized that Christ’s body was now only in Heaven? However, to make matters even more complicated, Cranmer’s liturgical texts declare that people receive the true body and blood of Christ in Holy Communion, while his books on the subject clearly deny that Jesus is physically present in the bread and wine people consume. How can both things be true?
Cranmer’s Collect for the Ascension helps us answer these questions. For Cranmer, the miracle of Holy Communion is not that Christ’s body comes down to us from Heaven, but that we ascend, as the collect says, in heart and mind, to where Christ’s physical body is now present - the right hand of God. The Holy Spirit draws us to Christ’s real presence in Heaven, and there he truly feeds us with his true flesh and blood. As Cranmer explained it in writing when he was on trial under Queen Mary I:
“We should consider, not what [the bread and the wine] be in their own nature, but what they import to us and signify . . . lifting up our minds, we should look up to the blood Christ with our faith, should touch him with our mind, and receive him with our inward man; and that, being like eagles in this life, we should fly up into heaven in our hearts, where the Lamb is resident at the right hand of his Father . . . being made the guest of Christ’s . . . being no less assured and certified that we are fed spiritually unto eternal life by Christ’s flesh crucified, and by his blood shed, the true food of our minds . . . .”
Cranmer wanted Christians to experience the on-going reality of what we have been promised in Ephesians 2: 6, that we are now seated in heavenly places. That is the way he inserted in this traditional collect the all-important word “continually,” that we may “continually dwell” with Christ. By constantly meditating on God’s promises to us in Scripture we may be ever present with Christ at God’s right hand.
Just stop and think about that. To be at the right hand of God is to be at the very source of God’s power by which he works in this world, a power that nothing in this world can stop. Since we are now seated by Christ as guests at his heavenly banquet, we are always above all the earthly powers and problems that would seek to steal our joy. Whatever we face, God is already at work to sort it out. Whatever we lack, God’s power will supply. Whatever we struggle with, God’s love will use our sufferings to conform us to Christ so that we may also experience the power of his resurrection in us. Since we are daily in the presence of God Almighty, how can he not attend to our immediate needs?
And if Cranmer wanted Christians to experience Christ’s presence in this way every day, he wanted it to be especially true when God’s promises to us in Jesus are proclaimed in the sacrament of his body and blood. That’s why he called the service “Holy Communion,” because the sacrament has mystical power to deeply increase our on-going realization of our union with Christ.
Therefore, let us join in prayer with Cranmer and centuries of other Anglicans:
Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that like as we do believe thy only-begotten son our lord to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the holy Ghost, one God world without end, Amen.
Pray with us today's prayer request:
The evil actions of the Myanmar Army are uniting the people of Myanmar across tribal and ethnic divides as never before. Pray that this continues and that it results in people turning to Christ.
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