My "Stranger in a Strange Land" column in the latest issue of Books & Culture is about the Eucharist—how it has been marginalized in our worship, and how I have seen a hunger for it among many young people. That is part of a larger story in evangelicalism.
In the Baptist churches I was raised in, most people still went to church on Sunday night. Often that was a time when visiting missionaries came to raise support. They dressed like the people they were serving, and they displayed various artifacts brought back from the mission field. Occasionally, though not often, they showed slides or a film.
On one of those relatively rare occasions, when a film from Africa was shown, the missionaries spoke particularly forcefully about the false beliefs of the African people to whom they were bringing the gospel. Above all they spoke of the crippling superstition of the Africans, their belief in a world of spirits.
I had heard and read such things many times before. My grandmother, who helped to raise my brother and me, had been a missionary to China. I grew up knowing missionaries, and I read countless missionary biographies and autobiographies. But on that Sunday night, I saw something I had never seen before. I saw that the world of the Africans, as the missionaries described it, was in many ways close to the world of the Bible: a world where much could turn on the interpretation of dreams, a world where unseen powers and principalities battled.
Without in the least intending to, the missionaries were giving the impression that the very notion of believing in spirits—and all that implied—was a sign of superstition, to be cleared away. Mumbo-jumbo. And for the first time I had a troubling thought that was to recur often over the years: What did the people all around me in church really believe? Did they really see the world as it is seen in the Bible? Did I?
In those same Baptist churches, we celebrated the Lord's Supper with soda crackers and grape juice—once a month, usually.
The first thing I learned about the Lord's Supper was this: "It's just a symbol." Such was the horror of "popish superstition," almost 500 years after the Reformation. That lesson, repeated over and over, was odd, because somehow it didn't fit with Jesus' own words, which the pastor always spoke.
In 1654, the Anglican divine, Jeremy Taylor, wrote that
after the minister of the holy mysteries hath rightly prayed, and blessed or consecrated the bread and the wine, the symbols become changed into the body and blood of Christ, after a sacramental, that is, in a spiritual, real manner; so that all that worthily communicate do by faith receive Christ really, effectually, to all the purposes of His passion.
What did Taylor mean by those resonant words, "that is, in a spiritual, real manner"? Some kind of hocus pocus?
hocus pocus n. 1. Nonsense words or phrases used as a formula by conjurers. 2. A trick performed by a magician or juggler; sleight of hand. 3. The skill or power of a magician. 4. Any deception or chicanery.
The source of the expression "hocus pocus" is uncertain, but many scholars believe it originated in a medieval parody of the Latin Mass (hoc est corpus meum; "this is my body").
A visitor, I attended Mass at a church in Washington in a neighborhood of immigrants from Central America. Most of the worshipers were women. They received communion eagerly, hungrily.
Administration of Communion to the Sick, Bilingual Edition
"Yo soy el pan vivo bajado del cielo, el que coma de este pan vivira para siempre. El pan que yo dare es mi carne, y la dare para la vida del mundo."
Esta es palabra de Dios.
"I am the living bread which has come down from heaven. Anyone who eats this bread will live for ever; and the bread that I shall give is my flesh, for the life of the world."
This is the Gospel of the Lord.
Is the Eucharist hocus pocus, a perverse con game in which Christians deceive themselves? Is it "just a symbol"?
No. I have eaten that living bread. And you?
John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.
Copyright © 2002 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
More articles on the Eucharist include:
Divided by Communion | What a church does in remembrance of Christ says a lot about its history and identity. (August 10, 2001)
The Communion Test | How a "Humble Inquiry" into the nature of the church cost Jonathan Edwards his job. (June 22, 2001)
Reinventing Communion Prep | How fast can you fill those little cups? (Jan. 8, 2001)
Take, Eat-But How Often? | Many churches observe the Eucharist a few times a year, but the early churches seemed to observe it weekly—possibly daily. What is most appropriate? (Jan. 10, 2000)
Books & Culture Corner appears Mondays at ChristianityToday.com. Earlier Books & Culture Corners include:
Science Holds a Meeting | A report from the annual convention of the AAAS. (Feb. 25, 2002)
Saint Frodo and the Potter Demon | The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter series spring from the same source. (Feb. 18, 2002)
Dictionary of the Future | Trendspotter Faith Popcorn on the words that will define our tomorrow. (Feb. 11, 2002)
Does Creationism Equal Holocaust Denial? | Yes, says Michael Shermer in Scientific American. (Feb. 4, 2002)
Theodore Rex | Is "popular history" getting a bad rap? (Jan. 28, 2002)
Letter to Martin Luther King, Jr. | A progress report. (Jan. 21, 2002)
Keeping the Dust on Your Boots | Remembering the Afghan refugees—and the church in Iran. (Jan. 14, 2002)
Coming Attractions | Books to watch for this year. (Jan. 7, 2002)
Books of the Year, Part 2 | After the top ten, here's the best of the rest. (Jan. 4, 2002)
Books of the Year | Part 1: The Top Ten (Dec. 17, 2001)
"Daddy, What Is the Soul?" | Does the church have an answer? (Dec. 10, 2001)
'We Now Know' | The boast of imperial science. (Dec. 3, 2001)
"24 Cow Clones, All Normal" … | Oh yes, and a few cloned human embryos that died. (Nov. 26, 2001)
"Discovering" Islam: The Intellectual Challenge | There's good reason to believe that there will be staying power to the West's belated "discovery" of Islam. (Nov. 19, 2001)
Disturbing the Peace | Is art always subversive when it's doing its job? (Nov. 12, 2001)