At odds with Aquinas at the table

Please pardon me while I do some thinking out loud about United Methodist sacramental theology. My brain started turning while reading the following from Thomas Aquinas’ lectures on John 6:

Therefore, since baptism is a necessary sacrament, it seems that the Eucharist is also. In fact, the Greeks think it is; and so they give the Eucharist to newly baptized infants. For this opinion they have in their favor the rite of Denis, who says that the reception of each sacrament should culminate in the sharing of the Eucharist, which is the culmination of all the sacraments. This is true in the case of adults, but it is not so for infants, because receiving the Eucharist should be done with reverence and devotion, and those who do not have the use of reason, as infants and the insane, cannot have this. Consequently, it should not be given to them at all.

Is it still Greek Orthodox practice to give the Eucharist to infants and children? Aquinas’ argument that only those who can receive the sacrament with devotion should receive it — and it is not held only by him of course — has often raised questions for me about the sharing of the Lord’s Supper with those who do not understand it or cannot muster a sense of reverence and devotion. My son’s autism certainly is a part of my questioning on this issue, but not all of it.

The statement on Holy Communion approved by the United Methodist General Conference, This Holy Mystery, argues — perhaps with some awareness of the “Greek” practice that Aquinas’ makes reference to — that the logic that applies to infant baptism should apply as well to participation by children in Holy Communion.

The theological basis for baptism of infants and people of varying abilities applies as well to their participation in Holy Communion:

“Through the church, God claims infants as well as adults to be participants in the gracious covenant of which baptism is the sign. This understanding of the workings of divine grace also applies to persons who for reasons of disabilities or other limitations are unable to answer for themselves the questions of the baptismal ritual. While we may not be able to comprehend how God works in their lives, our faith teaches us that God’s grace is sufficient for their needs and, thus, they are appropriate recipients of baptism” (By Water and the Spirit, in BOR; page 868).

So it is proper to conclude, I believe, that United Methodists do not share Aquinas’ view that reason is required for proper participation in the Lord’s Supper. It is not news that we differ from Aquinas, but I believe we still find aspects of his theology helpful. For instance, the following passage from the same commentary on John 6 is helpful to me in trying to grasp what it means to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Christ, which Aquinas says we do in a spiritual way:

Thus, in reference to Christ as contained and signified, one eats his flesh and drinks his blood in a spiritual way if he is united to him through faith and love, so that one is transformed into him and becomes his member: for this food is not changed into the one who eats it, but it turns the one who takes it into itself, as we see in Augustine, when he says: “I am the food of the robust. Grow and you will eat me. Yet you will not change me into yourself, but you will be transformed into me.” And so this is a food capable of making man divine and inebriating him with divinity.

I like that final phrase in this English translation: inebriating him with divinity. Since so much of Aquinas hangs on his reverence for reason, I’m not sure if passages like the one above clash with our United Methodist theology of Holy Communion. I’m still working that out, but I like this language about the Lord’s Supper by grace making us like the Christ, who gave us his flesh and blood, when we come to him in faith and love.

Just a byte of bread?

You may have noticed a Twitter storm recently about online communion.

Whether you noticed or not, here a good summary story about the cause of the activity and the discussions in the United Methodist Church.

Morgan Guyton on the Eucharist

Morgan Guyton writes about the Eucharist:

For the first 1500 years of Christianity, the high point of every worship gathering was Eucharist. The sermon served to prepare the hearts of the congregation to receive the body and blood of Christ. In today’s Protestantism, the sermon has replaced Eucharist as the focal point of our worship. And the individualistic altar call has replaced the communal table as the congregation’s standard response to the proclaimed word. I wonder if this change is the reason that the Protestant gospel became more about hell than the heavenly banquet that Eucharist proclaims.

Missing the sacrament

Aside

A post on the absence of Eucharist from the life of the United Methodist Church.

Would you preach once a quarter?

Catching up on some blogs I missed while away.

Teddy Ray has some helpful suggestions for pastors wanting to move to weekly celebration of Holy Communion.

The comments include a link to a good post by retired Bishop Whitaker about the importance of using the church’s prayer of Great Thanksgiving in the celebration.

Sign of unity or protest?

Drew McIntyre offers an extended reflection and commentary on the Eucharist table as the center of a protest at General Conference 2012.

In a world of partisan politics, bitter divides, and thoughtless polemic, the Eucharist should be one place where God reaches through all of the muck and mire to speak a word of grace and peace.  The Lord’s Table is where, like Christ, we are taken, blessed, broken, and given.  To make the Eucharist our act instead of God’s, a mere tool in a game of political manipulation rather than a sacrament of God’s grace, is a great disservice to Christ and his church.