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The Magazine: Eucharist – letting God teach us to dance

The Magazine: Eucharist – letting God teach us to dance

By George Clifford


Zorba the Greek tells the story of an uptight Englishman who visits an Aegean island where, after several emotionally traumatic experiences, his last big hope for economic success collapses. Faced with complete catastrophe, he doesn’t cry, whine, or curse God. Instead, he turns to his earthy guide to Greek village life and says, “Zorba, teach me to dance.”


Religious rituals teach us to dance with God. For many Episcopalians, the shape of our Sunday rituals changed dramatically with the adoption of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Holy Communion replaced Morning Prayer as the usual Sunday worship service.


Reflecting on my spiritual journey set in the broader context of American culture, two dynamics seem to have had significant roles in bringing the change about. First, I (and many others) sought a greater emphasis on community to balance an unhealthy cultural bias in favor of individualism. Morning Prayer too easily accommodated individualism, permitting attendees to avoid personal interaction. Passing the Peace during Holy Communion at least required attendees to pretend to interact as they mumbled greetings and perhaps shook hands. In the congregations with which I’m familiar, resistance to the Peace has gradually yielded to attendees learning to value a few moments to interact with other worshipers. The ritual of the Peace developed from being an awkward interruption of individual worship to an affirmation (sometimes even a celebration) of our communal identity and worship.


Second, the scientific materialism and philosophical reductionism that permeates our culture has made the inadequacy of words for communicating transcendent realities increasingly apparent. Shifting from Morning Prayer to Holy Communion better balanced the cognitive content of our worship services with greater emphasis on both affect and physical engagement. In addition to the listening, verbal responses, singing, and posture changes called for in Morning Prayer, Holy Communion involves eating/drinking, touch with other people, and movement (at least to and from the altar). Congregations that use incense also enlist the olfactory sense. Drawing people more deeply into the ritual has the potential to draw people more deeply into the transcendent mystery of God’s presence.


Kathleen Norris in The Cloister Walk described the power of rituals to bind a community together and to bind individuals into a community. She memorably illustrated that power with her observations of a Benedictine monastic community.


I repeatedly observed the same power of ritual in my ministry, a binding that occurred more rapidly in transient military communities and more slowly in civilian communities. People acquired the local rhythms through repetition while they concurrently learned the local stories that imbued those rhythms with meaning. Rituals formed individuals into a community, giving their lives meaning.


Paul Tillich insisted that ritual, including the associated story or myth, requires continual reformation and renewal for the ritual to remain vital. I don’t foresee an end to ritual. The search for meaning is basic to the human condition. However, I suspect that the Church will mostly shift from a highly stylized form of Eucharist meal toward a more casual, fuller meal format (this is already happening in some places). I expect that the number of people who find traditional Christian theological formulations satisfying will continue to diminish while the number attracted to post-theistic narratives continues to increase.


Acknowledging the pervasiveness and accelerating pace of change has become so commonplace as to be trite. A Christianity that attempts to remain static, desperately clinging to its current ritual forms and theological formulations, is dying. Refusing to change is tantamount to issuing an ecclesial do not resuscitate order.


Thankfully, the patient is not terminally ill. Christianity need not die. But it is like the uptight Englishman in Zorba the Greek after his repeated setbacks. Time is becoming critical. The Church needs to change and to keep changing at a faster pace if it is to stay alive. What will be our next dance, when will we learn it, and who will be our guide?




George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, recently authored Just Counterterrorism, and blogs at Ethical Musings.


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Fr. Gregory Tipton

I think this is where Tillich and The Church are at odds.

If you’ll recall the earliest Ecumenical Councils it was The Eucharist, the Ritual, that was first and foremost. The narrative, reformations, and myths of Christian parables and even the Scriptures were determined by the Eucharistic Ritual. For instance, Arius’ reading of Christ being “adopted” at Baptism was contradicted by the the fact that in The Eucharist we call Christ “LORD,” and thus he could not have become God, since God is eternal. The ritual determined how to read the story, not vice versa. The Gnostics’ reading of Christ passing through the crowds or disappearing after a meal as him being a phantom without a true body was contradicted by the Eucharist where we claim to eat Christ’s flesh and blood, truly. Again, the ritual determined how to read the myth, not vice versa.

We weren’t wagging our finger at “heresies” and saying that’s a ‘no-no,’ we were saying, “Those thoughts contradict what we say at worship. Arius, Marcion, Gnostics, etc. you need to pray more before you start reading the Scriptures, our myths, our parables.”

It is not “searching for meaning” that is basic to the human condition. That project was essential to Existentialism. The meaning of a word is it’s use, and its use is found in our Rituals. The project to search for meaning or meaning making is in essence a bad philosophy of language pushed forth by Tillich and the like. It’s problem is that it assumes you can “get behind the text.” But if you could do that, you’d be saying you knew the meaning of words before reading the text, and if one could do that, exegesis becomes circular reasoning that merely reaffirms what we already thought. In other words our “arguments” are really cleverly disguised assertions. It’s no wonder many “exegetes” simply affirm a modern lifestyle uncritically.

How we learn “door” is by our mother saying “door” and pushing it shut after you come in. That ritual allows us to talk about door. If we talk about “doors” but cease to use them, most especially in the ritual of “coming inside” or “going outside,” that word ceases to have meaning, because it’s use has ended. This is essentially what we do when we continue to talk about our myths, parables, and Scriptures if we make a radically innovative change to our Rituals. At that point we’re guilty of the fallacy of Equivocation, we mean entirely different things when we read the Scriptures. E.G. protestants stopped the Eucharist and thus can’t see it in any of the meal scenes throughout The Gospel. They don’t have the eyes to see because they think the Myth comes before The Ritual. Part of our Order as priests within the Church is to read our Myth within the context of The Ritual so as to avoid this problem, because as we’ve seen in the U.S. history of Christians, that confusion has led to many being unable to find happy lives as Christians.

Therefore this classical theological formation is satisfying to some as you say, but more importantly it’s True. The post-theistic strand of folks you’re speaking about are nothing new under the sun either. That Tradition can be traced today back through thinkers throughout The Enlightenment, through Nominalism, various heretical medieval thinkers, to various Early Church Heretics, and even back to Pericles in the Greek City-State of Athens, who was an icon for the predominant mode of thought that figures like Socrates and Plato were working against. Even the call for Change as in itself good is nothing but a Heraclitean philosophy turned into a Kantian moral imperative. That is enough to hint at some of its history. But it raises the same question in my mind, it might be satisfying, but is it True? A doughnut is very satisfying, but should I eat it because it’s popular or deemed necessary given a climate of doughnut eaters? Of course not, it’s unhealthy, it’s not good for me, and frankly — it’s not real food. So too it is with these competing Traditions.


To suggest our rituals are static ignores the development of The Eucharist over the past 2,000 years. This is simply a lack of historical knowledge turned into a broad, false assertion. Because The Church does not accelerate its change to your satisfaction is an unrelated phenomenon to whether or not the ritual or myth’s development is True. It seems your criteria for what we ought to do is based solely in one’s appetites and/or passions but leaves off the question of reason.

I have to say most of the students I deal with (18-29) want to know if something is True, and are willing to sacrifice time if it is. The rest of the world is offering them satisfying things, and they grow weary of the constant change, flux, and buffet of options. They’re not interested in change for its own sake, neither change in The Church, frankly because they weren’t Catechized well into knowing where The Church stands on anything. Not knowing where it stands, they’re not sure why it’s there, or why it would change. But there’s is a true ignorance that is innocent. But it has me asking the question, “This rebel yell for Change, who is it for?”

Jesus said, “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.” Suggesting the Church will die if it does not change is despair. Have faith father, long after we’re all dead, The Triune LORD will guarantee His Church will survive. Let us enter into His work, and not become anxious over whether or not it will live, but do our part. His Church will come to glory, for it is the very Body of His Son.

“through faith in his blood,
we, and all thy whole Church, may obtain remission of our
sins, and all other benefits of his passion,”

The Church isn’t going anywhere, its the inheritor of the cosmos, because Christ is its head. We must not forget when we say “Jesus Christ” we are talking about both The Son & The Church.

Peace be with you,

alma de Bode-Olton

Much appreciated article. Very actual and worthwhile contemplating on. In my personal view, I experience that it’s not merely about the need for change, as a call to live out the Gospel in its wholeness and connect scripture in general in a meaningful way to our daily life (which is indeed ongoing in changing circumstances) in this 21st century.

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