C. S. Lewis On Holy Communion

On Thursday of Holy Week – often called Maundy Thursday from the new commandment (mandatum in Latin) Jesus gives his disciples – we focus our attention on the Last Supper. On that evening, Jesus, knowing what awaits him, gathers with his disciples to give himself to them in wine and bread and draw strength and sustenance from their companionship even as he prepares to give them his very life.

Hence, on this day and evening we often give attention to the Lord’s Supper, that meal by which we continue to be connected to our Lord; receive his body, blood, and blessing in and through the bread and wine; and share fellowship with each other and, indeed, Christians of every time and age.

Christians have struggled from the outset to give voice to our beliefs about what transpires in this holy meal, and certainly many, many controversies and divisions have been occasioned by these varied attempts to explain God’s activity. But rather than explain it, I wonder if we are called instead simply to obey it – to obey, that is, Jesus’ command to take and eat, to receive and obey his new commandment to love another as he has loved us, to obey and follow his example that there is no higher calling in life than to serve the needs of those around us. And, in obeying, we discover also that we receive his promise to be with us always, even when we fail to obey.

In this light, I found these excerpts of C. S. Lewis’ reflections on the Lord’s Supper both helpful and appropriate for this Maundy Thursday. First, though, a word or two of background. Lewis references two portions of the larger story (and argument about!) communion. 1) He touches on the Aristotelian distinction between substance (the essential thing in itself) and its accidents (the outward form of the thing) that has been employed by Roman Catholics to articulate a theology of Holy Communion named transubstantiation – that is, the accidents (the form of bread and wine) remain constant even as the substance (bread into body, wine into blood) are transformed. 2) He also references a theology of communion popular among Reformed congregations often named a memorial feast, where the bread and wine do not become Christ’s body and blood but instead are symbols of them. (Interestingly, he strays fairly close to Martin Luther’s focus on the “real presence” of Christ that has animated Lutheran and, in some circles, Anglican thought; perhaps more in a later post. 🙂 )

If you find this discussion somewhat confusing, take heart that you are in good company, as apparently Lewis neither fully understood nor found fully satisfactory either of the two dominant explanations. What I appreciate about his statement – taken from his Letters to Malcolm: Chiefly on Prayer – is the way it invites us to move from rational explanation to mystical appreciation, daring to believe that in this meal, however it may happen, we draw closer to the presence of God or, and perhaps better, God draws closer to us. After all, as Lewis concludes and reminds us, invited to “take and eat,” not “take and understand,” let alone explain.

I don’t know and can’t imagine what the disciples understood our Lord to mean when, His body still unbroken and His blood unshed, He handed them the bread and wine, saying they were His body and blood…I find ‘substance’ (in Aristotle’s sense), when stripped of its own accidents and endowed with the accidents of some other substance, an object I cannot think…On the other hand, I get no better with those who tell me that the elements are mere bread and mere wine, used symbolically to remind me of the death of Christ.  They are, on the natural level, such a very odd symbol of that…and I cannot see why this particular reminder – a hundred other things may, psychologically, remind me of Christ’s death, equally, or perhaps more – should be so uniquely important as all Christendom (and my own heart) unhesitatingly declare…Yet I find no difficulty in believing that the veil between the worlds, nowhere else (for me) so opaque to the intellect, is nowhere else so thin and permeable to divine operation.  Here a hand from the hidden country touches not only my soul but my body.  Here the prig, the don, the modern , in me have no privilege over the savage or the child.  Here is big medicine and strong magic…the command, after all, was Take, eat: not Take, understand.