Bishop Jeremy Taylor: The Worthy Communicant
Jesus, our second reading tells us, has filled the entire universe. Having poured out the love of God as far as it can go, into the remotest corners of the universe, he ascends to heaven, so that his human nature can be enthroned at the Father’s right hand. And having swept through earth, heaven and hell, he now fills that space with the breath of his life, the Holy Spirit, so that, in the words of the Old Testament lesson, the inhabitants of a new creation will ‘spring up like grass in a meadow’ (Is.44.4). Jesus has turned over the soil of the universe and replanted the whole territory; the wind and rain of the Spirit sweep over it, as the wind of God blew across the wasteland at the start of creation, and new growth pushes up.
This is what is presented for us to think about during this short but packed season of the Christian year between Ascension Day and Pentecost: Jesus has found his way into every corner of the world, including our world, our lives and experiences. He has not found our human nature too small, too messy, too disreputable to inhabit. In the words of one of the hymns we sing at this time of the year, he has ‘raised our human nature/ In the clouds at God’s right hand.’ This season is a season to celebrate humanity restored to its true dignity, to the solidity and radiance of Jesus himself. Before the great acts of Easter and Ascension, and the taking home of our human nature to God, our humanity has been a half-hearted matter, awkward, stumbling and embarrassed, loaded down with humiliating failure and the legacy of the countless betrayals of God and one another that we are all involved in. But now: we see clearly what humanity can be and indeed already is in God’s sight. When God looks at us now, he sees not the shadowy, shabby humanity we’re all conscious of displaying, but the energy and adventurousness of Jesus, who has so recklessly flung himself into the depths of our world. We are suddenly made capable of that sort of reckless and energetic love. As Jeremy Taylor puts it in his prayer for use at Holy Communion, the broken image of God in us is renewed and repaired.
Taylor actually composed a whole order of service for Holy Communion, shot through with this sort of language. What most engaged his thinking around the subject was the idea that in Communion the Spirit ‘changes our hearts and translates us into a divine nature’ (Jeremy Taylor, Selected Works, ed. Thomas Carroll, p.207). In Communion, what happens, says Taylor, is that we are caught up in an earthly representation of an event that is going on in heaven. In heaven the Ascended Lord presents the world and all its needs and pains to God the Father. In effect, Christ says to his Father, ‘Here is the world I have filled with your love by going into its depths, right down to the realm of the dead; now fill it with your active healing, through the Spirit’s breath of life.’ When we pray at Holy Communion, we act out this heavenly reality: we say to God, here is the world Jesus touched and embraced; because of his death and resurrection, we trust you to take it to yourself and do whatever needs doing to bring it wholeness and peace. In Taylor’s order of service for Communion, the Spirit is invoked at the beginning to transform the bread and wine into Christ’s body and blood; and when we have received Communion, we join in the Lord’s Prayer – to show that now we are brothers and sisters of Jesus, and we pray at length for the world, because now we are united with the prayer Jesus prayed in his life on earth and in his eternal life in heaven. This season of the year between Ascension and Pentecost is the time when we should begin to get the point about what’s happening in Holy Communion – being joined to the loving, praying, reconciling work of Jesus for the whole creation. And in that process, we both become new human beings, capable of a more imaginative and adventurous love, and we learn to recognise the mystery and the glory of the other human beings around us.
Which is why it’s a happy chance that this Sunday marks the beginning of Christian Aid Week. It’s too easy to think that Christian Aid and similar organisations are just about being good to the needy (because it’s clearly a good thing for Christians to be good to those in need, isn’t it?). The truth is more exciting and far-reaching. For the Christian, the work of relief and development is rooted in this intoxicating claim that Jesus has filled the universe and changed the definition of being human. Yes, of course we seek to show practical and effective love to those in need; but we do it (a) because of the dignity and honour with which God has treated the whole human world through Jesus Christ, and (b) because of the imperative to liberate this dignity in others, so that they may become people who enrich each other’s lives and create active and nourishing communities. The community that is created and maintained by Holy Communion is the fullest possible image of what God intends for all men and women. And so our efforts to meet the needs of others are not about doing our duty so much as finding ways to release something in the world, to unveil a lost splendour, a majesty in human beings.
And the paradox is that we can do this only by facing with complete honesty the actual degradation human beings experience. Jesus Christ fills all things: in his embrace of human nature, he takes to himself every variety of inhuman injustice and suffering. The experience of a person or a society living with acute economic inequality, discrimination, endemic conflict, sexual violence becomes more not less urgent in the light of the vision we have been reflecting on. Our talk about Jesus and the Spirit, about the Holy Eucharist and the heavenly altar, the radiance and intensity of a Jeremy Taylor meditating on Jesus carrying our needs and wants to the Father in heaven – all this is very far from being empty theory, pious noise; it is the basis for that holy impatience with the injustices so many take for granted which fuels protest and action, in the name of that ‘lost splendour’ that belongs to men and women. We are bound as Christians to have binocular vision – seeing with equal clarity humanity as it is and humanity as it might be and was made to be. In one of the best-know and most venerable of hymns to the Holy Spirit, we pray, ‘Enable with perpetual light/ The dullness of our blinded sight.’ As we look forward to next week’s celebration of the Spirit’s coming, we might well make that prayer our own: open our eyes to the experience of the child in Syria who has seen her parents killed, the farmer in Zimbabwe struggling to secure safe and clean water supplies for his community, the community in Bolivia gradually building up a sustainable pattern of food production and claiming the land as their own, the teacher in Papua New Guinea trying to hold together a dramatically under-resourced school in the highlands. Open our eyes to their challenges; and open our eyes to the dignity they already show and the potential their lives represent.
It may all seem a long way from the measured cadences of Bishop Taylor – though we might remember that a lot of his own life was spent in profound insecurity and something like internal political exile, in the aftermath of a disastrous civil conflict. But the connection is in this clear and bold focus on the image of God renewed and revived in Christ; the connection is made utterly explicit and central in the action of the Eucharist, ‘in which we present our prayers and the needs of ourselves and our brethren unto God in virtue of the great sacrifice’ (p.211). In this season, we could do worse than keep our minds on this lively conviction that what we do in our prayers and our practical service is organically rooted in the mysteries we are celebrating, in the act of Christ identifying with the world’s pains and bringing it all to God. And to pray for the outpouring of the Spirit is nothing less than to pray for a renewal of our human energy and dignity, and for the grace to see it more clearly and more wonderfully in all our fellow humans. For every one person who serves the needy from a sense of duty, there may be ten who do so from a sense of wonder at the extraordinary depth and mystery of humanity itself. And Taylor, who wrote of the mysteries of the Eucharist being as elusive and as overwhelming as a ‘shining cloud’ would have understood that as well as anyone could.