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Book review: The Eucharist in Four Dimensions: The meanings of communion in contemporary culture by Jessica Martin

by
01 December 2023

Christopher Irvine finds deep insights in these Bampton Lectures

I AM not one for religious experience, but this book unlocked a memory of a 20-year-old kneeling in the semi-darkness after compline in the domed space of the Great Chapel at Kelham, who, having noticed the bread and cruets of wine and water placed on the table in the centre of the choir, felt what can only be described as a curious blend of excitement and apprehension at the thought of communion the following morning. It was a strange feeling, not least because the eucharist was celebrated every day; it happened routinely, again and again. In this deeply considered book (Features, 6 October), Jessica Martin shows that this is the nature of religious ritual. But just how can we comprehend the promise of an encounter with the God who cannot be seen, let alone be held?

The book originated as the Bampton Lectures, delivered in the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, Oxford, in 2021. The four chapters are more or less of equal length, and each one has its own focus and line of inquiry. The first articulates the questions posed by our contemporary cultural context, and these are pressed home with a persistent honesty. One page has no fewer than 12 questions. Towards the end, the questions become a quest: a quest for the horizon of a changed world.

The second chapter addresses the dilemmas of participating in the eucharist in the post-pandemic world. Here, the questions of in-person and online worship are perceptively discussed, and an intriguing parallel is drawn between two-dimensional printed service books and live-streamed services viewed on digital screens.

The third chapter treats the eucharist as an event, as theatre, occurring here and there, in particular places and celebrated by embodied worshippers. In the theatre of worship, more happens than meets the eye, and the reality expressed in the panoply of worship is convincingly presented as being mediated through the bodily senses of sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste.

The final chapter on time is a probing meditation. The eucharist takes time and itself plays with time. In it, we remember the past, enhance the present moment, and open our hearts and minds to God’s future. In this wondrous intersection of time, we see both the place and power of memory and the very ground for hope, of looking to the time that is to come. And, by drawing an analogy with the way in which songs and music carry associations and memories of what was and of what could have been for us, Martin leads us to see that every eucharist is potentially the occasion when, while we are remembering Jesus, Christ re-members us.

In bringing her scholarly knowledge of literature and theatre to her consideration of the eucharist, Martin yields deep insights into the faith and practice of the eucharist in our own time. Her arguments are rigorous, but these analytical observations are punctuated with more reflective, almost poetic, passages, which will make readers stop and think for themselves.

The reforming Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Cranmer has a good and a fair outing in this book, and the image of Christ as the bread of life in John 6 featured large in his final understanding of the eucharist. Interestingly, there is a switch in the verb for eating in this biblical passage. At first, it is simply the verb “to eat”, but then it changes to something more like “to chew”, suggesting, perhaps, that what is spoken of here is hard to swallow.

Well, as Martin shows us, the presuppositions, perspectives, and ambiguities of late modernity, to which we are conditioned, are not especially conducive to eucharistic faith and practice. But, if we stick with it, and chew over what Martin has written here, we may well come to know again the excitement of apprehending afresh the astonishing reality of being met and fed by the risen Christ as we gather with others to make eucharist.


The Revd Christopher Irvine teaches at the St Augustine’s College of Theology and the Liturgical Institute, Mirfield.

 

The Eucharist in Four Dimensions: The meanings of communion in contemporary culture
Jessica Martin
Canterbury Press £14.99
(978-1-78622-472-9)
Church Times Bookshop £11.99

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