How do Christians believe change happens?
The Revd Dr Simon Cuff – a Research Associate at CTC and a parish priest in Ealing – addressed these questions at a Lenten retreat for members of the Community of St George last week.
Here are his reflections…
Change in prayer
What is the point of prayer? Why do we pray to the God we worship?
Sometimes our prayer life leaves our theology behind. We pray as if we think God isn’t all-knowing or all-good or all-powerful, or we pray as if we might change God’s mind.
Why do we pray to the God who is all-knowing, who knows what we need before asking, and has already in mind what’s best. The God is all powerful, and so can do whatever it is we need. The God who is all-loving, and will always want and being doing the best for us.
We know we should pray because not only does Jesus tells us to but he also prays, and if we’re to be like him then because he prays so should we. He gives us the Lord’s prayer as the model of what it is to pray.
So why are we told to pray to the God who is all-good, and -knowing, and -powerful. It can’t be to get God to do something that’s not the best for us even if we really want it. (O God, please let me win the lottery). And it can’t be to tell God something he doesn’t already know. (O God, I’ve got this really sore foot, please make it stop pulsating). And it can’t be to get him to do something he’s already doing. (O God, please do the best for me).
Why on earth then do we pray? Because prayer does something, our prayers really have an impact. They are the way God has decided to get some things done – God works through us. In fact, God prays through us – he puts prayers into our hearts and uses those prayers in his divine plan. As S. Paul writes to the Romans – ‘the Spirit himself intercedes with sighs too deep for words’.
We don’t pray to change God’s mind. We pray to be changed – for God’s will to be done in us and through us. This means we need to be reflective in prayer – are we praying as we ought? Are we praying the prayers God wants us to pray and is putting in our hearts? Which of our prayers are answered and which are not?
Rhythm is an important part of reflection in prayer. Praying the daily office and other patterns of prayer reminds us that praying isn’t our holy (or unholy!) shopping list of wants and needs but God praying through us, God aligning our wills with his. We’re reminded that we’re not to take our words as prayers, but to make God’s words our own. We’re to die to self in order to live for Christ even the words we use to pray. The prayers of the church help us to do this.
So when we pray, we pray not to change God’s mind – but that we might be changed, that we might be better pray-ers and that the world might be changed through us, that we pray those prayers which God intends to use to do his will in this world.
2. Change in the Eucharist
What does it look like when God enters and acts in the world? We want it to be big and impressive, to reflect the images we have learned from childhood of a god who is a bit like us but more impressive, with love bigger than ours, with more power than us, able to do more than we can. When we can’t fix this or that, or get our way, we want God to come in and sort it out. When God acts people listen. We make God into a sort of superhero, zapping evil and going about doing good.
Before Christ came, we can read the expectations of the people of God about what the Messiah would be like when he came. At places our Old Testament imagines a mighty saviour who will come to right the wrongs experienced by the people of God here and now. The Scrolls found in the Dead Sea area feature prophecies of mighty battles with a messiah-figure leading armies and defeating Roman hordes. When the Messiah comes he will be bigger and better and stronger than us, there’ll be trumpets and lightning and he’ll crush all our enemies.
‘How silently, how silently, the wond’rous gift is given’. We hear these words at Christmas as we sing ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem’. We often understand them in line with our image of Jesus as the superhero we want him to be – Jesus the perfect baby who never cries. In fact, it’s rather important that he does cry – that he’s a real living, breathing, crying human baby because it’s important for our salvation that God has become a real living, breathing, crying human baby. God comes into the world not with a bang, but literally with a whimper.
‘How silently, how silently, the wond’rous gift is given’. When God enters the world, he confounds our expectations. He does not send or raise up some mighty warrior to deliver his people, he himself becomes one of us to draw us to himself. When he enters the world there is no trumpet blast, no fanfare, no glorious vision – just a baby lying in a manger. ‘No ear can his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in’, as the hymn goes.
At the end of that baby’s life, he has supper with his disciples, takes bread, gives thanks, breaks it and gives it to his disciples, saying: Take, eat; this is my body which is given for you; do this in remembrance of me. In the same way, afterwards he takes a cup of wine, gives thanks and gives it to them saying: Drink this, all of you; this is my blood of the new covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.
Much ink and blood has been spilt throughout the history of the Church on what ‘change’ happens when we say these words during the Mass, during services of Holy Communion. We believe Jesus is really there in the bread and in the wine. We believe that he comes there at some point in a new way, but how that it is the case remains a mystery.
We want to think that if God is really present in the bread and in the wine he’ll let us know. He’ll make his presence known with the same sort of trump and fanfare the people of God wanted when he first came among us. But just as in the birth of Christ, God is simply there – confusing and confounding our expectations of what it means for God to act in the world. So in the Eucharist. He is simply there. Bread and wine, outwardly the same, yet somehow Christ is present.
We’re singing the hymn ‘O saving victim’ throughout the day. It’s companion hymn by S. Thomas Aquinas, the ‘Tantum ergo’ sums all this up in the line: ‘faith our outward sense befriending, makes the inward vision clear’. When Christ becomes present in the bread and wine, we want some bang and shout and some big and impressive difference in how the bread and wine appear. Yet God confounds our expectations of what it might look like for him to be present. He is simply there.
‘Change’ in the Eucharist. The change which concerns us is not so much a change in the bread and the wine – but the change in us. This is the much more remarkable change which takes place during the Eucharist, that through receiving Communion we are ourselves are changed.
Just as in our prayer life, our rhythm of prayer matures over a lifetime so that the prayers we prayer are less and less our wants and more and more the prayers which God puts in our hearts, so with the Eucharist. Each time we receive, we feed on him, are nourished and slowly, slowly mature into Christ. We grow more fully into him. This is the real and miraculous change within the Eucharist, not that God might enter the world silently and without fuss in the bread and the wine, but that he might through doing so change us, unite us ever more closely to himself and strengthen us as members of Christ’s body of earth.
S. Augustine says all of this better than any of us ever could:
When you hear “The body of Christ”, you answer, “Amen”. Be a member of the body of Christ, so that your “Amen” may be true! What then is the bread? We assert nothing here of our own ideas; rather, let us listen closely to the Apostle, who, when he spoke concerning this Sacrament, said, There is one bread; we, the many, are one body [1 Cor. 10:17]. … “One bread” – what is this one bread? It is one body formed of many. Remember that bread is not made from a single grain, but from many. When you were purified, you were ground. When you were baptized, you became dough. When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were baked. Become what you see, and receive what you are.
3. Change in the world
‘Become what you see, and receive what you are’. We start where we left off, with the words of S. Augustine. We’ve enjoyed the opportunity for prayer in the presence of Christ in the Sacrament throughout the afternoon – eucharistic adoration – sharing here a part of the life of your community at S. George-in-the-East. S. Augustine writes elsewhere of the importance of such adoration in the Christian life: ‘ ‘No one eats that flesh without first adoring it; we should sin were we not to adore it” (Enarrationes in Psalmos 98, 9).
‘Become what you see, and receive what you are’. S. Augustines invites us to become that which we look upon – Christ, and to receive what we are and are entering more fully – the body of Christ. ‘Become what you see’. We remember the remarkable change in the eucharist which happens in us, that we become more fully swept up in God’s saving plan, and grow into maturity toward the fullness of stature in Christ.
At the end of every service of Holy Communion there is some sort of dismissal. In the catholic tradition the whole service takes its names from this dis-miss-al – the Mass, being dis-miss-ed to do God’s will in the world. But we’re not sent out just to do God’s will as disinterested parties or hired labourers. We’re sent out as members of Christ’s body in the world. We’re called to become what we see – Christ; having received what we are – Christ’s body; and we’re sent out as that body into the world.
What does it mean to be Christ’s body in the world? Just as our prayer life is used by God to achieve certain things he has decided are to be achieved through our prayers; so his changing us through receiving the eucharist, shaping us more and more in the image of Christ is part of his divine plan: we are to be Christ’s body in the world. He changes us so that we might change the world around us. He makes us grow ever deeper into Christ, so that through us the world might be conformed to his plan – ‘thy will be done’ as we pray each day.
What does that plan look like? What sort of world is one conformed to God’s will? As we gaze on Christ in the eucharist during our silent adoration, God holds the answer before our eyes. Christ’s presence in the eucharist – the prayer to become what we see – to become like Christ; the dismissal to go out and be Christ’s body in the world.
We’re called to change the world not in and for itself, but because God is using us to change what is not in accordance with his plan. We’re called to changed the world, so that the world outside can see what we see, so that they too can gaze on Christ. What does this mean?
We’re called to change the world because we’re called to show the world Christ. His love for the poor, the outcast, the stranger – the prisoner, the hungry, the naked – all those people we hear about toward the end of S. Matthew’s gospel. We show them Christ by being instruments of God’s work in the world, tools of God’s divine plan. And, we hope, that seeing Christ in us, that they might come to see Christ with us, that they might respond to Christ at work in us, might be incorporated into his body, the Church, and might one day sit side by side with us in adoration as fellow members of Christ, perhaps not now, perhaps only in the world to come – but all in God’s time.
A lot has been written about catholic social teaching, Anglican social teaching remains a much fuzzier concept to pin down – and for good reason. In the divine economy there is no Anglican body of Christ or Methodist body of Christ or Catholic body of Christ – there is simply Christ’s body on earth – called by him to act in prayer; to be fed by him in the Holy Sacraments; to do his work sent out into the world – to show to the world Christ dying and living, risen and active so that the world may come to see him whom we gaze on now, and will see in heaven face to face.