The Eucharist as an Act of Proclamation and Participation
We asked some attendees of the 2019 Intersection Conference to share their thoughts on the session that most impacted them. Here, the Rev. Janna Ziegler of Church of the Resurrection L.A. reflects on Hans Boersma’s session, Proclaiming the Gospel through the Sacraments. Boersma writes and speaks on the recovery of sacramental ontology and is the Saint Benedict Servants of Christ Chair in Ascetical Theology at Nashotah House in Wisconsin.
by Janna Ziegler
A few months ago, a member of our congregation was detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for residing in the country without legal documentation. This resulted in the immediate loss of his job, which was the main source of income for his family, and it left his wife alone to care for their three school-age children.
It is difficult for some of us to imagine the material and emotional insecurity that this kind of action imposes on families who are already struggling to make ends meet. In response, we did what the Church does: we gave money to pay the mortgage, we cooked meals, we wrote letters, we went to court, we visited the detention center, and we prayed and prayed and prayed. And each week we gathered together on Sunday morning as is our custom and we ate and drank as one body from the Lord’s Table. In all of these acts—giving, cooking, writing, and celebrating the Eucharist—we proclaimed one thing, Jesus Christ.
Hans Boersma’s session at the Intersection Conference invited us to expand our view of the Eucharist through exploring the proclamatory and participatory elements of the Eucharistic celebration. Boersma attended to the reality that in the very act of celebrating the Eucharist we are proclaiming the gospel. In addition, all the proclamations that we make throughout the week are gathered up and offered in the Eucharist and come to participate in Christ. The Eucharist is not some event that is detached from our “real lives.” Rather in the Eucharist our “real lives” are gathered up into something much bigger and more real—that is, into Christ.
What we do together on Sunday morning is the culmination of our Christian proclamation. Boersma reminded us that during the Eucharist the whole congregation joins in this act of proclamation. The celebrant calls all of us into the proclamation of the gospel with this statement: “Therefore let us proclaim the mystery of faith.” We respond by proclaiming together the mystery of the Christian gospel: “Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.”
Boersma proceeded to demonstrate how the consumption of the Eucharist (not just the words of the liturgy) is by itself proclamation. He recounted the Apostle Paul’s instructions to the church at Corinth on the Lord’s Supper: “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). The Apostle Paul links the eating and drinking of the body and blood of our Lord with the proclamation of the gospel. Thus, we not only proclaim with our words, but according to the Apostle Paul it is in the very act of eating the bread and drinking the wine that we proclaim the good news of God in Christ.
We live in a neighborhood where people are divided by a wide range of boundaries: linguistic, cultural, economic, social, etc. The Eucharist is one of the few places where different kinds of people come together and eat from the same table and drink from the same cup. This is a primary way that our church bears witness to and proclaims the good news of God in Christ. Our proclamation of the gospel is centered and bound up in what might seem to be a very ordinary act of eating bread and drinking wine, but it is the Eucharistic celebration, where our most robust proclamation of the gospel rests.
Boersma recounted the story of Polycarp, the bishop of Smyrna (modern-day Turkey), who was martyred for the sake of the gospel. Just before he was burned to death, Polycarp proclaimed the Gospel by offering praise and thanksgiving to God with these final words: “I praise you for all these things, I bless you and glorify you, along with the everlasting Jesus Christ, your beloved Son. To you, with him, through the Holy Ghost, be glory both now and forever. Amen.” It is with these last words that Polycarp offers his entire life in eucharistia (in thanksgiving) to God.
In sacrificing himself, Polycarp proclaimed Jesus. Polycarp’s example reminds us that when we celebrate the Eucharist, we are also offering up ourselves as sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving to God. Through the life of Polycarp, Boersma invites us to consider the Eucharist as not only a proclamatory act but also a participatory act.
This aspect of Boersma’s presentation struck me deeply. We not only receive from our Lord at the Eucharist nor do we only proclaim the good news, but we also bring ourselves to the altar in deep gratitude and thanksgiving. Each week we are invited again and again into the depth of union with Christ. We bring our whole selves to the altar—our money, our abilities, our work, our relationships, everything—and offer ourselves anew to God in Christ. As we eat and we drink, our lives are further and further caught up into the life of Christ. What a profound and mysterious gift!
Boersma then pointed us to the Gospel of John to explain the nature of our participation in the Eucharistic celebration: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Boersma explored the connection between this passage and the story of Polycarp’s sacrificial martyrdom. Although it is unknown where Polycarp got his name (poly= many; carpus= fruit), it was an appropriate reminder to the bishop himself, his parishioners, and to us that his purpose in life was to bear much fruit.
When we offer ourselves up to God in the Eucharist, we are not doing something on our own, we are participating in Christ like the branches and the vine. Our bearing fruit depends on abiding in Christ. And the fruit that we bear proclaims Christ. When we give money to those in need, we proclaim Christ. When we offer hospitality to the undocumented, we proclaim Christ. In the very mundane activities of our lives—in treating our children with gentleness and caring for the need of the bodies around us—we proclaim Christ.
Those sacrifices are not isolated, random events of our lives. In the Eucharist, we bring all of the small sacrifices throughout our week into the Church. Boersma stated so profoundly: “In the Eucharist, we gather up all of these little sacrifices and the priest prays over them so our sacrifices come to participate in the one unique sacrifice of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Eucharist is the culmination of our week; we come to the altar with our hands facing upward to offer our little sacrifices of tenderness toward our coworkers and care for our elderly parents up to Christ. Then we receive the greatest sacrifice of all, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
Boersma began his presentation with a statement that I want to end with: “It is all about Jesus. There is nothing either in preaching or in the Eucharist that is not about Jesus.” Of everything that Boersma said, this is the most basic, the most profound, and the most challenging. In all of our proclaiming and participating (all of our saying and doing), it is all about Jesus Christ. We do not proclaim ourselves, or our agenda, however noble it might be. We do not participate for our own sake or in own strength. We proclaim Christ and we participate in and through Christ. Jesus Christ is everything. Jesucristo es todo.
Listen to Hans Boersma’s full talk, “Proclaiming the Gospel through the Sacraments.”
Janna Ziegler is one of the founding rectors of the Church of the Resurrection. Upon completing an M.A. in Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary, she was ordained to the Deaconate in 2015, and to the Priesthood in 2016. She and her husband, Jon (co-rector), have been married almost 10 years and are parents to three kids: Julia, Ana, and Martin. Prior to seminary, Janna spent 10 years teaching and doing research in the biological sciences. In addition to theological training, she holds a B.S. in Biology and M.S. in Cell and Molecular Biology.