Author(s)Marc Lloyd
Date 14 April 2020

Previous posts in this series: Coronavirus and Communion; Communion at Home; The Necessity of Word and Sacrament.

With church buildings locked up, some clergy are broadcasting services of Holy Communion. Many will have seen this online. We have already remarked that this might recall medieval masses where lay people were often spectators rather than participants. We would do well to remember that Article XXV tells us: “The Sacraments were not ordained of Christ to be gazed upon… but that we should duly use them. And in such only as worthily receive the same they have a wholesome effect of operation.”

But seeing these online versions of Communion might also remind us of the venerable and useful way of thinking of the sacraments as visible words, which goes back at least to Augustine. The whole passage in which Augustine is discussing the use of signs is interesting and worth quoting:

Of the signs, then, by which men communicate their thoughts to one another, some relate to the sense of sight, some to that of hearing, a very few to the other senses. For, when we nod, we give no sign except to the eyes of the man to whom we wish by this sign to impart our desire. And some convey a great deal by the motion of the hands: and actors by movements of all their limbs give certain signs to the initiated, and, so to speak, address their conversation to the eyes: and the military standards and flags convey through the eyes the will of the commanders. And all these signs are as it were a kind of visible words. The signs that address themselves to the ear are, as I have said, more numerous, and for the most part consist of words. For though the bugle and the flute and the lyre frequently give not only a sweet but a significant sound, yet all these signs are very few in number compared with words. For among men words have obtained far and away the chief place as a means of indicating the thoughts of the mind. Our Lord, it is true, gave a sign through the odor of the ointment which was poured out upon His feet; and in the sacrament of His body and blood He signified His will through the sense of taste; and when by touching the hem of His garment the woman was made whole, the act was not wanting in significance. But the countless multitude of the signs through which men express their thoughts consist of words. For I have been able to put into words all those signs, the various classes of which I have briefly touched upon, but I could by no effort express words in terms of those signs.
(Emphasis added)

Notice that Augustine has much to say about words as signs and about signs that appeal to our hearing and sense of smell as well as our sight. Interestingly, he especially associates the Lord’s Supper with our sense of taste, rather than with our sense of sight. We would do well to recapture that emphasis. Again, the Articles use the language of the sacraments as “signs”: “they be certain sure witnesses and effectual signs of grace, and God’s good will towards us”.

Nevertheless, it is Augustine’s phrase “visible words”, often more or less divorced from his original discussion of it, that has been so influential regarding the doctrine of the sacraments. John Calvin for example uses the phrase “visible word” in Institutes 4.14.4.

Although the Lord’s Supper is not only a word, the Bible itself uses a verbal category to speak of the Supper. Paul says that whenever believers eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord's Supper, they “proclaim the Lord's death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26).

How wonderful to have the word of the gospel so clearly and powerfully proclaimed to us in the broken bread and the outpoured wine! Indeed, strikingly, Calvin calls the sacraments the “clearest promises” of God, and says: “and they have this characteristic over and above the word because they represent them for us as painted in a picture from life.” (Institutes 4.14.5) Calvin says that in the sacraments God “attests his good will and love towards us more expressly than by the word.” (Institutes 4.14.6)

In the Supper we are invited to personally and actively appropriate this visible word which proclaims Christ to us as we take and eat the bread. Thomas J. Davis comments that Calvin believes:

that the true celebration of the Eucharist brings to the believer knowledge of the power of union with Christ, that is “for you.” Calvin thinks the Eucharist exhibits God’s love in its most personal, most intense, most experienced form. Thus, Calvin has set the Eucharist up not as just a “bare knowledge” of union with Christ, as simply information. Rather, Calvin views the Eucharist as a type of knowledge that works alongside Christ’s union with the believer to mould the believer’s life. (The Clearest Promises of God, p213)

Though the Supper is a visible word of God to us, speaking of Jesus as the bread of life given to us for our health and salvation, we should not allow the term to make us think that the most important thing to do with the Supper is to look at it!

The Supper is more than a word. For example, it is a communal action, a shared experience. Above all it is a (ritualized) meal. It might be better to think of the Supper not only as a visible word but also as an edible word. We are, after all, meant to literally eat it.

This distinguishes it from the Bible or preaching, although metaphorically they are food which we do well to inwardly digest. As we actually eat the bread with our mouths, by faith, in the power of the Spirit we feed on Christ in our hearts with thanksgiving. In the Supper Jesus is food to us and gladdens our souls. He nourishes and vivifies us. We don’t just look at him or think of, recalling him in our mind’s eye: his heavenly flesh feeds us.

One of the important things about the Supper is that it engages our senses not only of sight and hearing but also of touch, taste and smell in a way that the spoken word or read of God does not necessarily.

God’s word is always accommodated to us as creatures, but the sacraments are especially obviously adapted to our physical embodied nature. Cranmer puts this vividly: our Saviour’s “intent [was] that as much as is possible for man, [in the sacraments] we may see Christ with our eyes, smell him at our nose, taste him with our mouths, grope him with our hands, and perceive him with all our senses. For as the word of God preached putteth Christ into our ears; so likewise these elements of water, bread, and wine, joined to God’s word, do after a sacramental manner put Christ into our eyes, mouths, hands, and all our senses.” (Defence of the True and Catholic Doctrine of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ)

The Supper is indeed a visible word to us, but that is not all that it is. Watching someone else participate in the Lord’s Supper is not a means of doing so myself nor is it a good substitute for receiving the edible word.