In his latest book, Deacon Owen Cummings reveals that we may have too puny an understanding of our central sacrament.
Eucharist & Ecumenism (Pickwick, 131 pages) explores the Eucharist across time and Christian traditions. The reader of these spritely-written chapters will emerge with a magnified understanding of the holy meal where the divine and the human mingle. Cummings, a longtime theologian and now dean at Mount Angel Seminary, also writes the Catholic Sentinel's question-and-answer column.
The book is dedicated to Elaine Park, longtime scripture scholar at Mount Angel Seminary. The foreword is by Holy Cross Father Richard Rutherford, a University of Portland liturgical scholar and one of the world's chief scholars on Christian rites of death. Cummings wisely examines the tradition of Eucharist through characters, running chronologically from the authors of the 1st or 2nd century Didache past the lively medieval mystic Margery Kempe to Monsignor Quixote, a character in a Graham Greene novel of the same name. Father Rutherford adroitly observes: "The diversity of persons and works treated here reflects the reality of the marriage of life and liturgy."
Cummings shows the common Eucharistic heritage of Christians by studying some thrilling people and passages, like Justin Martyr and his description of Eucharist. Though more than 1,800 years old, the liturgy was substantially and theologically identical to what a wide range of Christians do today.
Catholics should come to the book with open minds. Cummings is no iconoclast, but he does show that there is more to our sacrament than we realize.
For example, in the ancient Christian manual called the Didache, we see that the Eucharist in the church's early years came in context of a community meal and was not necessarily presided over by an ordained priest. It may have been the owner of the house who led.
He notes that one of the earliest Eucharistic prayers lacks what is called the institution narrative, including the phrases "This is my body," and "This is my blood." Cummings makes good out of what could be distressing to Roman Catholics, saying that the notion of fixing the consecration to one moment in the Eucharistic Prayer came late. Rather, he says, the entire liturgical event should be seen as sanctifying and working the consecration.
Cummings aims to show various kinds of Christians that they are closer than they thought. His ecumenical background is strong. In the 1970s, he was the first Roman Catholic to graduate from the Anglican School of Divinity in Dublin since its founding by Elizabeth I in 1592.
Cummings challenges us to a fuller understanding, especially when discussing the venerable eucharistic traditions of the Middle East, Africa and Asia. It was from the East, for example, that the Roman Catholic Church in past decades retrieved the part of the Eucharistic prayers in which the Holy Spirit is called to come upon the gifts.
He reminds us that some people influenced by the Protestant Reformation, despite their affection for the Word, have long sought to hold Word and Eucharist in balance. One example is the 17th century Anglican bishop, Lancelot Andrewes. Many Anglicans, Andrewes shows, believed in the Real Presence but chose not to define the way that presence happens. Even frontier revivalists, the subject of another chapter, made sure that a communion service accompanied their preaching. North American Presbyterians appreciated the Lord's Supper and applied to it images from the Song of Songs.
The book is accessible. But Cummings is a scholar of high order and a few sections of Eucharist & Ecumenism will challenge the average reader. But bully for books that raise up the average intellectual quotient. Hurrah for readers who are open to expanding their minds.
But this is never Cummings flaunting his intellectual muscle. It's always clear in his writing that he wants to help readers in their Christian living and worship.
He himself says in the book: "There comes a point when talking about God needs to yield to talking to God."