December 2, 2020

Sundays in Easter with Henri Nouwen: April 17, 2016

St Paul Table Yellow Stroke

Sundays in Easter with Henri Nouwen
On the Eucharistic Life

On the remaining Sundays in Eastertide, we will provide some brief readings from Henri Nouwen on the eucharistic life. Our main source will be Nouwen’s book, With Burning Hearts: A Meditation on the Eucharistic Life.

In the book’s introduction, Henri Nouwen tells why he wrote this book and what the approach shall be.

This little book is an attempt to speak to myself and to my friends about the Eucharist and to weave a network of connections between the daily celebration of the Eucharist and our daily human experience. We enter every celebration with a contrite heart and pray the Kyrie Eleison. We listen to the Word — the scriptural readings and the homily — we profess our faith, we give to God the fruits of the earth and the work of human hands and receive from God the body and blood of Jesus, and finally we are sent into the world with the task of renewing the face of the earth. The Eucharistic event reveals the deepest human experiences, those of sadness, attentiveness, invitation, intimacy, and engagement. It summarizes the life we are called to live in the Name of God. Only when we recognize the rich network of connections between the Eucharist and our life in the world can the Eucharist be “worldly” and our life “Eucharistic.”

As the basis for my reflections on the Eucharist and the Eucharistic life, I will use the story of the two disciples who walked from Jerusalem to Emmaus and back [Luke 24:13-35]. As the story speaks about loss, presence, invitation, communion and mission it embraces the five main aspects of the Eucharistic celebration.

(p. 12f)

Nouwen speaks here of daily celebrations of the Eucharist, which many of us do not practice. However, many of us do practice weekly or otherwise regular worship gatherings at the Lord’s Table, and the thoughts he leads us to consider should resonate to all who treasure the sacrament of communion and seek to live in its nourishment.


  1. Increasingly I am finding that the only thing I can’t find elsewhere than church is communion, and I regard the passing of peace as another form of communion. I’m still trying to figure out just what communion actually is. On the one hand you have those who hold that unless the sacrament is dispensed by someone officially “ordained” in an unbroken line going back to the Apostles and Jesus, it ain’t real. This sounds reasonable on the surface until you start studying church history in some depth, and look at all the self-professed Christians today who refuse to recognize the authenticity of each others official status. Does it take four years of post graduate education and entry in the right club before someone is able to work the magic?

    On the other hand, is it possible for you and me to intentionally go to Walmart and get a bottle of wine and some kind of bread to share sacramentally, and it works just as good as anything the Orthodox can come up with using all their bells and whistles? The point for me is efficacy. Either something real happens that God recognizes when you eat and drink the sacrament, something you can take home with you, something you can’t get by watching it on TV, or it doesn’t. I believe this can be measured and answered, tho not by science, and my answer won’t necessarily work for you.

    All the other parts of a liturgical service I could participate in remotely or do without. The Eucharist and the Peace I think may have to be in person and may ultimately be the only good reason to pay the price of going to official church. At this point in my understanding I’m limited to either the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Amarica or the Episcopal Church if it’s the sacraments I’m after, and both those churches require a paid authorized professional for it to be offered. I’m still working on this.

    • I share your ambivalence about the Eucharist and its meaning, Charles. On the one hand, it’s important to me personally, and I feel that frequently celebrated Communion helps the worship service stay centered and corporate in nature, as long as the liturgy remains centered in the words and actions of Christ at the Last Supper; on the other, as I’ve come under the influence of Barth, I’m less and less inclined to believe that anything special happens in the celebration of the Holy Communion that can’t, or doesn’t, often happen elsewhere in worship and in life.

      I am still working on this, too.

      • I will admit that I personally consider a nice piece of bread and a glass of wine to be Eucharistic. I say personally because I wouldn’t expect to have a theological row about it with anyone or defend its legitimacy or even rationality. It’s just what I want to think when I have that combo in front of me on the table and my imagination sometimes plants me in the upper room which is a good meditation.

        • Would you be willing to have a theological row with someone over, or defend the legitimacy and even rationality of, the Holy Communion celebrated by a gathered church community? I mean, do you have a settled theological rationale for why it’s necessary and legitimate to celebrate Holy Communion in a gathered church community, but only a matter of personal preference when done at home with, say, one or two other people, with you as presider?

          • I never preside. It’s usually at two particular restaurants where they bring a whole soft loaf of uncut bread before the meal and we tear it with our hands instead of cutting it. Nobody even knows I’m doing it. It’s completely internal. I might mention in passing that, “this is like communion,” but I never expect anyone to consider it seriously. It’s just my thing. Now the only rationale I have for celebrating the Eucharist at church is church teaching. Never have religious activity of any type and rationality gone well together, as well they should not. For me, Eucharist is everywhere all the time. As far as the legitimacy of it in one setting or another I couldn’t say. I don’t know if I answered what you were asking.

          • Lol. Yes, you answered; and no, you didn’t. Which is probably as it should be. The whole thing is wrapped up in incredible paradoxes, which puny minds like mine will never be able to unravel. Perhaps they are not meant to be unraveled anyway. Unraveling this would only make it disappear from one’s presence; after which it would reappear somewhere else, in its wholeness, or perhaps reappear in the same place, after one had left.

        • Though the Lutheran church where I spend my Sunday mornings only celebrates Communion around 1-and-a-half times a month (the first Sunday of each month, plus major festivals and commemorations, i.e., Christmas, Maunday Thursday, Easter, Trinity Sunday, etc), I would prefer it to be celebrated every Sunday. But my reasons are not the result of a high view of the sacraments.

          I think of the celebration of Holy Communion, using the words and actions that the Gospels remember Jesus using at the Last Supper, as a gathering of the community around its memory of Jesus Christ, and its memory of his command to remember him by recalling and reenacting his words and actions on the night before the death he would undergo for the salvation of his church and his world. By so doing, we center ourselves as a community in the self-giving love of Jesus, and we share a memory, and a re-membering, of the gift of words and actions that he bequeathed to us, and that live on today in his resurrected presence in the church and the world, as well as in the memories we pass down from one generation of the church to the next.

          Does he become present to us in this celebration of Communion in a way that he is not at other times and places? I find it increasingly hard to believe that he does. What seems to me to happen is an intensification, or an unveiling, of his omnipresence, as embodied in the performance and recitation of his actions and words by the church as it remembers his presence then, which leads into the remembering of his presence now.

          Luther somewhere said that Jesus is always omnipresent; but in the Holy Communion he is also available. I would add that he becomes available through the memory of his words and actions, which lead into his embodied presence, his vulnerable presence, and his empowering presence.

          • Perhaps it’s a matter of focus. I might compare it to fasting. Why is it that fasting is sometimes called for? It draws us below the surface of things. It intensifies focus. Maybe coming together to remember one of Jesus’ most trying, yet cherished, moments on earth does lure his presence into our midst in a different way. Perhaps this is not an apt comparison but two people have a different presence with one another when they are making love as opposed to eating a meal or doing taxes. Perhaps he is with us differently when we join together for communion.

          • By the way, I got a good laugh out of your first response. I don’t know what it all means but that doesn’t make it any less funny.

  2. A white butterfly
    drifts across several lanes,
    ahead of traffic.

  3. Angry wasps hover
    above my garden — reprieve
    for the guileless weeds.

  4. Sola scriptura wins again! All our forbears were half-pagan and deceived philosophically. The Spirit never led the church after the last Apostle died. Gods plan is to leave His people in a self perpetuating spiritual limbo.

    John 6. Was the manna real & physical. when Israel ingested it ?

    • …wha?

      Although that sounds slightly better than most hyper literal interpretations I’ve known.

    • Christiane says

      Hi DENNIS,

      you ask ‘ Was the manna real & physical. when Israel ingested it ? ‘

      I think it was real ‘food for the journey’ . . . physical AND spiritual food . . . what it consisted of, I don’t know, but it apparently came to them ‘daily’ (except for the Sabbath) and nourished them and on some days was their only food

      In Jewish celebrations of the Sabbath meals today, the ‘challah’ bread represents the gift of the manna to the Israelites and there is a ‘blessing’ which has been said over the loaves from time immemorial, this:
      “”Baruch atah Adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, hamotzi lechem min ha’aretz”
      (“Blessed are you, LORD, King of the Universe, who brings forth bread from the Earth”)

      Many Christian sojourners who take part in the Eucharist see the ‘manna’ of the Old Testament as a fore-shadowing for what was to come when Our Lord said
      ” 55 For My flesh is real food and My blood is real drink. 56 Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood remains in Me, and I in them. 57 Just as the living Father sent Me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on Me will live because of Me. 58 This is the Bread that came down from heaven. Your ancestors ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” (Gospel of St. John)

      After Our Lord came forth from the tomb, He encountered some followers walking along the road, but they did not recognize Him. It grew late. They invited Him to share a meal with them and He accepted. It is not without reason that those who believe in the Eucharist understand this Scripture:
      ” 30 When He was at the table with them, He took bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized Him . . . ”
      (St. Luke’s Gospel)

      • Yes, they recognized him. But he was already with them; the meal was the means by which he made himself apparent, not present. His full physical presence is already and always with us; the Holy Communion unveils that already existing presence. But it’s not the only means by which this unveiling happens; God is not constrained by this, or any other means.

    • >> The Spirit never led the church after the last Apostle died.

      Well, there have been moments along the way. But I’m thinking Spirit may be more at work in the church today than at any time since, including Azuza Street. When I say at work in the church, I don’t necessarily mean at work in the clergy and I wouldn’t confine it to institutions sporting crosses. Seems like a definite sea change to me, but check back in a hundred years. Maybe even five or less.

      Final score: Sola Scriptura 3, Sola Deo 10.

      • Yes: Sola Deo.

        Jesus is the agent of revelation, not its object.

      • Christiane says

        I’ve always that the Holy Spirit was still as active in the world as ever, because satan is still at work and I don’t think the Holy Spirit will abandon the human race as long as satan remains ‘unbound’ and on the loose

        It’s a matter of not being abandoned in the middle of a war zone, when we are already injured . . . that is how I see it

    • John 6: In the passage to which you refer, Jesus is talking about the dissimilarity of the manna that Israel ate in the desert and the bread from heaven that he is, not their similarity. The passage contributes nothing to understanding the nature of Holy Communion as a sacrament. Let’s grant that the manna was real and physical; let’s also grant that Jesus was real and physical: how do you get to from those two acknowledged points to any doctrine concerning the manner of Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist?

      • Hi Robert.

        Id have to disagree. The difference was in the effect of eating manna. It is temporal, people still die. However in eating Christ, His sustenance effects eternal life. As He came in totality as a man & was sacrificed in totality, we also receive His sacrifice in totality, body & spirit.

        I like your description of Him being present but being made apparent to us. I would suggest in Communion He becomes sacrificialy present but we need the eyes of faith for it to be apparent.


    • It’s always seemed ironic and odd to me that the Gospel of John, which does not include the words of Institution in its sparsely detailed account of the Last Supper (the account is mostly comprised of a the long Priestly Prayer spoken by Jesus) is always used to underwrite a specific, “realist” theology of the sacrament of Holy Communion. In fact, John is the most Pneumatic of the Gospels, and spends a lot of time speaking Pneumatically, more than it does speaking Incarnationally. Protestant systematic theologies find much grist for the mill in John.

      • The Priestly Prayer contains the hope and desire that we may become One with the Father, as did Jesus, which I consider to be the center of the Bible and the whole point to it all. I don’t recall reading that in any Protestant systematic theology, but I could have fallen asleep in that part. Most parts.

        • Yes, John has deep mystical and theological currents; but they are Pneumatic currents, that have little, or nothing, to do with any doctrine of the manner of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist as it’s known and defined today.

          I’m afraid that, when this mystical, Pneumatic language is handled prosaically, it results in some deadly boring systematic theology.

    • No. The manna was not real, nor was it physical. But you are basically asking if Blue Milk from Star Wars is real.

      It wasn’t. It didn’t happen. Nice story, nice memory, nice allegory.


      • Next you will be telling me the Spice from Dune isn’t real, but I know it must be, because it flows.

        You asssk me howww i know it’s realll…it’s realll…beeecaussse…it flows.

  5. I have been attending an ELCA church the last year and a half. They celebrate communion every Sunday which is such a nice change from my previous baptist church. Their stand is ‘the presence of Christ in the meal’ and I like that. Communion has come alive for me after 50+ years in evangelical churches….the whole service is about Christ and the gospel–not about me–I want to go to church to be a part of something I can’t find out in the world/culture. The church is small, and I love that. I am not just a pew-filler, no loud music, very worshipful; I’ve found a home for now. My husband, since we left our baptist church hasn’t attended or looked around…I went here cuz I could walk to it–loved the idea of walking to my local church…he has started to go with me–he realized that it’s a nice change from where we came from. I hate to miss.

    • My experience too, Charlie. Thanks for telling us about it.

    • This is so interesting to me (the whole thread, but this in particular) as I am a new (2 years) but not young pastor of a Baptist church in a small city in New England. As most Baptist churches do, the Lord’s Supper is a once a month deal. I would like to move it to a weekly celebration — but I am in no hurry. These types of things take time and there is much ground work to be laid.

      I started last year by teaching in a sermon about the nature of the Lord’s Supper. I briefly explained that there are essentially two ways of understanding what is going on. 1) Christ is mysteriously present in the elements. There are a range of ways of understanding how his presence is manifest. 2) Christ is present with us as we remember him and his death on the cross. Therefore, Christ is either meeting us in the elements, or he is meeting us in the act of receiving. Either way, Christ meets us at his table — as he also meets us in the hearing of his Word. If this is true, then why not do it every week?

      I doubt that many of my congregation remember that, but I hope to introduce the idea more often. When I hear enough people talking about communion, saying “we should do this more often” then i will know it is time to suggest we change.

  6. I wouldn’t make any claim to figuring out a precise theology of communion, beyond “Christ shows up and meets us in this”.

    What I can say is when I began slipping into the back pews of sacramental / liturgical churches, devotionally I began to lean on the idea that communion provides an occasion where something real and substantial takes place; that God elects to be accessible to the entire gathered community who partakes; that God is of the mind to do such a thing on a regular basis; and that God elects to use ordinary and concrete signs to do it. Finally, that this unveiling is not reliant on an individual’s personal faith being particularly pure or strong, but rather on God’s initiative. Also, that faith is the confession of the whole community together, which includes and nurtures any given individual. In a sense, this makes eucharist special and set apart. But it also points outward to the sacramental nature of everything.

    I like to think that there’s ample support in this for the most ardent and confident pietist. I also like to that that if I were dying and full of doubt, and without the resources left to move beyond that moment, that I could fall back on the confession of others and on God’s initiate to meet people where they are.

  7. Hi Folks.

    Seems some of you missed the sarcasm of my original post. I guess I was responding to some gnostic ambiguities further up. I take it that the Spirit helped inspire the early liturgies and church structure therefore the Eucharist needs to be taken in a gathering of His Body (1 cor 11:33… when you come together to eat). When Jesus appeared to His disciples, they were gathered together.

    Even though we are all priests in some sense, the office of priest/pastor has the responsibility to reflect the typology of the OT that uses that office to point to Christ. Part of that I believe is to offer His work to us, His people via the Eucharist. Where we also offer ourselves to God corporately as an act of thanksgiving. The idea is to bring home the reality that we are together becoming one with the Trinity, as per John 17.

    1 Cor 11 demonstrates that when His people aren’t gathered in the right spirit, Christ isn’t present in the Eucharist. So I reckon the liturgical framework for the Eucharist is there for a purpose.

    “Sola Scriptura” bends the eucharistic “wax nose” wherever you want the text to point.

  8. “With Burning Hearts” is a great, great read, possibly my favorite work from Nouwen, along with “Behold the Beauty of the Lord”, which explores the practice of praying with icons (which would make for another great Sunday series, by the way). Thanks for featuring this, CM. I’m looking forward to your thoughts on the work and the subject matter.

    The Table is a beautiful, divine mystery. As the pastor of a Baptist church who has Anglican/Sacramental leanings theologically, I love the practice of the Eucharist. I think it was Martin Luther that said something along the lines of “It’s the only place where we can share communion with God and community with each other.” We generally serve by intinction, and I love to see the lines form. I imagine the multitudes of people bringing their brokenness, pain, sickness, hurts, and sore history to Christ, when He walked the earth. I love the practice. Wish I had opportunity to participate daily.

    • Hi Lee.

      That sounds great. With the eyes of faith we can trust that He is present at the Table to work our redemptive transformstion and heal us,, inthe “now”. From beginning to end Christ is all in all.