In many Anglican churches, the priest will hold up the bread for the Eucharist, either during or after the Eucharistic prayer. We do this to focus the attention of the congregation at a pivotal moment in the liturgy. As Anglicans, we believe that the Body and Blood of Christ are present in the bread and wine we share at the altar. We may not necessarily agree on how or when it happens, but we believe that the bread and wine change. They are not literally becoming Christ’s Body and Blood, but there is something more than a purely symbolic representation. The best that we can say is that Christ is present sacramentally in these formerly ordinary things.
Some clergy hold up the bread because the congregation are watching for a glimpse of Jesus. This moment becomes a focal point in the service when the faithful show the reverence and devotion they would show to Christ himself if he were physically present. Others hold up the bread to show the congregation what they are becoming. Just as ordinary bread becomes the Body of Christ, so ordinary people are becoming the Body of Christ—the Church.
Receiving and becoming the Body of Christ is a great privilege for us, but it also comes with a great responsibility. By elevating the consecrated bread, holding it up for the people to see, the priest is also showing them what they must do. Our encounter with Christ is not limited to an hour in church on Sunday. What happens next? We are dismissed, sent out into the world, to show Jesus to the world, just as he has been shown to us.
This is the heart of mission, and it’s something particularly worth remembering at this time of year. We have just come out of the Christmas season, with its emphasis on God taking human flesh and becoming like us. January takes us into the season of Epiphany, when the Gospel lessons, especially in the early weeks, focus on Jesus making himself known to the world. We hear the story of the coming of the Magi, and then of Christ’s baptism in the River Jordan and the voice from heaven that proclaims him to be God’s Son. We see the first sign that he performs at the wedding in Cana. We see him making himself known in the synagogue at Capernaum, and telling his first disciples to let down their nets for a catch. The theme builds to a climax on the last Sunday after Epiphany, when we see him transfigured, speaking to Moses and Elijah in dazzling white clothing. All these stories are the stories of Christ being revealed to the world, and as we leave our churches on Sunday morning, we are stepping out into the mission that God calls us to share.
‘As the Father has sent me, so I send you,’ says Jesus. When we proclaim the good news that we have heard, or make disciples, or care for those in need, or challenge injustice and corruption, or care for the world that has been put into our care, we are carrying on the work that Christ began. There is a story in John’s Gospel of a group of Greeks who have arrived in Jerusalem, and come to Jesus’ disciples saying ‘We want to see Jesus.’ For some people, all they know of Jesus will be what they see and hear from us. When people look to us, will they see signs of lives transformed? How are we holding Christ up for the world to see?