reviewed by Sheldon W. Sorge
I am grateful for the patient course in table manners – we quaintly called it “etiquette” – I was afforded as a youngster. As with all good manners, the point was and is more than mere avoidance of embarrassing my elders and myself. Good manners contribute to good living. Dieticians tell us that the measured pace of eating dictated by good table manners is good for our bodies, while the social benefits of sharing meals are so profound as to be almost sacramental.
In focusing on “manners” we consider not just what we do, but more particularly how we do it. The shape of our actions matters, not only their content. How we eat may be as important as what we eat, or even as that we eat.
The mystery of the means of grace by which the Lord nourishes those who gather for worship lies at the center of the Christian church’s life. Here we find Word and Sacrament at the core. In Protestantism, much recent discussion of this nourishment has focused on recovering the fullness of Sacramental presence at the heart of Christian worship and nurture. We have long been a people of the Word, and have attended much to both the substance and the manner of its proclamation. Recently more attention has shifted to Sacrament, on rehabilitating its place as a center of spiritual nourishment together with the ministry of the Word. Attention to what is happening in the Sacrament has been wide; far less attention has been given to how we gather at the Lord’s Table.
Into this breach steps Martha Moore-Keish with a wonderful new study, DO This in Remembrance of Me. The emphasis is on what we do at the Table, and how that both reflects and shapes our grasp of who God is, who we are, and what God has to do with us.
The book is at once simple and complex – its simplicity is that its primary field of investigation is a single celebration of the Lord’s Table at a particular Presbyterian congregation. She thickly describes and interprets the event with the sure grasp of one who has spent a lifetime in just such worship services. She knows intimately, and loves passionately, the world she describes. This blend of authenticity and infectiousness is reason enough to love the book. But there’s more, and that’s where the complexity comes in — her efforts to understand the significance of the actions of congregations and presiders at the Lord’s Table lead her deeply into both the thickets of Reformed Eucharistic history and ritual theory that seeks to grasp the significance of actions for shaping and reflecting the identities of their performers.
Moore-Keish is not merely describing; she has a clear program for what the Lord’s Table can and should be in Reformed worship. She essays to strengthen the place of Eucharist in a worship tradition that has too long been far more about words than action, understanding than following. This has not only given short shrift to Eucharist; it has distorted the ministry of the Word as well. She argues, “To talk about Word without acknowledging sacrament is to risk changing the Word into [mere] words.”
The action of Eucharist is double-sided — God is doing something, and so are we. God acts to nourish and confirm the faith that has been seeded by hearing the Word, and we act to receive with open heart and hand the gifts of God’s provision for ourselves and for others.
Readers of this deceptively slim volume will find themselves immersed in a lengthy and impassioned conversation among the Reformed about the ways Word and Sacrament are bound together in the life of the church. With her eye on more than simply the theology of the Eucharist, she points us to the significance of the various ways in which Eucharist has been practiced over the centuries. We discover that the patterns of the Lord’s Table we inherited are hardly the only, or even the best ones available from the repertoire of our tradition.
A particularly illuminating analysis of the nature of lex orandi lex credendi lies at the heart of her argument. What is the directional relationship between our manner of worship and the content of our doctrine? While acknowledging that the relationship is necessarily reflexive, she pushes those of us who have long prioritized right belief as the condition of right worship toward the other direction — how can a more vital enactment of worship shape a more faithful account of the Christian confession.
How we gather is at least as important as the question of when or even that we gather at the Table. I suspect that the manner of our gathering has been shaped by the frequency and significance we accord the Eucharist in our worship life. If we wish to address the frequency and significance of the Eucharist in our worship, but simply retain the old “manners” of gathering, we may well find that such manners cannot support a more robust practice. If our practice at the Table is always a drawn-out event of sober interior examination, it is small wonder we cannot engage it more than once every several Sundays. But to the extent it becomes infused with the joy of Easter as well as the sorrow of the cross, with a rich sense of being bonded together as well as a deep sense of personal connection to our Lord, it can “stand up” to more vigorous use. Indeed, it cries out for such. And more significantly, it can become for us a much richer place of nourishing our love for God, for one another, and for the world to which the Host sends us inviting others, “Come, for all is now ready!”
Sheldon W. Sorge is assistant director of the Louisville Institute, Louisville, Ky.