Part 2 in a series; see all posts here.
Why does Herbert call prayer—and not the Eucharist—the “Church’s banquet”? Christian worship seems to have involved communal meals (“love feasts”) from very early on; Paul talks about them in 1 Corinthians 11, among other places. I love the notion of the sacrament as a hearty feast rather than a nibble and a sip, although these suffice.
Herbert lived not so long after the fierce 16th-century debates about the sacrament, in which theologians lobbed words like transubstantiation and consubstantiation at each other with something like violence. Scholars have argued quite a bit over Herbert’s own allegiances in these arguments. Herbert was a pastor, though, before he was a theologian: does fighting over how exactly the sheep are fed actually feed the sheep?
By making prayer the banquet instead of the Eucharist, then, Herbert may be acknowledging the prophetic critique of empty formalism. It’s not that the sacrament is vain mummery, but that it can be, and that this risk never abates. Prayer, too, can be empty show, as Jesus said in Matthew 6. I don’t suppose that the process of deferring presence ever has to stop: even the transcendent experiences that sometimes accompany prayer remain subject to doubt and uncertainty.
Be that as it may, prayer is probably as fundamental as it gets. In prayer we come most starkly to face our own limitations, as we wait for the Spirit to intercede, in Paul’s phrase, with sighs too deep for words. God’s love is simple in ways that we strain to grasp, and prayer lets us wrestle with that mystery, trying to conquer it while secretly hoping that it will conquer us.
Prayer is the church’s banquet because it provides the path to love, the spiritual food without which the church will starve. Many of our greatest grapplings with God’s love emerge out of our struggles to love each other. People can be jerks sometimes, even in church—and that includes us. Getting along isn’t always easy, and praying gives us all the chance to work through the difficulties of life together, whether we’re the cause or it’s someone else’s turn to be wrong. Prayer can be a feast for the individual soul, but it’s a banquet for the church because it’s how we gather in Jesus’ name, which brings his promised presence and animates his mystical body.
May we therefore pray that in our fellowship with one another we might feast together on the Spirit, becoming Christ’s body as we speak together with one voice to God.