by Mary Marie Dixon
Christina Rossetti’s poem “After Communion” is a meditation on the progression of relationship and communion with Christ. Rossetti poses questions to God that draw the reader to explore the various degrees of relationship between the communicant and God. These questions not only open a dialogue between God and the communicant but shift the focus of the communicant to the future and the development of this relationship. The conflict that the communicant experiences in terms of the relationship is one that both expresses the fullness of it now at the communion table, and at the same time, reckons a greater experience to come.
Leonard Vander Zee explains, “The Lord’s Supper is a sign of both absence and presence, both of which must be carefully balanced and deeply appreciated. Too much emphasis on Christ’s presence dehumanizes and universalizes him. Too much emphasis on his absence calls into question the work of the Spirit as Paraclete” (215). When Rossetti explores the titles of Christ for the communicant, she is expressing an awareness of the position of the communicant to Christ. In the address to the Lord, she seeks a more intimate connection from Lord to God, from Friend to Love, from King to Spouse. The titles are intentional meditations on the intimate presence of the Lord to the communicant. If he is Lord and God, then he is still present to the communicant but more inaccessible, not sharing the same nature. When God is called Friend, the relationship takes on another dimension. When Jesus told his disciples that he no longer called them servants but friends, he was in the midst of the discourse at that First Supper, the one that instituted the relationship that he would carry on with them. He told them that he was leaving and that he was going to prepare a place for them. These two statements taken together from the discourse of the institution of the Lord’s Supper remind us that his presence is available at the table, but that there is a greater communion to come and his leaving will precipitate it. His absence is foretold and explained, and it is laced with the assurance of his real presence among those who come to the Lord’s supper and the promise of an even greater presence for those who recognize his absence. Paul proclaims in his sermon about the Lord’s Supper that we proclaim Christ’s death until He comes again. The proclamation evokes two ideas of absence: first the absence brought about by Christ’s death and his subsequent resurrection which in essence moved him into a new realm of being that was not confined to the natural flesh; second, the consequence of this death for the disciples was that his presence could no longer take the same form. Underlying Paul’s statement, there is also the idea of the results of Christ’s death, in that the atoning work that he did assures the communicant of a greater measure of Christ’s presence in the proclamation of his coming glory. Rosetti’s poem then is a rehearsal of the proclamation of the Lord’s promise of his presence in the Lord’s Supper and a recognition that this promise is also to be manifested in the future, in paradise. If the Spouse is present now, and he is, then the “flame” that Christ lights in the communicant is real and active. Yet, Rossetti recognizes that there is more to come; she questions the nature and attributes of the “home above.”
Another series of questions causes the reader to contemplate the presence of the Lord in Communion and the coming manifested presence in heaven. If it is not the same, then, it is implicit in Rossetti’s language that the relationship experienced by the communicant in heaven is one that is different from the one experienced now. Vander Zee’s explanation that the Lord’s absence and presence must be carefully balanced is expressed in Rossetti’s poem. She does not lament that the Lord’s presence now is inadequate, she instead, meditates on the yet to be experienced presence of the Lord when the communicant enters heaven. Because it is impossible to understand the depth of the relationship between God and the person in heaven, Rossetti’s speculations can only be questions. If in the balance between the absence of the Lord and his presence, we can consider the depth of relationship that the communicant experiences, the communicant’s awareness of the Lord is only complete in heaven and here on earth she must content herself with the presence of the Lord that she experiences in communion and in the promised presence to come. It is significant that this longing is an expression of some absence, but I believe the absence is not the Lord’s absence but the inability of the earthly communicant to fully partake of the Lord’s presence or to fully understand it. Rossetti knows that this realization will only occur in heaven.
In Vander Zee’s statement about the absence and presence of the Lord and in relation to Rossetti’s poem, we can see that she does not put too much emphasis on either the Lord’s absence or his presence. She explores the relationship in terms of what progression there has been already, from God to Friend to Spouse. In this deepening manifestation of God’s love, under his banner of love, she sees that “All heaven flies open to me at Thy Nod.” Rosetti knows that the promise is true now and it is true in a future sense. She understands the natural condition of her soul: she is a “clod” inflamed by God’s love. In this natural condition, there is a limited perception of the working of God and therefore of his manifested love. The grace given at the communion table by the “Dove” is exactly what Vander Zee is referring to in his statement that if we focus too much on the absence of the Lord, we understate his work through the Paraclete. In the poem, Rossetti finds the Spirit’s work essential in opening the way of perception. She recognizes the Spirit’s presence in her and his work in bringing forth the very questions that she has about the relationship between herself and God. The questions themselves are evidence of the Spirit’s work drawing the soul beyond the natural realm where she perceives God’s presence as an invisible force that exudes love and fire to a divine realm that in a sense recreates the earthly one where Jesus called his disciples ‘friends’ and where John laid his head upon Christ’s breast. Christ, through his death and resurrection has exchanged a natural body for a supernatural one and his preparation of a place for the communicant in heaven assures her that she too will follow and once again in an even more intimate way lay her head on his breast.
The tension for the communicant is the tension that comes from the Spirit’s witness that there is a divine realm where the “time of love” represents that fullness of time when she is present in heaven with the Lord and the time now when she is experiencing a measure of communion with the Lord at his supper. The true presence of the Lord in Communion should not be seen as a diminished one, but as one in which the communicant, due to her natural condition, is not able to understand or fully participate in. The grace that the Spirit gives is the grace that causes the communicant to both perceive God’s presence in Communion and to appreciate the lack of presence experienced because of the limitations of her natural condition. Rossetti, in her series of questions, replicates the soul’s quest for an increasing experiential awareness of God’s presence in Communion. The progression from perceiving God in the relationship titles that she assigns him is an evidence of her understanding that the perception of the presence of God has more to do with the soul’s recognition of God’s manifested presence than his actual manifested presence. If the communicant can conceive of God as Spouse, then she can become aware of a perceived absence of this Spouse and then search for a greater experience of this relationship. This is the work of the Spirit drawing the communicant to the “time of love” when the communicant will experience the full presence of the Lord as Spouse, Lord, God, Friend, King. The full manifestation of God’s presence will come in the union of the soul with him in heaven, yet, at the same time his presence is still full, even though dimly perceived, in Communion here on earth. The promise of his full presence now is not diminished by our perception of it. In Rossetti’s poem, the soul’s recognition that there is some lack in experiencing the Lord’s presence is the very thing which inspires her to begin to perceive the depths of that relationship to come.
Rossetti, Christina. “After Communion.” In Signs of Grace David Brown and David Fuller. London: Cassel, 1995.
Vander Zee, Leonard J. Christ, Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2004.
Mary Marie Dixon, a visual artist and poet, has published creative works in periodicals and a collection of poetry, Eucharist, Enter the Sacred Way (Franciscan University Press, 2008), and exhibited visual art. Her focus on women’s spirituality and the mystics combined with the Great Plains and the spiritual power of nature makes for an eclectic mix.