on eucharist and absence

J. M. W. Turner, Seascape with a Sailing Boat and a Ship, c.1825–30. Oil on canvas, 46.7 × 61 cm. The Tate Gallery, London.jpg

Scott Kirkland writes:

COVID-19 has brought the frailty and vulnerability of the body into sharp relief. Some have suggested that in the wake of COVID-19 we should consider practices such as virtual eucharists. I would like to suggest we resist that, and think a bit more about what bodily absence might symbolise.

COVID-19 provides occasion to think about the bodily absence of Christ in productive ways. There’s something about the absence of the eucharist which gives way to a realisation that it is always an act of hope, of anticipation. The Eucharist, however, can be something we take for granted, something we don’t miss until it is gone. The absence of the eucharist is also indicative of the absence of an ability to meet together in, as, and through the body of Christ. That which binds us together as one body is taken away for a time.

Søren Kierkegaard tells a story of a lover watching the beloved disappear on a ship over the horizon. It is in that moment of absence that love is somehow brought to attention. This is more than not knowing what you have until it’s gone, it is a matter of not knowing what we don’t have in the first place. We don’t have Christ, his body has ascended and we await his coming. The eucharist is an enactment of this hope.

Image: J. M. W. Turner, Seascape with a Sailing Boat and a Ship, c.1825–30. Oil on canvas, 46.7 × 61 cm. The Tate Gallery, London.

The Eucharist ‘puts an end to every war waged by heavenly and earthly enemies’

Francisco de Zurbarán, Agnus Dei (1635–40). Prado Museum, Madrid.

Francisco de Zurbarán, Agnus Dei (1635–40). Prado Museum, Madrid.

A good read here from William Cavanaugh. Here’s a snippet:

True sacrifice can never be the immolation of a victim, making the other poor dumb bastard die for his country. True sacrifice is nothing other than the unity of people with one another through the participation in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Christ’s sacrifice reverses the idea that one must achieve domination over the enemy to achieve unity. Christ instead takes on the role of victim, absorbs the violence of the world instead of deals it out, and thereby offers a world in which reconciliation rather than violence can hold sway.

This is why the Eucharist is the antidote to war for Augustine. In the Eucharist, the whole economy of scarcity and competition that leads to war is done away with. Augustine makes clear that God does not need to be appeased as the Roman gods do. God is abundance, not lack, so participation in God’s life in the body of Christ does away with competition over scarce goods among people. True sacrifice is unity, and true unity is the participation of the human community in God’s life …

War depends on dividing up the world in such a way that some are excluded from this drama. We prefer to make rigid distinctions between friend and enemy, between our virtue and their depravity. We are thereby licensed to ignore the role our own interventions in their world may have had in stirring up their animosity toward us. When faced with war, we might do better to respond first in a penitential key. At the beginning of World War II, the Catholic Worker newspaper ran a headline: “We Are Responsible for the War in Europe.”

Christians who embrace non-violence are often accused of unrealistically trying to impose a perfectionist ethic on mere sinful human beings. I find it remarkable that travelling to the other side of the world to shoot people is considered somehow everyday and mundane, while refraining is considered impossibly heroic.

The reason we should reject violence is not from a prideful conviction that we are the pure in a world full of evil. The gospel call to non-violence comes from the realization that we are not good enough to use violence, not pure enough to direct history through violent means. Peacemaking requires not extreme heroism, but a humble restraint in identifying enemies, and an everyday commitment to caring for members of one’s body in mundane ways: feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, all of whom, Jesus says, are Jesus himself.

Christian non-violence imitates Jesus’s nonviolence, but it also participates in Jesus’s self-emptying into sinful humanity, his sharing in the brokenness of the world. It is this peacemaking that we enact in sharing the broken bread of the Eucharist.

PARK(ing) Day Eucharist

Parking day

Now here’s a little invitation that I would love to see a few churches take up: PARK(ing) Day, which takes place this year on Friday 20 September, is ‘an annual worldwide event where artists, designers and citizens transform metered parking spots into temporary public parks’. And it occurred to me (and clearly to others too) that this just might be a great place, way and opportunity for Jesus’ friends – and his friends-to-be – to celebrate the Lord’s Supper; i.e., to proclaim the weird and inconvenient and public activity of God’s reign in the world.

And while it’s true that every now and then, reality protrudes ‘into the protective armor of illusion and the result is psychological havoc’, what’s not to welcome – and to like – about that!

Mass, Dunedin style

New Zealand Tablet, Volume IV, Issue 169, 23 June 1876, Page 1.

‘The first Mass was celebrated … in the loft of the old bottle store of Burke the brewer. About 20 people were present and they had to ascend a rather rickety ladder and squeeze through a narrow trapdoor to get to the loft. The second Catholic Mass in Dunedin was celebrated in the skittle alley of the Queen’s Arms Hotel, Princes Street South’. – Frank Tod, Pubs Galore: History of Dunedin Hotels 1848–1984, p. 67. [HT: Jennie Coleman]

Easter Eucharist, a conversation with a five-year old

Here’s a snippet of a wee conversation that took place this morning between my daughter and myself – in church:

‘So why do we eat bread and drink wine today?’, I asked.

‘The wine is God’s life, and the bread is God’s skin’, she said. ‘We eat and drink so that we won’t die. When we eat and drink, God’s life and our life is joined together’.

Impressed by this young anti-Zwinglian (a description she embraces with some enthusiasm), I enquired: ‘Since when have you been reading Ignatius of Antioch?’ (Ignatius once referred to the Eucharist as ‘the medicine of immortality’).

And she said, ‘Ha? Can we have our chocolates soon?’

An Inaugural Lecture: ‘Learning to See and to Waddle with our Tongues: a view from the Table’

One of the noble traditions around the place where I work is the annual inaugural lecture. It is a public event, and is typically well-supported by Dunedinites, plus a few ring-ins from other places. It was my turn this year to deliver the lecture, and I chose as my subject the Lord’s Supper. The lecture was titled ‘Learning to See and to Waddle with our Tongues: a view from the Table’. A number of folk have asked me for a copy (possibly in the vain hope that it may make more sense the second-time ’round), so here’s what I said:

Robert Jenson on the Supper

I’ve just completed writing a lecture on the Supper. It was great fun to research, not least because I used it as an excuse to read Robert Jenson’s two-volume systematics. And while I don’t engage with Jenson in the lecture per se, his charateristically-stimulating work charged my thinking in ways that I had not anticipated and which birthed some fruitful avenues of thought. Here’s one passage that I spent some time meditating on:

‘When the Eucharist is celebrated, Christ’s promises of the Kingdom and of his presence in it are in fact fulfilled: even though the Kingdom is still future so long as we are not risen, each celebration is already a wedding feast. Anticipation, we may say, is visible prophecy; so in the Eucharist we come together to live the Kingdom’s fellowship beforehand. But our coming together, however faithful and pious, does not locate us at the gate of heaven, unless God puts us there. That he does is the content of faith that has the Supper itself as the external object to which it clings. That is, it is the content of faith in those other promises: “This bread is my body. This cup is my blood of the new covenant”’. – Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, Volume 2: The Works of God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 216.

The liturgical year: training for life in this world and the next

Halden Doerge’s latest post, The impotence of the liturgical year, is well worth reading. And why I have neither the time nor the inclination to give a full response, I did want to post just a few of my initial reactions. To publish one’s thoughts on-the-run, as it were, is always a somewhat dangerous thing to do in blogdom, but what the salami; it’s close to Christmas, and my responsibility-guard is down.

What Halden wishes to affirm needs to be affirmed: that Advent and the Church’s liturgical calendar as a whole is, properly conceived, about God and not about a fascination with or idolatry about liturgical time per se; that God in his freedom may meet us like he did Zechariah, i.e., while ‘going about the usual liturgical practices of [the] calendar’; we ought not presume that God in his freedom will meet us like he did Zechariah, i.e., while ‘going about the usual liturgical practices of [the] calendar’; that the liturgical calendar functions as something like an icon insofar as we are invited to look through rather than at it, etc., etc., … So three or more cheers for Halden. Halden may also be right when he suggests that some of the claims made by ‘liturgical enthusiasts’ for the efficacy of calendar observance are exaggerated and often appear to lack any empirical testing (I think that the Bible calls this ‘fruit’; the Bible also encourages us to look for such). While I confess that I’ve never actually met such enthusiasts (I haven’t met most people), it is probable that in a world where people can get excited about watching synchronised swimming that some such people do exist.

But I want to defend the claim, made by Hauerwas and others (there is some irony here for it was Halden, among others, who inspired me to read Hauerwas again after some years of neglect), that living in a deeper awareness of the story of Jesus and of the Church does, in the freedom and grace of God, ‘do’ something. Specifically, it trains us. It immerses us into a gospel-forming rhythm. And that is precisely something that the Church’s calendar encourages (rather than ‘does’) too. Like praying the Lord’s Prayer, or fasting, the Church’s calendar calls us into the river with others and watches to see if we are learning to swim in it yet, or otherwise. It does not turn us into liturgical automatons. Again, it trains us. It trains us in the way of ordinary gospel-posture. (It seems significant to me that the bulk of the Church’s time is ‘ordinary’). To claim that keeping Church time ‘does’ something is different to claiming that such time-keeping has some kind of magical power, something akin to a superstitious understanding of baptism articulated by some (in less enlightened times than our own ;-)). The former is to say something about the way that faith understands God’s way with us; the latter is simply atheistic.

I understand that every time we come to the Lord’s Table, for example, which is where the entire Church story is enacted in concentrated form, we are offered training in how to live sacramentally in the world, to unearth its idolatries and to expose what William Stringfellow (in Free in Obedience) calls the ‘transience of death’s power in the world’. I agree that the training itself doesn’t, in Halden’s words, ‘just do it’, i.e., do the work in and of itself of making us more like the discipling community intended by the training ‘event’, but I’m not sure that the fault (if we are looking for such) here lies with either the teacher nor with the training manual. I think that Jamie Smith’s thesis, in Desiring the Kingdom, is basically right. To be baptised into the liturgical life of the community is to be immersed into its habit-forming practices, practices which are invitational, which are undertaken with a view to fostering transformation of both mind and performance, and have something like what we might call eschatological reserve or groan. In other words, they are the gift of the Spirit, and so bear the print of the Spirit’s hand. As one of my students put it to me recently, the Church is called to be ‘a foretaste of a community of right relationships’, not the kingdom arrived! This begs the question of how the Church’s observance of ‘real’ time prepares and directs one for life as it shall be: ‘For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known’ (1 Cor 13.12).

Or think of the Supper, the central act of the Christian community. As the community gathers around the Table, we are offered, among other things, training in how to forgive others. God creates koinonia around the Table in which, as Hauerwas and Willimon argue in Resident Aliens (sorry Dan but I think that Hauerwas has a point here, even if his response to you was less than satisfying), ‘even small, ordinary occurrences every Sunday, like eating together in Eucharist, become opportunities to have our eyes opened to what God is up to in the world and to be part of what God is doing. If we get good enough at forgiving the strangers who gather around the Lord’s Table, we hope that we shall be good at forgiving the strangers who gather with us around the breakfast table. Our everyday experience of life in the congregation is training in the arts of forgiveness; it is everyday, practical confirmation of the truthfulness of the Christian vision’ (p. 91), and it is an invitation to live as if the one who first appeared as a stranger at the Emmaus breakfast was serious when he preached the so-called Sermon on the Mount.

As a side note, Jaroslav Pelikan (in The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 4: Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300–1700), p. 124) recalls an interesting point argued by Nicholas de Cusa. While de Cusa supported communion in only one species (bread), he linked Eucharistic practice with the health of the church. Pelikan summarises de Cusa’s position thus: ‘When the love of the church was at its peak, believers communicated often and under both species; when it was only warm, they received more rarely and by means of intinction; and now that it was merely tepid, they received even less often and under one species. Thus, “the usage was commensurate with the love of the church”’.

Perhaps it is no coincidence, afterall, that St Paul comes back to the Supper as he deals with the Corinthians and their train-wreck of a church. We either feast on Christ, or we feast on each other!

Herbert McCabe: ‘Human words become God’s Word’

Back in 2001, for the Feast of Corpus Christi, Herbert McCabe O.P., delivered a fascinating sermon on the Eucharist. It was titled ‘Human words become God’s Word’. It reads:

‘The eucharist is about the way we are with each other, about our unity. This is obvious from its shape, a ritual meal, an eating and drinking together, to say we share one life.

Now it is not just an ordinary ritual meal, but a sacramental ritual meal, because it expresses the mystery of our unity. It is plain that the eucharist is not a meal any more than baptism is taking a shower. It ought not to look like an occasion when hungry people come to eat and drink. It is a token meal, when something is said. The bread and wine are there for symbolism, not nourishment, though of course they wouldn’t have their symbolism if they weren’t food and drink.

A purely ritual meal in which all share a token portion of bread and wine is purely symbolic, a piece of language, a word. It is not because the eucharist is a sacrament that bread and wine become signs: they are already signs in a perfectly ordinary way. To see the eucharist as a sacrament is to see it as symbolic not just of our human friendship or of the human mystery within it, but of the unfathomable mystery within and beyond it, of community in the Spirit of God.

We cannot express this unity in the Spirit in the same signs with which we symbolise human friendship; they have to be transformed into a new language. We can attempt to express the depth of human relationships in human words, but they cannot adequately express our relationship in the Spirit. Only God can speak of God: to express this unity we need not just human speech but God’s speech. That is what it is for the eucharist to be a sacrament: what on the face of it are human words deepen into God’s Word, which speaks the unfathomable mystery of his love in which we share.

The eucharist is also the sacrament of the human body of Christ. The Word by which God’s love is made present amongst us is not in the first place words, but a human being of flesh and blood, not an idea about God, but the enacted life-story of Jesus of Nazareth. When we say God’s Word expresses our unity in the Spirit in the eucharist, we mean that language used for our love for each other is no longer just human words of bread and wine, but the divine Word-made-flesh, the real body and blood of Christ.

This is the difference between Catholic teaching and the idea that bread and wine are human symbols expressing what Christ does for us. Catholics say that this cannot be expressed except in God’s language; it can only be spoken by God’s speaking his Word, the bodily reality of Jesus. It is not just that our language is now used to speak of Christ, but Christ himself, the Word, is now our language: our words, symbolic bread and wine, have become Christ, the flesh and blood of God’s Word.

So while to one without faith we seem to be dealing simply in human symbols, we know that that is only to look at appearances. In reality it is the body and blood of God’s Word, his whole humanity, that is the sign of our unity in the Spirit. When we eat his body and drink his blood, we speak and hear God’s Word telling of our divine friendship, just as when we share human food we speak a human word of human friendship.

Finally, the eucharist is the sacrament of a body broken and blood shed. Jesus’ life-story was completed in his execution. His obedience to his mission to be truly human meant that we, the world, killed him. Because of the disunited world we have made, the Word takes flesh that is tortured and killed. The divine language and sacrament of our unity is Christ’s body broken and blood shed.

This feast of friendship celebrates the cross. This friendship the world will hate and it belongs to those in solidarity with the victims of the world, and expects only suffering and death. The sacrament of love is also sacrament of death – Christ’s death through which we come to a new life in the love which is the Holy Spirit, in which we shall live for eternity’.

To intinct, or not to intinct?

Mike Crowl’s comment on the previous post led me to Richard Giles’ somewhat controversial book Creating Uncommon Worship: Transforming the Liturgy of the Eucharist wherein Giles had this to say:

In every method of sharing communion there lurks a gremlin that needs to be named, and the name of the gremlin is intinction. This is an antisocial habit, which smacks of fear, arrogance and lack of faith, symptomatic of our not thinking what we are doing. It is a problem that needs to be addressed by the community, led by the pastor and his/her leadership team.

Although of ancient provenance (first springing out of the woodwork in the seventh century) it has been repeatedly condemned and outlawed by the Church. Fear of spilling the Precious Blood of Christ, or of catching the plague, may have made sense in the Middle Ages, but surely not today. It is a particularly grave misdemeanour for Anglicans and Lutherans, whose spiritual ancestors fought so hard in the Reformation period for the restoration to the people of communion in both kinds. How ironic if today we were to turn up our noses at the chalice!

Intinction poses two problems, theological and practical:

1.     The common cup has always been a potent symbol of the bond between disciple and Lord. The passing of the cup is a dramatic feature of the gospel accounts of the Last Supper, and those who would be close to him are challenged, as were James and John, with the question, ‘Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?’ (Mark 10.38)

2.     It leaves such a mess for those who come after, especially so in the era of real bread, when those who instinct reduce the contents of the chalice to a soup.

The remedy lies in a renewed education of congregations about the history of the sacrament, the privilege of the common cup, and its safety on health grounds. We also need a few more pastors who will slap wrists. (pp. 200–1)

An undercooked theology? An over-reaction? Or both?

Aquinas, Luther and Calvin on the role of the priest in the eucharist

While in the current of writing a lecture on the Eucharist, I have been enjoying intincting – and, in some cases, re-intincting – into some great books: William T. Cavanaugh’s Torture and Eucharist: Theology, Politics, and the Body of Christ, Angel F. Mendez Montoya’s The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist, Stephen Sykes’ Power and Christian Theology, among them. William Stringfellow’s essay ‘Liturgy as Political Event’ is also wonderful. I’m also enjoying George Hunsinger’s The Eucharist and Ecumenism: Let Us Keep the Feast, a book that deserves a very close read and is certainly among the boldest and most important studies available on the subject.

Hunsinger notes that Thomas Aquinas, who was among the most impressive of the pre-Reformation theologians, understood the role of the priest in the eucharist as in some sense mediating between Christ and the faithful. In other words, for Thomas, the priest was the central figure in the eucharistic sacrifice. So Hunsinger writes: ‘‘He [i.e., the priest] acted both “in the person of Christ” (in persona Christi) as well as “in the person of the church” (in persona ecclesiae) (ST 3.82.8). In the person of Christ, he consecrated the sacrament. In the person of the church, he offered Christ in prayer to God (ST 3.82.8). Whatever the priest did when acting in the person of Christ was taken up in turn by the people (ST 3.83.4). The priest’s union with Christ, however, was different than it was for the laity. “Devout layfolk are one with Christ by spiritual union through faith and charity,” explained Aquinas, but the priest was one with Christ “by sacramental power” (ST, 3.82.1). At his ordination the priest had received a special status, “the power of offering sacrifice in the church for the living and the dead” (ST 3.82.1). The priest was set apart from the people, and above them, by virtue of this sacramental power’ (pp. 114–5).

Luther, of course, would radically qualify – or extend – this notion in his argument that the priest symbolised the priesthood of all believers, while possessing no special powers of consecration and sacrifice in and of himself. Luther stated:

‘Thus it becomes clear that it is not the priest alone who offers the sacrifice of the mass; it is the faith which each one has for himself. This is the true priestly office, through which Christ is offered as a sacrifice to God, an office which the priest, with the outward ceremonies of the mass, simply represents. Each and all are, therefore, equally priests before God . . . For faith must do everything. Faith alone is the true priestly office. It permits no one to take its place. Therefore all Christian men are priests, all women are priestesses, be they young or old, master or servant, mistress or maid, learned or unlearned. Here there is no difference unless faith be unequal’. Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 35: Word and Sacrament 1 (ed. J.J. Pelikan, et al.; vol. 35; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 100–1.

Hunsinger, in Eucharist and Ecumenism, properly notes that Luther upheld the idea of grace alone by combining christological mediation with communal participation:

‘The believer and the community can be said to offer Christ by participating in Christ’s own self-offering, which in turn mediates them into eternal life with God. Inclusion in Christ’s priestly self-offering is at once the promise and the consequence of grace. At the same time, the place of the priest in the mass has been radically redefined. Christ the eternal priest does not operate in and through the visible priest, nor does the priest offer Christ as the invisible victim through the bread and the cup. The bread and the cup, for Luther, are the sacramental but not the sacrificial body and blood of Christ. That is, they are not the means of reciprocal self-offering to God by Christ, priest, and people. They are not the eucharistic means by which Christ is offered up. The bread and cup are simply a pledge of Christ’s faithfulness to his promises. It is not the priest but the faith of each believer that offers Christ to God. The role of the priest is simply to symbolize by outward ceremonies the one true priestly office, which is faith’. (p. 135)

The Reformed, following Calvin and the best of those who spoke in his wake, sought to witness to how the cross and the eucharist are held in a unity that does not violate but reinforces their distinction via two forms: The constitutive form is the cross while the mediating form is the eucharist. ‘The cross is always central, constitutive, and definitive, while the eucharist is always secondary, relative, and derivative. The eucharistic form of the one sacrifice does not repeat the unrepeatable, but it does attest what it mediates and mediate what it attests. What it mediates and attests is the one whole Jesus Christ, who in his body and blood is both the sacrifice and the sacrament in one. As the sacrifice, he is the Offerer and the Offering. As the sacrament, he is the Giver and the Gift. The Son’s sacrificial offering of himself to the Father for us on the cross is the ground of the Father’s sacramental gift of his Son to the faithful in the eucharist’ (Ibid. 151). As TF Torrance has shown in Theology in Reconciliation, the cross is the ‘dimension of depth’ in the eucharist. The eucharist has no significance in and of itself. Its significance is both derived and grounded in the cross. The cross alone is, as TF Torrance notes, the saving ‘content, reality and power’ of the eucharist. It is to this that the Reformed minister and church directs our gaze.

It was precisely such a position which led PT Forsyth, the theologian of the cross, in his lectures on The Church and the Sacraments, to offer the following statement:

The Lord’s Supper is the most complete and plenary of all the cultic ways of confessing the work of reconciliation, where the sin of humanity is conquered by the grace of God in a holy Kingdom. It is therefore the real centre of the Church’s common and social life. This should not be sought in social reunions, or ecclesiastical monarchy, or philanthropic cohesion, but in the spiritual region, in the worship, and the theology moulding it. For here we are summoned to what is our vital centre deep within all the individual wills that wish to unite, to what is the centre of the faith that makes the new Humanity, and to the goal which rounds all’. (p. 260)



Eucharist and the politics of power

‘The church expresses a corporate existence where divine agency interacts with human affairs, and such an interaction nurtures, that is to say gives life and shape to, the ecclesial body … [A] theopolitics of Christ’s Body in the Eucharist is rooted not exclusively in power, but, in a more primary sense, in divine caritas, which is expressed with a radical gesture of kenosis, reciprocity, and concrete communal practices. This is not to say that power is herein dismissed, or that the Eucharist is a sign of disempowerment. There is a politics of power here. Yet it is a power that integrates plenitude of desire; it is the paradoxical force of sacrifice on the cross; it is the humble power of bread broken into pieces for the purpose of sharing; it is the washing of feet that means a life of service to one another; it is the power of giving one’s life for the other. In other words, this is the theopolitical power of caritas, where the extraordinary embraces and transfigures the ordinary: God’s “sovereignty disclosed at the breaking of the bread,” as Samuel Wells remarks’. – Angel F. Méndez Montoya, The Theology of Food: Eating and the Eucharist (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), 115–6.