Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Eucharist, Again

On a forum I frequent, a (very eloquent and courteous) Evangelical was making a case for the Eucharist being solely a memorial meal. I responded with some scriptural passages and the Church's belief concerning Christ in the Eucharist but, since the sub-forum is not available to the public (one must register and then request access to said sub-forum), I thought I'd edit a few things and post here what I had written there.

Christ says that we must eat His flesh (literally, "to tear it with our teeth," if I'm not mistaken) and drink His blood. If He were speaking metaphorically, according to Jewish idiom, he would be telling those around him to revile Him--something I don't think would lend itself to eternal life and being raised up at the last day.

Nevertheless, it's clear from the text that no one really knew what in the world Jesus was talking about in John 6. Evangelicals often say that the phrase "My words are spirit and they are life" (emph. theirs) are key to interpreting the passage, as if the term "spirit" were synonymous with "incorporeal." In response, we would say that the words "flesh" and "spirit" are not used as synonyms with "corporeal" and "incorporeal," respectively, as such a view would lead to a gnostic hatred of all things material, and such a view could hardly be said to be one friendly to a divine incarnation.

Rather, we would say that the words He spoke to us--those of eating His flesh and drinking His blood--are words (or rather, a divine word or message of our Lord) that can only be understood when one is walking in the Spirit, as St. Paul said, instead of "in the flesh." And -- let me be clear yet again -- even this phrase "in the flesh" need not mean that the material body is somehow to be rejected as unfit for divine habitation, or that the material world is somehow incapable of communicating divine grace to Creation. The flesh of mankind, it has been said, is not so much the enemy as it is the battleground. When the Spirit of our God comes to reside in us, we are then to walk according to that reality, rather than the fallen one which still wars against our God. And where does it war? It just so happens that the war takes place in our fleshly members.

So, in our opinion, when Christ states that "the Spirit gives life; the flesh profiteth nothing," we would say that these are descriptions of the same two realities that St. Paul talks about--walking according to the natural man patterned after the old Adam and without Christ, and walking according to the newness of life offered by the new Adam and shot through with Christ's divine life. In both cases, though--and especially in the latter!--we see a whole mankind reunited--spirit, soul, and body!--through and in the divine power of the resurrected Christ.

So for us to insist that it's His actual body that merges with our flesh as we eat it, that it's His life-giving blood that flows in our veins, is not only an idea that has merit in our minds, but is absolutely crucial to a proper understanding of an incarnational worldview which allows for the redemption of the seen cosmos as well as the unseen.

And yet, some would ask, could it have been intended, after all, to be a purely memorial meal? True, there was talk about believing in Him in John 6, and some Reformed apologists want to take all the "eat My flesh, drink My blood" talk and boil it down to "just believe in your heart and confess with your mouth," but that doesn't explain why Christ brings up His flesh and blood in an edible context again in the upper room at the last supper. He said we have to eat His flesh; He said that what He held in His hands in that room was His flesh and gave it to them to eat. He said we have to drink His blood; He said that what He had in the cup was His blood of the New Covenant.

So...I would say this, as a starting point: even if an Evangelical is unwilling to concede to some sort of real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, it seems to be fairly obvious that Christ is continuing His discourse in John 6--that of eating His flesh and drinking His blood--specifically in this moment, in the upper room, by giving the Apostles a tangible way to accomplish this command. Apparently this was how He was going to make it possible--somehow--for men to eat His flesh and drink His was going to be through this Eucharistic meal.

I say "somehow" and want to emphasize that, for we don't actually have a "term" for how what happens, happens when the bread and wine become the Body and Blood. Transubstantiation sits well with some of us (though it's just a theological opinion one can have, not a dogma of the Church), though I prefer to see it simply as mystery: something that's been revealed to us as happening--namely, that the bread and wine are changed by the Holy Spirit into the mystical Body and Blood of Christ--yet the understanding of how it happens when, by all appearances, it still looks/smells/tastes like bread and wine remains (blessedly) hidden.

Some will say that, due to the memorial character of the prototype of the Lord's Supper (the Passover Seder), we should heed Christ's words that this meal was a memorial of what he did, with heavy emphasis and inference being drawn from the term memorial. To separate the Lord's Supper and it's function from the prototype, they say, further compounds the confusion.

This would be true, however, only if one were to work under the assumption that it is, ultimately, to be the Old Testament that informs the New, rather than the other way around. In fact, we must look back over the Old in light of the New; the reality doesn't have much to learn anymore from mere types and shadows. In spite of the merely symbolic character of the Old Testament Seder, St. Paul says that the bread which we break is our communion of the Body of Christ--the term κοινωνια which he uses specifically relates to a sharing or communion of more than one thing. We eat the bread; we have κοινωνια with the Body of Christ. We drink the blessed cup; we have κοινωνια with the Blood of Christ. It would seem that the memorial character of the Seder (which I agree, was heavily and probably exclusively memorialistic) did not transfer over to the Eucharist so thoroughly and exclusively as to preclude any kind of contact with Christ thereby.

This being our teaching--that Christ's sacrifice is somehow present in the Eucharist--it follows that one of the things that Roman Catholics and Orthodox are used to explaining "again and again" (and hopefully "in peace") is that we in no way teach that our experience of Christ in the Eucharist is in any way a re-crucifixion of the Lord. The sacrifice He made, He made once, for all, never to be repeated. It is that same sacrifice which is made present for all the faithful in the Eucharist.

Yet how can this be, if Christ was human, and a human body is limited by space and time? In confessing that one Man's human body can be distributed to thousands upon thousands of assemblies of the faithful (at least!) every Sunday, are we thus confusing the divine and human natures of Christ--something we are so quick to condemn in others? Not at all. We would say, first of all, that Christ's glorified body was much different than the pre-resurrected one the Apostle's witnessed, so much so that He was not immediately recognizable by all after He had risen. We have no problem with His being able to pass through doors and vanish; why is it such a stretch to grant His life-giving, resurrected flesh this miraculous property, as well? Christ is the bread of life, the bread of heaven; just as He multiplied the loaves for the multitudes, yet what was given was all of the original bread (a miracle), so is what is given to the faithful that same Christ, sacrificed in time once, 2,000 years ago, and multiplied and distributed to the faithful in a beautiful, glorious miracle that gives us access to the Fruit of Life that blossomed forth on the Tree of the Cross. We can now eat His flesh and drink His blood as He commanded. Eating it, we die not as did the old Adam, but shall live forever as promised by the New.

We are not, as has been said above, to equate the type and shadow of the Seder with the Eucharistic meal, and neither are we to equate the life-giving blood of our Lord with the mere, terrestrial manna of old in terms of life-giving properties. Our Lord Himself contrasts His own body with that manna of old when He says in John 6 that, "Your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead...I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever: and the bread that I will give is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world." It would seem that Christ is making a very sharp distinction between the two realities of manna and His life-giving flesh.

It is true that, in both the case of those who ate manna and that of those who eat the body of our Lord, the biological functions cease in the body, and, thus, the spirits of both groups depart from respective bodies. This aspect is acknowledged by the Church; we do not say that those who partake of the Lord's Body and Blood cannot in anywise experience death. We do, however, qualify said admission by saying that the sting of death is avoided, though death be still (temporarily) experienced. We are told by Christ that, even if we die physically, not even that (seeming) death will separate us from His love and that we "will be raised up at the last day"--something never promised to those who ate manna in the wilderness. Indeed, Christ concedes physical cessation of biological life while acknowledging a continuing--and, ultimately, victorious--life that no death can quell: "I am the resurrection, and the life: he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live: And whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die." St. Paul would agree, that which is sown in corruption will be reaped in incorruption, but no eternal harvest will thus be yielded lest the seed go into the ground and die. As with our Lord, who offered His own body as the Protoseed that would become the Firstfruits of our own resurrection, so with us, His followers, who carry His gracious Body and Blood in ourselves, proclaiming His death to the point of our own departure from this life. Furthermore, having carried the Apocalypse's life-bearing Lamb and Word within ourselves even into the tomb, our still-corruptible bodies will, on the last day, rise to glory as our Lord states.


Lucian said...

Neither Jews, nor Protestants, are heirs to the reality: both share in a type: the first anticipating, the second remembering, but none of them sharing in the reality.

Jacob said...

Christ says that we must eat His flesh (literally, "to tear it with our teeth," if I'm not mistaken) and drink His blood.

τρωγω trôgô might be said to mean "chew," versus εσθιω (aorist efagon εφαγον, aorist stem φαγ-) esthiô "eat," except the words were sometimes used for each other, and St. John, in his Gospel and the Revelation (neither word occurs in the Johannine Epistles) never uses the present tense form of εσθιω, but only its aorist forms (i.e., φαγ-/εφαγον), and when he wants to use a present-tense form of "eat," he uses τρωγω [and that only as a participle ο τρωγων "the-one (masculine) eating", never as a finite verb in the literature we have].

I.e., it appears that the argument could be made that the reason St. John uses τρωγω when he has Jesus talking about "eating" His flesh is because that is the word he (and his culture) uses for the present tense of "to eat," considering τρωγω and εσθιω to be basically synonymous, with differences in usage, not meaning.

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I think Scott Hahn in one of his books or essays argues against the Protestant symbolic/spiritual understanding of John 6 and communion by saying that the word "spiritual" is never used with the meaning we give the term "symbolic."

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Re: the Last Supper. Identifying it with the Passover is problematic, as I found when I started examining my presuppositions about the matter. While the Synoptics seem to clearly do so, John's Gospel places it prior to the Passover Seder (which has caused some to conjecture that Jesus and His disciples followed a different calendar). Some say it was a Passover meal, but deliberately staged beforehand. Others point out that the word for "unleavened" (bread) is used neither by the Synoptics nor by St. John nor by St. Paul, but the word for regular bread, αρτος artos, is used, and that might be the reason the church apparently used leavened bread for communion from the beginning, from what I've read. Also, there are strong affinities between Jesus's death and the Day of Atonement, rather than Passover, and in John 6, Jesus likens His flesh to the manna, not to the unleavened bread of Passover.