A Feast of Meanings – Theology of the Eucharist (Part 2)

A Feast of Meanings – Theology of the Eucharist (Part 2) July 31, 2011

It’s all About Presence

I don’t know if you’ve seen the movie “Monster’s Inc.,” but there is a charming scene where the head monster in the monster energy factory tells one of the scarers that it is “all about presence” (which is how you scare children in order to harvest their scream which the monsters use for energy in Monstropolis). Eucharist is all about presence! The debates about Christ’s presence are not esoteric or needless debates about the mere meaning of a ritual. One’s Eucharistic theology of “presence” is derivative of wider beliefs about the nature of God, human salvation, God’s communication of himself, and how God is found.[1] What one believes about incarnation, gospel, and redemption is expressed in what one thinks of the presence of Christ in the bread and wine. In evaluating the various proposals about the presence of Christ, I find the Catholic, Lutheran, and Zwinglian views not entirely false in everything they say, but highly dissatisfying in the end.

Against the Catholic view, though with a vibrant history in its veins, I tend to think that they have gone beyond “presence” to a virtual “mutation” of Jesus in the element and so mitigated the uniqueness of Christ’s incarnation. I must ask, with jocularity and not irreverence, what it would be like for a Catholic Californian hippie, under the influence of certain substances, to try to explain transubstantiation to me, quite funny I imagine. Though Thomas Aquinas and the Council of Trent deployed the resources of Aristotlean thought and the arsenal of their Eucharistic tradition, yet in the end, transubstantiation still sounds “weird”. The Catholic magisterium has not fashioned a satisfactory answer as to how the elements are both bread and wine and Jesus’ body and blood at the same time. If you have to invoke Aristotle and some kookie distinction between substance and accidents, then you are pretty much out of ideas already. I eminently prefer the Eastern Orthodox Church’s explanation for the real presence of Christ in the elements. I once asked an Orthodox priest, “Nickos, mate, how can the bread and wine be bread and wine and be Christ at the same time?” After a brief paused, he looked me in the eye and replied, “Buggered if I know mate, it’s just a mystery!” At least he’s honest: we don’t know and we can’t know. The Catholic tradition acknowledges the paschal mystery, but would be better off dropping transubstantiation, and just running with the mystery theme. On top of that, one can grant the cleary Eucharistic sub-text to John 6 with its references to eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood (esp. vv. 51-58). However, John’s Gospel is decidedly asacramental since Jesus is never baptized and he never institutes the Eucharist in the narrative. The big emphasis in the Fourth Gospel is on faith, believing, and trusting in the Father and the Son (e.g., John 5:24; 20:31). The discourse in John 6 is largely metaphorical for believing in Jesus Christ as the one who takes away the sins of the world. Still it’s hard not to think about the Eucharist when one reads this. Calvin saw an “intimation” of the Eucharist in John 6 because it teaches that Christ is the bread of life, we believe in him for that, and we express our faith in him by feeding on him at the Eucharist. For Calvin, Jesus is teaching that our salvation is treasured up in our faith, but there is also a real communication of him that takes place in his body and blood.[2] So I would say that John 6 is not about the Eucharist, but it certainly foreshadows it. Consequently: “This means that if John 6 is not about the eucharist, the eucharist is undoubtedly about John 6.”[3]

Against the Lutheran view, one feels as if they are still groping after an explanation that retains Christ’s real presence, but is sufficiently distanced from the Catholic view of transubstantiation. The problem as I see it is that the difference between consubstantiation and transubstantiation looks to be mostly semantic rather than ontological. Furthermore, the Lutheran denuniciation that the Reformed churches believe in only a “spiritual presence” like an illusory or fictive apparition of Christ around the elements is a caricature. That is unfair because the Reformed generally believe in a real presence, but without the confusion of consubstantiation. In addition, in the words of institution, “This is my body” (Matt 26:26-28; Mark 14:22-24; Luke 22:19-20), we have to remember that there is no copula in Aramaic like the verb to-be estin in Greek. So the Aramaic-speaking Jesus never said “is”! Just as the lamb sacrificed and eaten at Passover represented something beyond itself like the Exodus, Jesus’ body and blood symbolize his sacrificial death and the institution of the new covenant. So “this is” must mean “this represents.” Though I’ll add the qualification of G.B. Caird that symbols are more than metaphors, like a kiss or handshake, they are a means of conveyinging what they represent.[4] At the institution of the meal, the bread and wine symbolized Jesus’ sacrificial death and effected the inauguration of a new covenant. The other thing to remember is that when Paul says, “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26), the meal looks forward to the Lord’s bodily return and thus presupposes his bodily absence in the interim. So whatever “presence” we have in the Eucharist, it is not Jesus’ physical body that is present, since his glorified body is exclusively located in heaven. According to Richard Hays: “Thus, the meal acknowledges the absence of the Lord and mingles memory and hope, recalling his death and awaiting his coming again.”[5]

Against the Zwinglian view, I have to profess that most Baptist churches I have visited (and not a few Presbyterian churches too)[6] believe in the doctrine of the “real absence” of Jesus from Eucharist. Wherever Jesus is, he is nowhere near the bread and the wine (whoops make that grape juice). In fact, it is probably better that Jesus wait outside the church during our communion services, because if he came too close to the bread and grape juice we might end up turning Catholic! There is no denying by anyone, neither Catholic nor Orthodox, that the Eucharist is a memorial meal (see “do this in remembrance of me” in Luke 22:19; 1 Cor 11:24-25). The Eucharist commemorates and celebrates the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ. However, on the Zwinglian view, there is still a gaping gap between the sign and the one who is signified by the elements. I think there is clearly more to the Eucharist than memory of Jesus’ death and reminding us what we already knew, that Christ is with us. Consider the following. The two travelers to Emmaus told the disciples how they met Jesus on their journey and how he was “made known to them in the breaking of the bread (en tē klasei tou artou)” (Luke 24:35). The Eucharistic echoes are transparent here. Luke is evidently pointing ahead to Acts 2 where the disciples were dedicated to “breaking bread” together in their fellowship (Acts 2:42, 46). When the disciples meet together to break bread they also meet with Jesus in the bread. In addition, Paul teaches about a real encounter with Christ through the elements. Through the wine there is a real “participation” in the blood of Christ and a real “participation” in the body of Christ through the bread (1 Cor 10:16). The word for “participation” is koinōnia meaning “fellowship” or “sharing”. Plain as day, through bread and wine, we actually commune with Christ, and this communion requires an exclusive allegiance that forbades us from partaking of pagan sacrifices. The bread and wine of Eucharist actually fosters a vertical communion with the risen Christ and facilitates a closer horizontal relationship with fellow believers. I remain concerned that the Zwinglian position is reducible to a quasi-docetic view of the Lord’s Supper based on an aversion to the possibility of physical presentations of Jesus Christ to the church. But if one believes that the Word became flesh, then why cannot one believe that the Word meets us afresh in the bread of a meal that Jesus himself instituted?

Stepping back for a minute, one thing we have to say is that the early church very quickly developed a notion of a real presence of Jesus at the Eucharist. Ignatius wrote: “I want the bread of God, which is the flesh of Christ who is of the seed of David; and for drink I want his blood, which is incorruptible love.” Similarly, Justin Martyr said: “For we do not receive these things as common bread or as common drink; but as Jesus Christ our Savior being incarnate by God’s word who took on flesh and blood for our salvation, so also we have been taught that the food consecrated by the word of prayer which comes from him, from which our flesh and blood are nourished by transformation, is the flesh and blood of that incarnate Jesus.”[7] The early church probably arrived at this conclusion of a “real presence” by reading Jesus’ words of institution (Matt 26:26-29) in light of the Johannine Eucharistic discourse (John 6:26-65). The question is what kind of presence is found in the Eucharist and by what instrument is that presence communicated to us.

In the end, I think the Reformed position is the one that has the most explanatory power for understanding Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist. The Reformed view is that the Spirit makes Christ present in the Eucharist and it is the Spirit that communicates benefits to us in the Eucharist. The presence of Christ is not mediated through the Church’s mutation of the elements into Christ’s body and blood (i.e., transubstantiation or consubstantiation). The presence of Christ is not restricted to the believer’s faith reducing the bread and wine to a memorial. It is the Holy Spirit who draws Christ downward and the believer upward to meet Christ in the gospel-meal.[8] The Reformed view of the Eucharist is thoroughly Trinitarian as it highlights the gracious character of the Father in giving us Christ. The sacrament presents us to Christ and unites us with him as food for our soul. The Holy Spirit is the instrument of our union with Christ and perichoretically energizes the elements to convey the presence of Christ and the grace that accompanies his work.[9]

Moreover, I would maintain that the presence of Christ in the meal, a real “participation” in Christ, is absolutely essential for the meal to have any efficacy or value. Calvin’s words, from his Shorter Treatise on the Lord’s Supper, are robust on this matter:

We begin now to enter on the question so much debated, both anciently and at the present time—how we are to understand the words in which the bread is called the body of Christ, and the wine his blood. This may be disposed of without much difficulty, if we carefully observe the principle which I lately laid down, viz., that all the benefit which we should seek in the Supper is annihilated if Jesus Christ be not there given to us as the substance and foundation of all. That being fixed, we will confess, without doubt, that to deny that a true communication of Jesus Christ is presented to us in the Supper, is to render this holy sacrament frivolous and useless—an execrable blasphemy unfit to be listened to.

You read him right! No presence, means there is no point, no benefit, and no purpose to this meal. If we do not meet Christ in and through the bread and wine, then this meal is an exercise in futility. But if Christ is present in the bread and the wine, then we have here a means of grace, a harvest of blessings, and a real communion with Christ.

The Anglican tradition has emphasized the element of “participation” or “partaking” with Christ in the bread and wine from 1 Cor 10:16. So that: “[I]t is a Sacrament of our Redemption by Christ’s death: insomuch that to such as rightly, worthily, and with faith, receive the same, the Bread which we break is a partaking of the Body of Christ; and likewise the Cup of Blessing is a partaking of the Blood of Christ.”[10] For the Anglican Divine, Richard Hooker, Christ is encountered in the Eucharist as fully human and divine, this is accomplished by the Spirit, by whom communicants are transformed as they partake of Christ’s holiness and virtue. He wrote that in the Eucharist is “a true and a real participation of Christ, who thereby imparteth himself even his whole Person as a mystical Head unto every soul that receiveth him, and that every such receiver doth thereby incorporate or unite himself unto Christ as a mystical member of him, yea of them also whom he acknowledgeth to be his own”.[11]

Some are reticent to take Paul’s remarks on “participation” in the literal sense. They point out that this participation with Christ through the bread and wine parallels the participation of Judeans in the altar of the cultus and the participation of pagans with demons in their temples (1 Cor 10:18-21). The meat in those altars did not convey the real presence of YHWH, much less the real presence of a demon, so by parallel, the Eucharistic elements of bread and wine do not contain the real presence of Jesus.[12] Yet I demur for two reasons. First, there is a real fellowshipping with either YHWH or demons, depending on the altar, so already we are beyond mere memorialism as one fellowships with deity in the meat consumed from the altar. So the Christian Eucharist, at a bare low-church minimum, is a fellowshipping with Christ qualitatively different from the fellowship you have with Christ anywhere else. Second, Paul does not say we meet Christ through the bread and wine that symbolically represent his metaphorical presence; rather, Paul says that we participate with Christ’s body and with Christ’s blood. There is a direct fellowshipping with Christ’s body and blood as the elements in a sense become what they proclaim. One can only fellowship with Christ’s body and blood if Christ is somehow present in the bread and wine. You cannot fellowship, partake, share, or commune with one whom is entirely absent.

In light of all of this, we need some Eucharistic charity, as all Chrisitans traditions share something in common by affirming the memory, proclamation, and presence of Jesus with his people in the Eucharist. As a possible consensus statement, the Leuenberg Agreement, a joint ecumenical statement between Lutheran and Reformed churches composed in 1973, states: “In the Lord’s Supper the risen Jesus Christ imparts himself in his body and blood, given for all, through his word of promise with bread and wine. He thus gives himself unreservedly to all who receive the bread and wine; faith receives the Lord’s Supper for salvation, unfaith for judgment” (III.1.18). In addition, it is humbling as it is unifying if we chose to remain in a common awe at the mystery of the Eucharist however differently we may understand it. It is a mysterious and miraculous communion with the flesh and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ to unite us, not divide us. Ultimately it is beyond our understanding as to how we meet Jesus in bread and wine and how the Spirit blesses us through it. We would do well to be like Calvin and insist that the Eucharist is something we would “rather experience than understand”.[13]

[1] Davis, This Is My Body, 13-14.

[2] Calvin, Institutes IV.17.5.

[3] Cf. Dave Gibson, “Eating Is Believing? On Midrash and the Mixing of Metaphors in John 6,” Themelios 27.7 (2002): 15 (5-15)

[4] G.B. Caird, The Language and Imagery of the Bible (London: Duckworth, 1980), 101-2.

[5] Hays, First Corinthians, 199 (italics original).

[6] I profess to being a bit of an amateur magician. I can turn any Presbyterian minister into a Baptist just by placing bread and wine on the table before them. In other words, card carrying Reformed ministers who pin their souls on their view of infant baptism over and against the Bapitst view, often turn into hard corps Baptists when it comes to the Eucharist.

[7] Justin, First Apology 67.

[8] Strongly recommended to read is Michael S. Horton, People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 124-52.

[9] Van Dyk, “Reformed View”, 79.

[10] 39 Art. § 38.

[11] Richard Hooker, Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity 5.lxvii.7.

[12] Cf. e.g., Moore, “Baptist View”, 40.

[13] Calvin, Institutes IV.17.32.

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