By Brenda Watson
from Signs of the Times No. 53 - Apr 2014
Response to Making sense of the Eucharist by Jeyan Anketell in Signs of the Times No 51 - Oct 2013
Doesn't the context in which the Eucharist was inaugurated provide a major clue as to how it can be interpreted?
It was Jesus's last meal with his disciples on the eve of what would shake their faith in him to the core. Jesus needed to give them something to do together which would somehow summarise for them that the terrible event that was to happen was not the end but the beginning of something more marvelous.
So much of human life is organized around the necessity for eating and drinking. To endow these with great symbolism is to offer something which can in its simplicity become meaningful for anyone. The metaphor of likening flesh to bread and blood to wine is at an obvious level: bread has substance and so has flesh; blood is red liquid and so is red wine. Interestingly, the Jewish scholar Geza Vermes has denied the historicity of the Eucharist by saying that no Jew would ever dream of linking blood with something to drink. Strangely enough, that comment convinces me that only someone like Jesus would have dared to voice such a brilliant and original analogy.
Teasing the analogy out further, everyone knows that we are - at one level - what we consume. Napoleon famously remarked that an army marches on its stomach. When imbibed, food and drink are changed - they don't remain what they were but become something else which enables the organism that consumes them to flourish. Even so Jesus likened the shocking disintegration of his body on the cross to the metamorphosis to which food and drink are subjected by the human digestive system so that they can give life to the person. Thus by analogy Jesus is giving his life for the life of the world.
The power of this analogy is so great that it is unsurprising that Christians over the centuries have struggled to contain its meaning in words. Exactly what this means is bound to elude us, limited as we are in our capacity for understanding Mystery. Even so, we shouldn't take refuge prematurely in the notion of mystery, failing to think about it as much as we can. Such thinking may not be able to reach settled conclusions, but it is invaluable in helping to identify misunderstandings and mistakes. This is why the various theories of the Atonement have emerged, in search of some kind of explanation.
The rich Hebrew liturgical traditions associated with the concept of sacrifice made this the most obvious route for Jewish followers of Jesus to take in their efforts conceptually to understand what had happened. Because this concept was so deeply nurtured in them - as it was also in the Gentile world - it proved to be a kind of life-line for them as they struggled to find words to express the extraordinary events to which they were bearing witness. Agnus Dei qui tollis peccata mundi. But for us today, living in a civilization in which any concept of sacrifice has been largely marginalized, it doesn't make much sense. We have been conditioned into a different mind-set. Since the Enlightenment and the overwhelming success of science in transforming our lives, we have become literal-minded, unhappy with metaphor, symbol and analogy as purely imaginative products of the human mind to be subjectively interpreted, Thus we see no obvious meaning in such terms as sacrifice for sin. At a basic literal level the Agnus Dei means little. No lamb can take away the sin of the world, and the history of human behaviour since the crucifixion is as terrible as it was before.
I have tried to find literal meaning in the three-fold invocation of the Agnus Dei as taking away the guilt of sin, the poison of sin and the distress caused by sin. Forgiveness is offered which contains the harm locked in sin and gives peace and strength to cope with the painful consequences. I think that I am justified in seeing it like this, for there continue to be wonderful examples of this threefold transformation in the lives of individuals and communities. One can think immediately of Holocaust survivors who have learnt to forgive their tormentors, of the Truth and Reconciliation movement emerging from the long struggle against apartheid, and the amazing work of Canon Andrew White in Baghdad working in desperate situations to bring warring religious leaders together round the table.
But the sin is still there to be dealt with. The lamb hasn't literally taken it away. This is metaphor for something else. It is pointing - towards language. This is why it doesn't contradict the flesh and blood analogy which worried Jeyan in his comment about the Passover symbolism. For in thinking about reality, many metaphors are necessary. The similarities and dissimilarities present in a metaphor have to be teased out in every case. Even the pursuit of science cannot manage without invoking a variety of metaphors. A fascinating article by a physicist in the current CR Magazine points out how all our thinking about time and space requires metaphor at a basic level, whether thinking in terms of lines, waves, fabric etc.
The awesome victory which literalism has won in the West calls for strong protest and a re-investment in the intellectual and emotional power of metaphor so that it is seen not just as a poetic embellishment of language but as a means of glimpsing truth. We may all then be able gratefully to accept the metaphors given us by Jesus himself as sufficient to help us in our journey towards that true Mystery beyond words and understanding which we sense at the heart of every Eucharistic service.