by Graham Hellier
from Signs of the Times No. 39 - Oct 2010

'Next Sunday, in the morning service, we will drink blood together - everyone welcome.'

Is this what we mean or do we mislead when, at the heart of our worship, we offer blood to drink? The meaning is unmistakable when we warn that those who do not participate are as good as dead

'Except you eat my flesh and drink my blood, there is no life in you' - Jn 6:53.

For this reason, many have stayed away and many more repress their doubts.

Is it conviction that retains these words or a questionable ecumenism or laziness of habit? Are they symbolic or literal ? - if the former, they have served their time, and if the latter, they mask a greater truth. There are many reasons why we should revise them. Foremost is that, as F W Beare said of the texts of the Last Supper: "It is no longer possible to determine exactly what was said or done, or what was the intention of Jesus". The New Testament accounts are too varied; the interpretations too diverse. Each writer sees with his own eyes - even to John's Gospel where the elements of bread and wine have no specific reference in the account of that final meal.

We have to be aware, in that first century, of the effect of competing cults. In the mystery religions, eating the flesh and blood of the god was commonplace.  In the taurobolium the initiate descended into a pit. On the lattice cover above him, a bull had its throat cut and the blood poured down over the new disciple - a gory ritual well matched by Cowper's hymn: "There is a fountain filled with blood, / drawn from Emmanuel's veins / and sinners plunged beneath that flood / lose all their guilty stains.". Christians did not practise such full-blooded rituals but they may well have picked up the imagery that lay so easily to hand.

Blood did have its place in Jewish covenant thinking but we associate it with death and the Hebrews associated it with life. The covenant people became kin to one another - one blood and one nation before God. When eating flesh, the blood was not drunk but offered to God. Jews would have found the drinking of blood abhorrent - and this applies equally to the disciples of Jesus. Like many followers of many faiths, they may have succumbed to the downward drag of literalism - see the exchange in Matthew 16 - but there cannot have been any confusion in their minds between the elements and the reality of Jesus sitting before them at the Last Supper.

Even if Jesus used the words "This is my body ... this is my blood", there is no necessary emphasis on 'is' - nothing  therefore to do with the nature and essence of the bread and wine. In Aramaic, the phrase would be: "This - my body" which surely referred directly to Jesus himself. As for the sharing of the cup, that was more likely to be associated with blessing, as in the Passover meal, and with the heavenly banquet, when all things are fulfilled. The Didache, following the work of Aaron Milavec and others, is now thought to be a first century training manual. It makes no connection between the wine and blood. The words used in its description of the Eucharist are: "We give you thanks, our Father, for the holy vine of your servant David which you revealed to us through your servant Jesus. To you [is] the glory for ever." In the second century, Justin, in his account, follows the same tradition of praise and thanksgiving, without the emphasis on blood.

In the western church, the theme of priestly sacrifice was revived. It is one of the tragedies of Christian history that this was taken up at the very time when Judaism was leaving it behind. As Dr Ramsay said: "The old imagery of sacrifice is remote and repellent  to the modern mind." [Sunday Times 20;12;64]. When the later concept of transubstantiation was worked out by Paschasius Radbertus in the ninth century and then adopted at the Lateran Council of 1215, it was arguably an attempt to avoid a crude literalism but, given the context of Aristotelian philosophy and its subtlety, it has little explanatory power for us today and seems to re-inforce a mechanistic or magical interpretation.

Today such reductionist language has spread across the main denominations in a misguided attempt at ecumenism. Now that the hopes of the latest Vatican Council have evaporated and the prospect of institutional unity has receded, it is time to look again at what we say and what we mean. It was a mistake to encourage uniformity rather than diversity, and no more so than in the set forms of the eucharist. The effect of uniformity is to foster a sense of familiarity across the worldwide Christian fellowship but it is done at the cost of entrenching divisive doctrines.

But surely, you may say, John 6 is explicit enough - "Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood ... " ? These may be the words of the writer or of an editor rather than Jesus but in any case, the teaching clearly pre-dates the Last Supper and leads emphatically to verse 63:  "It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh can achieve nothing."and the disciples are directed to Jesus' words, and not to his physical presence.

The early Fathers were quite familiar with the language of signs and types; figures, symbols and likeness, though they were as diverse in their thinking as we are. Gregory of Nazianzus conceived the priest's voice as a knife, cleaving asunder the Saviour's body and blood [Ep. 171] but Augustine represents Jesus as saying: 

'You must understand what I have said in a spiritual sense. You are not going to eat this body which you see or drink that blood which those who will crucify me are going to shed.' [Sermon 131,1; ev.Jn 27:5].

In Orthodox thinking today, a far wider sacramentalism is indicated for the elements are seen to be holy before ever they are consecrated. They are not changed.

There are both lesser and greater fears that are aroused by proposals to allow alternative language surrounding the bread and wine. The lesser fear is that the costliness of divine love is overlooked. Blood vividly forces us to recognise the agony of the cross and the suffering that real love entails. The risk is not great however - hymns, readings and sermons are hardly likely to make the eucharist a shallow sentimental affair. The greater fear is that such changes might deny the real presence of Christ. Let us be clear - if the presence of Christ is shrunken to these tangible forms; if the only way of receiving the divine is through physical crumbs and drops of liquid; if we are limited to such fragmentary material made available by priestly authority; then we can only cling to such remnants of faith as we have left. But God is spirit and the body is discerned in real relationships that yet break the bounds of space and time. To be 'in Christ' is to be drawn into a greater communion. It is enough to declare:  "The bread of life" - "The cup of blessing".

Like the Emmaeus travellers,  we shall know Christ in the breaking of bread before ever we begin to eat, for he is there in our hearts. It is when we share in the company of God's people that we become strong to grasp the breadth and length and height and depth of his love (Eph 3:18). It is time for a bloodless coup.

Graham Hellier is a PCN member, a Church of Scotland minister and former Senior Master  at a Church of England School. He is author of Free Range Christianity published by Authorhouse.
A version of this paper has appeared in the newsletter of the Progressive Christian Network.