Our Eucharistic thinking and practice has suffered greatly from tendencies to essentialism and reification that have occluded the creative significance of the Last Supper. I should like here to pursue a thought-experiment that can help to dislodge these mental habits. I propose that if we think of the Eucharist as a work of art, we can find liberating new perspectives. No doubt such an approach to the Eucharist will run up against theological limits at some point. Here I shall merely explore the positive analogies between the Eucharist and the art-work, drawing out their suggestive implications, and leaving to another occasion the task of a phenomenological differentiation between the two kinds of reality.
A Contingent Artifact
Jesus at the Last Supper drew on the materials available to him in his culture in order to compose a new ritual, an artistic masterpiece embodying his vision in a durable form. We know Jesus as a literary artist from the Synoptic Gospels in which his parables and sayings have an irreducible original stamp. The same creative spirit carries over into his prophetic gestures, including as the various healings and the meals with outcasts. The Last Supper shows the same personal style.
We do not know what aspects of the Eucharist go back to Jesus himself; all the New Testament accounts of its institution, as well as the Eucharistic allusions in the stories of the multiplication of loaves and fishes, depend on the ritual as practiced by Christians. If, as the majority of scholars seem to think, the Last Supper was not in fact a paschal meal, its amalgamation with the Pasch was a natural and enriching early Christian development. There is a pleasing modesty in the idea that Jesus’s last meal was not a Pasch, and that his sharing of his body and blood avoided an immediate identification with sacrificial rituals. Within the New Testament, Hellenistic elements enrich the original Jewish basis, notably the “Hellenistic ethics of friendship” in John 15, pointed out by Thomas Söding (in G. Van Belle, ed. The Death of Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, Leuven, 2007, p. 364).
We see then that the Eucharist is not a once-off creation. A pluralism of interpretations marks its development. As a contingent artifact, composed by Jesus in creative interaction with the conditions of his culture, it is exposed like any work of art to a plurality of perspectives in the process of its reception, interpretation and Wirkungsgeschichte, especially as it is transmitted in different cultural and historical horizons. Moreover, despite the conservatism of ritual, the Eucharist calls for the creative interpretation of those who perform it, who will enhance and develop its meaning in countless unpredictable ways.
The Last Supper and the Lord’s Supper draw on tradition and transform it as every classic does (recall T. S. Eliot’s remarks on “Tradition and the Individual Talent”). When he says “do this” he is prescribing a ritual perhaps in the same way as the Law prescribes the Passover ritual; but this does not necessarily imply something so rigidly fixed as to be immune to the laws of incarnate existence in history. Even in the case of the Passover ritual one may observe the contingency, mobility and pluralism that pervades every element of religious belief and practice. Thus there are differences between the JE version (Ex 12:21-27), the Priestly version (Ex 12:1-13; 43-39; Num 9:1-14) and the Deuteronomic version (Dt 16:1-8), and between all three and the Passover as celebrated in the time of Jesus and again in later Judaism. If we take the Priestly writer to be later, what we observe is how a rite is refined as time goes by. In Dt 16:2 the Passover victim is a bullock or a lamb; in Ex. 12:3-6 it can only be a lamb or kid; in Dt. 16:7 it is apparently boiled; in Ex. 12:9 it is not to be boiled (same verb). Taking Deuteronomy as the later text, Van Rad finds a “revolutionary” intent in Deuteronomy 16, which shows “both a passionate determination to make things new, and also at the same time a tender care to retain what is traditional.” He sees in it “a whole segment of the cultic history of early Israel with its progressive and its retrograde trends” (Deuteronomy, SCM, 1966, pp. 110-11). The Eucharist at any time will have this latter quality, and reform or even revolution will be as much in order as in the world of art.
The resonances of the Eucharist as a paschal meal reach back to the ancient spring festivals – one for the barley harvest of the original dwellers of Canaan, one for the flocks of semi-nomadic shepherds who daubed poles with blood to keep evil spirits at bay. Thus even at the level where it closest to nature, the rite displays the contingency and variability of cultural conditions. Thus an interpretation that proceeds with universal archetypes of sacrifice and communion, or blood mysticism, cannot do justice to the texture of the Eucharist. Study of sacrificial cultures reveals an endless variety, and the theme of blood on its own carries a vast pluralism of associations.
Meditation on this irreducible pluralism is an antidote to the essentialism that has so often frozen Eucharistic theology. Efforts to isolate the essence of the Eucharist fall, since each proposed definition bears the marks of its time and becomes but one more variant in the Eucharistic tradition. When Eugen Drewermann complains that the Church is not celebrating the Eucharist in the way Jesus intended, he may sound rather fundamentalistic. From the start the Church has been creatively interpreting the Eucharist. “Creative liturgy” such as was urged by Vatican II-minded bishops and is now deplored as an “abuse” is quite appropriate to the Eucharist as a work of art, for the art in question is one of the performing arts, which always entail a creative role for the interpreter. There have been some attempts in Japan to inculturate the Eucharist by performing it in the style of a Noh play or a tea ceremony. Again in the Chapelle Saint-Bernard on Palm Sunday 1978, I think, the Eucharist was celebrated as part of the passion narrative, using only the words of the Gospel. Vatican II pledged not to impose “rigid uniformity” in the liturgy but to “respect and foster the qualities and talents of the various races and nations” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 37).
It might be going too far to say that there are only “family resemblances” (Wittgenstein) between the Eucharist as celebrated in a Dutch Calvinist church and a Russian Orthodox church. But the essence these different styles of Eucharist share may be no more than this: that in each case Christians are gathered and are attempting to fulfil the command, “Do this in memory of me” (1 Cor 11:24; Lk 22:19). Christian churches can be very testy about the reality of one another’s Eucharists. But if Christ is assuredly present wherever people gather in his name (Mt 18:20), and if he is also present in his Word, his Eucharistic presence among Christians celebrating the Lord’s Supper need not be doubted. In some cases of defective form in sacramental celebration the Church supplies what is missing (Ecclesia supplet); beyond and beneath questions of church order, we may trust that Christ supplies whatever is required when his Supper is celebrated (Christus supplet).
Like all other works of art, the universality of the Eucharist is rooted in specifics of place, time and culture. In his essay, “The Origin of the Work of Art,” Heidegger refers to the work of art as a happening of truth (unconcealment). He asks: “Can truth happen at all, and thus become historical?” (“Kann Wahrheit überhaupt geschehen und so geschichtlich sein?,” Holzwege, Frankfurt, 1952, p. 27). As a creation embedded in the particularities of a specific culture, the Eucharist has a place in history, and is not immune to the currents of historical and cultural change. A work of art never stands still.
The Eucharist is Christ’s gift or bequest to his church. How do we receive the gift intelligently? How does one receive the gift of an art-work? Fidelity in interpretation is required, but so also is creative re-imagination. This may imply a certain hermeneutic violence. A great work of art institutes something lasting, “Was bleibet aber, stiften die Dichter” (Hölderlin, “Andenken”). But for long stretches of their history works may lead a shabby existence, buried in museums or dusty editions or routine performances. Every great work of art has to be rediscovered. When we talk of Jesus “instituting” the Eucharist, we think of something dead and invariable. But if we recall the Hölderlinian sense of Stiftung we can see this “founding” of the Eucharist as the opening up of a creative space of celebration and community, as the initiation of a living tradition.
In taking on the charged symbolic overtones of blood, which conjoin life and death, pollution and cleansing, violence and reconciliation, it sets off chains of association that will vary from culture to culture, inviting a dialogue with each cultural setting in which it finds itself. While a hemophobic attitude forces many theologians to insist that “blood” is merely a metaphor for Christ’s self-giving it cannot be said that the NT itself sanitizes the blood by spiritualizing it away; John 6:53-56 – even if we try to ascribe it to an ecclesiastical redactor – stands against that. In its reaction against Docetism the early Church insisted on the reality of Christ’s flesh and blood and on the physical reality of the resurrected body, and of the bodily presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Irenaeus writes:
But vain in every respect are they who despise the entire dispensation of God, and disallow the salvation of the flesh, and treat with contempt its regeneration, maintaining that it is not capable of incorruption. But if this indeed do not attain salvation, then neither did the Lord redeem us with His blood, nor is the cup of the Eucharist the communion of His blood, nor the bread which we break the communion of His body (1 Cor 10:16). For blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such as the Word of God was actually made. By His own blood he redeemed us…He has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies. (Against Heresies V, 2, 2)
Sanitized and routinized celebration of the Eucharist sets itself at too great a distance from the potency of the blood-symbolism. Say the blood is a metaphor, but the actual blood of Christ shed on Calvary was not metaphorical. Christ transfers this to the meal, meta-phorein. “This is my blood” is a resurrectional statement. His death spells life.
Origen might have followed Philo in giving a Platonizing interpretation of the entire biblical language of sacrifice, if the fact of the blood of Christ did not stand in his way. (Philo himself respects the factuality of the Pasch.) The blood invites dangerous magical representations, even perhaps in Aquinas’s hymn: cuius una stilla salvum facere/ totum mundum quit ab omni scelere. Fetishism surrounds the relics of Christ’s blood such as that in Weingarten and the materializations of the blood in Eucharistic miracles, such as one finds in many Italian churches, sometimes honoured by papal visits. Beyond the pale of orthodoxy lie the fantasies of the Holy Grail, wonderfully reprised in function of modern neuroses in Wagner’s Parsifal, which can serve as a useful repository for the forms of blood-mysticism that Christian celebration of the Eucharist rejects.
Like every work of art, the Eucharist lives only by dying to former modes of its existence. It is doubly fitting that the Eucharist, as a meal of sacrifice and self-abandonment, itself undergoes death and resurrection, as perhaps Leonard Bernstein intimated in his Mass, commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy in 1971, denounced by the Archbishop of Cincinnati as “a blatant sacrilege against all we hold sacred” and greeted by the Catholic priests of Britain with “disgust and distress” when it was broadcast by BBC2; yet Paul VI invited Bernstein to conduct a concert at the Vatican in 1973, and he was back again in 1983. The Church appreciates a sincere religious struggle, even if some of its expressions may shock. The statement of Cardinal Schönborn about the orgiastic representation of the Last Supper by Alfred Hrdlicka is another case in point. I ordered the particular work – which committed believers find deeply distressing – to be removed on 20 March. Nevertheless, I still hold the opinion that we must welcome the fact that artists who do not share our faith, or are still searching for belief, occupy themselves so intensively with biblical subjects.”
Bernstein could claim to exemplify the wisdom of, “If you meet the Buddha, slay the Buddha”, while those who invoke blasphemy laws to protect Christ from profanation may be going against the basic dynamic of the Incarnation. More deeply rooted in Christian tradition is Stravinsky’s 1948 Mass in which one hears the ghosts of ancient liturgies summoned up in the light of modernity. That the Eucharist continues to spawn both orthodox and heterodox effects in the realm of culture should encourage the Church to embrace the riches of art within the sanctuary, in line with Vatican II: “The art of our own times from every race and country shall also be given free scope in the Church” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 123). If the great modern works of art are among the “signs of the times” that the Gospel must engage, the Eucharist itself as a work of art must be refashioned as a sign for the times, becoming a historical happening of truth that engages the times.
If we speak of the Eucharist as an art-work let us recall the dynamic sense given to the word “work” by Heidegger. “In the work of art the truth of the being has set itself in the work” (Im Werk der Kunst hat sich die Wahrheit des Seienden ins Werk gesetzt), has “brought itself to a stand” (zum Stehen gebracht) (p. 25). Thinghood is reduced or sublated in the art-work, which causes the thing – e. g. the peasant shoes in Van Gogh – to shine forth in its “truth.”
What Jesus sublates in the Eucharist is his own death, and it is also the human event of sharing a meal. How do the dynamics of sacrifice combine with those of eating and drinking? Dusty ideas of a ritual conjunction in a a sacrificial meal seem to miss the originality of Jesus’ creation. “This is my body, for you” (1 Cor 11:24) is probably not to be conceived as the miracle of transubstantiation or consubstantiation. The body is his whole person. “I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine” (Mk 14:25) suggests that the wine remains wine. Christ does not package himself in the substance of bread and wine; rather the disciples, breaking the bread and sharing the wine in memory of him experiences his risen presence in their midst. Not one substance converted into another, but one event present in another event. The bread and wine are vehicles of intimate communion with Jesus in his Passover, entry into a dynamic event whose fulfillment lies in the eschatological future. It is the total meal event that is transubstantiate without remainder into this communion in the Paschal Mystery. The real presence of Christ in this event is not the presence of a static substance but of the dynamic, temporal reality of the remembered Crucified and the expected return of the Lord in glory.
In the paschal interpretation the bread is the unleavened “bread of affliction” baked and eaten in haste and trepidation (Ex 12:11; Dt 16:3). “This cup is the new covenant in my blood” (1 Cor. 11:25); “This is my blood of the covenant to be poured out for many” (Mk 14:24) links Christ’s blood with the blood of the covenant in Ex 24:8. The death of Jesus is read in light of Israel’s stories. Today we might wish to read it in reference to blood shed in these times, the blood of martyrs in Latin America, of innocent victims in Iraq, rather than in reference to the merely literary blood of a legendary past. This could be a way of prising open the biblical images to recover their lost power.
But the Eucharist transforms the deathly aspect of blood into a life-giving aspect, not in a restoration of earthly life but in an anticipation of the new life in the Kingdom of God. The blood is shed “for you” – poured out in self-giving and in trust and thanksgiving toward God. In the Last Supper Jesus reprises his death as such as act of love. The core of it is not a ritual sacrifice, nor a magical transformation of substances, but an interpretation or exegesis of the meaning of his life and death, a disclosure of its resurrection dynamic. The breaking of bread enacts the death-and-resurrection by exhibiting its meaning and thus releasing its power.
The correction to blockage of Eucharistic insight through fixation on the categories of substance and sacrifice is most sovereignly presented in John 13-17, where these categories are sublated into those of the communion of agapê. The human meal-event is transubstantiated into an enactment of mutual self-giving among the disciples, between the disciples and Christ, and between Christ and the Father. This Johannine overcoming of reification fully includes the dynamic of the paschal mystery – “we know that we have passed from death to life because we love one another” (1 Jn 3:14). As Sebastian Moore puts it (on his website): “He takes our original ritual, the shared meal, through all the cruel violence in which we disown it, of which he consents to be the victim, signifying this consent by declaring the bread and wine his own body and blood… There is thus a serenity of the Mass when its meaning is outspoken and clear, the victim vindicated beyond vengeance, for us to participate in its all-forgiving force, we his body.”
“The work is what first allows the artist as a master of the art to emerge” (Heidegger, p. 7). We could say that the Eucharist first allows Jesus as the master of his art to emerge. The supreme work of Jesus is to create the eucharistic community. The commentary on this work placed in the artist’s mouth in John 13-17 spells out all its dimensions. How should we name the art of Jesus? In the first twelve chapters of the Gospel one might see him as a master of the art of revelation. But in the second half this is sublated into a higher art: the art of agapê. “Through the metaphor of cleansing contained in the image of the footwashing the cultic metaphoric of soteriology already given in the New Testament tradition is indeed taken up, but not placed in the foreground; rather it is interpreted through the category of love among friends, which contains community and nearness, reciprocity in freedom, trust and loving self-abandon for the friends. Therein lies implicitly a corrective of soteriology formulated in a one-sided way in terms of satisfaction or a theology of atonement” (M. Gruber, in Van Belle, p. 656).
In Christian tradition, the theologian who was best attuned to the Johannine sublation was Augustine, with his celebrated definition of sacrifice as that which “unites us in a holy society to God” (“Verum sacrificium est omne opus, quo agitur, ut sancta societate inhaereamus Deo,” De Civitate Dei X, 6), although it is true that Augustinian caritas tends to bring Johannine agapê back within the closure of the metaphysical economy of erôs, as Anders Nygren argued. The mediaeval focus on substance at the expense of spirit brought the artistic event of Eucharist down to the level of a controllable thing, to be “confected” and then offered in a sacrificial exchange and distributed to the faithful. Two themes stressed, separately and without integration, at the Council of Trent, namely transubstantiation and sacrifice, have perpetuated that to think of the Eucharist in a reified way. To ask if the genius of Michelangelo is fully present in one hand of the Madonna in the Pietà is a question that falls short of the phenomenon of the art-work. Likewise to focus on the presence of Christ in a single Eucharistic host is to fall short of the total effect of his real and dynamic presence in the meal-event. Such restriction of focus falls victim to the fetishism detected in Western Eucharistic theologies by E. Boussi-Boulaga (Christianity without Fetishes, Maryknoll, NY, 1984) and which has made the Eucharist an occasion of divisions and violence. If we are to fulfill the command, “Do this in memory of me” under contemporary conditions we must re-imagine the Eucharist and find new ways of performing Eucharist as agapê-event.