ONLY a symbol?
|I wrote the following message as part of a discussion
on the Greeley List (Greeley@vm.temple.edu) on 3 January 1998. After
sending it to the Vatican2 List as well, I received so many requests for
permission to forward or repost that I decided to put it on the web.
OF COURSE, the Eucharist is a symbol! That's what St. Augustine called it in the 4th century of the Christian era: Jesus is present in the Eucharist "per modum symboli"! The priest is not a mere magician and bread and wine don't physically become flesh and blood (until they do it in us, after we have partaken of them in a spirit of communion and love). The problem is linguistic and has to do with the contemporary popular understanding of the term symbol. As soon as you say it is "only" a symbol you give the impression that a symbol is less than physical reality, when in fact it is more! The best way to try to recover some of the Augustinan meaning of the term symbol is to imagine how it would make you feel if someone were to come into your house and cut up a picture of someone you love, a parent, child, spouse. On the one hand, this is "only" a piece of paper with pigment, and no more valuable than junk mail you throw out. On the other hand, quite non-rationally, there is a surplus of meaning here, something intangible, a presence of the one who is portrayed and who is evoked in the image. This is the way Jesus is symbolically, sacramentally present in the consecrated bread and the wine, only much more so! And just as the same picture has special meaning for you but means nothing at all to some stranger, so the Eucharist has a special significance for believers but is simply ordinary bread and wine for those outside the Christian community.
Augustine defined the term sacrament as "a sign of sacred reality" and as "a visible word" (communication from God). He did not distinguish between the outer sign and the invisible reality which it signifies. There is no way that Augustine could have imagined the kind of superficial connection we have in mind when we say "only a symbol." Our (mis)understanding of "symbol" goes back to the late Middle Ages. Our current limited and often technical and rigid understanding of "sacrament" is the result of medieval tendencies to codify and standardize. In the first few centuries of Christianity, mysteria (sacramenta) designated the symbols and rituals in which believers participated in order to become and remain part of the life of Christ.
A symbol is not a poor substitute for something which is absent. A symbol discloses and manifests what is PRESENT! A symbol reveals that which is hidden, concealed. A symbol allows us to see beneath the surface, beyond the horizon. A symbol is active, it evokes and--like a familiar smell that calls forth memories--touches an entire spectrum of consciousness beyond/beneath the merely rational. As David Tracy noted, the symbolic or analogical imagination is a special Catholic gift, something the intensity of which distinguishes Catholics from members of other denominations and religions.
This ability to "think analogically" involves linking abstract concepts with concrete examples and thinking in terms of "both-and" rather than "either-or" (in fact, all Christians think both in terms of "both-and" and in terms of "either-or" but that for Catholics the "both-and" approach predominates and for Protestants the "either-or" approach predominates). The "analogical imagination" involves making connections and discovering ever new ways of illuminating human existence. That's why Jesus told parables!
The Eucharist is not a sign of the physical Jesus but of the Risen Christ. It calls us to allow death to give birth to life and despair to turn into hope. It calls us to be lovers of others as we are loved. In us, as we metabolize the bread and the wine and turn human cells into thought and action, Divinity takes on flesh (as It manifests Itself thorughout the cosmos) in a very special way, and allows us to take part in God's saving activities.
Keep in mind that there are only two sacraments specifically mentioned in the New Testament (the authors of the NT believed the end of time was near, and there was no need for setting up elaborate structures for the future), the cleansing and regenerating initiation of baptism and the life-sustaining sharing of bread during the Lord's Supper. On the other hand, it is obvious that the first Christians considered their entire life with its everyday interactions as sacramental (Karl Rahner recovered this vision of sacrament in his famous term: "sacramentality of the world" which Greeley applies to his notion of sexuality as sacrament, that is, LOVE-MAKING as sacrament.) World and worship were one! The Eucharistic focus wasn't on bread and wine; it was on the communal action of breaking and sharing bread which was in turn understood as symbolic of God's ongoing nurturing of the people--in other words, the mutual outflowing and inflowing of sustaining divine love into and through the people. There was not even a standardized formula for what we call the "words of institution." And the bread was baked by the participants (and touched by the hands of presiders and laity during the sharing!).
For the first Christians, still close to the wonder of the presence of Jesus among them, life was somehow experienced as drenched in sacramentality, but no one kept track of individual sacraments. The list of seven sacraments wasn't established until the 12th century, and only gradually did sacraments turn into individualistic and almost mechanistic tools for salvation from their origin as fluid communal actions and interactions. Tables turned into altars and presiders into celibate priests, set ever more apart from the people of God. The Second Vatican Council went back to many of the original roots of the sacraments and recaptured much of the communal aspect.
Let's remember that Holy Communion (to use the "old" term) is fundamentally an Easter celebration of thanksgiving (that's the meaning of the term "Eucharist") for the life-giving love of YHWH (celebrated in the Jewish Passover) linked to the life-giving sacrifice and love of Jesus the Christ who represents God's gift of Godself to the people. The Eucharist is an invitation for us to love; it is the kindling spark that should ignite love within us, transform us, and charge us with the power to live our lives--every mundane part of our lives--in a spirit of joyful generosity and sharing.
God is Love!
The following is a message I sent to the Vatican2 list (firstname.lastname@example.org) on 7 April 1998 as part of a dicussion of President and Mrs. Clinton's reception of the Eucharist during their recent visit to Africa.
MY EXPLANATION for the Eucharistic mystery is that it is activated in and through the love and faith of the recipient and that consequently there may indeed be a difference in which communion is experienced by the Catholic or Orthodox Christian, the Protestant Christian, and the non-Christian. Consecration does not transform the bread and wine for anyone except the believer. If a bird eats crumbs of a communion wafer or brings them to her young, God, I am sure delights in providing nourishment, but the birds are not taking communion. The notion that there is some sort of sacrilege taking place if the consecrated bread is touched by the wrong hands or eaten by the unworthy or non-Catholic seems to me the kind of superstition which is rooted in a an overly literal understanding of the sacrament as some magic object of an exclusive cult that may only be received by the properly initiated. It also sets up walls between people!
I realize that ushers are still supposed to watch that people don't sneak out of church with a host in their pocket, but I don't agree with the thinking leading to that practice either. It simply means to me that the official Church hasn't quite accepted its own current teachings on Eucharist. Clearly, if any exceptions are made to the "only Catholics may receive communion rule" (and such exceptions are made, as the current discussion shows) then the entire interpretation of the meaning of "Real Presence" and communion in general must be reconsidered. The following is an attempt to reconcile the inclusive and exclusive views into a paradigmatically Catholic "both-and" understanding.
The Eucharist has many layers of meaning, and I am convinced that some of those layers can be experienced by all humans, others by all Christians, and the final one by (most) believing Catholics. Christ shares himself with us in countless ways, but surely one of the most essential ways is in the form of the shared meal of celebration (such as the various Pesah Seders of this season, complete with their cups of blessing and matzah). I believe that we *must* begin to practice intercommunion in order to heal the broken body of Christ and allow communion to become COMMUNION!
You wondered how the academics among us would feel if just anyone could ask for a Ph.D. and receive it without having gone through years of graduate study. I don't like this analogy at all because to me that's not what the Eucharist is about. It's not a reward we get for studying, or some sort of privilege we must earn; it's an invitation for co-celebration and discovering Christ each in the other. My neighbor need not be a Catholic or a Christian to be Christ for me. In fact, for Shusaku Endo, the Catholic Japanese novelist, Christ appears in the guise of a stray cur or minah bird. Eucharist is agape, love, connectedness, laughter, celebration, remembrance, shared bread and wine, shared humanity, shared divinity. Eucharist is not exclusive, it unites and connects, though, as I said before, it will not be experienced in the same way by all who partake.
One analogy that comes to mind is the analogy of watching a technicolor movie on a black and white television versus watching it on a color screen. It's the same movie, but those who watch it in color see more than those who watch it in black and white. All are invited but some will see more clearly or deeply than the others.
As for me, I am delighted that the Clintons received communion, especially in Africa!
Ingrid H. Shafer, Prof. of Philosophy, Religion,
& Interdisciplinary Studies
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