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Do this in memory of Me

by John N. Collins

The "mystery" of the Eucharist was to be an actual experience of the risen Jesus. On the other hand, in the West, it might be fair to say that the "sacrament" of the Eucharist suggested first a ritual dutifully performed for the purpose of ensuring that one would be the recipient of its benefits. Theologian John N. Collins considers the question.

"Sacrament of the Eucharist" and "mystery of the Mass" are two phrases that trip easily off older tongues. Instead of "mystery of the Mass", it is true, the same tongues are more likely to let slip the phrase "the sacrifice of the Mass", but this morning the former two phrases came to mind as a pair because I was reflecting on a comment by Frank Andersen (Letters, #19 of Online Catholics.

His letter was harking back to comments by other letter writers who were themselves part of a wider circle of people reacting to the recent Vatican clarification on what two elements in the food chain provide the uniquely valid matter for the making of the Eucharist - I almost said for the "confection" of the Eucharist, but that word would betray my familiarity with scholastic (aka medieval) theology as well as confuse those who rank confections with a box of sweets or a Mediterranean extravaganza of dessert.

When Patrick Fahey stated that the presence of Christ in the Eucharist is "not physical" but "sacramental", Frank Andersen took the opportunity to go one step further by insisting, "Until we unlock again the authentic meaning of 'sacramental' we will wait in vain for a revitalisation of Sunday Eucharist and the communities that depend on it for life."

I wonder how many other readers were puzzling over what Frank Andersen was getting at here. For my part that is what brought the word "mystery" to mind. In the story of the Eucharist the word "mystery" is much older than "sacrament", and from that story I suspect we have something to learn for our time. The clearly Latin origin of the word "sacrament" tells us for one thing that the notion it expresses was the outcome of theological reflection in the Western Church rather than of the earlier experience and reflection in the Greek-speaking Eastern Church. The word is not in the first instance a standard translation of a significant theological term in the early Greek tradition. From this we can only surmise that the Latin term "sacramentum" - who recalls the hymn always sung at Benediction "Tantum, ergo, sacramentum"? - said something to the western mind about how it understood liturgy of the Eucharist.

Elaborated from the Latin word for "sacred", sacramentum meant "something rendered sacred". The "sacred" belonged to a zone separated from the secular and pervaded by the divine, within which only specially qualified human beings operated. The best known application of sacramentum in pre-Christian culture was to the ritual of the military oath which bound the recruit unconditionally to his period of service to Emperor and Empire. In this process the oath, not the soldier, was sacred. Some early Latin Christian writers saw an analogy here for the unconditional commitment undertaken by the candidate for baptism, and so "sacrament" entered the Christian lexicon - in the West, I repeat.

Of course in the broader East, Christians were also being baptized and had a longer experience of baptism and other rituals than the western Christians. This makes it interesting to glimpse how the eastern Christians had been thinking about these ritual expressions of central beliefs. The word they used is the other word in my heading: "mystery" or myst-rion. What were they giving expression to in this word?

Readers with an interest in world religions are aware that in Hellenistic culture of the first centuries of the Common Era "mystery religions" were popular. These take their name from the situation that, outside of initiates, the general public was not well informed about the religion in question - indeed, today scholars are not much better informed. We do know, nonetheless, that some mystery religions were high profile rivals of an incipient Christianity. We are not surprised, accordingly, to notice that in their first couple of centuries, Christians did their best not to be thought of as just another mystery cult.

The task was not as simple as it might seem. Already before the end of the first century they had been publicly branded as "notoriously depraved" by the eminent historian Tacitus and their pitiful movement dismissed as "a deadly superstition" (Annals xv.43). A little later Suetonius rated them as "a new and mischievous religious belief" (Nero 16). Both were volunteering these assessments in the course of recording Nero's savage attack on the Christians after the fire of Rome in 64 CE, but this public reputation only made them more protective of their privacy, a move that undoubtedly kindled further suspicions.

At the same time, to judge from later writings in the New Testament, the Christians were attempting to project a profile of good citizenship. What emperor or regional governor could take exception to people who promoted codes of behaviour so socially beneficial as those we read of in Colossians 3: "Wives, be subject to your husbands... Husbands, love your wives... Children, obey... Slaves, obey... "

In 1 Timothy the author urged much behaviour of this goodly kind but, where we once read in Paul of women like Euodia and Syntyche who "worked side by side with me in the gospel together with Clement" (Philippians 4:3), here we notice in particular that such public pastoral roles are closed down and women are "to be silent" in public, in accord with civic expectations, and are to present themselves as the fruitful matrons respected throughout the empire (1 Timothy 2). What the Christians were protecting in all this was the "mystery" deep within that defined their identity both as a group and as individuals within the group. According to the writer of the letters to Timothy, their "mystery" was not to be confused with the "myths" around which the cults formed. For the early teachers, the "mystery" was a benevolent programme divinely devised from eternity - "a plan for the fullness of time" - and only in their time revealed. It is "the mystery of Christ" (Ephesians 1:10; 3:4).

The great foundational Christian beliefs remained "the mysteries of Jesus Christ" for Ignatius of Antioch early in the second century (Trallians 2:3). Because one of the foundational beliefs was that Christians entered into the "mystery" in baptism and lived within it through the Eucharist, these rituals were soon enough recognised as "mysteries" themselves. With the sudden enormous expansion of the Christian movement in the fourth century and the looming demise of the mystery cults, the eastern Christians vamped up this type of language because it spoke of their liturgy as a faith experience: an activity through which the hidden became revealed.

Thus the rituals were perennially enlivening them through "mysterious" encounters with the benevolent divinity. The "mystery" of the Eucharist was to be an actual experience - like the one narrated by Luke in the closing chapter of his gospel where two disciples "recognised" Jesus in the breaking of bread. On the other hand, in the West, it might be fair to say that the "sacrament" of the Eucharist suggested first a ritual dutifully performed for the purpose of ensuring that one would be the recipient of its benefits. Since it is the western tradition that has determined our understanding of sacraments, our notions have been further complicated - or refined? - by the much later medieval theology of which Patrick Fahey reminded us in alluding to Thomas Aquinas' distinction between substance and species. The emphasis on "real" presence to which this led, and which the Council of Trent so powerfully endorsed in its reaction against different - and inadequate? - forms of language used by the Protestant reformers, obscured much of the "mystery" of the Eucharist - especially its community dimension. "Mystery" opened up living encounters with the risen Jesus, whereas the concept of a "real" presence tended to present this as the main objective, an end in itself and the focus for each of the individuals lining up to receive communion. (Given the numbers, there was no option but to line up.) Thus liturgy itself took on the appearance of a ritual apparatus to provide individuals with something they ought to have. In a sense the "mystery" went out of it, and yet "mystery" is where the Eucharist began.

John Paul II's Encyclical Letter on the Eucharist of 2003 has much to say on the "mysterious" dimensions of the Eucharist. True, he had much to say also from a doctrinal viewpoint about the sacramental dimension and from a legal viewpoint about the style of the ritual. But the "mysterious" connections with the past in the death and resurrection of Jesus and with the future in the Eucharist's "eschatological thrust" proffer deep meaning and lively experience for the present.

In its simplest and to me most effective expression, the meaning is the experience, namely, a "sharing" in the realities of Christ "as if we had been present there" (paragraph 11). Compare how the Jewish leader addresses those sitting around the Passover table: "In every generation let each man look on himself as if he came forth out of Egypt."

If the purpose of a "sacramental re-presentation" (paragraph 11) is to provide this experience, one needs a ritual that will ensure that outcome. Here is where I feel that John Paul II's document lets us down. Having identified the three aspects of the Eucharist as sacrifice, presence and banquet, John Paul II leaves very little room for ritualizing the banquet. As much as food and drink, banquet says community and interaction.

John Paul's historical outline of the ritual (paragraph 49) suggests that the shift of the Eucharist's venue from the household as the first home of the Eucharist to the early basilica and then to the medieval cathedral is a development progressively exhibiting a more profound liturgical interpretation of the "mystery". One wonders how this can be. When the final stage is the one furthest removed in style from the intimacy of the household we have lost touch with the environment in which banquet was not merely a ritualised symbol but a banqueting experience for like-faithed people. The household generated intimacy between the human participants and for this very reason facilitated intimacy between the divine and the human that Eucharist as bread and wine is proclaiming. The household was the perfect environment, in other words, for "mystery" to reveal what faith embraces.

At such a stage of reflection, one arrives back at the point where Jan Coleman ended last week. If we are looking for the meaning of the Eucharist, "It would be more in keeping with the idea of Church if the Vatican were to sit awhile and break bread with its people."

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