Wednesday, November 14, 2007

The Sacrament as Christ's Availability to Himself

In case you missed it, First Things posted an interesting commentary last week on Bill Bryson’s science book, A Short History of Nearly Everything. The article, written by Frederica Mathewes-Green, discussed the fact that our bodies are continually exchanging atoms with the environment, such that "every seven years all the cells in a human body are replaced." Moreover, as Bryson writes, “every atom you possess has almost certainly passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on its way to becoming you. We are each so atomically numerous and so vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms—up to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested—probably once belonged to Shakespeare. A billion more each came from Buddha and Genghis Khan and Beethoven, and any other historical figure you care to name."

This result certainly has theological implications, and Mathewes-Green explores some of them. For instance, the "resurrection of the body" cannot be understood as the simple reassembly of the same atoms that comprised our bodies at death, since these atoms are not essential to who we truly are. Our continuity over time lies in the pattern of our bodies, not in the identity of their physical components. Thus, speaking of the resurrection of the dead, John Polkinghorne can write that "it is a perfectly coherent hope that the pattern that is me will be remembered by God and its instantiation will be recreated by Him when he reconstitutes me in a new environment of his choosing."

This concept also raises interesting implications for the sacraments. Most of the controversy surrounding the Lord's Supper has focused on the meaning of "is" in Jesus' statement "This is my body", i.e. should "is" be taken literally or does it really mean signifies. Comparatively little thought has been given to what "body" means in this context, perhaps because it is assumed that everyone knows what body means. But, as Bryson's book makes clear, the body is a more dynamic concept than previously thought. So how are we supposed to understand the true presence of Christ's body in the Eucharist?

Robert Jenson gives a very compelling answer to this question in his Systematic Theology. He writes that, according to Paul, "someone's 'body' is simply the person him or herself insofar as this person is available to other persons and to him or herself, insofar as the person is an object for other persons and him or herself. It is in that Paul is a body that persecutors can mark him as Christ's; it is in that Paul is a body that he can be seen and interrogated by one of his congregations, or be remote from this possibility; it is in that Paul is a body that he can discipline his own self. In Paul's ontology, such personal availability may or may not be constituted as the biological entity moderns first think of as 'a body'" (I, 205).

The question then becomes: where is the risen Christ available to us, where is he an object for us? Drawing on 1 Corinthians, Jenson's answer is two-fold: "The body of that Christ that the Corinthians culpably fail to discern is at once the gathered congregation, which is the actual object of their misbehavior and to which Paul has just previous referred as the body of Christ, and the loaf and cup, which are called Christ's body by the narrative of institution he cites in support of his rebuke." (II, 211) Thus, Christ is an object for us in church and sacrament, although in somewhat different ways. The Church is Christ's availability to the world at large, while the Eucharist is his availability within the congregation. "The object that is the church-assembly is the body of Christ, that is, Christ available to the world and to her members, just in that the church gathers around objects distinct from herself, the bread and cup, which are the availability to her of the same Christ." (II, 213).

At first glance, it may appear that Jenson is endorsing a purely symbolic interpretation of the sacrament in which the Church regards the load and cup "as if" they were the body of Christ, although the remain mere bread and wine. However this is not the case, because Christ himself recognizes these objects as his body. "The church with her sacraments is truly Christ's availability to us just because Christ takes her as his availability to himself. Where does the risen Christ turn to find himself? To the sacramental gathering of believers. To the question 'Who am I?' he answers, 'I am this community's head. I am the subject whose objectivity is this community... And again: 'I am the subject whose objectivity for this community is the bread and cup around which she gathers.'" (II, 214)

To question of how this is possible, Jenson simply remarks: "All that is needed is that the risen Christ's personal self-understanding determine what is real, that is, that he be the Logos of God... As he is the Word of God by which all things are created to be what they are, no further explanation is needed or possible." (II, 215). This is essentially the same explanation as provided by Luther in his defence of the Real Presence, which I described in an earlier post. The Word of God effects what it says. The sacrament is simultaneously the body of Christ and bread and wine, just as we are simultaneously sinful and righteous in faith. In both cases, it is the mighty Word of God that holds the paradox together, that creates a new reality.


Anonymous said...

Such ideas are really quite reductionist in their implications and mis-"understanding" of what we are as Conscious beings.

And completely absurd at the same time.

Please check out a completely different understanding of what our bodies are altogether, and what we are in Truth & Reality via these two references.

Dharmashaiva said...

What happens to the pattern that is 'me' when my biological structure is replaced by artificial, mechanical limbs and organs?

David said...

Aku ra ngerti koe ngomong opo le?
Yowis lah, mampir yo ning kene sekedar share aja ojo lali ojo lali