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All doctrinal development and debate occurs against the background of Christian practice and worship. By attending to what Christians have done in the eucharist, Kimberly Belcher provides a new perspective on the history of eucharistic doctrine and Christian divisions today. Stepping back from the metaphysical approaches that divide the churches, she focuses on a phenomenological approach to the eucharist and a retrieval of forgotten elements in Ambrose's and Augustine's work. The core of the eucharist is the act of giving thanks to the Father – for the covenant and for the world. This unitive core allows for significant diversity on questions about presence, sacrifice, ecclesiology, and ministry. Belcher shows that the key is humility about what we know and what we do not, which gives us a willingness to receive differences in Christian teachings as gifts that will allow us to move forward in a new way.
In Chapter 7, working toward a new understanding of communion, I explored the significance of the ordinary performance of the Roman Rite Eucharist. Nonordinary practice, however, in some ways provides a separate pole for interpretation. A regular Sunday eucharistic liturgy proposes a steady and repeatable world for the assembly to enter into; a funeral liturgy, viaticum for the dying, or the Paschal Triduum, on the other hand, is still a eucharistic liturgy, but each takes on a different emotional character and will normally be remembered much longer. The meaning of liturgy is constructed by and for Christians over long periods of time by means of the dynamic interaction between ordinary and exceptional practice.1 A first glance at these examples is enough to suggest that exceptional liturgies tend to carry a stronger eschatological character than the ordinary liturgies, or better, that ordinary liturgies tend to speak eschatologically by resonating with these less common rites, breaking people out of their mundane assumptions.
The conversion of the purely cognitive apprehension of “God” into an ardently desired target for praise and confession is liturgy. Properly speaking, this is not solely an apophatic move; it is the change of an intellectual object into a relational other. Only an erotic reduction can allow space for a gift to be attributed to God without God becoming an idol.1 The gift given – all the given gifts – is returned to givenness, manifesting givenness by means of a desire to seek an origin. Since the origin can never be reached, the giver may be named only erotically, as the target of a gift of thanks that may not reach its target.2 The erotic aspect of the liturgy is tied not only to the eucharistic prayer, or to word and sacrament, or to meal and sacrifice, but also to the variances and periodic recollection of the Eucharist over the course of the liturgical year and the life cycle.3 The Eucharist, then, needs to be considered as a thanksgiving relating to three things: the self (especially as considered vis-à-vis the other), the covenant community, and the whole cosmos.
Having considered the interconnected acts of accepting and offering, and looked at the role that the bread and wine play as created elements and covenant gifts, I turn more explicitly to their dual character as body of Christ. This includes the consecration of the gifts, interpreted in the Roman theological tradition as rendering substantially present the historical and risen body and blood of Jesus. It also incorporates the so-called mystical (earlier, the real) ecclesial body of Christ.1 As suggested in Chapter 4, the Eucharist is not thanksgiving and also a sacrifice of praise, in the sense that during the same service in which the assembly gives thanks, it also offers the eucharistic gifts and praise to the Father. Rather, it is essentially a sacrifice of praise, within which the offering of the eucharistic gifts plays an essential role in uncovering the givenness of Christ the gift and provoking the conversion of the assembly. These two theological ideas cannot be separated from one another, because the Eucharist’s ultimate purpose is the eschatological convocation of the saints in Christ’s one body, but this is brought about by means of the immersion of those saints into the crucified, risen, and glorified body.
The purpose of this chapter is not to provide a historical account of the development of eucharistic theology or eucharistic liturgy. There are legions of such accounts, and more excellent ones than time.1 Rather, its purpose is to look over these histories with an ecumenical and constructive eye. The ecumenical eye considers historical development not as a monochromatic tragedy or a divinely ordained triumph but rather as the consequence of decisions made by Christians trying to faithfully explicate, using the intellectual and cultural resources of their time, the mysteries of faith. The constructive eye considers how to retain the rich diversity of early Christian eucharistic theology even as it embraces the neutral and positive contributions of various narrower scholastic and post-Reformation approaches. Whereas following the Reformation many retrievals were weaponized to bolster narrow polemical theologies, this approach to our history seeks to use historical narrative to “bind the wounds” persisting from centuries of schism and distrust.2
How does a deeper understanding of eucharistic thanksgiving also nuance and correct the Roman understanding of consecration and sacrifice? For centuries, the Roman Canon was the only Latin eucharistic prayer. Although Roman Catholics now hear a variety of prayers, and the Roman Canon is used infrequently in many parishes, the theological and spiritual paradigm that was built around this prayer still predetermines Roman Catholic eucharistic theology and practice.1 Now that the Canon is balanced by other eucharistic prayers, Latin Christians have a new opportunity to interpret its worldview in conversation with that expressed by other prayers indigenous to other parts of the Christian world.
In Chapter 4, I described a eucharistic act of thanksgiving tempered by apophatic restraint about God, the self, and the covenant. From the experience of insufficiency and rescue, the human person turns in eucharistia to give thanks, erotically naming as “God” the target of thanks, the mysterious origin of the world which is thus experienced, through thanksgiving, as “creation” rather than as object. My text was the Anaphora of John Chrysostom, a West Syriac model which enjoys general ecumenical approval. It is the Roman Canon, however, that split the eucharistic theologies of the West in the Reformation, and some ecumenical theologians have encouraged Roman Catholics to abandon or severely restrict that text as an unecumenical eucharistic prayer.
Ecumenical consensus now includes a widespread and growing agreement on the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, and much less agreement on explanations, proper celebration, veneration, and disposal, as well as on the nature of sacrifice. While “presence” might thus be regarded as a good foundation for future work, recent developments in philosophical theology have thrown the notion of “presence” into disarray, exposing fissures between the metaphysical presuppositions of churches in dialogue with one another.1 In certain respects, too, agreement on presence has exacerbated the isolation of the eucharistic elements of bread and wine from the assembly, their liturgical action, and their ongoing cooperation in conversion. A phenomenological approach, I argue, can allow for an account of the personal encounter between Christ and his people in the Eucharist that respects both the dynamism of the human person and the liturgical context for sacramental change.2 Liturgical action, anamnesis, can be phenomenologically described as an erotic, willful retrieval of a gift, leaving room for different Christian communities to metaphysically explain that retrieval (or choose not to) in a way that defers the liturgical action’s effectiveness to God. In effect, this provides a way for Christians to agree on what they must agree on, while explicitly allowing for diversity to coexist with unity.
There are three essential problems in contemporary Catholic eucharistic theology, and each concerns the separation of two concepts that ought to be inseparable: eucharistic conversion and conversion of life; real presence and sacrifice; and the sacrifice of the cross and the sacrifice of the Eucharist. It is not accidental that these problems coincide with the most vexing theological differences between Catholics and mainline Protestants on the Eucharist; the post-Reformation Catholic theological conversation has been defined by the need to evaluate the problems that sparked the Western schisms.1 Until the early twentieth century, of course, this internal conversation was primarily defensive, fortifying established confessional positions.2 Since the Catholic Church’s institutional validation and centralization of the ecumenical movement at the Second Vatican Council, theologians have sought instead to adopt a broadly acceptable consensus position on these issues, assisted by critical reformulations of traditional positions in new philosophical language.3
At the beginning of this book, I argued that the next phase of ecumenical theology moves beyond convergence toward an expansion – possibly even a radical expansion – of what forms of Christian diversity can be considered legitimate. On one hand, I hope this will take the form of an appreciation of a renewed and chastened Catholic theology of sacrifice as an essential part of the church’s inheritance and proclamation of the gospel. I do not think it is necessary for Lutherans, for example, to adopt “sacrifice” as their own terminology, but rather for all Christians to recognize how distinct images like offering and testament may interpret and enrich one another. In this chapter I want to point to the impact of a thanks-centered theology of the eucharistic liturgy on the ecumenical discussion of presence and sacrifice. On the other hand, I hope understanding the eucharistic prayer as an extension of the cosmic, covenant, incarnational-paschal, and eschatological-ecclesial act of thanks and offering will allow new approaches to Protestant liturgy, ecclesiology, and ministry. I can only point toward some of these implications here.
The ritual activities of being in communion – recognition of one another’s baptisms, periodic actualization by the commemoration of one another’s hierarchs, joint eucharistic celebrations, and the occasional or regular intercommunion of members – etch the surface of the church, leaving visible channels expressing the unity of Christians who hold different eucharistic theologies and practices. Ritual expressions of communion with other Christians in Roman Catholic eucharistic practice are still relatively limited, and reflection on these practices is also still nascent. In this chapter, I suggest a new principle for ecumenical practice, followed by some ways that visible communion could be expressed honestly within eucharistic practice even before any positive change in Roman Catholic views on ecclesiality. In fact, I expect that it is through these practices (“the testing of new values in the crucible of the life and work of the receiving community”1) that the Roman Catholic Church will be able to discern the answers to the standing question of what it means to be “in full communion with Rome.”