Irish-born David Noel POWER, O.M.I. taught at Catholic University, Washington, from 1977 until his recent retirement, when he has transferred to Tahiti, French Polynesia. Since the Oblates withdrew from the seminary there in June 2003, he is now back in Washington, doing some teaching once again as a professor emeritus at Catholic University. He has been Professor of Systematic Theology and Liturgy at the University, President of the North American Academy of Liturgy, and was recipient, in 1991, of its Berakah Award. He served on the editorial board of the international theological review Concilium from 1970 to 1992. He has written a number of important books on the Liturgy and the Sacraments, and particularly on the Eucharist (notably "The Sacrifice We Offer: The Tridentine Dogma and its Reintepretation"). The following extract is taken from his major work on the Eucharist, "The Eucharistic Mystery".
CENTRALITY OF THE THE COMMUNION TABLE
Of primary importance in the lex orandi of the Eucharist is the centrality of the communion table. This must also be central to the lex credendi. Any adequate Catholic theology takes the communion table as the central act of the liturgy. 1 In the gift given at the table, the self-gift of Christ on the cross is mediated and the life of the Spirit is shared in communion with the risen Lord. It is by way of the quadruple reference to supper, cross, resurrection, and eschatological hope that the meaning of eucharistic communion is expressed.
The fundamental appeal here is to the New Testament traditions. The Pauline texts on the Lord's Supper identify the reality of the church with the communion in the one loaf and the one covenant cup. It is because all eat and drink of the Lord's body and blood that they are themselves one body and one covenant people, and it is from within this communion that they proclaim his death in word and in witness. The testamentary tradition of the Johannine Gospel highlights the communion of love within which the gift is given, as well as the character of loving service inherent to the gift of Christ's body and blood. Taking these texts along with what was seen about the breaking of the bread in the Acts of the Apostles, one recognizes the larger context of service, communion, prayer, and ritual, to which the communion table belongs and from which it derives its full significance.
All the discussions on the presence of Christ in the Eucharist and on communion in his sacrifice through the eucharistic memorial need to be interpreted in relation to what is given in communion. It is not the reality of Christ present in the host as a thing that is the point of discussion, but the reality of what the Lord gives to the faithful in this symbolic action of the bread and the wine. Similarly the principal sacramental representation of Christ's paschal mystery is located in the communion action, not in the prayer of blessing, nor in any repetition of Christ's own words. Of course it cannot be this type of ritual eating and drinking without the proclamatory word and the memorial blessing, but the symbolism at the center of the entire action is the communion gift and its reception. As the climax of the liturgical action, it is theologically the point around which words, rites, and symbols converge.
From earliest times, Christian writers have stressed that the gifts offered are the body and blood of Christ. Many explanations of this have been offered, including the Tridentine definition that the substance of bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ. As presented by Thomas Aquinas, the theory of substantial presence and substantial change explained the sacramental reality of communion with the risen Christ within the unity of the church, a communion that meant participation in his life and contemplation of his mystery. In other words, the speculative theory of substantial presence was ordered to an appreciation of Christ's personal self-gift. In recent decades, explanations of symbolic expression and symbolic exchange showed how communion in Christ changes the meaning of human lives. By explaining that the sacramental reality of Christ's pasch must relate to the divine self-communication operative in the act of creation, Karl Rahner showed how the Eucharist takes up and transforms human life within the total reality of the world.
What needs to be brought to the fore today is that it is by communion in the flesh and blood of Christ that the faithful come to share in the hope of his resurrection and in the gift of eternal life, for it is this that most tellingly transforms human life and gives hope in times of stress. A deep union with Christ himself in the eschatological gift of the Spirit is what is offered and promised, but it has to be guaranteed by a communion with him in his suffering through the way of discipleship on this earth. The full import of this is expressed in the symbolic promise of the second coming, the meaning and truth of which it is impossible for us to express in conceptual terms.
The notions of substantial presence and substantial change serve as limit concepts to express the truth and reality of the gift given in communion and so of the communion with Christ in the mysteries of his flesh mediated by the sacrament. They mean that Christ's presence can be reduced neither to physical presence, subjective memory, symbolic exchange, nor shared meaning. Humans are limited in their grasp of reality. The church can never claim to fully grasp the meaning or signification of sharing in the reality of Christ's pasch or in his gift of self. In the power of the blessing, the symbols of bread and wine signify the meaning of Christ' s gift and pasch, but they offer a reality beyond what can be signified in sign or in human language or grasped by earthly intelligence.
The importance of the eucharistic prayer or blessing does not lie in the fact that it is itself narrative. It is rather the appropriation of narrative through the forms of discourse that shape relationships within belief. During the centuries in which diverse eucharistic families developed, the language of prayer was largely that of thanksgiving and intercession, with a gradual assimilation of the language of offering. Today, in the light of what is known about Hebrew blessing it seems suitable to take in confession of sin and lamentation, since these are forms of discourse that enable us to find the presence of the suffering and loving Christ in the midst of turmoil and even disillusionment. As with a ritual sharing of the body and blood or a ritual washing of feet, so with such prayer the church's ethical vision and horizon are formed.
Sacramental memorial that is the completion of narrative in blessing and ritual may be best understood if seen itself as an event. By all means it has its institutional components and belongs within a tradition of prayer and rite, but it is a creative and eventful moment in that tradition. Through the narrative Christ events again in the community, within the aspirations of its ritual expression, transforming them into new being. The community itself events within its time and society, as a proclamation and witness of this way of God's being among humans and on the earth. In its narrative and in its ethics of compassion, the Christian community finds the presence of Christ in suffering. It reflects his love, appearing as varyingly as are the sufferings to which word is addressed. It does not however presume to offer a reason for suffering. It says in simplicity, in celebration, and in action that God is there present, both revealed and concealed, and that those who suffer belong in the body of Christ, at the table of his body and blood. There God events anew in Christ and in his members. The eventful character of the eucharistic action has to do with the suffering remembered and the sufferings that it draws into the story and to the table, offering them as it were to Christ for his eventing. The sacramental celebration is not faithful to the event of the pasch that it represents unless it remains faithful to its own eventful character.
In light of the relation between event and language, Christ may be said to be present to the church in the word that brings the event of his pasch to word, that word in which his self-gift is renewed. His resurrection from the dead signifies the limitless capacity to take form in those who become his body on earth. As far as his body on earth is concerned, the eucharistic memorial is a power to be and to become, to event again in sacrament in new places, incorporating persons and things into the communion of God's love.
The proclamation of the cross at the heart of the narrative, or the symbol of the cross, limits the resort to metaphysical or mythic thinking to explain Christ's salvific work. Though the ontological basis for a theology of redemption is kept through the analogy of being, the cross limits the capacity of metaphysical speculation to offer analogies. As expressed by Saint Paul, the wisdom of the cross runs counter to the wisdom of the Jews and the wisdom of the Greeks. That is to say, it proclaims that the love of God shown in the cross cannot be represented in religious cultic systems or in philosophical concepts. No image of God grounded either in myth or in metaphysics can be employed to explain how redemption comes through the cross. This has to be thought from the symbol of the cross itself, as it relates to the narrative of Jesus' ministry trial, judgment, and death. It is there that God's wisdom and judgment on the world are made known, precisely as a counterwisdom to human wisdoms.
The power of the language in which the memory of the cross is kept invites surrender to the God whose trace is found in the love of Christ in the midst of suffering, and who is named from within this story and its appropriation to new situations of suffering. The ultimacy of this surrender is a contemplation that occurs beyond the language and celebration of sacrament. In the practical order, it is compassion and action that emerge out of the faith in God's loving presence in the here and the now, without the need for the consolation of the knowledge of a providential order or without the presumption of entering the mind of God as a condition for believing in love. This love events in the community of faith and in the presence of this community in time and place, even in the midst of discontinuities and ambiguities to which there is no intelligible pattern.
Relating the suffering of humanity to the remembrance of Christ is a matter of critical importance for eucharistic celebration. In modem concepts of history or in traditional Christian concepts of providence, there is an optimism that stands up with difficulty in face of the cultural ruins of history and of humankind's awesome capacity to cause mass death. In the Nazi camp or in the killing fields of Cambodia or in the corridor of death across Kuwait, the life-world itself is first destroyed and all connection with an intelligible course of events disappears. It offers little hope to say that in an action of memorial, it is possible in the midst of this to contemplate a Word, or see an intelligible law of the cross at work in reordering human events.
As already remarked, the cross disrupts mythic and metaphysical thinking. It does so not only as a critique of concepts and representations of God, but even more poignantly because it locates God's advent in suffering itself. With the event of the pasch, it is impossible to know and love God except from within the divine embrace of humanity's suffering. It is impossible to speak of God except from this starting-point. This is not a matter of saying that God allows suffering so that we may be awakened to contingency and a knowledge of the divine. It is rather to admit the inadequacy of any metaphysical or mythic explanation of suffering, and yet to say that the God who withdraws from the world in suffering is truly present within it. In the immersion in suffering of Christ and in the protest against suffering of this very immersion and in the eschatological hope of the resurrection and judgment that deny the finality of suffering and death, God is present in the affairs of earth.
When Christ events anew in eucharistic memorial it is not only to affirm the eschatological hope of the pasch, but to become present anew to suffering and among sufferers. The weak, the suffering, the underprivileged, the children, are always the privileged to whom Christ wants to be particularly present in the liturgy of the table ritual and of the ethics of foot-washing. What the church tends to overlook, or to struggle against the grain to realize in its rites, is this presence to, relying so readily as it does on a sense of the presence of Christ. The affective knowledge of God is tied to this presence of Christ in sacramental memorial and service among the suffering.
The question to be faced then is how a salvific event of the past may be represented in such a shattered present as ours, how God may still be said to come among us in a world that knows such reality. It is not a matter of explaining how we are enabled to rise above the ephemeral and the sinful to be one with Christ, but of retaining the faith that Christ is present as God's advocate in such a world. How may a promise for the future be maintained in a present that so totally negates human life, both in those to whom evil is done and in the perpetrator? Suffering patiently borne and senseless suffering are not at all on the same level of understanding and reality. It is the possibility of Christ's presence to senseless suffering that is the issue for today's eucharistic celebration. Can the memory of those who died senselessly, in an age or situation when any comprehensible or structured life-world had been shattered, be caught up in the memory of Christ? Can the dead even now be given life among the living through this memory? Can they be guaranteed a future though seemingly deprived of its possibilities in their suffering?
David N. POWER,
The Eucharistic Mystery. Revitalizing the Tradition.
Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1992, pp. 292-294, 311-313
1See Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics (New York: Crossroad, 1982), 1:573: "The accent must fail on the encounter of Christ and the Church in the act of the meal: this is where the center of gravity, lies .... The true sacramental sign in the Eucharist is the event of eating and drinking."