3 October 2007

Eucharistic Realities 2

Filed under: Christianity — ktismatics @ 12:02 pm

The Last Supper was a Seder, a Passover celebration commemorating the Exodus. Because the Jews were forced to make a hasty departure from Egypt, there wasn’t time to wait for the dough to rise or to pack yeast for the trip — thus the unleavened bread. The wine-drinking part of the celebration isn’t specified in the Bible; it got added later on as part of the tradition. Did the Jews have time to pack wine for the trip? Probably not, but hey, the Bible doesn’t say you can’t have a little wine with the Seder… So there are four ritual cups of wine, each memorializing a specific feature of God’s promise to the Jews in Exodus 6:6-7: (1) to take them out of Egypt, (2) to deliver them from slavery, (3) to redeem them with a demonstration of power, and (4) to acquire them as His nation.

So when Jesus broke the matzo bread and told his disciples to eat it, saying “this is my body,” he was using one of the components of the Seder ritual and assigning a different meaning to it. Traditionally the unleavened bread symbolizes humility and freedom, but there is no significance associated specifically with the breaking of the bread. In the Gospel of Luke Jesus does the wine thing twice. In his first “toast” he says that he won’t drink wine again until the kingdom of God comes. It’s the second toast, after supper, probably the traditional fourth cup, when he says that the wine is his blood, poured out in a new covenant. The Passover tradition is mostly about the drinking of the wine, not the pouring. Finally, Jesus told his disciples to “do this in remembrance of me.”

Bread and wine are ordinary foods. In the Bible the Jewish Passover ritual was intended to commemorate an important historical event by stylistically repeating certain components of that event. Tradition attached symbolic meaning to the components of the ritual. Jesus took the same elements of the ritual, shifted the emphasis slightly — from eating to breaking, from drinking to pouring — assigned different symbolic meanings to them, and attributed to them a different commemorative significance.

Historically the church has decontextualized the Last Supper, as well as its commemorative repetition in the Eucharist, from its origins in the Jewish Passover. The assumption has typically been that Jesus intended for the Eucharist to replace the Seder. It’s as if the ritual of the bread and wine can have only one religious meaning at a time — just as in the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation the elements can be either bread and wine or body and blood but not both. But there’s no reason why multiple meanings can’t be imposed on the same elements and actions, why the ritual can’t commemorate both the Passover and Jesus’s death.

The reality of a ritual doesn’t have to inhere in the objects and actions that comprise the ritual. Rather, the reality consists of the objects and actions as embedded in a particular system of meanings. The same objects and events can participate in multiple meaning systems. So the bread and wine can participate in both the Passover and the Eucharist.



  1. It’s seems as if the Bible is full of double meanings. As you stated the bread and the body as well as the wine and the blood. How does one know which one is the right interpretation? It’s terribly confusing and makes my Bible reading grueling and a chore at times. Maybe I am not spiritually mature to “get” all of it.


    Comment by Erica — 3 October 2007 @ 1:26 pm

  2. I meant to add about Passover as well. Because I realize that the bread and wine are symbolic of body and blood. That’s what I get for rushing a comment. Nonsensical jibber jabber.


    Comment by Erica — 3 October 2007 @ 1:28 pm

  3. I wonder if most things have multiple meanings. The writers of the Bible were usually aware that what they wrote could be interpreted in light of all sorts of Old Testament references. So they often say “this” means “that” as a fulfillment of an older stream of thought. We’re accustomed to understanding these references in the sense of Christ fulfilling prophecy, or the Eucharist fulfilling the Passover, as if all these older things were always only half-completed and pointing forward to Christ. But maybe it would be better to say that the New Testament writers recognized long-standing themes in Judaism that Jesus picked up on, so that the things he did could be tied in with other meanings with which people were already familiar.


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 October 2007 @ 3:40 pm

  4. But what is the truth really. If you can interpret things differently what exactly is the truth. This is where I have a hard time with the Bible. I believe in God and Jesus Christ, but it seems like with anything the truth can be skewed and changed, especially after being told so many times over and over. One thing could start out to mean something specific and at the end of its telling end up with at totally different meaning. Am I making any sense or am I totally missing the point?


    Comment by Erica — 3 October 2007 @ 6:29 pm

  5. It’s a difficult problem to sort through. I think some truth can be found about myself, the world and other people. What these truths mean, what to make of them, what to do about them — these seem much more open to multiple interpretations. I seem to feel less sure about it all as time goes by. Sometimes I feel exhilarated by the possibilities of a world where many things can be true at the same time; sometimes I feel discouraged by it.


    Comment by ktismatics — 3 October 2007 @ 8:27 pm

  6. I think anyone who reads the bible from a modern scientifically oriented standpoint will have the same sorts of questions and as Ivan frequently points out these are powerful grounds for agnosticism/atheism.

    But, the other side of the coin is that i have found that if I make the effort to shake off what my religion has indoctrinated me to think, and get into the text from the standpoint of the original times, the whole picture transforms. I think that this will probably work for almost any ancient text as I had the same ‘totally different’ thing happen to me when I read the Koran!

    In the present case, as Ktismatics pointed out in the comments to the previous post, I can see Jesus saying “do this” with the “in remembrance of me” being added retrospectively by the authors as the events of the last supper have to be closely associated with the events of death and resurrection that immediately follow. Accidental? maybe, and it is also just possible that Jesus knew fairly clearly that he would have to die, as it is quite clear that his enemies were after him with murderous intent…


    Comment by samlcarr — 3 October 2007 @ 10:19 pm

  7. Sometimes I feel exhilarated by the possibilities of a world where many things can be true at the same time; sometimes I feel discouraged by it. That’s the truth!


    Comment by samlcarr — 3 October 2007 @ 10:21 pm

  8. Will somebody please explain what is (a) the metaphorical and (b) the cultural meaning and significance of transsubstantiation, thank you.

    Clysmatics, I discovered a slogan which might pull you of the impasse with your practice:

    ”The world is so full of shit, it needs good Clysmatics.”


    Comment by parodycenter — 4 October 2007 @ 11:38 am

  9. “The metaphorical meaning of transubstantiation” — historically one either believes in one or the other: either something literally changes into something else (wine into blood) or something stands metaphorically for the other (Jesus’s blood is like wine in that it is poured out for you). The cultural meaning and significance has to do with whether natural physical stuff can be imbued with supernatural spirit. I think the Orthodox church believes this to be so.

    Icons are another good example, where a saint is painted in such a way that it directs one’s gaze through the image into the presence of the spirit world where the saint lives forever. The icon painter doesn’t try to paint realistically or naturalistically; he tries to paint spiritually. Representational art abandoned this approach, painting people as if you were looking at them through a window in the material world. The icon participates in the spiritual reality of its subject; the representational painting is a signifier pointing to a physically real subject that exists elsewhere. In that sense representational art is metaphorical, whereas iconic art is transubstatial — or consubstantial, participating in both the material and the spiritual worlds at the same time. Note that, while Renaissance Florentines painted representationally, they also painted ideally — recapturing the Greco-Roman idea of the perfect body. It wasn’t until you got to Rembrandt and company that you got realistic representational art. This is a Protestant aesthetic, where you’ve got a very ordinary looking Moses who just happens to be called to participate in some extraordinary event.

    Regarding the marketing slogan, I’ll have to sit on it awhile…


    Comment by ktismatics — 4 October 2007 @ 1:20 pm

  10. could this be equivalent to or could parallels be drawn with Deleuze’s notion of the time-image? His understanding of cinema?


    Comment by parodycenter — 4 October 2007 @ 8:16 pm

  11. You’ll have to enlighten us about Deleuze’s ideas on these matters, since I’ve neither read them nor read about them.


    Comment by ktismatics — 4 October 2007 @ 9:49 pm

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