"The central doctrine of Christianity, then, is not that God is a bastard. It is, in the words of the late Dominican theologian Herbert McCabe, that if you don’t love you’re dead, and if you do, they’ll kill you."--Terry Eagleton

"...doesn't philosophy amount to the sum of all thinkable and unthinkable errors, ceaselessly repeated?"--Jean-Luc Marion

“The opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."--Bryan Stevenson

Thursday, March 24, 2005

The End

For reasons that have to do with my adolescence, every Holy Week when I can, I listen to "Jesus Christ Superstar." "The End" is one of the emotional highlights of the album, although sometimes I think I like it only because the bassoons in the background sound so mournful (and I played the bassoon in my adolescence. Let the psychiatrists make what they will of this.)
The end is just a little harder when
brought about by friends
For all you care, this wine could be my blood
For all you care, this bread could be my body.
This is my blood you drink, this is my body you eat.
If you would remember me, when you eat and drink.
My New Testament professor told us about a graduate seminar where the professor asked them one question: what did Jesus mean by this? Not the usual Mithraic misunderstanding of the eucharist, where you take on the powers of the god by consuming the god's body and blood. No, the gospel story is much more subtle and complex than that. What Jesus told his disciples was that the bread was his body, the wine his blood; but he didn't tell them to eat it and drink it to become gods, too, or to take on any power of immortality, any aspect of the divine. What he said was: do it to remember me.


His graduate seminar could find no parallel to this in the ancient literature, no reasonable connection to other now-ancient practices. Our epistemology generally runs along these lines: we understand the new by how much it relates to the old. But the usual epistemological tools run aground in the presence of this story. What does it mean? Outside of the story itself, we have no examples to help us.

Which is all they concluded: that they couldn't know, because they had no parallels, no similarities no outside assistance. He did not offer this example as some "proof" of the validity of the Eucharist, although as a member of the Jesus Seminar he accepted these words are most likely to be those of the historical Jesus of Nazareth, if only because they had no parallel in the literature, no similarity that could have been imported by a gospel writer anxious to explain or pass on his understanding of the teachings of this rabbi.

So, what does it mean, to eat this bread, and drink this cup, in remembrance of him? That is the question for Christians, especially on this day. It is a new thing; a wholly new thing. And we still don't quite understand it. We understood the other "sacrament," though; the sacrament that wasn't; the one described in John 13. We understood that one too well. We took up one, because eating and drinking is easy for us; we set aside the other, because such acts of humility are too much for us to bear. Especially today, though, Christians should contemplate it. We usually approach this triumphally, if we approach it at all, so anxious are we usually to jump from Palm Sunday straight to Easter Sunday. The poignancy of that moment in the upper room of that "last supper" with his closest friends, is caught for me in those words of Tim Rice. "For all you care, this bread could be my body. If you would remember me, when you eat and drink." That is the voice of a human being, speaking to other human beings, and asking for the simplest thing. That we would remember. Even though we bring about his end.


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