Thursday, April 05, 2007

The Sacrament of the Last Supper

Wounded Bird has a wonderful meditation on the Last Supper. To the mystery of the presence in the elements, I would only add this, in order to deepen the mystery.

My New Testament professor was Stephen J. Patterson, a fine Biblical scholar and a member, at the time, of the infamous Jesus Seminar. As such, he proudly declared he was one of the most skeptical of members, casting a black pebble (for "non-authentic") over almost every statement attributed to Jesus in the gospels (the purpose of the Seminar was to counter the rigid literalism of Christian fundamentalists, by establishing a text which could be verified according to a rubric of critical standards). If those standards were not satisfied, Steve was quite comfortable with denying any claim to authenticity to the words.

It was a good stance for a scholar, and he defended it as such. But one day, he told us about a graduate seminar he took, one where the class spent a semester examining the words of institution that are now so much as the center of the theories of the eucharist: "This is my body...this is my blood." What did those words mean?

Despite perceived allusions to the cult of Mithra or any other mystery cults, or ideas of "eating the god" from non-Hebraic cultures, Steve told us that they could find no precedent for these words, no relationship to any other ideas extant in the 1st century world of Jesus and the disciples, that would give a context, an explanation, to his words.

Think about that a moment. If Socrates is right, all of our ideas are the result of similarity to ideas we already have, ideas we are born with, and so we "recover" knowledge, not acquire it. To acquire what you do not know is an impossibility, since you must be able to relate it to what is already known, and with a perfectly blank slate, there is no outside hand and piece of chalk to write on yours. Hume dodged this issue later, in arguing for analytic and synthetic statements as the only categories of thought available to us. One is purely about sensory information, which we gain by experience; the other is purely a creation of our thoughts and, as such, impossible to verify, and therefore useless. Kant only restored value to our thoughts by returning us, in some measure, closer to Socrates's position.

So what does it mean to say something so unique, so original, it has no precedent? "This is my body....this is my blood. Do this to remember me." What was he saying? What are we saying, today?

And, as Grandmere Mimi says, reflecting on the words of John's Gospel: "If Jesus was speaking symbolically, why would they have left?"

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