Monday, March 29, 2010

Holy Week 2010

It is announced wherever, reflecting without flinching, a purely rational system of analysis brings the following paradox to light: that the foundation of law--law of the law, institution of the institution, origin of the constitution--is a 'performative' event that cannot belong to the set that it founds, inaugurates, or justifies.
I just want to soak in that for awhile, to meditate on it, to roll it around in the mouth of my mind like a sip of cognac; enjoy it before swallowing it and making it disappear.

The emphasis here is on the performative, which is not the act itself. If I tell you to do something, the statement is performative, but it is not the act: your compliance with the command, is the act. The foundation of the act is the performative event, in this case my command. But that command does not belong to the act that it founds, inaugurates, or justifies.

We are getting to the marrow bone of Lent, now.

In seminary, my New Testament professor told us about a seminar he took where they spent a semester looking for precedents and parallels to the story told on Maundy Thursday in Christian churches:

11:23 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread,

11:24 and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, "This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me."

11:25 In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me."

11:26 For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord's death until he comes.
And they could find no precedent for it. The common mockery abroad is that it's a form of cannibalism. Fine; and the healing miracles in the Gospels are forms of shamanism, and the resurrection story itself a form of Greek hero worship. Perhaps. You can see it that way if you wish to; but it doesn't have to be understood that way. There is a reality, a spiritual reality, which either you know, or you don't know; and I find the dominant paradigm that such a reality is not known, and therefore is not real, to be tedious in the extreme. I'm familiar with the concept of the "God Spot" and I am not interested in it only because it is more of the materialism exemplified by Robert Wright, that is, a position that assumes it is true and then sets out to establish its validity. It is no more impressive to me than arguments for the existence of God, which start with the same unexamined assumption. So many such atheists and non-believers decry the attempt to "impose" religion upon them, yet feel quite content to impose their denial of this reality on me. Feh.

As I was saying, my professor and his colleagues could find no precedent for this story, no parallel in ancient literature. There are examples of blood sacrifice and rituals from Mithras, but they are anachronistic to Christian practice, and not parallel to it at all. The very phrasing of the command, the description of the ritual, is almost impossible to explain. What is the purpose for the recipient, except to eat this food in remembrance of their Lord? Because he supplied it? No, because it is his body. But what does that mean? There have been many interpretations over history, but no guiding principle is laid down in this story, or in any of the Synoptic Gospels. It remains a mystery almost sui generis. But it retains a powerful meaning for believers across space and across time. To have survived this long, it must mean something; at least to the participants who continue, generation after generation, to come new to it, and to remain true to it.

It is a performative event. "Do this in remembrance of me." And in the gospels, Jesus tells the disciples to take the cup, and eat the bread. It is a performative event, and as such it is the paradox: it "cannot belong to the set that it founds, inaugurates, or justifies." But what does it found, inaugurate, or justify?

This paradox, of course, is what makes it a sacrament. It persists in time but is not of time. It persists in the Church, but is not of the Church; it is not an command of the Church, but it is preserved and observed by the Church. But what does it justify? What does it found? What does it inaugurate?

I'm not yet sure. That's what I want to meditate on....

Image via The Wounded Bird


  1. Who is this quote from? The one that opens this post?

  2. Having grown up in the Roman Catholic Church, accustomed to taking Communion from a young age, I was stunned when I first heard or read the suggestion of cannibalism in connection with the Eucharist. Blasphemy! I thought. But after I pondering for a spell, I came to understand how a person could arrive at that understanding.

    What I thought of as I read your post is the passage from John's Gospel, which, if I remember correctly has no account of the Last Supper, in which Jesus says,

    ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink.

    And many of Jesus' disciples walked away.

    Which leads me to wonder if certain members of the community who gathered around John after Jesus' death, mostly Jews, objected to the practice, which may have led the writer of the latest Gospel to place the words of Jesus quoted above early in the Gospel account to set members of the community straight.

    I've left something of a jumble of thoughts here, Robert, and I hope that you and others can make of them a bit of sense.

  3. Who is this quote from? The one that opens this post?

    Sorry, I meant to say: Jacques Derrida.

  4. Grandmere Mimi-

    My first reaction is that clearly the Johannine account is a post-Synoptic version (as much of John's Gospel is), and already the eucharist is, as Paul intended, the common ritual of believers.

    Beyond that, I'd have to meditate on it.