Thursday, June 28, 2012

This is my body

I'm writing a magazine article on the relationship between the eucharist and our embodiment. This is quite long, but if anyone feels like reading it and also feels moved to comment, I would love to hear what you have to say and maybe discuss it a bit here. This comes from Austin Farrer's 'Said or Sung'. It is the transcript of an address delivered at the Eucharistic Congress at the Albert Hall in 1958 That might provide some needed context!

A speaker to an unfamiliar audience has to take a risk. He has to assume that his interest in the matter he discusses is shared by his hearers. In the present case my anxiety on this head is not great. For surely you feel the curiosity I feel when I consider that moment in which our Saviour said, 'This is my body.' How could Peter, John and the rest have understood him at all? They could not, anyhow, understand him altogether; why, the Holy Ghost came down presently at Pentecost for this very purpose, to give them, after the event, the understanding they had lacked; and to lead them into all truth, about the sacraments as well as about other divine things. But even at that moment, sitting at the Supper, they must have understood something. It was not our Saviour's way to talk with his friends in a language they could make nothing of; and least of all, in the night before he died. They cannot have been quite bewildered to hear him call the bread his body; even though his own living body sat there amongst them, holding the bread in his bodily hands, and calling it his body with a bodily tongue; even though in the next moment, Jesus ate a crumb of what he had called his body, putting his body into his body. That, you might think, was utterly confusing for his companions; and I do not deny that it was mysterious; but it was not so bewildering for them as it would be for us, and this is the reason - they had certain ways of thinking about their daily food, which have become less familiar nowadays.

I will ask you, then, to think for a moment about this old-world attitude to bread. Not that there is really anything old-world, or difficult, or unnatural about it, once we get round to thinking of it. We, surely, can say two things about our food, both equally true. First, food is a sort of fuel, which keeps us running; we turn it into warmth and energy; we burn it up in living; we can say, for short, that food is life. But in the second place, food is body-building; it is not merely consumed, or used by the body, it becomes the body. No doubt a small portion of matter came to us from the bodies of our mothers, but however much or little it was, it has long ago been replace. Every particle of what we now are has come to us from our diet; unless it has come from sunlight, or from the air. But roughly or picturesquely speaking, our food is our body. Food is body, then, and food is life, both equally and not more than the other; both ways of speaking are in the Bible; both, indeed, are applied to the Sacrament. the sixth chapter of S. John tells us that the flesh of the Son of Man nourishes us for eternal life; and it is familiar enough with us to think of the Sacrament as life, or sustenance. The other thought is not so familiar nowadays – I mean, the thought that food is body. But this is the way we need to think, if we are to understand what happened at the Supper.

If a Jew blessed his food - that is, if he said grace for it – and added, before eating it, 'This is my body,' his friends would not have been altogether surprised. They would have wondered, if anything, why he bothered to say it. It was his body, of course – his body to be; not actually his body, as anyone could see; he would need to digest it first. But it was already consecrated to be his body, because he had first said grace for it; and if he liked to call it his body, well, perhaps he could. 'Blessed be thou, O Lord, King of the World, who bringest bread out of the earth' was the old Jewish grace. When the Jew had blessed God in such words for his bread, he reckoned he had hallowed it for its proper use. Bread that is blessed is to eaten, it is to be the eater's body. God has given it for that purpose. 

Grace before meat is an important Christian action; by saying grace we acknowledge a divine gift, and no less a gift than the renewal of our bodily being, bestowed on us by the hand that made us. Every meal renews the wonder of our creation, all eating is a natural sacrament. In our morning prayers, we take our life again afresh from the hands of God, to use as he has chosen. And in our daily meals we receive our very existence, our physical being, the stuff of ourselves from God, to use according to his will. So Christ taught his disciples to look to heaven for their daily bread, and to receive it at their Father's hands; even though man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God. What Jesus taught, he practiced, and the supreme example of grace-before-meals is that of Jesus at the Supper. He takes the food from his Father's hand, to be his body; he rises from the table, he goes and does with that body what his Father desires. and what is that? He offers it on the cross for his Father's honour, and for our salvation.

I have been talking as though Jesus, at the Supper, had said grace for himself alone. And he did say grace for himself; but not for himself alone. He said grace for the company; and to make the fact more evident, it was his duty to crumble the loaf for which grace had been said, and pass the pieces round; everyone present must eat a crumb of the one blessed bread. Now if the blessed bread of a lonely eater is his body, the blessed bread of a whole company is their body, the body of them all; by eating the one loaf, they have their common existence from a common stock.

Think of the family of Christian children, sitting round the table. They are all, in Bible language, the issue of their parents' loins; but besides this, they have constantly, year in and year out, built their bodies up from the one food their father earned them, and their mother prepared for them. So we Christians are all one family at the table of our Heavenly Father. S. Paul does not think he is saying anything remarkable to the Corinthians, but quite a matter of course, when he says: Since the loaf is one, we many partakers are one body; for we all partake the one loaf. He is indeed expressing an idea ages and ages older than the Christian sacrament – the immemorial bond of common food. Those who build their bodies from one loaf are one body; just as those who draw their being from common parents are one blood.

Jesus, then, said grace for the company. But if so, why did not he say 'This is the body of us all' when he had blessed the bread? Why did he say, 'This is my body, which is for you'? The point is not merely that they share a body, but that the body which they share is his. Once again, the ideas of that ancient world would help the disciples to understand him. If friends feasted together who were equals, the bond of bread accepted equally – they were all one body, all members one of another, to quote S. Paul again. But suppose an ordinary citizen went to dine with a great man, a prince, a king? Then he could say: 'This is the royal food, made ready to become the king's body; it has been blessed to be his flesh. And I, a common man, am privileged to share it, to be one body with my lord.' It was in this way the people of God thought of the temple-sacrifices, where the Lord of the banquet was divine. They were privileged to come to the table of God Almighty. they could not think that he actually ate any part of the feast; that would be gross, heathenish and absurd. But they did think that God, of his loving-kindness, had appointed the altar to act as his deputy, or representative. God was graciously pleased to receive what the altar flames devoured, though he had no need of such offerings; and so, in eating the rest of the victim, his people had a sort of table-fellowship with their creator. 'Look at old Israel,' says S. paul. 'Do not those who eat the sacrifices come into communion with the altar?' But that God would push that altar aside, and take its place, that God would come to them in human flesh, to sit at their table, and give them a share in his body – there was a mercy, and a condescension of God, for which they dared not hope. Yet here, at the Supper, was Jesus saying: 'This is my body, which is for you.'

He says it now, rather than at any previous feast, because now he has to leave them; and before he goes, he wishes to join them with himself by the covenant of bread. Ah, but do the disciples understand the nature of the bond? Jesus has blessed his food, to be the body he will offer in his sacrifice; do they know that they are committed to membership of such a body as that? A body flogged, broken, crucified – see, he crumbles the loaf before their eyes. Do they perceive the new meaning in the ancient custom, the breaking of the bread? Are they willing to be parts of such a body, are they willing that his body, with its sacrificial destiny, should be theirs? The disciples were not yet fully willing, but they came to be, and so we all must; for if we do not want to be given and surrendered to God, why touch religion at all? By partaking of the sacrificial body, we are to be made capable of sacrifice, taken up, as we are, into the sacrificial being of Christ.

Let us return to our starting point, and see what we have accomplished. We wanted to explain how the disciples could have seen any meaning in the words, 'This is my body.' And we have seen that there was plenty there for them to understand. Messiah, their heavenly king, has blessed the bread, to be his body. He is going to die for them, but he first gives them a share in his body, by the fellowship of bread.

I wonder, now, what you think about this line of interpretation. If I were sitting where you sit, and hearing such ideas for the first time, what should I think? 'This Oxford man,' I should say, 'has overdone it. He has explained too much. He set out to explain the disciples' thoughts, but has ended up explaining away the Master's action. it seems there was nothing in it, after all Christ was saying grace in the Jewish way, and pointing a Jewish moral about the grace he said. Everything was as natural as could be.' That is the sort of objection I should feel, and that is the sort of objection which, I dare say, you do feel. What are we to say in reply?

'Everything was as natural as could be.' Suppose it was, what is there in that to disturb us? Who expects Jesus to be unnatural? What more natural, more human, more sweet, that Jesus in Mary's lap, or sucking at her breast? But he is no less Son of God for that; Son of God, conceived of the Holy Ghost, and not by natural generation. All Jesus' acts are natural and kind; nothing could be more human, yet there is a fathomless depth in them, a meaning inexhaustible and divine. For he who does these things is not man only, but God. it is so with the Super. The words of Jesus are human, and they are divine; natural, but all the more supernatural for their naturalness.

When any pious Jew blesses his food – or when any of us blesses his – we may consecrate it to be our body, we cannot make it our body. Only God does that, the God, that is, of nature. Our creator, whose will gave us this bodily being, brings to pass by process of nature the transformation  of bread into body, after we have eaten the bread. If any of us calls his food his body, he means his 'body-to-be,' anticipating the action of God, which will make it so. It is otherwise when Christ blesses bread, and declares it his body; for then the voice that speaks is the Word that made the world. It is the Creator who blesses, when Christ blesses bread. Creation, we remember, is itself a blessing. As God makes each thing, we read, he sees it to be good; he blesses his living creatures, that they might increase and multiply. We are what we are by the blessing of God; we join our wills with his when we bless him for making us what we are. At the Summer, the Eternal Son joins his will with the Eternal Father, blessing him who gives the bread to be his body. The blessing is creative and almighty. He says it is his body, and it is his body, by appointment of the will no creature can resist. It is his body for every sacramental purpose, for communion and sacrifice, on the altar and in the tabernacle, on the palms and in the mouths of sinful men.

What is it, then? the age-old bond of common bread, and the custom of grace before meat, are the natural foundations on which Christ has built; and a scene of touching human simplicity, of jewish household piety, becomes the sacramental mystery of our redemption. When we feed on this bread, we do not merely stock our bodies with the same stuff as Jesus used for stocking his. The bread is his body now, it is on him we feed; and this is it that unites us. If, in our Christian being, you and I are one, it is because we have nothing as Christians but what we draw from Christ. Each of us has little human knowledge about most of the others who sit with us in this hall; but we are all one body, being partakers of that one bread.

(Austin Farrer, Said or Sung, 125–131)

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