Thursday, September 22, 2011

Bloodless Jesus

"Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the 'most portable' person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, 'Well, if it's a symbol, to hell with it.' That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable." –Flannery O'Connor, letter to "A", December 16th 1955.

These seem like harsh words, particularly when one considers it unlikely that Flannery was speaking hyperbolically. Indeed, if it is just a symbol it is a form of rank idolatry, as it communicates a Christ who is present only as an extension of our own memorializing of Him, rather than according to His flesh and promise. Christ's presence in a symbolic Eucharist is fomented by our own identification with the symbolism, with the abstraction, with the emotional connection to the event of the Cross, therefore the Christ worshiped is a mirror of one's own sentiment. In this schema the Eucharist ceases to be where Christ meets, forgives, and feeds sinners with true life.

So much is to be gained by this simple truth held by the Church throughout her history, yet a large vocal minority rages against it. There is no exegetical basis to claim that the Eucharist is purely symbolic, unless one is really willing to argue that Jesus' words do not mean what they say, yet the raging remains among many who claim to be bound by the witness and authority of Scripture. The sinful man must rage against Christ's presence in our midst. A figurative Christ, one who is all spirit and no flesh can be contorted to suit our likings; it is easier to bend a memory to conform to one's own particular sentimentalities than it is to risk our own encounter with the flesh and blood of Jesus. Humans are not incapable of erecting monuments to their own sentiments, and certainly are not above worship of our own emotions. A sentimentalized Jesus is preferable: He's simpler, and certainly much tidier. The flesh and blood Jesus is hazardous to sinners, and even much more so dangerous to the virtuous, here one must nod to C.S. Lewis and agree that though Jesus is good, He is not safe. We know we are unlikely to survive a meeting with Jesus--our vices with be brought to light, and perhaps even more frighteningly, our virtues seared away, our pious pretentions would be reduced to rubble, leaving us with nothing of ourselves, nothing which we can claim as ours. A symbolic Eucharist is the vain attempt to save ourselves from such an encounter with Christ. Much like the demons, in our sin we cry out, "depart from us Jesus of Nazareth!" Yet unlike swine cast into the abyss, we are not driven away, but rather comforted, not with some sentimental notion that He loves us just as we are, but rather in a much more concrete absolute—that He feeds us Himself so we may live. He does destroy us, as even our most virtuous qualities are burned away by the flesh and blood the crucified and risen Lord, and it is then that we amount only to what we are in Him. But in this, staring through a glass darkly we begin to understand with the apostle that it is no longer "I who lives, but Christ who lives in me."