One of the issues that is often glossed over in reflections on the Eucharist is the reasoning behind the fact that through our eating a meal together, we proclaim the death of Jesus. Today, one would not normally associate death with a celebratory meal; meals are an instantiation of life, not context of commemorating a death. The question for Christians goes to the theological significance of what eating means and how such an action can me construed as a symbolum of the death of Christ.
The reason why such a connection is difficult for us to often see is, I contend, largely due to the particularly modern sort of necrophobia which attends our understanding of death. (Though, of course, this skittish necrophobia is but the flip side of a pervese necrophilia.) Our cultural understanding of death is based on a particular ontology if you will, and ontology of possession and violence. Personal identity is construed in modernity as the distinctive possession of the individual person. I have that which I am. To be alive is to posses myself, be in control of myself, etc. Thus, for the world today, death can only be understood as a form of radical and catastrophic violence. Very few today think of death as a “change” or “going to sleep”, rather death is seen is a catastrophic mutilation, a horrific dispossession which destroys and violates. It is to be avoided at all costs, for if we believe in identity-as-possession, death ultimately means the complete and total undoing of our being.
On the basis of such an understanding of death, the idea that a celebratory meal should proclaim and commemorate a death is irrevocably scandalous. And it is precisely the logic of identity-as-possession that is subverted by the Eucharistic logic of celebration. Jesus’ life and death subvert the narrative of possessed identity; Jesus’ entire life was one in which rather than maintaining and preserving his life, he continually expended it for others in a pattern of self-giving which had its culmination is his death. Throughout his life, Jesus defied the idea of possessed identity by receiving his life totally from outside himself, from the Father, and by expending that life as gift for others, even to the point of death. For Jesus, identity is not possession, rather is is pure gift, which is always and only received and must always and only be given away. Jesus’ death is not the catastrophic mutilation, or erasure of his identity by forces from without, rather Jesus chooses to die. “No one takes my life from me, I lay it down of my own accord.”
We are given, in Jesus a very different paradigm and practice of death. For Jesus, death is not a final robbery, a last destruction, but the culmination of self-expending love which is the eternal life of the triune God. Jesus’ complete self-expenditure culminates in him being completely and utterly used up. His death is not something forced on him, but rather characterizes the very shape of his entire life of total self-giving which nourishes and engenders the life of the triune God in those who are joined to Christ by the Spirit. Christ’s death is his total giving of himself for the sake of engendering and communicating life to others.
That is why the Eucharist proclaims the Lord’s death. For in eating we are nourished; in eating, life is communicated to us. The bread and wine of the Eucharist do not so much represent Jesus’ being killed, as his total self-expenditure, culminating in death through which we are nourished, sustained, and transformed. Eating signifies death, not because death is violent mutilation, but because it is the form of the radically prodigal, self-expending love that is the divine life which is given to us in Christ. The Eucharist embodies the transformation of identity from possession to gift. It proclaims a logic of redemption in which life, rather than needing to be secured as a possession, can be given away to the fullest. It proclaims that the ultimate ground of all being is the infinitely fruitful life of the Father, who suffuses all things with infinite life, such that the giving away of life, even unto death no longer need terrify us. For in the bosom of the Father, death itself is transformed in to vivifying and luminescent life.