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Embittering the eucharist

I’ve heard it said many times in various theological discussions that, given the divided state of the church, the eucharist should taste “bitter” to us when we partake of it. What was supposed to be a sign and sacrament of our unity out to taste bitter and penitential, given our manifest disunity. Seems straightforward enough, and on one level I don’t mind such assertions. Certainly we should never minimize the sin of refusing fellowship to one another in disobedience to Christ’s work of making all things one in his Crucified body.

But, really, should the current ecclesiastical state of affairs really make our experience of the eucharist more “bitter” than it would otherwise be? Should the sign of Christ’s complete and total self-giving for us and our salvation be an occasion in which we, bitterly, reflect on our ecclesiastical shortcomings? On one level, sure, its never a bad thing to lose sight of where we stand before God, but this would be the case whether or not the church was structurally united. If there is any bitterness in the eucharist it cannot be any bitterness other than our sorrow at being those who crucify the One who loves us utterly. Whatever bitterness the eucharist has does not derive from our subsequent ecclesiastical failures, but from the event of the crucifixion itself in which we are the crucifiers.

To leap too quickly from the proper, Christologically-founded penitence that should attend our remembrance of Christ’s self-giving to an ecclesiological lament over the church’s sundered structure seems to me to be something of an adventure in missing the point.

15 Comments

  1. Brian LePort wrote:

    Well said.

    Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink
  2. dustin wrote:

    Could the schismatic nature and acts of the Church actually be an act of crucifixion? Much in the Rollins-y sense of “denying the resurrection” when we basically act and have minds shaped as if Jesus had not risen from the dead?

    I really am asking, not being smart-I am contemplating in what sense I might crucify Jesus in my day, and my sin acts/thoughts might be the answer-and if a chief one is sowing division or bitterness between theological or cultural enemies, then would my act be a crucifixion, in the realest sense I can give? Or does that just muddy the picture from Christ’s ‘ιλασμος?

    Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 4:50 pm | Permalink
  3. Jana Bennett wrote:

    I think an emphasis on taste and on penitence overlooks some key aspects of the Eucharist. This is probably too Catholic of me, of course, but in emphasizing the bitterness of the Eucharist in relation to Christ’s crucifixion, are you not also emphasizing the “remembrance” aspect of the Eucharist? But what about salvation of the Passover feast, the manna from heaven, the Acts 2 community that shares food together (peoples’ questions about whether that community is historical notwithstanding….), and the statements in Paul about leaving gifts at the altar to be reconciled with people you know you have offended? I think a focus on the ways we crucify Jesus can and should go hand in hand with a bitter taste about the state of Jesus’ Body, as well as, well, joy.

    Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Permalink
  4. roger flyer wrote:

    Mmmmm…does this mean that there once was a gloriously sweet eucharist?

    Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 5:42 pm | Permalink
  5. Communion Bursts Bubble Gum! With the Grape Juice inside!

    Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Permalink
  6. Marvin wrote:

    We didn’t break up the Church. We’ve inherited this mess. This is like telling the kid whose parents are divorced that he should never, ever enjoy Thanksgiving dinner because the whole family isn’t there.

    Thursday, March 31, 2011 at 7:39 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    “Like”

    Thursday, March 31, 2011 at 7:49 pm | Permalink
  8. Halden wrote:

    Jana (and Dustin), I really do agree with what you say here. My main train of thought was just how sometimes we look at the Eucharist a bit too “ecclesiologically” rather than Christologically, so to speak.

    In other words, our divisions from each other don’t make the Eucharist “more” or “less” of anything. It is what it is because of the Crucified Logos and all our faithfullness and lack thereof must be understood in him and the event of his self-giving to us in the Cross.

    Thursday, March 31, 2011 at 7:51 pm | Permalink
  9. Brad A. wrote:

    It’s ironic that what you suggest here, Halden, is an objective view of the Eucharist that would be emphasized by the very “ecclesiological” traditions you’re critiquing. If we’re talking about the character of our participation, however, then wouldn’t our divisions matter? Of course, if you’re saying we don’t participate at all, but are only passively affected by it, then I suppose division doesn’t matter. But I’m not sure you think that.

    Friday, April 1, 2011 at 7:11 am | Permalink
  10. roger flyer wrote:

    Like, too.

    Friday, April 1, 2011 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  11. CCP wrote:

    When Ephraim Radner or George Lindbeck have talked about the eucharist tasting bitter they have been speaking in a prophetic mode. The eucharist does *not* taste bitter for Christians in sacramental traditions, and that is partly their point. Most Christians are happy to carry on without paying much mind to ecclesial divisions. For Radner and Lindbeck, this is the christological equivalent of paying no mind to the fact we are the ones, in the passion play, who cry ‘crucify him.’ It’s Lent, after all. Perhaps they are not wrong, at least for forty days a year, to sound this prophetic note about the eucharist; drinking judgment upon ourselves and all that. Just saying.

    Friday, April 1, 2011 at 6:16 pm | Permalink
  12. I third Halden’s and Roger’s “likes.” …Although…if your ‘thanksgivings’ were often violent affairs with blood, and cops and drunken fights, and burnt turkeys flung out onto the front lawn, then sometimes, like the buggered up altar boy, the *real* meaning of “thanksgiving” (or Eucharist) can be a struggle to redeem. And that micro’d turkey dinner eaten alone in front of the TV may be bitter and sterile but it also may be a hellofalot safer and less damaging to one’s mental (and spiritual) health. As for whether folks are taking the Eucharist a smidgen too much “‘ecclesialogically’ rather than ‘Christologically,’ so to speak.” If you take it on the tongue you are guilty of the former, and if you take it in the hand you guilty of the latter. Obliged.

    Friday, April 1, 2011 at 8:56 pm | Permalink
  13. CCP wrote:

    In the Tarantino version of this, you have the violent turkey fight, but then finally, in the denouement, the briefcase moment of mysterious light: receiving on the tongue or on the hand, receptive modes which stress either divine or human agency, passive and active receptive modes of our communion with God and neighbor.

    Saturday, April 2, 2011 at 7:05 am | Permalink
  14. mshedden wrote:

    I know others have drawn out this point but I still think focusing on the eucharist loses much of the on-ground (or from below) aspect of the modern church (especially the free church). For instance, most the crazy conservative pastor’s I pray with once a week would have problem sharing communion with me, or with an Liberal episcopalian women. But at the end of the day we don’t trust each other, care for each other, are skeptical of each others commitments, seem capable of saying each other has a “different” gospel, and are generally divided 100 times over. In my time with them I am unconvinced that talking about the eucharist is something that will help us out, but I have no idea what in free church reflection will. It seems most academic theology is focused realities that really fail to speak in these situations, partly because this room of pastor’s doesn’t exist to people in academy, or is surely not worthy of seeking unity with (which I think often times myself).
    I guess this is just me lamenting my situation (although I can’t believe I am alone on this). Any ideas where I could turn too here?

    Monday, April 4, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink
  15. Halden wrote:

    My best guess as far as what to do in such a situation (which is, in my opinion far more theologically important than discussions of “the Eucharist” as you rightly suggest) is that you ought to keep praying with them. Can’t say where it will go from there, but that’s a good start. I’ve seen a lot of great unity happen that began precisely out of a commitment to pray together in that way. But welcome to the long haul.

    Wednesday, April 6, 2011 at 11:29 am | Permalink

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