Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Eucharist: Symbol of Transformation

Next I'm going to examine Eucharist: Symbol of Transformation by William R. Crockett. Crockett has recently retired from the Vancouver School of Theology, where he was professor of systematic theology.

Crockett spends the first six chapters of his book addressing the changing understandings of the Eucharist throughout history. Rather than summarize his statements, I will later compile a narrative of this development based on several books. C. includes a whole chapter examining Luther and Zwingli, which will also be helpful for my next comp, Reformation Liturgies. He does show important theological points throughout his history, ones that should not be ignored—especially, his discussions of Augustine and of the epiklesis.

His final chapter, however, is the one in which C.'s ideas come through most clearly. He begins by noting that, as heirs of the Reformation, Protestants have come to see the proclamation of the Word as the normal, weekly event, rather than the celebration of the Eucharist. The Reformation liturgies placed a strong emphasis on teaching and exhortation because the reformers wished for the sacrament to be grounded in the word, not that they wished to abolish the sacrament. Soon after the Reformation, the Enlightenment caused sacramental and symbolic language to further be lost from the general consciousness.

C. discusses the idea of eucharistic sacrifice, a difficult issue for the heirs of the Reformation. Max Thurian is cited as regaining the centrality of anamnesis, while at the same time recovering the idea of sacrifice. The Eucharist is neither a repetition of the sacrifice of the cross, nor simply a mental recollection of the event. Through it, the sacrifice of the cross is made sacramentally present that we may participate in its redemptive reality. C. cites Regin Prenter, also, in noting that through this participation in Christ's sacrifice, we help to fulfill our duty to offer ourselves as a living, holy sacrifice.

C. then takes up the issue of the eucharistic presence of Christ, another challenging issue for all churches. He traces the development of the doctrine, noting that after Augustine, during the Middle Ages, the community lost its sense of itself as the body of Christ, and instead became a group of spectators viewing Christ as an object on the altar. This developed along with the loss of symbolic consciousness, signaled in the controversies of the 9th and 11th centuries. No longer was it understood that a symbol participates in and mediates the reality that it symbolizes. Without spending a great deal of time on the issue's modern interpretants, C. does address two Catholic theologians, namely, E. Schillebeeckx and P. Schoonenberg. Schillebeecks interpreteed the sacraments as the symbolic activity of the community of faith—they "are communal symbols that mediate a personal encounter between Christ and the Church." Schoonberg also saw the real presence in a personal manner. The presence of Christ is not in an object, but rather "the personal presence of Christ in his community" (234). They both stress that the presence of Christ cannot be isolated from his presence in proclamation and in community. His presence takes place at the level of symbolic activity. The reality that is offered by the sacramental signs is Christ himself; although, this does not necessarily imply a local presence of Christ within or any physical change of the elements.

C. moves on to discuss the symbolic, recapping what he discussed throughout the book as related to symbols. In the ancient world, symbols were vehicles that mediated to the community the meaning of life in society and in the cosmos—the symbol participated in the reality it represented, and, therefore, when the community participated in the symbol, it participated in that reality. The loss of this understanding has been a process in Western thought, and C. analyzes two categories of understanding arising from this process—the "symbolic-realist" tradition, seeing in symbols a true meaning; and the "sociological" tradition, seeing symbols as matters of function.

The "symbolic realists" see symbols with an integrity of their own that cannot be reduced. While symbols can express different meanings, they cannot be one without the other (the example of the Exodus as a declaration of the liberation of an oppressed people, and as a divine act of redemption is given). It is the holding together of different meanings that gives symbols their power. The symbolic-realists also see the abolishment of symbols and their replacement with concepts as leaving modern culture impoverished and lacking whole worlds of meaning—the loss of the symbol has dehumanized us. However, symbols must also be interpreted for their meaning to be effective.

The "sociological tradition" sees symbols similarly, but also takes into account such thinkers as Freud, Marx, Durkheim and Weber. Freud's symbolism was that of individualism (dreams, etc.), but this tradition also sees symbols as a reflection not of individual life history, but instead of the society in which we live. Marx saw this, and noted that symbols are not neutral conceptions, but rather serve a social function, which he called "ideology" (understanding that Marx' ideas arose in the Industrial Revolution and critiques of capitalism). Durkheim, further, saw a "social bond" that holds traditional societies together—their common symbol system. Baum, Mannheim and Bloch all point towards the idea of symbols creating a utopian ideal in society as well as performing an ideological role.

C. gives his own reflection on symbols based on some other theologians. He begins by noting, "...the role of the symbol is to disclose the transcendent or the sacred.... religious symbols do not disclose a world different from this world, but the transcendent dimension that is present in all ordinary human experience.... Christian symbolic not an escape into another sacral world, but the celebration of the divine presence in the whole of life with a veiw to its redemptive transformation" (248).

C. uses Langdon Gilkey to show three meanings of symbol in Christian theology:
  1. Every finite being is a symbol of transcendencee precisely as a finite creature.
  2. Symbols assist a group to become "aware of its own status as symbol (in the first sense), as existing in and through the power of the divine"
  3. The presence of the Divine in and through these symbols is communicated to the group over time through the symbols (in the Christian tradition, primarily through word and sacrament).
Through these ideas, C. shows that religious symbols not only serve to disclose transcendent meaning, but also provoke social transformation, the Eucharist in particular. In celebrating the Eucharist as looking towards the coming kingdom, we should be mindful of those who have insufficient bread through injustice, poverty, war, etc. It is this that C. spends the remainder of the book discussing—the idea that throughout the Old and New Testaments, meals or banquets were ideas of feasting with God, and, eschatologically thinking, we should seek to include all within this feast, therefore making advocacy for the poor a priority. The link between the eucharist and sacrifice gives Christians purpose to more deeply address the self-giving action of God that is celebrated, and in eating the elements signifying that we should seek the transformation of the whole world. "The material signs of bread and wine, offered and shared by the community, are signs of the transformation of the entire material creation" (262).

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