The Lord’s Supper and Christ’s participation in our death

In about two weeks I will have to give a lecture about death and the Lord’s Supper. (By the way, that’s why I’ve been silent here for a couple of weeks.) In what sense does the celebration of the Lord’s Supper remind us of our own death? And in what way is the death of Jesus related to both our own death and the Lord’s Supper? The focus, thus, is not upon the atoning meaning of Christ’s death. The question is which meaning the ‘mere fact’ of his death has for us and in which way the Lord’s Supper can reveal that to us.

I will start with a short passage from Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book Lament for a son. In this book Wolterstorff describes what happened when he received a phone call that his son Eric had died in a mountain climbing accident. Somewhere in the book he tells about the funeral service. He writes:

“We celebrated the Eucharist, that sacrament of God’s participation in our brokenness. We came forward successively in groups, standing in circles around the coffin, passing the signs of Christ’s brokenness to each other.” (p.39,40)

The key-word here is ‘participation’. In what sense is the celebration of the Lord’s Supper a participation of Christ in our brokenness? There are, at least, two possible directions here. One way is to focus upon the Lord’s Supper as a commemorative ritual. A rite invites us into a kind of participation, so it is argued, that transcends our rationality. We might even argue that in the ritual enacting of the Lord’s Supper we are – somehow – made one with the reality, to which the celebration refers. The problem, however, is located in this ‘somehow’. How do we have to understand that? Is this a kind of ‘Traumzeit’ (Josuttis), in which we forget about everything here and now? Or should we think of it as a kind of ‘game’, in which we are playing like children? When a child is playing fireman, he is a fireman. Is it something like this?

These proposals can’t convince me. First, they posit a relationship between the ritual and the reality it refers to in terms of a kind of (weak) analogy. And second, in this way we’ve lost the spiritual reality. There is no appeal to the reality of Christ’s death and resurrection and no appeal to the reality of our sharing in his death and resurrection. That leads me to an alternative route: the route of exploring the resources of the eucharistic theology in the Reformation. I don’t think we have exhausted these resources. On the contrary, traditionally much attention is paid to the aspect of the atonement. But there is more to say. Three things, in fact, I’d like to call attention to in my lecture.

1. The body of Christ is – at least for Calvin – the locus of our salvation. Therefore, Calvin is very insistent that we should lift up our hearts. That is because Christ is in heaven. Calvin does not want to depreciate the role of the senses or of the human body. On the contrary, the wounded and tortured body of Christ, the body that tasted death, is for him a very substantial and almost palpable reality. But He is in heaven! There we have to seek Him, not in the elements. And He nourishes us from above…

2. The Lord’s Supper is for Calvin also a pledge for our own resurrection. In the Catechism of John Craig this accent is even more pronounced. So, the Lord’s Supper has not only meaning for our souls, but also for our bodies! Because Christ is the Resurrected One, the Supper is a foretaste for our own resurrection. No doubt about that!

3. Thomas Torrance, and James Torrance in his trail, developed the view that for Calvin Christ’s priestly office meant that our worship is included in His worship, our response to God in His. The same applies to the Lord’s Supper. We are sharing in his death and resurrection, not in an analogical way, but as an ontological reality. In my previous post I expressed some doubts about this ontological thinking. However, the thought is precious to me, because it underlines the reality of our participation, where the ritual approach puts up with a weak analogy.

Well, in this direction my lecture will move. My question is: what do you think?