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What the Last Supper Was

March 28, 2013

agnus-dei-large
On this beautiful day on which we remember the Last Supper of our Lord, I will offer some reflections about what that meal was.  My hope and prayer is that, by doing so, you will be able more deeply to enter into the profound experience of this night.

1.  The Last Supper was a reconfiguring of the Exodus and Return from Exile around the figure of Jesus himself.   The Last Supper was a quasi-Passover meal (as I’ve discussed here), probably celebrated on the night before the day of preparation for Passover, as a memorial of the Exodus, as were all Passover meals.  Yet crucially, what Jesus did was to take the story of the Exodus and make that story his own story, the story of his own life.  Passover meals were also laden with Return from Exile themes, since for many, the return from Exile in Babylon had never fully taken place.  The restoration of the monarchy and temple had never taken place in a satisfactory way.

Jesus brought together these two memories by his words: “This is my blood of the covenant.”  These words evoke two scriptures from the Old Testament: Exodus 24:8 and Zechariah 9:9-11. In Exodus, Moses splashes half of the blood of a bull upon the people, and half upon the altar and proclaims, “This is the blood of the covenant” in order to ratify the covenant between God and his people.  To some degree, this covenant was continually renewed in Temple practice.  Jesus was now re-forming the Exodus covenant around himself and his own blood.  His own blood, shed on the cross, would be the covenant blood between God and the New Israel.

Second, these words evoke Zechariah 9:11 in particular: “Because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your prisoners free from the waterless pit.”  This portion of Zechariah was written after the return from Exile while under Persian rule, and it still looks forward to another Exodus-like event, a full return from Exile.  Jesus makes that event his own coming death, and his resurrection the complete return from Exile.

It is also in view of the Exile that we should read Jesus’ words in Matthew’s version of the Last Supper: “for the forgiveness of sins.”  Jesus was not speaking here of some abstract forgiveness or atonement theory but rather about the return from Exile.  In Deutero-Isaiah, when God brings his people back from Exile, he will forgive their sins (Is 43:25).  Forgiveness of sins is a sign that Israel is back in the Promised Land, that their relationship with God, marred by the sins that led to Exile, has been fully restored.  Jesus proclaimed in the prophetic action at the Last Supper that in his person Israel was returning from Exile, a new Exodus was being accomplished, and that all of this would take place through his death on the cross and resurrection from the dead.

The same is true of the bread.  A contemporary of Jesus, Gamaliel, observes in the Mishnah that the bread at the Passover meal represents the redemption from Egypt.  This redemption would now take place, not in a past event, but in the death on the cross.

2.  The Last Supper was a surrogate for sacrifice.  At the Last Supper, Jesus re-drew the lines of many of Israel’s primary symbols around himself and his own life.  The Exodus story was his story.  The Exile story was now his story.  And Temple activity was now his activity.  As Prophet, Jesus performed a symbolic action with his Last Supper that anticipated his death on the cross in which the return from Exile will be completed.  That has just been demonstrated.  Instead of remembrance meals being about the Exodus, they would from now on be about Jesus’ death.  The bread would no longer be a representation of the redemption from Egypt.  It would now be a reference to the sacrificed body of Jesus.

But as Priest, Jesus went even further.  In view of his recent confrontation in the Temple with the religious leaders, Jesus was now re-drawing the sacrificial acts around himself.  As Bruce Chilton points out, “blood” and “body” in Aramaic can carry a strongly sacrificial meaning on their own, and that is the most logical meaning for them in the context of a quasi-Passover meal that comes right after Jesus’ profoundly symbolic action in the Temple and prediction of its destruction.  Jesus was in effect saying “this bread now serves for us as the flesh of sacrifice; this blood serves for us as the blood of sacrifice.”  Jesus replaced Temple animals with bread and wine, and then he linkee that bread and wine to his death on the cross: “Which will be given up for many.”

At the Last Supper, Jesus made himself the last sacrifice that replaced all temple sacrifice.  He made himself a surrogate for sacrifice, a sacrifice-against-sacrifice, as Rene Girard says, doing away with all history-of-religions sacrifice and replacing it with an invitation to his followers to regularly link themselves to the self-offering of Jesus on behalf of all.

Jesus offered himself as a mimetic surrogate of sacrifice.  There was no longer any need to kill animals.  This critique of temple sacrifice had been going on for a long time in the prophetic tradition, most strongly in Jeremiah.  Jesus finally brought the sacrificial tradition to a definitive close, offering himself, and inviting his followers to offer themselves with him on behalf of the many.  In continually imitating Jesus’ perfect self-offering love, all sacrificing of others (animals or otherwise) could now cease.  The only sacrifice now required was a self-sacrifice in union with Jesus and in the pattern of his passion, death, and resurrection.  The fact that this message was Paul’s fundamental gospel shows that this was the core belief of the early Christians around which their memorial meals focused.

3.  The Last Supper was an eschatological banquet.  In some ways, even more than it was a quasi-Passover meal, the Last Supper was Jesus’ final eschatological banquet with his disciples.   Meals were one of the primary ways that Jesus proclaimed and established the kingdom of God.  The Gospel of Luke is arguably arranged around 8 meals, the Last Supper being the 6th.  The multiplication of the loaves and fishes is the only miracle that occurs in all four gospels.  In John 6, the multiplication miracle is clearly linked to the Eucharistic meal shared by the Johannine community.

Eschatological meals in the Old Testament were often linked to the Temple.   For example, Isaiah 25:6-9, possibly written just a couple of hundred years before Jesus, connects the Messianic banquet to the Temple Mount.  The eschatological banquet would complete and transcend the temple sacrifices.  Jesus in effect in his final meal with his disciples proclaimed that the eschatological banquet in the future that was a symbol of the perfect reign of God was now being inaugurated: “I shall not drink again the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”  This was the last of hundreds of eschatological meals that Jesus shared with his disciples throughout his life.  In this one he proclaimed that the kingdom of God is officially inaugurated by his self-offering on the cross.  The eschatological banquet was the medium of Jesus’ anti-sacrificial sacrifice by which a new community was formed around a new Exodus in his Passion and the new sacrificial banquet became a partaking in his body and blood.  

4.  So, the Last Supper was a bringing together of all of Israel’s past hopes into an action in the present in which they are reconfigured around the person of Jesus in ultimate view of an eschatological promise for the future.   This is what the Last Supper was.  It re-drew the lines of the primordial Jewish symbols and hopes — Exodus, Return from Exile and forgiveness of sins, Sacrifice, Temple, Eschatological Hope — around the person of Jesus himself.  Eventually, as the early Christian communities continued to remember — allowed themselves to be taken back and invited into Jesus’ own death and resurrection about which Paul spoke so frequently — they came to understand that the banquet in which they were partaking, the blood of the covenant that they were offering and the new Exodus bread that they were eating was actually the very body and blood of Jesus, his own Life offered to them for the sake of his body, the Church.  In this sense, the following insight of Vorsier quoted by Congar makes perfect sense:

The Church did not begin by saying that bread was being changed into Christ’s Body and that wine was being changed into Christ’s Blood; what it began by saying and still says is: ‘This is my Body, this is my Blood;’ the additional concept of change may almost be called an afterthought.

The Last Supper was not the first Mass.  It was a richly symbolic action by which brought to completion Israel’s former symbols and inaugurated-in-anticipation the New Israel of God.  This New Israel was actualized by the death, resurrection, and sending of the Spirit.  As the first Christians performed this sacred meal, they realized that they were re-enacting, not the Last Supper of Jesus, but rather his passion, death, and resurrection.  They were “dying and rising” with him, as Paul so often preached.  They were entering into his self-offering so as to imitate his love and offer themselves as “living sacrifices, dedicated and fit for his acceptance, the worship offered by mind and heart” (Rom 12:1).

As you partake tonight in this Supper of the Lamb, may you be more closely united to the self-offering love of Christ and more tightly incorporated into his Body, the Church.

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30 Comments
  1. Peter Paul Fuchs permalink
    March 28, 2013 5:28 pm

    Many outside of the Catholic community, and even outside of the Christian ambit, have seen in Jesus’ offering at the Last Supper the lifting-up of the essential kenosis that is the heart of all real spiritual experience. All of reality, all of the Divine Creation, is kenotic in that every act, every thought, every beauty is only properly understood on that field of self-emptiying. That is why perhaps the matter of literal change is both incorporated in and given its many meanings — including cultural ones of course– only in that kenotic field.

    Perhaps this is also why Christianity was around for more than one thousand years before the “change” of transubstantiation was defined.

    Btw, let’s be glad with your reflections that we are not living during the Thirty Years War, the horrors of which, on some tellings, produced the impetus for the Enlightenment and its skepticism itself. Not for nothing did Voltaire’s definition of the “Eucharist” in his Philosophical Dictionary contain the words “blood has flown in torrents”. That is not the sort of self-empying I had in mind above! :)

  2. Chris Sullivan permalink
    March 28, 2013 5:46 pm

    I like this. But I think it also was a Mass. I see it more as a both/and rather then an either/or.

    I tend to be a little wary of either/or theology. Mystery seems to be much more a both/and/and yet even more.

    God Bless

    • March 29, 2013 12:28 am

      That’s cool. Have a blessed Triduum.

    • Julia Smucker permalink*
      March 31, 2013 11:43 am

      This is a delayed response, but I’ve been thinking about this comment because I too am often wary of “either/or theology” – but that isn’t what I see here. In fact, I think Nathan’s explanation goes even beyond a both/and, showing how the Last Supper, as well as what would become the Mass, is multifaceted and multivalent.

  3. dismasdolben permalink
    March 28, 2013 8:00 pm

    You know, this is fascinating, and, I believe, true. But with it, don’t you see that Jesus is actually DESTROYING Temple Judaism? He actually IS, from the standpoint of mainstream Judaism of His time, a heretic, and, according to their sensibilities, a dangerous one. If everything you’ve written about the Last Supper is true, then the Temple priests, Saducees and Pharisees had every right to ask Pilate to kill him. He was “guilty as charged.”

  4. jordanstfrancis permalink
    March 28, 2013 10:29 pm

    There is no reason to say it “wasn’t the first Mass” except to score points for an audience we can’t see see or an agenda not yet discerned.

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems that this line of thought is trying to redefine how we think of the Last Supper precisely so we can redefine how we think of the Mass–not so much as the Sacrifice of Calvary but as “an invitation to his followers to regularly link themselves to the self-offering of Jesus on behalf of all”. No?

    • March 29, 2013 12:28 am

      No. I do think of the Mass as including the sacrifice of Calvary. Absolutely. I’m trying to give a richer description of what the Mass is. And part of that richer description is not to make the Last Supper what still was not.

      • March 29, 2013 2:39 am

        Semantics, it seems to me.

        It’s like saying that the ceremony the Hebrews were described as carrying out in Egypt was “not the first seder” even though they had to paint their doors with blood and eat unleavened bread and lamb and all that, out of some notion that a “seder” refers to a ceremonial meal commemorating all the events of the Exodus, and therefore impossible to consider anything taking place before the Exodus to be a seder.

        But all the Jewish sources I’ve seen refer to what Moses and the Israelites did in Egypt as “he first seder even though it itself was just one part of the events unfolding, all of which later seders would commemorate.

        This seems to be a pattern in our faith. God established the ritual form for commemorating the events even DURING (/before) the events themselves, such that the First Seder was part of the events that the Seder re-presents, and the First Mass was part of the events that the Mass re-represents. It’s sort of recursive, I guess, which is part of it’s power.

        I guess you can argue against what the Jews did right before the Exodus being the first seder, but then don’t claim “Jewish thought” as your authority, because the rabbis all seem to consider that to have been the first seder (in the same sense that most people intend the “First Mass” as having been at the Last Supper).

  5. March 28, 2013 10:47 pm

    (“…in other words, the first Mass”)

  6. Chris Sullivan permalink
    March 28, 2013 10:55 pm

    I dunno that Jesus is actually DESTROYING Temple Judaism. Acts says the early Christians went to the temple to join the temple prayers. What destroyed temple Judaism was Roman reaction to the evils of violent revolution. Those who live by the sword tend to die by the sword.

    God Bless

  7. jordanstfrancis permalink
    March 29, 2013 1:13 am

    There is no reason to exclude the Last Supper from its popular understanding as “the first Mass” just because the content which “fills up its form” happens later in the sequence. The ritual form of the Mass clearly takes its most essential gesture from the Last Supper.

    We hold that the form was never enacted absent of the content for which it was enacted because in the realm of the sacramental, the sign accomplishes what it signifies. It’s truly the richer understanding because it includes everything you are saying about what the Last Supper “is” and then says, yes, but it was a Mass too.

    The realities are contained each within the other, even as they are themselves contained. It’s like mirrors set into mirrors.

    Again, didn’t we all sing tonight “then as food for all his brethren, gave himself with his own hands” ? This is the received tradition. In my opinion, the piety of the Church is more authoratative than theologians.

    • March 29, 2013 10:48 am

      Well, I wouldn’t dismiss real theologians. The Pange Lingua was written by Aquinas himself, and reflects his (correct, if not exhaustive or exclusive) Eucharistic theology very much.

      I would dismiss, however, insolent little Jesuit scholastics toying with Modernism because it’s what’s cool in the ivory tower these days.

      • March 29, 2013 1:02 pm

        Thank you. Seeing as many of the great theologians of Vatican II were also accused of Modernism, I’ll accept the accusation.

      • March 29, 2013 1:09 pm

        Why “insolent”? Where do you get that from? And, besides that, from my experience, no Jesuit, scholastic or tertian or fully professed, is “little.” They’re bigger “men” than a lot of jerks who write in com-boxes.

        • March 30, 2013 12:47 pm

          Insolent because there are some heresies here combined with a general smugness towards popular understandings…but to no purpose, just to (as jordanstfrancis said) “score points” with some audience that is certainly not me, though which perhaps is his “academic” glass-bead-game peers among the Jesuits who like avant-garde theology.

        • March 31, 2013 6:50 am

          Sinner, do you know what the “Magisterium” originally thought about Thomas Aquinas’s attempt to marry orthodox Christianity with Greek philosophy? Why can’t Fundamentalists like you look, as Newman did, at the WHOLE history of the Apostolic and Catholic Church and realize that, throughout history, she has followed the advice of the great Italian novelist Giuseppe de Lampedusa and “changed” so that she can “remain the same”? The idioscyncratic, “personal” views of mystics and saints like John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila have, in some cases, caused them to be eventually proclaimed “Doctors of the Church.” I’m not saying that every young Jesuit scholastic is on that track, but I think they should be allowed their theological creativity and speculations. He’s giving this a lot more thought than your average Joe who doesn’t care to think about or even meditate upon these subjects. And he’s not claiming to “teach”–just to “discuss.” A fully ripened, mature faith is always a personal one, and is always somewhat idiosyncratic with each individual. You know about Gerard Manley Hopkins’s not being allowed to become a fully professed Jesuit because he preferred Duns Scotus to Aguinas, right? That was retrograde, but, from what you have written here and elsewher, it strikes me that, in some moods, you’d support such behaviour.

        • March 31, 2013 12:11 pm

          But digby, as MarkVA says below, he isn’t just “discussing.” If that were it, the title would not be a declarative “what the last supper was” and the whole tone of the piece would be hedged in qualifiers like “Perhaps, rather than the ‘first mass,” we should emphasize in the last supper…” etc etc, rather than these pronouncements like “It wasn’t the First Mass” even though, yes, it was, and to say that it was not is basically for intellectual “shock value” against popular understandings. My concern here isn’t fundamentalist at all, but rather, in this case, populist.

  8. March 29, 2013 2:55 am

    It’s unclear why any of these four things are not also descriptions of the Mass. The Mass serves all these same purposes too.

    The real clincher however, is this: Christ said “Do THIS in memory of me.”

    “This.” As in, “this same thing that I’m doing right now.”

    So, either the “this” of the Last Supper is the same as the “this” of the Mass, or else in the Mass we are not in fact fulfilling Christ’s command to “Do this in memory of me,” in which case we have a pretty big problem. (In that case, it would seem we should be doing “surrogate sacrifice eschatological banquets” rather than Masses in order to fulfill His command!)

  9. March 29, 2013 8:23 pm

    I don’t really have a horse in this race, though the discussion here and at the other post on this topic are interesting reading. Just a couple of thoughts:

    1. Maybe we could split the difference–the Last Supper is the first Eucharist, broadly construed, but not the first Mass (given the complex of associations, denotations, and connotations that surround the later term). What do you think?

    2. I firmly believe that the West took a really bad wrong turn, theologically speaking, in its Eucharistic theology. The East, while believing just as firmly as we in the Real Presence, the idea that the bread and wine no longer remain, becoming the Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of Christ, and even occasionally using the Greek term metousiosis, which can be approximately translated as “transubstantiation”, never felt the need to try to nail down specifics regarding the Eucharistic transformation, explain how it happens, or link it any particular school of philosophy (as the Scholastics did by using Aristotle’s substance/accidents distinction). Thus, Western theological discussions run the risk of sounding more like a circuit diagram (“this goes here, does that, and you have to do such-and-such”) rather than a profound and divine mystery. I think we Westerners need to learn to back off from thinking we really have the least comprehension of the Eucharist or how it is accomplished, and learn to rest in the Mystery. If I’m understanding it correctly, that it what Mr. (is that the correct title for a scholastic?) O’Halloran is trying to do.

    3. FWIW, going back to the earlier post and the discussion of bodily presence, I’d point to this fascinating book by Catholic author Philip St. Romain, Kundalini Energy and Christian Spirituality. The main thrust of the book is examining the similarities between the Hindu concept of kundalini and experiences of the author and of other Christians. At one point, tangential to the main discussion, St. Romain suggests that the Hindu concept of the subtle body (sūkṣmaśarīra, also known is Western contexts as the “astral body”) might hint at what the Christian concept of the spiritual body (sōma pneumatikon ) of the Resurrection will be like. Certainly, something like this would be both continuous with and radically different from the present mortal, physical body, and would allow the preservation of the concept of a “body” without necessarily positing many of the properties a physical body has, nor diminishing its continuity with the “fleshly body” (sōma tēs sarkos). It also might go some way towards squaring the circle of how the Bodily Presence of Christ “works”, though once more, I think trying to figure it out is probably counterproductive (viz the famous story of St. Augustine trying to understand the Trinity).

    Anyway, these are just some thoughts. We all agree on the important things–that Christ died for us, gave us the possibility of salvation, and instituted the Eucharist for the Church as a perpetual sacrament of this.

    • March 30, 2013 1:29 am

      It’s interesting because there was, if I recall correctly, a lot of discussion in the Middle Ages at one point regarding whether Angels were truly “pure spirits” or whether they had “subtle bodies.”

      As for Mystery, I’m all for that, but you have to have a framework for answering the question of what we are or are not allowed to say. I think the “Is Christ physically present?” line of discussion here proves that. A sort of “shrug with a wink” is not how Christians deal with “Mystery.” “Transubstantiation” doesn’t really tie us to one philosophical system. What it does do is parse the mystery in one framework in such a way that it can then serve as template for “translating” it into other philosophical frameworks; you just have to make sure all the points map in a way that is equivalent or at least non-contradictory. The original inspired text of Scripture being in Hebrew or Greek doesn’t “tie us” to Hebrew or Greek when it comes to the Bible.

      As for the Resurrection, New Theological Movement did a good job here establishing, even with quotes from the recent Catechism, that the glorified body is indeed physical:

      http://newtheologicalmovement.blogspot.com/2011/04/is-glorified-body-of-jesus-physical.html

      As the Catechism says, “Christ’s Resurrection cannot be interpreted as something outside the physical order, and it is impossible not to acknowledge it as an historical fact” (CCC 643). It is part of “the physical order.” There can be no doubt about that.

      • March 30, 2013 3:25 pm

        [T]here was…a lot of discussion in the Middle Ages at one point regarding whether Angels were truly “pure spirits” or whether they had “subtle bodies.”

        You do remember correctly. The Scholastics opted for “pure spirit”, but I don’t know if that was ever dogmatically defined.

        A sort of “shrug with a wink” is not how Christians deal with “Mystery.”

        I don’t think that’s a fair description of the theological method of the East, which is much more comfortable with not dotting every “i” and crossing every “t”. “Who knows, it’s a mystery,” may be one extreme, but the intricacies of Scholasticism (especially in its decadent late Medieval and Renaissance forms) are another, IMO.

        “Transubstantiation” doesn’t really tie us to one philosophical system.

        Not necessarily, but it has often been understood as so doing. In a discussion on Rod Dreher’s blog at The American Conservative, Aristotle came up in a different context, and I pointed out that as I see it (given my background in physics) Aristotle’s substance/accidents distinction isn’t tenable in light of atomic theory. If his system isn’t even tenable, it does no good to “translate” from or into it. I don’t doubt the Church’s teaching on the Eucharist, but I think that trying to shoehorn it into the terminology of one philosophical system and then trying (as the Scholastics did) to over-define things has been a bad direction in which to go.

        As to the subtle body, if that is a valid notion (and I’m somewhat agnostic on that), it takes care of the issue. It would be different from the gross body–the one we see now–but it would still be “part of the physical order”. After all, light, microwaves, fields, etc. are all part of the “physical order”, since they all amount to particles or distortions of space produced by particles. Moreover, Einstein’s well-known formula E = mc2 shows that energy and matter are equivalent. It’s also possible that the subtle body is a level of the physical universe beyond anything yet discovered. Finally, subtle bodies are said to be able to interact with the gross world at times, appearing “solid”, though also capable of disappearing, going through wall, etc. Thus, to say that Christ’s resurrected body is “part of the physical order”, capable of being touched, etc. when he wills it, and that it is a real body is not necessarily in conflict with saying that it is not made of matter as we know it.

        Having said all of which, I don’t have any strong feelings about it. He’s present in the Eucharist, Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity, and beyond that I’m not too worried about it. I would say that several here have been rather snarky and unpleasant, to say nothing of uncharitable, in some of the remarks directed towards Mr. O’Halloran (who has not returned in kind), and I think that that is especially regrettable here on the cusp of Easter. We’re all agreed on the fundamentals and are preparing to celebrate the Resurrection, so let’s all cool it on each other, shall we?

        • March 31, 2013 10:00 am

          “I pointed out that as I see it (given my background in physics) Aristotle’s substance/accidents distinction isn’t tenable in light of atomic theory.”

          I’m not sure how that’s true. Substance/accidents is a metaphysical description, not a physical one. I don’t see anything about modern physics that would insist we believe that objects have no objective or absolute existence other than being a bundle of properties relative to each other. Physics doesn’t get to answer the question of whether we think of things as mere properties “bundled” or as having a fundamental existence which we may speak of those properties being OF. Because that concerns categories of human thought/consciousness (ie, the metaphysical order), not the physical.

          I mean, to demonstrate the existence of substance above and beyond accidents, I’ve asked people before: what if the whole universe was made up of only one body, one particle, one proton, even just one quark?

          Surely nothing about physics intrinsically excludes a metaphysic whereby we could say this thing still “exists.” And yet it’s existence would not have any accidents extended, because all accidents require being “comparative” relative to other things (location, for example, and size).

          “As to the subtle body, if that is a valid notion (and I’m somewhat agnostic on that), it takes care of the issue. It would be different from the gross body–the one we see now–but it would still be “part of the physical order”. After all, light, microwaves, fields, etc. are all part of the “physical order”, since they all amount to particles or distortions of space produced by particles.”

          Well, in one very real sense, Christ’s body is “subtle” because subtlety (with impassibility, agility, and clarity) is one of the four qualities of a glorified body. However, as New Theological Movement again explained well, it would be (ironically) very physicalist to understand this “subtlety” as being of the “physical” sort you describe:

          “By subtlety, we mean that the risen body of Christ is in some way like a spirit. However, it would be a heresy to claim that the risen body IS a spirit or that the matter has been rarefied to be like the air or the wind [or light or energy, I’ll add]. Rather, we must hold that the risen body of Jesus is subtle insofar as the body is perfectly subject to the soul. The new dominion which the glorified soul of Christ now has over his body is the reason of which his glorified body is said to be spiritual. This subtlety is the foundation of all the other properties of the glorified body.”

          The glorified body is subtle, but this only means that the physical has been raised to a state of perfect subjection to the spiritual, and does it’s will. It is now in the realm of metaphysical (again, as it were, the realm of Ideas and Forms). But it’s still a physical (and indeed material) being IN that realm of the metaphysical. “Subtlety” for a glorified body does not mean rarification, impalpability, or the ability (save a miracle) to not occupy space or to take up the same space as another object. Rather, it means that the matter of the body will finally “perfectly fulfill” the Form which is the soul, no longer as a “shadow” instantiating that form, but as the real fulfillment of it.

  10. jordanstfrancis permalink
    March 30, 2013 12:08 am

    Turmarion,

    I do not think Mr. (?) Halloran’s speculations are more in the direction of the Eastern “mystery” approach. He essentially wants to say that the Mass is not actually part of the Paschal mystery, but only recalls it, or re-presents us to the original paschal event, whereas the old view unabashedly says the Mass is mysteriously part of the very Mystery for the sake of whose presence it was given. The Mass did not come “after the fact”, in the way everyone would like us to say the Church came “after the Jesus movement” and the priesthood “after the Church was founded”– which is where all of this leads. His distinctions are very much part and parcel of the Western fascination with the category of the historical. .

  11. Mark VA permalink
    March 30, 2013 6:32 am

    Mr. O’Halloran:

    An interesting graduate school presentation. Several points:

    (a) The normative text for understanding “What the Last Supper Was” is the Catechism of the Catholic Church. In view of this, and in the interest of proper context, the title of your presentation could rather have been “What a Jesuit scholastic thinks the Last Supper Was”, or “Some thoughts from a Jesuit scholastic on the Last Supper”. You get my drift;

    (b) As far as I can tell, your name does not appear in the “About the Contributors”. Perhaps the administrator for this blog can remedy this;

    (c) It is my observation that Vox Nova, among other things, provides a valuable platform for graduate level students in the humanities to try to apply their knowledge “in the real world”. It is one of the reasons I like this blog (plus it keeps me acquainted with the latest in the humanities verbiage and name dropping);

    (d) In view of “b” and “c” above, I think it would be useful to remember that the chair of “Magister” is reserved for those who are authorized to teach. Those who are not, should perhaps consider qualifying their (often interesting) papers, to reflect this fact.

  12. Knower permalink
    March 30, 2013 12:48 pm

    As a believer in the Real Presence, I get nervous when defenders of that Presence assert that our Lord is there “physically” or “materially”. For as far as I know, no Magisterial declaration of that presence uses such words as “physical” or “material”. That He is really, truly, and substantially present bodily, corporeally, I admit. But *physical* and *material* are ambiguous. Hence Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger was Englished in 2002 as saying in 2000 (in the book *God and the World*) apropos of transubstantiation: “It has never been [Magisterially] asserted that, so to say, nature in a physical sense is being changed. The transformation reaches down to a more profound level. Tradition has it that this is a metaphysical process.”
    Further, belief in transubstantiation and the Real Presence does not require us to admit that the appearances of bread and wine which remain after the Consecration are themselves the Christ. For as I read the Eucharistic theology of Thomas Aquinas (as interpreted in the light of modern microphysical observation), after the Consecration the sub-microscopically tiny dimensive volumes of the erstwhile ingredients of the “bread” and “wine” subsist on their own, while their surfaces and other modifications “inhere” in those volumes, so that collectively, all those unchanged modifications result in unchanged physico-chemical properties and appearances. So what our eyes see is not Christ. Our eyes see the appearances characteristic of bread and wine, appearances under which, but not identical with which, the Lamb of God, “beheld” with the “eyes” of faith, is really and substantially present.

    • March 31, 2013 10:07 am

      Yes, this is basically a true description, Knower.

      Transubtantiation is not a physical process or chance or presence.

      Nevertheless, it involves physical bodies. As I described it above, it is the metaphysical (sacramental) presence of a physical body. Christ’s body does not become physically present. But the body which becomes present non-physically, is still in itself a physical body.

      I’m not sure if we’d say that, say, the atoms of carbon that make up the bread and wine subsist on their own or not. Inasmuch as they are “parts” of the substance of bread we can’t say this, but once we separate or abstract them from the bread…they’d no longer be the subject of the Real Presence.

      Either way, certainly, we’d expect them to still appear and wrought their own proper effects according to chemical tests or microscopic viewing, because that is all still within the realm of “accidents.”

      Nevertheless, I do believe, yes, it was said that it is the accident of (dimensive) “quantity” which is directly sustained (inhering in no subject, however) by God through Christ’s body or blood, and that the other accidents of the bread or wine remain through this accident of quantity.

  13. March 31, 2013 3:51 pm

    As I’ve said, I don’t have strong feelings on the back-and-forth about the Eucharist and the Last Supper, but I do need to elaborate re Aristotle.

    The one consistent theme in Greek philosophy in the Classical era was the search for the unity underlying the multiplicity of observed phenomena. This is important to understand in evaluating their systems. In this case, we note that wax may be solid, or melt into liquid while still being wax. Water freezes, evaporates, and condenses, but is still water. An apple changes color and flavor as it ripens but remains an apple. This puzzle—which is indeed based in physics and chemistry—is what Aristotle tries to answer. He posits a substance—the “waxness” of wax, the “waterness” of water, the “appleness” of an apple—which supports accidents—solidity, fluidity, greenness, redness, sourness, sweetness, etc.—which may change without the substance changing.

    However, by what we now know, everything is composed of elementary particles—ultimately quarks, electrons, and a few others that combine to form protons and neutrons, which combine to form atoms, which combine to form molecules, etc. As far as we know, these particles are irreducible and their properties (the “flavor” and “color” of quarks, the charge on an electron, etc.) just “are”. Everything else is based on patterns or configurations of these particles. For example, two “up” quarks and one “down” quark make a proton. Six protons (with varying numbers of neutrons) make a carbon atom. And so on. Thus, “substance”—what something is–is a pattern, not a thing or a metaphysical concept. Moreover, “accidents” are also patterns. For example, matter will absorb some frequencies of light and reflect others (because its electrons absorb the photons and re-emit new photons at a characteristic frequency), producing what we perceive as “color”. When you heat the wax, the molecules become so energetic that they slide over each other easily and flow—what we call “melting”. The point is, that everything that Aristotle (who, it is also important to point out, rejected atomism) thought of as a substance or an accident can be satisfactorily explained by patterns of atomic and subatomic interaction.

    Look at it like this: If I have a bunch of Legos, each individual Lego has a particular number of slots and tabs, and a specific color—it is “irreducible”. If I use enough and arrange them right, I might make a replica of the Mona Lisa. I can use the right combination of blocks to make the right shape, and I can even get various color effects (if I intersperse blues and yellows, e.g., it will look from a distance like a uniform green). There’s no need to posit a “substance” of the sculpture lying mysteriously below the “accidents” of its color, weight, etc.—everything is sufficiently explained by the pattern. Or look at it another way—it would be absurd to say that the “substance” of what I’m writing here is manifested in the “accidents” of spelling, or that the “form” of the word is one thing and its spelling another!

    Now quantum mechanics and the Uncertainty Principle make things not totally determined; and I think there are aspects of mind that indicate that it cannot be adequately explained reductionistically by physics, chemistry, and biology; hence my belief in the soul, the possibility of incorporeal intelligences (angels) and so on. One could also fit atomic theory into Platonism somewhat, where the immaterial pattern (two up and one down quark per proton, e.g.) is a transcendent Form which is instantiated in the physical cosmos by a configuration of actual existing quarks; but I don’t think it works with Aristotelianism. I will make a slight proviso—I’m not always sure that Aristotle’s Medieval followers, especially the Scholastics, necessarily understand him completely, and are saying what he meant. Aristotle himself could be interpreted as saying more or less what I’ve described—hylomorphism is just matter in a pattern. However, especially in discourse about the Eucharist (though in other areas, too), Thomists at least seem to posit a mysterious “substance” that “just is” and which wears “accidents” much the way a person wears clothing, and which can sometimes doff one set of accidents (e.g. solidity) and don another (e.g. liquidity when the wax melts). In the case of Transubstantiation, Christ comes in, displacing the substance of bread and wine, and donning the ensemble of roundness, whiteness, etc. At least, lest I be accused of misunderstanding or misrepresentation, that is how I have understood the explanations I’ve read.

    Once again, if we understand Aristotle as saying “substance” is some basic irreducible things like a quark, and “accidents” are configurations, then that’s no problem; however, I’m not sure that that reading gets you where Scholastics want to go with the Eucharist. On the other hand, if Aristotle meant what he seems to me to have meant—some primal “stuff” which somehow carries on its back “properties” that might change while not changing the “stuffness”—then I think he is wrong, and can be shown to be wrong by modern chemistry and physics. Make sense?

    • March 31, 2013 8:52 pm

      “The one consistent theme in Greek philosophy in the Classical era was the search for the unity underlying the multiplicity of observed phenomena.”

      Yes, exactly. That’s the “problem” of much of metaphysics; continuity and discontinuity.

      “In this case, we note that wax may be solid, or melt into liquid while still being wax. Water freezes, evaporates, and condenses, but is still water. An apple changes color and flavor as it ripens but remains an apple. This puzzle—which is indeed based in physics and chemistry—is what Aristotle tries to answer.”

      It’s not based in physics or chemistry at all. Again, you seem to be looking at it through a physical lens, but it’s a question of metaphysics. Not of physics or chemistry, but of the Ideas and Forms. How is it that the human mind, consciousness, recognizes “the same thing” in matter that is constantly shifting and flowing. Where do these lines get drawn. Matter is continuous, but Forms have boundaries that, even if they are permeable or more like overlapping horizons, are ultimately discontinuous or discrete realities. It has nothing to do with the material. The matter is what was always recognized as continuous or shifting or flowing and thus the source of the “problem” of identity, the ship of Theseus and all that.

      “However, by what we now know, everything is composed of elementary particles”

      This is not “what we know now.” Back then they thought a similar thing, albeit it was the elements of earth, water, air, and fire. But they knew material substances were “composite.” That, in itself, is irrelevant to the question of substance under accidents, or at least our knowledge “now” doesn’t change it.

      “As far as we know, these particles are irreducible and their properties (the ‘flavor’ and ‘color’ of quarks, the charge on an electron, etc.) just ‘are.'”

      No, even if we reduce the question to the level of elementary particles (even though, really, I suspect the “reality” of these is something more like a mathematical construct than a “thing”), the question of “bundling” still arises.

      We speak of “an electron” not “a negative charge with a [in that case, probabalistic] location of such-and-such and a spin of 1/2” etc etc etc. We construct these as all properties OF something. Or, at least, we can. It’s certainly a valid and internally consistent ontology to speak of these properties as associated because of belonging to an underlying substance or what-ness.

      “Everything else is based on patterns or configurations of these particles.”

      Not really. Many properties are “emergent.” Even things like “color” (not of quarks; I mean visually) are an accident that emerges from how photons interact with the molecular properties of a surface, yes, but still, we don’t speak of molecules themselves as having “color,” and furthermore we could still imagine color existing in a universe on the macro level even if we imagine the micro level working differently. The same is true for many many things. They may emerge from the micro properties, but the form in the macro realm is not logically dependent on it. We could imagine “a clear smooth cylinder” being built even in a universe with totally different physics or underlying micro structure (it would just have to be built according to THOSE laws of physics rather than ours), but the point is those macro Forms like “cylinder” and “clear” and “smooth” are not logically tied to the micro properties they emerge from. For example, even physicists often speak about how there could be a whole “bizarre earth” somewhere made of anti-matter. Because the macro forms don’t depend on whether the particular charge is positive or negative at all.

      “Thus, ‘substance’—what something is–is a pattern, not a thing or a metaphysical concept.”

      I don’t know why you say substance is not metaphysical in this account. I don’t know what you think “metaphysics” is, but we’re not talking about some “invisible matter” or anything like that; substance was quite clearly distinguished from matter as a category in Aristotelian hylomorphism. I think the Form or Idea of something (not quite the same as substance) can in some ways be compared to a “pattern” (especially pattern in the sense of “template”), but that’s entirely metaphysical.

      “Moreover, ‘accidents’ are also patterns.”

      Well, they’re relations.

      “The point is, that everything that Aristotle (who, it is also important to point out, rejected atomism) thought of as a substance or an accident can be satisfactorily explained by patterns of atomic and subatomic interaction.”

      Not at all. Aristotle may not have thought of particles, he may have thought the elements were “continuous” (ie, infinitely divisible). But nothing you’ve said is at all contradictory to the basic substance/accident metaphysics, and in fact you seem to be speaking on an entirely different plane from it. What you’re talking about is not different answers to the same questions, they’re simply different questions. You’re still talking about physics, not metaphysics. The relations of parts to the whole, and of how the properties of the whole are related to properties of the parts…IS discussed in traditional metaphysics (and they wouldn’t be surprised by any of what you’ve described here). But the question of part and whole still doesn’t get to the question of properties and the subjects of attribution in which they inhere. That’s not a question of physics or physic’s categories. All you’ve done is moved things back a step (in a way Aristotle would already have basically recognized through the belief that most things were “composites” of more basic elements).
      “If I have a bunch of Legos, each individual Lego has a particular number of slots and tabs, and a specific color—it is ‘irreducible.'”

      Well, not really. In the lego we still can distinguish between the Form and the Matter. We can also distinguish between the properties (the accidents) and the question of WHAT subject we attribute them as properties OF (the substance). This “substance” is not some sort of extra “stuff.” However, that doesn’t mean it isn’t “real.” Rather, it is part of the “syntax” of ontology, something like the “equals sign in the equation” or something like that.

      “There’s no need to posit a ‘substance’ of the sculpture lying mysteriously below the ‘accidents’ of its color, weight, etc.—everything is sufficiently explained by the pattern.”

      No, it’s not sufficiently explained. You are still attributing (without even thinking about it apparently!) a unity to the whole. You don’t just identify “a stack of legos,” you identify a sculpture or “painting.” The legos are constructed into an identifiable whole or unity. Again, this unity is not an “extra element” but is more like the equal’s sign in the equation. But that doesn’t mean it’s “nothing” or “unreal” unless you’re some sort of physicalist.

      “Or look at it another way—it would be absurd to say that the ‘substance’ of what I’m writing here is manifested in the ‘accidents’ of spelling, or that the ‘form’ of the word is one thing and its spelling another!”

      Well, no, there’s nothing absurd about it at all. The Meaning of what you are saying is being conveyed in certain shapes and a color, but only as a vessel of information, of the Form, but in a way which is ultimately “arbitrary” in the sense that the meaning is attached to these signifiers only by a system of social relations between minds. “Accidents” are relational or comparative properties. In some ways, at least, the relationship between sign and signified is quite a good analogy for accident and substance.

      “However, especially in discourse about the Eucharist (though in other areas, too), Thomists at least seem to posit a mysterious ‘substance’ that ‘just is’ and which wears ‘accidents’ much the way a person wears clothing, and which can sometimes doff one set of accidents (e.g. solidity) and don another (e.g. liquidity when the wax melts). In the case of Transubstantiation, Christ comes in, displacing the substance of bread and wine, and donning the ensemble of roundness, whiteness, etc. At least, lest I be accused of misunderstanding or misrepresentation, that is how I have understood the explanations I’ve read.”

      I think you have misunderstood, but that’s not uncommon. Materialism and physicalism are so common in the world today that people metaphysics from the lens of physics almost just naturally.

      “On the other hand, if Aristotle meant what he seems to me to have meant—some primal ‘stuff’ which somehow carries on its back ‘properties’ that might change while not changing the ‘stuffness’—then I think he is wrong, and can be shown to be wrong by modern chemistry and physics. Make sense?”

      Yes, but that’s simply not what Aristotle or the Scholastics are talking about. It’s not a “stuff” if by “stuff” you mean some sort of “extra matter.” It is most definitely distinguished from Matter or any physical category. It is a metaphysical category. “Metaphysics” does not just mean “magic physics” as if it is dealing in some sort of secret “magic matter.” Metaphysics deals with the realm of consciousness and thought and Forms and Ideas much more than with matter. “Substance” is much less related to terms like “stuff” and much more related to philosophical concepts like “identity.”

    • Billy Junker permalink
      March 31, 2013 9:33 pm

      This is not what substance means in the Aristotelian tradition, though it is a mistake that almost everybody makes. See Brett Salkeld’s many posts on eucharistic theology on this site and it should clear things up. The confusion emerges when we confuse substance with what is somehow “most materially fundamental” – – I. E. quark, atom, etc. In any case, I am pretty sure that the substance present under the appearance of bread and wine in the Eucharist is spiritual, rather than physical, which is why if a mouse consumes a consecrated host it cannot be said to consume Christ. (the mouse consumes only the accidents.) Of course, how we explain the physical accidents of bread and wine to subsist apart from any material substance is a tricky problem.

  14. Billy Junker permalink
    March 31, 2013 4:02 pm

    Thank you Nathan for this interesting and largely persuasive account of the Last Supper. The one thing in your account I am having trouble understanding is the surprisingly unqualified and theologically over-simple conclusion that, in light of your analysis: “The Last Supper was not the first Mass.” My reasons for finding this statement wanting have less to do with Tradition and more to do with the internal dynamic of your analysis itself. As some others have pointed out, the historical event the recollection of which becomes codified as liturgy is often also referred to as the first instance of the subsequent liturgical practice. The seder meal is but one example of such a process. What this suggests is that the temporality which connects the events of sacred history to their liturgical repetitions is complex, and cannot without distortion be reduced to a univocal conception of before and after (a conception that in part arises on account of our understandable tendency to privilege the temporality a associated with efficient causation). Given your own temporally multifaceted account of the meal, according to which it brings together an ancient past and eschatological future in the “now” of the meal itself, I am surprised that this kind of sophistication drops out at the point of your conclusion, where you simply deny that, so understood, the Last Supper could also be understood as the first Mass. It seems to me that not only the larger tenor of your argument, but also the text of John itself, works against such a move. For John, perhaps more than the synoptics, is particularly attuned to the paradoxical temporality connecting Jesus’ actions to the practices which follow them in time. Consider the multiple instances of phrases like “the hour is coming, and is now,” and so on. It seems to me more plausible to suppose that something like this is at work in the Last Supper. I would further suggest that a reading of the fathers on figura, supplemented perhaps by looking at Kierkegaard’s development of the temporal category of “repetition”, which he inherits via 1 Corinthians 15, might persuade you to qualify your concluding claims in such a way that would not only dissolve the apparent disagreements between you and some others on this thread, but would be more in keeping with the inner logic of your own best points. Happy Easter everybody!

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