Regis Chair of Theology, Mount Angel Seminary, St. Benedict, OR.
Every now and then a gem of an essay turns up in a Festschrift. Recently, reading Exchanges of Grace: Essays in Honour of Ann Loades [Natalie K. Watson and Stephen Burns, ed., Exchanges of Grace: Essays in Honour of Ann Loades (London: SCM Press, 2008)], I came across such a gem, “The Eucharistic Body in Art and Literature.” The author was David Jasper, Professor of Theology and Literature at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. I had come across some other works by David Jasper, but not anything on the Eucharist. So, the title of this essay was, to say the least, both intriguing and attractive. David is the son of Ronald C. D. Jasper (1917-1990), an influential English-Anglican liturgical theologian, who is well known especially to students of the Eucharist through his anthology of eucharistic prayers Prayers of the Eucharist, Early and Reformed. One informed commentator says of Ronald Jasper, “He was the chief architect not only of the Alternative Service Book 1980, but also of ecumenical cooperation in liturgical matters in the English-speaking world” [Raymond George, “Ronald Jasper: An Appreciation,” in Paul Bradshaw and Bryan Spinks, ed., Liturgy in Dialogue: Essays in Memory of Ronald Jasper (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1993), 1]. A very high accolade, indeed! His liturgical gifts are confirmed and endorsed by Notre Dame’s Paul Bradshaw, who has written: “Had it not been for Ronald, it is highly unlikely that I would have entered the world of serious liturgical scholarship. Not only did he facilitate my admission as a graduate student at King’s College London, and supervise my doctoral research thesis, but he was also instrumental in securing the publication of my early writings and in enabling me to take my first steps in teaching the subject.” Ronald Jasper died on April 11, 1990, Holy Thursday. His biographer comments: “Surely that is a poignant fact when we recall his lifelong concern for the dignity and rightful celebration of the Holy Eucharist” [Donald Gray, Ronald Jasper: His Life, His Work and the ASB (London: SPCK, 1997), 140]. Here was a priest for whom the celebration of liturgy was constantly accompanied by its study, a priest who was “always priestly without being pompous or parsonic.”
David Jasper (b. 1951).
David Jasper, Ronald’s son, introduces his essay, “The Eucharistic Body in Art and Literature,” with some bold words: “At each new celebration of the Eucharist, and in obedience to the divine command, the body is displayed, eaten and consumed. The words are unequivocal — this is my body, this is my blood in the species of bread and wine, though there is a clear reference to the physical body of Jesus present before his disciples at their last supper together, now to be ingested by them as an act of remembrance.” The sheer realism of the eucharistic gifts is here expressed. Notice that he says the body is “displayed.” Behind this strange usage of “displayed” here, lies an implicit but very real expression of the sacrificial cross with its tortured and stretched body. Operating with a high Christology — “in obedience to the divine command” — the eucharistic body of Christ is displayed, eaten and consumed (notice the further strong verb “ingested”). The act of remembrance is for Jasper no mere memory as though a shadow in contrast with reality. “To remember is no passive thing but a recreation in the whole of, and at the depths of, our being, a presencing…” Anamnesis is never simply psychological recall but a new creation, “recreation,” deep within us that can only be described as “presencing.”
There has been, maintains Jasper, a recovery of the importance of the body in (post-modern thought), though he also thinks that Christianity has been somewhat ambivalent about the body, “perhaps inevitably given its focus on the cross.” In this essay Jasper seems to be saying that the body celebrated in the Eucharist is, of course, the resurrected and glorified body of the Christ, yes, but it must first be appreciated as mutilated. This is a very costly body indeed. Perhaps we are less aware of the costliness than the sacrament demands. After using a number of artistic and literary references Jasper writes: “Art and literature continue to touch upon a barely conscious depth that Christian consciousness, nursed by theology, can barely comprehend in its narratives of resurrection and ascension, for it is only in a radical reversal of such consciousness, in an acknowledgment of the utter scandal of the body, that sacramental presence can begin.” This is not an easy sentence to grasp. What exactly is he saying? I hear him saying that Christian consciousness moves much too quickly to resurrection and ascension when contemplating the body of Christ. Theology nurses this move towards the glorified Christ and his body, and in a sense encourages and develops this move. But, to reach something of the sacramental presence of the eucharistic body there needs to be a re-appropriation of the mutilated and dead body of the Christ, “the body displayed is a broken body.” There needs to be a retrieval of the pain and the scandal of the cross. Jasper goes on to say, virtually without contextual comment, “Into every Eucharist we die.” Jasper recognizes and accepts with the tradition, at least from the time of Athanasius of Alexandria, that God became human so that humankind may be deified, and that central to our deification is the Eucharist. Nonetheless, he asserts categorically: “But the suffering and the scandal remain — absolutely.” The suffering and the scandal remain absolutely but sacramentally. “The words remain insistently, showing and inviting to the even deeper horror of consuming the elements, thus becoming one with the flesh incarnate, dismembered and resurrected.”
There is more to David Jasper’s complex essay than the emphasis I have drawn, but that emphasis is there. The costliness of the cross is folded into the costliness of the Eucharist, and to neglect that dimension is to sell the tradition short. Needless to say one could become overly obsessive with this dimension of the Eucharistic mystery — the suffering, pain, the sheer brutality, the costliness of it all. But to be unaware is to neutralize all that emerges in those words of Jesus in St. John’s Gospel: “Having loved his own in the world, he loved them to the end (eis telos)” (John 13:1), and his final word, “It is ended (tetelestai)” (John 19:30).