This is my body, this is my blood

I have recently become more interested in the historical Jesus. For me, the starting point of my Christian faith must be an understanding of who the mortal Jesus was and what he was trying to do for his contemporaries. There are other Jesuses, of course — the premortal Word and the Christ of the Church — but given the absolute theological centrality of the historical Incarnation, I want to know how Jesus of Nazareth was meant to be understood in the context of 1st century Palestinian Judaism. I believe in Jesus’ divinity but it is his divinity as uniquely embedded in a historical moment that most compels me. I am also more and more convinced that Jesus was attempting to change men’s hearts in the here and now. That is not to ignore the promise of “treasure in heaven” but I think the real value of that promise is to guarantee a happy ending — and thus provide a relief — to our mortal travails. It is in this context that I would like to offer the following reading of the Last Supper.

For Christians, the Last Supper seems to have made Jesus into a kind of Dionysus in which by eating his flesh we become joined to the god in a mysterious union. Maybe, but is that what Jesus really intended? The Last Supper was simply that, the last supper of many, and it is Jesus’ social eating prior to the Passion that offers insight into how Jesus used food and feasting to drive a message of love and inclusion. His fellowship at meals was frequently criticised (Matt 11:19) because it broke Jewish purity laws when he sat down with “tax agents and sinners.” That Jesus of Nazareth tried to break down the social and ritual barriers that separated people is well-known, but we ought not to ignore this mission when he comes to Jerusalem, overwhelmed as we are by the grandeur of Holy Week.

Jesus’ view of purity ran perpendicular to that of the Jewish authorities. His cleansing of the temple was an act of aggression against the corruption of the Jewish elite. From that moment on, he was doomed. Then he went further, saying over the bread and the wine in the upper room that “this is my body” and “this is my blood.” Read both in companion with the temple incident and Jesus’ history with food, he did not mean, “here is my body, here is my blood” referring to symbols of his own flesh, but rather that, as Bruce Chilton suggests, “these . . . were his substitute sacrifices, replacing the blood and flesh of animals being sacrificed at the Temple” [1].

His message, then, is this: he rejects the Jewish Temple as it was presently governed and all the notions of purity and elite sociality that it represented, and replaces it with a communal fellowship of love. If this interpretation is right, and I think it is, remember this when you next take the sacrament: it is not the emblems that are really holy and they themselves are not the symbols of Christ; instead, it is the ritual partaking of this festal meal with friends and family, regardless of status, that is the real memory of Jesus. It is precisely in this sense that the eating and drinking brings us to union with God.

[1] “What Jesus did at the Last Supper” in Jesus: the last day (Biblical Archaeology Society).

Comments

  1. RJH, wonderful stuff. Your final point is made quite forcefully in the JST Matt 26 and is something drawn out by Kathleen Flake. She argues that, according to the JS, we are remember to Jesus ‘in this hour’, i.e., feasting with his disciples in fellowship and love, rather than on the cross or in the garden.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Amen.

  3. Love this. As beautiful as I find the more Catholic focus on taking the emblems in as Christ’s flesh and blood, I derive more aesthetic satisfaction from this idea of feasting together. Drawing this out, then, in your view, what to do with Paul’s instruction to not partake “unworthily”? Perhaps he’s talking about appreciating and respecting the profundity of the communal moment (as opposed to the notion of coming to the table in a state of sinlessness)?

  4. Hunter, the context in which that statement is made, i.e., Paul’s rebuke of the Corinthian community for creating divisions in the worship community through how they practised their feasting (some would eat before others) and the implications this had for the body of Christ, suggests that interpretation is fairly orthodox.

  5. What Aaron said. What “unworthy” means in that context has less to do with piety and ritual purity, I think. Of course, Jesus is concerned with ritual purity, just of a different order.

    Given this communal feast, it’s such a shame that it is reduced in our worship to water and little pieces of bread passed in silence and squeezed by other things for our attention.

  6. Peter LLC says:

    “Given this communal feast, it’s such a shame that it is reduced in our worship to water and little pieces of bread passed in silence…”

    Every Sunday a Linger Longer?

  7. Excellent thoughts, RJH. I hadn’t really considered the Last Supper in that light, and I absolutely love what it brings to the table, so to speak.

    I also think we miss much when we focus so much on His final, formal suffering and death that we lose sight of His life. You might be familiar with the book “Jesus, before Christianity” (Albert Nolan), but it was the first book I read that tried to put Jesus, of Nazareth, and his teachings into strictly historical and not theological context. I loved it then, and I have read it more than once over the years, since it made such an impression on me as a college student fresh off a mission and thousands of miles from home.

  8. At an Eastern Orthodox church the whole “feast” thing features pretty heavily. There is the bread and wine, but also the antidoron which is unblessed bread for everyone. Everyone fasts before they come so the communion is their first meal of the day. When you go to visit almost certainly someone will bring a piece of bread to you to eat, and it’s one of the most touching things I’ve experienced in a house of worship.

    Secondarily I just taught 1 Corinthians in our Institute class and there are feast-unity themes all throughout the epistle. The Corinthians were a divided lot, based on social class and other divisions. 1 Corinthians 11:16-34 is a strong focal point for this doctrine – the point of partaking of the Lord’s supper is to unify us, and those who eat and drink unworthily are eating/drinking damnation to their souls. In the context of the Epistle, it seems that disunity is the thing that makes us unworthy. Those are powerful words.

  9. Thanks for this Ronan.

    The bread and water are still emblems of his flesh under this reading — as you note, reading Jesus’ act at the Last Supper in light of his cleansing of the temple invites the inference that he was offering his blood and his flesh as a sacrificial substitute, doing away with the animal sacrifice (and the corrupt and fraudulent system of money changing that had grown up around it and which buttressed the wealth and status of the Jewish elite) around which the temple liturgy revolved.

    I don’t see how this reading detracts from a traditional Catholic (or Mormon) understanding of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper in which the bread and wine (water) actually are the substituted sacrifice (Catholic) or are emblems of it meant to focus our minds on that sacrificial act (Mormon).

  10. Meldrum the Less says:

    I have always been disturbed by the similiarity of the Jesus story and the Dionysus cult myth since it was pointed out to me by a rather irreverent Jewish friend. I find this take on the topic rather interesting.

    The sunday after-church pot luck dinner is of importance along with ward temple night?

  11. Antonio Parr says:

    There is an account of President Spencer W. Kimball being heard to whisper during the taking of the Sacrament “I love Thee – oh how I love Thee” (paraphrased). He seemed to understand quite well this union with God referenced by Ronan.

  12. Syphax,
    I like Orthodoxy. It feels much more ancient than western Christianity (probably because it is!).

    JBF,
    The only difference in my view is that Jesus’ sacrificial act was not some cosmic performance meant to satisfy a timeless, metaphysical need, but rather a very temporally-specific act meant to sunder his people (the poor and outcast) from their spiritual serfdom. I think that is what Jesus son of Joseph of Nazareth, who lived during the reign of Tiberius, meant to project to his people. Of course, the beauty of it is that it can serve different purposes for different people at different times.

    Anyway, more on the road to Santiago!

  13. Meldrum,
    The similarity arose because later, paganised Christians did indeed elide Jesus with Dionysus.

  14. In my view the events of Holy Week might have the following function:

    Palm Sunday — get attention and claim the mantle of Messiah.
    Cleansing of the Temple — denounce Temple Judaism.
    Last Supper — make the feast of loving fellowship the holiest ritual.
    Garden — confront the depths of human frailty. Teach once again what it is to love and forgive, even under the worst of circumstances.
    The Crucifixion — serve as paschal lamb to remove the yoke of spiritual oppression from the people, forever sundering the link between the Temple elite and God’s people. (I don’t believe in penal substitution on a cosmic level but the people at the time did, which is the point.)
    The Resurrection — provide hope in the Eucatastrophe and demonstrate that God is always with us, potentially as the stranger at the gates (cf. sheep and goats).

    It really was a multi-faceted series of acts that defy simple explanations such as, “Jesus died for me.” Well, yes, but…!

  15. The parable of the feast also gets right to the heart of the radicalism of Jesus’ table. The invited guests don’t show, so the host is to go out and bring in _whomever_ he can find and seat and feed them. That’s the kingdom.

  16. And the severing of the connection between the temple elites and the people begins with John’s baptism (“for remission of sins”) and Jesus’ acceptance of it (prefiguring his own death). Remission of sins was supposed to happen only in the temple. Jesus is baptized and the spirit rends the heaven, top to bottom, by descending upon Him. When he is again killed/buried at the end of the story, the temple veil is rent, top to bottom.

  17. Meldrum the Less says:

    This is out there, i can’t verify it at all (delete if needed) –

    My Jewish friend claimed that the Apostle Paul grew up in Tarsus which was one of the centers of of the worship of Dionysus. He claims that the historical Jesus was mostly a good Jewish teacher and not even a Christian himself. The Apostle Paul invented Christianity, mixing Judaism and Greek philosophy/ cultic practices he knew from his youth. He jokingly says it should be called Polyanna-ity. He was from New Orleans and claims that Mardi Gras is historically connected to Dionysus/Bacchus and this is not as obscure as we might think. And it goes back to at least the Minoan Crete civilization, possibly Egypt? Talk about a timeless metaphysical need.

    So RJH by ‘later paganised ” do you include the Apostle Paul? Or is this all Jewish propaganda? (An informed Jew might make a better case than I). Just curious.

  18. Yeah, man (Brad). Plus his predilection for saying, “your sins are forgiven you” to all and sundry, meaning your sins are forgiven without the Temple. It’s really a Jewish Reformation. What does God want? Love, inclusion, fellowship. The Passion to me looks like a really grand piece of prophetic enactment to get that simple, often derided truth across.

  19. Meldrum,
    I don’t agree with your friend. Jesus saw himself as more than a teacher. These were prophetic enactments made eternally significant by the fact they were performed by God. Paul certainly understood the need to tailor the message to the audience, so introducing pagan resonances was not beyond him. However, his letters to the Corinthians show that he was also interested in loving Christian commensality as much as theopagic rituals. The events of Holy Week lend themselves to numerous interpretations.

  20. … it is not the emblems that are really holy and they themselves are not the symbols of Christ; …

    And that is why I have been agitating for donuts and hot chocolate. I think I should organize a protest as my respectful efforts so far have not been taken seriously.

  21. I think this is a nice interpretation. I feel it emphasizes an underlying true principle about the communal/community aspect of the ordinance. Although I don’t know how this interpretation can be entirely reconciled with Joseph Smith’s teachings concerning animal sacrifice, “These sacrifices as well as every ordinance belonging to the priesthood will when the temple of the Lord shall be built and the Sons Levi be purified be fully restored and attended to then all their powers, ramifications, and blessings–this the Sons of Levi shall be purified. ever was and will exist when the powers of the Melchizedek Priesthood are sufficiently manifest. Else how can the restitution of all things spoken of by all the Holy Prophets be brought to pass. It is not to be understood that, the law of moses will be established again with all it rights and variety of ceremonies, ceremonies, this had never been spoken off by the prophets but those things which existed prior Moses’s day viz Sacrifice will be continued –It may be asked by some what necessity for Sacrifice since the great Sacrifice was offered? In answer to which if Repentance Baptism and faith were necessary to Salvation existed prior to the days of Christ what necessity for them since that time”

    It is sometimes taught that the Lord’s supper or sacrament is a replacement for animal sacrifice. Joseph Smith didn’t seem to think so. Animal sacrifice may be an ordinance yet to be restored. The JST also seems to suggest that the sacrament may have been an ordinance that existed before the time of Jesus. It seems that both may be eternal ordinances rather than one intended to substitute the other. Additionally, we don’t reject temple rites as whole. If Joseph Smith was correct in not rejecting the temple or animal sacrifice as efficacious, how much more Jesus then? For this and other reasons, I still believe the common understanding that the bread and wine represent the body and blood of Christ is a correct interpretation of the ordinance.

  22. Joseph’s restorative impulse sometimes got the better of him.

  23. #22 – Perfect response. Mine would have been about 25 times longer and not nearly as comprehensive.

  24. RJH. Sure, Joseph Smith could have been wrong. But I have a hard time easily dismissing ideas that he was confident in, particularly when it comes to ordinances. If my understanding is correct, this quote came from one of his few if not his only known pre-written sermon. If we are willing to dismiss what Joseph said about these ordinances, why not dismiss his interpretation of baptism, confirmation/HG, priesthood ordination, endowments, and/or sealings as simply his impulse for restoration getting the better of him? If it were not for the restoration through Joseph Smith, I’m not sure I would be confident historical Jesus said any of the things that are attributed to Him.

    To be clear, I do think your interpretation of this scripture from the OP is a good one. And I do think it is possible that it is the correct one. I was just stating why right now I don’t necessarily accept this interpretation.

  25. Steve,
    One does not dismiss Joseph lightly, but given the statements against animal sacrifice in other, more canonical places, and given its theological redundancy, and given its crime against reason, I think the statement you quote need not be accepted.

  26. I agree that we don’t have to accept Joseph’s teachings as infallible. I didn’t really understand your reasoning though, maybe you can expound. Apart from the old testament and more specifically concerning our day one could argue that references to animal sacrifice being restored are substantial in the D&C as far as the canon is concerned. Brigham Young and other church leaders also believed it was to be restored, including a First Presidency statement at the time polygamy was discontinued citing animal sacrifice as an example of a law that was currently suspended, but wasn’t intended to be so indefinitely. I can think of one place that mentions animal sacrifice being discontinued with Christ’s great sacrifice, but that same place teaches the efficacy of animal sacrifice, and it is not part of our canon. What canonical places are you referring to against animal sacrifice? I’m not sure how we can assume any theological redundancy, unless we start with the premise that animal sacrifice serves the same purpose as the sacrament, which appears to be only a proof of one’s assumptions. And I’m not sure what you mean be “crime against reason”. That it is immoral? I would be surprised if we accepted the laws surrounding animal sacrifice from Adam through the law of Moses days as immoral, or if moral then no longer moral now. But this is probably not what you meant.

  27. So you really think that animal sacrifice will literally be restored eventually? That’s what it means to you that the sons of Levi will once again be able to offer up sacrifices in the Temple — that they will literally slaughter cattle on altars and burn the carcasses? To what end? How would that make any theological sense after the Atonement?

  28. In the first quote I posted, Joseph Smith wrote, “It may be asked by some what necessity for Sacrifice since the great Sacrifice was offered? In answer to which if Repentance Baptism and faith were necessary to Salvation existed prior to the days of Christ what necessity for them since that time”

    I am guessing that he is saying animal sacrifice served some theological purpose more than just a type and shadow of Christ’s great sacrifice, just as baptism was and is more than just a type and shadow of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. What that purpose was beyond just a type and shadow before the death of Christ, and before the law of Moses, I am not really sure. But I am open to the idea that it had a purpose and function that is just as valid today, just as baptism or any other ordinance before the law of moses had a purpose and function that is just as valid today. So since I am in the dark on what that purpose is, I cannot say for sure that I believe it will be restored as Joseph Smith or other early church leaders suggested, but I accept it as a possibility simply on faith in the words of our prophets who said they knew.

    Just fyi, to my understanding Brigham Young suggested the inclusion of a room for sacrifices in the Salt Lake City Temple, which for whatever reason never happened. “[Speaking of the temple plan] Under the pulpit in the west end [Aaronic priesthood end] will be a place to offer sacrifices. There will be an altar prepared for that purpose so that when any sacrifices are to be offered, they should be offered there.” [Journal of Wilford Woodruff, December 18, 1857, LDS Church Archives. Cited in Smith, William V. A Joseph Smith Commentary on the Book of Abraham: An Introduction to the Study of the Book of Abraham. 2nd ed. Provo, UT: The Book of Abraham Project, 2002, p. 66.]

  29. Steve, one of my favorite aspects of Joseph’s theological vision was his passion about restoring all things, and I see an internal evolution within our Mormon history that parallels the entire Judeo-Christian history in microcosm – but I just don’t believe Adam was baptized, or that animal sacrifice is an eternal practice, or some other things I could mention relative to the Old Testament time.

    I accept Joseph as a visionary prophet, but I don’t accept him as an infallible prophet. His statements about animal sacrifice you reference fall within the fallible prophet role for me.

    I might be totally wrong, but that’s how I see it at this point in my life.

  30. Yeah, that seems like a valid viewpoint to me.

  31. Steve,
    That’s a cool story about the SL Temple, but you are missing the most important part: they didn’t build it.

  32. I recognize that. Do you mean that as proof that the Lord never intended to restore it? Maybe that is the case. But I was simply using that small documentation to show that Brigham Young believed in the doctrine. I find it significant that the two men primarily responsible for the restoration and organization of our temple rites and doctrine in this dispensation, Joseph Smith and Brigham Young, fully believed that animal sacrifice would at some future time be fully restored and integrated into our temple rites.

    Is it possible they were wrong? I think it is. But to me all evidence taken into consideration, scriptural, prophetic, and otherwise, suggests the doctrine as a distinct possibility.

    Maybe we’re both not missing anything. Maybe we are both looking at incomplete evidence and coming to different conclusions. I’m okay with that.

  33. Great stuff, Ronan. “it is not the emblems that are really holy and they themselves are not the symbols of Christ; instead, it is the ritual partaking of this festal meal with friends and family, regardless of status, that is the real memory of Jesus.” One of the reasons I’m a fan of organized religion.

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