Wednesday, April 14, 2004

Eucharist as sign and practice

In my last post several tension where pointed out b/w the political and the cultic reading of Jesus in the Gospels. The first is that each doesn't need the other to make sense. The second is that the political makes Jesus a repeatable model while the cultic makes Jesus a non-repeatable, "once and for all" representative/substitute. The third is that the political places Jesus within established practices while the cultic makes Jesus the founder of those practices. But as I said, Milbank argues that these tensions only occur when we look at the political/cultic, with attending Christologies and Atonement theories, separated from ecclesiology which in a sense arrives with Jesus, not after.

Now the tension we should focus on in relation to the Eucharist is the one b/w Jesus as either the repeatable example, or the "once and for all" substitute. For either we enter into the practice of Jesus, repeating and extending his politics of forgiveness/atonement, accomplishing the work Jesus began (which is the liberal perspective), or we affirm the finality of Jesus' atonement, a "once and for all" act of substitution to which we can add nothing, and therefore cannot repeat (the conservative perspective).

Milbank's proposal simultaneously affirms both perpsective, noting that the Eucharist also affirms both. To begin with the "once and for all" nature of Jesus' atonement slides into the realm of language. As Milbank says, Jesus is our "substitute", "representative" on the cross precisely b/c "he becomes totally a sign,... transformed into a perfect metaphor of forgiveness. Only because of Thursday's symbolic act of kenosis into a world of signs without power, is Jesus able on Friday to activate this sign in his body...This means that metaphors of atonement--'ransom', 'sacrifice', 'victory'--are not to be taken realistically, as approximations to an 'atonement in itself', an invisible eternal transction happening between God and humanity. Instead, these metaphors represent the actual happening of atonement as a meaning in language." So, in this linguistic perpsective, in the Eucharist we are exchanging the 'sign' of Jesus body which stands in for us as the "once and for all" substitute for us (and signs in language are meant to substitute/represent what is not immediately present). This is Milbank's reconfiguration of the cultic.

But in relation to the political he says, "If Jesus' death is efficacious, not just as the offering of an enabling sign, but also as a meterial reality, then this is because it is the inauguration of the 'political' practice of forgiveness...This practice (of forgiveness) is itself continuing atonement." And if this is right, then "it follows that for atonement to be materilly efficacious it cannot be "once and for all", like the sign or metaphor of atonement, but must be continuously renewed." From this he concludes that the Church is both the "transmission of the signs of atonement, and the repetition of the atoning practices."

And to bring be to where I wanted to go with this, Milbank says the Eucharist is both of these aspects at once. In the Eucharist we are exchanging the sign of Christ body and blood which signifies the accomplished act of atonement on our behalf. The cultic sacrifice has been accomplished. But also, in the elements which represent the Body of Chirst, we find ourselves represented as his Body the Church, not separate from him, and therefore enter into his work of atonement, repeating it weekly (or monthly) hoping to find the strength to repeat his work of forgiveness at every moment. (in a sense we are offering ourselves as sacrifices throught the elements, this is Augustine's view which I mentioned in the Three Bodies post.) For only through our repetition of Jesus atonement can that atonement becomes a material reality here and now.

So in summary (well, all this has been summary, and a not too cojent one) in the Eucharist we appropriate the "once and for all" nature of Jesus' atonement through exchanging the sign of his Body and Blood, and we enter into his repeatable example through his Body and Blood.

While Milbank's presentation might not be convincing at all points, his linguistic approach to the Eucharist is very interesting, as well as his linking of the cultic and political. (but i'm not sure i've address some of the question for the last post, sorry.) Later I'll reflect on the practical significance for all this, how it relates to people in my congregation. what do you all think?

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