Last Things First

For the Jewish people, Peter Fink, S.J., once wrote, God is the one who “comes,” who “leads,” who “abides” and who “hides.” The early Christian community appealed to the same four dynamics in speaking of Christ: “the Christ who comes (‘maranatha’), the Christ who leads (‘I go before you’), the Christ who abides (‘I am with you all days’) and the Christ who hides (‘You are the body of Christ’).” (Worship: Praying the Sacraments, Pastoral Press, 1991). This evocative typology serves as the springboard for Bruce Morrill’s new book, Encountering Christ in the Eucharist.



After an introduction focusing on sacramental presence, Morrill organizes his reflections on the Eucharist in four sections: “Hidden Presence: The Mystery of the Assembly as the Body of Christ,” “Holy Scripture: Revelation of the Mystery in Our Time,” “Eucharistic Communion: Christ’s Abiding Presence” and “Leadership for Christ’s Body: Liturgy and Ministry.” Under these four headings, he offers a compendium of theological insights related to assembly, word, Eucharist and ministry.

Some of these insights are very fine. His discussion of sacramental character, for example, ranges from Augustine to Chauvet and, following the thought of Bernard Cooke, culminates in the concept of communal sacramental character. Usually the notion of sacramental character is used to describe the lasting effect upon individuals of the sacraments of baptism, confirmation and holy orders. Here, however, Morrill applies it to the Eucharist and not only to individuals but to the community as a whole:


The communal ecclesial priority of the celebration of the sacraments corrects the negative connotations that an individualistic view of grace entailed… Rather than define the character in relation to the continual possibility of losing the state of grace, a corporate view of sacramental grace perceives the Holy Spirit forming the members of the liturgical assembly in the image and likeness of God, through sharing in the paschal mystery of the Son.


Where the book fails to convince is in Morrill’s treatment of the cross. He dismisses atonement theology as a “sadomasochistic drama” and suggests that Christians might be better off without the notion of sacrifice altogether. Having acknowledged, however, that “most contemporary theologians recognize the impossibility of eliminating sacrificial discourse from Christianity” he attempts to redeem sacrifice by recasting it in terms of love.

He speaks of the “costly love of friendship” and observes that “love, even from the side of God, knows a necessary pain in surrender if life-giving union is to be born.” The latter is meant to be an allusion to childbirth on the cross—an adventurous mystical reading which, if it is to be useful, requires more careful exposition than it receives here. More important, however, assimilating the cross to natural processes—however painful—seems insufficient to carry the weight of the tradition or even to come to terms with the historical fact of the passion. The “necessary” pain of the cross arises not from the general fact that love hurts, but from the specific fact that those whom God chooses to love are sinners. To reframe sacrifice so that it no longer involves sin is to do more than change the frame; it changes the picture.

The book by Thomas Rausch, S.J., Eschatology, Liturgy, and Christology, offers a summary and evaluation of contemporary scholarship on the subject of eschatology. He sets out questions that cannot fail to engage anyone who takes Christian faith seriously:


What is our hope as Christians? To what do we look forward? Does God forget the countless victims of history? What about our beloved dead? What future does God have in store for us? Will it involve our beautiful earth? To raise these questions is to ask about eschatology....


The goal of the work is to recover a robust emphasis on the biblical concept of the eschaton, which in the history of Christian thought came to be eclipsed by the eschata, or the last things. This is a tall order, but the author draws on a considerable body of contemporary theological reflection to meet it. The main theologians whose works are discussed are Dermot Lane, Peter Phan, Johann Baptist Metz, Jon Sobrino, Terrence Tilley, Brian Robinette, Terence Nichols, Elizabeth Johnson and Joseph Ratzinger. By the end of the book, he has critically reviewed their thought on various aspects of the subject—from the meaning of resurrection and whether or not the dead are raised at the moment of death; to the fate of the earth and the bearing of scientific discovery on our ideas about the end of the world; to the tension between a kingdom-centered Christian witness and a Christ-centered witness in the field of mission. The clarity and fair-mindedness with which Rausch presents and compares their views is admirable. For anyone who is not already widely read in this subject, his book will be an invaluable introduction and guide.

The chapter on liturgy, however, was a bit disappointing. Rausch focuses on the Eucharist and includes a discussion of liturgical time and memory, a section on liturgy and social justice, and a detailed discussion of the Mass. Astonishingly, however, he never mentions the Agnus Dei or the invitation to Communion, with its allusion to the Supper of the Lamb. Nor does he acknowledge the eschatological motifs of the baptismal liturgy. The latter omission is particularly unfortunate. Any recovery of eschatological imagination among Catholics surely must owe something to the restoration of the Easter Vigil, not to mention the rites of the catechumenate and the explanatory rites after baptism.

This said, both of these books make valuable contributions and will be useful to students of theology and liturgy as well as to general readers. The authors grapple with challenging questions in ways that will make their readers think, and stretch their imaginations.










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6 years 1 month ago

I’ve told this true Eucharist story a number of times. Now  It seems appropriate to tell it again, as a response to the book report on encountering Christ in Eucharist. I tell it again because I like spreading good news. God knows there’s enough bad news around!

Once, having positioned myself as close to the tabernacle as I could get, sleep, rather than prayer quickly became the norm, collapsing my intention of some “quiet time” conversation  with the Lord.  Try  as I might, slumber kept interrupting that good intention, to the point where I decided to discipline myself by intently focusing on the tabernacle door imagining I was prying it open. The hope was to chase away sleep, but despite the placement of “disciplinary toothpicks” of determination holding open my eyelids, sleepiness refused to evaporate!

Suddenly in that “comatose” state, imaginatively I heard the words, “Come on in!” I must have through it was the Lord, so my sleepy response was, “Where, Lord?” The imagined reply was immediate, “In the tabernacle with Me!” Now at last, I was wide awake and instantly understood the meaning of that invitation -   it was all about friendship. It was about Jesus inviting me to stop by for a chat, sipping coffee, a glass of wine , or even some beer and chips, a real homey kind of friendship,  easy going, a “kick of your shoes and relax” get-together.  But best of all I understood it wasn’t just about me – it included everybody! Jesus is everybody’s Best Friend and he wants everybody to be his best friend too!

Obviously the  imagination is an indispensable faculty of the soul in making prayerful contact to God. I wonder if Jesus ever used his imagination to reach the Father. For sure one of the most imaginative things Jesus ever did was to institute the Holy Eucharist! Who could ever think of such a thing except God?



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