The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread, and Resurrection

Andrea Bieler
November 15, 2008

Andrea Bieler, professor of Christian worship at PSR, and Luise Schottrof, of the University of Kassel in Germany, have written a book based on an intense dialogue they shared while co-teaching a class called “Eucharist as Holy Eating” at PSR and the GTU. “In these classes we have met students from Korea, Taiwan, Uganda, Kenya, and the United States who have shared tremendous insights about the question of how to live a Eucharistic life,” they write in the introduction to their award-wining book, The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread and Resurrection (Fortress Press, 2007). Here we present selections from the introduction outlining the book and from chapter four, “The Body Politics of Eucharist.”

From the Introduction

Biblical as well as liturgical traditions and current practices are crucial for our attempt to reflect on the Eucharist as a resurrection meal by focusing on Eucharistic life, sacramental permeability, and eschatological imagination.

Chapter 4 focuses on body politics and holy eating. We ask what it means to speak metaphorically about the body of Christ in relation to the Eucharist in such a way that actual “body realities” do not disappear. We unfold the multitude of body realities as they are present in the meal. We seek to reflect on the complexity of our own bodily experiences as we gather around the table. We suggest an interpretation of soma (body) in Paul’s writings that shifts between metaphorical and literal meaning. We describe the holy meal as a ritual in which the redemption of our bodies is celebrated. Reading Paul’s body theology in a non-dualistic way, we come to the conclusion that the early communities celebrated the resurrection of the body in the midst of the reality of the empire.

In chapter 4 we also have to speak about the body given for you. We reflect on the problem of how to reclaim this language without idealizing violence that is acted out against concrete bodies. We will claim the Eucharist as a counter-liturgy to violent state politics that deny the dignity of the human body. We will offer a biblical interpretation of Jesus’ words that derives from the context of Jewish martyrdom theology.

From Chapter Four: Making the Tortured Body Visible

Just as liturgy is not a merely “spiritual” formation which then must be applied to the physical world, torture is not a merely physical assault on bodies but a formation of a social imagination.

In the night when Jesus was handed over, he took the bread. The Eucharistic celebration leads us into the imaginary realm of the night before Jesus was tortured and killed. It does not lead us directly to the place of torture, Golgotha. It is the night before all of these things happen. We speak or sing diverse words: This is my body given for you, broken for you; this is the covenant in my blood, blood shed for you, blood poured out for you. The words carry sacrificial connotations for many people who listen to them. They need to be heard in the context of the events that followed the Last Supper. The Eucharistic celebration does not directly expose a tortured body but points implicitly to it, a body that carries the marks of violence, impossible to imagine, unbearable to behold. This is seeing and not seeing. Many Christians have a hard time making these words their own.

At Pacific School of Religion in Berkeley, where we have taught the “Holy Eating” class, conflicts have arisen around communion. Some students want to abolish the Eucharistic narrative because they find the blood imagery too disturbing. They see it as glorifying violence, and they reject the idea that there could be a connection between violence and redemption. Others recognize in this argument a sanitized image of Jesus that seems to be an expression of white middle-class religion. In particular, some African American students in our courses point to the fact that, in the context of slavery, the songs about the blood of Jesus had redemptive power. They claim that this is still true for the present, and they celebrate the motif of blood-shedding as a vision of victory for African-American people. Jesus at the cross, the “tree,” is strongly connected with thousands of lynchings of African Americans who have also been hung from trees. Blood-shedding becomes an image of hope and resistance: “The blood that gives me strength from day to day will never lose its power.” But there are also voices, especially of Black women, who do not agree that these traditions are still liberating for them. The Womanist theologian Delores Williams gives voice to their concerns. She claims that it is not at Golgotha that Black women can find salvation; it is rather in the wilderness, where God’s angel appears to the slave Hagar and shows her the path of survival.

The most radical critics address the issue of interpreting Jesus’ death. Atonement theologies such as those of Anselm of Canterbury are discarded. Sacrificial theologies, which are thought to be at the core of the holy meal, do not seem to make sense for many liberal Christians. Feminist theologians seek to expand the range of images as a means of reclaiming the Eucharist. It is the feast of our lives, in which Jesus’ dedication to life in fullness is celebrated. The holy meal is understood within the framework of God’s hospitality, inviting the stranger and renewing community.

Some Mennonites reclaim nonviolent atonement theologies that shape the sacrificial language that permeates many Eucharistic liturgies. The forgiveness of sins, celebrated in the meal, is interpreted against the background of the “Christus Victor” motif. Forgiveness of sins is situated in the context of God’s cosmic battle against the powers of evil that enslave individuals.

Conflicts arise around how to understand the words about a body given for us in the Eucharistic liturgy. The Eucharistic narrative points to the tortured body of Christ. What does it mean to remember and in an aesthetic sense to “see” this body in a lifegiving way that does not glorify violence?

In his book Torture and Eucharist, William T. Cavanaugh reflects on the Eucharistic narrative as a story that does not suppress the reality of torture. Reflecting on the role of the church during Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile, he claims that the Eucharist was the church’s “counter-politics” set against the politics of torture. He describes

the logic of Eucharist as an alternative economy of pain and the body. Torture and Eucharist are opposing disciplinae arcanorum using different means and serving different ends. Where torture is an anti-liturgy for the realization of the state’s power on the bodies of others, Eucharist is the liturgical realization of Christ’s suffering and redemptive body in the bodies of His followers. Torture creates fearful and isolated bodies, bodies docile to the purpose of regime; the Eucharist effects the body of Christ, a body marked by resistance to worldly power. Torture creates victims; Eucharist creates witnesses, martyrs. Isolation is overcome in the Eucharist by the building of a communal body which resists the state’s attempt to disappear it.

Cavanaugh asserts that torture, as the body politics of the state, is a kind of perverted liturgy itself, “a ritual act which organizes bodies in the society into a collective performance, not of true community, but of an atomized aggregate of mutually suspicious individuals.” It separates people from each other; it is based on the principle of fear. The liturgy of torture produces fragmentation and isolation. The world of the victim shrinks to a minimum; the immediacy and power of pain inflicted on the body leaves the sufferer in agony; the violated body is the only world that can be experienced. The ability to envision past and future is destroyed; the sense of space is diminished. Cavanaugh quotes Sheila Cassidy, an English doctor who was tortured in Chile in the infamous Villa Grimaldi: “It was as though I was suspended over a pit: the past had no relevance and I could see no future. I lived only for the minute that was and in the fear of further pain.”

The “liturgists” of torture put themselves in a quasi-divine position. After having destroyed the sense of self in the way just described, they can proceed with their self-revelation as the omnipotent takers and givers of life. They seek to create a sense of absolute powerlessness in their victims. The climax of the liturgy of torture is the confession of the sufferer that she or he is guilty of disobedience against the state powers. Often people are pressed to reveal the names of friends, colleagues, and comrades: “In torture the state borrows the voice of the victim to double its own voice. Through his terrifying and desperate insistence on confession, the torturer pulls pain from the suffering body of the victim, objectifies it and gives it voice.” In Chile under Pinochet many tortured persons were among those who disappeared.Many families never knew for certain whether their loved ones were still alive or not. The politics of disappearance kept people in a realm of agony between hope and despair. Making tortured bodies disappear gave the liturgy of torture a tremendous—almost mysterious—power.

We seek to sketch an embodied Eucharistic practice that understands itself against this background as a resisting response to the body politics of the state:60 Practicing Eucharist makes the tortured body visible. When we tell the Eucharistic narrative we do not suppress the reality that Jesus was going to be tortured; we have the chance to make the tortured body visible and by doing so to powerfully disrupt the body politics of the state. This act resists isolation because it creates koinonia (community) among those who gather around the table and is a genuine encounter with the resurrected Christ. The Risen One is incorporated into our bodies; this is the most intimate possibility of communion.

If genuine communion is created in the Eucharist, pain can also be shared and transformed into resurrected life: “Pain is incommunicable beyond the limits of the body, and the sufferer must suffer alone. Christians, nevertheless, make the bizarre claim that pain can be shared, precisely because people can be knitted into one body.” Practicing Eucharist offers space and a sense of time that values acts of remembrance (anamnesis) that generate hope for the future. Celebrating the Eucharist gives space for eschatological imagination that is inhabited by memory and hope. The particular “body story” we remember makes visible the violence of state politics. Remembering violence against the body is dangerous memory. It is painful. It is an entrance into the political and spiritual exercise of deep empathy. It creates martyrs who give witness to the violence and to the justice of God, who has overcome the logic of torture and the humiliating body politics of the state by resisting it fiercely in the resurrection of Jesus.

If we read Amnesty International’s annual report, we have to admit that torture and Eucharist remains a crucial topic. The pictures of Abu Ghraib reveal the connection of war and torture. When we reflect on the U.S. prison in Guantanamo, we cannot help but think of bodies disappearing, bodies being delivered into a realm of total despotism. It is important for us to stress that an embodied sense of the Eucharistic life will not suppress these realities but will bring them to light.

But how can we do that in the liturgy without producing voyeurism? Michael Hawn shares an impressive example from a Christmas pageant composed by the Argentinian theologian and musician Pablo Sosa. He created it as an invitation to the entire congregation to join in the angels’ Gloria in the nativity drama:

He chose the cueca, a lively partner dance/song between a man and a
woman, as the stylistic basis for this song. The cueca is the national dance
of Chile, which is also popular in Bolivia and parts of Argentina. The
musical characteristics include a lively three-fourths versus six-eights
cross-rhythm. . . . “Gloria” was written during the Pinochet regime in
Chile, when as in Argentina, the government institutionalized violence
against its own people, resulting in los desaparecidos. As a form of protest,
Chilean women whose husbands or sons had disappeared would gather
in a public plaza and dance this seemingly joyful dance alone, with their
missing partner only in their imagination. Sosa has composed a piano
accompaniment that captures more fully the fiesta flavor of the cueca.

These women’s dance as well as the transformation of the cueca into the angels’ Gloria is an act of eschatological imagination par excellence. The dance expresses resistance against the violent body politics of the state by pointing in subversive ways to the absence of those who had disappeared. Sosa brings this ritual from the streets into the center of the narrative that speaks about the Incarnation as a threatened and most dangerous space. This act of eschatological imagination uses the sounds, movements, and words of joy: the cueca and the Gloria juxtapose in sharp ways the praise of God with the violent realities of torture. This example, although drawn from a Christmas pageant, expresses our attempt to offer a Eucharistic theology that embraces eschatological imagination with regard to fragile bodies and lives.

Moving from interpreting the words about a “body given for you” and “blood shed for you,”? in what follows we want to address the issue of “sacrificial” language in the New Testament traditions of the Eucharist and in the liturgy.

“My Body—Given for You”: Eucharist and the Language of Sacrifice

Feminist criticism of sacrificial christology has caused the corresponding statements in the Eucharistic texts and in the New Testament to be regarded in a more differentiated manner today—among biblical scholars also—than was the case twenty years ago. It is accepted that there is no unified sacrificial christology in the New

Testament and that the New Testament formulations may not be read through the lenses of an often unspoken hermeneutical presupposition regarding such a christology of sacrifice. The narrowing of the words at the Last Supper and other corresponding texts to make them solely an interpretation of Jesus’ death is being subjected
to increasing criticism. Words used to interpret the Eucharist such as “blood,” “handing over,” “atoning sacrifice/sacrifice for sins,” and the very word “sacrifice” must be reconsidered as to what they may have meant and whether they are at all appropriate to the content of the New Testament Eucharistic traditions.

In our depiction of covenant theology it has already become obvious how crucial the Jewish history of martyrdom is for an understanding of the Eucharistic words. That tradition does not justify violence or the execution of Jesus and others. The brutality of oppressive rulers who torture and murder people is there, as in the New Testament, neither something willed by God nor necessary for salvation. The suffering and death of the countless martyrs does not signify the victory of such brutality. The theology of martyrdom, indeed, contests any sort of legitimacy for such behavior. That theology makes violence visible and calls it by name. It transforms the victim of unjust violence into the seed of life for the whole people.

The person who tortures and murders, the one who orders torture and murder, desires not merely the death of this one person. The prayers of the sisters and brothers who recognize the victims as martyrs rise in opposition to this death. The texts of martyrdom theology speak from the perspective of the community that remembers and that struggles for life. Martyrdom does not mean becoming a victim, but rather giving witness (martyrion) to the victory of life, willed by God. The New Testament nowhere says that Jesus, through his death, became the victim of violence. Instead, Jesus’ death made life possible for “the many”—the people, humanity, because he was recognized as a martyr, one among many sisters and brothers.The isolation of Christ from his sisters and brothers in some christological constructs from later centuries makes the early Christian tradition unrecognizable.

At the present time we need to consider a second level of possible misunderstanding. The “suicide” bombers in contemporary wars are also called “martyrs.” But they are fundamentally different from the martyrs of ancient history described here, because they desire and accomplish death and suffering for many. They are a form of violence, not of victory over violence.

The cultic offerings in the First Testament are best understood in the sense of gifts to God. The Greek word thysia (sacrifice) encompasses many forms of offering and is also used metaphorically, as in Rom 12:1. At that time followers of Jesus Messiah continued to participate in the Temple cult in Jerusalem as usual. Their critique of sacrifices was no different from that of Hosea: Hos 6:6 is quoted in Matt 9:13; 12:7, and elsewhere. But neither the critique of sacrifice nor the metaphorical use of words from the context of cultic offerings is a rejection of Jewish sacrificial practice itself.

Paul writes in Rom 3:25: “God put [him] forward as a hilasterion (place of [God’s] forgiveness) by his blood, effective through faith (pistis).” In the Hebrew Bible hilasterion (Heb. kapporet) refers to a kind of golden “plate” beneath the cherubim in the Jewish sanctuary, a place from which forgiveness emanates (Lev 16:13-16; cf. Heb 9:5). In Rom 3:25 the word is applied to Christ in a transferred sense. It does not refer to the (animal) sin offering, nor does it indicate any other cultic rites of atonement. However, by the same token the word “blood” is also denied a significance in the theology of atonement offerings. It is a matter of the blood of the martyrs, not of atoning sacrificial blood in the tradition of animal offerings.

Likewise in 4 Maccabees 17, a text akin to Rom 3:25, the death of martyrdom is not given a cultic interpretation. This text is especially useful for an understanding of the Jewish tradition of martyrdom in the New Testament.

The tractate was written sometime in the first century c.e., probably before 70. It is Hellenistic in style and is intended to give a philosophical presentation of the history of martyrdom as the story of the triumph of virtue. Here is an elaborate narrative of the gruesome and bloody martyrdom of the elderly priest Eleazar and of a mother’s seven sons, followed by a great song of praise of the mother and her steadfastness. Her own martyrdom is not described in so much detail: it is said that she threw herself into the flames “so that no one might touch her body” (4 Macc 17:1). The tyrant who orders these tortures and murders is Antiochus IV Epiphanes (ruled 175–164 c.e.), but implicitly the text has present tyranny in view, namely, the Roman empire. Martyrdom means the destruction of the violent power of the tyrant (4 Macc 17:2; 11:24 1:11; cf. 9:30) and the rescue of the threatened nation (4 Macc 9:24; 1:11; 6:28, 29; 17:10, 20-22). The nation is being threatened by tyranny because it has sinned (17:21; implicitly also in 6:28, 29). Thus, because it has not obeyed its God, its enemies have power over it (17:20). That power is broken by martyrdom. The event is called “cleansing” or “purification” (1:11; 6:28, 29; 17:21) and signifies the forgiveness of the nation’s sins. God’s forgiveness of sins emanates from the blood of the martyrs; their blood is hilasterion (17:22). The tractate intends, through the model of the martyrs, to give the people courage (13:10; 16:22-23) to overcome the violent power of tyranny through steadfastness (hypomone) and fidelity to the Torah. It is the language of Jesus’ interpretive words at the Last Supper and of the New Testament interpretations of his Passion that we encounter here, and it can help us to understand those New Testament traditions. This language does not refer to cultic sacrifices or to self-“sacrifice” or becoming a “victim.” “Blood” represents the precious life of the martyr, which is wrongly and violently shed, and yet overcomes the violence perpetrated.

In the words of the Eucharist, Jesus’ death is regarded as the death of a martyr, not as that of a “victim” or as an “atoning death.”68 The crucial words are:

The body “for us” (1 Cor 11:24; Luke 22:19 precedes these words with “given,” without changing the sense). The cup “. . . in my blood” (1 Cor 11:25; Luke 22:20) or: The blood “. . . poured out for many” (Mark 14:22); Matt 26:28 adds “for the forgiveness of sins”; Luke 22:20 has “. . . for you.”

All these formulations, whether the short version or the several variations and additions, express the same thing: The initiative of Jesus’ life and death deliver the people, before God, from their violations of the Torah. The substance of this idea, although with variations in its formulation, appears frequently: see especially 1 Cor 15:3; Gal 1:4; 1 Pet 3:18. Isaiah 53:5, 6, 8, 11, 12 also refers to the suffering, torture, and death of the Servant of God for the sake of the people, who had gone astray and are freed from sin through the Servant’s life, suffering, and death. The idea behind this interpretation of martyrdom is not one of “sacrifice” that legitimizes violence. The enemies’ power is a consequence of the people’s sin, and that power is broken by the courageous endurance and death of the martyr. That endurance, the courage and suffering of the person tortured and murdered by the “tyrant” (4 Maccabees) is stronger in its nonviolence than any and all weapons and instruments of torture. It is inappropriate to speak of a representative suffering and death in the traditional sense, as if a human insult to God could only be expiated by suffering and death. Such an interpretation inserts a foreign idea into the notion of God found in these and similar texts. According to this idea God is only capable of forgiving when his wrath is appeased, as if God demanded suffering as reparation. Such a view of God loses sight of the truth that these texts—like the New Testament’s Eucharistic words—are based on the reality of human life. The enemies have power over the people. God loves the people and has mercy on them, despite their sin. Martyrdom destroys the violent power of tyranny. The life of the martyr becomes a gift (antipsychon [exchange for life]; 4 Macc 6:29; 17:21) for the life of the many.

Likewise, no variant of the idea of “self-sacrifice” or cultic sacrifice furnishes a starting point for martyrdom theology. That is why we have cited the formulations from 4 Maccabees outlined above. They bring together the interpretation of martyrdom found in the same or similar words in texts like Isaiah 53, 4 Maccabees, numerous postbiblical interpretations of the martyrs Isaac, Daniel, and the three young men in the fiery furnace.

We will first quote the words of 4 Maccabees 6 about the death of Eleazar:

26 When he was now burned to his very bones and about to expire, he lifted up his eyes to God and said,
27 “You know, O God, that though I might have saved myself, I am dying in burning torments for the sake of the law.
28 Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them.
29 Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs.
30 After he said this, the holy man died nobly in his tortures; even in the tortures of death he resisted, by virtue of reason, for the sake of the law.

We add a summary evaluation of martyrdom from 4 Maccabees 17:
17 The tyrant himself and all his council marveled at their endurance,
18 because of which they now stand before the divine throne and live the life of eternal blessedness.
19 For Moses says, “All who are consecrated are under your hands.”
20 These, then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honored, not only with this honor, but also by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation,
21 the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified—they having become, as it were, a gift [NRSV: ransom] for the sin of our nation.
22 And through the blood of those devout ones and their death, which became the place of divine forgiveness of sins [NRSV: as an atoning sacrifice], divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated.

The Prayer of Azariah cited above includes a comparison drawn from the context of ritual sacrifice. But that comparison is clearly discernible as an added interpretive element and not the interpretive basis. In the New Testament we find the idea that the whole life of the faithful is a gift or offering/thysia for God (Rom 12:1), which may include martyrdom. But “thysia” always means a gift for God, namely, life and not death.

In Rom 8:32, Paul says that God gave up/handed over his son (paradidonein) and did not withhold him. Here also, as in our critique of the idea that God requires satisfaction, the interpretation becomes problematic when real experiences of violence and the perspective of the text are set aside. Jesus, like many martyrs, was handed over to the judgment of tyrants. God has turned the aim of the violent earthly power—to bring about death and the rule of violence—on its head. God makes the dead to live (Rom 4:17; 8:32b). Since the verb “hand over” is burdened by the history of interpretation and its influence, we should seek—in liturgical language, at least—for another word to replace it, one that brings life rather than taking it away. Those who speak here are people who stand before the catastrophe of the humanly caused suffering of Jesus and his countless sisters and brothers. If they see God’s hand in suffering, it is because God brings life. Inextricably united with this—subsequent—interpretation of suffering is the praxis of those who behold God in Christ’s suffering. They bind themselves to God’s covenant, keep the Torah, and fight for the life willed by God. Their perspective on christology is that of sisters and brothers whom God has led into the way of life. They do not surrender the field to violent power. Sometimes they have also told stories about the repentance of executioners and tyrants (Mark 15:39 par.). Paradidonein need not be interpreted particularly in terms of Jesus’ being handed over; it can also, corresponding to the broader meaning of the word, be read as surrender (of Jesus by God). In the literary context we should think of Jesus’ way of life, its perils, and its acts of resistance, including the courage to face death, and then death itself.

His followers will take the same path. Paul quotes Ps 43:20, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered” (Rom 8:36). This psalm verse is constantly quoted in Jewish martyrdom texts. Paul’s “we” joins the community and himself to Christ’s life and death. The difficulty created by Rom 8:32 for a reading today is in the idea that God has “given” Christ up, has sent him on the way that ends in death. That sounds as if God were imposing death and suffering. We find the same difficulty in the divine “necessity” (dei). The feminist critique that God thus appears as the murderer of his own child is justified, because this idea is strongly suggested by the christology of sacrificial atonement, which Sigrid Brandt calls “misplaced.” The only question is whether such an interpretation is historically justified. We believe it is not.

In the New Testament, as in Judaism, everything that happens, no matter how dreadful, is regularly attributed to God’s will. But this idea does not serve to legitimize—certainly not to glorify—suffering and a submission to fate, nor does it cover up who the murderers and perpetrators of violence are. The thought itself comes from people who call violence by name and exercise resistance against it. They, too, know themselves to be safe in God’s hands; even in danger and death God is on their side. True power is with God, not with the powers that exploit, rape, torture, and seek to kill other people.

To translate this tradition into today’s language is not an easy task. Through God’s action, humanly perpetrated deeds of violence are transformed into the power of life for the whole nation. Death’s victory cannot endure. This difficulty cannot be solved by talking about Jesus’ surrender. It is only possible to speak out of one’s own life and struggles, as Paul does in Rom 8:31-39. The way of Jesus, the firstborn among many sisters and brothers (Rom 8:29) was right and willed by God. It was harsh and difficult; God did not withhold suffering from him. The persecution his followers, including Paul, had to withstand came from the same sources as Jesus’ experience of hatred and persecution. When Paul says that God gave Jesus up (or handed him over), he is assuring himself and his sisters and brothers of God’s love in their own lives. They go their way to fight for the life God desires. In the Roman Empire such a life required courage and endurance. Their own bodies were endangered because the body was the only place where testimony to God’s justice could be made real and truthful.

Thanks to the centuries of intensive Christian initiation into a christology of sacrifice and the image of God as the almighty One who required Jesus’ death for his own satisfaction, it is very difficult to read New Testament christology anew and still to make use of the word “sacrifice.” The New Testament’s Eucharistic words are crucial for its christology and for today’s Eucharistic practice. In the last twenty to thirty years the protests of the feminist movement have led to a broadened discussion of the christology of atoning sacrifice and to attempts to change our Eucharistic liturgies. There are frequent confrontations between incensed representatives of the institutional church who insistently defend a traditional translation of the “words of institution,” on the one hand, and people, both men and women, who can no longer endure the language of sacrificial atonement, on the other. These latter hear simultaneously, when these words are spoken, both the sadistic God-image that legitimates violence through the healing power of a violent death and the individualistic interpretation of the forgiveness of sins. Historical explanations, like those presented in this section, that this christology of sacrificial atonement is a misinterpretation of the New Testament, are difficult to translate into liturgical practice. Here remains a thus far unfulfilled task for communities that individuals cannot accomplish. We want to say something here about our experiences with this process of translation, which means more than merely translating texts.

Contextualization is highly important. It must become clear that Jesus’ death served the ruling interests of the Roman Empire, and that his life and resurrection were acts of resistance, the resistance of Jesus and those who were his own, even after his death. This contextualization can help us to recognize the Eucharistic words as language of resurrection.

That Christ’s body was given “for us” then means that people willed his death, but God did not leave his child in their hands. The most vicious oppression and even murder become powerless because God is on the side of life.

“For us” is the message of resurrection, not the theology of the cross. The same is true of the words over the cup, which sing of the new covenant with God. Christ’s “blood” is not a sign of his expiring life, but of his new life.

The contextualization of Jesus’ death must be accompanied by the contextualization of the Eucharistic communities of today: Jesus was not a victim, but a martyr. Martyrs fight with hypomone (endurance), the nonviolent power of hope. When people remember martyrs like Christ, they themselves are transformed from death into life. This remembrance of the martyrs and on God’s justice, to which they witnessed with their lives, is a source of hope even today. At that time the Roman Empire, by means of its propaganda and its violence, created the impression that it possessed an invincible power over the whole world. Jesus contradicted that. Every meal celebrated by his own, during the time of his life and after his death, has brought to new life this power of hope, with hypomone (endurance). It is not true that only the constant refinement and production of more and more expensive weapons can protect life on earth. It is not true that the nations of humanity will remain incapable of heading off a catastrophe of global climate change. Even if our work for a life that is celebrated in the Eucharist, and begun anew there, will not necessarily bring us martyrdom, it is nowhere to be had on the cheap. We can and must change something about our christology of atoning sacrifice, and we need to think anew about the meaning of the cross of Christ. The same is true of the idea of representation.

The idea of representative suffering, if it is divorced from misunderstandings such as a sadistic image of God, can indicate the solidarity that became reality in Jesus’ Passion. Jesus stood for the liberation of the poor and those politically deprived of their rights in the Roman Empire. That was the reason why the Roman government had him executed. In Eucharistic celebrations today, we remember Jesus’ solidary life and the death it brought him, and in doing so we remember the victims of violence in our own time. People who are violently deprived of the very bases of their existence are, in the Eucharist, set in the midst of the congregation. They become visible in the body of Christ, and they transform the congregation into a solidary community of action.

In the New Testament, as in the Hebrew Bible, we find language reflecting that of the temple cult, but used for different activities and ethical attitudes. In the early church, sacrificial language was continually used and modified. One usage of the term sacrifice focuses on praise and thanksgiving and their consequences for the life of the faithful. The sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving is already mentioned in Heb 13:15-16: “Through him, let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is the fruit of lips that confess his name. Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing God.” It is striking to see that the act of praising God interpreted as sacrifice is intimately intertwined with the ethical demand to do good and to share what one has. Prayer and social life are intertwined.

In the second and third centuries all prayers, not just the Eucharistic prayers, were understood as constituting a sacrifice of praise offered to God. Tertullian spoke of prayer as a spiritual oblation that has abolished the former sacrifices. Here we can already recognize an anti-Jewish polemic. The Didache instructs Christians to come together on Sunday,

break bread, and give thanks, having first confessed your transgressions, that your sacrifice may be pure. Those who have quarreled must also be reconciled to one another before joining in the celebration that your sacrifice may not be defiled.

Justin the Martyr states that prayers of thanksgiving made by worthy men are the only sacrifices that are perfect and well-pleasing to God. The Strasbourg Papyri stress the thanksgiving of the Eucharist as the reasonable sacrifice and bloodless service.

The offering of bread and wine has been interpreted as sacrifice as well. In his dialogue with Trypho, Justin the Martyr states that the offered bread and the cup of thanksgiving constitute the fulfillment of the material oblations of the Hebrew Bible. He describes the bread and wine brought from home as the substance of the sacrifice. In Irenaeus, the Eucharistic oblation of bread and wine is understood as a symbolic offering of the firstfruits of creation. The Apostolic Tradition speaks of the bread and the cup that are offered.

Paul Bradshaw names as the third use of sacrificial language the remembering of Christ’s sacrifice. In Justin’s Dialogue with Trypho again we find the idea of the “bread of the thanksgiving which our Lord Jesus Christ handed down to us, to do for the remembrance of his suffering which he suffered for those who are cleansed in their souls from all wickedness of men so that we might give thanks to God.” Many Eucharistic prayers contain multilayered meanings of sacrifice. For instance, the Apostolic Constitution refers to the memorial of Christ’s death and to the offering of bread and cup. We have suggested interpreting Jesus’ words over the bread and wine in the context of the Jewish martyrdom tradition in which the life and death of the martyr have been understood as an event that releases hope in the future of God’s people.

The final dimension that should be mentioned is the propitiatory sacrifice. In this case the prayers ask for the forgiveness of sins and the remission of debts. The petitions hope that God will be propitiated through the Eucharistic celebration. We conclude that the usage of sacrificial language in Eucharistic liturgies is multilayered: it can refer to the sacrifice of life and praise, the sacrifice of gifts, the remembrance of Christ’s death, and the propitiatory sacrifice for the forgiveness of sins.


From The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread and Resurrection by Andrea Bieler and Luise Schottroff, translated by Linda Maloney, copyright © 2007 Fortress Press. Reproduced by special permission of Augsburg Fortress Publishers. Order information (provided by request of publisher).