Thursday, July 25, 2013

The Secret Life of Jesus [Part Seven]


Our purpose here is to confront what is perhaps the strangest thing about Christianity to the outsider – the idea that Jesus is present in the host at the feast of communion. This understanding was universal in the early Christ. The fact that many Protestants write this off as an ancient superstition is utterly irrelevant given how ancient this mystical understanding can be demonstrated to be.

Indeed while the terminology used by the various traditions may vary, but the underlying assumption is the same. Christians agreed, virtually unanimously, that the host is actually transformed at the Mass into the living body of Jesus Christ. What begins its existence in a state of purity becomes transformed from coming into contact with a holy man – i.e. the priest. In the words of the second century Valentinian Theodotos “the bread and the oil are sanctified by the power of the Name, and they are not the same as they appeared to be when they were received, but they have been transformed by power into spiritual power.”

As we have already noted – the understanding naturally follows from the early Christian interpretation of Numbers 15:19 – 21. The reason an otherwise ordinary batch of bread is transformed by coming into contact with a supernatural power. In the case of Jewish tradition, as we see, that power is yeast. It begins a chemical process within the bread that subjects it to the authority of the god of Israel. In the case of Christianity however the authority is Jesus by means of his priestly authority – viz. "if that of the head be holy, the lump is also holy.”

Of course the Christian host is sacred and can only be touched by individuals who have been ritually purified. As the Teaching of the Apostles or Didache from an extremely early period notes - "Let no one eat or drink of the Eucharist with you except those who have been baptized in the Name of the Lord.” Being baptized into Jesus’s name allows the catechumen to receive his spiritual flesh. As Ignatius of Antioch writing from the same period notes - "I desire the bread of God, which is the flesh of Jesus Christ."

Yet let’s stop there and take note of the strange argument that follows from these same Catholic sources. Allegedly writing to the Church of Smyrna, Ignatius declares that the faithful should "stand aloof from such heretics … because they confess not the Eucharist to be the flesh of our Savior Jesus Christ, which suffered for our sins, and which the Father, of His goodness, raised up again.” Of course this is exactly what Tertullian condemns Marcion for believing – “you suppose he formed bread into a body for himself because he felt the lack of a veritable body, then it was bread he ought to have delivered up for us. It would well suit Marcion's vacuity, that bread should be crucified. Yet why does he call his body bread, and not rather a pumpkin, which Marcion had instead of a heart?

The point of course is that the Catholics were upset that the heretics clearly saw the bread of the communion as the clearest proof that Jesus was a supernatural being, and that he was not ‘flesh and blood’ in the sense that we and all animals are – i.e. meat. The heretics were utterly consistent – not the orthodox. They said that Jesus was a supernatural being who changed the flesh of those in whom he resided whether a man or a mixed lump of dough.

The Marcionites have already provided their answer as to what type of man Jesus was – i.e. he was the Lord, a heavenly man. It is we who have to choose then between one of two propositions with respect to his presence in the Eucharist meal – either ‘Jesus’s flesh was bread’ or ‘Jesus was a man of flesh and blood.’ We can’t have it both ways, unless of course we believe that his Jewish followers suddenly turned into cannibals with an uncontrolled – and wholly unprecedented – desire to eat him after his death.

Email with comments or questions.

Stephan Huller's Observations by Stephan Huller
is licensed under a
Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License.