Hierophagy: The Sacramental Recapitulation of a Literary Trope

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The Eucharist is not part of our faith; it is our faith in sacramental expression. It is the locus of God’s activity in the world. And if our faith is centered on the Eucharist, then it is also concerned with bodies; for the Eucharist is, at its heart, a shared meal between the embodied people of faith. 

Christ, as we might expect from the host of any meal, provides the food and drink and welcomes others to be served at his table.1 Communicants receive his body in their outstretched hands with the words, “The body of Christ.” Not only is it Christ’s body we are receiving in the Eucharist, but it is Christ’s body we are eating with our messy human mouths and teeth and tongues. This was the emphasis of Edward Bouverie Pusey, a key figure in the Oxford Movement, when he preached that it is insufficient to merely adore Christ’s body with our eyes and our minds. Pusey argued that in the Eucharist we are to consume Christ, to take him into our bodies.2 Our central act of worship, then, is an act of ingestion, for the Eucharist involves consuming Christ’s body into our bodies. 

Meredith Warren’s recent work examines the ingestion of sacred items as a literary trope in texts from antiquity. Examining ancient pagan, Jewish, and Christian texts, she uses the neologism hierophagy, derived from the Greek words for “sacred’ (hieros) and “eating” (phagein), to describe this “mechanism by which characters within narratives gain access to the divine realm by consuming some otherworldly item.” We can, according to her analysis, talk about five elements that constitute the pattern of hierophagy: (1) a heavenly being offers (2) something heavenly (3) for a mortal (4) to eat, which leads to (5) change, particularly (5a) translocation, (5b) transformation, and/or (5c) the transmission of knowledge.3

We find a well-known example of hierophagy outside the ancient Near East in Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll begins the opening chapters of his novel by describing Alice’s struggles to gain access to Wonderland. Alice eats and drinks various items, and the consumption of each one effects a change in her physical state. Each instance of eating and drinking in the book follows the pattern proposed by Warren: (1) a resident of Wonderland offers (2) an item of food or drink (3) for Alice (4) to consume, which brings about (5) various transformations in her physical state. Eating a cake marked EAT ME causes her to grow, for example.4

Warren’s work also contains reflections on biblical passages from the Hebrew Bible and New Testament that follow the same pattern. First, this pattern is present in a troubling episode from Genesis 3: (1) the serpent offers (2) the fruit of the forbidden tree (3) to Eve and Adam, and (4) they eat the fruit. The text reports that, as a result of eating the fruit, (5c) “the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked,” (5b) they felt ashamed and hid from God, and (5a) they were “sent . . . forth from the garden of Eden.”5 Significantly, the text centers on eating the wrong kind of food. Eve and Adam attempt to satiate their desire, their hunger, with something other than God. 

Second, and more positively, this pattern can be viewed in Revelation 10, when (1) a voice from heaven (2) offers a scroll (3) to Saint John of Patmos (4) and tells him to eat it. In doing so, (5) John receives a second commission to prophesy; (5b) he can communicate the word of God, and (5c) he has access to the knowledge required to do so.6

Although Warren limits her research on hierophagy to texts such as those outlined above, I argue that the pattern she proposes also has import for our discussion of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, (1) Jesus offers (2) his own body and blood (3) for communicants (4) to eat and drink in the Eucharist, and this brings about (5a) translocation, (5b) transformation, and (5c) the transmission of knowledge. To demonstrate how hierophagy illuminates our experience of the Eucharist, I will focus on the first element, Jesus as host.

Jesus welcomes us, his guests, with open arms to the eucharistic table. For this reason, the opening dialogue in the Irish Anglican eucharistic liturgy often begins with the president reminding the people that “the Lord is here.” Paul Bayes, in his recent book The Table, recovers this often-neglected theme, conceiving of the church as a table where all are welcomed and invited at the discretion of the host, God, who is always the one taking the initiative, inviting guests to the table.7

The features of this element are vividly spelled out in “Love 3,” a poem by George Herbert, the seventeenth-century Anglican priest and poet:

Love bade me welcome. Yet my soul drew back
Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning,
If I lacked any thing.

A guest, I answered, worthy to be here:
Love said, You shall be he.
I the unkind, ungrateful? Ah my dear,
Love took my hand, and smiling did reply,
I cannot look on thee.
Who made the eyes but I?

Truth Lord, but I have marred them: let my shame
Go where it doth deserve.
And know you not, says Love, who bore the blame?
My dear, then I will serve.
You must sit down, says Love, and taste my meat:
So I did sit and eat.8

Although the poem draws upon seventeenth-century table etiquette, its relevance is enduring, as “its setting is the inmost heart.” The poem consists of a conversation between Love, a figure almost certainly identified with God, and the speaker. Love has the first word, presenting the speaker with an invitation to the table: “Love bade me welcome.” Love takes the initiative in the poem. The speaker, however, is a reluctant guest, unwilling to accept Love’s invitation: “Yet my soul drew back.” Overwhelmed by a sense of guilt and shame, the speaker continues to evade Love’s invitation, and the objections are raised using sharp conjunctions: “yet” and “but.” The poem concludes, as one commentator puts it, after the speaker has been “killed with kindness.”9 It is noteworthy that Love’s relation with the speaker is increasingly intimate as the poem progresses, and it is profoundly embodied: “Love took my hand.” And as Love persists, the speaker accepts the gracious invitation to the table: “So I did sit and eat.”

The poem bears closer examination for other inversions and complexities. For example, the roles of master and servant are reversed, as the speaker becomes the honored guest, waited on by the host. In his provocative collection of reflections on the poem, Aaron Kunin observes that these categories—master and servant—cannot be understood as social distinctions in the poem; rather, they are relational and highly unstable positions in a complex dynamic. And James A. W. Heffernan notes that there is a Latin pun on hostia, which means “victim” and resonates with the eucharistic “host.” Thus, hidden in the poem, for those who care to look, is a theology of the Eucharist in which Christ offers himself as the victim, consumed by his own people.10

We could draw further comparisons between the series of invitations and hesitations found in the poem and our eucharistic liturgy: in the Church of Ireland’s Holy Communion One, the president’s words of invitation, addressed directly to the gathered community—“take this holy Sacrament to your comfort”—are immediately followed by what we might call words of hesitation—“make your humble confession to Almighty God.”11 This pattern of invitation and hesitation is repeated throughout the liturgy, until the Prayer of Consecration is reached, and the gathered community do “sit and eat.” Similarly, in the poem, every hesitation and objection is demolished when the speaker demurs at even looking at Love. Love replies using the beautiful pun, “Who made the eyes but I?”

God’s identity as gracious host is also demonstrated in two ways by the eucharistic prayers accepted for use in an Irish Anglican context. First, the fact that Jesus is the host, the one taking the initiative, is implicit in the progression of the eucharistic prayers: we begin with thanksgiving to God for all that has been accomplished for us in Christ, before the work of Christ is linked with our own offering. The emphasis here is on the activity carried out by God in Christ, and we simply respond. Second, it is explicit in some of the biblical allusions found in the eucharistic prayers. Take, for example, the following section of eucharistic prayer three from Holy Communion Two:

You came to meet us in your Son,
welcomed us as your children
and prepared a table where we might feast with you.12

This portion of the prayer picks up Lukan imagery, namely, the parable we frequently refer to as the parable of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11–32). But our familiarity with the parable often means that we miss its shape. It is particularly noteworthy that the father comes out to welcome the son before he can say anything at all. At the mere sight of his son, far off in the distance, he runs to embrace him and welcomes him home. The father’s embrace of the returning son is not a response to his transformation but the very action that brings it about. This is the logic of the Christian faith in general. Again and again, in the biblical text (and hence in the Eucharist), the emphasis is on God as welcoming host and the one taking the initiative. We always experience the Eucharist as guests, invited to share in the hospitality offered by Love.

The Eucharist thus establishes the church as a “discipleship of equals,” to borrow Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s famous phrase; it is the site in which the Apostle Paul’s vision of the baptized community is realized and visible. The Eucharist proclaims and enacts a community in which “there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all . . . are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28 NRSV). Every communicant is God’s guest, invited to God’s table, irrespective of their socioeconomic status and background, their body’s history and experience. We must take the impact of social construction—that is, the meanings ascribed to our bodies in society—seriously in our discussions about the body; and so, we can bridge the gap between embodied experience and the leveling effect of the gathered body in the eucharistic celebration. The Eucharist also proclaims that we must acknowledge our complicity in and take responsibility for the social issues in our world that oppose “beloved community”—Martin Luther King Jr.’s favorite term for the kingdom of God, borrowed from the writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer.13

There is much more we could discuss, especially in terms of transformation and the Eucharist:all the paradoxes of bodies, that is, you and me, receiving Christ’s body which, though consumed, is also the picture of our resurrection hope; or the welding of those bodies into one—“for they all partake of the one bread”—with the church acting as Christ’s body on earth.14 Indeed, Augustine, in his commentaries on the Psalms, describes the church as the sacrament drawn from the side of Christ as he slept the sleep of death upon the cross—in other words, born in the same way that Eve is created out of Adam’s side.15 The priest’s role in consecration goes beyond acting as representative of those bodies who are present (or watching online) and extends, in Christ’s name, to the entire holy catholic church, seen and unseen.16 What is more, the symbolic mediation of bread and wine is transformed. The Eucharist provides a mediated experience of the physical, with representative elements from the created order (bread and wine), accompanied with prayer and action, in order to convey God’s activity in the world.

For now, we might simply note that hierophagy offers a constructive lens through which we might consider the Eucharist—one that disrupts the usual discourses on exact moments of consecration, canonical form of the institution narrative, and metaphysical explications of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist. Reflecting on this might therefore help to foster our sacramental imaginations.


Source: The Other Journal

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