Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Sweat and Water…Blood & Wine

Invalid Sacrament?

My great friend, Mark Harris, recently returned from leading (supported by eight other adults) a group of 14 young people (14-18 year-olds) on a pilgrimage journey to Navajo land. His resilience in enduring primitive camping conditions for two weeks – no shower for a week! - in his late sixties, is only surpassed by his empathy with this age group. Detailed accounts and comments can be found on his Blog, Preludium.
This was not a Work Camp; it was, so far as I understand it, an opportunity to experience another culture, another world-view, and to spend time in some questioning, ‘mulling over’ the day-to-day contacts and experiences and to share in the life of a temporary community.

Daily prayers were a part of the schedule and it was planned to visit the nearest Episcopal Mission to attend a Eucharist. In the event, this turned out not to be practical (travel time particularly), and so it was decided to celebrate the service in the Camp. An immediate problem, though, was the absence of any wine, camping as they were in a totally “dry” locality. So, they went ahead with the Eucharist, using bread and water. Hearing of this, doubtless, Anglo-Catholics (or the tatty remnants of that movement) will be moved to a state of near apoplexy: one can visualize headlines in the Church Times or Living Church, Episcopal Youth Leader Celebrates Invalid Eucharist. Possibly the other extreme might not fuss too much; after all, they were at one time so intertwined with Temperance Movements, that grape juice was normal in ‘low church’ English parishes.

Mark had made the point that water in Navajo land was very scarce and precious: a vivid symbol of life, (recall Leviticus, “the blood is the life”) and it assumed a strongly sacramental quality in this service.

The Gethsemane Pericope

Mark’s reporting of the Eucharist with water as a potent eucharistic and not just baptismal sacramental symbol, turned my attention to Luke’s account of Jesus’ praying on the Mount of Olives, Gethsemane (Lk. 22. 43-44).
Verses 43-44 are in parentheses in most contemporary editions of the Greek New Testament. That is because the MS evidence provides a relatively strong probability (but not a certainty) that the verses are a later, though very early insertion. More recent textual critics have tended to give more weight to some of the MSS that have these verses and note that the passage is quoted by Justin Martyr, c.150 C.E.
[If anyone is interested in the complexities of contemporary textual criticism, I should be happy to produce a short essay on the subject: leave on note in the Comments.]

First Generation Christians & the Death of Jesus

In what follows, I assume that what we have in these verses is an early comment, a kind of Targum, by a first-generation reader of Luke. (If the reading should be original, even better, we have Luke’s own views). This marginal note to a first edition of Luke suggests for us what the earliest readers understood Luke to be saying about the death of Jesus: the basis for its saving efficacy, which was for them a ‘given’; the way in which his followers should participate in it; and its underpinning of both Baptism and Eucharist.

I have always thought that the Gethsemane story in Mark, followed by both Matthew and Luke, stands as a connecting link between the Last Supper and the execution of Jesus. Jesus and his disciples join in the Passover Hallel, says Mark, and go at once to this quiet place of prayer.


What follows gives in graphic, dramatic narrative form, what is one of the central theological interpretations of the meaning of Jesus’ death to be found in the New Testament. The centrality of Jesus’ obedience stands out definitively in Romans 5.19 – “[J]ust as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous”. But it is also found in Hebrews 5.8, a verse which follows what may well be an allusion to the Gethsemane story.
It is not easy to produce ‘proof texts’, but the whole tenor of Mark’s account stresses the obedience of Jesus to the will of the father: the temptation narrative, and the compulsion to preach the evangel; and the fourth Gospel emphasizes the theme: “I came not to do my own will, but the will of my Father who sent me”.

Metaphors for “Saved by the Cross”

The New Testament uses many metaphors to elucidate what was, to those first followers of Jesus an empirical fact, the reality that underpinned their sense of freedom and of living a new life: the reality was an absolute conviction of “salvation” , connected in Greek with the verb ‘to heal’ (sõzõ), ‘to make whole’. The conviction of this new ‘wholeness’ was somehow inextricably linked to the life, work and death of Jesus, and the multiple metaphors used in the New Testament were attempts to put an ineffable experience into inadequate words: an attempt to get at the meaning of Jesus’ death in itself and for the life of his followers.
Many are found on the writings of Paul:

• a law court where, against all expectations the Judge says, “Not guilty” [justification ] ;

• a meeting of high-level diplomats working out a treaty [reconciliation];

• the fight of a righteous man against evil forces experienced as demonic [Christus Victor],

• and, of course, the sacrificial metaphor [atonement].

In all these instances, we find parallels in the Synoptic gospels and other N.T. Letters.
Luke has a parable about sending an ambassador to make peace, Lk. 14.31ff., Mark reports Jesus’ words about binding the ‘strong man’ (i.e. the powers of evil) 3.27, and the whole sequence of healings in Mark, often followed by Matthew and Luke, centers on the Christus Victor theme. The sacrificial theme, too, is prominent in these gospels. Mark 10.45 with the words “ransom for many” (λυτρον αντι πολλων) is interesting because it combines the sacrificial metaphor with yet another one – the manumission of a slave, which has strong overtones of the Exodus theme.
Yet, in this great welter of attempts to get to the essence of the divine salvation, the central act of Jesus’ obedience stands out as preeminent.

Gethsemane Narrative & an Early Comment

And so I return to the very early addition to Luke’s account of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Several things are presented in this picture of Jesus:

• The undoubted humanity of Jesus: the Johannine Christ is not remotely present in this picture. The cost of obedience is immense. This is not part of a drama whose victorious outcome is known to Jesus, a view that hovers around later Christology; it is a terrible struggle with powers that keep human beings from God, both within their very being and in the world where they find themselves.

The commentator (or Luke) uses this occasion to stress the central importance of a sacramental theology.

• Water is primary: The biblical record is, one might say, flooded with it. The Spirit broods over it at creation; Yahweh leads the People through it to freedom, into a land that is watered from “the heavens” and not by “the foot” (irrigation) Deut 11.10f. Jesus’ ministry begins with it and the New Testament ends with it: “The angel showed me the river of life…flowing from the throne of God”. (Rev. 22.1)

• From the time the Hebrews made the Passover the linch pin of their faith and the center of their Liturgical life, water has been inextricably linked with blood. Both words supply powerful and paradoxical metaphors: water gives life and takes it; blood flows from death, but is also a sign of life (Lev. 7.14).

• It is not surprising, therefore, that water and blood come together in the New Testament where a further layer of metaphor is added. The Old Testament figure of the cup of wine is also a two-facing symbol. It is a sign of blessing “that makes the [human] heart happy”, (Ps. 104.15), but it is also the wrath of God.

A Pivotal Point

Luke’s version of the Gethsemane pericope, (with its comment, if it is not all from Luke’s pen) brings together all these elements, and makes this a pivotal point for understanding the life and death of Jesus and their relevance for the on-going life of his followers.

Connecting the Last Supper and the Cross, it places the obedience of Jesus at the center of his life and of his relationship to God.
In the sweat – (the water of life) – that is as blood – (the wine of blessing and of judgment) - it connects the process of God’s salvation, effected through the obedience of a faithful Servant, to the sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist. And it is in this sacramental mode that Christians come to learn about and share in that obedience. So Paul writes that those whom God calls are “to be conformed to the image of (his) the Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family” (Rom. 8.29).


So in these particular circumstances, is water for the cup of blessing an invalid sacrament? What I suggest in this essay is that this is not an “open” question. That precise language, Latin, has two ways of dealing with “loaded” (as opposed to “open”) questions; if the implied answer is “yes”, one begins the sentence with nonne…?.

If “no”, the sentence begins with num…?
I’m strongly in favour of num.

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