The Eucharist

Origins and Contemporary Understandings

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Thomas O'Loughlin
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury T&T Clark
    , March
     2015.
     248 pages.
     $34.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780567384591.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The reader of Thomas O’Loughlin’s The Eucharist: Origins and Contemporary Understandings will likely come away surprised by the content and argument, and will certainly come away with an enriched understanding of the Eucharist. Members of confessional communities of faith of every stripe will be intrigued—and sometimes angered—by the author’s evaluation of eucharistic theologies leading up to and following the sixteenth century; this is by design, as O’Loughlin strikes out to claim a sparsely populated plot of theological land for his historical-theological endeavor. As he puts it, “I am distancing myself from the notion that there was any ‘original’ (and thereby privileged) doctrine of the Eucharist that could form an a priori in discussion today” (2). Such an ambitious contention—and make no mistake, O’Loughlin’s argument is ambitious—is sure to induce scowls from every side at some point or another, but the end result is just as compelling as it is convicting. Perhaps the greatest achievement of O’Loughlin’s sweeping argument lies not in the assurance that he will change your mind about the who, what, and why of the Eucharist, but that he will enhance your appreciation of what it means to be a human being in community.

The human element of the Eucharist is the starting point for O’Loughlin. The first chapter teases different moments in the eucharistic rite that expose its inherent “humanness.” Humans are creatures that operate in the realm of symbol and ritual, and the Eucharist as the Christian ritual par excellence tells the believing community something about itself, it “facilitates, indeed creates, interactions at the personal, group and societal levels” (12). Closely connected to the concept of ritual is that of communal memory. Memory is an interpretive phenomenon; it is a way of explaining and experiencing the world. As social beings, humans contribute to and take part in corporate memories such that communities are built, sustained, and driven forward on the basis of shared memories. O’Loughlin sees memory as the fabric of liturgy, not liturgy as a static homage to an idealized past, but a fresh encounter with the ever-living God. In participating in liturgy, the memory-formed community seeks to “make progress on a way towards [God]” (20).

O’Loughlin presents a historical case for re-orienting the focus of eucharistic activity around thanksgiving to the Father. The (near) exclusive Christocentrism and crucicentrism of historical and modern eucharistic practice has divorced the Eucharist from all other Christian prayer. Such Christocentrism shifted the Eucharist from a communal, shared thanksgiving to a highly privatized moment between the parishioner and the table/altar. In refocusing the Eucharist upon the shared meal, the church can identify and commune with the giver of all good things, the Father, through the radical intimacy afforded by the risen and present High Priest, Jesus Christ.

The deep soil of O’Loughlin’s presentation lies in his theo-anthropological approach. He begins to reflect on what it means for human beings to be meal-sharing creatures. Nourishment is the necessity of all humans, but when it comes to food consumption humans are rarely aiming at mere physical nourishment. To be human means to partake of meals together, through cultivation and preparation—cooking, as O’Loughlin memorably argues, is an exclusively human activity in the animal kingdom. If the Eucharist is located on the plane of the shared meal, a reality that has been “atrophied” and pushed to the margins in most churches, then it must say something about who we are. “The Christian activity of the Eucharist uses not only the coding of our basic human ritual, the meal, but is an activity belonging within the basic activities relating to food, cooking and meals that constitutes us as humans and as a society” (66). To thank the Father from within the inescapable realm of the ordinary is to honor our creatureliness and, importantly, to value the incarnation, as we value the food and drink of the Eucharist, as more than a tangential token of a distant, spiritual reality.

O’Loughlin seeks to construct a perspective of the Eucharistic, based on the early patterns of eucharistic meals, that accounts for the inherent humanity of eating together, the presence of God among those who participate in the meal, and the different layers of meaning afforded by taking the community meal of the body of Jesus seriously. A thesis of sorts is presented: O’Loughlin argues that personal prayer, reflection on the Scriptures, providing for the poor, and other such acts in normal, everyday life constitute religious action belonging to the radical new world ushered in by Jesus Christ. “Could it be that eating and drinking together by Christians, sharing food with one another or preparing food for one another is just as much a religious, cultic, and Christian activity as those just mentioned? Could having a common meal not simply be liturgy in the sense of “public service,” but in the specific Christian sense of liturgy as “common worship of God?” (103) In order for the Eucharist to be achieved as a meal set apart from other meals—something special to the community—O’Loughlin invokes again the important concept of corporate memory. The interwoven stories of Israel, the parables of Jesus, the sacrificial meals of the people, the meal narratives of the Gospels—including the Upper Room, and the acknowledgement of the presence of the risen Lord all came together in a moment of profound remembrance and enactment to create the early forms of Eucharist. O’Loughlin summarizes “the community was never more conscious of itself than at this gathering, and the whole gathering was a celebration of the whole of their identity. The meal was the Christian universe in miniature” (144).

Reading this book, one might simmer, at points, an inclination to indict the author for divesting the Eucharist of any sacred mystery and demote it to the level of a profane meal. However, while O’Loughlin argues that the mystery of the Eucharist is not in the ontological status of the elements, nor in a divine presence in the elements themselves, he upholds the genuine mystery of the Eucharist: it is located in the gathering together of people from different nations, genders, and social strata under the one loaf and one cup to become one body. O’Loughlin presents little in terms of ways forward for the various Eucharistic traditions but, at many points in the book, he offers correctives in the overarching thought-world of the Eucharist that would be beneficial for all faith communities. The argument is indeed ambitious, but the hope of O’Loughlin is humble: “I shall be happy with the result of my labor if you, gentle reader, when you next sit down to eat a snack or have a cup of coffee with a friend … are struck by the human significance of what you are doing, how this activity is so closely entwined in our anamnesis of the activities of Jesus, and that for that food, drink, and company one should be thankful” (200). It is a worthwhile goal for O’Loughlin, and easily accomplished through his careful research and thoughtful reflection.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jacob R. Randolph is a Ph.D. student in the department of religion at Baylor University.

Date of Review: 
June 21, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas O'Loughlin is professor of historical theology in the University of Nottingham, UK. His research has focused on the theology of the early medieval period, and on the works of insular writers in particular.

Keywords: 

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