Why the Eucharist Does Not Make the Church Part 1: Henri de Lubac
Does the Eucharist make the Church? Henri de Lubac, the great 20th century Catholic theologian who helped to stir interest in Eucharistic ecclesiology across Protestant, Catholic, and Orthodox theology, proposed that it does. In Catholicism, de Lubac sought to give an account of the Church that relied on the Eucharist as a pattern of its life and being, exhibiting its “eminently social character.” Because the Eucharist is where the Church is found to be in communion – its eschatological reality - this pattern was instrumental in fighting off the individualism that had encroached the church so strongly in modern times. No less did John Zizioulas prefer to think of the Church as that which is its fullest self in the Eucharist. By focusing, as the Church Fathers did, on what the Eucharist does to the community, these and other high-sacramental theologians have circumvented the polemics over issues of real presence and sacrifice in favor of seeing the Eucharist as a celebration of communion. However, it is clear that in this turn to its ecclesiological benefits, Christology has languished.
The purpose of this essay is to analyze the ways in which de Lubac and Zizioulas describe the relationship between the Eucharist and the Church. I limit myself to two main texts for their thought: Catholicism by de Lubac and Being as Communion by Zizioulas. In this paper I attempt to give a Reformed response by paying particular attention to cases where the ontological continuity of Christ and the church threatens Christ’s own subjectivity and agency. On the other hand, it is my intention to avoid making Christ a completely supernatural and extrinsic entity to the church. A proper relationship between Christ and the Church will allow the Eucharist to both attest to Christ’s true presence in and with the Church and his lordship over it.
Henri de Lubac
According to de Lubac, “The Church . . . completes – so far as it can be completed here below – the work of spiritual reunion which was made necessary by sin; that work that was begun at the Incarnation and was carried on up to Calvary (17).” Again, he says: “Humanity is one, organically one by is divine structure; it is the Church’s mission to reveal to men that pristine unity that they have lost, to restore and complete it (19)” This mission of gathering humanity into its unity was given to the Church, enabled by the Holy Spirit and its gifts. The gift to the Church to deepen its own union was the Eucharist.
The Church has its active and passive aspects, baptizing and yet also being baptized, blessing even as it is blessed. It is both the one who reunites and constitutes those who have been reunited. It is a means to the end, and yet it is also “the end, that is to say, that union in its consummation (27).” There is a “mystical analogy” for de Lubac between the Church on earth and the church in heaven, “which we should perceive the reflexion of a profound identity (27).” For de Lubac, the union between the temporal and eternal, the visible and invisible, is a mystery that we should not seek to penetrate. He goes at great lengths to clarify that there is no confusion between them, so that the visible is neither deified nor adored. While seeing the Church requires faith, it is not the same faith which God requires to be known. While the Church has a hierarchy and a discipline at its disposal, this is only a partial cure to the rampant individualism and separatism since it works “only from without by way of authority, instead of effective union (27).” In a passage that blurs the distinction between Christ and the church, de Lubac writes:
If Christ is the sacrament of God, the Church is for us the sacrament of Christ; she represents him, in the full and ancient meaning of the term, she really makes him present. She not only carries on his work, but she is his very continuation, in a sense far more real than in which it can be said that any human institution is its founder’s continuation (27).
Thus, only by partaking of the bread and wine in a proper manner does the individual receive Christ and is received by the Church. To reject this reception into the Church is a rejection of the sacrament itself and Christ. How should we understand the relationship between the individual and the Church? For de Lubac, the individual is a “Church in miniature, (168)” and they are brought into a unity that mirrors that of the Trinity:
Between its different persons, whatever the variety of their gifts, the inequality of their ‘merits’, there obtains no scale of the degrees of being, but in the likeness of the Trinity itself – and, by the mediation of Christ in whom all are enfolded, within the Trinity itself – a unity of circumincession (183).
According to de Lubac, “since the sacraments are the means of salvation they should be understood as instruments of unity (35).” Here we come to the essence of Eucharistic ecclesiology. Because the sacraments deepen our unity with Christ, they necessarily deepen the unity of the church. The horizontal deepening of unity is intimately bound up with the vertical deepening of unity. “Indeed, in certain cases it must be said that it is through this union with the community that the Christian is united to Christ (35).” This contraction of church and sacrament occurs such that one is not effective without the other. Instead of seeing the sacraments as a supernatural rite that transmits grace, there is no point at which the church ceases to be the cause and effect of such transmission. The sacraments are given power by the church, even as the church is also nourished by the sacraments.
The primary significance of the Eucharist lies not in real presence or sacrifice, but in its unifying effect. Thus, it is impossible to speak of a true Eucharist if there is no unity in the Church. Furthermore, this unity is forged through suffering with the Church, since the Eucharist memorializes Christ’s Passion. Thus, the sacrificial significance of the Eucharist points toward unity since the Church is offered again and again “for a greater, more united Church.”
The unity achieved through the Eucharist is not simply for the Church’s spiritual enjoyment: “True Eucharistic piety, therefore, is no devout individualism . . . With one sweeping, all-embracing gesture, in one fervent intention it gathers together the whole world (49).” There is, thus, an assumed unity within humanity to be found in the fact that God made humanity in his own image. This image does not stem from below in the humanity of Adam. Instead, “it is one and the same image stamped from above identically upon each which makes all one; in other words, the principle of unity lies above, it is not to be identified with nay of the particular images here below (16).”
Whereas sin has introduced not only a metaphysical individuality but also a moral egoism into humanity (187), Christ is the redemption of our image by dwelling in us, both uniting and differentiating us at once:
But what is impossible to mere man becomes possible to man made divine, and what natural understanding rejected as fanciful becomes the sacred object of our hope. Christ, by completing humanity in himself, at the same time made us all complete – but in God. Thus we can say, in the end . . . that we are fully person only within the Person of the Son, by whom and with whom we share in the circumincession of the Trinity (187-88).
Earlier we saw a blurring of the distinction between Christ and the church, but now we see a clear distinction with asymmetry, so that Christ is spoken of as the primary subject. “Christ completes humanity,” and de Lubac provides a quote from Clement of Alexandria with supposed affirmation, saying:
This eternal Jesus, the one high priest, intercedes for men and calls on them: “Hearken,” he cries, “all you peoples . . . I summon the whole human race, I who am its author by the will of the Father! Come unto me and gather together as one well-ordered unity under the one God, and under the one Logos of God (6, quoting Protreptic, c.12)
Clement thus believed Christ proclaimed himself as one who constituted the unity of the world. De Lubac, however, does not dwell on how proclamation is related to the Eucharist.
Ultimately, it was the concern of individualism that drove de Lubac to recover a Eucharistic ecclesiology. “God does not love us as so many separate beings (182).” The grace mediated by the Eucharist was to be found only in the fellowship of the Church. However, as we shall see, an Orthodox theologian named John Zizioulas would not find this to be enough – he would not only de-individualize society but Christ himself, so that there is no external relation between them. Rather, the Church, as an eschatological reality, truly constitutes Christ here and now in the celebration of Eucharist.
The most significant short-comings of de Lubac relate to his lack of qualification regarding the relationship between Christ and the church. While there is certainly unity, there rarely ever seems to be a distinction. However, he maintains a healthy understanding of indwelling, at least with respect to our natural unity and our supernatural unity in Christ: “True union does not tend to dissolve into one another the beings that it brings together, but to bring them to completion by means of one another. . . . Union differentiates (180).”