Stephen Black
Slideshow image

1Cor. 11:23b-24  … the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”

“This is my body” – people have died and killed over this seemingly innocuous statement. Enough ink has been spilled on this issue to drown an army. What did Jesus mean? Or perhaps better, what did Paul think Jesus meant?

Before I get to Paul, I think it bears saying that rites such as the Eucharist are not fully determined by their origin. This rite is rooted in the New Testament, yet rites like this take on a life of their own and grow beyond what they originally were. What the Eucharist means today is the result of thousands of years of reflection and practice, including that of the New Testament, but also moving beyond it.

So, what does Paul think “This is my body” means? To answer this, I want to turn aside for a moment to consider a little basic grammar. Bear with me… “This” is a demonstrative pronoun. It refers to what is called an antecedent, which is something that has previously been referred to. In English the antecedent of “this” in “this is my body” is presumably the bread, which Jesus has taken in his hands, and broken. However, in Greek things are more complicated.

In Greek, unlike English (but like French), every noun has a gender – either masculine, feminine, or neuter. Furthermore, in Greek the gender of an antecedent of a demonstrative pronoun – that which the demonstrative pronoun refers to – always matches the gender of the demonstrative pronoun. “This” in English has no gender, so this is a little difficult to understand for those who only know English.

If “this” refers to the bread, as it seems to in English, the gender of “this” will be the same as the gender of “bread.” And the thing is, it isn’t! “Bread” in Greek (artos) is masculine and “this” (touto) is neuter. This means that, surprisingly, for Paul the bread is not the body of Jesus. (The same thing is true in all the other places in the New Testament where “this is my body” occurs – see Matthew 26:26, Mark 14:22, and Luke 22:19).

This only pertains to Greek, which means this question may not go back to Jesus, who likely spoke Aramaic. Aramaic does not have the grammatical neuter – only masculine and feminine. So, figuring out what is going on with Paul, and the other New Testament writers who wrote in Greek, may or may not help us get any closer to what Jesus might have meant.

So, what does “this” refer to in the statement “this is my body” if it does not refer to the bread. The problem is that there are no other antecedents at hand. None of the nouns in 1 Cor 11:23-24 are neuter. If the grammatical neuter “this” does not refer to anything, then what is it doing there? The key, as I see it, is exactly that it does not refer to any-thing. It refers not to a thing but an action. “This” is not the bread as a thing – rather it is the breaking of the bread as an act.

I suggest that what is going on here is metaphorical. If this was a simile it would read “this is like my body” – which is to say, my body is broken just like this bread is broken. As a metaphor, the sentence simply removes the word “like.” A simile might have been a clearer but would have lacked the poetic punch. So, the saying has the form of a metaphor, which instead of saying “this is like that” say “this is that.” So, Jesus says, “this is my body” as he tears it apart. Imagine the theatrics – Jesus rips the bread apart while he says, “this is my body!” My body is going to be ripped apart like this![1]

In context, what Paul is describing is very similar to what is known as a prophetic sign act. These were things that prophets did what when understood correctly conveyed the word of God to the people without necessarily using words (for examples see Isaiah 20, Ezekiel 4, or Hosea 1). Jesus, then says that the broken bread is his body, and then invites those at the table to eat – that is participate in his brokenness.

So, understood this way, the bread is not so much an invitation to merely participate in the risen Christ, but more specifically to participate in the brokenness of Jesus. Life involves suffering. This is something that adherents of many world religions might agree on, although they might respond differently. How do we react to suffering in ourselves and in others? One typical response is the understandable desire to avert our gaze and look elsewhere. In the pursuit of happiness, suffering is seen as an obstacle to overcome, or perhaps better, ignore.

The broken bread invites us towards a counter-intuitive movement that embraces suffering, not in the pathological manner of the one who seeks out self-harm and victimization, but as one who sees what is always already present. Rather than divert our gaze away from our own and others suffering, the broken bread suggests that we turn our attention towards our mutual sorrow and pain.

Paul continues, “Do this in remembrance of me.” “This” here refers to the act of breaking bread, just like the earlier “this” of the “this is my body” did. This act of breaking bread is to be an act of “remembrance.” If what I have argued is correct, what is to be remembered is not the simple fact of Jesus, but the breaking of Jesus’ body at the crucifixion. The type of remembrance involved is not the mere recall of facts. It is to participate in the thing being brought to mind.

The rite Paul describes is not a solitary one that is practiced in the solitude of one’s own home – it is a collective/communal remembering. It is not merely me or you that remembers, but us – we do it together. The broken bread is the body of Christ, and this rite make us the body of Christ. Paul writes “Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). While Jesus always remains other than us, there is a certain blurring of the line between us and him. The broken bread, his broken body, our broken lives – just as the bread is absorbed in our system and becomes part of us, so too do we get absorbed into Christ and become part of him, and each other – because we all partake in the one bread. Brokenness becomes an occasion for community and connection.

_____________________________________________________________________

[1] Ulrich Luz, Matthew 21-28: A Commentary, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005) 378.