A Eucharist Journey: Day 3 of 8

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Symbol

-Joshua M. Casey

Legendary American author and lifelong Catholic Flannery O’Connor was out to dinner once with what she called “Big Intellectuals.” Five hours into the gathering she had not spoken once, but when the conversation turned to the Eucharist, one of the guests implied that it was, after all, a very good symbol. At this, Ms. O’Connor, finally spoke: “In a very shaky voice,” saying, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” She continues, “That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest of life is expendable.”[1]

A symbol is a tangible representation of an intangible idea, and we are constantly surrounded by symbols, so much so we take their existence for granted. Flags are tangible objects representing a tangible land full of tangible people–yet held together in an intangible bond called a “nation” and represented by a colored piece of fabric. They’re the white hat so you know which is the good cowboy, the red lightsaber denoting the bad Jedi. Edgar Allan Poe’s Raven incessantly crying “nevermore,” an experience of the constant, raven-black reminder of his loss, or the uncreated future of Gatsby’s elusive green light.

Simply put, symbols, as we know them, presume on the inexpressibility of their object, for who can physically embrace “the good,” “loss,” or the rest? Similarly, when we hear Eucharist referred to as symbol, often what is expressed is a belief that these objects, the bread and cup, are not in fact the Body and Blood of Christ, but merely there to make us think about Him and His death in some abstract way. They aren’t Christ’s Life, but a call to think about it. Yet as Ms. O'Connor implied, if Communion is merely an illustration or think-piece, surely we can do better. So, what if?

What if the bread and cup are more than a symbol, but a Symbol? The Greek symballo means to literally throw two distinct realities together and hold them fast. What if, instead of representing Christ’s Body and Blood, they actually (as He Himself said) were His Body and Blood, uniting and holding together the Man and God within. And what if Eucharist is our participation in that Incarnation, that mix of Humanity and Divinity? What if, through faith, imagination, and desire (i.e. hunger), it fueled the Christ Life within us, taking ordinary bread and juice–ordinary food, drink, and hunger–and turned them into the Eternal Life of the Kingdom, a participation in Christ and His mission of re-Creation?

[1] O'Connor, Flannery. Habit of Being. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1999. Print.


About The Author

Joshua M. Casey worked as a campus pastor for eight years and is passionate about connecting the church of today to the practices of our past. He lives in Bloomington, IN with his family and writes regularly at joshuamcasey.wordpress.com and can be found on Twitter @thejmcasey and Facebook.com/jmcasey7.