In 1 Corinthians 11, Paul scolds the church at Corinth for their divisiveness and for eating and drinking the Lord’s Supper “without discerning the body” (29). There seems to have been more than one problem with how the church was handling the sacred mystery of the Eucharistic meal, thus eliciting from St. Paul a severe castigation. For that which is “received from the Lord” (23) and handed down to the churches through the apostolic ministry must be discerned rightly. To approach holy things flippantly is to eat and drink judgment upon oneself.
Unfortunately, there has always been communicants who approach the altar in an undiscerning manner. One way this manifests is in the belief that showing up for Mass and receiving the consecrated bread and wine means that one has served his duty and can get on with things. The line of thinking goes something like this: I show up (my payment to God) and take Communion (God’s “product” in return for my payment), and everyone is happy. Or – I come to the table having behaved well all week (my payment to God) and God rewards me with the consecrated elements (God’s reward to me for my payment of good works). God and I can get on with things without too much interaction, or interfering in one another’s affairs.
Through the ages of Christendom, popular piety often took Christians off the beaten path of good sacramental theology. In the medieval period, for instance, the lack of opportunity for the laity to participate in the Eucharist resulted in superstitious beliefs about the consecrated elements or the “magical” power of the priest. But today, perhaps one of the most unfortunate issues in the church is that the body and blood of the Lord have come to be known as a product in a market exchange. In this model, that which is exchanged has a particular value, e.g. my presence at the liturgy, the Eucharistic bread and wine, my hard-earned merit, etc.
Theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet contrasts this idea of market exchange with symbolic exchange. Symbolic exchange does not assign a particular value to that which is exchanged, because in a symbolic exchange, what is given is given in an economy of gratuitousness. For instance, when my wonderful mother hands me a wrapped Christmas present, I open it and thank her for my new dress socks, and probably give her a hug. I don’t look at the socks analytically, open my wallet, and hand her a 10 dollar bill. Mom and I have an understanding that Christmas morning operates as an economy of gratuity, not market exchange. My new socks do not have a particular value that I can repay; rather, they are a symbol of my mother’s love for me. I do not owe her a payment of particular value. I am only obligated to receive them and to express gratitude for what has been freely given to me. Chauvet notes that “[t]he important thing is less what one gives or receives than the very fact of exchanging and thus, through the objects exchanged, to be recognized as a subject, as a full member of the group” (119). I don’t give mom cash for my socks and she doesn’t expect a payment because we recognize ourselves as members of a group (namely, my family on Christmas morning) in which exchanges are made as symbolic acts of love, not purchases.
And this is how we can think of the Sacraments — as a symbolic exchange. We come to the Lord’s Table, not “trusting in our own righteousness,” but trusting in the Lord’s “manifold and great mercies.” Neither do we come to Mass bringing a required “payment” of our attendance. Rather, we come joyfully, understanding ourselves to be subjects, “full members of the group” — the body of Christ, his beloved children who swim in the ocean of his grace and, in return, lift our hearts to him in worship. By receiving the bread and wine, we receive the body and blood of the Lord who gives himself to us. We are united to him, and what we owe him is freely returned love, gratitude, and a life that imitates our Lord’s (1 Jn. 2:6). Chauvet points out that “the reception of God’s grace as grace, and not as anything else, requires…the return-gift of faith, love, conversion of heart, witness by one’s life” (124). What makes an exchange of this nature possible? The involvement of subjects (God and us) who have freely given themselves to each other in an agreement, a mutual understanding, a covenant.
In an economy like this — one of pure gratuitousness — grace cannot be bought, manipulated, or packaged. The altar does not symbolize a tax collector’s table, but a life-giving cross upon which God’s sacrifice of himself is graciously given to us in a profound act of love. What is exchanged is gift and cannot be assigned a price tag. All is given freely by a generous God — a God who works through symbolic exchanges to remind us that his temple is not a money market.
By: Cameron MacMillan ’16
Chauvet, Louis-Marie. The Sacraments: The Word of God at the Mercy of the Body. Collegeville, MN: Pueblo Books, 2001.