Sunday, January 29, 2006

A bread and water diet

Okay, you're juggling several balls at once here:

1.I agree with you that there's a hermeneutical parallel between Jn 3 & 6. However, the argument from analogy cuts both ways. You are using a sacramental reading of Jn 6 to leverage a sacramental reading of Jn 3. But the logic is reversible.

2. You also say that in Jn 6, Jesus is foreshadowing his death and communion. But death and communion are not interchangeable. Is he foreshadowing his death? Obviously. Does it follow that he is also foreshadowing the Eucharist? No, it doesn't.

3. There are a couple of reasons why we think of communion when we read Jn 6.

i) Our historical vantagepoint is different from the original audience. We are conditioned by our liturgical tradition, which appropriates the language and imagery of Jn 6.

ii) Communion and the Bread of Life discourse share a common referent. They don't refer to each other; rather, they both refer to the crucifixion. But by that same token, if Jn 6 reminds us of the crucifixion, and communion reminds us of the crucifixion, then by a secondary association, Jn 6 reminds us of communion, and vice versa.

If A refers to B, and C refers to B, then A reminds us of C and vice versa, even though A does not refer to C, or vice versa.

iii) Put another way, Jn 6 affords a prospective view of the crucifixion, while communion affords a retrospective view of the crucifixion.

4. There is, in principle, nothing wrong with an earlier event foreshadowing a later event. But we need to distinguish between the audience for the Gospel of John, and the audience to whom Jesus is speaking: between the historical audience and the narrative audience. The speech was given before the institution baptism while the Gospel was written after the institution of baptism.

Nevertheless, we also need to avoid interpretations which dehistoricizes the original setting. If we believe that these are authentic speeches given at a particular time and place to an actual audience, then we cannot graft on to them a meaning which falls outside their historical horizon--as if it were an ex post facto literary device to illustrate a preexisting practice: a just-so story, made up after the fact to give the sacrament an etiological pedigree. That's unacceptable. The setting and the speech retreat into unreality.

5. What is the background for Jn 3? There are several options to choose from:

a) John's baptism

b) Proselyte baptism

c) Ritual OT lustrations

d) The water-from-the-rock motif

e) The river of life motif (Ezk 47; Rev 22)

f)Ezk 36-37

More than one literary allusion is possible.

But we need to put ourselves in Nicodemus' sandals and ask, what is Jesus telling Nicodemus? Is he telling Nicodemus that he must submit to Christian baptism to be saved?

6. The same question applies to Jn 6. Is Jesus telling these Jews that they must submit to the Lord's Supper to be saved? You have only to ask the question to see how out of place that answer would be.

Is the point Jesus is trying to drive home with the Jews that they must come to him by coming to the communion table? For that matter, is John trying to say you must come to him by coming to the communion table. Is Jn 6 an allegory for the Mass? Many readers treat it that way, but let's flesh out the image to see how artificial it really is.

When we read Jn 6, are we really supposed to form the mental image of a church service with men and women lining up at the communion rail? See how that superimposes on the text a conjuration of imagery which has no footing in the text or context? Instead of visualizing an open air discourse by the lake, we're suddenly transported to a Gothic cathedral, where coming to the priest is equivalent to coming to Christ, where eating a wafer is equivalent to believing in Christ. What we've subconsciously done is to swap out the original package for an utterly different package.

In a sense, the fatal flaw of the sacramental reading is that it doesn't go far enough. It trades on the free association of some common symbols and atmospheric, but if it were to press the comparison in detail, we would see, by seeing it so vividly, how vividly extrinsic it is to text and context alike.

John has his own package, his own set of associations, based on OT adumbrations as well as his narrative arc.

7. Even if you favor the sacramental reading, that doesn't get you to the real presence. For Jn 6 is not a narrative of a church service. On a sacramental reading, it would be more of an allegory.

But that still leaves it an open question how we match up the allegorical elements with the communion elements.

In communion, we have a relation between two paired elements: bread is to body as wine is to blood.

In Jn 6, you don't have this systematic pairing; what you have, instead, is bread and blood, or bread and flesh. So the symmetry breaks down.

On an allegorical reading, bread should be the figurative element, and the body of Christ the literal referent. And you should also have the inclusion of wine to fill in the parallel.

But, instead, these levels are not distinguished or coordinated.

8. Apropos 7, even if Jn 6 were referring to communion, that only pushes the question back a step, for this, of itself, doesn't answer the question of what the Eucharist is.

For example, the Jewish audience is not merely a thing of the past. There is still a Jewish audience out there. There are Messianic Jews who read the Gospels. But when they read Lk 22 or Jn 6, it's not as if consubstantiation or transubstantiation or ubiquitarianism jumps off the page. That is not their frame of reference.

They come at this from their own liturgical tradition and their own textual framework. They come at this from the Tanakh and the Talmud, the Passover and the Seder. Some of them must be shaking their heads as they overhear these intramural disputes over the metaphysics of the real presence.

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