April 21, 2005

The saga of the Jesus cookie continues

A few days ago I recounted how online Catholics were all in a tizzy over someone auctioning an allegedly consecrated wafer on eBay. It turns out in the end that the man who won the auction intended to surrender the host to a priest, who would then dispose of it in the approved manner; as it happens, the seller was persuaded to surrender it to his local diocese at no cost.

Predictably, this whole tempest in a teapot has raised the controversy of the nature of the eucharist. The crisis came about because Roman Catholics believe that when the priest speaks the magic words over the wafer, it literally becomes the body and blood of Christ, though it does not give up the physical attributes of bread. Hence for someone to acquire a consecrated host and attempt to auction it off is, literally, to hold Jesus for ransom.

"What part of 'this is my body' don't you understand?" many Catholics will ask. "None at all," I answer, "provided it is understood properly." X is Y is standard metphorical language, and "this is my body" is a metaphor. Obviously Jesus was not saying that the bread he broke was literally his flesh, which remained on his bones, or that the wine was literally his blood, which remained in his veins. Jesus also identified himself not only as bread, but as a door (John 10:9), and elsewhere as a grapevine (John 15:1). Why should we understand these as metaphors, but not the other? If we took all metaphors literally, our understanding of Jesus would be very unusual, to say the least. He also said once that he wanted to gather the children of Israel together like a hen gathers her chicks (Matt. 23:37). Do we conclude from this that Jesus was a chicken?

Ironically, it was the medieval Roman church that developed a fourfold method of interpreting Scripture: the literal sense (what the text says), allegorical (what it says about Christ), tropological (what it says about the moral life), and anagogical (what it says about the end of the world or the afterlife). The literal sense was thought to be inferior to the other senses, particularly the allegorical. That's why it's amusing to see so many Roman faithful adhering to such a crude, literal interpretation of Jesus' words in Luke 22:19.