Recapitulation and the Lord’s Supper

Over at Read the Fathers, we encountered Irenaeus’ idea of recapitulation, or anakephalaiosis, for the first time yesterday. I blogged Unger’s discussion of the word from the notes to his translation as part of our journey through the Fathers. Recapitulation is a powerful, potent, idea in Irenaeus. It is the idea that all things are brought together under the head of Christ, united to Him, and transformed by him through his Incarnation. In particular, Jesus is the second Adam, and he fulfils all the promise that Adam held but at which the first man failed.

All things come together in Christ, human and animal, visible and invisible. The Incarnation is cosmic in scale, and by it we are able to become like God. In the Preface to Book 5, Irenaeus writes that God has

become what we are, that He might bring us to be even what He is Himself.

I first encountered the concept of recapitulation in Robert E. Webber’s book Ancient-Future Faith back when I first started getting into ancient Christianity, where he gives a good, succinct covering of the concept on pages 58-61. However, if memory serves me correctly, Webber also uses this term in reference to the Lord’s Supper in his book Worship Old and New.

As I recall, Webber’s idea in that book is that in the Eucharist, we recapitulate the death and resurrection of Jesus. In fact, I would say that we recapitulate the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus (and maybe Webber does, too?). The question that passed through my mind on the commute home yesterday was:

Is this a legimate use of Irenaeus’ concept?

The question is valid. St Irenaeus teaches that God the Word has been present in all of history, and His incarnation was part of God the Father’s plan for creation from the beginning. Thus, when God the Word, who is both fully a person and the ordering rationality of the universe, becomes human, this … ruptures (if you will) the cosmos, and all things are drawn to Him, and ordered under Him.

Can the same be said to take place on the Communion table? Or is Communion only recapitulation in a loosely analogous sense, or in a different sense entirely?

After all, what God the Word did in taking on flesh, dying, and rising again is utterly unrepeatable. As an Anglican, I embrace the words of the Book of Common Prayer:

Blessing and glory and thanksgiving be unto thee Almighty God, our heavenly Father, who of thy tender mercy didst give thine only Son Jesus Christ to take our nature upon him, and to suffer death upon the Cross for our redemption; who made there, by his one oblation of himself once offered, a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world; and did institute, and in his holy Gospel command us to continue, a perpetual memorial of that his precious death, until his coming again. (Canadian BCP 1962, p. 82)

The key words:

a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world

At first blush, then, the BCP would tell me that whatever happens at the Communion table is ‘a … memorial of that his precious death’. But the BCP also teaches me that the bread and wine truly are body and blood, that Jesus Christ is present in the sacrament, that my sinful body may be made clean by his body, and my soul washed through his most precious blood.

Indeed, as the priest gives me the host, he even says, ‘The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for thee, preserve thy body and soul unto everlasting life …’ Likewise the cup.

This is, in second-century terms, the medicine of immortality (St Ignatius of Antioch).

How can a ‘mere’ memorial hold such power? Indeed, from what I have read, it would seem that the whole ancient Christian witness proclaims that Jesus Christ communicates something of Himself, something of the benefits of his Incarnation, death, and resurrection through the most blessed sacrament of His body and blood.

But does this relate to recapitulation?

St Ephrem the Syrian points us the way forward. I quote Sebastian Brock’s splendid book, The Luminous Eye:

Ordinary time is linear and each point in time knows a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. Sacred time, on the other hand, knows no ‘before’ and ‘after’, only the ‘eternal now’: what is important for sacred time is its content, and not a particular place in the sequence of linear time. This means that events situated at different points in historical time, which participate in the same salvific content — such as Christ’s nativity, baptism, crucifixion, descent into Sheol, and resurrection — all run together in sacred time, with the result that their total salvific content can be focused at will on any single one of these successive points in linear time. (29)

Brock goes on to explain how Eucharist and baptism are a fulfilment now of the future paradise. In the chapter about Ephrem and the Eucharist, he also discusses the intimate relation between Incarnation and Eucharist, specifically the epiclesis, that moment in the liturgy when the priest invokes the Holy Spirit to descend upon the elements and make them into Jesus’ real body and blood:

The mystery that occurred at the moment of the Incarnation and the mystery that occurs at the epiclesis in the Eucharistic Liturgy are seen throughout all Syriac tradition as intimately connected. (108)

Take all of this together, and I would argue that the vision of sacred time found in St Ephrem means that when we partake of the bread and wine in the Eucharist, when we enjoy the benefits of Christ’s passion, this is because we are entering into sacred time. There is only ever one full and perfect sacrifice. There is only one Body broken for us in history, as part of the recapitulation of all things.

And we encounter that body and that sacrifice at the altar every Sunday.

Moreover, our whole liturgy of Holy Communion reenacts that sacred drama, draws us back into the biblical narrative, ties us into sacred time, and we find ourselves on Golgotha, with a silver chalice in hand to drink the Blood of our Creator.

This vision of time is not unique to Ephrem, I hasten to add. It is part of the theological rationale given in Leo the Great, Ep. 16, as to why baptisms should only occur in Eastertide — because the divine economy performed different acts at different times, and it matters that when we are baptised into Christ’s death and resurrection, we do so at the same time as the death and resurrection in history.

This also, I would argue, does away with an argument I once heard from a post-Catholic Baptist, that if Christ is offered up on the altar every Sunday in the Eucharist, then his sacrifice on Calvary was not complete — and this is not the God of the Bible.

Christ is only ever offered up once, and that one time happens every Sunday, because the Resurrection Day, the Eighth Day of the week, ushers us into sacred time, and we find ourselves at the Tomb with the women, bewildered, amazed, rejoicing.

So, this Sunday, when you lift up your heart unto the Lord and give thanks unto him (for it is meet and right so to do), when your priest offers up the gifts of bread and wine, and the sacred drama occurs all around you — you are not in 2020 but at the foot of the Cross. And you are not eating bread but body. And this is more than a reenactment but a recapitulation of all things by Christ Himself, the Host at this feast.

2 thoughts on “Recapitulation and the Lord’s Supper

  1. Wonderful, Matthew! I love the idea of the Eighth Day, and actually wrote a song about it once. I’d have to dig around in my old journals to try to find it, & see if my current self thinks it’s any good, or (more likely) complete rubbish… Anyway, thanks again for sharing the fruit of your musings: born of the seed of your wide and deep learning, fertilized & watered by your humble faith. dsg.

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