For centuries, Eucharistic piety has been distorted by ocular metaphors. We long to “see” Jesus at the table, but the bread and wine form a “veil.” Eucharistic desire is the desire to rend the veil of bread to enter into extra-festive spiritual communion.
The ocular emphasis of Eucharistic piety pops up in hymns from across the ages:
O Christ, whom now beneath a veil we see,
May what we thirst for soon our portion be,
To gaze on Thee unveiled, and see Thy face,
The vision of Thy glory and Thy grace
If now, with eyes defiled and dim,
We see the signs, but see not Him;
O may His love the scales displace,
And bid us see Him face to face! . . .
Oh, lift the veil, if veil there be,
Let every saint Thy beauties see!
At times, this is linked to the notion that the Supper provides a visual re-enactment of the crucifixion of Jesus. We look through the bread and wine to the cross:
When to the cross I turn my eyes
And rest on Calvary,
O Lamb of God, my sacrifice
I must remember Thee.
-James Montgomery, 1825
The historical reasons for this emphasis seem clear. Medieval laymen participated in the Mass by watching the priest perform his magic. It’s not surprising that medieval piety focuses on what can be seen.
On the other hand, many Protestants turn to the eye because they’re trying hard not to be Catholic or Lutheran. They want to make it clear that, whatever’s happening at the table, no one is actually munching Jesus’ flesh and drinking His blood.
These hymns capture the eschatological dynamic of the Supper, but misplace it. True, we walk in hope that we will one day see God and be made like Him. But that’s not the emphasis at the table. The Eucharist isn’t a first glimpse, but a first course. It’s an early taste, not a veiled vision.
The intrusion of ocular metaphors into Eucharistic piety is a good example of how theological concerns can overwhelm the biblical imagination.
Scripture is replete with food and drink, bread and wine, tables and feasts. Feasting stretches from Eden through the wilderness to the promised land to the feasts of Jesus to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb. Why don’t those biblical themes shape Eucharistic piety and hymnody?
Some Eucharistic hymns do accent the festive dimension. The Book of Common Praise, 2017 (Reformed Episcopal; Christopher Hoyt, ed.) has the best selection I’ve found anywhere.
But what we need are new Eucharistic hymns, ones that express the rich theology of food and drink that Jim Jordan and others have developed. Volunteers?
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