- The Eucharist: Origins and Contemporary Understandings by Thomas O’Loughlin
Dialogue between theology and history invariably leads to the development of new and often groundbreaking ideas. Thomas O’Loughlin’s latest book is a considered, innovative, and challenging volume, especially for those operating within a sacramental orbit. In his introduction, O’Loughlin writes, ‘‘The Eucharist is an ergon before it is logos. And indeed, given that, it could be said that the proof of a theology of the Eucharist is the extent to which it illuminates that activity of the People of God, which is thanking the Father’’ (xvii). O’Loughlin’s basic aim is to assess how the Eucharist was understood in the apostolic era. He shows that the apostolic view was not a detached ritual concerning ‘‘real presence,’’ but the practice of a shared meal centred on giving thanks to God.
O’Loughlin stresses the manner in which the Eucharist was experienced among the first Christians. He shows how early theological deliberations about the Eucharist were reflections on practices, and so his method stands in general agreement with a liberationist approach to theology and history. Being rooted in this method allows him to think afresh about the nature of Christian eucharistic practice historically. Through an assessment of Scripture and early Christian writings such as the Didache, O’Loughlin eschews [End Page 279] the docetic approach that he feels has dominated sacramental eucharistic theology. Too much eucharistic theology, in his judgment, is abstract and does not engender ecumenical dialogue or meaningful social ethics. In contrast to this eucharistic docetism, he unearths five concrete characteristics that defined the Eucharist for the earliest disciples: (1) a blessing or thanksgiving marked the meal; (2) this same blessing was addressed to God as Father for his goodness and provision; (3) bread was provided, as was (4) something to drink; and (5) the meal was shared with others. O’Loughlin argues that when these elements were present, the Eucharist occurred.
Over time, O’Loughlin claims, a number of ‘‘displacements’’ ensued that subverted the original understanding of the eucharistic meal. First, the Eucharist became a ritual separate from the sharing of an actual meal. Second, the emphasis moved from thanking God the Father to the reification of the ‘‘real presence’’ of Jesus in the elements. Third, the role of the one presiding over the gathering was no longer open to anyone, but only to male leaders who would oversee a spiritualized ritual. Finally, the focus of the gathering came to settle on the presider consecrating the elements and not the whole people gathered together as the body of Christ.
While O’Loughlin’s ultimate objective is to undermine this ‘‘displaced’’ way of thinking about the Eucharist, he has a secondary purpose: to pave new avenues toward ecumenism and Christian unity. For him, a historically rooted recovery of meal sharing that is understood first and foremost as thanksgiving to God the Father serves to break down the divisions that have so long plagued diverse Christian communities. In this way, the Eucharist is necessarily a springboard for social justice. Simply put, Christians who are genuinely eucharistically oriented look to share food with all who are in need. Regrettably, in O’Loughlin’s view, the ethics of food production and sharing is too often given short shrift in the metaphysical-sacramental tradition.
O’Loughlin’s book is both hopeful and thought provoking. The link he makes between an early understanding of the Eucharist and ecumenism is very well made. However, the volume is not without its drawbacks. First, O’Loughlin seems to assume that the further one goes back in the Christian tradition, the more accurate one’s theology will be. This, however, is not necessarily the case. Doctrine is clarified over time as the church lives out its mission in the world. Moreover, medieval sacramental metaphysics is not automatically at odds with the apostolic development of Christian social ethics. Second, and most importantly, O’Loughlin does not show how his interpretation of the Eucharist might tangibly lead to increased...