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Lord's Supper by authors Oscar Cullmann and Franz Jehan Leenhardt

One of the most perplexing issues facing any Christian today is the issue of how to view the taking of the Lord's Supper every Sunday. The ancient images of wine, bread, and physical and spiritual sacrifice have undergoing extensive debate and reinterpretation throughout all of Christianity. These images, despite the controversy they have inspired, however, still are central to Christian ritual and communal life and doctrine today.

Their controversial nature has spanned from the doctrine of transubstantiation established in the early Catholic Church, to the more flexible and metaphorical definition of some of today's Christian communities. In their book, Essays on the Lord's Supper the authors Oscar Cullmann and Franz Jehan Leenhardt offer their own faith perspectives on the issue. Their duality of perspective is particularly instructive, not simply from a theological point-of-view, but because Oscar Cullmann was a professor of Christianity in France, at the Sorbonne while Franz Jehan Leenhardt was professor of Theology at the University of Geneva. Thus, their perspective is multinational in its theological perspective, although both come from the same European Reformed traditions of worship.

The approach is thus complementary yet distinct, of these two authors. It is perhaps because of the fact there is no one answer of the 'correct' way to interpret the Lord's Supper that these Christian authors have chosen to use the format of presenting two complementary essays to view the various ways of examining the nature and centrality of the ritual of the Lord's Supper, rather than offering a singular and linear explanation of the reasoning they employ to stress the significance of the supper, yet also to stress the importance of the Lord's Supper being understood as part of the journey of Christ on earth, rather than simply a time to dwell upon the sacrificial nature of Christ's death upon the cross and the suffering of the crucifixion.

In Oscar Cullmann's essay in this volume is entitled "The Breaking of Bread and the Resurrection Appearances." Cullmann, now considered one of the great Reformed Theologians of his day, wrote upon this book's original publication in the 1950s in Europe that "the joy manifested by the early Christians during the 'breaking of bread' has its source, not in the fact that the assembled disciples eat the body and drink the blood of their crucified Master, but in the consciousness they have of eating with the Risen Christ, really present in their midst, as he was on Easter Day. (Cullmann, 16) Cullmann's own, stated view of the Christian supper is thus not that the significance of eating the host and drinking the blessed wine lies ultimately in these ritual accoutrements of the Eucharist, or even the fact that the wine is blessed by the hands of the attendant who has sworn his life to Christ, but the communality that the nature of the "breaking of the bread" enforced in the early Christian community, a communality of worship that continues to exist in situations of Christian worship today.

This is keeping in line with traditional Protestant contrasts with the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. The Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation stresses the dual existence of the Host as a material object that becomes, in the context of worship and the blessing of these objects by a representative of Christ on earth in the form of the priest, the actual body of Christ. Cullmann's view is also in line with the stress in contemporary Protestant works since his writing, over the last hundred years or so of spiritual study, that Christ's resurrection, as opposed to Christ's death upon the cross purely in and of itself, must be restored to its prominent place at the center of the Christian gospel. Cullmann additionally stresses that giving an overemphasis to eating the body and drinking the wine of the Lord's Supper, as opposed to having a sense of unity with Christ as a risen and resurrected figure does a disservice to the entire narrative of the gospels, viewed holistically, particularly the gospel of John where the Word rather than the body is first referenced.

Over the course of his essay, Cullmann chronicles how, in his view, Christianity in its earliest formulations rendered the resurrection, rather than Christ's death or the ritual implements of the Lord's Supper, to be the central focus of the experience of communal worship, one of the reasons as well that Sunday rather than, for instance, Friday, is the holy day of the Christian calendar and week. Resurrection day rather than the enactment of the Passion is what drew the community together. Cullmann's essay is thus particularly instructive to read during the Easter season, as the Christian reader is forced to wonder about and contrast the nature of Good Friday, what is purported to be the saddest day of the Christian year, with that of resurrection Sunday, the happiest and the holiest, the day of Christian spiritual renewal.

Given this temporal contrast, indeed, why make the death of Christ so spiritually central to the exclusion of the resurrection in Christian doctrine, history, text, and theology, one might ask? In fact, given the Jewish roots of Christianity, there is even evidence that the early Christian adherents, Christian forbearers, might have seen what we now consider the Lord's Day of worship, that of Sunday, not as replacing the Jewish Sabbath upon Friday and Saturday, but merely adding to the structure of the worship calendar, with modification.

Cullmann admits that such ideas about the significance of Christ's new life as well as Christ's death may seem strange to contemporary Christian readers, given how the images of Christian worship and the power of the images of the Mass have rendered Christians so accustomed to seeing Christ's death as central to the Lord's Supper, although within Cullmann's own belief structure he believes that the question of 'why did Christ have to die' to be more challenging and difficult, and yes, sadder, than the beauty and glory of the resurrection. Only with resurrection, however, did Christ's disciples gain understanding of the meaning of Christ's death. Before the resurrection, even Peter denied Christ, and then mourned his passing without full understanding. Thomas doubts Christ until the very last moments of touching the Lord's body, that Christ has truly risen and changed the nature of human spiritual life. Understanding comes only after the full Christian journey has been realized, not simply through death, writes Cullmann.

Thus Cullmann advocates a highly positive and positivist view of Christianity in his analysis of he Lord's Supper. The resurrection was the filtering lens, says Cullmann, through which Early Christians interpreted Christ's death, rather than Christ's death alone, and thus we should use this same filtering lens to view the Lord's Supper as well. Although the disciples may be condemned in the minds of some for their apparent intransigence to the true meaning of Christ's death, through Christ's life again understanding comes again to the minds of the disciples. This helps to better delineate the relationship Christ was attempting to forge with all of humanity -- a narrative of death and resurrection, born not simply of understanding one's self in relation to the life after, but into the new life on earth configured through the full physical and spiritual journey of Christ.

The communal nature of the disciples understanding is another aspect of Christian worship emphasized in Cullmann's theology. Cullmann stresses in the letters of Paul, such as Corinthians, that Paul wished all Christians to celebrate the journey of Christ through a communal meal. Again, it was not the tools of the meal that was so important -- it was the communal setting of Christians coming together as one community and taking part in worship and spiritual and physical sustenance as one community. By such a coming…[continue]

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