Near the end of his treatise De Verbo Incarnato, Bernard Lonergan speaks of the “just and mysterious law of the cross” by which God transforms evil into a supreme good. There can be no doubt that the public response to the brutal execution of George Floyd is an example of this Law of the Cross in action. Amidst this response a question arises for Catholic theologians. How do we bear witness to this prophetic time? The answer is clear.
We must both make use of the richness of our tradition and acknowledge, as Bishop Mark J.
Seitz does, that “Christianity is an event happening right now. [That] the drama of salvation is playing out every day.” Theologians can do this by operating within the tension that exists within of the hermeneutic of continuity, between the ressourcement of the past and the aggiornamento of the future. Doing this will allow us to bring the voices that make up our tradition into dialogue with the voices that will make up our tradition, especially those who have been historically marginalized, in order to engage in constructive theological responses to pastoral challenges in the modern world, in this case racism.
This paper will provide an example of this using Thomas Aquinas’ analysis of Isaiah 25:6 “The LORD of hosts will make unto all people in this mountain, a feast of fat things” Aquinas’ commentary on this passage in the Expositio super Isaiam ad litteram will provide a framework through which the Church could begin to construct a response to the racial injustices of the present age using other aspects of Aquinas’ work, as well as the work of contemporary Catholic theologians, in this case M.
Shawn Copeland, to expand upon it. In the Super Isaiam, Aquinas identifies a threefold nature of the feast for all peoples, “the family feast of [what in Aquinas’ day was called] the Church Militant,” but which the Catechism now refers to as the Pilgrim Church, “the private feast of the soul” and the “solemn feast of the heavenly court.”4 In this presentation I am going to focus on the family feast. Aquinas acknowledges three aspects of this feast in which the pilgrim church is called to partake, “the bitterness of suffering,” “the sweetness of love,” and “anointing, as to its effect.
”5 While it would be a historical inaccuracy to say that Aquinas was thinking about systematic racism when he wrote his commentary, I argue that this division naturally lends itself to the framework of responding to racial injustice and thus can easily be adapted for such a purpose.
It should be noted here that anti-racism is essential for the realization of the kingdom feast within the pilgrim Church. Due to time constraints this paper will serve as an outline, however, I hope to expand on this idea in the near future. In order to establish this framework, one must make two brief points about Aquinas’ exegetical method. The first is with regards to authorship.
While Aquinas sees the human authorship of scripture as subordinate to divine authorship, he does recognize the human authors’ unique contributions to the text. As Thomas Ryan notes “Biblical books are not ahistorical divine utterances, but are at once God’s word and transcribed by humans thoroughly immersed in and affected by history.”6 The second point has to do with the use of scriptural lemmata within the text itself.
In identifying each of the three aspects of the feast, Aquinas uses scripture to make what Ryan calls an “influencing claim.”7 This is a process by which a medieval thinker would cross-reference the text that they were commenting on with other passages of scripture in order to read the context of those other passages into the hermeneutical framework by which one interprets the original passage.
Aquinas also makes use of what are known as confirming claims by which he uses another passage of scripture to show that his initial interpretation is supported somewhere else within the Biblical text. We must also remember,whenengagingwithAquinas, that the medieval memory was trained differently than our own and that a scripture passage was not meant to merely influence interpretation verbatim but also to call to mind it’s immediate context which also served to influence and confirm the commentators interpretation of scripture. The use of these claims is especially relevant regarding the relationship of the first aspect of the family feast, bitter suffering, to racial injustice.
Aquinas’ initial influence claim comes from Exodus 12:8, “you shall eat it with bitter herbs.” This lemma immediately frames the bitter suffering by which we come to the feast within the context of Israel’s bondage in Egypt.
For the medievals it also called to mind the contextual presence of unleavened bread at the passover feast, implicitly invoking the image of the Eucharist. Aquinas makes the Eucharistic allusion explicit, immediately following this lemma, by using 1 Cor 11:26 as the confirming passage. This should cause readers to note that the suffering recalled by the eating of these bitter herbs is intrinsically linked to what is remembered when Christ our Passover is re- presented within the Eucharist.
Eucharistic anamnesis thus links Israel’s bondage in Egypt and their liberation to Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection and links both to contemporary sufferings and bondages of members of the Pilgrim Church. While the bondage that Aquinas refers to is the general bondage of sin, there is nothing to stop readers of Aquinas from applying this framework to a specific sin, in this case, racism.
Womanist theologian M. Shawn Copeland proves the obvious interlocutor here due to her work on how the re-presentation of Christ’s passion in the Eucharistic sacrifice calls us to live as a body in Eucharistic solidarity. This solidarity necessitates the recognition of and opposition to the bondage of racism within our society, and acknowledges that by its very nature racism wounds the body of Christ by continually violating black bodies, and other bodies of colour, that are fearfully and wonderfully made in God’s image and likeness. What does this mean for the modern Church in America? Just as the universal Church cannot re-present Christ’s saving action in the Eucharist without tasting the bitter herbs of the Cross, so too, Copeland reminds us, building on James H.
Cone, the American Church cannot draw near to the Eucharistic table without recalling the dangerous memory of chattel slavery and “[making] explicit [the] connection between the cross and the lynching tree”12 As Copeland notes “on the cross Jesus overcame evil with great love; his resurrection disclosed the limits of evil. But the cross can never be reduced to a cheap or simplistic solution to the problem of evil. The cross and the lynching tree represent unmeasured suffering and anguish”13 As one can clearly see, Copeland is not denying the ultimate power of the Jesus’ death and resurrection over evil. Rather, she is noting that to truly be conformed to the Lord’s cross one must not separate it’s re-presentation from the complex socio-political, theological and anthropological realities of the evils for which Christ was crucified.
The solidarity of anti-racism begins she notes “in an anamenesis which intentionally remembers and invokes the black victims of history .
. . Their suffering, like the suffering of Jesus, anticipates an enfleshment of freedom and life to which Eucharist is linked ineluctably.” The second aspect of the family feast is where Aquinas’ own theology can really come to the forefront of our discussion. The influencing claim that Aquinas uses here to frame the sweetness of love is a passage from Wisdom 16:20 “you have given your people bread from heaven.
”15 Those familiar with Aquinas will likely not be surprised that he chose this passage since, as Paul Morrissey notes, for Aquinas, “to be wise is to know the Son, theological wisdom begins with Jesus.”16 In light of this, this passage must be read as an invitation to contemplate the Son’s goodness. Like most things in Aquinas’ biblical commentaries, however, a proper understanding of the context will thoroughly enrich what appears to be obvious interpretation.
One cannot ignore the clear illusion to manna in Aquinas’ influencing text and how this allusion, which again is also a Eucharistic one, links the sweetness of love back to the bitterness of suffering. Aquinas is reminding his readers that the experience of the LORD’s gift of manna, a symbol of Israel’s wanderings in the desert, would not have been possible without first tasting the bitter herbs of slavery.
Likewise, the re-presentation of Christ’s sacrifice in the Eucharist is impossible without the dangerous and liberating memory of the passion, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The Eucharistic contemplation of the sweetness of love is a contemplation of Christ Crucified, that new Manna who having tasted the bitter herbs of Gethsemane inverted the established order through the ultimate act of the sweetness of love, hanging, naked, bloodied, and innocent between two thieves on a cross, and giving himself over to death in order to raise us up from sin and death.
Far from replacing the bitterness of our suffering, the sweetness of love can only truly be experienced by allowing oneself to be transformed by God’s grace through the total contemplation of this new manna that one receives. This contemplation must serve as a metanoia. One must be made aware.
One must remember. In the contemplation of racial injustice this awareness and this memory must begin with the contemplation of the fact that, to use Copeland’s words, it is “the lynched Jesus whose shadow falls across the table of our sacramental meal.” Then, moved by wisdom and by love, one must cooperate accordingly with this graced awareness, which Copeland notes offers us “a new way of being in relation to God, to others, [and] to self.” The final aspect of the family feast is the anointing as to its effects.
This is best described as the pouring out of further graces upon someone, who, due to their acceptance of God’s invitation to recognize the bitter suffering and sweetness of love found in the Eucharist, responds by partaking of the same Eucharist sacramentally and spiritually.
Commenting on the effects of spiritual eating, which is when we do not just receive the Eucharist but allow it to transform us. Aquinas notes that “one who eats and drinks spiritually becomes a participator in the Holy Spirit by whom we are united to Christ in the union of faith and charity and through whom we become members of the Church.” The mention of the Holy Spirit highlights the reality that, for Aquinas, the work of the Spirit is indispensable to the anointing as to effect. As Daria Spezzano puts is “by this gift of the grace of the Holy Spirit, adopted sons [and daughters] receive the invisible missions of both Son and Holy Spirit.” Dominic Legge describes this process eloquently, “the Son and the Holy Spirit always work simultaneously and inseparably, coming to us and drawing us into them, just as the parts of an orchestra play in simultaneous harmony to produce a single piece of music.
”22 The Spirit’s transformative influence on those who partake in the Eucharist is not, however, limited to the act of union.
As Legge points out, “Aquinas also speaks of the Holy Spirit transforming us into the likeness of Christ with respect to our knowledge.”23 “This knowledge of the Son given by the Holy Spirit,” he continues, “is a sanctifying knowledge that brings us to the Son, conforming us to Christ’s humanity (including his suffering, death, and resurrection), thus “transforming” and “assimilating” us to his filial divinity.”24 The Spirit’s gift of Charity which causes this knowledge and this union, Legge observes, has “ a great spiritual significance. The Holy Spirit does not merely give us facts about Christ.
As Love in person, [the Spirit] infuses into us a love of Christ that permits us to seize upon the deepest mysteries of Christ’s identity as God made man who has come to save us. Truly to know Jesus is to be made his friend, to be drawn into the closest intimacy with him, to be caught up in love.” Explaining this process in explicitly Thomistic terms Spezzano notes “through the gift of Wisdom, the Holy Spirit leads the Children of God through the suffering and sacrifice of this life to the perfection of charity in the next.”26 I argue that this leading to the perfection of charity read through the lens of the Super Isaiam and Aquinas’ maxim that “perfect love of God [extends] also to our neighbour,” necessitates Eucharistic solidarity on our journey to deification.
The love that the Son and Spirit call us to total intimacy that enables and invites us to participate in the bitterness and sweetness of the Crucified’s suffering love on personal, communal, ecclesial and eschatological levels.
Therefore, implicit within this love is the invitation to participate in the suffering love of Christ by standing with our neighbour, in Eucharistic solidarity, against those things that would separate us, or them, from the love of Christ. Participation in this suffering love has two effects that I think are worth specifically highlighting when building an anti-racist framework. The first is the fact that further confirmation of oneself to Christ is, as Gilles Emery notes, intrinsically tied to the grace of repentance and the gift of the forgiveness of sins, in this case the sin of racism.
The second is the social dimension of eucharistic solidarity as it relates to grace. While being adamant that they must never overtake “the real presence that Eucharist effects,” Copeland does highlight the importance of the “practice of cognitive and bodily commitments which orientated to meet the social consequences of the Eucharist” are made present in the practice of the virtue of Eucharistic solidarity, and which are a manifestation of the grace of God conveyed to the that this understanding of the grace of Eucharistic solidarity, as well as its effects, would greatly believer in the sacrament.
I believe that Aquinas would concur with this assessment. I also feel benefit from an engagement with Robert M. Doran’s writings on social grace. This, however, is beyond the scope of this presentation. Ultimately the framework of the family feast culminates in cooperation with the anointing of grace, which configures one to partake in Christ’s mystical body in and through Eucharistic solidarity.
This solidarity, informed by the bitterness of suffering and the sweetness of love, inspires the cooperator to act as a countersign to the present age, systematically corrupted by racism, through an instrumental participation in the Law of the Cross through which Christ will make a feast for all peoples so that the human family can truly fulfill Christ’s great prayer that “all may be one.
As you, Father are in me and I am in you, I pray that they may be one in us, so the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17:21)..
Read More: Becoming a Pilgrim People