The title of Ralph McMichael’s book, Eucharist: A Guide for the Perplexed, left me a little confused. He writes articulately but with a great complexity of terminology over a large volume of themes and theories. However, once one realizes that McMichael’s has put together a concise compendium of just about everything that has significantly be said about the Eucharist and not an oversimplification of a topic that does not owe itself to such, it becomes immanently more amenable.
McMichael’s first challenging task is to cover the Eucharistic tradition in a chapter. Here, amidst numerous other highlights, he raises an important argument between the immutability of the form of the Eucharistic prayer and the point of faith being expressed there-in. Finding support for a greater openness of form, he examines the numerous texts associated with practices in a variety of early churches. He found that tradition bears many avenues to express concurrent theological understandings; however this led to a historical shift in which a notable quantity of rites was reduced to just a few. Today there appears to be a reversal of this movement as tradition is no longer used to limit the scope of Eucharistic practices but to expand it.
In a chapter on Real Presence, McMichael is not satisfied with a methodology that works through only one dimension of reference points. Instead he seeks to relate “real presence” with a broad context of resurrection, ascension, and second coming, yielding a more imaginatively open sense of what “presence” means. He then argues a reverse relationship between perception and presence connected with the account of the Road to Emmaus. One does not just perceive Jesus’ presence in the Eucharist. The Eucharistic actions make one perceive Jesus’ presence extending out from the Eucharist. He employs the phrase: “Christ’s presence in the Eucharist and as the Eucharist” to balance out the tension between presence and perception (40). This yields a richer explication of Eucharistic presence that does not undermine but enhances real presence arguments. In extending the discussion to the place of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist he describes it as the crossover of Jesus’ presence to the community and the community’s presence to Jesus, much like Augustine’s thesis on the Trinitarian role of the Holy Spirit.
Another chapter is dedicated to discussing opposing views of the Eucharist as Sacrifice. McMichael observes that the “Catholic” – “Protestant” divide has been sustained by questions over whether sacrificial language shrouds a response to the one-time salvific act of Christ, or does participation in the Eucharist play into the economy of salvation? His endeavor to explain some of the denominational angles of the relationship between Christ, the Eucharist, and sacrifice is just another example of the author’s ability to hold numerous strands of argument at once while keeping them from tangling.
Taking up a chapter on Church he describes a mutuality of ecclesiology and Eucharist by which the Church is seen in Eucharistic terms and the Eucharist is understood in Ecclesial terms, relying primarily on de Lubac’s thoughts. He offers an extensive assemblage of language in an attempt to adequately express the multitudinous ways that concepts of church and Eucharist relate, which is testimony to the reality that, in the end, language fails to finally express this relationship. I suspect this is a purposeful activity to effect a non-determinist argument in which something is simultaneously “this” and also “that.”
After looking at the way Eucharist reflects life, he ends with a careful treatment of Eucharist as theology. Rather than beginning with a theology of the Eucharist, he reverses the standard tables and describes a Eucharist of Theology which appears to be based on a turn from the existential subject of theology to the acting subject. In this sense, theological knowledge is derived from “participatory knowledge” (138). Explained in other words, it is through engagement with the Eucharist that one encounters the sources of theological reflection.
While it is quite possible to be overwhelmed by this text at first turn of page, one cannot help but to come away with a new and over-all more creative perspective of the Eucharist. It is not light, spiritually enhancing reading; it is deeply academic. It could be used as a primary text in an upper level class on the Eucharist, but it would be best if supplemented with a text that more pointedly follows the historical development of Eucharistic practices and theories. It might also work well alongside a primary theory, although McMichael might be subtly synthesizing his own Eucharistic theology. The best use for the text would be a graduate course where his responsibly creative and synthetic approach could promote more of the same.