“This is my body, the body given on your behalf. This you are all to do, for a remembrance of me.” (Lk 22:19) Thus a rather wooden and literal translation, which preserves the word order, and the oddities of the original language, clearly connoting something strange and mysterious. What does it mean?
When I was a Protestant, I would hear that the Eucharist is solely a memorial, no different from the Washing of Feet, or Stations of the Cross, because Jesus said so: it was “for a remembrance.”
Of course, it doesn’t follow. A remembrance need not be solely a remembrance, and the very thing remembered, or something close to it, can be the means of remembrance. For instance, it makes perfect sense for a married couple to regard their intimate union as a remembrance of their wedding – their original act of union – but need it be said that an act which can procreate a child is hardly a “mere” remembrance?
I have wondered about the origin of this modern Protestant argument, based on the words “do this for a remembrance of me.” The Fathers and the Scholastics seem not to have been concerned about it. Apparently, they did not see the threat of false argument here. I think there are two reasons for this.
The first is that they were keenly attuned to how pronouns that point – like “this” and “me” – were at work in the Last Supper.
For example, Aquinas raises an interesting problem, which goes as follows: the word of God can effect what it signifies. Therefore, we grant that, Jesus’ statement “This is my body,” through being uttered, can make it so that the bread has become his body. When Jesus begins to say that statement, however, the word “this” refers to the bread, which has not yet been made his body. Therefore, “This is my body” would mean “This bread is my body,” which is a false statement.
Aquinas resolves the problem by emphasizing that Jesus did not say, after all, “This bread,” but rather simply “This,” which in the context must mean, “That which underlies and is hidden here by the appearances which you see and touch.” At the start of the statement, “This is my body,” he holds, nothing else is picked up and referred to, and, by the end, that which underlies and is hidden is indeed his body. So that the statement is never false, and it becomes true precisely in effecting what it signified.
You can see that Fathers and Doctors who thought deeply in this way, when they next came to “This you are all to do, for a remembrance of me.” They take “This” to point to exactly what had just been done. And if what had just been done had turned bread into the Lord’s body, then, obviously, “this,” which we do today, does so as well.
The second reason is that, attuned as they were to the importance of “this,” they would have seen instantly the similar importance of “me.”
Here we should step back and understand that the Greek word rendered “remembrance,” (anamnēsis) means, strictly, being prompted to perceive again someone or something you had perceived before, through some likeness or some association. Importantly, what you are prompted to perceive again may exist in the present; it is only your own prior acquaintance which is in the past.
An example which I take from Plato (Phaedo, 74), makes this clear. Suppose Simmias and Cebes are such close friends that they are never seen apart. You are acquainted with both. You come home one day and see Cebes in your house. Immediately you think or “perceive” that Simmias is in your house also. And when he comes in from another room, it’s true to say that Cebes, through his presence, led you to perceive Simmias there too.
You can see how misleading it is to call such a process a “remembrance.” Still, it’s probably the best English word for it, or “recollection.” Strictly, it’s being prompted by a likeness or association to perceive someone or something of your acquaintance yet again. (Latin, commemoratio, is closer to the Greek than the English equivalents.)
You can see, then, that the Fathers who understood the Greek would in no way be tempted to believe that, because the act was for an anamnēsis, Jesus was not truly present in the act. Rather, Our Lord’s language of “me” suggested the opposite. He did not say “do this for a remembrance of my life,” or “of my sacrifice,” or “of my teachings which you will read about later in gospels.” He was there, presiding over “this,” which he commanded them all to repeat regularly, and “me” would suggest that through “this” they would perceive him again.
If this truth is not what is so cleverly taught by Our Lord’s appearance after the Resurrection on the road to Emmaus, then I do not know what is. Surely it is not a coincidence that this episode is found in the only gospel, Luke’s, which includes the language about remembrance.
Some men are walking along the road who had perceived the Lord previously in Jerusalem. Our Lord shows up, but “the eyes” of the men, Luke says, are kept from recognizing him. (24:16) That is, only the appearance is different, not what underlies.
If he had not stopped them from recognizing him, then they would have simply seen him directly, that is, there would have been no space for anamnēsis, “remembrance,” to enter in. As it is, already encountering him in disguise, their “hearts are burning within them.” They do perceive him! Although they do not understand it yet.
But then “while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them” – nearly the same language as Luke had used for the Last Supper. With that, they perceive once more. . .not a memory from the distant past, but Him, really present with them.
*Image: Friend of the Humble (Supper at Emmaus) by Léon-Augustin Lhermitte, 1892 [Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, MA]