How (Not) to Be Eucharist

 We asked some attendees of the 2019 Intersection Conference to share their thoughts on the session that most impacted them. Here, the Rev. Shawn McCain of Resurrection South Austin reflects on Dr. William Cavanaugh’s session, “Eucharistic Bodies in an Excarnated World.Dr. Cavanaugh is professor of Catholic studies at DePaul and author of several books exploring the political theology of the Eucharist.

 By Shawn McCain

In Dr. William Cavanaugh’s provocative presentation at the Intersection Conference, he explored the effects of what Charles Taylor, in his book A Secular Age, calls “excarnation.” It describes a shift in our society in which people’s view of reality was emptied of the presence of God, and spirituality was relegated to an exercise in the mind.

The effects of this are far reaching, not just for theology but for how everyday lives function in society. Specifically, excarnation strips bodies from life: Bodies are no longer involved in dating or sex when one has access to pornography, and bodies are no longer involved in charity, war or social justice when they are replaced by services outsourced to the government. Excarnation is also evident in consumerism, which Cavanaugh called out as “profoundly excarnate.” We are endlessly click-shopping for something else, not necessarily something more. In all of this bodies are hidden, pushed into the back and almost so out of sight they don’t exist. At least, that’s the fantasy of excarnate secularism.

Bodies are hidden, pushed into the back and almost so out of sight they don’t exist. At least, that’s the fantasy of excarnate secularism.

But that’s all it is, actually, a fantasy. The force of excarnation reconfigures human life to be about disembodied images, secret information, and endless consumption (gnosticism). Cavanaugh described this with provocative clarity:

There are several consequences of this new reality. There is a blurring of image and reality, of the virtual and the real, and thus an indifference to truth. Life is reduced to spectacle; what matters is how things appear, and not any real truth underlying images. The line between entertainment and politics is blurred; reality TV stars become presidents and invent their own reality through images, unencumbered by truth. Reality TV blurs the line between what is real and what is staged to be seen. Life ceases to be anchored in bodily, material reality.

According to Cavanaugh, the ultimate aim of this fantasy is to “overthrow matter” altogether. It is only confronted by its opposite, the Incarnation which lies at the heart of the Gospel. The shifts in Eucharistic theology during the Reformation affected excarnation in the West. In attempting to revive the “dead rituals” of medieval piety, God’s action was explained in terms that were increasingly internal to the believer, rather than external in the embodied world. Cavanaugh pointed out that “emptying the world of magic had the unintended consequence of emptying the world of God.”

To Hell With It

This festering social and cultural excarnation locates the Eucharist among the images in our social media “feed” (ironically), but we are not fed at all, just further trained to confuse a visual reminder of food for true food itself, and further individualized as an “autonomous” consumer. The Eucharist becomes this thing we pull into our lives on-demand, which disfigures it (and us) altogether, commodifies what is sacred, and brutalizes humanity in the process. Even the best of cognitive approaches to the Eucharist fall prey to this approach, which functionally quarantines body of Christ in a lockbox behind the altar, only to be let out when we need reminding of the “big idea.” To hell with that.

The Eucharist becomes this thing we pull into our lives on-demand, which disfigures it (and us) altogether, commodifies what is sacred, and brutalizes humanity in the process.

Cue Flannery O’Connor’s quote about a symbolic understanding of the Eucharist: “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” In a punchy way, Cavanaugh touched on a common idea in the minds of Christians, that the Eucharist functions as a “message” about God’s love. It isn’t supposed to be taken so seriously as a sacred thing in and of itself, otherwise we’d miss the point—which is to teach us something really helpful about God or us or reality, or whatever.

I’m with O’Connor: To hell with that. If that’s the case, who cares? I’ve got enough of those messages floating around in books, blogs, sermons and podcasts. Aren’t there less weird and antiquated ways of internalizing the Gospel than celebrating the Eucharist?

So not any view of the sacraments will do, Cavanaugh contended. The antidote to the rising tide of the excarnate fantasy is not only the Eucharist, but an appropriately high view of it.

God’s real presence in the Eucharist is our answer to the vacuity of images in an image-saturated world. There truly is a transcendent reality behind, beyond-but-within, the material signs of bread and wine. The Eucharist is not just another sign that passes before our eyes as we flip through images on our phones.

At this point, I can imagine some might be tempted to opt-out because they don’t identify as “high church” folks. But just suspend that category for minute, because it’s more interesting than any of that. That’d be similar to saying a high view of Christ belongs to the “those” kinds of Christians. Just for a minute, suspend those categories and walk with Cavanaugh as he methodically and winsomely bats down four flimsy approaches to the Eucharist, and in exchange offers a compelling vision of how the church’s participation in the Eucharist is mission.

4 Themes on How (Not) to Be Eucharist

  1. The Moving Message.

    Is the Eucharist a sermon illustration or an analogy to remind us what the love of God looks like? Yes, it can help do that, I guess. But if it’s only a message to be verbally relayed to those “brains on sticks” in the pews, then we’ve got some serious problems.

    No doubt, preaching should keep in mind the drama of the liturgy leading to the table, and good preaching should “set the table” so to speak. But we should be wary of receiving the idea of the Eucharist rather than the Eucharist itself (that would be what Cavanaugh called a gnosticization of the sacrament). Even a merely affectionate approach to the Eucharist, when our hearts are moved, is good, but still not enough.

    Even a merely affectionate approach to the Eucharist, when our hearts are moved, is good, but still not enough.

    The Eucharist is no private thing. It’s personal, but the Eucharist isn’t just “hidden in our hearts.” It recruits an entire community of actual people to make up one public Body. Preaching in my parish, I regularly wrestle with explicitly teaching how people can respond to the announcement of the Gospel by coming to the table. How their real bodies (myself included) are consumed by the Eucharist and arranged according to the Gospel in ways that have changed us. We must name the reality the Eucharist makes and not get stuck in a merely rhetorical appreciation of it.

  2. The Paradigm Shifter. 

    Is the Eucharist a lens through which we can see the world? Sure. Does it tilt our worldview on a new axis and reorient our perspective? Definitely. But to treat it as a “model” for mission only, would be to miss it altogether again.

    Cavanaugh said, “The liturgy is not a teacher about another reality but makes reality present.” If we just use the Eucharist to extract axioms and examples, we build up a world of cognitive discipleship and neglect the reality that makes discipleship possible in the first place. The Eucharist makes bodies unified with Christ’s, lives of intimate participation, and imaginations enchanted.

    For instance, the Eucharist is not merely a reminder for us to go and be nice to others, or to “be broken and poured out” for the greater good. It gets way more weird than that. The Eucharist involves our bodies like sacraments of Christ’s body in mission. That might be a shocking paradigm for some, but it’s also actually happening in real time and social space. We encounter the poor and find Christ, treating the bodies of others as if we are tending to the body of the Lord. The Eucharist is also an act that recipients of the Eucharist are caught up in the motion of.

    The Eucharist involves our bodies like sacraments of Christ’s body in mission.
  3. The Battery Charger.

    Closely attached to this idea was another comment Cavanaugh made: “We talk about charging our batteries so we can go out into the world, or the church is a school…what happens when we graduate? We need better ecclesiology.” Living between Sundays, the “battery charger” approach tends to view Eucharist as charging station and people like smart phones who go into “low power mode” until we are restored at the altar. It’s an individualized pick-me-up, inspiration, like a really strong cup of coffee.

    Sure, there is precedent in the Fathers to view the Eucharist as the medicine of immortality and the cure of souls, but not with such individuality as we might hear it today. Our salvation is not dependent upon our pulling more Christ into our lives, but He has pulled us into His. The Eucharist includes but moves beyond private devotion, not charging motivations but forming a greater body. It still may be inspirational to contemplate, but only because the Eucharist is a reality worth contemplating.

    So even when Christians need a charge due to suffering, challenges, or a tiring life, they don’t need to crack open the seal on a shot-glass of wine on-the-go. Rather, their weary body can find rest, taken up into (and never separated from) a greater body of believers constituted by the divine life of Father, the presence of the Son, and the power of the Spirit.

  4. The Silver Bullet. 

    Is the Eucharist automatic? Would anyone even say that out loud? Maybe not, but some certainly tend to function this way, as if to believe, “We have it, so things should work out.” What this view neglects (among many things) is our invitation to “come among us in a way that we’re not eating and drinking our own damnation.” Cavanaugh called for a kind of “slow church” rather than low church tendency toward the sacraments, patiently and faithfully inviting the Spirit to work in the lives of people over a long period of time, all the while cooperating with the way the Eucharist arranges human bodies in cruciform community in the world.

    In my own parish, we don’t consider ourselves high church, but others tend to. Instead, we have genuinely desired to make much of the Eucharist, its beauty as the visible Gospel and the glory of the Lord, alongside the audible Gospel in the reading of scripture and preaching. Our dependency on word and sacrament hasn’t led us into easier situations in community; in fact, it’s quite the opposite. But it has led us toward a more focused dependency on Christ to sort things out among us. It has become a matter of trust in the Spirit over gimmicks, and hope in Christ over policies. We still have strategies, policies, leadership, etc., but that whole apparatus submits to an invitation for the Spirit to come and work on us for a long time, and draw our lives into alignment with God’s.

What the Eucharist Makes

In response to similar tendencies of his time (in particular making the Eucharist about private devotion), the Catholic theologian Henri de Lubac wrote, “The Eucharist makes the Church.” In all of the ways we might reduce the Eucharist, we must grapple with the concrete saving work of God in the Eucharist with real bodies in real social space and time.

What the Eucharist makes is a body that subverts the arrangements of an excarnate fantasy unleashed in the world.

It doesn’t dangle from our rearview mirror for good luck or sit in the recesses of our memories for that occasionally inspiration. Tell ‘em, Bill:

The Eucharist does not simply motivate us to do good things for poor people; it questions the very distinction between us and them, because Christ is identified with the poor and we are identified with Christ.

So, the kind of body the Eucharist makes is one in which individuals are incorporated into Christ in real social space. The presence of this Eucharistic body in the world resists abstracting mission as a bunch of benevolent activity, but makes a community who live with the poor, with those who suffer, where people meet the body and blood of the Incarnate Son and are healed.

The kind of body the Eucharist makes is one in which individuals are incorporated into Christ in real social space.

De Lubac’s saying “the Eucharist makes the church” should not be seen in opposition to good teaching, or the work of the Spirit, or any other critical aspect of the church’s nature. The Eucharist is not an artifact to be “read” as much as it is the reality of God’s saving work in the neighborhood that arranges bodies in the life of the Son by the power of the Spirit. Yes, it means a great deal of things, and very wonderful things, but only because it returns our excarnate world to the incarnate God in Christ who truly saves and heals.

Listen to Dr. Cavanaugh’s full talk, “Eucharistic Bodies in an Excarnated World.”


Shawn McCain is the founding rector of Resurrection South Austin. Upon completing an M.Div at Fuller Theological Seminary, he was ordained to the Deaconate in 2011, and the Priesthood in 2012. He and his wife Michelle have been married for 15 years and are parents of six kids.