The Spirit of the Lord, §11.1: The Eucharist and the Holy Spirit

The eucharist is a pentecostal event—that is to say, the eucharist is made possible by the agency of the Holy Spirit. This is neither a new insight nor is it unique to the eucharist. It is not new because, as Eastern Orthodoxy has most consistently affirmed, the eucharistic liturgy takes place in the power of the Spirit on the basis of the church’s invocation of the Spirit (epiclesis). It is not unique because the church confesses that the very being and life of the church is itself a reality enabled and empowered by the Spirit. The church is effectively born on Pentecost and its mission takes place under the guidance of the Spirit.

So what then remains to be said about the relation between Spirit and eucharist? In this subsection, I wish to explore the relation between the Spirit’s agency in the life of Jesus and the Spirit’s agency in the sacramental life of the ecclesial community. That is to say, just as the Holy Spirit is the empowering agent in the mission of Jesus Christ, so too the Holy Spirit is the empowering agent in the eucharistic dimension of the church’s mission of Word and Spirit. While the church has never (to my knowledge) denied the role of the Spirit in the life of Christ, Christians have not spent enough time exploring the relationship between christology and sacramentology in the light of pneumatology.

The christological model with which I am working understands Jesus Christ as a single acting subject in divine-human unity. The unity is not one in which the Logos acts through the human nature as we find in classical christologies of the patristic era—most clearly in Cyril of Alexandria. Such a conception seeks to protect divine impassibility, and it does so by instrumentalizing the human nature. Moreover, both divinity and humanity are, according to this model, predefined substances prior to the Christ event. The classical theologians presupposed the natures of deity and humanity, leaving them with the problem of how to bring together two metaphysically opposed essences. Contrary to this, and following Karl Barth, I locate the union of divinity and humanity not in some moment of assumption prior to Christ’s life, but rather in Jesus’ life history. The unio hypostatica is not the union of two substances but an actualization of divinity and humanity in the history of Jesus. In his being-in-act, the being of God and the being of humanity are actualized. In other words, God is what Jesus does. The Logos is not some acting agent apart from the humanity of Jesus, but the Logos is instead the humanity of Jesus in act. To use the language of Eberhard Jüngel, God “identifies” with the man Jesus, and that act of identification is constitutive of what it means to be God. The point is that the human acts of Jesus are God’s acts. All of this is grounded in the eternal divine decision to be God for us and with us in Jesus, such that Jesus is in the beginning with God. The fact that Jesus Christ, in divine-human unity, is the subject and object of election means that the temporal history of Jesus is already a reality in the eternal being of God before the history of the world.

How then does the Holy Spirit relate to Jesus Christ? Against the Cyrilline model, which has no need of the Spirit’s activity in the life of Jesus, we must state up front that the Logos is not a complete agent in eternity apart from the assumed humanity who then acts in and through this humanity. Rather, the Logos is identified with the humanity of Jesus; the Logos is actualized in this concrete history. As a result, the acting subject is the human Jesus under the power of the Holy Spirit whom God bestows upon Jesus at his baptism in the Jordan River. Jesus is a truly human person whose actions are constitutive of God’s actions, but they are definitive of God only because they are sanctified and empowered by the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus Christ who proceeds as a gift of the Father. As the Synoptic Gospels testify, all of Jesus’ actions are done in the Spirit. And as Paul then testifies, the Spirit is the one who confirms and seals the work of Jesus for the life of the church. The Spirit is what unites the life of Jesus with the life of God, and the Spirit is also what unites the life of Jesus with the life of the church. Christology and ecclesiology are both pneumatically driven.

In the eucharist, this unity of Christ and the church is actualized in the power of the Holy Spirit. There is nothing intrinsic to the elements of bread and wine, nor to the words of institution or the office of the priest, which would make the eucharist an event of the presence of Jesus Christ. Instead, these disparate earthly elements are annexed and sanctified by God in the power of the Spirit to serve as the concrete witness to Christ’s death and resurrection “for us and our salvation.” In the same way that the Spirit is the sanctifying agent in the life and ministry of Jesus, so too the Spirit is the sanctifying agent in the eucharistic celebration. The Holy Spirit descends to Jesus, not to effect any substantial change in his ontic identity, but rather to actualize his being-in-act as the bearer of God’s eschatological reign. Similarly, the Spirit descends to the bread and wine, not to effect any substantial change, but rather to actualize the eucharist’s witness to Christ’s eternal activity of reconciliation and intercession. The Spirit gathers together the disparate moments of Christ’s life to serve as the redemptive mediation between God and humanity; likewise, the Spirit gathers together the disparate parts of the church into a sanctified community under the reign of Christ, the totus Christus, which feasts in communion with God and each other for the sake of their mission as the apostolic people of God.

The analogy between the Spirit’s work in the life of Christ and the Spirit’s work in the eucharistic existence of the church is disrupted (or rather extended) by the fact that Jesus is not only the incarnate Lord; but now he is also the risen and ascended Lord, who reigns at the right hand of God the Father, the Almighty. Whereas the incarnation was a divine descent of the Logos, a divine self-humiliation of the Word, in the power of the Spirit, the eucharist involves both descent and ascent. The Spirit both descends to the earthly elements and lifts the elements into the heavenly sanctuary where Christ eternally intercedes on behalf of creation. The eucharist is thus shaped by the fact that Jesus is now at the right hand of the Father. The eucharist is an ecclesial event determined by Christ’s resurrection and ascension.

At the same time, the Spirit’s eucharistic activity establishes a second analogy with Jesus Christ: the Holy Spirit’s descent and ascent in the eucharist corresponds to the Word’s descent and ascent in the Christ event. The “two natures” of the eucharist, consisting of the Spirit’s descent to the earthly elements and the ascent of the elements into the glorious presence of God, corresponds to the “two natures” of Jesus Christ, consisting of his divine mission into the far country as the humble Lord and his creaturely exaltation into participation in the life of God as the royal human being. The eucharist thus conforms analogically to the pattern of Christ’s own twofold existence as narrated by Karl Barth in Church Dogmatics IV, with the important caveat that the action in the eucharist is by no means an “incarnation” of the Spirit. Nor is the Spirit’s action in the eucharist qualitatively unique, as the Word’s action is in the incarnation, since the Spirit descends and ascends in this way elsewhere within the divine economy of grace. The intention here is only to highlight the way the Spirit’s activity in the eucharist finds a parallel in the event of Jesus Christ, which, like the eucharist, takes place wholly within the empowering presence of the Spirit of God. Through this activity of descending and ascending, the Holy Spirit actualizes the eucharist’s nature as the pentecostal event of Christ’s presence pro nobis.