A Guide to the Lord’s Table
Catholics and the Eucharist: A Scriptural Introduction
reviewed by Patrick Henry Reardon
Near the end of Catholics and the Eucharist, Stephen Clark justly comments: “Contemporary scholarly writings on the liturgy and the Eucharist contain much that is valuable, but they do not provide much helpful introductory material.” It was apparently this deficiency that Clark intended to address, and he has done so in abundance, providing what this reviewer regards as the finest effort of its kind.
Clark’s approach to the subject, as indicated in the book’s subtitle, is entirely scriptural. While any number of theologians have spoken of the “liturgy of the Sacrament” in the context of the “liturgy of the Word,” this author goes much further into detail, carefully examining many biblical themes that lie at the heart of eucharistic theology, such as revelation, covenant, sacrifice, presence, resurrection, and worship. One may describe this work as a sort of “spelling out” of the implications of that Gospel scene of the two disciples walking with the Risen Jesus along the road to Emmaus. Countless passages of Holy Scripture are here interpreted through the light of the Christian Mystery, all of them coming to perfection when the Lord is known in the breaking of the Bread. For the richness and complexity of this treatment, nonetheless, Clark’s book is a masterpiece of pedagogical simplicity. I can easily recommend it to high-school students.
The significance of Clark’s achievement is perhaps more obvious if one contrasts his approach with the treatment of the Bible and the Eucharist in Roman Catholic theology that was standard for centuries, not only in the pre-Vatican II theological manuals used in seminaries, but even in such monumental works as St. Thomas Aquinas’s Summa Theologica. In all these examples of systematic theology, Holy Scripture was treated near the beginning, under the heading “Revelation,” whereas the Eucharist usually appeared only toward the end, in a section called “Sacraments.” Thus, although the Bible and the Eucharist were sometimes juxtaposed in ascetical works, such as Book IV of The Imitation of Christ, they were rarely studied together in courses of systematic theology. One may hope that Clark’s book, which bridges this unfortunate divide, thereby points to an interpretive path that other writers will feel disposed to follow.
With respect to style, Clark’s treatment of these biblical themes is supremely meditative, a feature that renders the book useful for lectio divina. He has obviously spent many prayerful hours being nourished by the pages of Holy Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, and his work provides living models for how it may be done. Indeed, each chapter ends with an explicit biblical meditation.
Serving as an introduction, this book generally avoids matters of on-going controversy, so that the reader may have to examine Clark closely to discern where his sympathies lie regarding certain points of dispute. For example, with respect to the eucharistic “representing” of the sacrifice of Calvary, Clark is content to say, with St. Thomas Aquinas, that the Eucharist is a sacrament of the Lord’s passion “because it contains Christ himself who endured it.” Such a perspective, which seems identical to that of Pope John Paul II’s Dominicae Coenae, stops well short of the view (of Odo Casel, Anscar Vonier, and others) that the Eucharist renders sacramentally present the sacrificial action of Christ. Clark’s footnotes on this matter, nonetheless, demonstrate his ample familiarity with the implications of that question.
If it may be done without compromising my total approbation of this volume, I would like to qualify one small point made by the author. In his very fine last chapter, “Worship the Lord,” Clark presents a very compelling argument for the maintenance of the ancient Canonical Hours as an important component of daily piety. Indicating the strong biblical precedents for this practice, he goes on to contend that this is the foundation for the ascetical ideal of continual prayer.
Now, if Clark had been content to say only this much, I would have no quarrel, because I have always believed the matter to be so. When, however, he also contrasts this discipline of the Canonical Hours with the goal of “unceasing prayer or constant prayer, prayer that carries on every moment of our lives,” and especially when he suggests that the Scriptures “seem to teach something different” in this respect, I am less in accord. I believe that both disciplines are equally biblical, nor is it clear to me that the Bible’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing” is adequately covered simply by the maintenance of the regular Hours.
I limit my argument to one example. In the single place where this exhortation “to pray always” appears in the Gospels (Luke 18:1), it does not refer to the discipline of the regular Hours but rather to the sustained repetition of a short prayer formula. Specifically, this Lukan verse is immediately explicated by two parables and a historical event, all of them treating constant prayer as a ceaseless, untiring repetition: the story of the persistent widow, the narrative of the publican in the Temple, and the account of the blind man at Jericho. All three of these illustrations speak of a sustained repetition (Luke 18:5,13,39) as the path to constant prayer. The appearance of this theme in Luke is doubly significant, I think, inasmuch as Luke is also our chief New Testament witness to the early Church’s maintenance of the Canonical Hours (cf. Acts 2:42,46; 3:1; 10:9,30). Surely, then, both disciplines are equally biblical, nor is it surprising that those same ascetical sources that speak so clearly about the Canonical Hours (Basil, Cassian, Benedict) are the same sources that speak of constant prayer by the sustained repetition of short formulas of invocation.
Finally, Clark adds two helpful appendices, the first indicating the biblical and other ancient sources of his inspiration, the second an analytical list of more modern works on the subject. In case this review has failed to say so with sufficient clarity, Clark’s book is enthusiastically recommended.
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“A Guide to the Lord’s Table” first appeared in the March 2002 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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