Book Review: The Wedding Feast of the Lamb

I recently wrote a review of Emmanuel Falque’s The Wedding Feast of the Lamb: Eros, the Body, and the Eucharist (Fordham, 2016) for Horizons. The book is engaged with continental philosophy, particularly what has been called “the theological turn” among French phenomenologists of late. But Falque doesn’t buy sharp distinctions between philosophy and theology and his aim–as the title suggests–is really a sacramental theology of Eucharist. And it’s here I think that Falque has a good bit to offer Pray Tell readers.

The “body” element of the subtitle refers to Falque’s insistence that our bodily condition cannot be reduced simply to a kind of symbolism or reliance on linguistic structures. While two out his three references to him are positive ones, Falque has liturgical theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet in his sights here.

While he thinks the advances in theology brought about by the “symbolic turn” are many, Falque also thinks that the emphasis on symbol underplays our “animality” or the “chaos” at the heart of our human existence. “Symbol” has a deeper theological history from the modernists to Rahner and Dulles, and beyond, but briefly, the symbolic turn in recent theology has been a clarion call to take seriously our bodied condition as our own mediated immersion in a much larger symbol system. Human experience is fundamentally symbolic experience. That is, we don’t have raw encounters, but live with and in various forms of mediation.

To be a body, then, is by definition to be unable to get our hands around God, or God’s sacramental grace. Like manna in the desert–a key image of grace for Chauvet–we cannot hoard, gather, or even completely identify grace, but it continues to sustain us. For Chauvet, the liturgical rites are the relevant symbolic order for grasping Christian identity. Rites form Christians. Falque does not deny any of this, indeed the rites are a key source for him. Yet Falque wants a sacramental theology, particularly a theology of the Eucharist, that takes bodily messiness more seriously. Bodies are not only symbols.

Ghent Altarpiece

Falque wants us to think about our “animality,” in other words, the openness, obscurity (chaos/tohu-bohu), and, indeed, desire that is at the heart both of ourselves and of the entire created order. The cover of his book–and a substantive Preface–turns us to the famous Ghent Altarpiece. Manna is ephemeral, fine, flaky, yet still nourishing. The Eucharistic scene in the Ghent Altarpiece, well, that there is a real, live lamb! In Ghent, one cannot get around the animality of the sacrament.

In chapter 8, Falque revisits four traditional Eucharistic terms in light of his emphasis on animality: transubstantiation, incorporation, consecration, and adoration. I’d like to highlight a few of Falque’s contributions in this chapter not because he says anything radically new, but because he offers some fruitful ways to frame classic elements of Eucharistic theology.

Falque’s approach to transubstantiation takes a kenotic angle, “In making his body a this, the Christ given for us borrows in his humility, or as his humus (ground), the road of the thing, while the bread is given to us as nourishment to fortify us” (202). Clear from the emphasis in the sentence, the key is Christ’s self-emptying unto thing-ness. The emptying of God, as God becomes a first-century peasant Jew, leads through passion and death on to resurrection. Transubstantiation “is not one of those terms that can be sensibly dispensed with today” (204) because of the import of God’s gift of the divine substance. Eucharistically, God “paradoxically gives us something of his substance as we eat the bread and drink the wine” (205), we are then filled with God’s “force and power,” which bonds us together or “coagulates.”

We assimilate God in eating God. Yet, to know is not merely to consume, to take in, but to be incorporated, to be drawn in. Thus, it’s not simply that God is there to be eaten and so charge us up. Rather, our complete selves–including the “chaos,” those parts of ourselves that we would rather not mention or cannot control–are caught up in God’s transformation.”In presenting myself for communion… I do not simply bring forward my own concerns and the sufferings of my flesh; [God] brings forward his divine mode of being in his body, through which he embraces and takes responsibility for all the sufferings of out flesh” (208). We are brought into God’s Eucharistic action.

Taking up the liturgical anamnesis, Falque points out what scientists continue to uncover: that memory is not merely a conceptual faculty. If it were, one might suppose a simple recollection of Christ could be enough. But we’re embodied. “The memory is inscribed, or should be inscribed, in our own bodies–just as the memory of food leads us always, almost biologically, to look for it” (211). Likewise, the Eucharist is not merely conceptual presence. Falque goes on, “Nothing is more destructive for the meaning of the liturgy than the mode of bracketing it off, or abstracting it from time–making it belong to no time and certainly not to the continuous present of our ordinary daily lives” (212). Thus, the Eucharist draws to light the fundamental bodiliness of memory. We remember in, through, and by our bodies. God’s becoming body makes clear that “actually, the whole body must participate” in the sacrifice made for us.

The point that memory is thoroughly embodied leads Falque toEucharistic adoration. He emphasizes that the practice is not simply about contemplating God–there is that–but also about contemplating the self. Drawing upon the French Jewish philosopher Levinas, Falque points out that to stare upon the other–in this case the host–is to see that the other sees me. Since the host is not a mere idol, but truly an other, it “disorients the intentionality that sights it” (215). In other words, adoration is not an objectification of the host, but rather a development of the transitive relationship brought about by Christ’s presence. Because of real presence, we are unable to make God into whatever we’d like God to be. “The procession we join in the Adoration and the procession we join for manducation complement one another, in two distinct liturgical stages, nourished together by the same act of transubstantiation” (216). Drawing upon contemporary phenomenology, Falque gives us another way to think through the ideal that Eucharistic adoration proceeds from and returns to the celebration of the Mass.

The Wedding Feast of the Lamb is a challenging read, but its insights about the body and sacramental theology are worth the effort.

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2 comments

  1. Fordham is publishing a lot of translated works that are (more or less) associated with the French “theological turn” that you mentioned at the start. Some of this work is quite good, I think–Jean Luc Marion in particular has written some good books. I’m unfamiliar with Falque and your review makes this book sound worthwhile indeed; thanks!

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