Thomas O’Loughlin wants to completely recontextualize our understanding of the Eucharist, and is willing to step “on several toes” to do this (p. 201). He calls us to recognize that the Eucharist is a meal of praise directed to the Father. This, rather than questions of transformed elements, sacramental presences, or validly ordained/authorized personnel needs to drive our approach to the meal that stands at the heart of the church’s memory of Jesus.
O’Loughlin begins by directing our attention to two basic and related facts. First, the Eucharist is an action before it is a concept or theory (pp. 10–17). Rather than parsing theological distinctions and abstractions, we must attend to what Christians are doing when they practice the Eucharist if we wish to understand it. Eucharistic theology arises to give expression and explanation to, as well as justification for, eucharistic practice. Second, the action in question is a meal (pp. 61–144). It is this latter point that proves to be of central concern to O’Loughlin’s vision of a renewed understanding (and practice!) of the Eucharist.
This twofold recognition of the Eucharist’s nature stems from a consideration of eucharistic origins, which O’Loughlin shows to be marked by plurality of both practice and outlook (pp. 1–10). No one form of eucharistic practice should become the norm for all others, insists O’Loughlin, for they all reflect the contingencies of history, which is not a straightforward march of positive developments. Instead there are wrong turns, dead ends, false starts, and regressions. While this is probably a helpful and needed introduction into the murky territory of early Christianity, Evangelical readers may find O’Loughlin’s overall cynicism regarding the extent to which we can know what Jesus actually said and did, including his assessment that the Last Supper is a construction of Christian communities in search of a reason for their already extant meal practices, difficult to swallow (pp. 7, 149–150).
Chapter two returns to the idea that the Eucharist is, above all, an action. Taking as his starting point the etymology of the term “Eucharist” (thanksgiving), O’Loughlin argues, persuasively, that the action of the Eucharist consists in giving thanks to God the Father for his blessings (pp. 42–59). The recognition that the Eucharist is an act of thanks and praise directed to the Father through the Son is salutary. Unfortunately, O’Loughlin contrasts this perspective with a Christocentric view of the Eucharist (see below). If we make the Eucharist Christ-centered, he argues, it becomes an individualized, fearful affair (pp. 28–42).
Chapters three, four, and five, which represent the heart of the book, are its strongest. In them O’Loughlin analyzes the Eucharist from the perspective of the phenomenology of meals. To share meals is to be human and vice versa, for this practice sets us apart from the other animals, is basic to our existence, and depends upon the entire interconnected web of human life and labor. By the time food reaches one’s table, the whole of society more or less has had a hand in getting it there (pp. 105–18). And O’Loughlin insists that we see the Eucharist as continuous with this basic feature of who we are as human creatures. It is not an otherworldly event, but rather a real shared meal (or at least it should be). That our memory of Jesus is fed in a common meal says much about the Christian vision of our relationship with God and with one another, as all the elements that make for the phenomenon of meal become expressive of God’s design for human thriving (pp. 123–44).
The final chapters chart O’Loughlin’s prospectus for a renewed Eucharistic practice. Where the first chapters were descriptive, he now becomes prescriptive, insisting on a proper meal (rather than a tokenized ritual) for those who wish to be faithful to Jesus’s memory (pp. 152–56). This meal should involve blessing addressed to the Father, and the sharing of a single loaf and common cup (pp. 159–76). The loaf and cup allow us to behold the unity of the people gathered in Christ, which is precisely one of those things for which we are to thank the Father. This meal should involve the real sharing of food, not only within the event, but also beyond it in the daily lives of believers, from which the Eucharist should not be considered separate. In this way, the community is faithful to and keeps alive the memory of Jesus (pp. 176–79).
Generally, O’Loughlin is helpful in that for which he advocates. A common loaf and cup do best depict the unity of Christ’s body the church. The Eucharist should be recognized as praise directed to the Father. Where O’Loughlin falters, though, is in what he denies. The choice between Father-directed and Christ-centered is a false one. Christ is the mediator between God and humanity, and to be centered on Christ is to be brought by him to the Father. In his insistence upon loaf and cup, he seems to have fallen into the hair-splitting insistences upon “validity” for which he shows very little patience elsewhere (e.g., pp. 32, 141–43, 158). This is related to what I perceive to be the book’s most significant shortcoming. Though O’Loughlin is helpful in that to which he directs our attention, his tone regarding positions with which he disagrees is invariably condescending. Not only is it condescending, it tends to caricature these viewpoints into the most absurd forms they could possibly take, thereby distorting them beyond recognition. For all his calls to attend to practice, and his recognitions of the plurality found at the meal’s origins, O’Loughlin’s outlook is fairly myopic. He notes the phenomenology of the meal, especially Greco-Roman symposia, but dismisses the ritual form the sacrament has taken over the vast majority of the church’s sojourn.
A more ambiguous criticism of the book is its eschewal of traditional questions regarding the Eucharist. For instance, the question of real presence is dealt with, dismissively and in passing, in the span of two pages (pp. 141–43). Because O’Loughlin’s agenda in the book is to shift our attention away from such abstract questions to the action of the Eucharist and its character as a meal, it is understandable that he would not treat these traditional concerns, and it would be unfair to insist that he do so. However, the fact that he declines to treat them means that the book’s utility as an introductory text is quite limited. Whatever merits his proposals have, the fact remains that answers to these sorts of questions are still sought, and often needed. Simply telling people that they are asking the wrong question strikes me as the wrong approach.
O’Loughlin’s The Eucharist deserves to be read, but probably needs to be a supplementary text to the work of other contemporary scholars like Andrew B. McGowan (Ancient Christian Worship: Early Church Practices in Social, Historical, and Theological Perspective [Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014]), and Louis-Marie Chauvet (Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence [Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1994]), both of whom adopt similar approaches and perspectives, but with a greater balance of concern and presentation.