Monday, May 25, 2009

"This is My Body": Sacrificing Oneself in Battle

Here I am not going to offer a comprehensive treatment of the words Jesus spoke over the bread at the Last Supper. But, given that it is memorial day, I did want to highlight an interesting parallel which is often ignored.

Warning: this post is me simply thinking "outloud", so give me a little lattitude here as I'm still working out my thoughts.

First, let us read Luke's account of Jesus' words over the bread at the Last Supper:
And he took bread, and when he had given thanks he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.”
Of course, given that it is Memorial Day, I can't help but note that "in remembrance of me" can also be translated "in memorial of me". The terminology is rich here and, in part, relates to the Passover, which was also described as a "memorial" (Exod 12:14). For a much fuller treatment on the theological implications of the language of "memorial" see Scott Hahn's Letter and Spirit: From Written Text to Living Word, 87-102.

While I clearly think that Jesus' words and actions must be understood within their Jewish context, I did recently notice something in John Nolland's three volume commentary on Luke which I thought was interesting. Here it is...

Nolland writes that in Thucydides (History, 2.43.2) and Libanus (Declam. 24.3), "give one's body" is "an image of dying in battle for the sake of one's people" (Nolland, Luke, 3:1054; emphasis added).

I found this striking. In fact, certain Jewish traditions suggest the idea that an annointed one would be cut off in battle, much like the Davidic figure in Psalm 89. In fact, a while back Brant wrote an amazing post on the messianic interpretation of this psalm in ancient Judaism (see my follow-up, where I show how it is used in connection with Isaiah 53 to refer to Jesus in 1 Peter). Nolland's insight might offer further insight here into Jesus' role. Jesus might see himself as winning the battle, by dying in it.

Moreover, it should be pointed out that the martial language may not be completely disconnected from atonement theology--after all, redemption can refer to the rescuing of prisoners of war who have been liberated. Just a thought...


Bob MacDonald said...

There's a difference between the emperor, king, president or such offering himself in battle for the sake of his people and the people being 'required' to fight for the benefit of the emperor, king, or president (or even in order to preserve a status quo).

My wife has an uncle who died in WWI - the family had not visited his grace at Vimy for 90 years until an adopted grand-nephew insisted. At that time we found another great uncle of his adopted brother on the monument as well! That was a 'making present' of the past for us - again different from a 'memorial' though these certainly can overlap. The strength of the Passover and Eucharistic imagery is in the making present that the ritual words imply.

Brant Pitre said...

Dear Michael,
Rocking post! You should think out loud more often.
There's no doubt in my mind that Jesus sees the eschatological tribulation in terms of spiritual warfare.
This finds intriguing support from a (universally ignored) ancient Jewish passage about a dying priestly Messiah:

"He is the anointed High Priest of whom the Lord spoke... Prostrate yourselves before his seed, because it [i.e., Levi’s seed] will die on your behalf in wars visible and invisible. (Testament of Reuben 6:8-12)

All this should come as no surprise, since in ancient Israel it was priests who played an essential role in warfare (ala the book of Joshua).

Jimmy Doyle said...

Interesting post. Can someone help me with this reference: Libanus Declam. 24.3?

Michael Barber said...

Libanus, a Roman writer. "Declamation" is I believe the full name of the work cited.

Jimmy Doyle said...

I believe it should be Libanius.

Sister Mary Agnes said...

I think it is a beautiful thought about Jesus winning a battle by dying in it. It is very timely as we remember all of the soldiers who died in battle, who also "gave up their bodies" for us, who enjoy the freedom they won. I am sure many soldiers who died saw their service as a way of uniting themselves to Jesus' sacrifice.

For those of us who are not called to be soldiers in an army, but rather to fight spiritual battles, there are ways we can "give up our bodies" too. People who are sick can unite their suffering, moment by moment, to the suffering Jesus. In response to Jesus' gift of himself in the Eucharist, they can say to him, "This is MY body, given up for YOU."

People who are healthy don't have to feel left out from the spiritual battle either. They can discipline themselves and make choices that are good for their bodies but involve some sacrifice, such as not eating too much chocolate. In such small ways, they can "give up their bodies" and join Jesus in the battle. At least, it seems that way to me.