Eucharist: Directive or Dispute?

Donald Richmond:


raphael_disputa_altar_detailRaphael’s “La Disputa” is displayed on one of the frescoed walls of the Signature Room in the Vatican. Here the Holy Trinity (the vertical line of the painting) sovereignly supervises and sanctions the process by which the Church receives the graced Eucharistic revelation. Along two horizontal lines, one in heaven and one on earth, angels and saints discuss the nature of this God-given gift.

Of note, along the horizontal earthly line of the fresco, is the clear division between one side of the Altar and Monstrance and the other side. Popes, prelates and people– along with Dante (in the lower right quadrant)– stand on BOTH sides of the discussion. Both attend to the Altar. Both attend to their books. Both have some formal “architecture” of understanding, as illustrated by the divergent structures behind each side of the Altar, to “support” their argument. Both recognize the centrality of Holy Communion– but they are in dispute. Which side is right? To which argument can we affix our name, our signature, our endorsement? Which argument does the Church itself endorse?

Within the Church there are a wide diversity of opinions, and hearty disagreements, about this most holy Sacrament. Some, Roman Catholics in particular, endorse the philosophic concept of Transubstantiation. Lutherans embrace Consubstantiation. Calvin and Zwingli have more spiritualized interpretations. Anglicans and Catholics celebrate the “Real Presence,” but are divided about what, exactly, this means. Evangelicals assert a “remembrance,” but often have little understanding about what it means to re–member an event of such significance. Some Christians, sadly, refuse to participate in this Sacrament altogether because they do not want to add to the divisions in the Church.

Although there are differences, disagreements, and divisions, there is at least one truth to which all Christians subscribe: Participation in Holy Communion is a directive given by God. Jesus instituted the Sacrament, and is identified through this breaking of bread. St. Paul affirmed it, and provided clear expectations for participation in it. The early Church, as articulated in Acts 2:42, was known for its commitment to the Table. “DO THIS” is an expectation of God to be taken with the utmost of seriousness.

Raphael’s “La Disputa” presents both a heavenly and earthly perspective on this most important Sacrament. As both earthly (Bread & Wine) and divine (Body & Blood), Eucharist is complicated. There will be, therefore, differences on many levels. But there is one thing we must not differ upon; there is one thing that is not too complicated. Jesus tells us to “DO THIS” and St. Paul tells us that we must evaluate ourselves and our relationships when we do. Will we DO IT or DISPUTE IT?



Image above: “The Disputation of the Sacrament,” or “La Disputa.” Raphael, c. 1510. Stanze di Raffaello, Apostolic Palace, Vatican.

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