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Eucharist & Culture (September/October 2019)

Art • Music • Film • Poetry • Books

Art Review

UNTITLED (AFRICAN LAST SUPPER)
Unsigned
Painting on Cloth
Africa (likely Uganda), circa 2011
Collection Congregation of the Blessed Sacrament
Province of Saint Ann
Gift of Dennis Ruane, SSS

 

John Christman, SSS

 

The Last Supper has been depicted in so many ways through the centuries that it may be difficult to appreciate the nuances that each new depiction offers. From early Byzantine mosaic depictions, such as that found in Saint Apollinaire Nuovo showing Jesus and the apostles gathered around loaves and fish, to Jacopo Tintoretto’s dramatically composed and almost frantic dinner scene from 1563, artists have explored numerous ways to illumine this biblical meal.

Among all of them Leonardo da Vinci’s Italian Renaissance masterpiece has become paradigmatic. And while one may shudder at the multitude of kitsch appropriations of Da Vinci’s fresco, there are other artworks that honor his masterpiece. Salvador Dalí’s The Sacrament of the Last Supper is one such example of a famous work of art that pays tribute to Da Vinci. We see in it the balanced composition with long table placed immediately before the viewer. Christ is likewise centrally located, surrounded by disciples as in the Da Vinci precursor. Beyond these similarities, it is in the details that Da Vinci and Dalí offer us their own unique theological insights and perspectives. It is often in small things that we appreciate meaningful differences.

On the front and back cover of this issue of Emmanuel is a Last Supper scene from Africa, most likely Uganda. The painting, like much religious artwork through the centuries, is not signed. So we do not know the name of the artist. However, its theological and artistic contribution is rich. Like Da Vinci and Dalí’s Last Supper scenes, the table is placed directly before the viewer with Christ at its center. The perspective is also similar with the lines on the floor and the roof guiding our eyes to the central action. In composing the painting in this manner, the artist has created continuity with the past. The painting acknowledges a shared history, but wishes to imbue and enrich that history with a distinct African identity. Theologians call this “inculturation,” but as ancient masterpieces like the Book of Kells demonstrate, artists have been doing this important work long before the term was coined.

The creative genius and spirit of each culture illuminates the incarnation in ways perhaps otherwise unimaginable. Each is a treasure offered to the Church. If Da Vinci’s The Last Supper offers something of the pathos of Jesus’ betrayal and impending crucifixion, and Dalí’s image offers a more Trinitarian and sacramental perspective, what does this painting offer that those European images miss?

The answer is in the details. An abundance of local fruit, food, and drink spread across the table. The drums, harps, and flutes as those gathered clap to the music. The inviting warm yellow and orange hues surround Jesus as he lifts bread in thanksgiving. All of these create something we do not see in Da Vinci or Dalí, a sense of celebration. As the theologian Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator explains,

In Africa, worship is never complete without singing and dancing; otherwise that worship would be considered cold and dead. Every aspect of the liturgical celebration is accompanied by joyful vocal and bodily expressions. . . . A shared belief of many Africans is that anything that is good must necessarily overflow. As one African proverb says, a good pot of okra sauce cannot be confined to the cooking pot with a lid. It must bubble up and overflow. This means that what is seen on the outside manifests what lies in the depth of African spirituality.1

We may tend to consider the Last Supper, and the Eucharist by extension, through the lens of sacrifice. Certainly, sacrifice (also memorial) is a very important lens through which we understand these. However, it is certainly not the only lens. As Raymond Moloney has pointed out, the gospel accounts of the Last Supper were likely composed through the early Church experience of celebrating Eucharist.2 He writes: “Consequently these passages are not primarily intended as historical report but as liturgical recital.”3

And so, celebrating the resurrection of Christ in a liturgical setting has become an important lens through which we understand both the Last Supper and the Eucharist.4 It is thought provoking and delightful to see this same spirit represented in this African depiction of the Last Supper.

The painting not only reminds us that our Eucharistic liturgy is meant to be a celebration, but equally relevant, it reminds us that our Eucharistic celebrations unite us to the past and to Christian communities gathered around the world. It is interesting to note in Mark’s Gospel, the Last Supper ends with Jesus and the disciples singing a hymn (Mk 14:25). It is easy to believe that the Jesus depicted in this African painting would do just that, lead his disciples in song.

Notes

1 Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator, Theology Brewed in an African Pot (New York: Orbis Books, 2008), 148-149.
2 Raymond Moloney SJ, “Eucharist” in The New Dictionary of Theology, Ed. Mary Collins, Joseph Komonchak, Dermot Lane. (Wilmington, Delaware: Michael Glazier, Inc. 1987), 343.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid.


Poetry

eucharistia

hunger so fierce: bread
thirst so tender: wine
your body: sacrifice and feast
the amen of gratitude
like no other

Lou Ella Hickman, IWBS

Speaking in Tongues

a.k.a. The Miracle of Pentecost Anew

It seems to me
that every individual
has his or her
own personal language.

“What’s happening”
is inevitably filtered
through an intensely idiosyncratic
complex of words
and concepts, developed
and adapted
over years of hit and miss,
and the perceived experience
of what works,
and, more particularly,
what doesn’t.

Supposing, on the other
hand, that someone comes up
with the (albeit improbable)
notion that there is
actually something that
everybody needs to know;

how is his situation
not hopeless?

“. . . at this sound
they all assembled,
each one bewildered
to hear these men
speaking his own language.”
Acts 2:6-7

Well, for all that —
why not?

Jared Barkan


Book Review

ECUMENISM OF BLOOD:
HEAVENLY HOPE FOR EARTHLY COMMUNION

Hugh Somerville Knapman, OSB
New York, New York: Paulist Press, 2018
128 pp., $16.95

The question raised by this book is rather simple: Can the Catholic Church give some formal recognition of the canonization by the Coptic Church of martyrdom at the hands of Daesh/ISIS soldiers? The question arises because several recent popes have used terms that informally recognize a reconciliation between these Christians and the Catholic Church.

Pope Francis, in particular, has used the term “ecumenism of blood.” Some critics have balked at the expression and feel that it is wrongly used of people who belong to churches which are considered to be schismatic or heretical. They argue that there is a tradition of not recognizing martyrs who are not Catholic, especially in a formal way; otherwise it is dangerous and confusing.

The author has put together a short and readable version of his Master’s dissertation on the subject, which carefully considers, including the ecumenical developments in Vatican II and post-conciliar theology and papal statements, a doctrinal development that would allow both an informal and a formal recognition of the martyrdom of Coptic Christians by the Coptic Church of Egypt and Libya.

The strongest support for this view comes from statements and actions taken by popes of the last century; the ecumenical developments in Vatican II and post-conciliar theology, the use of analogia fidei and doctrinal development. The author is very careful to point out that he is not advocating canonization by the Catholic Church of people killed out of hatred for the Christian faith by persecutors. He is seeking to describe theologically why the Catholic Church might give formal recognition of the reconciliation “by blood” of Christians not in full communion with Rome.

The closest argument in this direction is the teaching of baptism of blood which has a long life in the Christian tradition, and gives the possibility of using the teaching of Vatican II in matters ecumenical.

Hugh Knapman OSB, received his STB from the Pontifical Lateran University in Rome in 2008. For his Master’s in Philosophy at the University of Bristol, he presented a dissertation on the ecumenism of blood. His earlier studies in theology were at Blackfriars Hall Oxford and Sydney College of Divinity in Australia. He is well prepared to handle the subject of his book

Knapman edited his dissertation for publication in the Paulist Press volume for a wider readership. While there are many obstacles to “canonization” by the Vatican of persons of other Christian churches, the process of Eastern churches is simply to place them in the list of saints in the martyrology — rather than a process like Rome’s. There are other problems involved in such a process, e.g., there is a distinction between people who are killed for political reasons and those who belong to a church that is considered to be schismatic or heretical. The main points of the thesis Knapman proposes is that some formal recognition of the martyrs belonging to other Christian churches is not opposed to the long tradition of canonization. Indeed, there is a development that makes a good case for this recognition.

Pope Benedict XVI

What is new in Knapman’s presentation is the idea that beginning with the tradition of baptism of blood which was recognized in the early Church, and the work of Pope Benedict XIV on invincible heretics, there is something in the Christian tradition that is a foundation for a development of doctrine.

The theological position of Benedict XIV (Prospero Lambertini) about the invincible heretic (l’heritique invincibiliter — “in good faith”) is important. He explains that people in other Christian traditions (Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, Reformed/Calvinist, etc.) should not be considered to be schismatic or heretical; rather, they are not aware of their status. They cannot be blamed for following their conscience, and have a right to religious freedom.

Pope Francis

Pope Francis spoke to ecumenists gathered at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls in Rome on January 26, 2015. He stated that ecumenism opens the minds and hearts of Christians to recognize the unity they share as Christians when they view together the faith and courage that Christians have in the midst of persecution. Francis points out that the persecutors do not ask to what church people belong. They are killed simply because they are Christian (cf. Catholic Herald, January 26, 2015). He also spoke on the same subject in Evangelii Gaudium. Pope Paul VI made special mention of the Anglican Christians who were martyred along with Catholic Christians in Uganda during his pontificate.

One could safely follow the guidelines and values stressed by Pope Francis, Pope John Paul II, and Pope Benedict XVI, that there is an ecumenical spirit bringing Christians together in recognizing whether informally or formally that the “communion of saints” is at work and the ecumenical spirit is shown. Benedict XVI also noted that Christians who are persecuted because of their faith give witness to that faith in a dramatic way. While this is sound theology and an ecumenical view, it has a firm base in what Knapman traces as the trajectory from apostolic times to the present.

Ernest Falardeau, SSS
Senior Associate and Ecumenist
Saint Jean Baptiste Church
New York, New York


About Various Authors