Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Last Supper and whether the Infinite can exist in the Finite?

Last Supper painting with Jesus and the Apostles

In previous times, and perhaps to a certain extent even today, there has been debate over the rite of the Last Supper, also known as the Eucharist. Some, mostly of the Catholic persuasion, insisted that when Christ said his disciples should partake of his body, it ought to be taken literally.

Through an act of magic (though most Catholics would shun the use of this particular word), bread and wine are transformed and become the living body of Christ. Opponents to this view accused that if this were true, it would be an act of sheer cannibalism! They, later to be known as Protestants, espoused the view that it was all to be taken with a grain of salt (!) and that the Last Supper was rather a symbolic act.

Surprisingly (well for me at least), Martin Luther, who was in many ways opposed to the Catholic tradition in ideology and practice, believed that the Last Supper was indeed flesh and blood of Christ. He claimed that the same applied to infant baptism, where water would be transformed into a spiritual substance to wash away sins and to make the infant particularly responsive to Christian teaching and values. Furthermore, Luther believed that the infinite, God or the Holy Ghost (take your pick) could be contained in the finite, be it then a physical body, a piece of bread or a cup of wine.

In fact, fellow Protestant Zwingli entered into a vivid debate with Luther, but the latter did not budge an inch. Luther maintained that the Holy Spirit was speaking through him; his main criticism was that the Catholic Church did not allow the drinking of wine as part of the complete ritual.

This might have been for hygienic reasons – they did not want the cup to be passed from lips to lips – or moral reasons, the Church did not want to promote cases of alcoholism by providing free alcohol in their service. So if the eating of Christ's body made you a cannibal, was Christ himself not an alcoholic with wine flowing freely in his body?

But the idea of the infinite in the finite was mostly supported by the example of Christ himself. Luther believed that God, i.e. the infinite, had taken a finite form, a human body, so that such an act was indeed in the realm of the possible.

In fact, modern atomic theory would probably side with Luther. The body is made of atoms or infinite space that is contained within a limited physical space. It brings to mind the words of mystics like Rumi who claim that the entire world may be reflected in a single grain of sand.

I once glanced at a book called Powers of Ten. The first image was of the universe. Then there were close-ups of the earth zooming deeper and deeper until it reached the hand of a man lying in a park. As it finally entered his body and depicted the atomic structure within, this book that consisted of only pictures, came to a sudden end. But not until a jaw-dropping realization had occurred.

The first picture of the universe was identical to the last of the inner atoms within a person's body! Do we indeed contain infinity within our physical (mortal) frame? Are we actually eating Christ's body and drinking his blood? Vampires may rejoice at the thought and for all the rest of us: Bon appétit!

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