What can a second century text about the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist tell us about care of creation today? John Moffatt SJ finds, in the writings of Irenaeus, some ideas about what it means to live in right relationship to everything of this world and be in communion with the natural order.
We sometimes see texts from the work Against the Heretics by Irenaeus, the second century Bishop of Lyons, quoted to prove the antiquity of Christian belief in the real presence. But some of those quotations are worth exploring in their wider context, because they form part of a much bigger argument. Irenaeus tells a story affirming God’s relation to the cosmos that binds the Eucharist into the goodness of the created order and the practice of social justice and care of creation.
How can they possibly claim that the bread over which the thanks are spoken is the body of their Lord and the cup, the cup of his blood, unless they acknowledge that he is the Son of the one who fashioned the world? That he is his Word, through whom the tree bears fruit, through whom the streams flow, and through whom the earth brings forth first the shoot, then the ear, then the full grain in the ear?
And if this is so, how can they not acknowledge that the flesh can receive eternal life? Irenaeus presents a vision of continuity between our life here and the life of the world to come, in this moment where the heavenly and the earthly naturally and properly meet, in the action of the Eucharist. He makes the point more fully later:
If [our flesh] is not saved, then the Lord did not redeem us by his blood, and the cup of the Eucharist does not give us a share in his blood, nor is the bread that we break a sharing in his body. For since we are his limbs, and we are nourished through creation, and he himself provides us with this creation, causing the sun to rise and bringing the rain as he will, he acknowledges the cup, drawn from creation, as his own blood, from which he makes our own blood flow, and he affirmed that the bread, that comes from creation is his own body, from which he will make our bodies grow…
How could we fail to acknowledge that these bodies of ours, Irenaeus asks, nourished by the Lord’s body and blood, are destined for eternity? Again, Irenaeus gives us a vision of death and the afterlife not as a rupture with our physical past, but as its organic completion in a new, eternal and embodied harmony.
Towards the end of the fifth book, he presents a vision of the new creation drawing heavily on imagery from Isaiah. Here (and elsewhere) he is, following Genesis 1, unashamedly anthropocentric. All the animals will be completely subject to the redeemed humans, the plants will vie with one another to provide them with more fruit. The vine belongs both in this world and in the world to come, which is a recognisable, physical paradise, but renewed and liberated and in which relationships between the living creatures are restored to harmony. The new creation lies not in the intellectual construct of an unimaginable beyond, but is already glimpsed in the world of our experience. The old creation is not to be effaced as a failure; rather, it is to grow to completion as something greater.