June 18, 2006

The Semiotics of Corpus Christi

One of the great things about religious language is its imprecision. Free and natural religious speech does not deliver a strict correspondence between utterance and referent the way scientific discourse does. It is not hard to understand what I mean when I claim that is already 79 degrees Farenheit this morning, or that my room is a mess. But it is a much harder thing to say exactly what is meant by an utterance like, "Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel," or "Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit."

This the distinction McLuhan made between hot and cool media. Hot media proceeds more from exact definition, while cool media demands that some meaning be supplied by the listener. A novel is cool media because the reader supplies many of the details. For example, sometimes we see the film version of a book and feel like the characters don't look right. We participated in the story we read by supplying details out of our own imagination. In this sense a movie is hotter media than a book. Thus it's also more passive.

Religious language is very cool. It demands a lot of imagination and supplying of referents on the part of the listener. And it's right that it should be so. Faith is not information to be found, but a resonance to be discovered within.

The feast of Corpus Christi is a perfect example. What do we mean by "the Body of Christ"? Well, a lot of things. The body of Christ is first of all the historical body of Jesus of Nazareth, as the Incarnation of the Word. Today we celebrate, in part, that he was born, lived, suffered and died in a real, physical, human body.

But the Body of Christ is also the community of believers, the Church, constituted by the Holy Spirit to extend the mission and Risen life of Jesus through history. The Church is born, teaches, rejoices in God the Father, and suffers in perfect continuity with the historical life of Jesus.

Finally, the Body of Christ is the bread and wine offered in the Eucharist. Here the sacrifice of Christ and our participation in it as church is exercised and ratified.

This is why it is a piece of cool media when someone offers you communion and says "Body of Christ." Many people seem to take it simply as a claim of Christ's presence under the form of the bread, but it is also a personal address! When someone says "Body of Christ," they are addressing you as Christ's presence in the world.

Incidentally, when we refuse to accept that religious language is cool media and insist that it be hot (akin to scientific claims), that's when we become fundamentalists.

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