Wednesday, 14 June 2023 19:04

8. The Eucharist and Proleptic Eschatology

John Keenan, SSS. 
Highland Heights (Cleveland), Ohio, USA, 26/8/2022.


The time when Jesus will return is given many names: the Parousia, the Day of the Lord, the End Time, the Last Day, and the Second Coming of Christ. It is the deeply rooted belief that Jesus Christ would come back to close the current period of human history on earth. The Parousia in the New Testament is a specific event concluding history. “On the last day” (Jn 6:54), when people rise gloriously, they will reach complete communion with the Risen Christ. This is evident, from the fact that then the communion of people with Christ will be in accord with the full existential reality of both. Moreover, with history at an end, the resurrection of all his fellow servants and brothers and sisters will complete the mystical body of Christ (Rev 6:11). Reflecting this belief, the Eleventh Council of Toledo, in the year 675, professed that the glorious resurrection of the dead would be not only on the model of Christ but also on “the model of our Head”.[1]

A fixed moment of time is attributed in the New Testament to the resurrection of the dead. Paul, after he announced that the resurrection of the dead will take place through Christ and in Christ, added: “but each in proper order: Christ the first fruits and then, at his coming (ἐν τῇ παρουσίᾳ αὐτοῦ), all those who belong to him” (1 Cor 15:23).[2] A specific event is designated as the moment of the resurrection of the dead. For by the Greek word Parousia is signified the future second coming of the Lord in glory, different from his first coming in humility;[3] the manifestation of his glory (cf. Tit 2:13) and the manifestation of the Parousia (cf. 2 Thes 2:8) refer to the same coming. The same event is expressed in the Gospel according to John 6:54 by the words “on the last day” (cf. also Jn 6:39-40). The same connection of events is given vivid expression in the first epistle to the Thessalonians 4:16-17.

The early Church expected immediate fulfillment of Jesus’ prophecies. They expected an imminent Parousia. Scriptural studies have found evidence of this expectation throughout the New Testament and the earliest Christian writings. The most ancient Eucharistic prayer that has survived, in the Didache, ends with the Aramaic word Maranatha, that is, “Come, Lord!” The Book of Revelation begins with a promise to show “what must soon take place” (Rev 1:1) and ends with the same words as the liturgy in the Didache: “Come, Lord Jesus!”.

The term prolepsis signifies the literary device referring to a future event as if it had already occurred and, therefore, exists as a present condition. Prolepsis is a form of looking ahead, of assuming something to be the case before it has been encountered, a type of heralding or foretelling.[4] Novelists do this when they hint at things to come, or when they omit information, almost as if they thought the reader already knew it. The result of such prolepsis is that the reader or hearer creates, rather than passively receives, the information necessary to complete the scene or circumstances that the writer or speaker merely hints at. As such, it expresses anticipation and assurance regarding that future event. It is when one is invited to a party and says, “I’m there”, or when a soon to be executed prisoner is referred to as a “dead man walking”. While scholars and serious students of the Bible recognize prolepsis as a biblical figure of speech, too few realize how frequently it appears in the biblical writings and how central it is to the biblical message.

However, there is another form of prolepsis which underlies the life and ministry of Jesus and is actualized in the mystery of the Eucharist.[5] In the third Eucharistic Prayer mention is made of the Second Coming of Christ at the end of time, when Christ will come again in glory to make his final judgement on the living and the dead. Following the consecration and the proclamation of the mystery of faith, prayer is addressed to God, Our Father: “… as we look forward to his Second Coming, we offer you in thanksgiving this holy and living sacrifice”.

While the Eucharist points back in time to God’s act of salvation in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, at the same time the presence of Jesus is experienced in the Eucharistic congregation as a present reality and points forward in time to the coming of Jesus. This pointing forward does not however diminish the presence of the future already enjoyed in the present. Contrary to the popular view that in the Eucharist we are commanded to recall the past works of Christ and hold them as objects of praise and gratitude, the biblical notion of anamnesis is portrayed as a memorial for God. Our act of presenting the Eucharistic bread and wine and eating them together in the divine presence is meant to “remind” God of the action which God has initiated through his Son’s suffering, death, and resurrection. And this action is the defining link in the entire history of salvation--not only from the incarnational conception to the resurrection, but from the creation to the return of Jesus Christ. The emphasis is not upon our subjective mental re-imagining of the Passion but upon the objective liturgical action which takes place within God’s believing community. Liturgical remembrance of God’s action on behalf of and in relationship with humankind in history is both a starting point for worship and flows from worship. Worship is linked with anamnesis (ἀνάμνησις). This Greek noun, in its New Testament context, most commonly translates into English as “remembrance, a commemoration, or memorial.” Christian worship is fundamentally an anamnesis, a central notion in Christian liturgy.

It is an ‘active’ remembrance of the paschal mystery, of our salvation through Christ’s death and resurrection in which “the present is brought into intimate contact with the past” and vice-versa. However, this description of anamnesis is more akin to actualizing remembrance than merely “‘active’ remembrance”.[6] The Lord’s command was not “Think about this”, but rather, “Do this”. And more forceful still, “Do this as a memorial to me”.[7]

The proleptic feature of biblical faith is that the biblical message itself, “the word of Christ”, which is the object and content of faith, according to Romans 10:1 is the here and now reality of the future events that His message and, that Christian faith anticipates. Those future events are the “things hoped for” and, because they have not yet occurred, are the “things not seen”. So, to speak believingly is to speak about those future events--specifically, the Parousia, the future coming of the risen Jesus, the resurrection of the dead, the day of judgment, and the coming of God’s kingdom--as if they had already occurred and, therefore, are a present “reality”. A reality not of fact but of faith in that, though they have not yet occurred and are not yet a matter of observable fact, they are bound to occur by the purpose of God, who has revealed his purpose in his promise going back to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3; 15:1-6; 18:18; Rom. 4:13; Gal. 3:8). What God has promised is to occur. What God has promised, then, is a present reality of faith, visible only to the eyes of faith, and will be a future reality of fact, visible to all.

To speak faithfully and believingly is always to speak proleptically, that is, to speak of God's promised future, revealed in the biblical message of Jesus and the kingdom of God, as if it had already occurred and is, therefore, a present reality. It is the biblical message itself, which Paul calls “the word of faith” (Rom. 10:8) because it constitutes what is believed: God’s promise of resurrection from death to everlasting life in the kingdom of God, already fulfilled in the experience of Jesus himself. God’s promise, the word of faith, is the reality which God has promised because God is faithful, which is the biblical definition of the righteousness of God.

The proleptic feature of biblical faith is also revealed in Paul's reference to the God “whom [Abraham] believed, the God who gives life to the dead and calls things that are not as though they were” (Rom. 4:17). In this case, “the dead” to whom God “gives life” is not singular but plural, τους νεκρούς, the dead ones, and, therefore, God’s activity of giving life to the dead refers to the future resurrection of the dead to everlasting life in the kingdom of God. This is to say that God now “gives life to the dead” as a matter of promise, to be fulfilled and, therefore, experienced by “the dead” when the risen Jesus, whose resurrection anticipates and assures the resurrection of the dead, comes to raise the dead, judge the world, and bring God’s kingdom.[8]

God’s gift of salvation, then, is given in the form of promise: God’s grace is the promise of life in the age to come, assured by the forgiveness of sins which has been accomplished through Jesus’ death on the cross, offered to all and given to believers in the biblical word of promise. Jesus’ resurrection is itself, then, the past event which allows the future resurrection of the dead to be spoken of proleptically, that is, spoken of as if it had already occurred and is, therefore, a present reality (see Eph. 2:4-7). Likewise, Jesus’ proclamation of the good news of the kingdom allows the kingdom of God to be spoken of proleptically, as if present, as indeed it is a present reality of faith as well as a remembering of the past.

Our memory of the Lord in the Eucharist however has social implications. Anamnesis is a living memory that the one who cares and forgives, who hears his people’s cry and does not let their brokenness and pain go on forever, who really does change death into life and overcomes evil with good.[9] Such memory of Christ’s “promise of presence”[10] to us, Morrill writes, is only possible if worship is grounded in solidarity with Christ poured out for us on the cross. Morrill criticizes much of contemporary liturgy that commemorates Christ risen while ignoring Christ crucified. Instead, following Johann Baptist Metz’s political theology, Morrill challenges contemporary Christians “to imitate” the kenosis of Christ on the cross, “by taking on the pattern of his selfless action on behalf of freedom for everyone, living and dead”.[11] The same Christ present in the Eucharist yearns to be present in those who participate in the Eucharist, in acts of solidarity with the suffering and with the dying. Solidarity, with its imperative to liberate as God liberates from suffering and death, is the link between Eucharistic liturgy and the liturgy of a life of social responsibility. Only thus, says Morrill, the Christian proclaims through living and perpetually present memory “the death of the Lord until he comes”.[12]

The Eucharist is not a compensation for the postponement of the Parousia, but a way of celebrating the presence of one who had promised to come again. It was Jesus who set such a high level of expectation in the apostolic community; and it was He who pointed to its imminent fulfillment. At the Last Supper the Eucharist was cast as an eschatological event--a Parousia, a coming of the kingdom. The significant details in the scriptural accounts of the Last Supper indicate this. As Jesus takes the bread and wine, He says to his apostles: “I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I tell you I shall not eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God. I shall not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes” (Lk. 22:15-16, 18). As Christ institutes the sacrament, Christ institutes the kingdom. A moment later, Christ is speaking of the kingdom in terms of a “table” (22:27) and a “banquet” (22:30)--language that will recur in the final chapters of the Book of Revelation. Also, at the very end of the Book of Revelation is the invocation Maranatha. Although there are various possible translations of Maranatha (“Our Lord comes” or “Our Lord has come”), it was understood at that time to mean “Come, Lord.” He assures his people that he is coming soon to bring the judgement (Rev. 22.7, 12, 20), and the prayer reflects this hope of his imminent return.

Maranatha is also found at the close of an early Eucharistic Prayer, possibly the earliest known outside the New Testament, the Didache 9,10. This links the return of the Lord to the Eucharist. Other lines of the prayer are ambiguous: ‘Let this present world pass away’, for example, could imply either a literal or apocalyptic understanding of the Lord’s return or the present transforming effect of the Eucharist. Maranatha in the Eucharist, however, is clearly praying for the coming of the Lord in the fullness of Christ’s liberating Kingdom.

If we are looking for familiar apocalyptic language, we will find it aplenty in Luke’s account of the Last Supper and it is always expressed in Eucharistic terms. Maranatha! is the Church’s primal Eucharistic prayer. This links the return of the Lord to the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is the mystery of faith, the mystery of the life-giving death of the conqueror of death. This is so well expressed in the Byzantine Liturgy of the Paschal Matins of Great and Holy Saturday as the Church proclaims: Christ is risen from the dead, by His death He has conquered death, and to those in the grave, He has granted life.


Father Doctor Keenan presently is on sabbatical and has degrees in theology and clinical psychology. He has served in his province leadership at several points in its history and was Provincial Superior of the Province of Saint Ann April 2021 - August 2022.


[1] Denzinger, Schönmetzer. Enchiridion Symbolorum, *540, 287, p.180.

[2] Ἕκαστος δὲ ἐν τῷ ἰδίῳ τάγματι· ἀπαρχὴ Χριστός, ἔπειτα οἱ τοῦ Χριστοῦ ἐν τῇ παρουσίᾳ αὐτοῦ.

[3] Cf. Nicene-Constantinople Creed, Denzinger, Schönmetzer *150, 86, p. 66: “and he will come again in glory”.

[4] Britannica, T. Editors of Encyclopaedia (2016, April 1). prolepsis. Encyclopedia Britannica.

[5] See Joachim Jeremias. The Eucharistic Words of Jesus (Norwich: Hymns Ancient and Modern Ltd, 2012).

[6] Bruce T. Morrill. Anamnesis as Dangerous Memory: Political and Liturgical Theology in Dialogue (Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 2000), p.177.

[7] Dennis C. Smolarski. Liturgical Literacy: From Anamnesis to Worship (New York, NY/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1990), p.11.

[8] Τοῦτο ἤδη τρίτον ἐφανερώθη Ἰησοῦς τοῖς μαθηταῖς ἐγερθεὶς ἐκ νεκρῶν. Cf. Jn 21:14.

[9] Margaret Scott, The Eucharist and Social Justice (New York, NY/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2009), p. 69.

[10] Morrill, Anamnesis as Dangerous Memory, p. 34.

[11] Morrill, p. 34.

[12] Morrill, p. 179.

Last modified on Wednesday, 14 June 2023 19:10