RIGHT AND JUST written by David Cowles

In Roman Catholic liturgy, the Eucharistic Prayer, the central event of the Mass that incorporates the Transubstantiation of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ (“this is my body…this is the cup of my blood”), begins with a dialog between Priest and Congregation:

P: “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.” C: “It is right and just.”

Give thanks for what? And why is it right and just?

The Greek word Eucharistia comes from two primitive root words meaning “good” and “cheer” respectively. Combined, they have the sense of “thanksgiving”. So when the priest says, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God,” at one level at least he is saying, “Let us have a Eucharist,” certainly an appropriate opening for a Eucharistic Prayer.

Still, the question remains: if Eucharist is giving thanks, who is being thanked and for what? And what does it have to do with righteousness and justice? In Eucharist, we thank God. For what? For being God! And what does it mean to be God? Psalm 97 says it best: “Justice and right are the foundations of his throne.”

God’s being God is founded on the values of justice and righteousness. But ‘Being God’ is no spectator sport. ‘Being God’ is active and has the most profound consequences.

After the introductory dialog (above), the Eucharistic Prayer may take any one of several acceptable forms. In general, however, regardless of the specific form chosen by the celebrant, the Eucharistic Prayer refers to the 5 principal aspects of God’s action in the world, the manifestation of Divine Being: Creation, Incarnation, Redemption, Resurrection and Parousia.

This last aspect, Parousia, is included in the same exact form in all versions of the Eucharistic Prayer. It is the central content of the Sanctus:  “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of Hosts, Heaven and Earth are full of your Glory…”

The Hebrew prophet Isaiah (Is. 11:9b) described his own version of Parousia: “…The earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord as water covers the sea.” Half a millennium later, the Apostle Paul wrote (1Cor. 15:28): “When everything is subjected to him (Son), then the Son himself will be subjected to the one (Father) who subjected everything to him so that God may be all in all.”

‘God’s Glory’ refers to God’s active manifestation in the World. When Heaven and Earth are full of God’s Glory, the eschatological visions of both Isaiah and Paul are realized.

Parousia is an ancient Greek word with a dual meaning: ‘presence’ and ‘arrival’ so it is uniquely well suited to express the Christian concept of the Eschaton. Parousia is Christ’s eternal ‘presence’ outside of spacetime and also Christ’s ‘arrival’ in spacetime at his Incarnation and Second Coming. In Parousia, the eternal world (Parmenides’ Aletheia) and the temporal world (Parmenides’ Doxa) become one.

In the celebration of the Mass, we re-instantiate God being God:

(1) When we take bread (“which earth as given and human hands have made”) and wine (“fruit of the vine and work of human hands”) and turn them into the body and blood of Christ, we re-instantiate Creation & Incarnation.

(2) In the breaking of the ‘bread’ (unbloody sacrifice) that follows, we re-instantiate Jesus’ death on the cross: Redemption.

(3) Then in the distribution of Holy Communion, we re-instantiate Jesus’ Resurrection and finally, when we receive that communion, we complete the Salvation process (Parousia).

The celebration of Eucharist is the ultimate middle voice activity. As we incorporate the body and blood of Christ into our own bodies, God incorporates us into himself. In 2008, Pope Benedict XVI said, “Christ gives us his Body in the Eucharist…and thus makes us his Body. If man eats ordinary bread…this bread becomes part of his body…But in holy Communion, the inverse process is brought about. Christ, the Lord, assimilates us into himself…and thus we all become his Body.”

But why is this “right and just”? In the Old Testament, the concept of justice is expressed via two word families derived from two very distinct Hebrew roots (Tsadaq & Shaphat). While the two words are sometimes indiscriminately translated into English, almost as if they were synonyms, they in fact have very different root meanings. Tsadaq is best translated as ‘right’ or ‘righteousness’ while Shaphat denotes ‘judge’. Mishpat, which is derived from Shaphat, is best translated as ‘justice’.

Now it is crucial to understand that the Hebrew concept of ‘justice’ is quite different from ours. We think of justice in terms of adherence to law, deliberation, impartial consideration, scales of justice, etc… The Hebrew concept is much more active; it involves ‘making things right’. Mishpat is something you do, not a static state of affairs.

In the Old Testament Book of Judges, for example, a judge is more like Robin Hood than John Roberts. Old Testament judges are no magistrates. They aggressively intervene in the course of history to defend ‘the people’ generally and advance the interests of ‘the poor’ especially.

But justice has another side, the side of Tsadaq. This is a more contemplative concept: what are the intentions of the actor? What are the values that guide her actions and what values does she wish to project onto the world she is co-creating? If Mishpat is the engine that changes the world, Tsadaq is its owner’s manual.

We see the twin role of Tsadaq and Mishpat throughout the Old Testament but we’ll look at just two examples:

In Isaiah (11: 1 – 9), the prophet paints a picture of a Messianic King from the house of David (“shoot of Jesse”) who will usher in the Eschaton. And what does Isaiah tell us about this king:

(1)   “The spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and of understanding…” In short, he is righteous.

(2)   “…He shall judge the poor with justice and decide fairly for the land’s afflicted. He shall strike the ruthless with the rod of his mouth and with the breath of his lips he shall slay the wicked.” In short, he is just.

At first glance, these attributes would seem strange bed-fellows…but not if you understand the Hebrew concept of justice. In that context, these attributes are not only not in conflict, they necessarily complement one other. One should not be a ‘judge’ without being ‘righteous’ and one cannot be ‘righteous’ without becoming a ‘judge’.

This is about as far away from Machiavelli (ends justify means) as it is possible to get.  This also solves the pseudo-riddle of James and Paul. James extols the necessity of good works (mishpat) while Paul seems to put more emphasis on faith (tsadaq). In fact, there is no conflict whatsoever. At the end of the day, either one without the other is unsustainable.

In the 72nd Psalm (1 – 14), the Psalmist sings, “O God, give your judgment (mishpat) to the king and your justice (tsadaq) to the king’s son, that he may govern your people with justice, your oppressed with right judgment…that he may defend the oppressed among the people, save the children of the poor and crush the oppressor…For he rescues the poor when they cry out, the oppressed who have no one to help. He shows pity to the needy and the poor and saves the lives of the poor. From extortion and violence he redeems them for precious is their blood in his sight.”

Right rule requires both righteousness (tsadaq) and justice (mishpat)!

The 72nd Psalm is the final psalm in the 3rd book of Psalms, and it ends with a marvelous doxology: “Blessed be the Lord God, the God of Israel, who alone does wonderful deeds. Blessed be his glorious name forever; may he fill the earth with his glory. Amen and amen.”

“May he fill the earth with his glory.” The same theme we found in the Eucharistic Prayer (Sanctus) we find in Psalms.

Interestingly, we can find a similar ontological vision in the work of 20th century process philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead. For Whitehead, all ‘actual entities’ (i.e. things that really, truly are) are constituted by their ‘prehensions’ of other actual entities and of primordial values (‘eternal objects’).

Actual entities are prehended physically while eternal objects are prehended conceptually. In the process of prehending actual entities and eternal objects, the actual entity fashions its own subjective aim which in turn becomes the entity’s ‘superject’…i.e. the way that entity impacts the rest of the world

God is the ultimate actual entity. God’s primordial (conceptual) prehension of the eternal objects constitutes the ground of all Being. God’s consequent (physical) prehension of all actual entities constitutes Parousia, Eschaton, the Kingdom of Heaven.

In his conceptual prehension of the eternal objects, God is the source of all value, the archetypical Tsadaq.

In his physical prehension of actual entities, God is the source of all reconciliation. the archetypical Shephat.

Christ reconciles all actual entities to one another and to himself so that “we all become his Body” and he does so according to the perfect harmony instituted by God’s valuation of the eternal objects. In fact, Christ is that harmony: Wisdom in the Old Testament, Logos in the New.

So yes, “Let us give thanks to the Lord our God. It is right and just.”