Epiclesis and Epicerastic
Bill Long 10/18/04
Theology and Medicine, Once Again
You invite trouble when you wade into the most sacred mysteries of Christianity. The most sacred mystery of Catholic Christianity is the Eucharist and, specifically, the doctrine of transubstantiation. In the act of transubstantiation, which received its definitive doctrinal instantiation in the 3rd Lateran Council of 1215, the elements of bread and wine become, in a real sense, the body and blood of Christ. Ok, it is more complicated that this (they remain under the form or accidents of bread and wine, but the substance is the body and blood of Christ, the gift of eternal life).
As the priest intones the liturgy in preparation for the Eucharist, he does two things: he says an epiclesis and then gives the dominical words. The epiclesis is a prayer summoning God to be present in the bread and wine. Derived from the Greek "epikalein," meaning to summon, call upon or even appeal (to the Tribunes, when the noun form was taken over into the Latin appellatio), the epiclesis runs as follows:
"Father we bring you these gifts. We ask you to make them holy by the power of your Spirit, that they may become the body and blood of your Son, the Lord Jesus Christ."
Following directly on the heels of the epiclesis are the words of Christ to his disciples at the Last Supper (the dominical words) urging them to "Take, eat; this is my body which is broken for you," and, after supper, "This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Drink ye all of it."
Simple enough. But there are theological rocks protruding from the bottom of the lake, which threaten to tear into our flimsy bark as we make our way. First, when exactly do the elements become the body and blood of Christ? Second, do the words of the priest do it or is the grace of God free to come and go as it wishes? If the latter, how can we be assured, therefore, that Christ is actually (really) present in the Eucharist?
Arguments can be made that transubstantiation happens at the moment the epiclesis is uttered, since this is the calling or summoning of God to be present. This is the official position of the Roman Catholic Church. Yet, what is more powerful than the words of the Lord, pointing to the elements, offering them to the disciples, indicating that now they are his body and blood? It was this uncertainty and the seemingly magical nature of the operation that convinced the Reformers that the doctrine of real presence was not scripturally or theologically sound. Yet, once you leave the safe confines of such a doctrine, you are thrown into gales of uncertainty. The Reformers, on this question as on almost every other important question, split down the middle between those who favored a "sort of real" presence of Christ in the meal and those who saw the Eucharist as only a "memorial" of the Last Supper ("this do in remembrance of me").
All sides quickly fall back on "mystery" when pressed to explain a doctrine that is counterintuitive--how Christ is specially present when the Holy Spirit is already there or how Christ can be present in the elements when he is holding them in his hands or pointing to them. Anyone, however, who has joined with others on any task of momentous importance knows that there is a spirit that is more powerful and enduring than the mere presence of the group members. Thus, in the final analysis, epiclesis brings us not simply into the world of the Christian Eucharist but into the human concept and reality of invoking and feeling the presence of forces beyond ourselves when in need of guidance, strength and comfort.
Epicerastic and Synonyms
Comfort is the bridge between theology and medicine today, because an epicerastic is defined by the OED as "tempering the acrimony of the humors; emollient." The Greek verb "epikerannumai" is, literally, to "mix in addition," and the first usage of the word is in Homer, where it is applied to the process of mixing wine. An "epikerastikos" is attested in the ancient physican Galen's writings to describe something that tempers the humors-- the four liquids that needed to be balanced for a harmonious body to result. The few attestations of epicerastic in English are as an adjective. "An epicerastic vomit may be made of Chicken-broth," a 1684 handbook helpfully tells us. [By the way, this means that the eructation-inducing element is the chicken broth].
But reference to an epicerastic as an emollient takes us into a linguistic field defined by the latter term, derived from the Latin "emollio." An emollient is "that has the power of softening or relaxing the living animal textures." But it can also be used figuratively, as something that softens-- as in Pope's line, "The emollients and opiats of Poesy." Whereas epicerastic has no other words derived from it in English, emollient has several relatives: emolliate (verb); emolliative (adjective--that which tends to soften); and emollition (the action of softening), for example. I especially like emollescence, which means "a state of softening" or "the softened condition" of a thing. I think it is much more fitting as one matures to assume a state of emollescence than of obsolescence.*
[*Be sure to distinguish emollient from emolument. I first ran into the latter in the Declaration of Independence, which expresses the idea of salary or remuneration, though one could say "the hefty emolument emolliated him."]
Finally, an emollient can be defined as a demulcent or a lenitive. Every student has heard the word lenient because leniency is what they all say they want from a teacher. Yet demulcent and its relatives (demulce, the verb, and demulsion, the noun) ought not to be lost. Though it is rarely used today, demulcent also means "softening; mollifying; soothing."
I think we need to recapture the words suggesting moderation, soothing, healing and softening in our culture today. There is so much screaming on the television, so much of a sense that in order to be noticed you have to make a buffoon of yourself or stridulate and shriek, that the a sign of social protest might not simply be to turn off the television but to cultivate a habit of demulcent speaking or to foster an emolliative/emollient temperament. The world might be glad that we did.
Copyright © 2004-2010 William R. Long