The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and The Eucharist


The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and The Eucharist
Brian Zahnd

Like the other Gospel writers John recounts the story of Jesus multiplying the loaves and fishes to feed five thousand. But John adds this unique postscript:

“When Jesus realized that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, he withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” (John 6:15)

The crowd’s response to this “table in the wilderness” was an impulse to make Jesus king…but Jesus declined. Why? Jesus is king, he came to be king, king is what Messiah means. So why does Jesus slip away from the crowd when they want to make him king? The issue is force.

The crowd wanted to “take him by force and make him king.” At the center of the crowd’s concept of kingship was violent force. They wanted to force Jesus to be their forceful king so he could lead their forces in an uprising of violent force against the Romans. This was antithetical to the kind of king Jesus came to be. Caesar is a crucifying king who reigns by force. Christ is the crucified king who reigns without force. Christ’s kingdom is built upon co-suffering love, not violent force.

The crowd that wanted to force Jesus to be king was operating from the dominant paradigm of scarcity. This is the paradigm that possessed Cain to kill Abel, and it lies at the dark heart of human civilization. We are scripted to believe that reality is zero-based and that we live in a closed system.

This paradigm of scarcity and insufficiency is the philosophy that undergirds our structures of systemic sin. We fear there won’t be enough land, water, food, oil, money, labor to go around, so we build evil structures of sinful force to guarantee “us” “ours.” We call it security. We call it defense. We call it freedom. What we don’t call it is what it is…fear. Driven by our fear of scarcity we create an organized, large-scale, slow-motion version of anarchy. A mob on a looting rampage is called anarchy. One nation looting another is called glorious conquest — but it’s just looting on a grand scale. Kings are tasked with looting our enemies on our behalf.

They say that patriotism is the last refuge
To which a scoundrel clings
Steal a little and they throw you in jail
Steal a lot and they make you king

-Bob Dylan

How else are we to understand the wars of conquest in the light of Christ? In the American context the native peoples were the victims of the organized, large-scale, slow motion version of anarchy called Manifest Destiny. The paradigm of scarcity is absolutely dominant in the mind of fallen mankind. So we are committed to furthering economic self-interest through force. This is how we understand the role of kings (or presidents). This leads to competition, conflict, conquest, resentment, rebellion, retaliation, and war. Which in turn tragically leads to the self-fulfilling prophecy of scarcity and lack.

These are the four horsemen of the Apocalypse that keep galloping across history. The white horse of conquest, followed by the red horse of war, followed by the black horse of famine, followed by the pale horse of death. Put it on repeat and you have world history. Jesus is the king who comes to save humanity from the stupid cycle of conquest, war, famine, and death. So when the crowd tried to force Jesus onto the white horse, he refused.

The miracle of the loaves and fishes was intended to be a sign pointing us to a new paradigm. Jesus was constantly teaching people not to worry about scarcity, but to trust in God. Jesus wants us to see that we don’t live in a closed universe, reality is not zero-based. Instead God breaks into our world with the beauty of the infinite. (To borrow a phrase from David Bentley Hart.) The sign of the loaves and fishes was intended to show that with God all things are possible, and that the paradigm of scarcity is a satanic lie. When the Galilean crowd failed to get this message, but instead wanted to use Jesus to start the cycle of conquest, war, famine, and death — those hideous horsemen — Jesus withdrew to the mountain for a night of prayer. The next day Jesus took a different approach with the crowd.

“When they found him on the other side of the sea, they said to him, ‘Rabbi, when did you come here?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves. Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.’ … ‘I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.’ The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, ‘How can this man give us his flesh to eat?’ So Jesus said to them, ‘Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.'” (John 6:25–27; 51–53)

Instead of a battlefield where the four horsemen of the Apocalypse ride in vicious repetition, Jesus calls the world to a table where he offers humanity his flesh and blood. And why? Because to eat the flesh and drink the blood of Jesus is to ingest the infinite. Jesus said it this way, “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life.” (John 6:54) Jesus abandons the worn out way of trying to change the world by riding warhorses across battlefields. That will never change the world. That’s the way the world already is. Instead Jesus calls us to a table and asks us to eat his flesh and drink his blood that we might participate in his eternal life. But the Galilean crowd was offended by Jesus’ provocative flesh-eating and blood-drinking invitation.

It is significant that Jesus never softens the scandal of his invitation by saying, “I mean symbolically.” No, Jesus just keeps intensifying his Eucharistic theology by saying, “my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.” (John 6:55–56) Even when many disciples complained, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” Jesus doesn’t relent. (John 6:60) And what was the result? “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.” (John 6:66)

This abandoned discipleship is sad, but for Jesus the idea that his followers would feed on his flesh and drink his blood was a non-negotiable. If we try to remove the scandal of a robust Eucharistic theology by reducing it all to mere symbol we are doing the very thing Jesus refused to do. Let the scandal remain. We are invited to eat the flesh and drink the blood of God that we might participate in eternal life. The most appropriate response to this holy mystery is not an empiricist explanation or an embarrassed backpedaling, but a reverent amen. When the officiant says, “The body of Christ broken for you,” the communicate says, “Amen.”

It is the beauty of the infinite offered in the Eucharist that saves us from the fear that unleashes the four horsemen of the Apocalypse.


(The artwork is Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse by Victory Vasnetsov, 1887.
Notice the slain Lamb standing above the four horseman.)