On Being Branches Connected to the Vine

eucharist1The image of the vine and the branches in John 15 gives us a powerful image of closeness both between ourselves and God and also with each other through our grounding in God.
Each of us is a branch connected to the vine which is Jesus. Jesus is telling us that the desires of each and every one of us must be rooted in His Desire, which is the same Desire as that of his heavenly Father. Between Jesus and his Father, there is no rivalry and Jesus does not enter into rivalry with us. From our side it tends to be a different story. We experience rivalry so constantly that it is very hard to imagine a relationship without rivalry. Just note how political and social debates are saturated with it.

Jesus’ words start to sound threatening when he talks about branches withering, being thrown away, and then burnt. However, it isn’t Jesus who cuts off the branches; it’s branches that cut themselves off. Life rooted in Christ has to be rooted in Christ. This is, or should be, a tautology, but we have a folk saying about cutting off the limb we’re sitting on. People who center their lives on one or more rivals instead of Christ are doing just that. Once cut off from the vine, we are consumed with rage with our rivals, a strife that burns us up.

We often think of union with God as individualistic but that is not so. On the contrary, union with the vine unites us with all of the other branches. This means we share our union with the vine with everybody else’s union with the vine. It is by being united to others through Christ that we have the ability, through grace, to act towards others in God’s Desire rather than through our rivalistic tendencies. Since there is no rivalry in Jesus, there is no way that Jesus would encourage rivalry with others who are connected to him. In his first epistle, John says that we should love one another because “love is from God” and God is love. (1 Jn. 4: : 7–8) Again, God’s love for us is deeply connected with our love for one another. God abides in us insofar as we love one another. If we cut ourselves off from God, we cut ourselves off from other people and if we cut ourselves off from other people, we cut ourselves off from God.

The image of the vine and the branches is, above all, Eucharistic. The Eucharist is a public event. The wine in the Eucharistic celebration is the blood of Jesus that he gave to heal all of us of our violent ways. The blood of Jesus on the altar shared with each of us makes present to us the death of Jesus at the hands of persecutory humans as it also makes present the risen life of Jesus. In exchange for the way we betray Jesus with our violence, we receive the gift of life through deep union with Jesus, a union like that of the branches to the vine. We associate blood with violence, such as with the term “bloodshed,” but blood is the life within us and it is life that the Risen Jesus gives us through his Blood. This is the wine, the blood, that flows from the vine to the branches to connect us to Christ and to each other.

A New Passover — A New Life

AndrewMassThe Passover is the formative event for Jews, the event that constitutes them as a culture. The Last Supper, the Eucharist, is as formative for Christians. Although there is debate as to whether the Last Supper was a Passover meal, the association with that feast is clear enough for Jesus’ supper to have incorporated and redefined Passover. The big question is: What is the culture that these events are intended to form?

The Passover brought freedom for the Israelites as they were lead out (or driven out) of Egypt where they had been slaves. The violence of the plagues, especially the deaths of the first born of Egypt are disturbing, particularly if God directly inflicted the vengeance. The plagues, though, are the types of events that could have happened in Egypt by natural causes. Although pharaoh resists releasing his Hebrew slaves many times, he and his fellow Egyptians don’t seem able to rid of them fast enough after blaming them for the deaths of their first born children. (Ex. 12: 29–34) The drowning in the Red Sea can easily be seen as self-inflicted violence. The Egyptians drowned not only in the water but in their own violence. In any case, Egypt is portrayed as a violent and tyrannous society, a society that the Israelites were well rid of. Their escape was an opportunity for the formation of a new culture anchored in God’s covenant with the people. Because of the covenant, Israel became the first known culture to attempt to live differently from the other nations, most notably by not making human sacrifices and not having a king who would institutionalize violence. In the end, Israel failed on both counts. Among the more telling failures was Solomon’s use of slave labor from the ten northern tribes of Israel to build the temple. (1 Kings 13–18) The prophets constantly denounced the social injustices perpetrated in Israel. The Passover itself fell into oblivion until it was revived by King Josiah. (2 Kings 23: 23)

The context of Passover tells us that the Eucharist, an event Jesus wanted his followers to repeat, is also a transition to a new culture. The greatest difference is that, while the Passover was accompanied by violence inflicted on the persecutors, in the new Passover, it is Jesus who suffers violence at the hands of violent humans. This difference is the foundation of what is perhaps best called the Renewed Covenant, since it renews and redeems the first covenant that failed. As with the first Passover, the second is a movement out of a violent culture into a whole new way of being human. This time, the rejection of violence is clear and decisive. This rejection of violence entails a rejection of the social injustices that had undermined the old covenant.

Paul’s need to remind the Corinthians of the institution of the Eucharist shows us that failure set in very soon after Jesus’ dying breath. Paul is berating the Corinthians for their insensitivity to the poorer and more vulnerable members of the congregation at the celebration of the Eucharist itself. The social inclusiveness of the renewed covenant, including economic inclusiveness, has already been forgotten. The many failures of the Church are too innumerable to name but it is important to note that countless Christians have followed Solomon’s example and enslaved other people, a practice that is still rampant today under the name of “trafficking.”

The Passover and Eucharist are calls to renounce these social vices, but they are not easily renounced by those in power, although William Wilberforce’s crusade is a rare example to the contrary. More often, it is those who are enslaved who have to reject it. This is difficult since those in power try to render their victims helpless, but it happened in the Exodus and it happened when King Rehoboam threatened to intensify the enslavement of the northern Israelites beyond what Solomon had done. (1 Kings 12: 16) Speaking of slavery, Jesus himself acted the part of a slave by washing the feet of his disciples. In the present moment, there is a peaceful rebellion against the enslavement of this country by a gun culture where the prodigal availability of powerful weapons costs many human lives, most tragically in the school shootings that have become routine. It is when we reject slavery in all its forms that we pass over from the old lives we have lived as social beings into the kingship of God.


These thoughts are explored in much more detail in my book Moving and Resting in God’s Desire

The Affirmative Way

churchDistanceBlossoms - CopyIn Christian theology and much more so in mysticism the negative or apophatic way and the affirmative way are posited as a fundamental contrast but actually they are two sides of the same coin. We can’t get anywhere if we can’t say anything about God and yet everything we say about God has to be wrong. God isn’t a rock on somebody’s front lawn any more than God is Pure Being. The dark cloud on Mount Sinai, the Cloud of Unknowing and the Dark Night all indicate negation and yet dark clouds and dark nights are still images that have to be denied. With that said (or unsaid) I will focus on the affirmative way even as I have to negate it at every turn and I will relate the affirmative way to mimetic theory.

Many see God in nature.  Even unbelievers tend to feel some reverence when they see mountains and trees and squirrels scurrying about.  The stars in the sky and stones and lakes and growing things all resonate with God’s Desire. God has profound respect for even the smallest pebble and hazel nut because God willed them to be. The more we participate in God’s Desire, the more we also will respect what is in nature and, although we must use nature, we will use nature in a sharing way rather than dominate it. Nature does not grasp at anything. It just is. This is why nature can teach us to desire in a non-rivalrous way.

The affirmative way is often experienced in human relationships. We see Christ in other people even though they do not always (or often) act like him. While the lilies of the field do not strive for the things of tomorrow, people do. In marriage, at least when it works reasonably well, one’s spouse is the primary image of God to the other. There is nothing romantic here as each partner knows very well the foibles and vices of the other. In community life, such as in a monastery, there is not, of course, the focused spousal relationship (except with God) but we have daily opportunities to see Christ through the struggles and kindnesses of others in the community. The image of Christ in the Gospels helps us straighten out the distortions that other people create even as Christ plunges us deeply into his presence within them. Learning to resonate constructively with the desires of other people is part and parcel of learning to resonate with God’s Desire.

rouault clown

One way we participate in God’s image is by creating art. No Lilly pad looks like a painting by Claude Monet but the dissolving images of lily pads on his canvases cause us to resonate with the inner life of these lily pads and to see them in real life in ways we never would otherwise.  The flowers in Georgia O’Keefe’s painting are atomic explosions. Thanks to J.R.R. Tolkien and his Ents we know how God feels in the rumbling roots of trees. Our sense of the sorrows of others is never the same after seeing any of the mournful clowns in the paintings of Georges Rouault, not to speak of the overwhelming agony in his paintings of Christ. We resonate with a certain deep level of Christ’s love through Rembrandt’s famous painting of the Prodigal Son.

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Probably no person experienced Divine Love through a human being as the fictional Dante did with Beatrice in The New Life and the Divine Comedy. In real life Dante seems to have had no more contact with Beatrice beyond being waved at while passing in the street. But in Dante’s imagination the ever deepening smile of Beatrice as she leads Dante to the heights of Paradise transfigure the smiles of those we love on earth.

Music is quite apophatic in that, in itself, it has nothing to do with images and refers to nothing beyond itself. Although music might be set to words, it resists being explained in words. There is a sense of mystery caught in the motets of Thomas Tallis that is not caught in any other way. The constantly shifting keys and moods in the Schubert piano sonatas defy explanation. Music is, however, highly sensuous and it resonates deeply with our mirror neurons. Simple hymns are magnified throughout our bodies when sung in congregations.

Scripture, and not least the Gospels, are filled with images that must both be posited and negated. We know God is not a fretful woman who loses her money and people are not small round metal objects. But the Parable of the Lost Coin teaches us how solicitous God is for us and how precious we are in God’s sight. In John, Jesus says he is the bread from Heaven but resists being taken as only a distributor of bread.  In the Eucharist, we know Jesus is not bread and wine and yet we taste Jesus in the bread and wine and are fed by him so that Jesus penetrates into deep layers inside us that we will never know of except through a glass darkly.

Bread that is Enough

eucharist1In reflecting on the journey through the desert, Moses in Deuteronomy says that God humbled the people to teach them—and us—that we do not live by bread alone. (Deut. 8:3) So often we think that our needs are biological and if we can fill them we’ll be just fine. But somehow the daily bread we pray for every day is not quite enough. Actually, the Greek word epiousion usually translated as “daily” means something quite different. Literally it means super-substantial which is a philosophical mouthful. To add to the puzzle, no other use of the word has been found, not even among Greek philosophers. It has been interpreted as referring to the Eucharist which is both bread and more than bread, but it seems anachronistic to suggest that Jesus was sneaking some medieval scholastic theology into the prayer he was teaching his disciples. On the other hand, it is understandable that medieval scholastic theologians like Thomas Aquinas would understand the word eucharistically. Obscure as the Greek word’s meaning is, the one thing that is moderately clear is that it suggests that physical daily bread that is enough to live on biologically is not enough and we need more. In this respect it could be a brief commentary on the just-quoted verse from Deuteronomy.

There are many ways we speak of needing more than bread, most often by noting our need for a meaningful life. After all, eating and sleeping doesn’t add up to very much no matter how good the food is. Given that, it is instructive that in the desert journey and in the aftermath of Jesus’ feeding the multitude in the wilderness, the people seem to be interested in more food  than in a sense of meaning to life. In John, in spite of the abundance of the feeding in the wilderness, the crowd demands to have this bread always. If we remain stuck at this level, various distortions follow.

The complaints that Moses should have left the people in the “fleshpots” of Egypt is an egregious example of this sort of distortion. Maybe the fare in the desert isn’t luxurious but the Israelites were slaves in Egypt and slave owners have never, in all of world history, gained any kind of reputation as servers of opulent meals to their slaves for all the work slaves might do in serving such meals to others. Further on, the manna appears as if from heaven and the Israelites gather it. Those who gathered more and those who gathered less all had “enough.” They were warned not to try to gather more than enough but many tried it anyway and the manna became foul and full of worms. Quite an apt image for what we get when we try to get too much. Our tendency to try to gather more of anything than we need is an indication that we need more than bread but we are trying to meet that need by gathering more bread. Usually what gathering “more” means is gathering more than other people for the sake of having more than other people. Once we want more than others, it is still never possible under any circumstances to have enough because if we already have more than others, we’ll still want more to make sure they don’t catch up.

In John, when Jesus says that he himself is the bread, he is clearly taking them to a meaning that would bring home the truth that humanity does not live by bread alone. If they really come to him, they will have enough: they will never hunger again. Or will they? Jesus says that they have to believe in him. Raymund Brown says that faith means giving their lives over to the way of Jesus. Will we do that? What is the life Jesus gives us like?

In Ephesians, Paul says that the life Jesus gives us consists of humility, gentleness, patience, and bearing with each other in love. We are to be one Body in Christ, the same body that we consume in the Eucharist. Being twisted to and fro and being blown about by every wind of doctrine is a powerful way of illustrating what it is like to be caught in the insatiable desire to have what everybody else wants and to have more of it. In contrast, the Body of Christ is solid, anchored. Where the winds of doctrine leave us famished no matter how much bread we have, in Christ’s Body we are gifted with being prophets, apostles, pastors, and teachers all being built together in Christ’s Body. That is, in Christ’s Body we all have enough because we are always feeding one another at all levels of our being as we build each other up in love. Sounds like life to me. Let’s try it.

Eating the Being of Jesus

AndrewWashingFeet - CopyThe Holy Eucharist has been accused of being a cannibalistic rite. René Girard would accept the accusation. In a snippet from an unpublished interview, he suggests that the Eucharist recapitulates the entire history of sacrifice and its violence and that history includes cannibalism. When I took a college course on African and Oceanic religions, one of the essay questions I was confronted with on the final exam was to discuss a few anthropological eyewitness accounts of cannibalistic practice. This was the first time I had encountered anything like it. What struck me about the accounts was how these people were intentionally absorbing, through ingestion, the being of the person, sometimes in mockery but more often in respect. (My take on these documents was affirmed by my professor with a top grade.) This is also Girard’s take. He ties this data into his analysis of the dynamics of mimetic rivalry where a rival moves beyond envying the possessions of another to envying the very being of the other. Interestingly, Jesus himself seems to agree with Girard and the anthropologists on this matter. In John 6, he uses strong language when he tells us that we must eat his body and drink his blood, words that suggest cannibalism and seem to have been interpreted as such by his grossed out hearers who, for the most part, went away so as not to hear anything more about it.

Cannibalistic language is often used figuratively in human speech and that is true of Holy Scripture as well. The psalmist affirms God’s deliverance from people who assail and devour his or her flesh (Psalm 27:2). St. Paul warns the Galatians that if they “bite and devour another,” they should take care that they “are not consumed by one another” (Gal. 5: 15). These examples refer to situations of serious mimetic rivalry and even if the psalmist’s enemies and the people of Galatia are “civilized” enough to rescind from literal cannibalism, they are indulging in the essence of that practice.

In what I have called the First Supper, Jesus reverses the cannibalism of devouring another person by freely offering himself, body and blood, in the bread and wine so that we may receive the being of Jesus as a free gift rather than as the spoils of a violent victory. This implies that his death on the cross is a Gift he gives to humanity and is not booty taken away from him against his will as is the booty taken by a conqueror.

What kind of personal being are we receiving when we receive the being of Jesus? In the early human centuries, people were absorbing the bravery and fighting skills of a worthy enemy who was defeated. With Jesus, what we get is something very different. This something very different is demonstrated in Jesus’ act of washing the feet of his disciples as a sign that we should serve one another in all ways. The personal being we receive in the Eucharist is one who, far from wishing to devour another person figuratively, would wish to build up another person in actuality. When we receive the being of Jesus, we receive personal courage beyond imagining, but it is not the courage of one who fights and wins battles against violent foes, but the courage of one brave enough to serve others, even to death on the cross.

Liturgical Animals (3): Stories and Ritual

eucharist1Ever since stories started to be told it has been known that we resonate with them and with the actions of the characters at a very deep level. Aristotle famously called it catharsis where our own emotions are purified when we identify with the emotions of a character on stage. Girard’s theory of mimetic desire gives us increased awareness of the phenomenon. It is no accident that Girard discovered that the best novelists and playwrights had discovered it, not least Sophocles who had inspired Aristotle’s concept of catharsis. (See Human See, Human Want.)

The discovery of mirror neurons adds further scientific and anthropological understanding to the way we resonate with stories. (See Mirroring Desires.) Realizing that our mirror neurons are activated by the intentions of others, we now know that the actions of actors on stage or on the screen also activate our mirror neurons. This is why we are so affected by what they do and most particularly what they desire. By identifying with a thief who is the protagonist of a story, we easily find ourselves desiring the thief’s success although in real life we would normally not desire that at all. But then again, perhaps the story has revealed a hidden desire to steal successfully. Or, perhaps a desire that wasn’t there has been created by the thieving action. Or a combination of both.

This is where the debate about whether or not violence or any reprehensible actions should be allowed in movies or on the stage of even in books. Does the violence observed or read about make one more violent or does it cause a catharsis, thus acting as a safety valve that prevents violence in real life? As far as I can tell, the answer goes both ways. After the Columbine school shooting, a video game was blamed for motivating the killers to go on a shooting spree, but this accusation overlooks the huge number of boys in the same age bracket who did no such thing. What we are left with, I think, is the need for us to take some responsibility for what we watch and read and more important, for how we react to them. For some, watching cops and robbers programs are mild entertainment. For others, it is more a thrill of surrogate righteous violence. If it is the latter, is this surrogate thrill enough or does it lead to inflicting violence against the “bad” guys in real life and feeling righteous about it? Or, do we act these feelings of righteous indignation without knowing what we are doing? Which puts us in the position of those who crucified Jesus.

Which brings us back to liturgy. It is worth noting that Greek plays were performed as parts of religious festivals, making the expulsion of Oedipus, for example, a liturgical event. To this day, plays and classical concerts often have a quasi-liturgical atmosphere with dimmed houselights and norms for audience decorum similar to what is usually expected in church. The more raucous and extroverted actions at rock concerts and Pentecostal services are liturgical in their own right with different liturgical norms. The thing is, liturgies and plays and concerts all stimulate the same mirror neurons in similar ways.

In Christian worship, the liturgical action is bound up with stories about Israel and most particularly, the story of Jesus. The stories are drawn out in the readings from scripture and the central story of Jesus, the Paschal Mystery, is compressed in the Eucharist where the story is fed to us literally in the bread and wine. Listening to the Word activates the mirror neurons, hopefully making us identify with the heroes and heroines of faith and most particularly with Jesus. Even from ancient times, certain people have been held up as good examples to imitate. As for Jesus settling a good example, since he compared himself to a burglar at one point, we can feel naughty and subversive in following his example and yet also feel righteous about it (Mt. 24;43). The pitfall is that we might identify with the owner of the house, and so try to keep Jesus out so that our lives aren’t subverted and turned upside down. This is just one example of how a story can twist us around in several directions, leaving us to wonder which end is up.

In general, plays and concerts are not repetitious the way the Eucharist is, which tells the same old story time after time to make it sink more deeply into us each time. It should be noted, though, that many people like to hear the same symphonies time after time and some people have favorite movies they see more times than they can count. Children have a ritual sense with their favorite bedtime stories that they want to hear night after night at the same time each night. In the Paschal Mystery, there is disclosure of the deepest truths about the way we humans live but also how we ought to live and could live by absorbing the character of Jesus. This is a story that never ends.

Eucharist (3): Discerning the Body

eucharist1St. Paul solemnizes his recounting of Jesus’ breaking bread and passing the cup of wine by saying that he is passing on to the Corinthians what he had received from the Lord. The words Paul uses here are specialized terms for receiving and passing on a sacred tradition. The only other time Paul uses these terms is to testify to Jesus’ Resurrection appearances. Resurrection and eating and drinking to “proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” go together. After all, does not the Lord come every time we eat the bread and drink the wine?

These solemn words are an island of peace and tranquility in the middle of a storm of human passions amounting to farce. Preceding them is Paul’s denunciation of the insensitive and chaotic eating habits where some people bring opulent meals to church and eat in front of poorer members who have little or nothing to eat. The deterioration of the sharing in the wilderness that began in John’s Gospel has only gotten worse. After holding up Jesus’ shared meal as a model, Paul warns against eating and drinking judgment by “not discerning the body.” Paul may be warning us not to fail to discern Christ’s body in the bread, but he is not thinking in individualistic terms. Christ’s body surely refers to the church and, given the context, Paul is concerned with failure to recognize this corporate body in the way we share, or fail to share what we have with the community. In his fit of tempter, Paul seems to suggest that the Body and Blood of Christ make people sick cause some to die. But considering how strongly Paul insists on God’s freed Gift of grace, Christ Body and Blood can only be more free grace and forgiveness. However, when we fail to see the Body and Blood in Christ in others, sickness, hunger and many more social ills will abound.

With a church in shambles, is the miracle of the Feeding in the Wilderness a distant memory? I noted in the first article in this series that memory is not just recalling something in our heads. Memory is making present. When we eat the death of Jesus, we enter into our own discord that tears the Body apart with cries such as “I am of Cephas!” “I am of Apollos!”  When we eat the Resurrection of Jesus, we eat the forgiveness with which Jesus greeted is disciples to gather them back together. We also eat the feeding in the wilderness and Jesus’ Desire to heal the people brought to him.

We are not left as orphans who have to try to stuff some ideal of human relating into our heads. We are invited to act with others the human drama of entering into God’s Desire for ourselves and all others. Most important, we are fed with the substance of God’s desire to quicken us on the way.

 Eucharist (1): Christ our Passover

Eucharist (2): Feeding in the Desert