Christ’s Dynamically Wild Presence

corpus christi processionThe Feast of Corpus Christi celebrates the presence of Christ’s body in the Eucharistic host. One of the events that inspired the institution of the feast was a vision granted Fr. Peter of Prague in 1263. He had doubted the presence of Christ in the sacrament until he had a vision of blood dripping from the host as he consecrated it. This vision, along with earlier visions of St. Juliana of Mont Cornillon, led Pope Urban IV to order the institution of this feast. Of other Eucharistic visions I’ve heard of, it is better to be silent rather than ruin today’s celebration.

I happen to have a high devotion to the real presence of Christ in the sacrament and the two great hymns that St. Thomas Aquinas wrote for the feast are edifying. But the problem with focusing on the presence of Christ in the Sacrament is that it circumscribes the consecrated host and seems to imprison Christ in it. This is to take the Eucharistic mystery out of context. After all, the phrase Corpus Christi is used in the New Testament to refer to the Church and not the sacrament by itself. Benediction has the danger of re-creating this isolation and its origins aren’t reassuring. It derives from a devotion to see the elevation of the Host at Mass, which is fine, except that this viewing was in place of receiving the Host or even of worshiping in community. There are stories of people who would rove from Mass to Mass to see as many elevations as possible! My theology professor in seminary, Arthur Vogel, railed against Benediction because it treated the sacrament as an object rather than an integral part of a dynamic celebration.

Corpus Christi processions have the same danger, but they do bring a communal aspect to the feast. Just a few years ago I found the custom alive and well in Innsbruck. I attended Mass at the cathedral where it was standing room only. After the Mass, there was a procession throughout the town with devotions read by the mayor and other dignitaries and the Landwehr fired off salutes with their rifles.

In John 6 Jesus speaks of his presence in the bread from Heaven in a dynamic way where those who eat his flesh and drink his blood abide in him as he abides in us. In isolation, these verses suggest a relationship with individual believers but the broader context is the feeding of the multitude in the wilderness, which was a communal event if there ever was one. Jesus, then, does not abide in us on an individual basis but abides in all of us as a sharing community. If we eat the Body of Christ, we are eating the very generosity and self-giving of Jesus. If we don’t give of ourselves, we have missed abiding in the community that abides in Jesus.

St. Paul’s recounting of the Last Supper begins with the solemn words that he is handing on the tradition as it was handed on to him. He then quotes what are called the Words of Institution, the words traditionally believed to change the bread and wine into the body and blood of Jesus. When put this way, we again have the sacrament restricted to a few words and Christ’s presence in the Eucharistic elements. St. Paul, however, provides many more words to the social context of the Eucharist, namely that the Corinthians should be sharing the food they bring to the celebration with the poorer members of the congregation rather than flaunting their feasting in front of those deprived. That is, it is not enough to discern the presence of Christ in the sacrament; it is also necessary to discern the body in all of God’s people.

The leaders of the Liturgical Movement of the last century, Lambert Beauduin in Belgium and Virgil Michel in the United States, grounded their liturgical principles, featuring engaged participation of the laity, with a theology of the Church as the Body of Christ. More importantly, they argued that the Eucharist is a sign and dynamic of social change, especially in ameliorating life for the poor. Dorothy Day and the Catholic Worker Movement worked very closely with Michel to this end. Far from being trapped in the bread and wine or in a monstrance, Christ is running wild throughout the world, changing not only bread and wine, but people and the whole fabric of society.

Liturgical Animals (2)

eucharist1In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul brings us to the heart of Christian worship that Jesus inspired at what we call his Last Supper. His followers were doing what he told them to do: Do this in memory of me. While both the myths and rituals obscured the sacrificial stories on which they were based, the Eucharist clearly tells the story on which it is based:  the betrayal of Jesus, his subsequent crucifixion, and his rising from the dead.  This earliest account of the Eucharist, predating all of the Gospels, enshrines the Words of Institution that are repeated in celebrations of the Eucharist two thousand years later. The Eucharist teaches us through its story but it also teaches us at a deeper, more substantial level through actually feeding us with the Word of God so tangibly that we chew on it and swallow it. Celebrating the Eucharist places our desires into Jesus’ Desire for us to gather with him and the other Persons of the Trinity.

The meal is probably the oldest of rituals performed by liturgical animals. Eating is the first activity that immerses us into mimetic desire as we imitate the desires of our caregivers to desire food and, by the time we are old enough to be conscious of what we are eating, to desire certain foods because those around us desire them. However, as much as meals have to do with providing necessary bodily nourishment, they are always more than that. An intrinsic part of learning to eat is learning how to eat in the company of others. It may be culturally arbitrary whether we use eating utensils and plates or large leaves and fingers, but in every culture I have ever heard of, there is always a way of eating that is learned. The shared desire for food extends to a shared desire for the way of eating it. By rooting liturgy in a meal, the Eucharist roots worship in the sensuous act of eating; of tasting food and drink on our tongues.

In this same letter, Paul brings up the manner of table manners in regards to the Eucharist. He berates the richer members of the congregation for their insensitive treatment of those who are more economically challenged. To flaunt their superior food in front of those who cannot afford it without offering them anything was a serious violation of everything the Eucharist stands for. This desire shared by one group in the congregation to demonstrate their superiority over others, to put them in their places, breaks the unity the feast is supposed to create and strengthen. Paul makes it clear that there is much more to worship than saying or singing words together while celebrating a sacrifice. If people are not treated well, worship is diminished if not rendered nonexistent.

John’s version of the feeding in the wilderness brings all of these themes together. The event is explicitly brought into the context of Yahweh’s feeding the Jews in the wilderness after their escape from Egypt. Raymond Brown pointed out that rabbinic teaching interpreted the manna as symbolizing the Torah, thus uniting food and teaching, something the Eucharist also does. While Matthew and Mark recount two feedings in the wilderness, one for the Jews and one for the Gentiles, John has one story of feeding for all people. Jesus’ blessing of the bread and fishes has ritual overtones although the feeding is taking place in the open air, away from temples, synagogues and churches. The social unity that Paul enjoins is embodied in John’s vision where it gains a deep universality. Unfortunately, the people then unite in trying to make Jesus king, which destroys the social vision as surely as the Corinthians did.

The Eucharist teaches us that we don’t outgrow our earliest lessons: table manners. Without them, we don’t grow up.

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

Eucharist (2): Feeding in the Desert

eucharist1The feedings of the multitude in the wilderness give us a vision of the new life that baptism initiates us into and which the Eucharist sustains. (See Divinely Created Abundance) The multiplication of food through both divine and human generosity is quite the opposite of the accusatory, slave-driving society of Egypt or the chaotic violence before the Flood. All six Gospel accounts remind the reader of God’s gift of manna in the desert after the escape from Egypt. It is John’s Gospel that makes this connection most explicit. Just as the manna needed to be renewed each day, we need to be renewed by the Eucharist on a daily, or at least weekly, basis.

It is also John’s Gospel which warns us of how easily we fall away from living by mutually gifting back into contention and rivalry. First, John says that after declaring Jesus the prophet who was to come, the crowd tried to seize Jesus and make him king. Jesus had not modeled a way to rule over other people. Quite the opposite. Jesus had modeled a way of self-giving without rivalry. This is the way of life that should rule us. Making Jesus a political ruler could only drag him and his followers (us) back into the violently competitive life that baptism delivers us from. Then, the people (i.e. us) murmur against Jesus when he tells us that he himself is the bread come down from heaven. We murmur a lot more when Jesus says that we must eat his body and drink his blood. Murmuring is the very same word used of the Jews who contended with Moses and God in the desert.

We could take the murmuring as referring to the bitter arguments over the Christian centuries as to whether or how Christ can be present in the bread and wine. It seems to me that we should take Jesus at his word here and accept that he feeds us with his death and resurrected life. That’s the hard point; not the metaphysics of the “real presence.” We balk at the idea that Jesus’ death and his ongoing resurrected life can feed us. It’s like Jesus body and blood are poison to the kind of life we’re accustomed to living, which they are.

It is typical of John’s slantwise means of conveying the Gospel that he puts Jesus’ discourses about eating his body and drinking his blood in a context outside of the meal in the upper room. This has the advantage of stressing the ongoing nutrition Jesus offers in the Eucharist. Curiously, this separation also seems to spiritualize the Eucharist in terms of Jesus dwelling in us to give us life, but this comes with a shocker that English translations cannot convey. The Greek word for “eat” is trogein, a very strong verb that doesn’t mean dining nicely with good manners. It means to chew, gnash, grind. Jesus comes right in our faces with our eating as a sacrificial act. We are to be painfully mindful of the sacrificial way of life we left back in Egypt but, unfortunately find ourselves carrying with us through the desert.

The sixth chapter of John ends with most of Jesus’ followers leaving because of these hard words. By being food that nourishes us by reminding ourselves of how sacrificial we tend to be, Jesus is indeed refusing to be the king who fixes everybody else’s wagons that we want him to be. We have wandered far from the community of sharing and giving that began this chapter, the place where Jesus wants us to be.

See Eucharist (1) See Eucharist (3)

Divinely Created Abundance

Here is a little thought experiment in spirituality. Imagine being a child who is carrying five barley loaves and two fishes. A crowd has gathered to listen to a man speak. You stop to listen. Maybe you are intrigued; maybe it goes over your head. After a while, you realize that many people are hungry. You are hungry too but you don’t need all the food you are carrying just then. Maybe it occurs to you that you could make a lot of money by selling a fish and three or four of the loaves to the highest bidder. Before you have a chance to act on this idea, one of the men surrounding the speaker asks you to come meet the speaker. Maybe you are nervous about this, but you want to know why such a man should want to talk to you. To your shock and surprise, the man tells you that the people all around are hungry and would you be willing to let him give the bread and fish to the crowd. Before you can reply, one of the men says “But what is this among so many?” You are asking yourself the same thing, but the speaker shrugs off the question. What do you do?

As we know from John 6, the lad with the loaves and fishes gave them to Jesus and Jesus fed the crowd with an exponential amount of food scraps left over. One fairly well-known theory is that the boy shamed everybody else into sharing their food when he handed over what he had. Maybe that is what happened. That would be a good example of a mimetic process creating abundance instead of scarcity (see Humanly Created Scarcity.) The references to God’s feeding the Israelites in the desert and the amazement in the narrative suggest that Jesus was re-enacting God’s act of creation in the wilderness. The miracle takes on all the more powerful when we realize that Jesus did not create food out of nothing which presumably he could have done, but he created out of a human act of giving. This miracle, recorded six times in the four Gospels show us that God desires abundance in the sense of everybody having enough. (The manna in the desert spoiled if anybody tried to take too much.) But God provides through multiplying our human generosity to others as the boy gave up the five loaves and two fishes to Jesus in the wilderness. Can we imitate this boy as this boy imitated Jesus?

For more see Violence and the Kingdom of God and Tools for Peace