Eating Together

garden1Eating is among the most fundamental activities of civilization, perhaps the most fundamental. It is the practice that brings people together to share in nourishment and social nurturing. And yet, throughout the animal kingdom, sustenance requires feeding on other living beings. Sometimes it is other animals, sometime plants. That is, a group bonding through eating inevitably bonds at the expense of other living beings.

The Christian Eucharist builds on the social bonding with its celebration of a meal that binds people together. Being bound up with the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, a sacrifice made so that all other people may live, it is a meal of human sacrifice. Yet it is made a bloodless sacrifice by the serving of bread and wine that in some mysterious way are identified with the body and blood of Jesus, thus sanitizing the Eucharist of the violence in the story that is told in the breaking of the bread.

Jesus’ strange words in his long monolog that follows the feeding in the wilderness connects this feeding with the Eucharist in words that are both comforting in that they promise a deep union with Jesus, but disturbing by thrusting the violence of Jesus’ death in our faces. English translations inevitably lose much of the force of the words as there is no English word that catches the connotations of trogein.“Gnaw” comes closest but even that is not strong enough. The German word fressen, which refers to the eating of non-human animals, comes much closer. When I used the word flippantly in conversation with a German acquaintance, his reaction was very strong, about as strong as our reaction to Jesus’ words ought to be. Which is precisely the way “the Jews” react to Jesus’ words.

In reply to “the Jews’s” anger, Jesus promises that his flesh and blood are “real food” and “real drink” without which we have no life in us. Jesus goes on to make the even more audacious claim that his body and blood do not nourish us as meat and vegetables nourish us. Such nourishment is not lasting and needs to be renewed by further eating and drinking as the manna God fed the Israelites in the desert needed to be re-gathered every day. But Jesus’ own flesh and blood feeds us in such a way that we will live forever.

If Jesus can be our food in a way that sustains us everlastingly, then his own life must also be constantly renewed. This is the claim he makes when he says that he abides in his Father and his Father abides in him. This amounts to the astounding claim that it is possible to be nourished in a way that it is not at the expense of any living being. How can this be?

Since Jesus’ promise of everlasting nourishment is tied so closely to his painful death, we might get some understanding by looking at sacrifice. Sacrifice is closely tied to eating. Deities feed on animals or vegetation, or at least the aroma of them, and the sacrificers usually eat the food that was sacrificed. The Passover lamb is sacrificed both to spare the Israelites from the plague that strikes the first-born of Egypt and a sacrifice to physical hunger, and thus a source of nourishment as well. Sacrifices need to be repeated, as the author of Hebrews says. (Heb. 7: 27; 9: 6) In his sacrificial death, Jesus has obtained “eternal redemption.” (Heb. 9: 12) Thus, this author is making the same claim on behalf of Jesus that Jesus is making in John’s Gospel.
René Girard is helpful here. His thesis that civilization is founded on sacrifice and thus needs to be fueled by repetition of the same alerts us to the ongoing “nourishment” civilization receives through the periodic deaths of victims. One sacrifice lasts only for so long and then social tensions require another. Caiaphas intended Jesus’s death to be such a life-giving sacrifice for the people, (Jn. 12: 50–52) but Caiaphas got more than he bargained for. Jesus was raised from the dead and so became empowered to continually offer his life for others while no longer being subject to death himself. This is how Girard would have us understand the Church’s claim that Jesus’ sacrifice is the final sacrifice. There is no longer a need for sacrificial victims because the way has been opened for us to be everlastingly nourished by the life that was given once for all.

The death and resurrection of Christ, then, are a pledge of the heavenly banquet where we will be nourished without need of taking any life, not even that of plants, but in this life, we still need to eat living beings of some sort. Even Lady Wisdom has to slaughter animals for her banquet. What we can do is let Christ nourish us deeply in the here and now so that we do not need to sacrifice other people as we are prone to do, but rather will feed others in anticipation of the heavenly banquet.

The Elusive Trinity

KatrinaCrossAbraham1The Trinity is a fundamental doctrine for Christianity but Christianity is a story of salvation before it is a set of doctrines. The Trinity is no exception. If we get the story right, we might get the doctrine right, but if we get the story wrong, then we get the doctrine wrong for sure.

John 3 tells of Nicodemus coming to see Jesus at night, suggesting he is in the dark. Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above,” (Jn. 3:3) don’t seem to follow from what Nicodemus has just said. It sounds like the answer to a question that was not asked. Is there an implied question to what Nicodemus did say? The only implied question I can pick up is: “How do I do the signs that you do?” If so, Jesus is saying that Nicodemus is asking the wrong question. Jesus says first that Nicodemus must be born again, or born from above, most likely both. Jesus “clarifies” the matter by saying that Nicodemus must be “born of the Spirit,” which is a problem since, like the wind, nobody knows “where it comes from or where it goes..” (Jn. 3: 8) Here, one Person of the Trinity enters into this story.

So far, Nicodemus is showing difficulty in knowing what he really wants, further indicating that he is in the dark. We are tempted to laugh at him for his obtuseness, but we would do well to ask ourselves if we really know what we want? So asking ourselves inserts us into the story where all of us are in the same pickle as Nicodemus, which is to say, we are all in the dark. René Girard is helpful here when he suggests that all of us don’t know what we want and so we all look to other people to show us what we want. That is, if we see (rightly or wrongly) other people wanting something, we tend to want it too. Girard also gives us the insight that since none of us knows what we really want, we end up in a social muddle that is fraught with conflict. In Romans, Paul tells us that “all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” (Rom. 8: 14) So, even though we don’t know what we want we can be born anew, from above, into the Kingdom if we let this Spirit, whom we can’t understand or grasp, lead us.

Then, in another non sequitur, Jesus tells us a mini-story: “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” (Jn. 3: 13) While Nicodemus and the rest of us have been thinking of rising above our humanity, Jesus has come down to take on our humanity and only then did he rise back up to heaven. So, trying to do the signs that Jesus did by some human technique is bound to fail and will keep us in the dark. But Jesus then retells a mysterious story in Numbers as a variant of the first story. During a medical and social crisis of plague in the wilderness, the sort of crisis Girard warns us will happen when we don’t know what we want, Moses was instructed to raise a bronze serpent so that any who look upon it are healed. Jesus is now claiming that he is the “bronze serpent” raised up on the cross. Raising Jesus on the cross is the result of our muddle over not knowing what we want and falling into violence as did the Jews in the desert. Yet looking at Jesus on the cross to the point of really seeing what we have done offers us a cure of our violence. Not only that, but so looking at Jesus will give us eternal life. In John, this phrase does not refer primarily to life after death but to the quality of life here and now (and presumably after death as well.) Being cured of our violence certainly is a way to an improved quality of life. This is the way of being born again, from above, of being children of God. Once born from above, our desires become much clearer and they are focused on the well-being of other people. More important, after coming down from heaven, Jesus did not return there until after he was raised up on the cross. What is above and what is below has gotten thoroughly turned around. We now have two members of the Trinity in our story.

Then Jesus briefly tells the same story in a different way: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (Jn. 3: 16) Jesus was not sent to condemn the world, although there was much to condemn, but Jesus was sent so that the world might be saved through him. Paul says that the Holy Spirit cries out within us: “Abba! Father!” This exclamation makes us joint heirs with Christ if we allow our desires to be formed by the Desire that flows through all three persons of the Trinity.

When presented as just a doctrine, the Trinity looks like an mutual admiration society of three. When presented as a story, the Trinity is a union of three persons dedicated to creating and re-creating humanity and all creation.

Sight and Vision Recreated

sideAltarsIcons1When I last posted a blog post on the story of Jesus healing a man born blind (Jn. 9), I suggested in passing that Jesus’ daubing the man’s eyes with mud mixed with his spittle and asking him to wash it at Siloam recalled the creation of the first human out of clay in Genesis 2. This time around, I noticed that this detail is repeated three times to give it a strong emphasis. First when John narrates the action, second, when his neighbors ask him how it is that he can see, and third, when the Pharisees question the man. This is three times in the span of nine verses. Then, after confirming with the man’s parents that he had indeed been born blind, the Pharisees ask him again how he regained his sight. The man offers to tell his story yet again but the Pharisees cut him off. Even so, we have been reminded once again of what Jesus has done. That’s a lot of emphasis.

This thrice and almost four-times repeated telling alerts us to the importance of the link between this miracle and creation, thus making it an act of re-creation. The obvious symbolism of blindness and sight suggest that Jesus is re-creating something more than eyesight for the man born blind. What blindness is Jesus healing? According the French think René Girard, humanity has been blind since its birth by what he calls the “scapegoat mechanism.” That is, since the dawn of humanity social tensions have been solved through suddenly uniting against a victim. Girard also says that this scapegoat mechanism only worked for early societies because people were blind to what they were doing. Girard then argues that it is the Gospels that have definitively revealed the truth of the scapegoat mechanism. (For an introduction to Girard’s thought see Violence and the Kingdom of God.)

This story indeed thrusts us right in the middle of the scapegoat mechanism and the blindness it causes. We can see the ever-increasing circles of persecutory violence depicted in this story from the disciples’ assuming that the man was born blind because somebody sinned to the Pharisees expelling the healed man from the synagogue and setting their sights on Jesus.

For those of us who had something of a “eureka!” experience upon encountering Girard’s thought there is the danger of thinking that this insight into the scapegoat mechanism is a quick fix. Now we know the problem; we can fix it and stop persecuting people any more. It doesn’t work that way and the creation imagery in John’s story tells us why. John is telling us that we need the same radical make over in order to see that a person born blind needs in order to gain intelligible sight. If we need to be recreated in the same way, then the preliminary insight into the scapegoat mechanism is only the beginning of a long journey of being re-formed into Christ. The baptismal imagery of the water washing the clay deepens this need for re-forming.

Those of us working with Girard’s thought now have a history if several decades of struggling to become more and more aware of ways that we scapegoat others. One of the more dangerous pitfalls is what we call “scapegoating the scapegoaters.” This sounds and feels so righteous, but it falls into exactly the same pattern as the Pharisees we are denouncing in this story.

Girard’s insight into the scapegoat mechanism is not a quick fix; it is a very slow fix that takes a lifetime of prayer, meditation, alert practice in our social relationships and, most of all, constant vigilance over our inner pull toward scapegoating others. All this time, we have to be as malleable as moist clay so that God can re-create us and re-form us in God’s Desire for us and for humanity.

Two books I have written dealing with the practicalities of spirituality are Tools for Peace and Moving and Resting in God’s Desire.

Jesus’ New Commandment

AndrewWashingFeet - Copy

Jesus’ “new commandment” to his disciples that they should love one another (Jn. 13: 34) is simple. Or is it? If it were as simple as it seems, everybody would love one another and everything would be fine. But everything is not fine. Violence continues to break out time and time again. We get a strong hint as to the difficulty of this simple commandment by noting the context immediately surrounding this new commandment. Judas has just left the group to betray Jesus. Does this new commandment apply to him?

In the First Epistle of John, the author expresses this new commandment (1 Jn. 2: 8) by saying: “whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light” but whoever “hates another believer is in the darkness.” (1 Jn. 2: 10–11) When Judas left Jesus and the disciples, John said: “And it was night.” (Jn. 13: 30) This verse is often understood symbolically. Judas has rejected love of Jesus and the disciples and so he is in darkness. Does this mean it is okay to hate Judas who is no longer a believer? Is this how we follow Jesus’ “new commandment?”

In his first epistle, John follows up the love commandment with a denunciation of the “antichrists” who “went out from us” but did not “belong to us for if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us.” (1 Jn. 2: 19) So, the “antichrists” had, like Judas, betrayed the Johannine community and once again, we face the pain we suffer through betrayal. The tone of John’s denunciations of the “antichrists” suggests that the new commandment does not apply to them any more than it applies to Judas.

Does the new commandment mean it is okay, even righteous, to hate traitors? That is the impression the First Epistle of John seems to give. We all know how difficult it is to have anything but hatred for those who betray us. Loving a traitor seems impossible. For a small community living under pressure and threat, it must have been doubly difficult to forgive those who betrayed them. In Matthew and Luke, however, Jesus commands us to love our enemies. St. Paul and St. Peter say the same in their epistles. Moreover, the story of Peter being called to preach to the centurion Cornelius is a powerful example of Israel being called to expand God’s love to their traditional enemies, the Gentiles.

It follows that whatever John may have thought about loving traitors and enemies, the overall teaching in the New Testament would have us understand Jesus’ new commandment in John as extending to everybody, even Judas. We should note, however, that although the synoptic Gospels don’t express the same cold anger at Judas, there is no indication of forgiveness for him, either. The thrust of these reflections is that the new commandment does extend to Judas but that John is also very frank about how difficult, even impossible, this simple commandment is.

The key out of this impasse is the rider Jesus adds to the new commandment: “Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” (Jn. 31: 34) We are very prone to loving as we love one another. A big part of the way we love one another is to intensify our love by hating our enemies, especially those who have betrayed us. By abiding in our love for others, we hate those who are outside our group. If we abide in Christ’s love, then our love for others expands even to our betrayers because it is no longer our love, but Christ’s that moves in and through us. After all, Jesus had presumably washed the feet of Judas before Judas left. Might Jesus still want Judas to come back to the table? Would we welcome Judas if he should return?

For further reflections on this theme see http://girardianlectionary.net/reflections/year-c/easter5c/

 

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.

Possessed by God

treeBlossoming1The First Epistle of John overflows with declarations of God’s preemptive love: “not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 Jn. 4: 10). This preemptive love of God is not just a vague benevolence but an action, and a sacrificial act at that. God did, and continues to act on our behalf. John goes on to describe God’s love as an abiding presence within us, what amounts to being possessed by God. Is this just an added treat in life? We can quickly see that being possessed by God is much more important than that. Many cases of possession of a different sort were recorded in the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus cast many demons out from people who were possessed by them. Without necessarily ruling out a supernatural provenance for some of these possessions, it is helpful to remember that René Girard’s theory of mimetic desire shows us how we can become possessed by other people, especially in rivalrous situations. (See Human See, Human Want.) We only need to reflect on how strongly another person we are at odds with has taken over us to realize how much another person can possess us. Crowds of people easily become possessed as the story of the Gerasene demoniac and the Passion narratives suggest. If we put John’s teaching of God’s indwelling love together with demonic possession, we are confronted with the conclusion that we are going to be possessed by somebody. It is not possible to remain aloof from the intentions and desires of other people. They will possess us whether we like it or not. The question is: By whom are we possessed? Jesus’ little parable about the evil spirit that was cast out but returned to the house “swept clean” with seven spirits “more evil than itself” (Mt. 12: 44-45) teaches us that casting out the spirit who has possessed someone is not enough. We must become possessed by the Spirit of one who is full of love, One who is not in rivalry with us or with anybody else.

Jesus’ image of the vine and the branches in John 15 gives us another take on the importance of being possessed by God’s love. Once again, we have the language of mutual abiding. The branches depend on the vine for both their lives and the vitality that gives them the power to act and bear fruit. This image reminds us of other vineyards in scripture. There is the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5 which the owner prepared to bear good fruit, only to have it bear wild grapes. Jesus is surely referring to Isaiah’s song in his parable of the vineyard. The evil workers who killed the messengers and servants and then the owner’s son show us what a crowd possessed by rivalry looks like. Jesus’ teaching about the vine and the branches takes us much more deeply into the heart of this parable. The “wild grapes” who killed the owner’s son are branches that broke away from the vine. Having no life in them, they can only offer death to others. But if we do not break away, we are pruned of our competitive spirit so that we can bear fruit. Unlike the parable of the vineyard, the owner does not stop with laying out the groundwork; the owner continues to care for the vineyard over time, just as God sustains us so that we abide in God’s love and God’s love abides in us. This possession protects us from the possession of the persecutory crowd and frees us to bear fruit by acting on God’s preemptive love. This freedom opens our hearts and minds to discern what we can do with what resources we have to help others in need. This freedom is dangerous. It could strengthen us enough to follow Jesus into the depths of the collective evil spirit that had possessed the evil workers in the vineyard where Jesus pulled off the greatest exorcism of all time on the cross.

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.