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.

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

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 (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.