How the Eucharist Transforms Us (Not Bread) into the Body of Christ

One Loaf

Readings for the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ: Exodus 24: 3-8; Psalm 116: 12-18; Hebrews 9: 11-15; Mark 14: 12-16, 22-26

This Sunday Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), it was called Corpus Christi (Latin for “the Body of Christ”).

It’s a day when restorationist priests will preach “Catholic” fundamentalist and literalist notions of Jesus’ “Real Presence” in the “Blessed Sacrament” that even St. Augustine rejected way back in the 4th century. He wrote: “Can Christ’s limbs be digested? Of course, not!”

Most thinking Catholics have come to similar conclusions. But rather than see the beautiful symbolism of the Eucharist’s shared bread, many of them have simply rejected the ideas of “Holy Sacrifice” and “Real Presence” as childhood fantasies akin to belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

To my mind, that’s tragic. That’s because such rejection represents a dismissal of Jesus’ insightful and salvific teaching about the unity of all creation. In an era of constant global war, that teaching is needed more than ever. It’s contained in the Master’s words, “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . Do this in remembrance of me?”

Let me explain.

To begin with, according to contemporary historical theologians like Hans Kung, the Great Reformers of the 16th century had it right: The Eucharist of the early church was no sacrifice. It was a commemoration of “The Lord’s Supper.” The phrase however does not refer to “The Last Supper” alone. Instead it references all the meals Jesus shared with friends as he made meal-sharing rather than Temple sacrifice the center of his reform movement, from the wedding feast at Cana (JN2:1-12), through his feeding of 5000 (MK 6:31-44) and then of 4000 (MK 8: 1-9), through his supper at the Pharisee’s home (LK 7:36-50), and with the tax collector Zacchaeus (LK 19:1-10), through the Last Supper (MK 14:12-26), and Emmaus (LK 24:13-35), and his post-resurrection breakfast with his apostles (JN 21:12). Jesus treated shared meals as an anticipatory here-and-now experience of God’s Kingdom.

But why? What’s the connection between breaking bread together and the “salvation” Jesus offers? Think about it like this:

Besides being a prophet, Jesus was a mystic. Like all mystics, he taught the unity of all life.

“Salvation” is the realization of that unity. In fact, if we might sum up the central insight of the great spiritual masters and avatars down through the ages, it would be ALL LIFE IS ONE. That was Jesus’ fundamental teaching as well.

That was something even uneducated fishermen could grasp. It’s a teaching accessible to any child: All of us are sons (and daughters) of God just as Jesus was. Differences between us are only apparent. In the final analysis, THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE. In a sense, then we are all Jesus. The Christ-Self (or Krishna-Self or Buddha-Self) is our True Self. God has only one Son and it is us. When we use violence against Muslims and immigrants, we are attacking no one but ourselves. What we do to and for others we literally do to and for ourselves.

That’s a profound teaching. It’s easy to grasp, but extremely difficult to live out.

Buddhists sometimes express this same insight in terms of waves on the ocean. In some sense, they say, human beings are like those waves which appear to be individual and identifiable as such. Like us, if they had consciousness, the waves might easily forget that they are part of an infinitely larger reality. Their amnesia would lead to great anxiety about the prospect of ceasing to be. They might even see other waves as competitors or enemies. However, recollection that they are really one with the ocean and all its waves would remove that anxiety. It would enable “individual” waves to relax into their unity with the ocean, their larger, more powerful Self. All competition, defensiveness, and individuality would then become meaningless.

Something similar happens to humans, Buddhist masters tell us, when we realize our unity with our True Self which is identical with the True Self of every other human being. In the light of that realization, all fear, defensiveness and violence melt away. We are saved from our own self-destructiveness.

Similarly, Buddhists use the imagery of the sun. As its individual beams pass through clouds, they might get the idea that they are individuals somehow separate from their source and from other sunbeams which (again) they might see as competitors or enemies. But all of that is illusory. All light-shafts from the sun are really manifestations emanating from the same source. It’s like that with human beings too. To repeat: our individuality is only apparent. THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE.

In his own down-to-earth way, Jesus expressed the same classic mystical insight not in terms of waves or sunbeams, but of bread. Human beings are like a loaf of bread, he taught. The loaf is made up of many grains, but each grain is part of the one loaf. Recognizing the loaf’s unity, then breaking it up, and consuming those morsels together is a powerful reminder that all of life — all of us – are really one. In a sense, that conscious act of eating a single loaf strengthens awareness of the unity that otherwise might go unnoticed and uncelebrated.

Paul took Jesus’ insight a step further. In his writings (the earliest we have in the New Testament) he identifies Christ as the True Self uniting us all. Our True Self is the Christ within. In other words, what Jesus called “the one loaf” Paul referred to as the one Body of Christ.

All of Jesus’ followers, the apostle taught, make up that body.

Evidently, the early church conflated Jesus’ insight with Paul’s. So, their liturgies identified Jesus’ One Loaf image with Paul’s Body of Christ metaphor. In this way, the loaf of bread becomes the body of Christ. Jesus is thus presented as blessing a single loaf, breaking it up, and saying, “Take and eat. This is my body.”

And there’s more – the remembrance part of Jesus’ “words of institution.” They are connected with Paul’s teaching about “The Mystical Body of Christ.” His instruction is found in I COR: 12-12-27:

“12 There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. 13 We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so, we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. 14 So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts. . .
You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.”

Here it’s easy to see the beauty of Paul’s image. We are all members of Christ’s body (Paul’s fundamental metaphor for that human-unity insight I explained). As individual members, we each have our functions – as eye, ear, nose, foot, or private parts. However, the fact that we live separately can lead us to forget that we are all members of the same body. So, it helps to RE-MEMBER ourselves occasionally – to symbolically bring our separate members together. That’s what “re-membering” means in this context. That’s what the Eucharist is: an occasion for getting ourselves together – for recalling that we are the way Christ lives and works in the world today.

In the final analysis, that’s the meaning of Jesus’ injunction: “Do this to RE-MEMBER me. And then afterwards – as a re-membered Christ, act together as I would.”

Do you see how rich, how poetic, how complex and mysterious all of that is – ocean waves, sunbeams, bread, Christ’s body, re-membering?

It’s powerful. The Eucharist is a meal where the many and separate members of Christ’s body are re-membered so they might subsequently act in a concerted way in imitation of Christ.

That’s why it’s important to recover and make apparent the table fellowship character of The Lord’s Supper. It is not a Jewish or Roman sacrifice; it is a shared meal.

The world our grandchildren will inherit needs everything symbolized by all of that. The Eucharist is not childish fantasy. It’s a counter-cultural challenge to our era’s individualism, ethnocentrism, and perpetual war.

Keep that in mind this Sunday, when your priest lectures you on “the real presence.” The real presence is us.

How the Eucharist Transforms Us (Not Bread) into the Body of Christ

One Loaf

This Sunday Catholics celebrate the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ. Before the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), it was called Corpus Christi (Latin for “the Body of Christ”).

It’s a day when restorationist priests will preach “Catholic” fundamentalist and literalist notions of Jesus’ “Real Presence” in the “Blessed Sacrament” that even St. Augustine rejected way back in the 4th century. He wrote: “Can Christ’s limbs be digested? Of course, not!”

Most thinking Catholics have come to similar conclusions. But rather than see the beautiful symbolism of the Eucharist’s shared bread, many of them have simply rejected the ideas of “Holy Sacrifice” and “Real Presence” as childhood fantasies akin to belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

To my mind, that’s tragic. That’s because such rejection represents a dismissal of Jesus’ insightful and salvific teaching about the unity of all creation. In an era of constant global war, that teaching is needed more than ever. It’s contained in the Master’s words, “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . Do this in remembrance of me?”

Let me explain.

To begin with, according to contemporary historical theologians like Hans Kung, the Great Reformers of the 16th century had it right: The Eucharist of the early church was no sacrifice. It was a commemoration of “The Lord’s Supper.” The phrase however does not refer to “The Last Supper” alone. Instead it references all the meals Jesus shared with friends as he made meal-sharing rather than Temple sacrifice the center of his reform movement, from the wedding feast at Cana (JN2:1-12), through his feeding of 5000 (MK 6:31-44) and then of 4000 (MK 8: 1-9), through his supper at the Pharisee’s home (LK 7:36-50), and with the tax collector Zacchaeus (LK 19:1-10), through the Last Supper (MK 14:12-26), and Emmaus (LK 24:13-35), and his post-resurrection breakfast with his apostles (JN 21:12). Jesus treated shared meals as an anticipatory here-and-now experience of God’s Kingdom.

But why? What’s the connection between breaking bread together and the “salvation” Jesus offers? Think about it like this:

Besides being a prophet, Jesus was a mystic. Like all mystics, he taught the unity of all life.

“Salvation” is the realization of that unity. In fact, if we might sum up the central insight of the great spiritual masters and avatars down through the ages, it would be ALL LIFE IS ONE. That was Jesus’ fundamental teaching as well.

That was something even uneducated fishermen could grasp. It’s a teaching accessible to any child: All of us are sons (and daughters) of God just as Jesus was. Differences between us are only apparent. In the final analysis, THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE. In a sense, then we are all Jesus. The Christ-Self (or Krishna-Self or Buddha-Self) is our True Self. God has only one Son and it is us. When we use violence against Muslims and immigrants, we are attacking no one but ourselves. What we do to and for others we literally do to and for ourselves.

That’s a profound teaching. It’s easy to grasp, but extremely difficult to live out.

Buddhists sometimes express this same insight in terms of waves on the ocean. In some sense, they say, human beings are like those waves which appear to be individual and identifiable as such. Like us, if they had consciousness, the waves might easily forget that they are part of an infinitely larger reality. Their amnesia would lead to great anxiety about the prospect of ceasing to be. They might even see other waves as competitors or enemies. However, recollection that they are really one with the ocean and all its waves would remove that anxiety. It would enable “individual” waves to relax into their unity with the ocean, their larger, more powerful Self. All competition, defensiveness, and individuality would then become meaningless.

Something similar happens to humans, Buddhist masters tell us, when we realize our unity with our True Self which is identical with the True Self of every other human being. In the light of that realization, all fear, defensiveness and violence melt away. We are saved from our own self-destructiveness.

Similarly, Buddhists use the imagery of the sun. As its individual beams pass through clouds, they might get the idea that they are individuals somehow separate from their source and from other sunbeams which (again) they might see as competitors or enemies. But all of that is illusory. All light-shafts from the sun are really manifestations emanating from the same source. It’s like that with human beings too. To repeat: our individuality is only apparent. THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE.

In his own down-to-earth way, Jesus expressed the same classic mystical insight not in terms of waves or sunbeams, but of bread. Human beings are like a loaf of bread, he taught. The loaf is made up of many grains, but each grain is part of the one loaf. Recognizing the loaf’s unity, then breaking it up, and consuming those morsels together is a powerful reminder that all of life — all of us – are really one. In a sense, that conscious act of eating a single loaf strengthens awareness of the unity that otherwise might go unnoticed and uncelebrated.

Paul took Jesus’ insight a step further. In his writings (the earliest we have in the New Testament) he identifies Christ as the True Self uniting us all. Our True Self is the Christ within. In other words, what Jesus called “the one loaf” Paul referred to as the one Body of Christ.

All of Jesus’ followers, the apostle taught, make up that body.

Evidently, the early church conflated Jesus’ insight with Paul’s. So, their liturgies identified Jesus’ One Loaf image with Paul’s Body of Christ metaphor. In this way, the loaf of bread becomes the body of Christ. Jesus is thus presented as blessing a single loaf, breaking it up, and saying, “Take and eat. This is my body.”

And there’s more – the remembrance part of Jesus’ “words of institution.” They are connected with Paul’s teaching about “The Mystical Body of Christ.” His instruction is found in I COR: 12-12-27:

“12 There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. 13 We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so, we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. 14 So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts. . .
You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.”

Here it’s easy to see the beauty of Paul’s image. We are all members of Christ’s body (Paul’s fundamental metaphor for that human-unity insight I explained). As individual members, we each have our functions – as eye, ear, nose, foot, or private parts. However, the fact that we live separately can lead us to forget that we are all members of the same body. So, it helps to RE-MEMBER ourselves occasionally – to symbolically bring our separate members together. That’s what “re-membering” means in this context. That’s what the Eucharist is: an occasion for getting ourselves together – for recalling that we are the way Christ lives and works in the world today.

In the final analysis, that’s the meaning of Jesus’ injunction: “Do this to RE-MEMBER me. And then afterwards – as a re-membered Christ, act together as I would.”

Do you see how rich, how poetic, how complex and mysterious all of that is – ocean waves, sunbeams, bread, Christ’s body, re-membering?

It’s powerful. The Eucharist is a meal where the many and separate members of Christ’s body are re-membered so they might subsequently act in a concerted way in imitation of Christ.

That’s why it’s important to recover and make apparent the table fellowship character of The Lord’s Supper. It is not a Jewish or Roman sacrifice; it is a shared meal.

The world our grandchildren will inherit needs everything symbolized by all of that. The Eucharist is not childish fantasy. It’s a counter-cultural challenge to our era’s individualism, ethnocentrism, and perpetual war.

Keep that in mind this Sunday, when your priest lectures you on “the real presence.” The real presence is us.

“No Priests” Is the Remedy for the Priest Shortage: Notes for a Home Church (Pt. 4 of 4)

helpwanted

A friend of mine recently told me, “If you’re trying to initiate something new (like reclaiming my priesthood) and the response isn’t ‘Hell yeah!’ you’re probably on the wrong track.”

Well, I haven’t yet heard many “Hell yeahs!” in response to my efforts to (as I said here) re-appropriate my priesthood and start a house church in Berea, Kentucky.

Oh, my very good and generous friends have humored me by showing up on Saturday evenings. But even the closest of them have made it clear that they were doing so out of a sense of duty, rather than enthusiasm.

On top of that, my own reflection on our gatherings has been less than “Hell yeah!” And that’s led me to think that perhaps the whole form of Eucharistic gathering (Mass) might be passé. Certainly, as Garry Wills has pointed out in his book Why Priests? “priesthood” as we’ve known it is beyond recall.

That’s not surprising, since the office of priest turns out to be foreign in the experience of the early church. In fact, no “priest” is mentioned In the accounts of Eucharistic meals found in the first two centuries of Christianity [e.g. in the Dialog with Typho and First Apology of Justin Martyr (100-165)]

Instead, we find mention of a presider – a proestos in Greek – whose function was to stand in front of the congregation, call it to order, and keep the meeting on track. That’s what proestos (the Greek word for the presider at the Eucharist) literally means – the “stander-in-front.”

“Priests” came in much later – and definitively after Christianity became the official religion of Rome. Then, as mentioned earlier, the Christian Eucharist took on the trappings of Roman “mystery cults,” like for instance the cult of the Sun God, Mithra, a favorite of the Roman army, whose birthday was celebrated each year on December 25th.

Mystery cults worshipped gods and goddesses like Mithra, Isis, Osiris, and the Great Mother. All of them descended from heaven, lived on earth for a while, and then ascended back to heaven. From there they offered eternal life to followers who in at least one cult ate the divine one’s body under the form of bread and drank his blood under the form of wine to attain eternal life.

Does that sound familiar?

Of course, it does, because that’s what Jesus became under the aegis of Rome. And priests were part of the syndrome. The new Christian Holy Men dressed up like their mystery cult counterparts, and performed a liturgy so similar to the pagan sacred meal rituals that most Romans probably couldn’t tell the difference.

Nonetheless, the pagan cults were eventually swallowed up entirely by Christianity, and believers were left with a ritual that resembled neither Jesus’ “Lord’s Supper” nor a blood sacrifice. Even the bread stopped looking like bread, but more like a plastic wafer.

But the priests remained, accompanied by an ideological lore that justified their existence by claiming that:

  • Jesus was a priest.
  • His apostles were the first Christian priests.
  • In fact, Jesus’ right-hand man, Peter, was the first pope.
  • Priests were necessary to forgive sin.
  • And to offer what was now called “the holy sacrifice of the Mass.”

Such convictions meant that priests became separated from ordinary Christians. The cleric’s alleged power to miraculously change bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ did that. Performing the miracle seemed to be something between priests and God. Mass was often “celebrated” by the priest alone accompanied by an altar boy.  Even in public, Mass rubrics had the priest facing away from the congregation in a sanctuary fenced off from the congregation by a “communion railing.” There priests completed their duties more or less in secret and using a language (Latin) that few besides the clergy could understand.

Mandatory celibacy also contributed to the otherness of priests. Largely to protect church property from priests’ heirs, the requirement became de rigueur for all priests in the Roman dispensation after the 12th century. Priests were so special that contrary to Jesus’ specific teaching about calling no man “Father” (MT 23:9), they could assume that title for themselves (as in referencing the pope as “Holy Father.”).

Priests signified their specialness by even dressing differently from other Christians – with the pope assuming all the trappings of the Roman Emperor.  Eventually, ecclesiastical life revolved entirely around the “clergy.” They alone were allowed to preach and even touch the sacred elements.

In all of this, the “faithful” were reduced to the role of spectators at priestly cultic events. All such rituals centered on the “Host” consecrated at Mass, and afterwards taking on a life of its own in its “tabernacle,” or displayed for “benediction” in a monstrance, which was sometimes carried ceremoniously in Eucharistic processions.

All of that changed with the Second Vatican Council (1962-’65), when the Church of Rome finally caught up with the Protestant Reformation. The Council recognized the “priesthood of the faithful” that Martin Luther had celebrated. Vatican II also described the Eucharist as a “sacred meal,” rather than simply as a “holy sacrifice.” The altar became a “table” and was turned around and moved closer to the people. More and more frequently, liturgical periti (experts) at the Council described the priest as a “presider.” Lay people were allowed to touch and distribute the sacred elements. Council fathers recognized Jesus’ “real presence” not simply in the Eucharist, but also in Sacred Scripture and in the community they referred to as the “Pilgrim People of God.”

Meanwhile the “search for the historical Jesus” that had begun in earnest with the work of Albert Schweitzer in 1906 took a giant leap forward with the emergence of liberation theology and its adoption by CELAM (the Latin American Bishops’ Conference). Liberation theology was reflection on the following of Christ from the viewpoint of the poor and oppressed, especially in the former colonial world.  It recognized Jesus as a poor peasant like his Third World counterparts. He was seen as thoroughly Jewish and as a resister to Roman Imperialism.

Far from being a priest himself, he was a foe of priests and all they stood for.

Such developments – Vatican II, its theological and liturgical reforms, new insights about the historical Jesus, and re-evaluations of the priesthood itself –  brought priests down from their pedestals; their office became déclassé. With their own baptismal priesthood affirmed, the faithful felt empowered. They spontaneously stopped “going to confession.” Priests everywhere experienced identity crises. Mandatory celibacy entered full debate. As a result, thousands of priests worldwide left the priesthood to marry.

In response, the hierarchical church tried to backpedal. While recognizing the teaching of Vatican II as its own official teaching, the long reign of Pope John Paul II (1978-2005) followed by that of Benedict XVI (2006-2013) gave Vatican II Catholics the feeling that the hierarchy’s honoring of the Council was mostly lip-service.

John Paul II and Benedict systematically replaced cardinals and bishops who had taken to heart the Second Vatican Council’s reforms. The reactionary popes also packed the College of Cardinals (who would elect future popes) with conservatives, made it more difficult for priests to “return to the lay state,” suppressed liberation theology, silenced and removed creative theologians from teaching posts, returned Latinisms to the Eucharistic liturgy, cooperated with neoliberal political regimes, and were generally backward-looking.

Perhaps most importantly, formation programs in Catholic seminaries took a sharp turn to the right. The priests who emerged from them showed little sympathy for conciliar reforms. They displayed ignorance of modern scripture scholarship or awareness of ecumenical theology, as well as any inclination to connect the Gospel with contemporary issues other than abortion or gay marriage.

Such rightward drift came to a sudden and unexpected halt with the election of Pope Francis, an Argentinian, and the first Global South pope in the history of the church. Ordained in 1969, Francis is a product of the Second Vatican Council and inevitably influenced by liberation theology, which was largely a product of Latin America.

His Apostolic Exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel” (JG, 2013) was seen as his manifesto announcing an acceleration of Vatican II reforms. It called for a “new chapter” in the history of the Catholic Church and for the church to embark on a “new path” on which things could not be left unchanged (JG 25). Preaching had to improve, he said (135-159). The roles of women needed expansion (103-4). Outreach was necessary to Christians of other denominations who share unity with Catholics on many fronts (246). And the struggle for social justice and participation in political life was an inescapable “moral obligation” (220,258).

As for priests, Francis’ Exhortation continued the clerical downgrading implied in Vatican II reforms. The priesthood, the pope taught, represents simply a church function. It is a service not necessarily distinguished in dignity, holiness, or superiority from those rendered by other baptized Christians (204).

And there’s more. Recently, Leonardo Boff (a Brazilian liberation theologian silenced under John Paul II, but reinstated by Pope Francis) spoke glowingly of the current pope. “He is one of us,” Boff said – presumably referring to liberationist Catholics. In any case, Boff went on to speculate that Francis is about to address the Brazilian priest shortage by making possible the reinstatement of the country’s thousands of laicized priests. Boff also conjectured that the pope might be on the brink of allowing women to become deacons. Both changes would represent giant steps towards eliminating mandatory celibacy for priests and towards ordination of women.

CONCLUSION

But is any of those measures sufficient for resolving the priest shortage – or for addressing the irrelevance of the church noted at the beginning of this series of four essays? I doubt it.

That’s because the very bases of priestly powers are in practice no longer believable. I’m referring to the quasi-magic ability to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, and the authority to forgive sins in the sacrament of Penance. On these two functions, hangs all priestly authority and the entire special identity of the Catholic clergy.

And like the Protestant Reformers before them, many adult, thinking Catholics can no longer accept either. As we have seen, scripture scholars have shown that neither power enjoys biblical endorsement. They are inheritances from post-first century fundamentalists who lacked sensitivity to the rich symbolism of the words attributed to Jesus in the Christian Testament.

As explained earlier, that rich symbolism finds in a loaf of bread a wonderful image of the human condition. Its single reality summarizes it all. Bread is the product of seed, earth, sun, rain, and human labor. When shared it miraculously creates and sustains human community. Wine is similar. Throughout his life, Jesus celebrated the community that such simple elements manifest. His teachings reinforced that basic insight. He was a prophet, a spiritual master, and a religious reformer who preferred rough illiterate fishermen over pretentious, exclusive priests. That was a radical and liberating message.

The Protestant reformers saw all of that quite clearly. And so they did away with priests who insisted on being separate and special, while being honored with titles Jesus forbade.

All of this means that the reforms of Vatican II didn’t go nearly far enough. Pope Francis is correct. To survive, the church must embark on that “new path” he called for.  There nothing can be left unchanged (JG 25). The roles of women need expansion (103-4). Ecumenical cooperation with other denominations and religions must be centralized as well as the struggle for social justice (220, 258). Until all Christians in close cooperation with Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, New Agers, and atheists cooperate to attack injustice, the survival of the world itself is in doubt.

Evidently, Pope Francis himself has not perceived the implications of his brave words. Certainly, church leaders have not. It remains for the rest of us to take the lead.

Taking that lead was the thought behind my initial “Hell yeah!” to the idea of house church.  

 

 

Notes for a Home Church: The Eucharist Is Not a Sacrifice or a Magic Show, But a Shared Meal (Pt. 3 of 4)

magic-show 

My beloved eight-year-old granddaughter is getting ready to receive her First Holy Communion in May, and it’s got me worried. I mean her Sunday School teachers are filling her head with “Catholic” fundamentalist and literalist notions of Jesus’ “Real Presence” in the “Blessed Sacrament” that even St. Augustine rejected. In the 4th century he wrote: “Can Christ’s limbs be digested? Of course, not!”

Eventually, my granddaughter, I predict, will come to the same conclusion. And rather than see the beautiful symbolism of the Eucharist’s Shared Bread, she’ll probably follow the example of so many young people I know and reject the ideas of “Holy Sacrifice” and “Real Presence” as childhood fantasy akin to belief in Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy.

To my mind, that’s tragic. That’s because it represents a rejection of Jesus’ insightful and salvific teaching about the unity of all creation. In an era of constant global war, that teaching is needed more than ever. It’s contained in the Master’s words, “This is my body . . . this is my blood . . . Do this in remembrance of me?”

Let me explain.

To begin with, according to contemporary historical theologians like Hans Kung, the Great Reformers of the 16th century had it right: The Eucharist of the early church was no sacrifice. It was a commemoration of “The Lord’s Supper.” The phrase however does not refer to “The Last Supper” alone. Instead it references all the meals Jesus shared with friends as he made meal-sharing rather than Temple sacrifice the center of his reform movement, From the wedding feast at Cana (JN2:1-12), through his feeding of 5000 (MK 6:31-44) and then of 4000 (MK 8: 1-9), through his supper at the Pharisee’s home (LK 7:36-50), and with the tax collector Zacchaeus (LK 19:1-10), through the Last Supper (MK 14:12-26), and Emmaus (LK 24:13-35), and his post-resurrection breakfast with his apostles (JN 21:12). Jesus treated shared meals as an anticipatory here-and-now experience of God’s Kingdom.

But why? What’s the connection between breaking bread together and the “salvation” Jesus offers? Think about it like this:

Besides being a prophet, Jesus was a mystic. Like all mystics, he taught the unity of all life.

“Salvation” is the realization of that unity. In fact, if we might sum up the central insight of the great spiritual masters and avatars down through the ages, it would be ALL LIFE IS ONE. That was Jesus’ fundamental teaching as well. It was something uneducated fishermen could grasp. It’s a teaching accessible to any child: All of us are sons (and daughters) of God just as Jesus was. Differences between us are only apparent. In the final analysis, THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE. In a sense, then we are all Jesus. The Christ-Self (or Krishna-Self or Buddha-Self) is our True Self. God has only one Son and it is us. When we use violence against one another, we are attacking no one but ourselves. What we do to and for others we literally do to and for ourselves. That’s a profound teaching. It’s easy to grasp, but extremely difficult to live out.

Buddhists sometimes express this same insight in terms of waves on the ocean. In some sense, they say, human beings are like those waves which appear to be individual and identifiable as such. Like us, if they had consciousness, the waves might easily forget that they are part of an infinitely larger reality. Their amnesia would lead to great anxiety about the prospect of ceasing to be. They might even see other waves as competitors or enemies. However, recollection that they are really one with the ocean and all its waves would remove that anxiety. It would enable “individual” waves to relax into their unity with the ocean, their larger, more powerful Self. All competition, defensiveness, and individuality would then become meaningless.

Something similar happens to humans, Buddhist masters tell us, when we realize our unity with our True Self which is identical with the True Self of every other human being. In the light of that realization, all fear, defensiveness and violence melt away. We are saved from our own self-destructiveness.

Similarly, Buddhists use the imagery of the sun. As its individual beams pass through clouds, they might get the idea that they are individuals somehow separate from their source and from other sunbeams which (again) they might see as competitors or enemies. But all of that is illusory. All are really manifestations emanating from the same source. It’s like that with human beings too. To repeat: our individuality is only apparent. THERE IS REALLY ONLY ONE OF US HERE.

In his own down-to-earth way, Jesus expressed the same classic mystical insight not in terms of waves or sunbeams, but of bread. Human beings are like a loaf of bread, he taught. The loaf is made up of many grains, but each grain is part of the one loaf. Recognizing the loaf’s unity, then breaking it up, and consuming those morsels together is a powerful reminder that all of life — all of us – are really one. In a sense, that conscious act of eating a single loaf strengthens awareness of the unity that otherwise might go unnoticed and uncelebrated.

Paul took Jesus’ insight a step further. In his writings (the earliest we have in the New Testament) he identifies Christ as the True Self uniting us all. Our True Self is the Christ within. In other words, what Jesus called “the one loaf” Paul referred to as the one Body of Christ.

All of Jesus’ followers, the apostle taught, make up that body.

Evidently, the early church conflated Jesus’ insight with Paul’s. So their liturgies identified Jesus’ One Loaf image with Paul’s Body of Christ metaphor. In this way, the loaf of bread becomes the body of Christ. Jesus is thus presented as blessing a single loaf, breaking it up, and saying, “Take and eat. This is my body.”

And there’s more – the remembrance part of Jesus’ “words of institution.” They are connected with Paul’s teaching about “The Mystical Body of Christ.” His instruction (found in I COR: 12-12-27) is worth quoting at length:

12 There is one body, but it has many parts. But all its many parts make up one body. It is the same with Christ. 13 We were all baptized by one Holy Spirit. And so we are formed into one body. It didn’t matter whether we were Jews or Gentiles, slaves or free people. We were all given the same Spirit to drink. 14 So the body is not made up of just one part. It has many parts.

15 Suppose the foot says, “I am not a hand. So I don’t belong to the body.” By saying this, it cannot stop being part of the body. 16 And suppose the ear says, “I am not an eye. So I don’t belong to the body.” By saying this, it cannot stop being part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, how could it hear? If the whole body were an ear, how could it smell? 18 God has placed each part in the body just as he wanted it to be. 19 If all the parts were the same, how could there be a body? 20 As it is, there are many parts. But there is only one body.

21 The eye can’t say to the hand, “I don’t need you!” The head can’t say to the feet, “I don’t need you!” 22 In fact, it is just the opposite. The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are the ones we can’t do without. 23 The parts that we think are less important we treat with special honor. The private parts aren’t shown. But they are treated with special care. 24 The parts that can be shown don’t need special care. But God has put together all the parts of the body. And he has given more honor to the parts that didn’t have any. 25 In that way, the parts of the body will not take sides. All of them will take care of one another. 26 If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honored, every part shares in its joy.

27 You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it.”

Here it’s easy to see the beauty of Paul’s image. We are all members of Christ’s body (Paul’s fundamental metaphor for that human unity insight I explained). As individual members, we each have our functions – as eye, ear, nose, foot, or private parts. However, the fact that we live separately can lead us to forget that we are all members of the same body. So it helps to RE-MEMBER ourselves occasionally – to symbolically bring our separate members together. That’s what “re-membering” means in this context.  That’s what the Eucharist is: an occasion for getting ourselves together – for recalling that we are the way Christ lives and works in the world today.

In the final analysis, that’s the meaning of Jesus’ injunction: “Do this to RE-MEMBER me.  And then afterwards – as a re-membered Christ, act together as I would.”

Do you see how rich, how poetic, how complex and mysterious all of that is – ocean waves, sunbeams, bread, Christ’s body, re-membering?

It’s powerful. The Eucharist is not a magic show. It’s a meal where the many and separate members of Christ’s body are re-membered so they might subsequently act in a concerted way in imitation of Christ.

That’s why it’s important to recover and make apparent the table fellowship character of The Lord’s Supper. It is not a Jewish or Roman sacrifice; it is a shared meal.

My granddaughter and the world she’ll inherit need everything that signifies. The Eucharist is not childish fantasy. It’s a counter-cultural challenge to our era’s individualism, ethnocentrism, and perpetual war.

(Next Week: How priests fit into the Eucharistic picture of the early church)

Starting a House Church: A Faith-Inspired Response to Trumpism (First in a series of four)

barth

Recently, I surprised friends and readers of this blog by announcing plans to “re-appropriate my priesthood” and start a house church. It would be a faith-based response, I said, to Trumpism and its planetary threat. The community, I hoped, would mobilize the spiritual power that in fact dwarfs the U.S. presidency and the president’s capacity as Commander-in-Chief of the mightiest military in the history of the world.

Some of my former priest-colleagues wondered, “Why on earth would you want to do that?”

After all, the church is for all practical purposes dead and the priesthood along with it.

And good riddance. By and large, the church remains sexist, religiously fundamentalist, and arguably the most conservative force on the face of the earth.

“And there’s more,” they said.  “Virtually no one believes in priestly powers any more. According to Catholic faith, it all hangs on two quasi-magical endowments that priests alone allegedly have to: (1) transform bread and wine into the literal body and blood of Christ, and (2) forgive mortal sins that would otherwise send their perpetrators to hell. Few who think about it take such beliefs seriously any more. The others are just coasting along in thoughtless denial. Their children however perceive the nonsense and are jumping the sinking ship in droves. That’s why if ‘former Catholics’ were an actual denomination, they would constitute the third largest church in the United States.

“Moreover, Catholics are virtually indistinguishable from Protestants (or non-believers for that matter) in their life-styles and political positions. They even practice birth control in exactly the same percentages as other Americans. It’s a similar case with divorce and same-sex relationships. And many Catholics vote Republican, despite papal social teachings on social justice, the environment, and war.

“So what’s the point of the Catholic Church with its anachronistic priesthood? It has become a mere social club – good for keeping old friendships alive, but little more. Most of its committees, sodalities, youth and men’s groups are self-serving. Do-gooders could easily find other organizations elsewhere to satisfy their passion for social change – without having to fight resistant Catholic fundamentalists in the process.”

To be frank, I find such objections persuasive.  Despite the best efforts of Pope Francis, the church seems more dead than alive. For all practical purposes, it whistles past the crises that characterize our age. The Sunday Masses I attend completely ignore the unprecedented contemporary context of threats from nuclear war, climate change, racism and sexism.

And yet, I remain firm in my intention to proceed with the house church. That’s because despite the institutional church’s having lost its way, I still find in my faith a source of spiritual strength and political resistance that for me is irreplaceable.

I intend to start a house church also because the objections just mentioned overlook the fact that Catholic Church pews also seat resisters like me. There are people whose faith has been shaped by the reforms of the Second Vatican Council. In the spirit of the conciliar document, “The Church in the Modern World,” their faith engages them not only with world events, but with one another.

For instance, in my own community, a group of more than 20 has met regularly over the past two or three decades as our church’s Peace and Social Justice Committee. Our gatherings often find us reflecting on liturgical readings. Discussions connect them with political organizing, welcoming refugees, war-resistance, the environmental crisis, and with the needs of local unemployed and impoverished families. Work with Habitat for Humanity has been a constant commitment.

I’m loathe to let such relationships and commitments go. At the same time, I’m convinced there has to be a better, more focused, more regular and consistent way of harnessing the deep faith the 20 or so of us share, especially in the face of Trumpism. To repeat: we’re in an unprecedented situation that calls for an unprecedented response.

I’m convinced that the best response is to experiment with house church Sunday liturgies that would bring our sub-community and others together on a weekly basis to reflect, pray, break bread, and plan creative acts of resistance. The liturgies will take place on Saturday evenings (i.e. on the Sabbath) and thus allow those wishing to attend Mass in our church the next morning, to do so.

In the end, my reasons for starting a house church are rooted in history and theology – in post-Vatican II understandings of church, of Eucharist, and of priesthood. A changed understanding of each – more in accord with the leadership of Pope Francis gives hope and direction.

I will try to explain what I mean in subsequent postings over the next three weeks.

Combat Greed (and illness): Boycott McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Subway . . . (Sunday Homily)

McDonalds

Readings for the 18th Sunday in Ordinary Time: Ecc. 1:2, 2: 21-23; Ps. 90; 3-6, 12-14, 17; Col. 3: 1-5, 9-11; Lk. 12: 13-21. http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/080413.cfm

This week’s liturgy of the word focuses on greed, its idolatrous nature, and how death (the Great Leveler) puts greed in stark perspective.

According to the prophet, Qoheleth, the shortness of life renders “empty” (vain) any life devoted to amassing wealth. Life is not about money, Paul agrees in this morning passage from Colossians. It’s about following Jesus by bringing forth our true Self which is identical with the God who dwells within each of us. But our time for doing so is short. As the Psalmist puts it in today’s responsorial, our days are numbered; that realization alone, he says, should give us wisdom. Then in today’s gospel selection, Jesus contrasts such wisdom with the foolishness of human surrender to the economics of growth. Paul even terms such greed “idolatry,” the ultimate biblical sin.

Those readings have driven me to think about greed in my own life. It makes me think about my own approaching death and what I do each day to hasten its arrival. At the public level, I’m driven to consider today’s headlines about fast-food workers and the difference in pay between them and their ultimate bosses. It makes me think about resisting greed at both levels (personal and corporate) in very practical, effective ways. Let me explain.

Last week I traveled from our summer home in Michigan back to our permanent residence in Berea, Kentucky. When I arrived home, the cupboard was bare – no food. So I set out to get something to eat for supper. Problem was, our local health food store, “Happy Meadows,” was closed.

Fast food options like McDonald’s, Wendy’s, and Subway called to me. Despite nearly forty years of sharing board with a dedicated vegetarian, the urge to eat meat is still strong. However, I was too haunted by what I’ve learned from “Food Inc.” and similar films, books and articles. Their images of factory farms and the cruel mistreatment of cattle, pigs, and chickens can never be erased from my consciousness. In their light, eating dead animals raised on feed lots and super-cramped pens, and then killed for my platter almost turned my stomach. I just couldn’t bring myself to eat meat.

I remembered that Walgreens and Rite Aid sold packaged fast food. So I went to the drugstore to look around. As I probably should have foreseen, the food offerings there were . . . well, highly drugged. I mean I easily found non-meat offerings on the Walgreens shelves – items like Kraft Mac & Cheese; I found vegetarian frozen pizza, and other similar items. But they were mostly full of fats. And as I looked at some lists of ingredients, I found many I couldn’t even pronounce. Chemicals were often high up on the lists, meaning their presence was rather intense. “Why would I put that stuff in my body?” I thought. “Do I want to get fat and sick?” So I walked out still hungry, still searching for something to eat.

I drove to Subway remembering their veggie sub. The young man behind the counter asked, “May I help you?”

“Just looking,” I said.

I scanned the brightly lit menu over his head. There it was, the Veggie Sub. Should I get the six-inch or the twelve-inch? I looked at the young man again. There he was with his plastic gloves in place smiling and eager to serve me.

Then I remembered. This kid is making $7.35 an hour. Whether he’s aware of it or not, his comrades all across the country are striking to double that wage to $15.00 an hour. They’re walking off the job in places like New York City, Chicago, St. Louis, Milwaukee, Kansas City, Detroit and Flint, Michigan. They’re demanding not just a living wage but the right to unionize. Unionization would mean the end of the Fast Food Industry’s routine practice of “short-working” employees, i.e. preventing them from putting in enough weekly hours to qualify for the benefits that come with full-time employment.

Those striking workers don’t want me here, I thought. So I turned on my heel and left.

Soon I found myself cruising the aisles of Save a Lot. I bought some pasta, and some sauce. I picked up a head of broccoli (Dole! Ugh!). I returned home to throw my supper together.

The little episode helped me come face-to-face with greed – again the topic of today’s liturgy of the word. I had to confront my own greed and that of the corporations that dominate our culture.
My particular greed manifests itself at least three times a day at the table. There my actions say a whole lot: I want meat. I want its flavored grease. I want salt. I want sugar. I want convenience. I want instant gratification.

My spiritual teacher, Eknath Easwaran, would say all of that means, “I want a heart attack. I want diabetes. I want cancer. I want to die as soon as I can.”

My well-ingrained tendencies also imply that “I don’t care about justice or workers who put in forty hours or more (often on two or more jobs) and who still cannot put together a dignified life without Food Stamps. I don’t care that they want to unionize and they’re asking me to boycott McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, and other corporate giants who underpay their workers while amassing obscene fortunes for themselves.

To those workers (and their bosses), the words of Qoheleth apply:

“Here is one who has labored with wisdom and knowledge and skill,
and yet to another who has not labored over it,
he must leave property.”

Usually, these words are taken to apply to the rich who are thought to labor long hours without really enjoying life. In the end, they leave their property to their heirs who benefit from their now-deceased relative’s work.

However, with the Bible’s overwhelming “preferential option for the poor,” I think the words apply even more fittingly to workers like the one in Subway and those in McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, Wendy’s, etc. Those “associates” labor with wisdom, knowledge and skill and then get underpaid. The wealth they produce (their property) goes to their fat-cat bosses. Meanwhile the rest of us are forced to subsidize those fat-cats by making up the difference (in food stamps, Medicaid, WIC Programs, etc.) between the wages the bosses pay their workers and the true living wage those workers deserve.

Yes, so-called “welfare programs” are more directed towards the rich than the poor. For working people such “welfare” should be replaced by a living wage.

Qoheleth says such selfishness and greed creates empty lives, anxiety, sorrow, grief and sleepless nights for all concerned both rich and poor.

A friend of mine constantly reminds me that little can be done to change the world. We just have to go along with the way things are, he often says. Sometimes I think he’s right.

However, today’s liturgy of the word reminds us that he might not be completely correct. At least we can do something about underpaid fast food and big box workers. That’s not trivial. We can relieve the “vanity,” the emptiness of their lives by joining them in their efforts to unionize and achieve a living wage.

We can abstain from the products of McDonald’s, Subway, Wal-Mart and similar corporations – and perhaps even become more healthy in the process.

Our presence here at the Lord’s Supper says we’re willing to do that, so that all may share in the gift of God’s bread with dignity and joy.

Am I right in saying that? What do you think?
(Discussion follows.)

Jesus Decides to Redeem His Wasted Life (Sunday’s Homily)

Readings for Feast of Baptism of the Lord: http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/011313.cfm

Today is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In that context, let’s think about baptism and the differences between the understandings we’ve inherited and those reflected in the practice of John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. Those differences hold practical implications for our own lives as we wrestle with a faith that may have lost meaning for us, and as we struggle with the relative smallness and insignificance of our lives.

To begin with, think about traditional beliefs about baptism. If you’re like me, you may find them hard to swallow. A friend of mine, theologian Tony Equale, has recently pointed out that theology doesn’t really determine worship patterns. Instead superstitious temple and church rituals have shaped our beliefs. Practice determines belief, not the other way around. (See http://tonyequale.wordpress.com/2013/01/03/the-religiosity-of-the-people/)

What my friend means is that theology’s job has traditionally been to rationalize what people actually do in their efforts to tame life and achieve contact with the numinous, the mysterious, and the transcendent. They sacrifice chickens, behead bullocks, or vivisect lambs and then burn the animals’ carcasses. The smoke thus ‘feeds’ the Gods who are believed to need nourishment, placation, and cajoling in order to do the will of the people and their priests. Those congregations actually turn out to be more intelligent than the God who must be informed of their needs and what is best for their welfare. That’s superstition.

Catholic beliefs around baptism and the “sacrifice of the Mass” are cases in point. They were actually formed by the People’s credulous practice of baptism which was informed more by ancient ideas of all-powerful angry Gods than by Jesus’ radical teaching that God is Love. I mean early on, in a time of very high rates of infant mortality, popular belief came to see infant baptism as necessary to somehow save deceased children from a hell created by a threatening God.

This practice of the people rather than reflection on the words and deeds of Jesus led St. Augustine at the beginning of the 5th century to theorize that people have been born guilty – at enmity with God. Augustine thought that since children were condemned even before any personal sin on their parts, they must be born in sin. And that must be, Augustine reasoned, because they had inherited sin from their forebears and ultimately from the first human beings, Adam and Eve. Because of that “original sin,” God is justly angry with humans.

Now, as I said, the ancients believed that sacrifice was necessary to placate an angry God like that. So, in the Roman world, where sacrifice was understood in the terms I’ve just explained, Jesus’ death eventually became to be seen as a sacrifice whose primary purpose was to secure God’s approval of the Roman state. In this way, the “Mass” was transformed from a memorial meal to a re-enactment of Jesus’ sacrificial death. It was moved from a table with friends gathered around sharing food, to a “sacrifice” performed at an “altar” by a priest with his back turned to the people who watched the show from afar.

This Mass differed very little from what Romans were used to before Christianity became the state’s official religion in 381. In fact, it is entirely possible that ordinary people saw no difference between the “Mass” and the religious ritual they had been accustomed to when Jupiter or Mithra were worshipped as the official Gods of Rome. In other words, Christianity was transformed by the Roman Empire rather the empire being transformed by Christianity. There was a “theogony,” a battle of the Gods, between Jupiter and the Bible’s Yahweh; and Jupiter won. We’ve been worshipping him ever since.

How different all this is from what happens to Jesus at the baptism which today’s liturgy of the word celebrates! (And that brings me to my point about meaning in our seemingly wasted lives.) In today’s gospel, there is nothing suggesting “original sin.” Nor is Jesus presented as the incarnation of a God who needs to be mollified by sacrifice. Rather, Jesus comes as a disciple of John. (Scripture scholars tell us that John’s words about his inferiority before Jesus were inventions of the early church in a Jewish context where many still believed that John rather than Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah.)

So at the age of 30 or so, this young peasant from Nazareth presents himself for a ritual washing at the prophet’s hands in the legendary Jordan River. In Israel’s idealized past, that river had been crossed by slaves escaped from Egypt who on the river’s opposite shore found the “Promised Land” that became their national home. Eventually that crossing came to be understood as transforming a motley horde of renegade slaves into a unified nation of free people at the service of the God who had liberated them from demeaning servitude.

John’s practice of baptism in the Jordan (far from the corruption of the priests’ Temple and its endless sacrifices) summoned his Jewish contemporaries to reclaim their ancient identity that had been lost by the priests and scribes who had sold out to Roman re-enslavement of a once proud and liberated people.

John’s was a revivalist movement of Jewish reform. Those presenting themselves for baptism were expressing a desire to return to their religious roots and to alter their lives in a profound way.

Evidently, that’s why Jesus came to be baptized too. This country boy who (according to Luke’s “infancy narratives”) had begun his life with such promise is now about 30 years old. Perhaps in view of his parents’ expectations of him, his life so far seemed wasted. Perhaps he had resolved to finally make a difference. In any case, by approaching John in the Jordan’s waters, he expresses an intense need for change in his life. He wants to be John’s follower.

So John performs his baptismal ritual. And the miraculous happens. An epiphany occurs for Jesus. He hears a voice. It informs him that he is a child of God. Immediately he sets out on a vision quest to discover what those words might mean. Forty days of prayer and fasting bring on the visions – of angels and devils, of temptations, dangers and possibilities.

In the light of his desert experience, Jesus chooses not only to follow John as the leader of a reform movement. He chooses as well to follow Moses as the liberator of an enslaved people. He has truly crossed the Jordan. So he brings his message to the captive poor. Like him, they too are children of God — God’s specially chosen people. God’s kingdom belongs to them, he says, not to their rich oppressors. The poor must not allow themselves to be misled by the stultifying and domesticating doctrines of the priests and scribes. That was the thrust of Jesus’ teaching.

Coherent acts follow Jesus’ words. He discovers wondrous healing powers within himself. By touch, by faith, by his friendship, he cures stinking lepers, dirty beggars, street walkers who have lost their self-respect, the deaf, the dumb, the blind and lame. Jesus eats food with the social outcasts and street people of his day, sharing nourishment the way God does – without cost or expectation of reciprocation. Jesus finds himself explaining the mysterious, transcendent and ineffable in unforgettable stories that capture the imaginations of simple people hungry for the spiritual sustenance that he offers – that he embodies. No wonder his early followers tried to imitate Jesus by choosing John’s baptism as a sign of membership in their community and by following the Master’s example of sharing food the way God does in their re-enactment of the Lord’s Supper.

That was the understanding of baptism and Lord’s Supper that the first generations of Christians embraced. But it didn’t last long. Within a few generations (and especially after Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire at the end of the 4th century) the superstitions I referenced earlier had replaced the understanding and practice of Jesus and the Baptist. Soon baptism became an instrument for saving babies from original sin and hell. Soon the Lord’s Supper became the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass” differing very little in ritual and spirit from offerings to Jupiter and Mithra.

Today’s liturgy of the word calls us beyond all of that. It summons us to follow Jesus who shows us the way to truly change our lives. Change comes by leaving behind the superstitious faith that supports empires past and present. Transformation comes when we share our food with each other and with the poor. It happens by committing ourselves to the “other world” represented by God’s Kingdom that has room for everyone, not just for the 1% served by our own churches, priests, scribes and their superstitious rituals.

Today’s liturgy of the word summons us to the banks of the Jordan to stand with Jesus and to hear God’s voice calling us from what has been so far wasted in our lives. Like Jesus, we are daughters and sons of God. We are beloved by the God of Love. Jesus’ example reminds us that It’s not too late to change our commitments and way of life.

After all (if we take our tradition literally) Jesus redeemed the insignificance of his own life in a single meaningful year – or maybe it was three.

Eucharistic Table Prayer for Peggy’s “First Mass”

Last week I reported on “My Wife’s First Mass.” Here is the “Table Prayer” we wrote for that occasion. As we intend using it again, I’d be interested in any suggestions for making it better.

Eucharistic Table Prayer

Preface:

All of us are welcome here to commemorate and celebrate this Lord’s Supper. No one is excluded from this table. No one can be excluded; this table belongs to Jesus not to us. So come and break bread in a spirit of thanksgiving, recollection, and inclusiveness. Come as you are – with your strong faith, your weak faith, with your doubts, questions, and deep-held convictions. (Pause) In that spirit of inclusiveness, please join me in our prayer of thanksgiving and remembrance.

Leader:

Blessed are you, Great Spirit of the universe.

You are the one in whom we live and move and have our being. You are within and without, above and below, and all around.

You interpenetrate every cell of our bodies – the eye of our eyes, the ear of our ears, the breath of our breath, the mind of our minds, the heart of our hearts, the soul of our souls, the life of our lives.

Dear God, bless us and make us aware of your presence in every here and now – in this here and now:

All:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might. Heaven and earth are filled with your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest!

The Table Prayer (Leader):

In particular, O gracious God, our Mother and Father, we thank you for sharing yourself with us in your magnificent creation stretching a hundred billion galaxies across an unfathomably vast universe.

In our own brief human history, we are grateful for your profound personal revelations in the Buddha, Krishna, and the Great Mother worshipped by humans all over the world for more than 50,000 years.

We thank you especially for Jesus of Nazareth who for us embodied your presence like no other.

We recall the heart of his teaching which was simply to love one another even to the point of death.

We remember how he healed and taught and organized and gave his own life as an example he called us to follow.

(Stretching both hands towards the bread and wine) And so, dear God, we ask that the Spirit of this Jesus may come upon these gifts of bread and wine. May they help us recognize his presence among us who taught that he is there wherever two or three are gathered in his name. May our sharing of the consecrated bread and wine not only transform the meaning of this food and drink, but deeply transform us and our very lives.

So we would never forget the transformation of self he called us to, Jesus asked us to break bread together and to share a cup in his name as he did with his friends the night before he died.

It was then that Jesus took bread into his holy hands. He blessed the bread and broke it. Then he gave it to his disciples and said

All:

“Take this all of you and eat it. This is my body which will be given up for you.”

Leader:

Then when the supper was ended, Jesus took a cup of wine. He blessed it and gave it to his friends. He said:

All:

“Take this all of you and drink from it. This is the cup of my blood, of the new and eternal covenant. It will be shed for you and for all, so that sins might be forgiven. Do this in memory of me.”

Leader:

Having shared himself in this way, Jesus led his friends in song. Today we sing:

All sing:

“We remember how you loved us to your death.  And still we celebrate that you are with us here. And we believe that we will see you. When you come in your glory, Lord. We remember; we celebrate; we believe.” (Repeat)

Preparation for Communion (Leader):

In this memorial, we join in spirit with all those great people of faith and who have gone before us. We unite with Peter and Paul, the apostles and martyrs throughout the ages – with Jesus’ mother, Mary, with his “apostle of apostles” Mary Magdalene, with Aquinas, Martin Luther, Jean Calvin, Hildegard of Bingen, Theresa of Avila, Teresa of Lisieux, with Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Martin Luther King, Malcolm, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Rachel Corrie, Dorothy Kazel, Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, Oscar Romero, with the millions who died in the Woman’s Holocaust, and untold others.

We unite ourselves as well with the members of our own families, and with our teachers and friends who are with us still, and especially those who have gone before us in faith.  May all those faithful departed rest in peace.  (Here let’s pause to remember our deceased loved ones, and, if you like, to mention their names aloud.)

Leader:

And now, to prepare ourselves for communion, let us pray in the spirit of Jesus’ Great Prayer.  . . .

“Our Mother and . . .  :”

All:

Our Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name, etc.

Leader: Jesus said we should reconcile with each other before worship. So let us now offer each other a sign of peace.

All: Exchange peace greetings.

Leader (Holding up the Elements):

“Come to me all of you who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.

All:

“Lord, to whom else shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”

Leader:

After you have received communion, please return to your seat for some minutes of silent prayer.

Conclusion [Leader (after the meditation period has ended)]:

(Please rise.) Lord God, Creator and Mother, we thank you for calling us together this afternoon. We ask that the symbolic meal we have shared may strengthen us on your way of understanding and of love. Help us to recognize you this week in ourselves, in one another, and especially in those you called the least of our brothers and sisters.  We pray in Jesus’ name.

All:

Amen.

Leader:

Our celebration is ended. Let us go forth to love and serve the Lord!

My Wife’s First Mass

My wife, Peggy, said her first Mass last Sunday.

I remember my own “first Mass.” It was at the beginning of January in 1967. Strictly speaking, it wasn’t really my first Mass. I had been ordained a priest in the Missionary Society of St. Columban on December 22, 1966. So it was maybe my 12th Mass. But it was a Big Deal anyway – on a par with a wedding reception.

All my relatives were there – at some country club dining room in Downers Grove, Illinois just after New Year’s. There I was at the head table, the uncomfortable focus of all the attention. I was sitting there with my mom and dad and with Fr. Stier, my pastor. As I recall some Columbans were present as well.

As I said, it was a big deal – speeches and everything. Of course, I was the final speaker. I don’t remember what I said – except one phrase where I thanked my mom and dad, brother, Jim, and sisters, Rosanne and Mary for “virtually praying me through the seminary.” That was true. In retrospect, I don’t understand how I made it through all those years from the time I entered the seminary at 14 till I was ordained at 26. It’s enough to make you believe in the power of prayer – or something.

The miraculous nature of it all stands out because for all practical purposes, the training all those years was without women. Can you imagine that – during the most formative years in a person’s life? Thank God for my mother and sisters and for the summer vacations which brought me into (very guarded) contact with women. How can men become human without them?

In any case, I somehow overcame all of that too. So here I was a couple of weeks ago and after 37 years of marriage at my bride Peggy’s First Mass. No Big Deal. No head table. No speeches. Just Peggy standing there, hands extended the way we’ve all seen priests do, and leading us all in the Eucharistic Prayer that both of us had composed for the occasion. It was beautiful.

I say “no big deal” because the context is an ecumenical community of Catholics, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, and others who have taken seriously the idea of “priesthood of the faithful.” So if “the faithful” are priests, women are priests – or at least the priesthood should be open to them.  Why shouldn’t they officiate at the Eucharist in this community seeking to break free from the bondage of patriarchal church traditions?

Even Catholics in the group didn’t blink when they saw Peggy there. We’re ready for change. Despite our best efforts, most of us have become alienated both from our local church and from the Church of Rome. And it hasn’t been just one issue – not simply the patriarchy or the absence of women in church leadership positions. It wasn’t just the pedophilia crisis, not just the Vatican’s put-down of progressive sisters, or the “Republicanization” of the hierarchy, the amnesia about Vatican II, the silly liturgical language changes that no one understands (e.g. “consubstantial” has replaced “one in being”), not just the childish sermons. It’s all of that and the general irrelevance of the church whose hierarchy despite Vatican II is hundreds of years behind the post-modern curve. It’s surprising we haven’t just written it all off as b.s.  In fact, of course, many have

On the other hand, Peggy’s First Mass was a huge deal. It and our ecumenical community represent an awakening of “the faithful” and the fruition of seeds sown at the Second Vatican Council whose 50th anniversary we are about to celebrate.

The Spirit still moves and cannot be contained.

Next Wednesday: the “Table Prayer” Peggy and I composed

The Feast of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ: the Last Supper wasn’t a magic show

Readings: Exodus 24:3-8; Hebrews 9:11-15; Mark 14:12-16, 22-26

Today is the feast of The Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. It used to be called “Corpus Christi.” And the Gospel reading (Mark’s account of the Last Supper) brings us into familiar territory. I mean we observed Holy Thursday just two and a half months ago. And here we are centralizing yet another account of Jesus’ final meal.

Of course, the emphasis on Holy Thursday and today is supposed to be different. On Holy Thursday the Last Supper was part of the account of Jesus’ final days. On Corpus Christi the focus is on the sacrament of the Eucharist itself, what we used to call “Holy Communion.” Today the spotlight is on the “Real Presence” of Jesus, body, blood, soul, and divinity in the “elements” which retain the appearances of bread and wine.

In the past, this was the time for sermons on “transubstantiation,” and the priestly powers conferred in ordination. Corpus Christi was an occasion for processions of the Blessed Sacrament even through town squares, for its “exposition” in “monstrances,” for solemn “benedictions” and “holy hours” of adoration.  

Historically, this feast has been a specifically Catholic affair implicitly contrasting Catholic belief with Protestants who since the Reformation denied the Catholic understanding of the Real Presence.

I won’t bore you by rehearsing the differences between Catholic “transubstantiation” and Protestant “trans-signification” and “trans-finalization.” Somehow it all seems rather quaint and beside the point, doesn’t it? I mean, who cares – except perhaps for a few brief moments on Sunday mornings between nine and ten o’clock? We have so many personal problems with our children, in our jobs, in our marriages. . . . Besides, the world is in such a dark state, who has time for such theological niceties?

And don’t even talk to me about the church; it is so problematic for most of us. How could we spend time and energy on inter-denominational disputes when we find the Mass itself increasingly meaningless? Each Sunday many of us end up struggling with the question, “Why am I still coming here?” Get real!

Well, getting real and retaining hope in the face of darkness on all fronts is actually what today’s account of the Last Supper is really about. It’s not about transubstantiation of bread and wine at all. It is we who need to be “transubstantiated” as people and specifically as Catholics. The Gospel calls us to fundamental change in our faith about Eucharist.

Consider what happened at the Last Supper and then what became of it over the years. Consider what we could make of it today.

For Jesus, this final Passover meal is wrought with anxiety to say the least. Jesus and his friends have now gone underground. After a demonstration in the Temple which turned violent, they are now being hunted. There is a price of 30 shekels of silver on Jesus’ head, and he suspects one of his inner circle is about to turn him in for the reward. The “safe house” Jesus has secured for the Passover meal has been located by a secret sign and a password.

In such dark circumstances, Jesus looks at the bread he breaks, and the action reminds him that his very body is under threat. The cup of wine he passes around becomes for him his own blood that soon could be whipped, nailed, drained and speared from his veins.

But he doesn’t lose hope. In effect amidst betrayal by a close friend, a price on his head, premonitions of his own death, and threatened failure of his entire enterprise, Jesus proposes a toast to God’s Kingdom. Despite everything he remains convinced God’s reign will soon dawn. In fact, takes a vow not to drink wine again until that happens. His fast from wine is another form of his familiar prayer, “Thy kingdom come.”  In the end, Jesus asks his disciples (come what may) to share bread and wine as he has done – with one another and across ethnic and other divisions (with Jew and gentile, woman and man, rich and poor, “clean” and “unclean”), and to do this specifically in his memory.

And that’s what the early Christians did. They broke bread in memory of Jesus, his values and the way he lived. In the early church, they called this a “love feast.” And people would come together with pot luck dishes and share with everyone. Until the 5th century women would often preside at the feast – as they usually do at meals in every home on the planet. Sometimes men would preside too. (It wasn’t until the 14th century that the Eucharistic “celebrant” had to be an ordained “priest.”)

And all would be invited, rich and poor. (In fact, one of the great attractions of early Christianity was the generosity with which Christians shared their bread with the needy.) Twice in the Book of Acts Luke describes the first Christians as leading what could only be called a “communistic” ways of life.  Acts 2:44 reads:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

That’s what the early Christians made of Jesus’ injunction to “Do this in memory of me.” They truly understood what later would be termed “The Real Presence:” bread is bread; wine is wine; when they are shared Jesus truly becomes present in his Holy Spirit. Early Christians understood that Jesus’ “Real Presence” could not be separated from the way he lived – at the service of the poor, the outcast, the marginalized, the hungry and thirsty.

The rub however is that the Eucharist gradually turned into something else. That business about actually doing what Jesus commanded – you know “Sell what you have; give it to the poor; and come follow me” . . .  That was too much for church leaders after they sold out to Constantine’s Empire in the 4th century. They started living like kings and needed something more comfortable. 

So they transformed the Christian “love feast” into a “Mass.” And as the middle ages progressed, the Mass turned into a magic show. Before our very eyes, bread was transformed into the body of Jesus, and wine became his blood. The priest alone had the requisite magical powers. Belief in that magic act became what the Eucharist was about.

In all of this, focus shifted from transformation of those participating in the Eucharist to transformation of the bread, which eventually became a plastic-like wafer that looks nothing like the bread whose sharing so concerned Jesus.

We could change all of that beginning right now. The Lord’s Supper doesn’t have to be the dreary “hocus pocus” it became before Vatican II and threatens to become again today under extremely conservative church leadership. Like Jesus’ last meal, the Eucharist can reassume its character as an occasion for recommitment to God’s Kingdom, even as we experience a dark night of our Catholic souls and just as human beings. If Jesus wasn’t overwhelmed by his circumstances, how can we be crushed by ours?

In fact, if we open our eyes in hope, we can see many reasons to toast God’s Kingdom despite our many problems as believers. For instance, did you know that a group of Catholics and Protestants of various denominations are forming an alternative Eucharistic congregation right here in our own community? Its intention is not to replace our attendance at Mass, but to supplement it with a celebration that can provide experience of what inspired, life-connected worship can be.

Also, this fall Fr. Matthew Fox, the fiery spiritual teacher, liturgist and theologian will be speaking at Berea College.  He has already expressed a willingness to meet with our parishioners to discuss church renewal with us. Similarly, Sr. Joan Chittister, the Benedictine nun and spiritual leader, will be a Berea College convocation speaker this fall.

Additionally, next November 9th to 11th, the National Catholic “Call to Action” campaign will be holding its annual meeting in Louisville – at the Galt House. We could send a delegation of 20 people or more (including our pastor) to get inspired by world-class speakers and by what other churches are doing to revive the spirit of Vatican II.  Please mark your calendars for that event.  

Besides all of that, this October 11th is the 50th anniversary of the convening of the Second Vatican Council. There will be observances of the occasion all over the world. We could mark the anniversary right here in our own parish with a “tent revival” with invited speakers, and with teach-ins on Vatican II. We could even pool our money to provide tuition for our pastor to update his theology in some progressive theological, liturgical or pastoral program.

All of these events have the potential to “transubstantiate” us as a community – to change us to the core as a community of faith.

So things might not be as dark as we might think. There may indeed be light at the end of this tunnel we’ve been struggling through for too long.

Jesus’ own faith in and hope for God’s Kingdom is our inspiration. If he could have faith and hope in his dreary circumstances, how can we not be hopeful? If he is for us, if we sup with him, who can stand against us? Let’s get on with it!