On Refusing Holy Communion to Non-Catholics (20th Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Today’s Readings: Prv. 9:1-6; Ps. 34:2-7; Eph. 5:15-20; Jn. 6:51-58

Not long ago in my summertime parish church in Michigan, we celebrated an important anniversary. Previous pastors, religious sisters who had faithfully served our community in years past along with former parishioners who had moved away were all present.  Even the bishop of our diocese was there.

Most importantly, friends from other Christian denominations were in attendance.  How wonderful, I thought, that the spirit of Vatican II has prevailed in the show of ecumenism that those non-Catholic friends represented. Before the Second Vatican Council, previously “separated brothers and sisters in Christ” present at a Roman Catholic communion table would have been unthinkable.

Before Mass handshakes and embraces greetings, laughter and the usual inter-denominational jokes prevailed. “Fancy meeting you here!” I heard more than once from Catholics as they greeted their friends from our local Unitarian Church. Baptists came back with remarks about “the house of smells and bells.” Things like that . . .  Great fun, great community, great meaning. . .

And the Mass itself was fine. A beloved former pastor gave a wonderful homily. In its course, he recognized the splendor of the occasion, of the reunion, of the strides in ecumenism that the congregation represented that particular day: Protestants and Catholics gathered around the communion table expressing their deeply shared faith in Jesus who before the birth of the church and way before the emergence of “denominations,” requested all followers to break bread together “in remembrance of me.”As I was saying, all of this was previously so unthinkable.

But then just when things were advancing so swimmingly, something else unthinkable occurred. Just before communion, our current pastor (just a year or so ordained) announced that non-Catholics would not be allowed to receive communion. That’s right, he said that guests invited to “the Lord’s Supper” were not to eat or drink at the Lord’s Table! In order to do so, he explained, communicants must share Roman Catholic belief in “the real presence” of Jesus in the communion wafers and under the appearances of wine. (He was talking about the arcane notion of “transubstantiation.”)

Well, following that announcement, you could have heard a pin drop. We all checked our hearing aids. Say what? More than one of us, I’m sure, thought, “What on earth are they teaching seminarians these days?” Invite your friends to a banquet, and then refuse to share the meal? That’s not only unthinkable; it’s inhospitable, rude, and profoundly embarrassing.

Today’s readings address the absurdity of such prohibition and of the understanding of God, Jesus, bread and wine that lie behind it. Such silliness is corrected by words about God’s essentially feminine wisdom, about the “real presence” of Jesus, and where to find both God’s wisdom and Christ’s presence. In doing all of this, the readings also exemplify the normalcy of diverse and even conflicting understandings of Christianity in general and of Eucharist in particular.    

To begin with, the first reading from the Book of Proverbs suggests that if priests were women, nothing like what happened in our church could have occurred. In fact, the reading imagines God’s wisdom and God’s “church” in completely feminine, completely hospitable terms. Those terms have the Goddess of Wisdom setting a splendid table filled with rich foods, bread and wine. Most women, most mothers can relate to that; it’s something they do every day. On special occasions they set especially fancy tables like the one pictured in the reading from Proverbs. Wise mothers would never refuse to share food even with unexpected drop-ins. They’d simply add a little water to the soup to help it go around.

Then the female God’s agents (maidens all) call everyone to the table. In this the maidens are performing the essential function of church (in Greek: ek-klesia) – i.e. calling the people together. (They are acting as priests and bishops.) And there is no sense of exclusion here either; no pre-understanding of the menu is required. In fact, those “without understanding” are specifically invited to “come and eat my food.” Again, all of this is completely feminine.

Understanding, the text notes, is the result of eating; it is not required before eating. In terms relevant to today’s topic, one doesn’t have to understand transubstantiation (who does?) to eat at the Lord’s Table. On the contrary, according to Proverbs, the act of eating advances comprehension, which (since we’re dealing with the infinite) can only grow, deepen, and evolve in the course of history.

However, instead of such openness to growth, the Catholic hierarchy’s exclusionary understanding of Eucharist evinces deep frozen stability. It has taken an explanation of Eucharist which emerged in 12th century (long after Jesus, of course) and concretized that as the only acceptable understanding of what takes place at the Lord’s Supper – and that for all time.  

In fact, the doctrine of transubstantiation emerged principally as a defensive “ideological weapon” against spiritual groups like the Cathars or Albigensians. This so-called “heresy” arose in the 12th century and was cruelly persecuted by Rome. Albigensians attacked the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the powers of priests, and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Transubstantiation was meant to defend clerical privilege. It accorded to approved priests a quasi-magical power not recognized in “those others.”

The Albigensians’ attack on the hierarchy and clergy only intensified with the Protestant Reformation. It caused Rome to further dig in its heels about clerical authority and those quasi-magical powers belonging exclusively to its patriarchy. So at the Council of Trent (1545-64) Rome declared:

If anyone should say that by the words, “Do this in memory of me,” Christ did not consecrate the apostles as priests or did not command the apostles and other priests to offer his own body and his own blood, let him be anathema. If anyone should say that the sacrifice of the mass is only an act of praise or thanksgiving, or that it is merely a commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross but is not propitiatory, let him be anathema.

The term “anathema” was a kind of “curse”, used by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to disqualify all (like our non-Catholic friends in Michigan) who did not think or believe as they did. When an “anathema” was dictated against someone, the person was expelled from the community (excommunicated) and separated from religious society as someone “cursed” by God.

In the terms of today’s readings, placing such time-bound limitations on God is “foolishness.” In this morning’s excerpt from Ephesians, Paul urges us to be open to the Spirit and to continually rethink previous understandings of God and his will.

Similarly, today’s excerpt from John’s Gospel shows how the early church was quite adept at such openness to new meanings and to creatively re-imagining the significance of Jesus and his words.

As I noted in last week’s reflections, the words about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood could not possibly have been spoken by the Jewish Jesus to a Jewish audience. After all, drinking any kind of blood – not to mention human blood – was expressly forbidden by the Mosaic Law.

However, by the time John wrote his Gospel (anywhere between about 90 C.E. and 110) John’s audience (predominantly non-Jews) was highly influenced by Gnostic beliefs. Gnostics – and John’s audience – were all quite familiar with “dying and rising Gods” and with the ritual practice of metaphorically eating the Gods’ flesh and drinking the Gods’ blood by sharing bread and wine. So to them, Jesus could be explained in precisely those terms, even if it meant putting into the mouth of Jesus words that he could never have spoken. So John has Jesus say that eating his flesh as bread and drinking his blood as wine would unite believers with him as a “dying and rising God” and open access to eternal life.

This is an example of the startling freedom early Christian teachers had to adapt their message to the social and cultural understandings of their audiences. They weren’t hampered by exclusionary doctrines, dogmas, and definitions like the one involving “transubstantiation.” They were prepared to use any “hook” they could find to hang the meaning they saw in Jesus’ life for the benefit of good-willed people.

Moreover, the “real presence” John was concerned about had nothing to do with the containment of an infinite God within a wafer or sip of wine. John’s audience was worried about connecting with the long-dead Master from Galilee. How might they do this? That was their question. John’s response was “Do what Jesus did: share food and drink.” And he wasn’t talking about “the Mass.” Sharing of bread with the hungry is what makes Jesus present. In fact “bread” and Jesus’ “flesh,” “wine” and Jesus’ “blood” are all interchangeable terms. It’s the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup with the poor that makes Jesus present.

For years before I retired from teaching I taught a required course at Berea College called “Understandings of Christianity.” If I learned anything from teaching that course, it is that from the beginning, there were many understandings of Jesus and the meaning of being his follower. I’ve been trying to communicate an illustration of that this morning. John’s understanding was not that of Mark, Matthew, or Luke. Yet John’s adaptation of Jesus’ words (not to say his invention of them) exemplifies inclusion rather than its opposite.

Our clergy might well take such lessons to heart before they misuse the Eucharist for purposes of consolidating their power and authority – for punishing others in the name of Jesus for not agreeing with them. Protestants might not see eye-to-eye with Rome about a 12th century explanation of the Holy Communion. They might not recognize the authority of the Pope. (How many Catholics don’t either?) But “our separated brothers and sisters” represent important, indispensable and authentic “understandings of Christianity.”  

That’s the lesson to be drawn from today’s readings — not only from John the Evangelist, but the Goddess of Wisdom and her table set for all comers.

It’s also the message of Vatican II – which remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church.

How’s Your Spiritual Journey Going? (Nineteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time)

Readings: I Kgs. 19:4-8; Eph. 4:30-5:2; Jn. 6:41-51

How’s your spiritual journey going these days?

Does the question surprise you?

“’Journey’ did you say?” you might ask. “What journey?”

Well, my question was about growth in awareness of God’s presence and of God’s various manifestations. Do you feel yourself closer to God than you did, say, as a child?

“Oh, if that’s what you mean,” you might answer, “there hasn’t been much going on there. Actually, I’m quite discouraged about the whole thing. There hasn’t really been much of what I’d call ‘growth.’ I’m kind of treading water. And then when I think something’s going on – after I’ve read a good book or article on the topic – some bishop or priest tells me I’m wrong and am losing my faith. It seems they want me to stand still rather than ‘journey,’

“For instance, take today’s readings. That story about Elijah seems like a child’s tale. I mean: angels, miraculous bread  . . .  And then those words of Jesus: he is bread; we’re supposed to eat his flesh? It all seems so (excuse me) absurd. I suppose Jesus was talking about the Eucharist or something. But I’m finding it harder and harder to believe even what I’ve been taught about that. God in a piece of bread? I’m afraid my faith is threatened rather than strengthened by readings like those in this morning’s liturgy. Spiritually I’m feeling rather discouraged.”

If what I’ve just said reflects your own thoughts and feelings, you’re in good company. There comes a point in everyone’s life where faith has to be reassessed – where what we were taught and believed as children no longer meets our adult needs. At those times discouragement (despondency is the term used in today’s first reading) is actually a good sign. It can mean we’ve outgrown old ways of thinking and are being called to growth which is always difficult. So we shouldn’t give up in the face of discouragement, but embrace it with hope.

With that in mind, please realize that today’s readings are about the spiritual journey, the search for God and the discouragement that comes along with it. They are about finding God’s presence hidden in plain sight – within our own flesh (as Jesus put it) – closer to us than our jugular vein.

That theme of spiritual journey is announced in the first reading – the story about the prophet Elijah fed by angels under a juniper tree. Elijah did his work in the Northern Kingdom of Israel about 800 years before the birth of Jesus. He is remembered as one of the great, great prophets of the Jewish Testament. In fact, he was so powerful that Jesus’ followers thought Jesus to be the prophet’s reincarnation. John the Baptist’s followers thought the same about him. (Btw: does that mean that Jesus and his contemporaries believed in reincarnation?) So Elijah is a key figure in our tradition.

In any case, today’s story about Elijah describes the classic stages of the spiritual journey that we’re all called to – from immature believing things about God and Jesus to something more holistic that finds and honors God’s manifestations everywhere.  

As we join him in today’s first reading, Elijah is described as beginning a literal journey. He’s traveling to Mt. Horeb (or Sinai) – the place where Moses and the slaves who had escaped from Egypt made their Covenant with their God, Yahweh.  As pick up the story, Elijah is confused about God (“despondent”), and evidently thinks that by returning to the origins of his faith, he’ll get some clarity.

At this stage of his spiritual growth, Elijah’s faith is less mature. He has a very ethnocentric idea about God. And he’s being called to move beyond that stage of development. The ethnocentric idea has it that God is all about us – our people, our nation, our wars, our prosperity. God is our God and we are his chosen people – truly exceptional. In passages from the Book of Kings just before today’s reading Elijah manifested that understanding of God in a contest with the priests of Baal – a Phoenician God that the King of Israel, Achab and his wife Jezebel had flirted with.

You remember the story. Elijah challenged forty priests to a contest – your sacrifices against ours. Call on your gods to light your sacrificial fires, and I’ll call on Yahweh, and then we’ll see who’s really God. Of course, the priests of Baal can’t get their gods to come through. They chant, and dance, and sing. But the sacrificial wood remains cold. However Yahweh comes through for his prophet; he lights Elijah’s fire even though in a display of bravado, the prophet had the wood doused with water. Not only that, but Yahweh kills the forty priests for good measure.

That’s the ethnocentric idea: “Our God is better than your god. He has more magic power.” And he’s (this is almost always a male concept) very violent and vindictive. He’ll turn on you and go off on you at the drop of a hat. That’s the God that no longer seems to be working for Elijah. It has made him a wanted man. Queen Jezebel is after him and wants his head. Life is not worth living, the prophet concludes. He wants it all to end – there under the juniper tree.

But two people (whom Elijah later understands as messengers from God) feed him, and on the strength of food provided by strangers he completes his journey and arrives at a cave high on Mt. Sinai. And there God reveals his true nature not as an ethnocentric God belonging to a single “chosen” people. Neither does God reveal Godself in nature’s elements – not in earth (an earthquake), not in air (a whirlwind), nor in fire (lightning). Instead God (definitely not predominantly male) is disclosed as a “still small voice” within the prophet himself.

And what is a “still” voice, a “small” voice? It seems to me that it’s a communication without sound – one that can be hardly heard – a far cry from the deity who magically lights sacrificial fires and slays Phoenician priests. That magical violent understanding of God seems frankly childish – a God who enters into competition with other “worthy opponents” over whom he has greater magical powers.

No, the revelation to Elijah discloses a God who is much more subtle and who resides within all persons be they Hebrew or Phoenician. By traditional standards, it is a “weak” unspectacular God. God is found within; God is small and quiet and belongs to everyone. Or rather, everyone belongs to God regardless of their nationality or race. And in Elijah’s story, it’s not clear that the prophet even grasps the point.

Elijah might not have gotten the point. But it’s clear that his reincarnation in Jesus of Nazareth did – or at least that John the Evangelist writing 60-90 years after Jesus’ death got the point. By then it was possible to put words in Jesus’ mouth that the carpenter from Nazareth could never have said – especially about eating his flesh and above all drinking his blood. Jews, of course, were forbidden from imbibing the blood of any living thing, let alone human blood. However by John’s time Jesus’ followers had increasingly left behind their Jewish origins. They had become friendly with Gnosticism and were coming to terms with Roman “mystery cults.” Both worshipped “dying and rising gods” who offered “eternal life” to those who ate the god’s body and drank the god’s blood under the forms of bread and wine.

Evidently, John the Evangelist and others like John’s contemporary who wrote “The Gospel of Thomas” recognized an affinity between the teachings of Jesus and the beliefs of the Gnostics who found God’s presence in all of creation. The Gospel of Thomas has Jesus say “Split a block of wood and I am there; lift up a rock and find me there.”

 In other words, by the end of the first century, Christians were developing an ecumenical understanding of God that went far beyond the Jewish ethnocentrism of Elijah. By that time Christians could see that Jesus was not only a prophet, not only a movement founder of reform within Judaism,  not only an insightful story teller and extraordinary healer, but a “Spirit Person” who like the Gnostics found God’s presence in every element of creation – principally in that “still, small voice” revealed to Elijah.

So Jesus found God’s presence in wood, under rocks, in the breaking of bread, in the sharing of wine, within his self, here and now (not in some afterlife) but in his very flesh and blood. In other words, shared divine presence lent a unity and sameness to everything. Bread and flesh, wine and blood turn out to be the same across time and space. John has Jesus say all of that quite shockingly: “When you eat bread you are eating my flesh; when you drink wine, you are imbibing my blood. We, all of creation, are all one!”

What I’m saying here is that faith changes and grows. Discouragement with old models and paradigms is a hopeful sign. Think of today’s readings and the distance traveled from Elijah’s Magical Killer God to the Still Small Voice to the God present in bread, wine, and in every cell of Jesus’ and our own bodies.

If your own spiritual journey has you longing for further exploration of such adult themes, I can’t do better than to urge you along your ways by recommending Marcus Borg’s The Heart of Christianity. His Meeting Jesus again for the First Time is similarly helpful. Or perhaps during Advent or Lent we can get together to discuss those books and truly renew our faith. What do you think? (Discussion follows)