“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)

Lenten Reflection II: Why Lenten Penance?

Manhattan

Recently, a good friend of mine wrote to ask how my Lenten resolutions were faring. It’s half-way through Lent, and given what I wrote here on Ash Wednesday (located in the “Thoughts for the Day” category just below the masthead of this blog site), I think I owe her an answer. I’m hoping that the reflection needed for sharing like this might reignite my own Lenten fire. Perhaps it might also encourage reflection in others. They might even share their experiences using the “Comment” feature on this blog site. And that in turn might encourage the rest of us to “save” our Lents before it’s too late.

In general, my Lent is going well. Two elements have made it special. A third (a chance conversation) has given me a fresh understanding of the purpose of Lenten penance.

The two special elements are first of all my experience with an emerging “Ecumenical Table” in our local area. The second is a Lenten study group I’m leading about the historical Jesus.

I’ve mentioned the “Ecumenical Table” several times before in these blog postings. It’s a lay-led gathering of Christians who are looking for deeper meaning in Sunday liturgies. We’ve been gathering monthly for Lord’s Supper liturgies since Pentecost last year. But this Lent we’ve decided to meet every Sunday in a more focused attempt to discern whether our form of community worship is what we’re seeking ultimately. The liturgies the past three weeks have been beautiful and thoughtful. And hearing the voices of women as Lord’s Supper celebrants and homilists is unbelievably enriching. It makes it so apparent how the Catholic Church impoverishes itself and its people by insisting on an all-male clergy.

The second special element of this year’s Lent is our little seminar on the historical Jesus. We’ve been meeting each Wednesday night for an hour and a half. Our purpose is (as Marcus Borg put it) to “meet Jesus again for the first time.” We’re trying to encounter the Jesus of history who stands behind the faith-inspired interpretations of the canonical gospels.

So far the seminar has been going well, although I’ve found my own leadership uneven. But the participants (about 25 at each session) have been unbelievably generous in their showing up, contributing to discussions, and overlooking leadership shortcomings. (Some have told me it’s their Lenten penance!) In any case, the discussion of the gospel readings for the Sunday following each Wednesday’s meeting is proving to be especially rewarding. The same holds true for the segments of the PBS series, “From Jesus to Christ.”

I’ve even found the sessions spilling over into casual conversations. In particular two of my ex-priest friends who have done me the honor of attending have helped clarify my own thought and have advised me about how to do better over hot chocolates at our local gathering place, Berea Coffee and Tea.

The third special element of this year’s Lent, my attempts at Lenten discipline, has been greatly influenced by a conversation I had with a friend weeks before Lent began. He and his wife had come over for supper, and I offered him a cocktail beforehand. My friend declined. He said his son was alcoholic, and as an act of solidarity with his son’s efforts to resist alcohol, my friend too was giving it up.

At first I supposed he was thinking in terms of good example. But then I realized there was far more to it than that. After all, his son wasn’t present to witness my friend’s abstinence. Instead my friend was expressing his faith in the basic unity of all human beings. His abstinence affirmed that acts of solidarity with others somehow influence them even when they are not physically present – even when they’re not consciously aware that those acts are being performed. That’s a deep act of faith quite relevant to Lenten disciplines.

My friend’s words made me realize that at least one purpose of abstinence and other forms of what we used to call “penance” is to raise consciousness of our unity with others – especially with whose negative experiences of life we’ve managed to escape. The hope is that the resulting vicarious experience will somehow strengthen them and move us to action towards eliminating the causes of their distress. So for example,

• Following my friend’s example of abstinence from alcohol establishes a bond with those struggling to break addictions to liquor and drugs.

• Not eating meat somehow unites us with the hungry and raises consciousness about the effects meat-eating has on them and on the environment in general.

• Lowering the water temperature in one’s morning shower creates solidarity with those in U.S. prison camps subjected to water torture in various forms – including cold and scalding showers and waterboarding.

• Turning off the TV above the elliptical machine while exercising, and repeating one’s mantram instead begins to break the bond with the culture of overconsumption and destructive growth.

• The same holds true for establishing a daily discipline of consulting e-mail only once or twice a day instead of every fifteen minutes.

My friend’s refusal of liquor that night taught me that the realization of human solidarity in addictions and other problems is the whole point of Lent and its “penance.” All the rest including formal worship and study of the historical Jesus is simply means to that end.

No, I take that back. The end isn’t realizing human solidarity. The end is doing something about it.

And yet as Gandhi taught us, the end is mysteriously contained in the means – however seemingly insignificant.

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!