Saturday, March 23, 2013

Not-so-Quick Takes: the Eucharist, cannibalism, and other unmentionables

I am aware that not all readers share a sacramental view of the Eucharist, as it is understood by Catholic and Orthodox Christians.  If transubstantiation is not your thing, you might want to skip this post.  Scroll further down for links to some good music.  (By the way, if you're looking to create a new Pandora station, may I suggest Iris DeMent for some earthy, folksy flavor?  She is rad.)

A further disclaimer, for those who choose to continue to read: these "Takes" are a collection of notes from my draft folder, scribbles that have never made it into posts of their own because they are more thought-experiments than anything else.  I am no theologian.  But, in case anyone gets distracted or has trouble "feeling" anything at the Mass lately, this might just help.  


The Catechism instructors at our parish organized a Seder Dinner during Lent so that the students and their families could learn more about the Jewish origins of our faith.  The Eucharistic celebration is rooted in the Passover and both are meals (and sacrifices) of great symbolic meaning.  The Seder is more of a ritualized meal, without the bloody sacrifice part. 
Some of the prayers of the Mass at Communion are almost identical to ones in a Seder:

Seder: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who dost create the fruit of the soil" and "Blessed art Thou, O Lord our God, King of the Universe, Who dost create the fruit of the vine."

Mass: "Blessed art Thou, O Lord of all Creation, for through Thy goodness we have this bread to offer, Fruit of the earth and work of human hands.  It will become for us the bread of life." 
"Blessed art Thou, O Lord of all Creation, for through your goodness we have this wine to offer, fruit of the vine and work of human hands.  It will become our spiritual drink."


Brant Pitre's book is a good read, for anyone who might want to learn more about Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist.  In Chapter 3, entitled "The New Passover," he considers the battles over whether Jesus meant that the bread is his body, or whether it represents his body.  The context of these words, he says, is the Jewish Passover:

Well, then, let's look again at the Passover.  In the Old Testament, was it ever enough simply to sacrifice the lamb? No.  Did the actual flesh of the lamb have to be eaten in order for the sacrifice to complete? Yes.  Could a symbol of the lamb's flesh suffice?  By now, we know that the answer is negative.
In other words, Jesus knew full well what any first-century Jew would have known: when it came to the Passover, you did not only have to kill the lamb; in order to fulfill God's law, in order to be saved from death, you had to eat the lamb.  As with the old Passover of the first exodus,* so with the new Passover of the Messiah.  The main difference between the two is that in the new Passover, the lamb is a person, and the blood of redemption is the blood of the Messiah.  (p.75)

Fr. Barron says that the Greek word used for "eat" in John 6:53 when Jesus said, "unless you eat my flesh, there is no life in you" is not the word used for the human action of consuming food, but the one used to describe what animals do when they are hungry.  The real translation ought to be, "unless you gnaw", or maybe rather "unless you devour."  The bystanders had pressed Jesus for clarity on this point and, Fr. Barron points out, rather than backing down or softening the message, Jesus became even MORE forceful: "No, really, you must devour me."
At that time, some of the disciples went away and left him, because "the teaching is too difficult, who can accept it?"**

The Jews present might have wondered to themselves about it (and some rejected the teaching) because the teaching seemed to go counter to the directives of their Law.  The Mosaic code forbade the consumption of the flesh of an animal that still had blood in it.  Because the blood is the life of the creature, and God is the author of life.  So this new teaching seemed to be directly at odds with the Law given by God himself to Moses.

Unless of course the prohibition had greater significance than its literal application to butchered animals, of course.  Here is the kicker, in the phrase that came next, the one that was intended as an explanation: "For my flesh is real food, and my body is real drink." 

What does that mean?


There are reports of holy people who have survived solely on the Eucharistic bread.  In graduate school we read a scholarly work which explored the complex relationship of certain well-known Medieval saints to food.  Which is a very cool and fascinating topic (and it turns out that this is one of those things that hasn't changed much.  Or at least it indicates that you don't have to be a super holy woman to have issues with food.). 

Back to the question of the meaning of that phrase, "my Body is real food and my blood is real drink."  I am pretty sure He only means his body is real food...not everyone's body.  So it's not a metaphor/reality that applies to all of us.  Also, He could be anticipating more questioning and disbelief.  "No, really, I mean this is real food.  It really is."

Consider that statement, re-phrased: "My flesh is real food, as opposed to all that other fake food."  And that is a mind-blower right there.  Is eating and drinking, as we know it, not completely real?  Is it a metaphor or a shadow of a greater truth or reality?


In the summer of '00, while I was still a college student, I spent a month in a village in rural Egypt for a fieldwork project in Cultural Anthropology.  Having spent over a decade in western North Africa (Morocco), I was surprised at the considerable cultural differences between the two places.  One custom that struck me as just plain odd was how these Egyptians treated dinner guests. 

Several families extended invitations to come to their home for the main meal of the day and then, upon arrival, they would guide us to a small side room (a bedroom, usually) where a dining table had been brought in and the table was set and the food laid out.  They would invite us to be seated and then close the door behind them and leave my research partner and myself alone to consume the meal. 

Without the help of our reference books on local practices and traditions, we would have felt more confused and embarrassed than we already did.  It turns out, at least according to the experts of social science in these parts, that the people there felt that the act of eating was viewed in the same way as other, um, necessary bodily functions.  As such, we (the honored guests) should be allowed to go about doing our "business" in privacy. 


There is a lot of fuss over whether the Eucharist, as the Real Body and Blood of Jesus Christ is cannibalism.***  Let's go with that train of thought for a few more minutes: the only circumstances under which we devour the flesh of another person (besides a few isolated tribes out there) are desperate ones.  Shipwrecks, air wrecks...situations of isolation and hopelessness.  Later, if we survive, we can barely admit to what we have done.  There is shame associated.  It is the opposite of a noble thing to do...  Hunger makes us do crazy things; starvation makes us to unspeakable ones.


"You are what you eat."  That's what they tell me.

If the saying is true, then we will become Christ.  We drink the blood--the life--of the Savior.  We ingest His body/life/spirit into our own.  Because we are physical beings.  And so was He.

My parish priest once explained in a homily, "The miracle of transubstantiation is not that Jesus dwells in mere bread and wine, but that Jesus dwells in me, in you."

8. (a freebie, bonus take:)

Because I promised some samples from St. Alphonsus de Liguori:

Saint Bernardine of Siena says that Jesus Christ, before he died, burning with love for us and not content with preparing to give his life, was driven by the excess of his love to do an even greater deed, which was to give his own body for our food.  (...)
 And note how longingly Jesus Christ years to come to our souls in holy Communion!  "I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you" (Lk 22:15). (...)
And so that everyone could easily receive him, he chose to leave himself under the appearance of bread.  If he had left himself under the appearance of some rare or very costly food, the poor would have been deprived of him.  But no, Jesus wanted to place himself under the form of bread, which costs little and can be found everywhere, so that every person in every country can find him and receive him. (...)
He could not satisfy his love by himself entirely to the human race by his Incarnation and by his Passion, dying for all people.  He sought to find a way to give himself entirely to each one of us in particular; and so he instituted the sacrament of the altar in order to unite himself fully with each one of us. (The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, pp.14-17)

more takes over at JF's

* Earlier in the book, Pitre expounds on how the Jewish people were anticipating not only the redemption the Messiah would usher in, but also the return of Moses, and along with him, a "new exodus."  Definitely worth a read.
** John 6:60
*** I have read and heard, over and over again, that the Catholic understanding of the Eucharist is NOT equivalent to cannibalism.  But like I said earlier, I am following the train of this thought-experiment, and just "going with it" to see where it leads.

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