THE Christian COMMUNION: BARRIER OR CONNECTION?
“The Body and Blood of Christ: Bless, take, eat, drink….”
What a strange ritual. Eating the body and drinking the blood of a murdered Jew? Or is it cannibalism?
HINT ONE: All the working rituals associated with the durable religious traditions are connection software. Atheists tend to see the connection as a closed loop while their spiritually engaged brothers and sisters tend to see it as an open one.
HINT TWO: The most successful religions use spiritual connection software. That is the function of ritual and meditation practice.
HINT THREE: Not all spiritual software runs on your platform & operating system.
The world is filled with men and women who are genuinely searching for the spiritual/ethical connections that are the natural province of religions, but the world seems to be equally crowded with the off-putting features and doctrines of those same religions….
About one billion people find solace and inspiration in the Christian rite of communion every week, but for others this ceremony is ritual cannibalism.
This is my personal take on the communion tradition as I encountered it, and it describes how my private theological struggle with the ritual was resolved. Both are minority positions.
Part One, below, started with a letter I wrote to a mother who was looking for a spiritual home for her family but was held back by the communion in an otherwise attractive church.
Part Two is my personal theological resolution.
I believe that we can only come to know the truly important universal truths of existence in one way – as they are revealed in the particulars of life. We are only able to discover those deep parts of reality that go beyond the raw data and dispassionate chronicles of events into explanation, importance and transcendence, by living and contemplating the particulars of the world. Only when we go deep enough into the smile of a baby, the surprise of unbidden beauty, the power of an act of caring, the wonder of a numinous encounter, do we encounter the living universal, the carrier of holy meaning. All ritual and religious history are about the intensely particular and how it calls the universal into our lives.
My Personal Encounter
I was a reluctant Methodist as a kid (the kind who asks too many questions), then I became a law school Unitarian in Berkeley, CA. Whenever I was exposed to the communion ritual, it seemed too ‘catholic’ for my protestant mind and too medieval for my modernist perspective.
I first really got to know and experience Episcopal worship when dating my wife, “R” – she was living in a Seattle suburb and attending an Episcopal church there. I was commuting to see her on weekends from the East Bay, and we attended her church whenever I was in town.
Soon I found myself drawn in by the easy going sincerity of the rector, a Tom Selleck of the suburban Episcopate, a guy’s guy with a hale and friendly personality that dispelled any trace of that “religion is just for sissies” mindset. I felt welcomed in the general spirit of theological tolerance that permeates that denomination and the robust sense of community in that parish.
The EC tends to have an educated demographic, not dissimilar to that in, say, a liberal Reform Jewish congregation. Fortunately, I didn’t feel at all pressured to go to the communion rail. And for the longest time, I did not. I was a spiritual observer, basking in the whole spectacle from my pew, like a sympathetic anthropologist.
R and I dated for a year courtesy of Alaska Airlines (we’d known each other in high school in our home state) and we married at midnight in her church on new Years’ Eve. She moved to CA a year later. By that time, I’d begun to take communion regularly, soaking up the ritual, making sense of it in my own terms.
After a search, we settled on an East Bay parish because of its amazing music program. By then I was comfortable with the Episcopal religious setting but was not fully committed to the denomination. While I had accommodated to the neo-catholic ritual, integrating its symbolism with my own belief system, my over-complicated intellectual theological reservations were a barrier to actually joining-up.
Flash forward to September, 2001. My wife and I have frequently traveled in and out of Manhattan to visit extended family. On this 2001 trip, we planned to attend one of those over-the-top Long Island weddings. The trip date was 9-8, as I recall. [A side note: Our return a flight out of JFK on United was scheduled for 9-12. One of our most common flights in and out of NYC was United Flight 92.]
We ended up spending an unforgettable ten days there. From the moment that we woke up on September 11th till the day that we got off the plane in San Francisco, I experienced an intense world-out-of-time.
On the afternoon of 9-11, my wife and I were wandering in mid-town, filled with shock, grief and wonder at the outbreak of goodness and kindness among all those brusque, sassy new Yorkers, when we happened on a very old Episcopal Church near 14th. Drawn in by a hand-lettered sign on the door, we entered a space filled with music, grief and solace. The organist had been continuously playing for several hours. People filed in and out quietly, staying to pray and sing and to make sense of the event that had shattered the city.
That Sunday we attended mass at St. Thomas on 5th Ave. This is an impressive, cathedral-scaled Episcopal Church – it was Tony Blair’s favorite whenever he visited the US. When we sang “America the Beautiful” (it’s actually in the hymnal), I couldn’t get through it without choking up. We attended communion with several hundred others – Americans, Brits, tourists, locals, who filed down the aisles entrained in deep introspection.
That was the moment when I finally got it – in a visceral sense of “aha!” when I took the bread in my hand and glanced up. A missing element of my self was falling gently into place. No one is ever alone in this ritual, not me, not the 800 or so others, not a single person on a desert island. The communion’s essential magic is in the depth and scale of the connection it makes across time and space to millions of other men, women and children…and beyond. For me, that simple, historically freighted ritual meal had become a shared glimpse of the numinous, and a mirror of the brokenness I share with a certain crucified rabbi and everyone else born of a mother.
As CS Lewis put it,
“One of our great allies at present is the Church itself. Do not misunderstand me. I do not mean the Church as we see her spread out through all time and space and rooted in eternity, terrible as an army with banners. That, I confess, is a spectacle which makes our boldest tempters uneasy. But fortunately it is quite invisible to these humans.”
CS Lewis became one of my mentors. He and his literary pub-mates, the “Inklings” – JR Tolkien and Charles Williams, among them – enjoyed a “communion” over beer in a certain Oxford pub for many years. Lewis had followed a course from a smarter-that-you atheism to genial and generous Christian belief. His defense of Christianity is as sophisticated and eloquent as any I know of. If he has written about the communion as such, I haven’t run onto it. But the theology of CS Lewis and that of a physicist, turned Anglican priest, John Polkinghorne, cleared the path for me. [Polkinghorne is still alive and well in the UK, occasionally visiting the General Theological Union, on “holy hill” above the U. C. Berkeley campus for the science religion conferences.]
If there is a bottom line for me, it is this: that all religion, writ large, consists of ethical/therapeutic communities (the former for the kids, the latter for the parents!) organized around symbols and stories that carry the embedded essential human wisdom. We work out our own individual, internal arrangements and our key relationships (with doctrine, our fellow travelers and the ultimate Truth) in order to participate in this special kind of community.
I’m sure that parents suddenly make a point of going to church when that they/we realize that the great ethical and moral traditions don’t just self perpetuate. It really is up to us to see that the great intergenerational cultural transmission belt carries ethical and moral knowledge to the little ones.
So, if you find a spiritual home in any ethical/therapeutic community that otherwise is a good fit and is filled with the little ones, please don’t be put off by the communion or any other working ritual.
My Personal Theology
I’m not one of those for whom Christianity is the only valid approach to the Creator, the Ultimate, by any of the any Holy One’s names.
But I do maintain that nearly all of the world’s surviving religious traditions are seeking a communion with ultimate being (or “Beingness” as our Buddhist friends might term it).
I am deeply persuaded that religions “all seek communion”. I believe that this remains true at some deep level however a particular religious method or doctrine or denomination might attempt to describe (or circumscribe) that process.
And I believe that this insight remains on the mark whether one’s ultimate communion is approached as the Buddhist’s universal compassion for sentient beings, the Abrahamic traditions’ sense of reverence for / obedience to / dialogue with the one true God, or the intuitions of the mystics whose mainline numinous experiences defy all attempts at ordinary verbal description.
Christianity is unique in the same sense that Judaism is unique, founded as both traditions are, not on a single prophet’s flash of divine insight, but on an entire, world-changing train of events sparked by a divine intervention. [Leave aside, if you will, just what such an “intervention’ might entail.]
Judaism hinges on a history-changing Moses, in concert with the divine, prying the Jewish people free of their Egyptian captivity into a perilous freedom where they were charged with custody of the Moral Law, embedded in their Torah.
Christianity hinges on a history-changing Jesus (Jesuah), that charismatic Jewish rabbi, in concert with the divine, confronting the occupying Roman authorities with “the liberation virus”. The Jesus Event had the ultimate purpose of ferrying the Moral Law out of its tribal boundaries and broadcasting it to the world at large. There were associated miracles, of course, but that is another discussion.
The communion in Christian practice cannot be understood without identifying its origins in the history of Judaism, its sister religion. The Jewish Passover dinner, the Seder, ritually recapitulates and memorializes one emblematic night during the great power struggle between Moses and the Pharaoh. Before the Exodus when plagues were visited on the Egyptian captors, Jewish families were instructed to remain indoors in preparation for their escape. The privations and hardships of the Exodus are recalled in the Seder ritual, and elements of the meal are blessed.
Jesus was a practicing first-Century Jew who regularly conducted the Passover Seder with his Talmudim (the corps of loyal, itinerant students who became the apostles). Like many of his fellow Jews, Jesus criticized the corrupt practices of Temple Judaism, particularly as it was co-opted during the Roman occupation. When he and his students entered Jerusalem for the last time before his execution by the Roman authorities, it was for a profoundly ambitious set of purposes. I personally believe that, with divine assistance, he was charged to accomplish a double liberation: that of the Jewish people from Roman Imperial rule and the promulgation of the core Moral Law, as embedded in the Torah, to the gentiles (i.e., the nations, the rest of humankind for all time). These audacious goals could not be accomplished during his corporeal lifetime, but they were to be brought about over time as his brutal torture and execution at the hands of the occupying Roman authorities set off a chain of events.
As part of this agenda or charge, he had already initiated the practice of substituting private symbolic sacrifice in the form of sacramental meals as an alternative to Temple sacrifice. His final public act before retreating from Jerusalem was to attack the tables of the commercial money lenders outside the Temple. His agenda (Christians would say, the divine agenda) was to end Temple system and the Roman occupation. In point of fact, within a half century, the Temple system had disappeared from Judaism, and within three hundred years, the Roman Empire was on a path to extinction.
The night before this remarkable rabbi was seized for his “show trial” and Roman crucifixion (it was the most spectacularly failed execution in human history), he held one last dinner with his students. When he gave the traditional Jewish blessing for the wine and the matzo bread, he added a seemingly heretical (and prophetic) comment. Knowing the likely outcome of his forthcoming arrest, he commanded his followers to “do this [ritual] in my memory” and told them that the wine was his “blood” and the bread was his “body”. He explicitly identified his own person as a ritual sacrifice in lieu of those conducted in the Temple.
As a scientifically aware 21st century lawyer, when I participate in this sacred Christian ritual, I realize that I am experiencing allegory and symbolism. But as a monotheist, I part company with my secular friends in that the allegory carries embedded divine-engendered meaning and the symbolism is an instantiation of the living spirit of the creator of all that is.
I believe that Christ’s injunction was an invitation to participate in a multi-level symbolic act. To eat the Elements ceremonially, after the fact of the Christ’s execution, is to take them in, to incorporate them into one’s being, not literally as blood and flesh, but symbolically.
In this sense, I personally understand the blood reference to be the life-giving spirit of the divine and the body reference to be the corpus or body of the Moral Law, the essence of the Torah. When Jesus was saying “remember me” through this ritual I believe that he meant something like, “Remember me as I incarnated the spirit and the law, and as you take in the bread and wine know that I will live in you and you in me”.
In this form of discourse, the boundaries between poetry, symbolism and the presence of the numinous are erased.
Surely, this was the deeper meaning of the “sacrifice” or offering in that first “last supper”. And it is an offering to us that is endlessly recapitulated in every communion thereafter. Some of us take communion in order to take in the spirit of profound, divine-engendered life affirmation and to digest the living body of the Moral Law. For us, this is a ritual commemoration of the One whose sacrifice demonstrated the divine power to remake the world though the faith of good people. Mystery, faith, morality and reason in are concert.
Communion is by no means the indispensable ritual or the only path to enlightenment. But it is a communion. I don’t think it is coincidental that before the religion now known by the Greek term for the anointed One had become differentiated from Judaism, it was commonly called “the way”. It was a new path that had opened up within Judaism, one that ultimately spread knowledge of the Torah to the entire world.
In the first century, before the Romans brutally suppressed the great Jewish rebellion and destroyed the great temple in Jerusalem (CE 66-69), Hillel the Elder exemplified the rabbinical tradition that would dominate post-temple Judaism.
Rabbi Hillel, possibly the most revered and famous of rabbis within the Jewish tradition, lived about one generation before Jesus. Whether Hillel’s life overlapped that of Jesus, his core teachings as a sage of great ethical wisdom, most certainly reached Jesus’ ears. Among Hillel’s aphorisms (which are generally recorded in Pirkei Avot – Ethics of the Fathers, captured in written form in the Mishnah) was: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, then what am I? And if not now, when?”
One day, a gentile seeking to know the Torah (apparently he wanted the first century Cliff Notes version) approached Hillel, after his request had been harshly rejected by another Rabbi. The gentile impertinently asked Hillel whether he could recite the entire Torah while standing on one leg. Hillel gracefully complied. “Do not do to your neighbor that which is hateful if done to you. This is the whole of the Torah. All the rest is commentary. Go and study. ” According to the legend, the gentile did enter a course of Torah study and was converted.
Not long after that, another rabbi – Jesus from Nazareth – became known as a healer.
A similar encounter with Jesus is captured in the Gospel accounts.
The Shema (the injunction to love G-d) and the obligation to love one’s neighbor (The love one’s neighbor rule first occurs in Leviticus 19/18.) are common to both traditions. The Shema is set out in Deuteronomy 6:4-5 “And you shall love the lord your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul and all your might.” [V-ahavta et Adonai Elohecha b-chol l’vavcha u-v-chol m’odecha.]
In Mark 12:28-30 28 we find Jesus quoting the Shema:
“One of the teachers of the law came and heard them debating. Noticing that Jesus had given them a good answer, he asked him, ‘Of all the commandments, which is the most important?’ 29 ‘The most important one,’ answered Jesus, ‘is this: Hear, O Israel, the Lord our G-d, the Lord is one. 30 Love the Lord your G-d with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” And in Luke 10:25-37: 25 – “On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. ‘Teacher,’ he asked, ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life?’ 26 ‘What is written in the Law?’ he replied. ‘How do you read it?’ 27 He answered, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ 28 ‘You have answered correctly,’ Jesus replied.”