The sacred meal that Jesus-followers celebrate, variously called ‘Eucharist’ or ‘Communion’ or ‘Lord’s Supper’ – is both the centerpiece of most Christian worship worldwide, and is also one of the most divisive rites we practice. My friend and Catholic Celtic contemplative (how much more alliteration can I pack into his descriptor – oh I know, his first name!) Carl McColman blogs about feeling this ambivalence firsthand in Communion and the Broken Body. What follows is a response to Carl, and the others who have interacted in the comments. I recommend you read Carl’s post before proceeding.
I’m grateful to Carl for sharing this – I recall he and I discussing restrictions that Roman Catholics (among others) place around the Eucharist the first time I came to the Monastery of the Holy Spirit with him and participated in the morning prayers and mass. It was beautiful, getting up way earlier than I normally do, chanting Psalms with the monks and Carl as the sun gradually illuminated the stained glass windows with an all-pervasive, translucent purple.
Because of both their hospitality and their declining numbers, Carl and I were able to sit in the monastic choir loft right there with the Cistercians; I felt very included. This made the next portion of the morning gathering all the more jarring, as I was technically not allowed to take the wafer and wine, as per Roman Catholic restrictions on non-Catholic participation. Instead I stood, arms crossed, receiving a “blessing” from the priest. the Christian community’s celebration of unity with God and each other is fragmented, broken much like Christ’s body on the altar, and this does indeed call for sadness. I agree with Carl in his post about both the lamentability of this reality, and working for change from within.
But I also agree with Darrell and some of the other (you could call us ‘green meme’) commentators on this thread – that unlike other things the Church might mourn, such as the energy crisis or genocide in Darfur, this is a matter wholly of our own making and within our purview to change. In stages of grief, if grieving doesn’t lead to fresh beginnings and new action, the griever is stunted in her growth. So let’s move on and become the change we wish to see.
How might we do this? Well, if Catholics want to appeal to tradition and authority, and Protestants want to appeal to conscience and Scripture, maybe we can all agree to hold these in abeyance while taking a moment to appeal…to Jesus. (Ack – I realize upon typing this that it can sound awfully one-sidedly Protestant, even Pietist. Bear with me a moment…)
If I may be so presumptuous, I think Jesus agrees with Carl’s growing realization that there are legitimate boundaries to the community of faith – that there are mysteries to be stewarded, and hard roads to walk, and that while hospitality is a crucial part of our vocation as apprentices along the Christ-path, there are also places where the general public simply won’t go – and this is fine. Inclusive green meme progressives like me struggle with this a bit, but Jesus deliberately thinned out the crowds from time to time – speaking in enigmatic parables, ratcheting up Moses’ law a thousand-fold to show the uncompromising heart of God’s reign, and ultimately inviting followers to a challenging third way path between Roman hegemony and reactive Jewish intransigence. In this way Jesus brought a ‘sword,’ and families were divided over what to do about him and his message. So Jesus is exclusive, yes?
And I hardly need to argue in this esteemed audience that Jesus is inclusive, too. Maybe cranky and reluctant at times, but reaching out to Samaritan women and Roman centurions and – most significantly – to lowest-caste Jewish folks of his day that polite society and religious elites wouldn’t countenance. Jesus seems to genuinely enjoy the company of the outcast and ne’er-do-well.
And Jesus gave us a meal – sometimes somber, sometimes joyous, in re-membrance of him, embodying Christ for the sake of each other and the world. And the question we post-Christendom, postmodern friends of God in the way of Jesus are asking ourselves is,
How then shall we eat?
- and with whom?
Recognizing that there are initiation rituals and boundary rituals in any religious group, we could then ask the question “What are our boundary rituals?” and “What are our initiation rituals?”
And is Eucharist the former or the latter? I know that official Roman Catholic polity – and that of many other communions – say that Eucharist is the former, it’s a boundary ritual reinforcing membership in Christ’s Body.
Byzantine/Anglo-Catholic liturgist Richard Fabian makes a brief-but-compelling case for reversing the well-tread order of Baptism and Eucharist in his essay First the Table, Then the Font. I’m not going to reiterate his arguments here, but it’s well worth the read. Summarizing him from my point of view, I have to ask the question “How did Jesus eat with others in his earthly life? Were they initiation meals, or boundary-maintenance?” I have to conclude that, overwhelmingly, in his eating Jesus is precisely at his most inclusive. This is when he dines with terrorists and sex workers and tax collectors, whilst the religious authorities of his day were disgusted.
“But oh,” contemporary religious authorities might object, “his final meal this side of the grave – the one where he told his followers to keep eating in remembrance of him – that was just with his inner circle.” Granted, but let me ask you this: If Jesus was asking his followers to eat in his manner, to celebrate his presence among them, would they be drawing solely on this one ‘final’ meal, or the collective memory of their years shared together? To put it another way: If the Church wants to insist on a closed, bounded-set meal based on one night of our Lord’s life, shouldn’t it work equally vigorously to celebrate the scandalously inclusive, no-strings-attached manner of eating our Redeemer practiced during the vast majority of his public ministry?
And – perhaps more provocatively – shouldn’t we consider that even in his “inner circle,” Jesus extended radical hospitality to a betrayer in their midst! Doesn’t sound like particularly good boundary-maintenance to me.
Religious thinking is so bass-ackward sometimes. We’re afraid of ourselves, and afraid of the ‘outside world.’ We think of boundaries as something that we need to institute and enforce, externally, while gratuitous inclusion is something that will result in our loss of distinction and identity. Jesus seemed to reverse this pattern, finding his identity in complete open-handed invitational inclusion at the site of the shared meal, with boundary naturally arising in his call to follow him. It’s good branding, really – being salt and light both attracts and repels different people, or even the same people at different times – even ourselves at different stages of life’s journey.
With this said, I realize that – both practically and intentionally speaking – Eucharistic celebration is primarily for the edification of committed apprentices of Jesus; it is not ‘evangelistic’ per se in its design. Even so, it is invitational when practiced in the way of Jesus. We needn’t be concerned that abject heathens are going to keep beating down our doors to participate in a ritual that they disrespect and that holds no meaning to them – it just ain’t happening, folks. On the other hand, atheists, agnostics, sinners and ne’er-do-wells might just be curious enough to participate alongside us – to see if they can belong before believing, to see if they can ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’ I long to see creative, prophetic acts of public worship, like my friend Lucas Land proposes in Eucharist as Eat-In. If we unshackle Jesus from our exclusionary practices, the transforming love of God can spill into the streets and the ‘profane’ lives or ordinary people – through our supposed ‘means of grace’ that we keep shut up.
That’s what happened to another friend, Sara Miles, who stumbled into Fabian’s congregation over a decade ago. I loathe to think of where Sara, her city, and even her congregation would be had she not been allowed to encounter Jesus at a no-strings-attached Communion table in her neighborhood. I shudder to think of how Jesus is being shuttered up in buildings across this world – what we’re missing out on by not making liturgy the work of the people, for the people.
I guess I should apologize to Carl – I got into the very argument that he didn’t want to have. And I’m going to ratchet it up slightly here – I don’t think that Darrell was being overly unkind or by describing the closed-handed exclusivity of certain Eucharist practices as ‘demonic.’ This needn’t be seen in an overly polemic way, but rather in the spirit of the apostle Paul, when he wrote a church to say he was giving one of its members “over to the devil.” This wasn’t a curse, but a naming of things as they really are in hopes of full repentance and restoration. I can’t – and won’t – stand in judgment of denominations that fence the table from all who don’t have confessional unity with them. But I do sniff the smell of fear and sulphur around such behavior at an institutional level, at what Walter Wink would call “the Powers” (demonic again. ) And I do pray that such power will be broken – for Christ’s sake, and the sake of the world.
If anyone wants to do some theological heavy-lifting on the matter, I’d recommend (in addition to Fabian’s essay above) Come to the Table by Anglican priest Jamie Howison – the full book is available here. Also Making A Meal of It: Rethinking the Lord’s Supper by United Methodist minister and theologian Ben Witherington III. And to be fair to another perspective (thanks Carl for pointing these resources out), Episcopal priest and Thomas W. Phillips Chair in Religious Studies professor at Bethany College in West Virginia Jim Farwell has staked a lot on a generous-but-boundary-keeping stance on limiting Communion to the baptized. His essay Baptism, Eucharist, and the Hospitality of Jesus: On the Practice of ‘Open Communion,’ as well as its rejoinder by Kathryn Tanner can be found on the Anglican Theological Review website here. (Interestingly, for me anyway, I took a class with Farwell over a decade ago on Eastern Religion with a focus on Zen and interreligious dialogue at Berry. It’s a small Body of Christ…)
It’s also worth noting that, in true house church fashion, I think that the Eucharist is best celebrated as a full meal – why redact God’s feast into a notional meal only? But that’s a subject for a whole ‘nother post…
An earlier version of this was originally posted September 21, 2009