I was intrigued by this passage from "Kitchen Communion - From the food pantry to the table," by Sara Miles, in The Christian Century, Feb. 9, 2010, p. 24, at 29:
[After the benefit dinner, we] celebrated Eucharist at midnight in the middle of the [restaurant] dining room .... My feet hurt more than they had in 20 years, and my shirt was slippery with grease.
The waiters and dishwasher came out, curious, as I handed Paul [the parish rector] a loaf of French bread. He held it up, saying the ancient Hebrew prayer. "Blessed be God, ruler of the universe, who brings forth grain from the earth," he chanted.
"Now we share the bread with each other," Paul instructed. He was still wearing the kerchief [to cover his hair while cooking] and his face was shining. "It's Jesus' table, so the bread is for everybody."
* * *
I remember how Deb had told me she didn't think communion was a good idea. "It's not gonna fly," she said. "At the end of a shift everyone just leaves as fast as they can or maybe goes out to get drunk. But nobody wants to hang out in the restaurant."
We passed the bread around, then a plastic glass of wine. ... I was a little embarrassed and unbelievably happy. ...
(Emphasis and extra paragraphing added.)
I was struck by the priest's omission of the traditional words of consecration, "this is my body" and "this is the cup of my blood."
Instead, he said the traditional Hebrew blessing of the bread — quite possibly using the English counterpart of the very words Jesus himself might have spoken at the Last Supper.
I wondered: How necessary were the body-and-blood words of consecration, really?
So I re-read the ancient accounts of the institution of the Eucharist.
- Mark 14, Matthew 26, and Luke 22 all give the impression that Jesus used the bread and wine primarily as stage props, a teaching aid, a visual metaphor to emphasize what he expected was in store for him — which would be followed by the coming of the kingdom of God.
- Of the four gospels, only Luke quotes Jesus as instructing his followers that they should "do this in remembrance of me"; Paul's earlier account in 1 Cor. 11, based on church tradition, does likewise.
- The Fourth Gospel, of course, doesn't mention the institution of the Eucharist at all.
- Apart from the canonical New Testament documents, chapter 9 of the Didache makes no mention of Jesus' body or blood; its emphasis is on thanking God. It twice mentions Jesus simply as God's servant, not as a son of God, much less as God incarnate. (The Didache was an instructional text, thought to have been written by Jewish Christians, sometime near the late first century, for their gentile brethren.)
This makes me think we need to read the command, "do this in remembrance of me," in context with the rest of what Jesus reportedly said on that occasion.
The command appears to be a direction for a simple ritual that will help Jesus' followers stay focused — not so much on Jesus himself, nor even on his death, but on his imminent return and the coming of the kingdom — so that his followers won't lose heart during the times of trouble.
I'm very much in sympathy with this. As I come towars retirement from ministry I find myself increasingly uneasy with the most overt symbolism of the eucharist. Sometimes I will hand out the bread and the wine with the words, "the bread of heaven," and "the cup of blessing."
I recall sitting in on a school assembly not so long ago - a primary school with children aged from 4 to 11. It was a great school, wonderful happy atmosphere. But to begin their act of worship they sang, "As we are gathered.." Belted it out with gusto and feeling including the words, "born of the spirit, washed in the blood."
Washed in blood!? Four-year-olds? What on earth are we teaching them?
Posted by: Rob Crompton | February 17, 2010 at 09:31 AM
This is how I think of it. Jesus spoke in stories/parables and metaphors all of the time. I don't believe in transubstantiation because I think Jesus' pattern of speaking was one of metaphor and mystery. He takes the cup and the bread and he says that we should remember him as often as we eat or drink of it-- so I think, how often do I eat or drink? Pretty often. He's asking that we remember him as often as we eat or drink, that re-connecting with Him is as natural and commonplace as that. We do a very "formal" communion at church but a gathering over orange juice and crackers in someone's kitchen could just as easily be a communion. It's communion because of our prayerful approach, not because of the menu.
He speaks of his body and his blood as the elements of him that are flesh, that are with the disciples in the present moment. Jesus' physical hand is not here for me to hold, but his humanity is as much available to me today as it was for them back then. Jesus bled and cried, probably had acne and the flu-- he was a human being and experienced all the things that make up the human experience on earth. Eating and drinking is so much about satisfying physical needs, so remember his body and his blood is about remembering that he had our same physical experience as it is about remembering his sacrifices or love for us. Yes, His body was broken and His blood was poured out, but His body and blood are important on a deeper level because He shared in our experiences in every way.
Posted by: Nora | February 17, 2010 at 11:58 PM
I agree with Nora. In my view the whole flesh and blood imagery has it's roots in the Jewish sacrificial system - the food was offered, the priest sacrificed or blessed it, took his share and gave it back to the offeror, who then ate it. Blood was, of course life itself, and Jews couldn't eat or drink it. I suspect Jesus (and surely Saul/Paul) as good Jews are tying into these powerful and entrenched notions of sacrifice. I think Jesus is referring to the wine as his blood 'poured out' as was the blood of animal sacrifices. To drink it 'in remembrance of me' is to recall the pouring of his blood. I don't care for those images in this day and age. I agree, too, that the eating and drinking together is the primary symbol - the earliest Eucharists were basically pot lucks. And I think that anytime we share food and drink - the stuff of life - it is sacramental. On the other hand, the symbolism of 'consuming' Jesus is a shocking one, and perhaps helps people think. After 2000 years, I'm not inclined to change it!
Posted by: Fr Craig | February 23, 2010 at 09:55 AM
I'm hesitant to give up the church teaching on this, but I do think its possible that John's interpretation was ironic. There is a deliberate juxtaposition: in fact, Jesus is NOT being sacrificed upon the altar. That is a crucial difference. The fellowship becomes the substitute for the blood.
I think it is important to remember that bloody sacrifice is the root of civilization, but with Jesus, we don't need it anymore. If we forget, the possibility is that we return.
Posted by: Gawain | February 26, 2010 at 09:44 AM