Today’s Readings: Prv. 9:1-6; Ps. 34:2-7; Eph. 5:15-20; Jn. 6:51-58
Not long ago in my summertime parish church in Michigan, we celebrated an important anniversary. Previous pastors, religious sisters who had faithfully served our community in years past along with former parishioners who had moved away were all present. Even the bishop of our diocese was there.
Most importantly, friends from other Christian denominations were in attendance. How wonderful, I thought, that the spirit of Vatican II has prevailed in the show of ecumenism that those non-Catholic friends represented. Before the Second Vatican Council, previously “separated brothers and sisters in Christ” present at a Roman Catholic communion table would have been unthinkable.
Before Mass handshakes and embraces greetings, laughter and the usual inter-denominational jokes prevailed. “Fancy meeting you here!” I heard more than once from Catholics as they greeted their friends from our local Unitarian Church. Baptists came back with remarks about “the house of smells and bells.” Things like that . . . Great fun, great community, great meaning. . .
And the Mass itself was fine. A beloved former pastor gave a wonderful homily. In its course, he recognized the splendor of the occasion, of the reunion, of the strides in ecumenism that the congregation represented that particular day: Protestants and Catholics gathered around the communion table expressing their deeply shared faith in Jesus who before the birth of the church and way before the emergence of “denominations,” requested all followers to break bread together “in remembrance of me.”As I was saying, all of this was previously so unthinkable.
But then just when things were advancing so swimmingly, something else unthinkable occurred. Just before communion, our current pastor (just a year or so ordained) announced that non-Catholics would not be allowed to receive communion. That’s right, he said that guests invited to “the Lord’s Supper” were not to eat or drink at the Lord’s Table! In order to do so, he explained, communicants must share Roman Catholic belief in “the real presence” of Jesus in the communion wafers and under the appearances of wine. (He was talking about the arcane notion of “transubstantiation.”)
Well, following that announcement, you could have heard a pin drop. We all checked our hearing aids. Say what? More than one of us, I’m sure, thought, “What on earth are they teaching seminarians these days?” Invite your friends to a banquet, and then refuse to share the meal? That’s not only unthinkable; it’s inhospitable, rude, and profoundly embarrassing.
Today’s readings address the absurdity of such prohibition and of the understanding of God, Jesus, bread and wine that lie behind it. Such silliness is corrected by words about God’s essentially feminine wisdom, about the “real presence” of Jesus, and where to find both God’s wisdom and Christ’s presence. In doing all of this, the readings also exemplify the normalcy of diverse and even conflicting understandings of Christianity in general and of Eucharist in particular.
To begin with, the first reading from the Book of Proverbs suggests that if priests were women, nothing like what happened in our church could have occurred. In fact, the reading imagines God’s wisdom and God’s “church” in completely feminine, completely hospitable terms. Those terms have the Goddess of Wisdom setting a splendid table filled with rich foods, bread and wine. Most women, most mothers can relate to that; it’s something they do every day. On special occasions they set especially fancy tables like the one pictured in the reading from Proverbs. Wise mothers would never refuse to share food even with unexpected drop-ins. They’d simply add a little water to the soup to help it go around.
Then the female God’s agents (maidens all) call everyone to the table. In this the maidens are performing the essential function of church (in Greek: ek-klesia) – i.e. calling the people together. (They are acting as priests and bishops.) And there is no sense of exclusion here either; no pre-understanding of the menu is required. In fact, those “without understanding” are specifically invited to “come and eat my food.” Again, all of this is completely feminine.
Understanding, the text notes, is the result of eating; it is not required before eating. In terms relevant to today’s topic, one doesn’t have to understand transubstantiation (who does?) to eat at the Lord’s Table. On the contrary, according to Proverbs, the act of eating advances comprehension, which (since we’re dealing with the infinite) can only grow, deepen, and evolve in the course of history.
However, instead of such openness to growth, the Catholic hierarchy’s exclusionary understanding of Eucharist evinces deep frozen stability. It has taken an explanation of Eucharist which emerged in 12th century (long after Jesus, of course) and concretized that as the only acceptable understanding of what takes place at the Lord’s Supper – and that for all time.
In fact, the doctrine of transubstantiation emerged principally as a defensive “ideological weapon” against spiritual groups like the Cathars or Albigensians. This so-called “heresy” arose in the 12th century and was cruelly persecuted by Rome. Albigensians attacked the ecclesiastical hierarchy, the powers of priests, and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Transubstantiation was meant to defend clerical privilege. It accorded to approved priests a quasi-magical power not recognized in “those others.”
The Albigensians’ attack on the hierarchy and clergy only intensified with the Protestant Reformation. It caused Rome to further dig in its heels about clerical authority and those quasi-magical powers belonging exclusively to its patriarchy. So at the Council of Trent (1545-64) Rome declared:
If anyone should say that by the words, “Do this in memory of me,” Christ did not consecrate the apostles as priests or did not command the apostles and other priests to offer his own body and his own blood, let him be anathema. If anyone should say that the sacrifice of the mass is only an act of praise or thanksgiving, or that it is merely a commemoration of the sacrifice consummated on the cross but is not propitiatory, let him be anathema.
The term “anathema” was a kind of “curse”, used by the ecclesiastical hierarchy to disqualify all (like our non-Catholic friends in Michigan) who did not think or believe as they did. When an “anathema” was dictated against someone, the person was expelled from the community (excommunicated) and separated from religious society as someone “cursed” by God.
In the terms of today’s readings, placing such time-bound limitations on God is “foolishness.” In this morning’s excerpt from Ephesians, Paul urges us to be open to the Spirit and to continually rethink previous understandings of God and his will.
Similarly, today’s excerpt from John’s Gospel shows how the early church was quite adept at such openness to new meanings and to creatively re-imagining the significance of Jesus and his words.
As I noted in last week’s reflections, the words about eating Jesus’ flesh and drinking his blood could not possibly have been spoken by the Jewish Jesus to a Jewish audience. After all, drinking any kind of blood – not to mention human blood – was expressly forbidden by the Mosaic Law.
However, by the time John wrote his Gospel (anywhere between about 90 C.E. and 110) John’s audience (predominantly non-Jews) was highly influenced by Gnostic beliefs. Gnostics – and John’s audience – were all quite familiar with “dying and rising Gods” and with the ritual practice of metaphorically eating the Gods’ flesh and drinking the Gods’ blood by sharing bread and wine. So to them, Jesus could be explained in precisely those terms, even if it meant putting into the mouth of Jesus words that he could never have spoken. So John has Jesus say that eating his flesh as bread and drinking his blood as wine would unite believers with him as a “dying and rising God” and open access to eternal life.
This is an example of the startling freedom early Christian teachers had to adapt their message to the social and cultural understandings of their audiences. They weren’t hampered by exclusionary doctrines, dogmas, and definitions like the one involving “transubstantiation.” They were prepared to use any “hook” they could find to hang the meaning they saw in Jesus’ life for the benefit of good-willed people.
Moreover, the “real presence” John was concerned about had nothing to do with the containment of an infinite God within a wafer or sip of wine. John’s audience was worried about connecting with the long-dead Master from Galilee. How might they do this? That was their question. John’s response was “Do what Jesus did: share food and drink.” And he wasn’t talking about “the Mass.” Sharing of bread with the hungry is what makes Jesus present. In fact “bread” and Jesus’ “flesh,” “wine” and Jesus’ “blood” are all interchangeable terms. It’s the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup with the poor that makes Jesus present.
For years before I retired from teaching I taught a required course at Berea College called “Understandings of Christianity.” If I learned anything from teaching that course, it is that from the beginning, there were many understandings of Jesus and the meaning of being his follower. I’ve been trying to communicate an illustration of that this morning. John’s understanding was not that of Mark, Matthew, or Luke. Yet John’s adaptation of Jesus’ words (not to say his invention of them) exemplifies inclusion rather than its opposite.
Our clergy might well take such lessons to heart before they misuse the Eucharist for purposes of consolidating their power and authority – for punishing others in the name of Jesus for not agreeing with them. Protestants might not see eye-to-eye with Rome about a 12th century explanation of the Holy Communion. They might not recognize the authority of the Pope. (How many Catholics don’t either?) But “our separated brothers and sisters” represent important, indispensable and authentic “understandings of Christianity.”
That’s the lesson to be drawn from today’s readings — not only from John the Evangelist, but the Goddess of Wisdom and her table set for all comers.
It’s also the message of Vatican II – which remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church.