I grew up without symbols in an era whose symbols were the peace sign, the Chevy Camaro, Elvis Presley, and Joe Camel. There was no luminous or transcendent emblem casting a shadow over or set against the horizon of my childhood. My parents were lapsed agnostics, symbol-free atheists who said, “Jesus is for Catholics.” We disapproved of Catholics, those papists, those families-of-too-many-children, those elitists with their parochial schools, those superstitious ninnies.
My parents never took us to church, but my grandparents did. My granddad, an engineer, was a brilliant and kind man who often thought out loud about life and death, Christ, the angels, and God. He talked regularly about Christ’s cry from the cross, awestruck that God abandoned His only son so that Christ, like every human, would know the pain of separation, division, schism, abandonment, forsakenness. I was just a girl, but I paid attention.
A few Sundays, overcome with maternal guilt about her failure to educate us in all things religious, my mother dropped us off at a nearby Methodist church, where we had crackers and grape juice for remembering Jesus. The cups were tiny and plastic, our pews full of children crowded hand to snot-smeared hand, and nothing cried glory; all was linoleum and cheap carpet and I recall wanting to never go back. At my grandmother’s church, though, the windows were tall and wide stained glass with images of this strange Jesus giving bread and fish to people, holding children in his arms, walking on blue-green waves curling as high as his shoulders. The ceiling was very high and white, the windows situated east and west, so that the morning sun radiated through gloriously, casting gems of light everywhere, on hats and hands, old gentlemen’s lapels, the cheeks of babes dreaming on their mothers’ shoulders.
Sunday school was in the basement and it was crowded there, too; but we were given beautiful, new crayons and pictures of Bible scenes to color, and snacks. The minister would pass through, wearing his black robe and crisp white collar, putting a kindly hand on a boy’s shoulder, bending over to catch what a little girl said. His black sleeves billowed and heaved, especially when he preached gospel; that was where the life was.
The Host Heist
Recently, it was in the news that a young man took a smallw afer of unleavened, wheaten bread called the “host” or the “Body of Christ” or “Blessed Sacrament” outside the church. The host was pocketed and taken from a Catholic student worship center’s celebration of the mass by a kid named Webster Brown. He said he wanted to show the host to his non-Catholic friend, but later posted on a My Space page that he stole the host as an act of political protest. He has said that a church member attacked him (she asked him for the host, and when he refused to give it to her, she grabbed his wrist), and he also claims to have received death threats (but has produced no evidence of them).
All this has caused great furor, argument, and pounding of keyboards among bloggers and other pontificators who seem, for the most part, to think that Webster Cook is a hero and the Catholic church is full of people who are “insane, retarded, and ignorant,” an example of many similarly contemptuous comments made about Catholics and others who believe that Jesus Christ is bodily present in the Eucharist.
The Sacrament of the Altar
In a culture whose iconic symbols now include rednecks, Wal Mart, and Paris Hilton, it should come as no surprise that ignorance and religious intolerance abound. In the I-Thou equation, we seem to have lost the “Thou.” The most common brilliant arguments I’ve read against Catholics upset that someone took the consecrated bread home with him amount to, “I think your belief is stupid, and I think you’re stupid; therefore you are stupid.”
On one blog, I read the erudite argument that people should question Church authority more often by stealing and defiling more Eucharist. Evidently the commentator had never heard of great upstarts such as Luther, Calvin and Zwingli, whose questioning led to schisms that have lasted until now. And none of them had to resort to stunts like Webster Cook’s. And let’s not forget Jesus, for the teaching that Christ is mystically but actually present in the communion bread and wine arises from the words of Christ Himself, as recorded in all three synoptic gospels in Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 22.
I say, let us question Christ Himself, executed by the Romans for claiming to be God, among other sacrileges. “This is my body,” He said, “this is my blood.” It is on these words that the doctrine of the sanctity of the consecrated bread and wine is based. Early Christians seemed to accept Christ’s words literally, too; in 1 Corinthians 17, Saint Paul wrote at length about the Lord’s Supper, stating, “Whoever therefore eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord.” Paul did not write, “profaning the symbols or emblems of the body and blood of the Lord,” but, “the body and blood of the Lord.” This is basis of the teaching of the ancient Christian church. Many comments I’ve read are from people who don’t seem to know that it was Jesus Christ, not the Roman Catholic Church, who originated the wonky idea that God could bodily inhabit wheaten bread and wine, and that, historically, the Church has for the most part adhered to this teaching.
This Jesus of the mystical bread is the same Jesus who told sinners, “you must be born again,” said of married couples, “the two shall become one,” and told the Pharisees who criticized his disciples for crying out in praise as He entered Jerusalem, “I tell you, if these become silent, the stones will cry out!” Blasphemer, lunatic, friend of whores and tax agents; who is foolhardy enough to claim the name of Christ today? Only the ignorant and stupid, evidently. Clearly, the intelligent have gone to atheism and value-free living, having cut themselves loose from their ancestral moorings and fixed their jaundiced eyes on shores fairer by their reckoning. And God knows, I don’t disagree: we are all fools, who believe in more than what can be sensibly perceived. Lucky us, having them to take care of us in our follies, for people of faith are the village idiots of this generation.
But if Roman Catholics are ignorant and stupid for their belief that the real and actual presence of Christ is in the bread and the wine of the Eucharist, then they are in good company, for Eastern Orthodox, Anglicans, and Lutherans, too, believe the same. The great Protester himself, Martin Luther, had this to say about the sacrament:
In the same way I also say and confess that in the sacrament of the altar the true body and blood of Christ are orally eaten and drunk in the bread and wine, even if the priests who distribute them or those who receive them do not believe or otherwise misuse the sacrament. It does not rest on man’s belief or unbelief but on the Word and ordinance of God-unless they first change God’s Word and ordinance and misinterpret them, as the enemies of the sacrament do at the present time. They, indeed, have only bread and wine, for they do not also have the words and instituted ordinance of God but have perverted and changed it according to their own imagination. (2005. Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Editor, T. F. L., & Second Edition Editor, W. R. R. Fortress Press).
Methodists believe that Christ is actually present during holy communion, but not merely in the bread and wine; in Calvinist (Reformed) theology, the church itself is transformed into the literal body of Christ, and therefore communion at the Lord’s table is a sacrament. Many Protestants whose traditions arise from Zwingli’s teachings, such as Baptists and other evangelicals, believe that the bread and the wine are symbolic and the Lord’s supper is a mere commemoration of Christ’s offering. They part ways where Luther and Zwingli parted ways, on the very question of Christ’s bodily presence in the Eucharist. Finally, Quakers and a few other small denominations do not believe in communion as a sacrament or as an everlasting ordinance. They do not take communion at all.
God’s Own Fool
While those on both sides of this debate alternately defame and defend, where is the dialogue that brings understanding or peace? Who can claim to be a pupil of Christ’s when Christ Himself taught, “by this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” The world watches as so-called believers cannot muster so much as a plastic thimbleful of love for one another, or tolerance for each other’s beliefs that are so deeply held. I do not blame the non-spiritual for their lack of faith or respect for religion when the religious lack so much love.
I am no theologian or apologist, but I know something about my own experience. I’ve felt such deep sadness since reading many of the reactions to Webster Cook’s fateful decision to take the Eucharist away with him, especially the reactions denigrating people who believe, as I do, that there are still sacred objects in this secular world. This mockery brings me to the very place of my ignorance and my bliss, for if the Church militant and the Church triumphant are ignorant for believing that the divine can be contained in the material world, then so am I.
For all this, I for one must thank young Webster Cook, whose youthful tomfoolery has reminded many of us of what it is we go to church for, and what the Lord’s Supper is about, and what we make of the claims of Jesus Christ. Webster Cook’s folly reminds us to be grateful for living in a country where we may still debate these issues openly and heatedly, but where we may not violently or maliciously defame or deface what is to our fellows precious and sacred. Finally, Webster Cook reminds me of why I willingly accept the label of “insane, retarded, ignorant,” God’s own fool, for
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For [. . .] God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. [. . .] For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength. (1 Corinthians 1:20-25, NIV)