In this week's program, Protestant theologian Don Saliers observes that churches sometimes transmit principles and rituals without passing on some of the original dynamics of faith behind them. Saliers and my other guest, Catholic priest and theologian Edward Foley, frame the meaning of the Christian Eucharist or Communion in terms that are basic and human. This program does not deny great mystery within the ritual, but it explores how that mystery drew its power and meaning from the substance of daily human life. Communion began, Saliers and Foley remind us, in a context of friendship and food, with an act of sharing a meal and all that implies.
We have been hearing about the original definitive meal of Christianity all year by way of politics and popular culture. During the presidential election, a handful of conservative Catholic Bishops suggested that John Kerry should be excluded from communion because of his record on abortion. Around the same time, gay activists were denied communion in several Catholic churches. And there are other recent examples of Communion in our cultural spotlight — such as Dan Brown's focus on Leonardo Da Vinci's painting "The Last Supper" in his best-selling novel, The Da Vinci Code. As a result, Americans have been pondering the "last supper" which was, in some sense, the first Communion. But popular attention has been wholly riveted on who was seated around the table in that painting, instead of the deepest meaning of what may have happened there. And the truth is, as both of this week's guests and the biblical accounts themselves underscore, Jesus of Nazareth routinely made surprising choices in his companions for table fellowship. He was always eating with the wrong people from someone's point of view: sinners, tax collectors, fallen women, Pharisees.
Saliers and Foley also shed light on how table fellowship eventually became ritual and, for some Christians, sacrament. By the Middle Ages, there were theologies and elaborations that left most Christians feeling unworthy to be more than onlookers in the meal. There remain significant differences in the way Eastern Orthodoxy, Roman Catholicism, and the varieties of Protestantism interpret and practice the Eucharist. Foley and Saliers describe some of the ways their traditions have sought by different means to reintroduce the original meaning of communion back into worship.
One of the most salutary observations of this hour for me is Don Saliers' reminder that in the earliest churches, which gathered in homes, the community meal was afterwards shared with outsiders and especially the poor. Communion was inextricably linked with service. Though Foley and Saliers have different theologies of what is happening in the bread and the wine of Communion, they agree on this: to partake of that "body of Christ" means to participate in the suffering of God in the world, to embody the church "in the world and for the world." The intimacy of "supping with God," isn't meant simply to confer grace and inward spiritual blessings, Foley says, it asks something of communicants. It calls Christians to embody the notion of sacrifice, and, as best they are able, to be agents of justice.
We thought, in creating this program for the days before Thanksgiving, that a deeper understanding of the meal at the center of the Christian faith might also illuminate our American civic rite of gratitude. The pilgrims had their own theology of table fellowship. And the holiday they handed down to us emerged from an earthly pattern of community born around a table, and of partaking and sharing as pieces of a whole.
And then as I sat down to write this reflection, I received an e-mail from a listener that suggests the unexpected turns and lessons religious conversation can yield. Approaching the depths of one tradition can elicit enriching insights from a very different other. My correspondent, as it turns out, speaks from the tradition of those who shared the pilgrims' table. Here is part of the thought she offered, which I reprint here with gratitude:
"When I saw the description of the next topic, Communion, I wanted to share a non-Christian perspective. I am of Native American ancestry; I am a storyteller and dancer. There is an ancient belief held by many First Nations people in which the act of taking and eating food is a kind of covenant between two beings. There is a transmutation that takes place when the act of eating is done consciously and spiritually; a recognition that one form of life gives itself to another as an act of the most basic form of communion; what is eaten is reborn as the flesh of another. Many Native hunters are mindful of this sacred relationship and thank the animal they kill for giving it's life so that they may feed their families. Prayers are said to thank the plants for providing food for us. There is an acknowledgement of the circle, the most basic symbol of Native spirituality. The grasses grow, and the hooved ones eat. We take a hooved one and we eat; we die and our bodies return to the soil and so the circle is completed and goes on."