“Come, eat of my bread and drink of the wine I have mixed.” – Proverbs 9:1-6
This simple verse should resonate with everyone here, because it touches on the basic elements of the Judeo-Christian meal, both sacred and secular. With a Jewish husband, and decades of Jewish holidays under my belt, this verse makes me immediately think of two of the essential Shabbat prayers:
Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam,
Hamotzi lechem min haaretz
Blessed are You, Our God, Ruler of the world,
Who brings forth bread from the earth.
And then there’s:
Baruch atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech haolam, borei p'ri hagafen
Blessed are You, Our God, Ruler of the world, Creator of the fruit of the vine.
These prayers are part of the weekly Shabbat dinner – the central domestic ritual among observant Jews. But they’re also part of the Passover Seder, and, indeed, any other important meal in a Jewish home. The blessing of the bread and the wine are as central to Jewish life as they are to the Christian Eucharist – which, after all, was modeled on a Jewish meal.
So, in this context, today’s gospel is both very familiar, and (if you think about it) deeply peculiar.
First off, Jesus says I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever, and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.
[when the people object to this, he chides them:] Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day, for my flesh is true food and my blood is the true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them.
Ok. Drinking blood and eating flesh. Vampires and zombies, right? And yet, this is the core ritual of our Christian remembrance of Christ’s death and resurrection – the Eucharist, blessing and consuming the bread and wine (itself a reminder of the last Seder).
Jesus, if he was trying to convince his fellow Jews to follow him and believe in him, could not have chosen a more appalling metaphor. While drinking bread and wine at meals was as routine as the prayers used to bless them, the idea of consuming human flesh and blood would have been every bit as shocking 2000 years ago as it is now.
Indeed, in Jewish practice, the key element of making any meat kosher is eliminating the blood from the flesh. Dead flesh and blood are something ritually impure and to be avoided by Jews.
When I was in Prague last month, we visited a 16th-century synagogue in the city’s remarkable Josefov, the Jewish quarter. We paid extra to explore the recently discovered mikveh beneath the old Pinkas synagogue.
The mikveh is a pool of living water – connected in some way to an underground stream or spring – in which one performs ritual immersion to achieve ritual purity. You need to do this if:
- You want to enter the Temple in Jerusalem (a moot point at the moment)
- You want to convert to Judaism
- You are a woman, after your period or childbirth
- You have come in contact with a corpse or a grave (i.e. preparing a body for burial and the funeral itself)
Of course, there is an obvious connection between the ancient Jewish tradition of purification in the mikveh and the Christian concept of baptism (right down to the use of full immersion baptism in rivers and lakes – which are living water – a practice still in use by some evangelical communities).
The Jewish traditions regarding purity are very literal and precise as to rules and must be repeated whenever there has been exposure to impurity; whereas the Christian purification from sin through baptism, while also literal, is simpler ritualistically, and – mostly importantly of all – needs to be done only once. Baptism is both a literal act and a metaphoric one – one is washed clean of sin at the moment of immersion, but the act of baptism includes the promise of forgiveness for all sin forever. Baptism is a very generous promise of purity.
And yet, fascinatingly, the very powerful words ascribed to Jesus in John’s gospel: “my flesh is true food and my blood is the true drink,” becomes deeply embedded in the Eucharistic ritual. Christians even go so far as to literalize the metaphor, via Transubstantiation, defined as the change by which the bread and the wine used in the sacrament of the Eucharist become, not merely as a sign or a figure, but also in actual reality the body and blood of Christ.
The term Transubstantiation first appears only in the 11th century and becomes standard by the 12th century. Clearly, seeking the comfort of blood and flesh as metaphor was shunted aside in favor the more difficult path, that of of embracing a literal, mysterious transformation of bread and wine into the actual flesh and blood of Jesus.
This issue of transubstantiation has been, in my experience, a huge issue for Roman Catholics contemplating joining a Protestant denomination. This is because the concept of Transubstantiation was heavily criticized and ultimately rejected by the Protestant Reformation, which chose to hold up the bread and wine as flesh and blood in a symbolic way only. This created an intellectual distance between the metaphoric body and blood and the more visceral and intimate idea of bread and wine transformed into actual body and blood.
I am no biblical scholar, but I can’t help but wonder what Jesus’s motivation was in presenting such a shocking and, frankly, creepy metaphor for his ongoing presence among his believers after his death and resurrection. Given my own fondness for Jesus and deep respect for his cleverness, I suspect it was purposefully done to make clear to his would-be followers what a radical departure his brand of religion would be from everything the Jews of his day understood; he was asking them to make an enormous leap of faith, to buy into this idea of the familiar blessed bread and wine as his actual flesh and blood. He was not trying to gross them out; he was asking them to have faith in the apparent impossibility of what he was offering them: God made man, a God they could know intimately in a way never before conceived, and an eternity of life beyond the one they were living. By asking them to consume his body and blood, Jesus was inviting his followers into a bond with God unlike any that had ever existed before.
As a child in Syracuse, where I attended at St. Paul’s Cathedral, very little was made of the flesh-and-blood metaphor as we were trained for confirmation as adolescents – after which we were finally allowed to have communion for the first time at the age of 13. Taking communion was a big deal for young Episcopalians in the 1960s; the flesh and blood idea, not so much. The symbolic bread and wine was powerful enough – a privilege we were at last allowed to share with our parents and other adults. It was our coming of age ritual, the equivalent of our bar- and bat-mitzvahs.
As an adult, the spiritual potency of the bread and wine has only gotten stronger for me, especially as I finally came to understand the connection of the Eucharist, as symbol of the Last Supper, to the ritual of blessing the bread and wine at both Friday evening Shabbat dinners in Jewish homes and at the Passover Seder. In the Jewish part of my life, the blessed bread and wine have long been comforting symbols of God’s abiding love, and His promise to provide for His people.
But the primacy of the bread and wine in church has changed a great deal in my lifetime as an Episcopalian. As a child, we had Communion Sunday – the one Sunday a month when the Eucharist was celebrated. After I drifted away from the church in the course of high school and college, it was over a dozen years until I returned – here to St. George’s--only to find a very different church than the one I had left. There was the new prayer book of 1979; there were women priests; there was a radical bishop in Newark who embraced gay folk as full members of the body of Christ; and, last but far from least, there was a Eucharistic church, where communion was celebrated at every service – even with Morning Prayer (as we’re doing here today).
Instead of the bread and wine – the flesh and blood of Jesus – being a once-a-month nod to the Catholic tradition from which the Episcopal church grew, the blessing and sharing of the bread and wine has long since become the central feature of church-going for Episcopalians.
Even though we Episcopalians embrace the metaphoric body and blood of Jesus as our spiritual sustenance, we also recognize the promise of intimacy that comes with it. Jesus sacrificed his life on the cross to save us; but in eating the bread and drinking the wine here each Sunday, we become one with Him and His sacrifice in a very literal, physical way.
For non-Christians, this intimacy is still shocking, and it is a very great part of what defines us. The fact that his parish now offers an open communion – available to anyone who wishes to partake – simply amplifies the power of that metaphor.
In my second novel, Vampire in Suburbia (I told you I was thinking about vampires), my main character, Desmond, attends a service at Trinity Wall Street in Manhattan. Desmond is a 250-year-old vampire, originally from England, where he was baptized and raised an Anglican. In my fictional world, vampires are not only good guys, but they can drink wine – and all sorts of beverages, in spite of what Count Dracula said. But they still can’t eat anything solid, or they’ll suffer immediate and unpleasant physical repercussions. During this service at Trinity Church, Desmond is dragged to the altar rail for communion by his friend Oliver. Caught up in the nostalgia of the moment, remembering services from his own childhood long ago, Desmond unthinkingly takes the holy sacrament into his mouth, and then has a moment of utter panic. Here he is, kneeling at the altar rail of Trinity church, people waiting behind him, choir singing, and he’s desperately trying to figure out how he can get to the nearest exit quickly before the inevitable rejection of the wafer hits him and he causes an ugly public scene.
And then… nothing happens. The wafer dissolves along with the wine, and Desmond feels only a sense of peace and belonging as he has not felt in many years. Clearly the wafer Desmond puts in his mouth is no mere piece of bread. He may be a vampire, but he, like the bread, has not been rejected. Christ is generous. No one who wants to eat and drink will be denied.
The promise of the bread and wine, whether we choose to accept it symbolically or literally as the body and blood of Christ, is nothing less that the promise of communion with God. It was a radical promise when Jesus made it 2000 years ago, and it is a radical promise today. It is not a promise offered to the very good or the most holy among us; it is a promise made to everyone who will have faith, who will take the leap, who will eat and drink.