By Mary-Anne Rabe
We gathered around a table last night with friends and shared a simple meal of bread and wine, reminiscent of another twelve friends who sat around a table of communion. There are so many beautiful thoughts around the communion meal and how, when we consume the message it communicates, it becomes part of our reality.
What a tumultuous time this is for them as they share their last meal with their dear friend and Messiah. How tensions are rising around them.
Jesus’ life and message and everything He represents is offensive to the ‘powers that be’ -culturally, religiously and politically. He seeks love and justice for the entire community and especially for those most likely to be treated unjustly. He has faced hostility and violent threats all His life (even at birth Herod set about slaying every young child in and around Bethlehem). Tensions are now rising and about to reach a crescendo where the powers would join forces to snuff out and silence this designated scapegoat. (Crucifixion has a political and military purpose: to silence and deter rebels.) The disciples are urgent for justice to be enforced and for the powers to be shown that this Jesus is the Messiah and He will rain down upon His enemies and spare His own. Peter has even shown his allegiance by pulling out his sword in his master’s defense!
Before we continue around the table with our friends again it is significant to realize what such a meal would represent in the past.
Feasts like these were held to celebrate victory over one’s enemies – deliverance from the foe.
We have examples of such celebration feast throughout history – such as Marduk killing his mother Tiamat in Enuma Elish and our countless biblical accounts of victory feasts after successful battles such as Exodus. There was also a certain social hierarchy around these feasts – typically the elite, the chosen, the ‘elect’, were able to attend. Even the seating was important. They were feasts celebrating violent bloody victory.
Now back to our disciples preparing for this thanksgiving feast, with passover playing out in the background their expectation is for their cause to be justified and Jesus to be the victor!
Jesus takes the elements – the bread he breaks and gives to them… “this bread is MY body, broken…” Now it is way to close to home…for He is going to be violently broken, murdered and betrayed – sacrificed. This does not sound like victory! They will be part of this violent process, but also at the same time if they will see and take it in, they will partake of the self-giving love that will sacrifice Himself to put an end to all sacrifice.
Then “Drink my blood,” which will be drained for you, but unlike the blood of Abel, which calls from the ground for vengeance and retribution, my blood pours forth forgiveness and reconciliation, it speaks of better things! (Heb 12)
What becomes clear in this ritual is that we have all participated in ‘breaking’ the victim’s body. We are all part of a cyclic history of bloodshed and there seems no way out. But here the cycle is broken and a new way of being human is introduced. We no longer celebrate the destruction of enemies, but the restoration of friendship.
So our Communion meal is totally subversive and undermines our religion of sacrifice, confronting us with a whole new worldview where God is present even with the victim and the only valid sacrifice is giving ourselves in love to one another. Unless we eat and drink of Him, the true light, come into the world, we do not have life…we have no clue who we are and how to live. Jesus turns the tables on all victory feasts…here in the ‘Last Supper’ He institutes a ritual of memory and hope while sharing a meal with his friends…where the divine presence is present in a meal.
I was so blessed by a chapter in ‘Compassionate Eschatology’ by James Brenneman, where He explores amongst other examples, the Great Banquet parable in Luke, who many believe wrote his gospel to persuade his readers to reject violence and believe in the peacemaking lordship of Christ. All the reasons given by those not attending the banquet eg. I’ve just got married, I’ve bought land…were all acceptable reasons for you to be excused from your military duty of going to war. It seems like Jesus particularly uses these because His audience would get that He is referring to a victory banquet and then when all of the invited guests have made their excuses not to attend, He says, go and invite the poor, the crippled, lame and blind. Let them all come to the feast.
Our Lord does not win His battles by making victims and by force, He wins by making His enemies friends, by turning victims into honored guests at the table.
“Sharing the bread and the wine becomes a sacrament only to the degree the actual living body of Christ lives in community as one united people. At the table of the Lord there is no rank and file: priests are not distinguishable from laity, the poor and the rich eat together, there are no doctors of philosophy above the high school dropout, no saints who weren’t also sinners needing God’s grace! In a world structured mostly around social, economic and other forms of power, such a meal is good news indeed.” J Brenneman
I loved reading about Virgil Michel, a monk from the 1800’s the other day. He always emphasized the connection between liturgy and social justice.
“As long as the Christian is in the habit of viewing his religious life from the subjectivist and individualist standpoint, he will be able to live his daily life without any qualms of conscience…
He saw a renewed sense for liturgy, one that would incorporate worshippers into the mystical body, uniting them with Christ and with all those who share his life, as the best way to break down the barrier between the sacred an the secular…
He who lives the liturgy will in due time feel the mystical body idea developing in his mind and growing upon him, will come to realize that he is drinking at the very fountain of the true Christian spirit which is destined to reconstruct the Social Order.”
I’m reminded of another ‘communion’ as the men walk on the road to Emmaus. So here they are, struggling with their interpretation of the events that have just transpired. They too expected a victorious Messiah to enforce justice, but He dies as a victim through our injustice. But the risen Jesus shows up and reinterprets their story and in a simple meal where the guest becomes the host, breaks bread and pierces through their confusion, He reveals not only a new way of seeing Him, but a new way of seeing themselves. Something happens when they recognize the divine presence with them, but in the instant they see – the visible becomes invisible and the invisible becomes visible IN THEM. The stretch across the table is too far for the Word made flesh.
Such a beautiful picture of how our living Savior is so ready to manifest among us , through us, in us at any moment and as we break bread together we remember and we have an opportunity to perpetuate this self-giving love as we serve others.
Let us break bread together, not just as a symbolic meal, but one that we can share with one another across social and economic boundaries – always remembering that in taking in His brokenness, we can make whole, as we drink in the pain, we can reach out and heal and in His forsakenness, we can welcome the forsaken into a feast of love.
The message of the risen Lord is, I am love and I am here and I am ready to show up at any moment through you. Let us be a community where we find ways of seeing the best, believing the best.
Here are two books that blessed me around these thoughts…
The Forgiving Victim by James Alison
“Compassionate Eschatology ” Essays from about 15 theologians.
(Specifically ch 6 (by James Brenneman) titled War, Peace and the Last Supper)