Wednesday, June 25, 2014


Mediterranean-based religious worship is based most deeply at the metaphor of the contained.  Since all religions are based on survival, both the individual and the group, and since food is so essential to survival, it is the domestication of grain and fruits ten thousand years ago that reified the idea of the container: the granary where food could be stored and the wall that protected the town against raids on the granary.  Accumulation of wealth in terms of food meant that some people could be freed to think about sacred issues, like fortunate crops and avoidance of disasters like volcano eruptions, and so they built temples, containers for their ceremonies, and palaces, containers for their leaders.  

By now speech was well-established but the invention of writing allowed a new “container,” the manuscript (not yet the codex form we call “book”) that contained ideas.  The people who revered books but could not read depended on leaders and priests who could.  The study of writing (both historical records and prescriptive rules) was considered a portal into the privileged enclosure that defined the wise and therefore those best able to guide the people past disaster.  This is the core of Jewish religious practice.  It is not suited to hunter-gatherer styles of worship which tend to be more directly sensory, often a re-enactment and dispersed in sympathy towards things that have their own lives rather than a leader, esp. a single powerful leader who controlled a town, its wall and its granary -- therefore its fate.  

Studying written wisdom ought to be a nourishment and can become an addiction.  Therefore, it is both bread and wine.  Often debate and discussion about learning proceeded at a communal meal, another deep metaphor-pattern for human behavior. When the Christian movement broke away from Judaism, it did not discard the study of scripture but eventually created a New Testament, partly Good News (gospel) and partly letters about communal life.  In the meantime, the Jewish-style study group was followed by a communal meal of the ordinary bread and wine brought pot-luck style.  It was this pot-luck, associated also with the ceremonial meals of Passover and scholars, that became communion when Jesus (at the Last Supper) asked the people to remember his coming sacrifice by taking bread as His Flesh and wine as His Blood.

Sacrifice is also a very early and deep concept for ceremony which was crucially shifting in the early days of the change from a hunting/gathering culture to one of agriculture.  The way of “sending” a sacrifice to whatever higher power or force might be propitiated was to burn it so that it rose and dispersed in smoke.  The smell of burnt flesh was thus pleasing to the gods.  The greater the generosity of the sacrifice, the more virtuous and effective.  Thus, a holocaust was the greatest generosity, since none of the sacrificed animal was kept to eat.  

But there were limits and one of them is the sacrifice of one’s children, so we have the story of Abraham ready to kill his son at God’s command, but then sparing him, also at God’s command.  This is echoed in the idea that God is willing to sacrifice HIS own son, but then spares him through ascension to heaven.  Some of this probably relates to the need for a leader, a king, who will not sacrifice his people.  (All of this is highly relevant to the world cultures today, some of whom are willing to kill or allow their people to die in various ways, ranging from gas attacks to famine to pencil-daggers like not funding health care or food support.)

Communion consisting of bread and wine both evoked family meals and reinvigorated the idea of God as a Father All powerful while also stepping away from the holocaust of living beings.  Scholars suggest that the story of Jacob and Esau addresses the change, so that Jacob is the agriculturalist and Esau is a hunter or pastoral herder who sacrifices his animals.  The story speaks to the inner anguish of the person whose most basic assumptions of what will keep him safe are destroyed.  Loss of heritage, rage, fear, and disinheritance.

So communion is a material embodiment of the people’s ordinary familiar meal but as a metaphor of safety and protection from God.  The more beautifully it is done, the more moving, but the essential center of breaking bread and sipping wine is sacred no matter what.  But what if the material culture is different?

This became highly relevant to Catholic missionaries going to indigenous peoples at other places on the planet.  What about the Chinese who take their wheat as noodles?  Can one have a Communion of noodles and tea?  What about the Inuit who never ate bread, never drank wine -- had no plants, lived on sea mammals.  Could one have a REAL flesh and REAL blood communion?  

Once the bread was stylized into unleavened wafers and blessed wine, it took on a specialness that verged on magic.  The idea that the bread actually became the real flesh of Jesus presented the philosophical problem called “misplaced concreteness” when a metaphor stops being a metaphor and becomes simply a reality in itself, but with magic powers which inhere in the object rather than what it stands for.  Communion is supposed to be a portal, a threshold, rather than a scientific medicine or technology.  When people began to try to heal wounds by applying Communion wafers, they were diminishing the metaphorical engagement into simple instruments.  

Anti-vampire kit

But there WERE ways to preserve and even enhance the meaning of Communion.  When a woman at a Catholic seminary where students served Communion every Friday was denied this opportunity, she served ceremonial bread and water, a traditional prison meal, so she technically was not serving Communion.  Water is as powerful a symbol as wine.  Baptism in the Western context also has meaning as birth, cleansing, conversion, and renewal.  Yet there are African cultures where water sprinkled on a woman’s head was thought to make her barren.  All metaphors of worship are rooted in the culture from which they arose.

Robert Schreiter in his book “Building Local Theology” explores all this in much depth as a real practical problem and also a key to the future of any culturally based metaphorical system given sacred connotation.  His message is that all humans have the same instincts for salvation in the most practical and concrete sense, so that their emotional concepts at the deepest level are always there, but reaching them means knowing them well-enough to understand what in their lives will express what Communion expresses.

When the Jesuits first came to the prairie indigenous tribes, they attended ceremonies and saw that the people at communal meals ate a kind of soup made of sarvisberries and buffalo fat.  They told the people it was Communion but it wasn’t.  Or maybe it was.  The first ceremonies in prairie life came in spring when the lowest places were blooming and the calves were coming.  After a winter of deprivation, these were the equivalent of the Easter feasts of egg and lamb.  

The last of the grain must be kept as seed and not eaten.  According to some, this is Lent.  The last of the dried berries can be eaten in soup as a presage of plenty to come and at the time of the earliest thunderstorms, the berry bushes are in bloom on which the berry crop depends.  Hail, a severe freeze, could mean a bad berry crop, competition with bears inclined to come into camp for food.  Safety and food entwine in what is sacred and ceremonial.  Berry soup is a communal meal that petitions for survival -- it just doesn’t have anything to do with Jesus.  Introducing bread where there were no ovens meant the use of fry bread, which is now seen as “Indian,” especially when fried in animal fat, and the introduction of wine turned out to be a very mixed blessing.

A contemporary ceremony of immanent meaning and generosity is a day when donated handmade ceramic bowls, ingenious and unique, are sold containing soup for lunch.  The profits then go to people on short rations.  When one buys the soup, one also gets the bowl.  This is so fitting a part of the material culture that it grows in popularity every year.  It is as valid as any other ceremony.

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