Monday, June 09, 2014


Over millennia the Roman Catholic Mass has persisted but has elaborated its sequence.  A fine book that records both the persistence and the variations introduced by expansion across the continent of Europe is “The Shape of the Liturgy” by Dom Gregory Dix.   Though it is exhaustively researched, there was a theory driving Dix, which was that the entire liturgy of the Eucharist constitutes anamnesis — a commemoration and re-presentation of the one sacrifice of Christ.  This is a form of metaphor that invites reflection on the idea that the crucifixion of Jesus was a sacrifice that saved human beings.  He formulated what he called the "Four Action Shape of the Liturgy: Offertory, Consecration, Fraction, Communion. 

Putting the emphasis on the second half of the Mass ceremony emphasized that it was Christian (as opposed to the Jewish scholarly tradition of studying writing) and that it was an experience (technically a RE-experience) rather than theological rational thought.  He also justified it on grounds that it was the earlier practice of Mass and that because -- in his version -- the people brought the bread and wine rather than the church purchasing them, it was an intensification of the community’s beliefs rather than an imposition by an outside authority.  The book was published in 1945 as England emerged from the ordeal of war, a crucifixion in itself.
Dom Gregory Dix

So Dix, a personally charming man who made friends of his enemies, claimed in the end it was the homely act of breaking bread together that was at the heart of human experience as it relates to God, a unifying force for all Christians through history and across continents, thus easily shared in all the places he knew, a high value after a world war.

But he was serving the Church of England.  Robert Schreiter, a man in Catholic orders (and a professor of mine), was part of a missionary outreach to countries that had no bread, no wine.  Asia, where the staples are rice and the alcoholic drink is sake.  The Arctic, where people have almost no access to any kind of vegetation and must live on animal flesh.  New Guinea where the people subsist on the pith of sago palm trees made into mush and fortified with small fishes and swarming insects.  

His book “Constructing Local Theologies” explores the dilemma of a ritual based on a material culture never present where the mission is, therefore emptied or made into exotic magic.  What does one do where putting water on a head is a way of cursing a women into barrenness?  His solution was to look for the human universals in the new material culture that expressed the same things as the institutionalized rites.  It is the institutions that insist on imposing their own material culture.  The spiritual content is universally human, by definition, and therefore can be found at depth.  It's rather a Jungian idea.

Imposing surface similarities -- saying that Chinese noodles and green tea are the same as the flatbread and table wine of the Mediterranean that Jesus held up at the Last supper -- is ridiculous.  One must go deep into Chinese thought and daily life to find the equivalents.  I can’t do it.  

But in the Blackfeet culture, which was based on the buffalo, there are equivalents I can recognize.  One is the ordeal of the ancient and totally blameless woman who fasts and prays during the Sun Ceremony, a days-long Spring complex of rituals roughly parallel to Easter -- which has become associated with the crucifixion of Jesus, though it was originally a fertility rite in northern Europe.  (Therefore, eggs, and rabbits famous for fertility.)  At the series of Blackfeet events one high point is the consumption of "one hundred" buffalo tongues in a feast that precedes the notorious ordeal of dancing while attached by thongs to a central pole.  This torture has captured the imagination of some who seek to illustrate the imagined Sun Dance in various media or even re-enact it.  I don’t know what the originating event may be.  

Still, the sacramental eating of buffalo tongue is more like communion than the communal sarvisberry soup at a Thunder Pipe Bundle Opening.  If I were to use the tongue/bread/Jesus equivalence, I would tie it to the phenomenon of a buffalo who could speak.  If that buffalo were to say what Jesus said,  “This is my flesh, broken for you.  Take, eat, and remember me,” then that would be closer to the idea of bread as a commemoration of sacrifice, displacing the hunter/herder sacrifice of animals.  

It would also make central our dependence on other living beings and our necessary gratitude for nourishment through their death. The Inuit could recognize this.  But modern urban people, as is noted over and over, have no sense of such an intense idea.  Even their "bread" for communion is little discs bought at the church supply store. 

In the Sixties/Seventies a movement urging the return to origins of Christianity touched both Roman Catholics and Protestant Christians, partly as a yearning for more purity and intensity, and partly as a practical strategy for growth.  A previous parallel movement resulted in Pentecostal spirituality in which emotional intensity was seen as key, speaking in tongues of flame.  That’s when the Methodists added flames to their cross.  (Pentecostal Sunday, commemorating "speaking in tongues", an ecstatic outburst of unintelligible words thought to be either foreign languages or some other-worldly speech, was June 8 this year, 2014.)

Material culture changes in “Aquarian” terms meant rejection of Roman formalism, returning to the vernacular in music and prayer instead of the traditional Latin and chanting.  Results were mixed.  In Protestant circles people began to bake “peasant loafs” of whole wheat so the clergy could actually tear it apart and offer it to the people.  I witnessed a tense Easter when the young pastor was using a loaf so tough that he couldn’t get through the crust with his bare hands -- but one could hardly resort to a knife on what had just been announced to be the Body of Christ.  He finally broke it over his knee, which was not much better.

Similarly, a droll Unitarian minister at a minister’s conference presented a service celebrating men and offered a banana communion.   But he had underestimated the number of bananas that would be necessary and, in spite of having just blessed the bananas, had to cut them into sections to make them go around.  Since most of those present were male and  hip to symbols, there was an outcry at the mutilation and the entire focus of the ritual was subverted.  It would have been more meaningful to relate the shortage of bananas to the shortage of food for many people in the world --  therefore to appeal for martyrs to go without.  When a ritual has been around for a while, such blunders have already been eliminated.

The other problem is that the human mind is based on specific sensory cues and constructs powerful ties between sensory objects and that for which it stands.  (Consider the veneration of flags.)  To those raised on wafers and elegant chalices, the folk guitar music, the prayers in English (necessarily less elevated than the traditional Latin), and the pews “unscrewed” from the floor so they could be arranged in circles, were simply profane.  My local Catholic parish priest in Portland, Oregon, sold the expensive altar equipment and, in a neighborhood that had become ghetto, used the money to install a public phone for job searches, family contacts, and legal conferences.  He served communion on a common saucer with an ordinary glass.  People with gray hair left.  People with black faces arrived.

It’s not the substitution of different vessels and substances or the use of a different language that can go wrong.  Nor is it the use of a different sequence of events or dropping out something like the veneration of scripture.  It is the failure to reach deeply enough into the concepts in the brain/body to touch the most basic dilemmas of being human.  This is what creates holiness and meaning.   The task of the liturgist is to know the people well enough to understand their hearts and to have enough of the poet to manage the metaphors of material culture.  Luckily for the Christian liturgist, many of the theological issues are really about human family.  Of course, this also provides a lot of work for therapists.  And it only works with a "nuclear" family:  God, Mary, and Jesus plus disciples.  ("Uncle Joseph" also.)

1 comment:

northern nick said...

This is good. I see a little more clearly now the relationship and continuity between AK and UU, the the actor, the family, the stage, and the theater of life. Thanks.