“From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent bear it away.”
This is All Saints’ Day when we commemorate the Christian saints, known and unknown, always on Nov. 1, and happens to land on a Sunday this year. All Hallows’ Eve—Halloween—was of course last night. Tomorrow is all Souls’ Day, always on Nov. 2, when we commemorate all the faithful departed.
I’m going to split these two occasions between the two Sundays—next Sunday we will observe the annual commemoration of Eliot people who have passed in the last year, Covid deaths acknowledged, too, in preparation for the Congregational Meeting. Today, when we would normally be celebrating communion on the first Sunday of the month, I want to answer the question that has come up regularly in the pandemic—when will we have communion again? Why can’t we have communion remotely? My answer is—you can have it today, and it doesn’t even have to be celebrated remotely. I will explain.
Our situation as Christians today may be unique. The churches are closed, but not because of persecution, maybe more like incarceration. If we do gather in the Sanctuary, we are not permitted to sing. Communion, as with any kind of food distribution, must be handled very carefully—the practice is so intimate, it does not inspire confidence, although the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Boston has gone ahead but without the wine.
I. I’m going to tell you about two communions this morning—the one, which belongs in the Sanctuary, we cannot observe, for the time being. The other is appropriate at home, ideal even. We are of course most familiar with the ritual in the Sanctuary; the home communion you probably have not heard of, and I have not thought about it myself since the days of House Church in the 1960s, although it has surfaced again in the writing of Robin Myers (The Underground Church) and others lately who have revived the pietistic traditions of the Mennonites, Moravians, Quakers and many others between the 16th and 18th centuries in Europe.
Let’s start out this way: the Sanctuary ritual arises out of the Last Supper of Jesus in the Upper Room with his disciples on the eve of his betrayal and death. We receive through this sacrament the victory over death—it is our key to the door of eternal life opened by the forgiveness of sins, the very teaching which earned Jesus the accusation of blasphemy and the threats of death. However, it is not simply death that underlies the ritual, but violent death. This would seem to be too obvious, because we know and say over and over that Jesus died a painful death on the cross. Whereas we think of Jesus triumphing over death, which he does, the violence of the death to us appears secondary.
This is serious because when violence gets taken for granted by us, we obscure the fact that violence is really the thing most feared by human societies. Violence was foremost in the mind of followers and spectators of Jesus’ ministry. After all, Jesus was baptized by John who was later imprisoned and eventually executed by Herod, by beheading. We should catch the ominous clue in the scripture today where the one who himself was violently killed, said in describing John the Baptist, “from the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent bear it away.” The violent bear it away. Later, Jesus gets roughed up in his home town and threatened with stoning and practically run over a cliff.
The outbreak of violence is deeply feared in the collective psyche of every community, from the days of that scene in the movie “2001” (where the hominoid monkeys discover they can wield bones as weapons against their neighbors) down through the ages. It is instinctively known how close to the surface our explosive energies are—like the leaking of a gas tank where a spark in the puddle or even near the fumes would lead straight up to the catastrophic explosion. How this is supposed to work is not remotely understood by us, but early societies including the Israelites have practiced all kinds of sacrifice—animal, human, child—to slake off the electrical charges in the air which pose a danger. Early societies protected themselves against the outbreak which cannot be contained until the energy is utterly depleted and everyone destroyed. The need was to keep violent tendencies or reactions over conflict or difference in check, because people knew that wars, once started, cannot be stopped until the fuel is expended—some modern examples are the colonial wars against native Americans, the French Revolution, our Civil War, and during this very election season you can see how anxious we have become about the prospect of violence that menaces.
The sacrificial victim in those days served ritually to dissipate the violent energies. Some of this got into Christian theology, where God performs the sacrifice. The Christian contribution was to see that violence has its origin in the individual human heart where guilt over wrongdoing festers until lanced by the intermediary’s sacrifice bringing forgiveness and reconciliation. But the sacrifice of Christ is meant to end sacrifice forever. But did he end it forever? The public ritual has to be repeated to meet the ongoing need, which is why it is so painful to be without it.
Telling this story in its cosmic and spiritual and societal dimensions, with all its ambiguities and contradictions, requires the public ritual to take place in the Sanctuary and all the arts of drama, poetry, music, choreography, and set-building are employed. We unite there in a public setting to become part of the story and to partake shoulder to shoulder with each other, with Christ as host and with Christ’s representative (clergy) officiating.
II. That’s the public version of communion, the most familiar one, premised on the meal in the Upper Room. Before that meal, before it chronologically, and blocked from our view by the meal in the Upper Room, are the numerous meals Jesus took with his followers, with the skeptics, with the hoi polloi, with sinners and collaborators with the enemy, the downtrodden and oppressed. These meals are familiar to you, because they were the hallmark of Jesus’ ministry. In person, Jesus was transparent to the Word, to the Logos; Jesus disclosed in his person the forgiving foundation of the world. During these intimate occasions, he is variously described as radiant, compelling, irresistible. The day-to-day interaction with Jesus inspired joy, possibly hilarity. He and his followers did not fast, as John’s disciples did, and they were accused (falsely) of gluttony and drunkenness. The great Roman Catholic New Testament scholar, Edward Schillebeeckx, once wrote, “Being sad in Jesus’ presence was an existential impossibility.” Because, he went on, “Jesus showed himself to be a man of liberty, a free man, whose sovereign freedom never worked to his own advantage but always to the benefit of others, as an expression of God’s free and loving approach to men and to women.” “To believe in Jesus is to put one’s trust gladly, gladly, in God.” In another place, Jesus said that you can’t fast in the presence of the Bridegroom (himself), thus implying that with Christ you are always attending a wedding feast.
And there is our mandate—we can summon Christ, if we declare a feast! We can invoke Christ’s presence at home to commune with him and with each other. This “communion” is perfect for the home: it is the domestic version of the public meal with Jesus, and why not? At home, we can show the marks of our family life and let it all hang out, as we cannot do quite so completely in the Sanctuary—the remembrance summoned of Jesus here is of Jesus prior to the death threats and prior to the violent death itself.
III. Here are four specific steps I propose we can take:
We dance at weddings don’t we, to let some joy out? What form could that “dance” take at home, say perhaps, by joining hands and making one circuit around the dinner table, or by weaving garlands of flowers to wear.
We tell stories at the dinner table, don’t we? How about telling one of the stories about Jesus, or tell one that Jesus told (e.g., parables)—we could make it a game, someone starts it, the next person adds a little and the next person adds more, at some point someone finishes it. Someone can prepare by choosing the story and printing out the text as failsafe. First, write the title of the story on a card folded in half and placed at the center of the table with a candle.
The food has been prepared and brought to the table, but extra thought has been given to buy a loaf of bread in advance, an actual loaf of bread, that someone can break and make the sign of the cross over it. The youngest person able to do so might be elected to give this sign that the meal has begun. Breaking bread hints at the tragic part of the story at the same time that we share it with others for nourishment, for fellowship, for intimate concourse. Let there be crumbs as the crust crunches, and laughter at the mess.
Let there be festivity, but not disorderliness—food is not a toy and many people around the world (some say ⅔ of the human population) have no or very little food. They should be remembered, so let it be a frugal feast. Think of trying this for Thanksgiving Day itself.
So, this is your “liturgy:” it’s a Eucharist (which means thanksgiving in Greek) with a small “e” (Miriam Therese Winter). It can be celebrated as a family, or a couple or alone, in any case, kind of like the Jewish Passover Seder which is celebrated at home—a meal with blessing, candlelight, a story, and a prayer—what a nice parallel with the Last Supper which in three of the gospels is a Passover meal when it was remembered that houses during Israel’s slavery in Egypt were marked with the blood of a lamb so that the angel of death would pass over.
In both settings, we experience the presence of Jesus—but in one, we participate with the solemnity fitting for a public occasion, whereas in the other, we participate with a certain levity afforded by its being a private event. Com-union erases the dividing line between the living and the dead, one through tragedy, and the other through comedy, if you’ll pardon the literary and secular vocabulary. Tragedy, because Salvation comes not outside of violence but within it. Comedy, because love and laughter rule in the kingdom of God. At table with Christ, the violence symbolized by the breaking of bread, and the extravagant hospitality symbolized by eating at an actual dinner table, converge. In both, we unite with the mystical Body of Christ. In this particular time, it is more important than ever to celebrate.
Holy Communion requires attendance in person—eye contact, naming the communicant, sitting in common and sharing in common, hearing the same words and the same Word, receiving the forgiveness auditorily—not by remote control. Christian denominations require that Holy Communion be administered by an ordained person (except in the Quaker tradition which has neither clergy nor communion). But at home I’m saying, you can experience Christ another way—not even remotely! Let’s practice and compare notes.