It’s no wonder that the earliest critics of the Jesus movement were sure its followers were cannibals: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.”
Strange words from the strangest of the gospels.
And yet Christians have, for centuries, partaken of this odd meal—whether by dipping bread into a potter’s chalice or drinking from a common silver cup or passing bits of “crackers” along with do-it-yourself shot glasses filled with Welch’s grape juice.
When we hear or read this strange text from this strange gospel, we would do well to remember that the bread and wine we share at the table link us directly to a broken, unjust world. The Eucharist is not ceremonial escapism; it is not a respite from daily struggle, despair, and hopelessness. It is, rather, a clear-eyed engagement with these realities.
Years ago, Dominican priest Geoffrey Preston put it this way: “Think of the domination, exploitation and pollution of man and nature that goes with bread, all the bitterness of competition and class struggle, all the organized selfishness of tariffs and price-rings, all the wicked oddity of a world distribution [system] that brings plenty to some and malnutrition to others, bringing them to that symbol of poverty we call the bread line” (Geoffrey Preston in Why Go to Church? The Drama of the Eucharist by Timothy Radcliffe).
“And wine too—fruit of the vine and work of human hands, the wine of holidays and weddings . . . This wine is also the bottle, the source of some of the most tragic forms of human degradation: drunkenness, broken homes, sensuality, debt. What Christ bodies himself into is bread and wine like this, and he manages to make sense of it, to humanize it. Nothing human is alien to him.”
Nothing human is alien to him. (“What is not assumed,” declared the Cappadocian Gregory of Nazianzus in the fourth century, “is not healed.”)
I’m drawn to that provocative image of the “bread line.” We know that throughout history, even up until this very moment, people have stood (are standing) in line waiting for bread—waiting for a scrap of sustenance to get them through another day. This is part of the injustice of the world that the Lord’s Supper ought to make us keenly, uncomfortably aware of. No one should go hungry. No one should lack for daily bread.
But we too, when we receive the Eucharist, find ourselves standing in a bread line. We wait for a bit of sustenance—bread taken, blessed, broken, and shared—to get us through another day. We take in these ordinary elements of the earth—bread and wine, linked to so much suffering in the world—and they do their transforming work. “Make them be for us,” the presider says, “the body and blood of Christ, that we may be for the world the body of Christ, redeemed by his blood.”
And in that transformation we are challenged (and privileged) to live out the life-giving love of Christ in truth and action. We offer our own brokenness—our anxieties, our fears, our petty grievances—trusting that God will take all that we are and redeem it, bless it, make it holy. We act in love, not with our own meager resources, but with the love of Christ in us. We refuse to fence people out. We give up our perverse need to divide the world into “us” and “them.”
There’s a story told about writer and professor Robert Coles going to interview Dorothy Day in 1952.
Upon entering her “house of hospitality” in a slum in New York City, Coles found Day talking with a woman who was obviously very drunk. Eventually Dorothy got up and came over to Coles: “Are you waiting to speak to one of us?”
The troubled, intoxicated woman was not the problematic other, the outsider, “one of them”; she was not an object of Dorothy Day’s pity or charity. Rather, Dorothy Day was one with this woman in the charity of Christ.
And so we eat and drink the flesh and blood of the one whose charity becomes our way in the world. Never perfectly, never without failure, but with humility, we hope and pray, as we strive to see—in the neighbor, the stranger, the enemy— the face of the Christ we partake of.