A recipe for Christian unity: flesh, blood, tea and whisky

 — May 8, 20148 mai 2014

My grandmother and my great-grandmother, both Quebecers, both died on Good Friday. They were Protestant anglophones in a majority Catholic francophone world. In my grandmother’s day, Catholics would cross the street to avoid passing in front of a Protestant church for fear of damnation. As for my great-grandmother, who lived in La Baie on the Saguenay, her Catholic maid was famously heard to say what a kind person my great-grandmother was, and what a pity she was going to hell.

I hope all of them, including the maid, can see what their descendants were doing this Good Friday in Quebec. Four different Christian denominations in Quebec City got together to walk with a huge cross through the streets. In total silence we walked from church to church, United Church, Anglican, Presbyterian, and Catholic, stopping in each one to pray and sing and read some more of the Passion story.

It was a warm evening, and people stopped on the street to stare. Teenagers giggled together with embarrassment, militant atheists muttered with contempt, old women smiled happily. Some quietly joined us, mostly immigrants from countries where people still go to church. Would-be anthropologists took pictures of us, with our Catholic cardinal in red and our white-robed Anglican bishop, to put on their Facebook pages, the way they might post pictures of Amazonian tribes: “Didn’t know there were any left! Didn’t even have to take malaria pills to see this!”

The old tribal boundaries are breaking down. We have reached the point of being able to process together, enter each other’s churches, and pray together, but we didn’t take communion together. It’s one of the things that still divides us. Some Catholic priests do not allow Anglicans to take the Eucharist in their churches, and forbid Catholics to take the Eucharist in Anglican churches. When we receive the bread and the wine, are we actually eating the real body and blood of Jesus, or are we doing this in memory of him – and what does each of those mean?

Pope Paul VI and the Archbishop of Canterbury started discussing the issues that divide Anglicans and Catholics in 1967. They called the discussions ARCIC, the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. When I first heard of it, the word “arctic” came to mind, and I imagined one of those cold strained conversations you have with relatives with whom you’ve had some major rows. Where you sip your tea and everyone avoids mentioning anything that could start up the row again (“Don’t mention the Immaculate Conception!”) Then someone steps out of line, tea sprays across the room, there’s yelling, people walk out.

But ARCIC didn’t even try to beat about the bush – they went straight to the difficult issues: the Eucharist (does it really become flesh and blood?), Mary (was she immaculately conceived?), church authority (popes or synods?). Did the secretary slip a glug of whisky into the tea? I don’t know, but they have been talking ever since – and amazingly enough, agreeing on stuff. All their documents are on the Vatican website, although nobody seems to look at them, and nothing’s been posted for 5 years. But you’d be amazed at what they have agreed on.

The bread and wine becoming Christ’s body and blood, for example, “does not here imply material change,” they agreed. It does not “follow the physical laws of this world … The bread and wine become the sacramental body and blood of Christ in order that the Christian community may become more truly what it already is, the body of Christ.” So there it is folks – however much the ordinary tribes-in-the-pew disagree, the tribal headmen agreed on that forty years ago.

I couldn’t say what exactly happens at the Eucharist myself, but it’s something powerful – you just have to watch people going up for communion, rich and poor, young and old, able and disabled, each carrying their private sorrows, their invisible thoughts and beliefs, united in the hope that something will happen.

Perhaps the ritual we perform every Sunday has more to do with friendship. When Jesus was sharing that last meal with his friends, he was probably dreading the pain of death, but feared even more being separated from his best friends – the worst thing about dying. Perhaps the idea of the Eucharist came to him at that moment as a last-ditch, desperate attempt to stay with them. “How about this, guys! I’ll be in the bread and the wine, so that every time you eat and drink, we’ll still be together!”

He chose about the most ordinary, everyday thing we do. If we’re lucky, we eat and drink three times a day. But Jesus is saying, feeding your bodies is sacred, because life is sacred. I am one of you, and every time you do this together, you can remember, or re-member me. I’m with you, really. That’s what sacrament means, it’s when God touches us through something we do together as mortal and physical human beings.

But really doesn’t mean the same as scientifically. We tend to act as if our bodies are scientific and our souls are to do with God, and they are separate and distinct items. But Jesus becoming a human breaks down that division. Instead of reminding ourselves of this mysterious truth by sharing a meal together, as Jesus brilliantly suggested, we argue about it, and sometimes even go to war. It’s so hard for our little human brains to hold the human-mortal-physical and the divine-immortal-spiritual in our heads at the same time that the Church (all of us) falls into the same old trap generation after generation.

We carried the cross in silence because Jesus died, and according to human mortal logic, that should have been the end of the story. But when Jesus went into that inn with the disciples that evening on the road to Emmaus, they realized it wasn’t the end. They finally realized who he was, not when he explained the Scriptures (the Evangelist doesn’t even bother to say how he interpreted them), but when he blessed and broke the bread.

As he performed this age-old gesture, the one that keeps us alive, “their hearts burned within them.” They felt that same irresistable power that had drawn them to him before. And perhaps they all looked at each other and remembered the last time he’d done it, and knew that they’d be together every time they ate and drank, now and for ever.

What couldn’t we do, if we believed what we say we do, that the power of the resurrection, the love that overcame his death, was real?

Posted: May 8, 2014 • Permanent link: ecumenism.net/?p=7549
Categories: OpinionIn this article: Anglican, Catholic, Québec, spiritual ecumenism
Transmis : 8 mai 2014 • Lien permanente : ecumenism.net/?p=7549
Catégorie : OpinionDans cet article : Anglican, Catholic, Québec, spiritual ecumenism

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