Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Life, death and eating human flesh

Among the Wari people of Brazil existed a tradition of eating the dead that cultural anthropologists have written about and discussed, often to the disgust or delight of students in Western societies who read about the practice.  The Wari appear to do so out of care and respect for the dearly departed, as a way of coping with and ridding themselves of grief.  There are many other elements in both ritual, function and meaning surrounding the Wari form of cannibalism, but this is as far as the story of the Wari goes here (those interested might want to read the book Consuming Grief.)

Yet the idea is compelling:  "Consuming grief".  

When people talk about cannibalism, the topic of transference may also arise.  That is, by eating the flesh of another, some properties of that person are somehow transferred to the person or persons consuming the body.  I don't claim to be breaking novel ground, but this leads me back to the my own cultural background and a practice with which I have first hand experience, which I am sure by now is readily identifiable.

I refer of course to the Eucharist, i.e. Holy Communion or the Lord's Supper, the ritual that unites every Christian communion and denomination.  The issue at hand isn't about the major historical arguments over the theology of the practice, which are abundant.  Instead I am looking at it from a question of what the tradition could and might mean based on an emphasis on particular values and a broader cultural perspective.  For example, I have heard explanations from within Roman Catholicism that each observation slowly transforms us into Christ.  Now, there are different ways to take that.  Which aspects?  His awareness of and special connection with God?  His moral virtues?  How he sees other people?  (It can be argued these are not really separate things.)  In any case such an idea definitely fits under the category of ritual transference.

That is not to say this is all there is to the Eucharist.  But what if we add something more to the notion of acquiring said qualities of Christ.  The idea of consuming grief.  During Communion the words attributed to Jesus which form the basis of the tradition speak of his body being broken and his blood spilled for the sake of others.  I have always been more than a little disturbed by those joyfully singing or testifying about bathing in Christ's blood, as if they might want to fill a swimming pool with it or stand under the cross like it was a shower stall.  Perhaps it's because of how I see the significance of the story of the crucifixion and its role in re-enacting the last Passover feast of Jesus of Nazareth.

Consider the notion that our suffering became Christ's suffering.  Our pain his pain.  Our shame his shame.  By extension, every blow, stumble and agony he endured echos throughout humanity.  The blood we shed is the blood he shed.  Our bruises are his bruises.  Our broken form is his broken body.  If the Eucharist points us to the cross, the cross points back to us.  When in some services the host is broken by a priest (which has an interesting history involving the unity of congregations and their local Bishop), it isn't just Christ's body being broken it should remind one of.  When the wine is poured, it isn't just Christ's blood one should think about.  

Whatever redemptive power one believes is found in Holy Communion, it reaches out to all of humanity.  The breaking of the bread and the filling of the cup contain our collective suffering.  The wine isn't just the blood of Christ, because his blood was also the blood of a rural farmer shot and killed by a death squad.  His blood is the same which bleeds from a rape victim as she lies in an alley undiscovered for hours.  The bread isn't just his body, it is her body, and the body of the slave lashed by a petty farmhand.  Whatever power one finds in the blood of Christ, it isn't the holy body wash some may believe it is.  Whatever triumph one finds in his body, it is tempered as well as magnified by the very tragedies it overcomes.

Consuming the elements of the Eucharist, then, becomes a form of consuming grief.  Of opening ourselves to the human condition, including its most painful aspects as well as its most uplifting.  We consume the hate, the tragedy, the suffering in a genuine and full remembrance of the symbolism of the Last Supper.  And as the afflictions affecting others become more real to us, so increases our capacity to be more like Christ -- in his virtues and in his relationship with God, who we learn to see in every face. 

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