There is an old saying that we all know. You are what you eat. I never understood that statement, not really, until I had some health and nutrition classes in college. And even then it didn’t really hit me. It wasn’t until I started working out a lot that I came to understand that the food we eat is literally what makes our bodies. Our bodies renew themselves on the average of every seven years. In fact, certain tissues renew faster, and others a little slower. But the average is every seven years. That means that the you that exists now is not the same you that existed seven years ago. Everything has remade itself. Old cells die; new cells are created. And what building blocks do our bodies use to do this? The food we eat.
All we eat is converted to sugar through the process of cellular respiration and as a result we, meaning all the cells that make up our bodies, have the necessary energy to support all the life processes, including reproduction of new cells. Even ancient peoples, even the so-called uncivilized peoples knew this. This is why many cultures gave thanks to the animals they ate. And these ancient peoples also knew that the things we eat become a part of us. This is why we have to consume life, living things. The vegans can protest, but the truth is, we can only exist because we eat life. Even plants are alive. Why the vegans would consider that somehow animal life has a greater right to continue to live than the living breathing plants we eat is a mystery to me. Life is life. And we need to consume life just as much as Galacticus needed to consume whole planets (If you’re not a Fantastic Four fan and know not of this Galacticus person, trust me on this).
So we learn that some of what we eat is converted to energy. Other things we eat are stored as fat, for energy later. Some of what we eat is used to help create muscle tissue. Other things we eat give us the necessary vitamins and minerals we need to remain healthy. Eating is about as primary a life process as you want to name, eating and breathing. You eat, or you die. You breathe, or you die. It’s just that simple. It’s just that basic.
Which brings us to today’s topic. Sunday is the feast of Corpus Christie, the body of Christ. This is the day that the Roman Catholic Church celebrates the Holy Eucharist. And for those among you who are not members of “the one true church” (he said, with tongue planted firmly in cheek), let me explain to you what this is and what this means.
The word comes from the Greek “eukaristos,” which means “grateful” and is now usually translated as “thanksgiving.” It now refers to the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, in which bread and wine becomes the body and blood of Christ. Eucharist has become essentially synonymous with “Communion” or “Holy Communion.” It is used to refer to the sacrament as a whole or to the elements (the little cookie like thing and the wine) themselves. The word “Eucharist” has been used to refer to the act of the “breaking of the bread” at least since the late first century. I t came about because the words of institution are contained in a longer recitation, the “Eucharistic prayer” or prayer of thanksgiving.
The earliest written account of the institution of the Eucharist is contained in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, written in the spring of the year 55 AD. The Didache (DIE-da-Key), a church document from the end of the first century refers to the Eucharist by name, gives explicit instructions for the form of the prayers, and cautions, “Let no one eat or drink of your Eucharist except those baptized in the name of the Lord.” The earliest complete Eucharistic prayer is in a document from 225 AD identified with Hippolytus. It is nearly identical to the Eucharistic prayer used today in nearly all catholic and orthodox churches.
The tradition goes back to that last Passover Seder that Jesus celebrated with his buddies in that upper room in Jerusalem. All the Jews were having the same basic dinner that night. And that tradition continues right to this day. Every Passover, all over the world, Jewish families gather to celebrate the exodus of the Hebrews out of Egypt, and their deliverance from the plagues that hit Egypt, especially the plague that took the first born. According to that story, Moses told the people to smear lamb’s blood on their doors so that the angel of death would “pass over” those houses and spare those children. And at these dinners, the head of the family takes the unleavened bread and blesses it with the prayer, “Baruch atoy adanoi aluhenu…” (forgive me, my Hebrew is terrible and this transliteration is fraught with errors, I’m sure) which is translated as, “Bless us, O Lord, King of the Universe, who gives to us this bread”. Likewise, the leader then blesses the wine, “Bless us, O Lord, King of the Universe, who gives to us the fruit of the vine.”
This is what Jesus was doing at the Last Supper. He took the bread and blessed it, just as would be done at any other Passover Seder, but then he said something else, “Take this all of you and eat it, this is my body which will be given up for you. Do this in memory of me.” Then he took the wine and blessed it, just as he must have at other Seders, but this time he also said, “Take this, all of you, and drink it. This is my blood, the blood of a new, and everlasting covenant. It shall be shed for you, so that sins may be forgiven. As often as you do this, do this in memory of me.” And then they all ate the bread and drank the wine, as they would at any other Seder. And from what it says in the stories (I’m looking at Luke, Chapter 22, here), none of the disciples seemed to think these words to have any special meaning or anything. They probably didn’t understand what he was talking about, which I suspect was the usual situation.
Christian churches of many varieties have been practicing the rite of communion ever since, and killing each other over it also. People can get pretty emotional over this one. Roman Catholics (at least those who believe in all the official church doctrine) believe that during the rite of communion, when the priest consecrates the bread and wine, that the bread and wine are really, in fact, transformed into the body and blood of Jesus. This is called “transubstantiation”.
The church has maintained that only the apostles, and those authorized by the apostles, have the power to do this. This power was passed down from the original twelve to others who passed it down to others and over the last two thousand years, this means that at this time, any ordained priest of the church has this power. So a true believing Roman Catholic believes that a miracle occurs in the Church every time a Mass is celebrated. This is why the shortage of priests is such a crisis in the Catholic Church. There are a lot of things that any of us in the church can do, but only a priest can celebrate mass. No priest, no Mass. And for Roman Catholics, the Eucharist is the most important part of the Mass.
This is really the primary difference between the dogma of the Roman Church and all of the Protestant Churches. All churches have some differences, and most of those differences are pretty small. Do you have to dunk the whole person to baptize them, or can you just pour some water on the person? Who gets to be a part of church leadership? All the different churches have different rules and ideas about these things. But transubstantiation is a biggie.
Protestant churches maintain that the consumption of the Eucharist is symbolic. The bread is not actually the real body of Christ. The wine is not the actual blood. The whole act of communion is a symbolic gesture. There were great arguments over this. Some would ask if a crumb from the consecrated bread were to fall to the floor and were a mouse to eat it, would the mouse now be holy also? And they argued as only theologians can, until people were killing each other and burning each other at the stake.
I’m sure the whole idea sounds pretty silly to a lot of non-Christians and agnostics. But it’s not as silly as it sounds if you really give it thought. As I mentioned earlier, you don’t get much more primal than eating. Eating is life (it was especially so two thousand years ago). When I eat the body of Christ and drink the blood of Christ, then his body and blood become a part of me, and I live through him, and he lives through me. I become a part of the body of Christ. I become Christ. That is as primal as it gets. And whether Jesus meant this to be symbolic, or if it is, in fact, his body and blood, changes nothing. By this act of eating the bread and drinking the wine, I am reminded that the Christ spirit dwells inside me, and in you, and in everybody else.
Moreover, when Jesus held up that bread, he was saying, Look, this is my body. I am giving it up, handing it over to be beaten, to be broken, and to be killed. I give it in place of yours. This is my gift to you. I give you all of me, my body, my blood, all of me, so that I can be with you more completely, and so you can be with me. Take this and be a part of me, and I will be a part of you. And we will be together. Remember this. Remember me, when you eat and drink.
And as long as we do remember, Jesus lives in us. I know a lot of people who are not convinced he got up out of that tomb and walked away. But the church still lives. And for the past two thousand years, in spite of all the evils that the leaders of every type of Christian church have done, the church has been full of the others, those who have been Christ on earth, those who have given all of themselves in the service to those in need. And the ones who have shown kindness, and sharing, who have been loving, and good people, far outnumber the ones who were rat bastards. All you have to do is to look at the soup kitchens and the homeless shelters, the missionaries and free clinics to know that Christ lives among us.
The Taoists and the Hindus find God in the air. They connect with God through careful breathing exercises and meditation. Breathing is also primal. They breathe deep the chi, the pranja, the spirit of the creative Tao. They breathe God. Christians eat God. Remember, everything we eat was once alive. We eat life and life is God. It’s all life, life on a primal, basic, level.
Through the act of communion, the Christian connects with God. We are reminded we are a part of God and God is a part of us. Moreover, we are reminded that we are called upon to give all of ourselves, just as Jesus gave all of himself for us. This is what life is all about. Everything else is just the other stuff. So when I take communion I hope of being that much kinder, more sharing, more giving, more thoughtful, more forgiving. I try to remember to spread peace. I try not to be judgmental. I try to be more like Jesus.
After all, you are what you eat.