Is the Actual Body of Christ the Wafer? Blood? Community?

In her “Respectful Conversations” post on Roman Catholicism, Christina Wassell (interestingly enough an Anglican convert to Roman Catholicism) foregrounds the Traditional Latin Mass as the hub around which her commitments revolve.

Wasell also underscores the centrality of the Mass when pressed (in the reply section) on having less to say about Catholic social ethics. Concluding a commentary on ethics that values primarily “boots on the ground” service, she stresses that we must meet “our Lord. . . . in the Eucharist first, and our service must overflow from that fount of life if it is to do any good.”

This provides a focus for my Anabaptist-Mennonite commentary on Wassell’s post. Because differences between understandings of “the Mass” versus “Communion” or “the Lord’s Supper” go back to the beginning of our 1500s separation.

Catholics, Anabaptists believed, wrongly affirmed transubstantiation, the actual transformation of bread and cup into Christ’s body and blood, as a kind of divine magic.

Anabaptists, and that sub-stream of them called Mennonites, affirmed communion as an ordinance, a practice taught by Christ to become for his followers a sign of remembering him and being empowered to live in unity as Christ’s body.

The Schleitheim Confession (1527), a very early Anabaptist statement of key understandings separating Anabaptist from other Reform and Catholic precepts, makes no mention of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper (described as “concerning the breaking of the bread”). The focus is on remembrance of Christ and on unity in faithfulness as defined by Anabaptists. Only faithfulness, grounded in the Apostle Paul’s 1 Corinthians 10 teachings, makes one worthy of sharing the bread.

Certainly the Lord matters here. But the key worry is whether those who share the bread are in true community:

So it shall and must be, that whoever does not share the calling of the one God to one faith, to one baptism, to one spirit, to one body together with all the children of God, may not be made one loaf together with them, as must be true if one wishes truly to break bread according to the command of Christ.

The next century, in a classic Anabaptist effort to follow the literal teachings of Jesus, the Dordrecht Confession, a key 1600s Mennonite confession, echoed this. Dordrecht stressed that we are to remember because remembrance is precisely what Jesus taught in instituting communion at that first Lord’s supper.

Then Dordrecht reminds us that if Christ loved us to the point of purchasing through suffering and death our salvation, we in turn are

admonished to the utmost, to love and forgive one another and our neighbor, as He has done unto us, and to be mindful to maintain and live up to the unity and fellowship which we have with God and one another, which is signified to us by this breaking of bread.

From birth on, my Anabaptist-Mennonite family and communities formed me broadly within such views, which remain evident in current confessions of faith.  Communion was then often a source of fear and trembling. If one is to be worthy of communion, one must be in right relationship with one’s Christian brothers and sisters. Otherwise disaster may ensue. Along with many Mennonites, I found worrying indeed Paul’s admonition that

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then. . . . For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died (1 Cor. 11:27-30 NRSV).

Communion can make you weak. Ill. Dead. When I was eighteen I learned at last how one of my father’s most precious loved ones had died. He had been hospitalized in the 1950s for depression even as many Mennonites saw depression as entailing spiritual failure. This peace-committed Mennonite farmer then said he felt better, checked himself out, took a shotgun to one of his fields, and shot himself. A family take was that he had a very sensitive conscience.

The Mennonite emphasis on communion as something one had to be worthy of likely brought failure to the fore for him. How would he be good enough to partake? What of the anger at this son? What of that forbidden desire? Failure everywhere, lurking in secret or not even consciously accessible feelings and thoughts.

When I read Wassell against that backdrop, I experience  grace. I see why a significant number of Mennonites have sought to broaden the Mennonite understanding of communion, to treat it as means of grace in addition to remembrance of a sacrifice we must in turn earn the right to recall through right relations with each other.

I see why communion is becoming more common for many Mennonites. Once often reserved in Mennonite churches for rare services involving soul-and-conscience-searching and sometimes reaching out to sisters or brothers in Christ one feared one had sinned against, communion is now practiced in some churches more often, sometimes even weekly. I participated in the decision one congregation I pastored made to shift from communion twice a year to . . . every quarter!

Wassell helps explain such shifts as she speaks to intertwining experiences of personal and spiritual failure such as broke my loved one:

Desperately aware of our need for grace, we pray at each Mass (as the Centurion did), “Lord, I am not worthy that you should enter under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” We only receive our Lord kneeling in humility, and on the tongue. Only the consecrated hands of the priest feed Him to us, taking such reverent care not to drop a single crumb, as each crumb is the whole of the body, blood, soul and divinity of the Lord.

On the other hand. Wassell reports seeking the “Transubstantiated Body of Christ.” Her reverent treatment of “each crumb” as “the whole of the body, blood, soul and divinity of the Lord” fleshes out that view. As does this:

All faithful Catholics assert that what happens at Mass is the unbloody re-presentation of Christ’s Sacrifice at Calvary. The priest is there in persona Christi, or as a stand-in for the one true priest, Jesus Christ, truly God and truly man. He offers the bread and the wine, each in turn, to show the separation of body from blood on the cross which resulted in Christ’s death. When the priest says the words Christ spoke at the Last Supper, that bread and wine becomes Christ as perfect victim, offered for your sins and for mine in the mystery of the Eucharist.

I don’t want to take harsh issue with this. Wassell helps me grasp, as a good witness does, the appeal of such faith. I also see why such an understanding takes her to the traditional Latin Mass. I see why she’s disappointed in informal Mass and worship practices that foreground priest as person. I even see why she yearns for the priest’s facing backward in the traditional Mass to spotlight Mystery rather than humanness.

Yet here I also realize how deeply formed by Anabaptist-Mennonite commitments to plain meanings of Scripture and to community I am. I struggle to find Catholic understandings plainly articulated in Scripture, which does seem to me to undergird Schleitheim and Dordrecht emphases.

And though this entails personal idiosyncracies, austere, impersonal sermons and leadership I often experienced among the must-be-worthy-of-Jesus leaders of my youth (always men) left me cold. The more removed from the quotidian and the personal and even the informal faith practices were, the more I found them meaningless.

It was in the embodiment of the holy in the frail, the flawed, even the sinful, the “this-is-who-I-really-am” testimonies of leaders and community members, that I finally felt faith was possible.

I want my tradition to express significant aspects of the treasures Wassell loves. I want more grace in my community of faith. I also want to experience the presence of the Lord along the lines described in a 2003 report on Catholics and Mennonites in dialogue. Amid celebrating much in both traditions, the document affirms for Mennonites the “body and blood of Christ and recognizes again that its life is sustained by Christ, the bread of life.” It adds that

The key lies not in the elements as such, but in the context as a whole, including the communion of the gathered congregation, the prayerful aspiration of each individual, and the spiritual presence that is suggested and re-presented with the aid of appropriate symbols and liturgy.

I want to honor the body and blood of Christ as Wassell helps me to do. I also want to experience the Lord’s Supper as much in the troubled, tormented, yet often lovely relationships and practices of my people, my part of the Body of Christ in which I seek the holy even as grace empowers me to seek the body’s healing when I have helped to break it.

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