By Rich Walser
Holy Communion, the Holy Eucharist, also known as the Lord’s Supper, is for most Episcopalians the most important element of the Sunday service. So important is it that in my church on days when we celebrate Morning Prayer, a second amended service is given after the first for those who want to receive communion. Many people feel that they simply have not received adequate spiritual nourishment in the absence of holy communion, leaving church feeling unfulfilled without it.
It is a curious thing, if you think about it, how a person receives spiritual nourishment through the act of eating, consuming of the elements in holy Eucharist. I wonder how many of those people who receive communion at Sunday service ever stop to ponder the mechanism by which this miracle takes place. Clearly Jesus is telling us something about the importance of the physical body and blood, not only his but ours, within the spiritual life.
Leonardo Da Vinci may have coined the phrase ‘The Last Supper’ but we know from scripture that in fact this was not the last supper. Luke 24 tells us that Jesus ate with his disciples even after the resurrection. Which begs the question, does the resurrected Christ need to eat?
Regardless of the answer to that question, what is clear is that the resurrected Christ is a fully formed human being. Again, from Luke 24: 38 Jesus says “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? 39 Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” He then eats fish with his companions.
If we are to use Jesus as the example, then I think we have to conclude that the resurrected life is a ‘bodily’ life. I think this notion would come as a shock to most Christians who imagine life after death as one where the body is left behind and the disembodied soul moves on to another place. But isn’t Jesus clearly saying something else? To me, what Jesus’ bodily resurrection is saying is that our bodies and souls are intertwined in very intimate ways. And if that’s true, then the health of the body very much affects the health of the soul. A healthy body requires healthy food to sustain it, and healthy food requires a healthy planet upon which to grow and flourish. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, we are creatures of the earth and we depend entirely on its health for our survival. From Genesis 2:7 we learn that “The LORD God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.”
If we begin to imagine that we are not so much body and soul but instead the dust of the earth and the breath of the living God, then we can begin to finally understand how it is that we receive spiritual nourishment through the act of eating our lord’s flesh and blood. Body and soul need to be intimately connected in order for that transaction to take place. It just doesn’t work otherwise. And it seems to me that it is from this perspective that we can finally reconcile our Christian faith to the bountiful planet so beautifully described in Genesis 1.
The archway at the entrance of the Grove Cemetery in New Haven bears the inscription “The Dead Shall Be Raised”. Standing before this structure with its inscription, one can not help but imagine bodies pushing their way up out of the tombs beyond the gate, fully resurrected and fully restored ready to take their place once again among the living. But is this an appropriate image for a Christian to have? I wish I knew. The truth is, despite our weekly recitation of the Apostle’s Creed which proclaims the ‘resurrection of the body’, we seem not to believe this to be the case. The Christians I know believe in the resurrection of the soul without the body. I’ve spent a lifetime trying to square this contradiction, and I can’t.
It seems to me that this is no small matter for a variety of reasons, but in particular for those of us who are interested in discovering the source of Christian apathy toward the health of the planet. It is also a question of interest for those of us concerned for the declining interest in religion, mainline christianity in particular. Christian culture’s culpability in the destruction of the natural world is so universal as to be cliche among the ranks of environmental activists. Who, precisely, are we going to turn to repopulate our parishes if not the millions of young people eager to work in environmental restoration? But for the rank and file Christian who believes he is leaving the planet for a heavenly paradise, there is no compelling reason to care about the Earth. Earth is simply a way station. If by God’s grace he has already been forgiven for his sins, then there is even less reason to care.
If, on the other hand, you believe in the ‘resurrection of the body’ and the life everlasting, well then the fate of the Earth becomes paramount. The work of building God’s kingdom here on Earth takes on new and more urgent meaning. Suddenly our relationship with God and with creation becomes something we can understand intuitively, and the thought of allowing the planet to suffer becomes abhorrent. This is such an important distinction that it needs to be answered clearly, unambiguously, and quickly. My vote is with the resurrection of the body and I believe our burial prayer supports this:
I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in me shall have life,
even though he die.
And everyone who has life,
and has committed himself to me in faith,
shall not die for ever.
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger.
For none of us has life in himself,
and none becomes his own master when he dies.
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord’s possession.
What a completely lovely prayer. We are the Lord’s possession. We live and die in the Lord. It seems to me that that is the right and proper way to view our lives and our deaths as Christians. Not that we have some special pass to paradise. Earth is also the Lord’s possession. It is not ours to waste, to plunder or to destroy. Our American Christian culture was not built with these ideas in mind. I don’t believe you can reconcile the sentiments in this prayer with the popular notion of what happens to us when we die, so if what it says is true, then we need to make that abundantly clear, because otherwise Christian people will never join us in this work in any significant number, nor will we be able to convince the exploiters of this planet to change their destructive ways.
What we need to recognize is that religion has enormous cultural influence – it affects how people think in profound ways, and our christian heritage exerts itself throughout our culture in ways too numerous to name and to both the faithful as well as the non-believer. It matters profoundly whether our understanding of the resurrected life is connected to our physical bodies or not, because this fundamental understanding, or misunderstanding, is infused throughout our culture in a myriad of ways.
The ancient Israelites certainly understood this cultural connection. Their Exodus from Egypt was not only a physical exodus, it was indeed a cultural exodus. The Israelites did not bring their Egyptian culture with them when they entered the Holy Land. They threw-off that culture and created a society radically different from the one they had left. Ironically, the Egyptian culture they left behind was one obsessed with the after-life. The Israelites themselves seem to be unconcerned with this question. That fact alone should give modern Christians some pause. The religion of the Hebrews, the one that Christianity grew out of, is grounded firmly on the Earth and specifically to the land of Israel. The early books of the Bible are filled with references to the land. The laws governing the production, preparation, and consumption of food go on ad nauseam and are so unpleasant to read that most Christians never bother.
Nothing distinguishes the Israelites from the Egyptians more than how their food is grown. This could also be said for the other great power of the time, the Babylonians, who depleted their land resources, turning the once fertile crescent into desert. The Romans made the same mistake in Northern Africa many hundreds of years later. It is hard to imagine today that Libya was once the breadbasket of the Roman Empire.
But it was the Egyptians that the Israelites would compare themselves to most often in the early books of the Bible. The earliest complaints the Israelites had with Moses was over what and how they would eat. ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt!’. Out of this grew the beginnings of a new covenantal relationship with God raining bread from heaven in return for their worship. In Egypt, the yearly floods of the Nile were so regular that they could be taken for granted. The torrent of water that overflowed the banks of the Nile left thick mud which was excellent for growing crops. Not so in Israel. For the Israelites to survive in the arid and semi-arid climate of the promised land, strict laws ‘instructions from God’ would have to be followed in order to meet the expectations of the land, and to preserve it for all future generations. God was very specific about the land he was giving them. In all the world, he gave them a piece of land whose fertility could not be taken for granted, but where they could prosper into eternity if and only if they were faithful to God’s instructions. Their faith grew out of living in a place that was hard. We need to remember that.
How different our experience as Americans has been. Deep in our culture is the idea of a land ripe for plunder. The earliest peoples from Europe came here to take what they could and return home. There was no sense of permanence like there is in the story of Israel. The experience of plunder seemed to find new expression with each region we moved into. Whether it be the furs and timber of the east, the fertile lands of the central zones, the gold and minerals of the Rockies, or the seemingly endless richness of California and its far western neighbors. And when people in this country find they can no longer make a living where they are, they get up and ‘move west!”. Of course we’ve exported that cultural attribute to much of the rest of the world. Combined with a belief in a heavenly eternity instead of an earthly one, I fear what we have is the recipe for an ecological disaster.
As Americans we have rightly felt blessed for having received so many riches, we need to be thankful for that. But as people of faith we need to also consider the degree to which such abundance is a curse. To whom from our ancient texts should we compare ourselves? How much does our faith reflect the values of place, of permanence, of care and appreciation shown by the Israelites to their God for the land they were given? On this Thanksgiving Day of 2013, as we gorge ourselves on the abundance our country provides, may we pause to consider the limits that God imposed on our Israeli forebears, and to the care they took to prosper in a difficult land; and may we also consider and be thankful for the fertility of the land that provides for us every day. And may we finally consider the Great Thanksgiving we celebrate weekly in our parishes, and to the miracle of communion, and to the connections it represents to our bodies and souls and to the dust and breath from which we were made and to the spiritual nourishment it provides to us as we consume that very same dust and breath of our Lord.