By John Dominic Crossan
Editor’s Note: The following is excerpted from a July 2008 Washington Post article by John Dominic Crossan, author and professor emeritus in the religious studies department at DePaul University.
The Christian Eucharist has two intertwined layers. First, it is bread and wine, the standard summary of a Mediterranean meal, the normal synthesis of Mediterranean eating. It is, in other words, about food. Throughout his life, Jesus insisted that food, as the material basis of life, was to be fairly and equitably distributed to all God’s children around God’s table. He imagined God-as-Householder (he said “Father” but that was patriarchal normalcy) of the House-World or Homemaker of the Home-earth. And his question was - as in any well-run family - whether everyone had enough or some members had far too much while others had far too little.
Second, none of that was about compassionate charity but about distributive justice. (The Roman Empire did not crucify you for insisting on the former but for insisting too much on that latter.) So Jesus, having lived for non-violent justice died from violent injustice. When one dies an ordinary death, we speak of the separation of body and soul. But a violent death - like crucifixion - involves a separation of body and blood.
In forging the magnificent eucharistic ritual, those twin layers were inextricably linked together to proclaim this: if you live for justice very strongly you could die from injustice very swiftly. When those earliest Christians participated in that ritual, they understood all too well what it meant and to what they were committing themselves. They were pledging themselves to a way of life by participating in the life (definitely) and death (possibly) of Jesus.
They did not have time to debate about the exact mechanics of the “transubstantiation” of bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ (watch for red herrings, always watch for red herrings) because they were too acutely aware of their own “transubstantiation” from Roman citizens to Christian traitors.
Finally, then, we can face our question. In general: who should accept the eucharistic ritual? Those and only those who are intentionally, self-consciously, and publicly committing themselves to live like Jesus and, if unfortunately ever necessary, to die like Jesus. That is, of course, an on-going lifelong process and it is precisely such eucharistic participation that initiates, continues, and consummates it. The eucharist both proclaims and empowers a life, as Paul would say, “in Christ” or, better “in the body of Christ.”
John Dominic Crossan is a professor emeritus in the religious studies department at DePaul University. He was an ordained priest from 1957 to 1969 and is the author of 23 books.