The cross, the Eucharist, and cannibalism brent mitchell

At the Bonkness party the other night, Nick Dempsky asked me about my own theology. (Although I am as much agnostic as I am religious– and although I see the two not as mutually exclusive but as interdependant which is somewhat unconventional, I am in seminary right now–not to preach but to teach religious studies in a secular school.) I was a little drunk and tried to explain some particularly unconventional ideas of mine in a a way that was, judging by the look on Nick’s face, only confusing. I won’t bother trying to rehash any of that here. But, even for those of us who are plainly hostile to Christianity, as I myself sometimes am, there are other things that I can express that may be more broadly appealing just for their aesthetic content. So. Anyway, I was recently assigned to write a short homily– a brief sermon. This is not my cup of tea, but I had to do it. So, I reached back to my undergrad thesis which was on the Eucharist as a form of ritual cannibalism. This sounds like a cheap shot, I know– or perhaps like a pseudo-pornographic fascination with morbidity. Really though, it is an issue that is brought up by Jesus’ followers in scripture when he first mentions “eating his flesh and drinking his blood”. More importantly, it evokes a startlingly rich symbolism that conjoins the most undeniable existentialist observations or world-views with the most essential and least controversial –and most attractive facets of Christ– the protagonist of the most central literary narrative in Western culture– the contextual touchstone of nearly all classic literature. So, here’s the homily:
The cross is a crossroads of choice. As the vehicle of Christ’s self-sacrifice, the cross represents the choice to be born into a radical new innocence through selfless love. As an instrument of torturous execution it represents the choice to objectify and exploit others to satisfy one’s own appetites. The cross is the intersection of these two opposite potentialities—these two choices.
As we read earlier, in John 6:53-61 it sounds to the followers of Jesus in that passage as though he is describing cannibalism, and thy are understandably appalled. Remember? The text says: “56 He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him…. 60 Many… of his disciples, when they had heard this, said, This is an hard saying; who can hear it?” (By which they mean “This sounds crazy—who can understand what he means by this?”) The text goes on to say, “61 When Jesus knew… that his disciples murmured at it, he said unto them, Doth this offend you?”
Well, apparently it did, and rightly so. And if eating a fellow human were not repulsive enough, Jesus tells them to drink his blood, and of course, the consumption of any blood at all is strictly forbidden by the Lord God in Genesis 9:4. So, Jesus is telling them to do the most appalling and unthinkable things that humans can imagine and that the law forbids, and they are bewildered.
What is really at issue here for them is objectification. Objectification is what we do when we imaginatively reduce someone to a mere object so that we can exploit them without feeling bad about it. And cannibalism is the most extreme form of objectification that we have, so far, conceived. As an instrument of execution, the cross objectifies those who are nailed to it as non-humans, as expendable– as trash. But Jesus allows himself to be nailed to the cross. He sacrifices himself to suffer as we suffer right along with us. In doing so, he accompanies us through all our suffering. And just as eating someone is the ultimate exploitation of another, selfless sacrifice for love of others is its diametric opposite. The image of the cross then, holds all of this contradictory symbolic meaning in extreme tension, as does the Eucharist itself.
These contradictory cosmic forces intersect in Jesus at the center of the cross where Jesus dies to live eternally, where Jesus is man and God, where cannibalistic exploitation and selfless sacrifice are both embodied. And they don’t just intersect; Jesus on the cross is the reconciling juncture of oppositional forces. The negative and the positive, the AC and the DC, are joined through Jesus as a single spiritual current of power that enters and empowers us through the Eucharistic body and blood.
As the one who offers eternal life to us, Jesus is, symbolically, the fruit of the tree of eternal life restored to us. He is also, in symbolic, mythological terms, the fruit of the tree of knowledge (Adam and Eve)that bestows autonomy—adult freedom, and with it, the adult suffering that accompanies freedom and autonomy. This fruit of disobedience is an aspect of divinity. The Lord said so when God said that its fruit had indeed made Adam and Eve to be as Gods–affirming that the forbidden fruit bestows divine attributes. (Recall that God lied to Adam when he told him that if he ate the fruit he would die, and the serpent told the truth when he said that the fruit would not kill him and that if he and Eve ate it their eyes would be opened and they would be as gods!) Considering that the tree of knowledge imparts divinity just as the tree of life does, one can think of the Bible as circumscribed by three trees, for the Bible is very much about our relationship to what each of these trees symbolize. The tree of autonomy—which is knowledge of good and evil, the tree of eternal life kept from us in Genesis by a flaming sword, and the tree of life restored to us are all juxtaposed into a single tree in the cross of Jesus. This then, is the orchard from which the heavenly banquet is harvested for us. And yes, “this is a hard saying, and one that is “hard to hear”—is hard to understand. Nevertheless, it is the very heart of the Gospel. As a representation of life in all its ambiguity, and of choice and all of the consequence that choice bears, this triple juxtaposition of scriptural trees—this orchard— fills the horn of plenty at the table to which we are all invited. Amen.

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3 thoughts on “The cross, the Eucharist, and cannibalism brent mitchell

    • We tend to ignore the cannibalistic aspect of the Eucharist because it’s creepy. Most folks also are not aware that it represents a theme or “archetype” that is found throughout religious history. Quetzalcoatl, Dionysus, Osiris, and several other gods died for us to live according to their religion’s beliefs. Not only that, many of them were half god/half man and their sacrifices are memorialized in eating their bodies and blood as bread and sometimes as water or wine in Eucharistic practices that are much older than ours.

    • Actually, I just edited it and wrote some stuff in that I think makes this idea a bit clearer. It was an actual issue though for the disciples to get their heads around in scripture. If you want to look at this other version I can get it to you.

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