I don’t think anyone read this except for Robert Wynn, and he found it confusing and confounding. So, I have added a couple of things that I hope might make it a bit clearer. It is a homily that I have to present for seminary next week.
Cannibalism and the Eucharist
I’m planning on teaching rather than preaching, so I hope that you will forgive the way that is reflected this homily. I’m going to share some ideas that you may find strange, perhaps even offensive, but it was Jesus who established them and his disciples also found them strange and offensive. Nevertheless, I have found that rather than avoiding them as has historically been the case, I can use them as a way to make my experience of the Eucharist more powerful. I actually have several of these, but I will only inflict one of them on you, with genuine hopes that you might take something from it that you can use.
The symbolism of the Eucharist is inseparable from the symbolism of the cross. This is because the Last Supper is a Passover meal in which Jesus presents himself as the Passover lamb to be sacrificed on the cross to save us all from the Spirit of Death just as the Hebrews in Egypt were saved by the blood of the lamb that was sacrificed for them. At the Last Supper then, Jesus and his disciples eat bread and drink wine, AND EAT LAMB. And Jesus tells his disciples to think of him as that lamb that they are eating (as well as the bread, and the wine).
For me, the cross, as a symbol, 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. But as an instrument of unspeakably horrifying execution it represents the choice to objectify and exploit others to satisfy one’s own appetites. The cross can be viewed symbolically then as the intersection of these two opposite potential choices. The positive extreme of these two opposites is divine self-sacrifice. And, because the Last Supper was a preparation for death on the cross, and because Jesus presented the Supper with cannibalistic metaphors by inviting his disciples to think of him as the Passover lamb, cannibalism is the negative extreme of the two poles.
Remember that in John 6:53-61, Jesus 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, “61When Jesus knew… that his disciples murmured at it, he said unto them, Doth this offend you?”
Well of course it offended them. And if eating a fellow human were not repulsive enough, Jesus tells them to drink his blood, and the consumption of any kind of blood is strictly forbidden 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 understandably bewildered.
Eating someone is the ultimate exploitation of them, and selfless sacrifice for love of others is the ultimate gift. The Eucharist and the cross, hold all of this contradictory symbolic meaning—in extreme tension. And there is power in that contradictory tension.
These contradictions intersect in Jesus at the center of the cross where Jesus dies to live, where Jesus is mortal and immortal, where cannibalistic exploitation and selfless sacrifice are both embodied in a single image—an image of man’s best and most bestial potentials. And they don’t just intersect; Jesus on the cross is the reconciling juncture of contradictions. From my own theological point of view, which is one of universal salvation—one of universal reconciliation and healing, the negative and the positive, the AC and the DC if you will, are reconciled through Jesus as a single spiritual current of power that enters and empowers us through the Eucharistic body and blood.
What’s more, 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 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. When God said that its fruit had indeed made Adam and Eve to be as Gods, God affirmed that the forbidden fruit bestows divine attributes. (Recall that God told Adam that if he ate the fruit he would die, and that the serpent told the truth when he told Eve that the fruit would in fact not kill them and that if they 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 these three trees, for the Bible is very much about our relationship to what each of these trees symbolize. The tree of autonomy—which we know better as the tree of 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 through Christ are all juxtaposed—reconciled– 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”—and yes, it is hard to understand. Nevertheless, this 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 in the joyous, heavenly feast to come. I like to think finally, of this feast as Martin Luther King Jr described it—a feast in which the sons of slaves and the sons of masters would sit down together at the table of brotherhood, when every valley shall rise, every hill be exalted– every mountain made low, and the straight be made crooked, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed forever—and all flesh shall see it together.