Thursday, July 10, 2008

JD Crossan and the Eucharist

A while ago there was frisson in the blogosphere over Sally Quinn, a non-Catholic, taking communion at the funeral mass of her friend, Tim Russert. I saw today that On Faith asked this question - What do you think about Sally Quinn, a non-Catholic, going to Communion at Tim Russert's Catholic funeral? What are some do's and don'ts for observing the religious rituals of others? - and that one of those who answered it was NT scholar John Dominic Crossan. Here's what he wrote ......


Whom Does Christ Exclude?

Sally, and only Sally, can say whether she should or should not have received communion at Tim Russert's funeral mass. From how she herself described it, my own answer is an emphatic yes. But since the sacraments belong to Christ rather even than to Christianity and certainly to Christianity rather than just to Roman Catholicism nobody would have had the right to refuse her. What God has brought together in Christ, do not dare to put asunder in Church.

When you ritually recite the "Pledge of Allegiance" are you pledging your life to a piece of multi-colored cloth. Of course not. Are you pledging your life to the republic for which it stands? Well, yes and no. Yes, definitely yes, if you mean "liberty and justice for all." But no, definitely no, if you are merely thinking about a huge area of land between Canada and Mexico.

Ritual participation may be offhand, distracted, unintentional, and meaningless. It may be sheer unthinking habit or mere contagious emulation of others. But that pledge is very, very straightforward. I pledge myself to liberty and justice for all. You will understand, therefore, why we prefer to debate whether "under God" should or should not be included as a magnificent red herring to distract us from asking whether we have the slightest intention of promoting liberty and justice for all.

Who can or should recite that pledge? Anyone who believes in it and intends to live by it. Would a non-American visitor who lived by that faith have more right to it than an American citizen who did not? My answer is: emphatically yes. Rituals have meaning and, therefore, intentional participation in them is either vital commitment or something between vacuity and hypocrisy.

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."


You can also read here, at On Faith, what Sally Quinn herself has to say about what she did and why.


  1. Well put. There exists a school of Christian who loves nothing more than to point out exactly who it is (besides themselves) who doesn't deserve a place at the table. Dishearteningly human of us all. We have a handful of spouses in our parish who are not Catholic but regularly and reverently come forward for communion every Sunday. EVERY Sunday. While a great many Catholics I know are missing for weeks at a time (of course I have no way of knowing if they've gone to another church or not that weekend...unless they see me somewhere and feel the need to quickly stammer out a list of reasons they haven't been around...hehehehe...if they'd never said a word I wouldn't be any the wiser). I would never dream of telling one of these non-Catholics to sit back down, that there's no place for them here. I don't know what kind of thing God is working in their hearts or their lives. But He's certainly doing something. Who am I, Cura the Fallible, to interfere?

  2. Cura the Fallible - sounds like your RPG name :)

    Yes, I didn't even realize there was a problem with non-Catholics taking communion until this thing with Sally Quinn, but I'm not the most paying-attention Cathoilic.

    So is this part of why Anglicans and Catholics aren't supposed to do communion together?

  3. This is one point in which I have a little bit of sympathy with the conservative position -- I think that if you take communion in a Catholic church, you should be aware of the doctrine of real presence. I won't condemn a non-Catholic for doing it, though I hope he or she realizes the import of what it is.

    Apart from that, I'm very ecumenical. I see no reason why Orthodox or Anglicans should be denied communion.

  4. I do confess to being conservative in that area also. I've seen too many people come forward, obviously not knowing what they are doing at all, and then try to put the Blessed Sacrament in their pocket. I even had to speak with a lady once whom I saw had wrapped it in a tissue and stuffed it in her purse. It was at a niece's First Communion and she wanted to take it home as a souvenir! But the ones I'm talking about know full well what the Church teaches about the Eucharist, some better than their spouses.

    On the more conservative side, I have a priest friend who likend inter-communion with sleeping with someones else's wife. As he put it, "we may be the best of friends and believe in a lot of the same things, but you still can't come to bed with us...we just don't have that kind of relationship yet. We haven't made that kind of commitment to each other."

    I had a bit of a chuckle at that. I kind of see what he's trying to say but I think it gets a little lost in the translation. ;o)


    Cura the Fallible


  5. I went all through RCIA classes and never understood about real presence. I still don't exactly understand. I understand Jesus and I understand communion, but Jesus being communion is confusing. I guess it's one of those things that don't need to be understood but I always want to understand.

  6. Well, it's a mystery -- it can't really be understood. The idea of transubstantiation is a way of approaching it using Aristotlian categories.

    I would say that it comes down to this: is communion just a symbolic act that represents Jesus and the last supper but is totally dependent on our view of it to have any meaning? Or is it a sacramental act that actually transforms the bread and wine and endows them, physically, with God's grace in the form of Jesus' body? The former would be the view of many "low church" Protestants, and the latter is the view of Catholics and, as far as I understand, Orthodox and most Anglicans. That's why the Host is treated with the respect that it is.

    This has been a huge controversy, first in the early medieval church, then among different Protestant denominations during the reformation. For me, the physical presence of Jesus in communion (in a mystical way that we can't possibly fully understand) is an important way of bridging the gap between the world of the spirit and of matter, the same way the Incarnation and the resurrection of the body are. Liam doesn't like dualism.

  7. Free indulgence offer on my blog. Don't miss out. Limited time offer. Jack

  8. Jack - free indulgence .... isn't that an oxymoron? :)

  9. Liam,

    Thanks for the explination. So you think that communion is not just us doing something, but God doing something too? I like that idea.

    I think part of what bothers me about it is the thought that Jesus is reduced to a sort of magic bullet that if consumed will increase someone's holiness, irrespctive of actions or ways of thought. A magic bullet completely controlled by the Church, which decides who is worthy enough to be with Jesus.

    But to be honest, I think I just feel bad about not going to church more often and don't want to believe I'm missing something so very important.

  10. Well, I don't know about "magic bullet" -- obviously there are horrible people who take communion and good people who don't. It can't make you holy if you're not willing to open yourself up to what it really means. Still, I think yes, God is doing something and it's not just a symbol that we all agree on but the body and blood of Jesus, as instituted by Jesus.

    As far as it being controlled by the Church -- well yes, but we are all the Church. That's why people like soon-to-be ex-Archbishop Burke of St Louis who use it for political reasons drive me crazy. I also think restrictions on communion for divorced and remarried Catholics, people from other denominations, etc., should be up to the person who receives, not to the celebrant, to enforce or not.

  11. I just saw another take on the question and posted it - Thomas Aquinas :)

  12. Crystal, I find the "real presence" not that great a mystery, if we view it as Liam susgests under Aristotelian categories.

    Most induldences require some act of charity or prayer. My proposed offer involves only moving to Brazil---a simple change of bodily location. Jack

  13. Jack,

    I don't understand about Aristotelian categories, but it seems to me that a very complex philosophy has been weaved about something that isn't so much spelled out in the NT.

    Brazil - would love to visit.

  14. Crystal, but the NT is not a philosophical system. In working with students, I have found the Greek and Middle ages concepts of form and matter, accident and essence etc. appealing intellectually.I think Liam and I use different terminology but I strongly support 'dualism.' I believe dualism is our best expression of reality. Of course, in religion the concept of the incarnation is pure dualism. P.E.More, not a catholic, states, rightly, I believe, that the protection of the idea of the incarnation is the 'great glory of the RC Church.' I mentioned this two years ago on another blog and unfortunately it bogged down into a battle over a definition of "dualism." "Reductionism" is a human trait not compatible with "dualism." But I think "dualism" best expresses our existential experience as humans. Jack

  15. I don't understand dualism wither except as making a distinction between the physical and the spiritual and assuming the spiritual is better? Catholicism seems to not be dualistic (seeing the physical and spiritual as two sides of the same coin?), espeicially when compared to something like gnosticism.

  16. Crystal, Do you know your local parish will send people to your house so you can take communion? My aunt has to do this, as she can't get out much. It's also a nice way to keep in touch with the church when you're not able to attend much. You might look into it.

    The Eucharist, to me, is the most beautiful, mysterious and powerful part of the liturgy. I love it, and I take it very seriously. But, as I said in the other post, I see it as being the body of Christ, and I don't see Christ telling a person like Sally Quinn that she can't communicate with Him. Or that He refuses to speak with a divorced person. Or He refuses to speak to a Baptist.

    The Church has used the Eucharist as a political tool and a form of control for far too long. THAT, if you ask me, is far, far more sacrilegious than Sally Quinn wanting to take communion.

  17. Crystal, dualism is the opposite of monism which assumes all 'reality' is either matter (materialism) or mental (Idealism). But never mind, it is not worth arguing about.

    I do, however, want to strongly object to you and your 'commenters'willful defiance of William Donahoe (? sp.). As the representative of Catholic orthodoxy in the U.S. you are somewhat brazen to reject his pronouncements. As you may know a large majority of American catholics support McCain over Obama, clearly showing that your commenters, mostly supporting Obama, are out of step with 'family values' catholics.

  18. William,

    Thanks for the info about ppeople with the host coming out. I hope your aunt is feeling ok. I still say a prayer for her :)

  19. Jack,

    I haven't seen any numbers, but I think the Catholic League actually represents a minority of Catholics - they are pretty extreme in their conservatism.

  20. O!!!Crystal. You broke my heart, and maybe my faith!!! Jack

  21. Thanks for your prayers, Crystal. My aunt's name is Mary, btw - for a more personal prayer.

    After the last round of chemo, the doctor said she was doing very well and won't have to do the CAT or PET scans (what nice names for such procedures!) for six months. So it sounds like it's gone for the time being. I've been giving THANKS and asking that it stay away. Also, you can pray for her to deal with the financial end, as the chemo procedure is terribly expensive. I'm glad she's not having to do it for a while, because I think it was wiping her out.

    Thanks for asking. And I really appreciate your prayers.