“Are you really a cannibal?”
Ellie was one of the regulars at my office hours. She showed up mostly to pitch ideas back and forth with fellow humanities students. They liked hanging out together. And I think they could tell that I enjoyed their company.
This time Ellie came alone. Having heard something appalling about me, she was feeling betrayed. In Ethics I had taught all this stuff about the inherent worth of every human being. And I eat people—even if only symbolically—as my weekly religious practice?
“What makes you ask me this?”
“Professor B said that Christians admit that they are cannibals!”
“Ah, I see.”
Prof. B facilitated an extra-curricular writing group. Each term those students would work together to write a novel.
Though not especially religious himself, Prof. B was not intentionally anti-Christian. He had been raised by devout parents and knew the basics of the sacramental tradition of his youth. But that spirituality no longer worked for him.
Like many good teachers, Prof. B prompted independent thinking and creativity by challenging his students’ assumptions. He sometimes made outrageous claims to force them to revisit ideas that they had received from authority figures.
This technique did not always work according to plan. For instance, Ellie had no religious background on which to draw.
Her parents had raised her in an agnostic home. With the best of intentions, they had believed that she should make up her own mind about spiritual matters.
As a result, Ellie did not hear Prof. B’s words as hyperbolic provocation. She understood him to be explaining what sacramental Christians actually believe.
In the philosophy classroom I never wore my Christianity on my sleeve. During class sessions my aim was to help students acquire critical thinking skills and to weigh for themselves what some of the great minds in history had to say about life’s big questions.
I never confused myself with one of those great minds. But if students wanted to talk to me later about my own thoughts and beliefs, I was happy to exchange ideas with them.
That’s why Ellie knew that I am an Episcopalian and that celebrating the Eucharist (or Holy Communion) is how I worship on Sundays.
Prof. B had said something like this: “Christians believe that they eat the body and drink the blood of Jesus. Right? Well, that’s cannibalism, isn’t it?”
Honestly, I don’t think he had me in mind personally. He probably just wanted to shock the group into thinking deeply and honestly about their own religious beliefs.
But for Ellie, this was a serious charge against me. If I could practice ritualistic cannibalism, she couldn’t trust or respect me anymore.
In John’s Gospel we do in fact hear Jesus say this: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me.” (John 6:56-57)
Those words were a deal-breaker for some of his followers. They cut ties with him. For that matter, Romans used the charge of cannibalism to slander the early Christians. So it’s not really surprising that Ellie would find these ideas shocking and repugnant.
Here’s what I told her.
Our physical hunger points to a deeper spiritual longing. We need food to sustain our biological life. To survive. But there’s more to living than just surviving. We long for something that makes this life worth living.
Giving love is what makes life worth living. But we can’t give what we don’t already have. So our souls hunger for love.
Jesus came to shows us that God’s love is limitless and unconditional. It is always on offer. It is always there for us. Wherever we are. In whatever state we find ourselves. We just struggle to see it and feel it.
In the Eucharist, we eat bread and drink wine. We may be distracted or irritable, hungover or stressed out, resentful or filled with remorse. But in communion we glimpse, if just for an instant, that Jesus is somehow present in that bread, in that wine, and in the people next to us.
That one moment shows us that Christ is at our school, in our office. In the sunset and by our sickbed. God’s love saturates this world. Saturates my life. I am the beloved. So are you.
There’s the big “T” truth. God is always pouring love—pouring the very essence of the divine life—out to me and to you and to all the creation.
Ellie nodded her head and sat silently for a bit. “Thanks, Doc,” she said, and left. I was glad to see her at the next office hour.
This is one of those times I’d like to know “the rest of the story.” I wonder whatever happened to Ellie…
I’ve heard similar remarks about eating flesh and drinking blood – and probably even thought them myself sometime. You, among others, have helped me let go of the tight literalism and feel more comfortable with the spiritual.
I’m afraid all I know is that Ellie (not her real name) graduated and went on to her intended career. I heard from her from time to time for a while, but we’ve lost touch.
In my trad. evangelical childhood this is a verse from a hymn often sung before communion, “Only bread and only wine, Yet to faith, the solemn sign, Of the heav’nly and divine! We give Thee thanks, O Lord.” Still love those words! The idea of transubstantiation (which I only came across as an older adult, relatively recently) came as a pretty big shock to me, troubling even though I personally see these elements as sacred symbols. I like it you’ve recounted this story, it’s a thing I find perplexing to think about. Do Episcopalian Bishops have a particular position on this or do individuals have their own views?
Our view of the Eucharist is called Real Presence. In the Holy Eucharist Christ is really present in a mysterious way that we do not try to explain. He gives himself to us, we participate in his life, and we are bound more intimately together by his love. The Holy Eucharist (mind you, this is the name of the worship service that includes and climaxes in communion) shows us what all of life is about: participating in the divine life that is always, everywhere being offered to us. As Rohr likes to say, God is always present. Our awareness is what is missing.
Thanks for this beautiful response! I don’t recall previously hearing of ‘Real Presence’ and I love what you’ve shared. I sensed I was missing something and struggled to even form the question, yet this is just what I was looking for! ~grateful.
Is there a difference between Real Presence and Consubstantiation? They sound similar, if not the same.
This is probably a bit shorter than you want, but it’s a start anyway. Real Presence refers to what happens in the Eucharist. Both consubstantiation and transubstantiation are (competing) theological explanations of how that happens. Hope that’s a helpful.