Tagphysical/spiritual

“Just a Symbol?”–Communion in a Cathedral

St. Augustin, Vienna

The Hapsburgs were christened, married and buried at St. Augustine in Vienna.  This cathedral has seen a lot of pageantry and ceremony and the mass still reflects a polish and flair consistent with this history.  I particularly noticed this in the treatment of the elements of the Eucharist.

In all Catholic services, the host is treated with a great deal of respect.  When congregants enter the door, they make the sign of the cross, and they genuflect before entering the pew.  Both these actions are directed toward the host.  After the Eucharist, the priest is careful that to gather and consume all possible remnants of the host.  Water is swirled in each vessel and consumed so even the residue is collected.   The plate and cup are then wiped with a cloth and this is folded and wrapped in an embroidered envelope and later taken to, what I imagine, is a ceremonial cleansing.  This reverence for the host is seen in every Catholic service. In the mass at St. Augustine, all this was done with particular precision and flourish.

This elaborate treatment of the Communion elements is easily explained.  Catholics believe in transubstantiation, that is, the conversion of the communion elements into the body and blood of Christ.   They are treated accordingly–even the last crumb.

Because, in Protestant services, the elements are not seen as the actual body and blood of Christ, the sacrament has become less profound a ritual than is the Catholic Eucharist.   In Protestant churches, Communion is a solemn event, but while I watched the celebration of the Eucharist at St. Augustine, I wondered if we could do more, especially in the language we use in our Communion services, to increase the significance and mystery of this sacrament.

Just a Symbol

I’ve had Communion in a variety of Protestant churches across North America.  On more than one occasion, I have heard the officiating pastor explain that the bread and wine are “just a symbol” of the body and blood of Christ.

I do not contest that Communion is symbolic, but the use of the word “just” indicates that the speaker has fallen into a very limited understanding of both symbol and sacrament: a Modern understanding.

I do not contest that Communion is symbolic, but the use of the word 'just' indicates that we have fallen into a very limited understanding of both symbol and sacrament: a Modern understanding.Click To Tweet

Modern Categories are not Biblical Categories

The Modern mind is a rationalistic mind, and as such, it likes to establish clear categorical boundaries–nature/grace, faith/reason, spiritual/physical.  To say that communion is “just a symbol” is to accept these modern dichotomies and suggests the physical elements in sacrament merely point to an intangible spiritual reality.

The Christian ought to understand the limitations of this approach and see the fundamental unity in all of reality.  The ultimate expression of this unity is the Incarnation; when the Word became flesh, “the eternal entered the temporal, but without ceasing to be eternal” (Zimmerman 265).

God’s redemptive work in the death and resurrection of Jesus occurs in both the physical and the spiritual realm.  The sacrament by which we remember this work is not simply a physical symbol, but also profound and literal spiritual event, for here, divine Grace intersects with nature, and the rational human agent partakes in faith and so is brought up to the divine.  And through it all, God remains fully God.

Does that sound a little confusing?  It ought to be.  While I watched the Eucharist at St. Augustine, I was impressed with the mystery and wonder of it all.  I thought I could bring some of this wonder to my own participation of the Lord’s Supper.

The Communion meal is symbolic but it is not “just a symbol.”  And although we don’t believe that it changes into the body of Christ, the bread is far more than just bread.

And should never be referred to as “gluten-free Rice Chex” (even if that’s exactly what it is).

The Idea of the Holocaust…

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

When I was in high school, I was fascinated with World War II.  I took a class on World War II and I guess my fascination continued into college because I majored in history and I took another course on World War II.  I watched all 26 episodes of the World at War series (1973–74) on PBS several times.

The thing I remember most clearly was the face at the end of the closing credits.  The face was gaunt and mostly shadow.  Deep dark shadows filled the hollows of the eyes and cheeks—especially the eyes.  It was a haunting face, especially with the music and the flames which accompanied it.  I never turned off the TV until I saw it.  I think it was the face of a person from a concentration camp.

The other thing I remember about that show was the episode called “Genocide.”  This episode ends with the implementation of the “Final Solution.”  It was the first time I saw the bulldozers.  You know, the ones that were pushing heaps of emaciated bodies…  The episode ended with the music and the flames and the face.

Baffled by the Holocaust

I’m not sure exactly what the attraction to World War II was all about.  Part of the draw could have been something like a fourth grader being interested in dinosaurs.  But I think a lot of it stemmed from puzzlement.  I watched the shows and read the books to try to find something to help me make sense of it all.  Episode 20, “Genocide,” only increased my confusion and fascination.

I now think that this confusion was rooted in the gap that existed in my own mind between the idea of the Holocaust and the physical reality of the Holocaust.  Knowing and thinking are not the same thing.  I had ideas about the Holocaust, but I didn’t know about it.

The Anne Frank Museum didn’t bridge the gap.  Maybe that’s the museum’s fault; it works so hard to create a universal significance that the particularity of young girl is lost.  Perhaps it’s my problem because I universalize everything.

From Thinking to Knowing

Then I went to Dachau. Dachau bridged the gap.  It was the prototype on which all the other camps were based.  Intending to spend a couple of hours; my wife and I stayed for more than six.

It was at Dachau that I realized that concentrations camps weren’t built out of ideas like racism, anti-Semitism, National Socialism, evil, hate or the scapegoat mechanism.

Dachau was built out of concrete, barbed wire, and wood.

I know that doesn’t sound like much of a revelation, but it is!  Before that visit, the Holocaust was an abstract concept; that day it became concrete.  The men who ran the place were made of flesh and blood and their boots wore out the tile in the interior hallways. The prisoners were defined by an iron gate that I strolled through.  I stood where they stood for roll call on freezing winter mornings in thin, striped, tattered uniforms.

The ovens at Dachau were not just an atrocity; they were also brick and mortar. Click To Tweet

When the idea of the Holocaust is linked with the physicality of Dachau, it becomes real in a profound way.

 

Warm Bodies: the Book

Warm Bodies

You know you’re an English teacher, if, when a movie is released, you buy the book.

The cover of my version of Warm Bodies by Isaac Marion is the movie’s poster, but it is better than a silly romance which cover seems to suggest.

The book’s first-person narrator is R — it’s all he remembers of his own name because he’s a zombie.  The undead always have identity issues.

R describes his life as a zombie:

We do what we do, time passes, and no one asks questions . . . . We grunt and groan, we shrug and nod, and sometimes a few words slip out.  It’s not that different from before” (4).

  “It’s not that different from before.”

This is one of the main themes of the novel,  suggesting that, in many ways, people are like zombies long before they become the decomposing brain-eaters.

 R finds himself the protector of Julia–she’s alive and pretty amazing.  She’s unlike any of the Living or the Dead.  Where R’s cognitive abilities are severely compromised, what with being dead and all, Julia is clever in a philosophical sense.  She  explains that the source of the “plague” was not anything like a virus or nuclear contamination, but was from “a deeper place.”  She actually uses the word “sin.”

Its source is not any direct divine judgment per se, but because we’ve “crushed ourselves down over the centuries” (221).

I think we crushed ourselves down over the centuries. Buried ourselves under greed and hate and whatever other sins we could find until our souls finally hit the rock bottom of the universe. And then they scraped a hole through it, into some … darker place.

In the last few centuries, we have crushed ourselves, indeed all of reality, down into the very small container of matter only–material reality is reality.  We have rejected all transcendence: anything beyond the physical.  We have come to believe the world is ruled by immutable and impersonal laws, that humanity is just a bunch of genes trying to get ahead and that time is a mindless and purposeless march toward personal and cosmic oblivion.  This view of the world could be called “Philosophical Materialism.”  It holds that matter is the only reality and that everything, including thought, feeling, consciousness, and will, can be explained in terms of matter.  The world described by philosophical materialism is closed to the transcendent.

 This idea has crushed us.  We’ve largely lost our sense of mystery and little evokes wonder.   More and more of us believe that everything from mountains to sunsets, from music to love, is a product of physical or chemical processes.  We no longer value things for their own sake, but for how economically useful they are–trees have become lumber and pigs have become pork.  It is just a matter of time when people will be valued only for their utility.  Or has this happened already?

We are Zombies

The book asks, if this is our conception of reality, what then is the difference between being a zombie or one of the Living?  Julie doesn’t see a lot of difference anymore.  While looking at a daisy Julie says, “We don’t even have flowers anymore.  Just crops” (70).

We don’t even have flowers anymore.  Just crops.

Julie believes that human beings are no better than zombies if they lose their sense of wonder — when they cease to see the world and its inhabitants as beautiful in and of themselves.  Her father, only concerned with practical survival is no longer any better than the Dead he hates.  She says of him, “Dad’s dead. He just hasn’t started rotting yet” (202).  Julie believes life is more than physical and that simple survival isn’t enough.  She says, “I mean obviously, staying alive is pretty . . .  important . . . but there’s got to be something beyond that, right?” (71).

“I mean obviously, staying alive is pretty . . .  important . . . but there’s got to be something beyond that, right?”

Julie is a foil to her father’s limited participation in life, but her vitality also provides a more important contrast to the Dead, represented by R.

Julia is less than impressed with R’s stagnant music collection.  He communicates that he isn’t really looking for anything different–that’s the way the Dead are.  She doesn’t accept this as a valid excuse claiming, “Music is life! It’s physical emotion–you can touch it! It’s neon ecto-energy sucked out of spirits and switched into sound waves for your ears to swallow.  Are you telling me, what, that it’s boring? You don’t have time for it?” (54).

The Cure for Zombies

Julie’s love of music, like that for flowers, is rooted in their transcendence–they possess qualities beyond their physical properties.  She is unique in that, unlike her father or the zombie R, she believes that there is more to reality than the physical.

This, it turns out, is salvation for R.

Romantic love is a part of his salvation, but it’s much bigger than love.  It includes flowers and music and everything else that human beings experience.  All the things that are good or true or beautiful, supernatural, spiritual or transcendent things.

Love is the main marker of R’s encounter with a transcendent reality.  Before he meets Julie, R describes the zombie perspective of others, whether Living or Dead; we are all meat–“Nameless, faceless, disposable” (74).  After he falls for Julie, she becomes much more to him than meat, more than a mere physical body.  Consider this passage from near the ends of the story:

 “I look into Julie’s face.  Not just at it, but into it.  Every pore, every freckle, every gossamer hair.  And then the layers beneath them.  The flesh and bones, the blood and brain, all the way down to the unknowable energy that swirls at her core, the life force, the soul, the fiery will that makes her more than meat, coursing through every cell and binding them together in millions to form her.  Her body contains the  history of the universe, remembered in pain, in joy and sadness, hate and hope and bad habits, every thought of God, past-present-future, remembered, felt, and hoped for all at once” (222).

 In Julie’s face, he sees the transcendent and it is inseparable from the physical.

This has always been true of everything, he just forgot–this is the essence of the zombie.

Somewhere in the last few centuries, we have separated the soul from the body and then ditched the soul because we couldn’t weigh it.  We lost the enchantment in life.  The novel’s thesis is that if you live long enough in a disenchanted world, you will eventually become little more than a zombie.  It offers a solution too; this story suggests that the first step toward the cure of the zombie curse is the re-enchantment of the world.

In the book Warm Bodies, the zombie, R is representative of all materialists, living and undead. He finds salvation, not a result of romantic love, but in encounters with embodied transcendence in music, flowers, and Julia.Click To Tweet

The movie made one significant change to the story.

Next Zombie Post:  Warm Bodies (The Movie)

  

Want more zombie articles? Start with this one: A New Kind of Monster

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