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.”
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