Eating Jesus

A few months back, I began the morning pretty grumpy. I’d arrived at my local parish, St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco, hoping to have a nice, peaceful moment chanting the Psalms. But there were already two huge trucks outside the gates, idling noisily, waiting to deliver food for The Food Pantry, which takes place in the middle of the sanctuary every Friday. By the time Morning Prayer was over, the enthusiastic driver had brought in more than a dozen pallets: somewhere around six tons of yams, onions, new potatoes, black beans, noodles, cabbage, rice, carrots, oranges, chicken sausage, and a towering stack of organic Belgian endive. And that was before we even got the nine gigantic sacks of bread.

They’re generally very poor. They might be widows or foreigners, blind or mentally ill, undocumented immigrants from Guatemala, Congo, or China, drug users, head-injured guys, feeble old men or sullen teenage girls with babies.

I gave the driver a cup of coffee, and our volunteers started straggling in and unpacking the pallets and setting up tables in a circle around the altar, and then, grumpily, I tried to figure out what to cook for their lunch. We usually have about forty volunteers, almost all of them people who came to get food and stayed to feed others. They’re generally very poor. They might be widows or foreigners, blind or mentally ill, undocumented immigrants from Guatemala, Congo, or China, drug users, head-injured guys, feeble old men or sullen teenage girls with babies. But one way or another many of our volunteers don’t always get enough to eat during the week. So we like to sit down together for a big family meal before we open the pantry at noon and start giving out free groceries to the crowds.

I rushed to the neighborhood store to buy supplies for lunch: a nice quick minestrone, figuring I’d use up some of that stupid endive in a salad, since I doubted we could give it all away, especially to the Chinese grandmothers who are deeply suspicious of anything white ladies tell them is tasty. When I came back from shopping one of our tweakier volunteers blurted out: “Sara? We’re gonna have at least sixty people for lunch today, OK? Oh, I forgot to tell you to buy milk for coffee. Can you go get some now, OK? And there’s so many helpers we’re ahead of schedule, so can we eat early, Sara, OK?”

Yeah, OK, I said, and then slammed my finger in the cabinet door, and had a snippy little exchange with another even more persistent volunteer, and the pilot light on the stove was broken, and by the time St. Gregory’s priest, my dear friend Paul, walked into the church kitchen, all happy and enthusiastic and ready to help cook, he looked at me and stopped and said, “What’s the matter?”

“We have sixty volunteers for lunch,” I told him bitterly. “And there’s gonna be a huge crowd getting groceries this week, since it’s the end of the month. And now everyone wants to eat early.”

“Great!” said Paul. I looked at him as if he were insane. “That’s great, because what are we trying to do here? Feed as many people as possible, right?”

He was, irritatingly enough, right. I tried to focus on feeding as many people as possible. And when I got home from the pantry—actually we only served 420 people, and there was enough minestrone left over to send home with Paul, and we did get rid of all the bread and even the Belgian endive, every single bit of it—when I got home, exhausted and, despite my best efforts, still sort of grumpy, there was a postcard from a former volunteer, Alice, a wacky evangelical Black grandmother who now lives in Georgia. “I know,” she’d scrawled, with a smiley-face, “the people are just bursting with joy of love and laughter to know that Jesus Christ is always at St. Gregory of Nyssa Food Pantry every week providing a Great Big Bundle of Bountifulness of Blessing there. Blessings!”

Jesus is real, because there are eight tons of real food, right here on earth, feeding as many hungry people as possible. My flesh is real food.

Which is to say that Alice, like Paul and everyone else at the pantry, understands what the Gospel truly means: Jesus is real, because there are eight tons of real food, right here on earth, feeding as many hungry people as possible. My flesh is real food.

And then I remembered that I’d promised to visit my four-year-old friend Sophie that evening for her favorite activity, one many four-year-olds love: a tea party. The four-year-old pours the imaginary tea, usually into doll cups, and you pick it up and pretend to sip. “My,” you say, “how delicious! Thank you! May I have some more tea, please?” And the child, delighted, pours you some more imaginary tea. Endlessly.  It’s like attending the kind of church where the most important things in the room appear to be the pristine white linen decorously draping the altar, and the silence and obedience and respectability of the parishioners, and the absolute whiteness of the perfectly round, completely salt-free, gluten-free, odorless, tasteless and flavorless communion wafers. You creep forward quietly. “The blood of Christ,” someone dressed in sexless robes whispers. They hold a toy goblet of pale wine for you to take a miniscule sip. “Amen,” you say, and they wipe it off with another white napkin. And the server offers the next guest a sip of imaginary blood.

Which is to say that the white-tablecloth church server, like my four-year-old friend Sophie, understands what the Gospel truly means: Jesus is real, because there is a precious gift revealed in the offering of a deep, beautiful ritual that transcends the literal and the material. I am the living bread that comes down from heaven.

And this is Eucharist. All of it. We cannot reduce truth to only one level: believing instead of really eating; eating instead of really believing. The redeeming, revolutionary thing about Communion it that it means both things. Heaven and earth. Body and soul. The Eucharist is real because it unites the hungry people at the food pantry and the hungry people at the altar rail. It unites the poetry of a child’s tea party with the physicality of the chicken sausage messing up our floor. It unites ordinary people like us––who are, after all, flesh and blood and spirit––with God in Christ, who is flesh and blood and spirit.

Life in Jesus is not disembodied. Just in case you miss that point, remember how Jesus invites his friends to eat him in one of the more upsetting passages in John’s gospel, using a very particular verb. He doesn’t invite us to dine or to savor. He asks us to “munch” or “gnaw” on his flesh, using a graphic word that describes hungry, noisy eating, the sort of eating that an animal does. This is eating that is urgent, even desperate. It’s chomping on Jesus as if gnawing on a barbequed pork rib. It’s eating as though life depends on it—because it does.

So our eating of Jesus is not spiritual in the sense that it’s make-believe. It’s not an abstract, ritual performance in which we take the bread and wine of Holy Communion as if the phrase “Christ’s body and blood” were merely a poetic metaphor. This bread, this flesh, is real.

But Communion, also, is not just about physical food­­—like the manna our ancestors ate, or the tons of groceries we share at the pantry—food that we eat, and then die. Eating Jesus is profoundly spiritual in the sense that the Holy of Holies enters our human bodies, in order to change us into the likeness of God.

Jesus asks us not only to eat him but to become him: a mystery which lives fully in, and yet transcends, our mortal flesh. In the words of the great Johannine scholar Maurice Sendak, “I’m in the milk and the milk’s in me.”

Furthermore, in the most spiritual and unworldly, the most concrete and demanding statement of all, Jesus proclaims that everyone who eats him becomes him, and thus—the real scandal of the Incarnation—we all become part of each other. My individual self, still chomping on my sparerib or chewing my Belgian endive—that self, when I eat Jesus, becomes irrevocably connected with others, and I share in their life, too.

You can’t eat Jesus and stay the same.

I received my First Communion about eighteen years ago, and for quite a while I hoped that it would make me a better person. Nicer, mostly. And more spiritual. But it made me more physical, drove me to a messy church kitchen where I’d grumpily complain about feeding people. It made me less private, and far less pure. I got contaminated by everyone else who eats Jesus: the loopy evangelical lady from Georgia and five hundred poor, hungry strangers and white-robed Eucharistic ministers. My body and blood got mixed up with everyone else’s. Eucharist means there’s a likely to be a trashy marshmallow candy bar on the same plate as the organic Belgian endive, and some chunks of flesh floating in the holy chalice.

And so we give it all away, as bread for the world to feed on. We offer our literal flesh and blood, our eight tons of groceries, our imaginary tea and our ritual poetry.

And we thank God for making it real. The Eucharist isn’t intended to help us take on good deeds out of pious obligation, or liberal guilt, or because we think we should be nice. It’s not meant to encourage us to consume more beautiful, tasteful rituals, or rest in our own uplifting feelings. Jesus asks us to eat his flesh and drink his blood so that we’ll be transformed into one body, his body: so that we will become the body that God is raising from the dead.


Sara MilesSara Miles is the author of  Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion; Jesus Freak: Feeding Healing Raising the Dead; and City of God: Faith in the Streets.
www.saramiles.net

 

This material is licensed under an Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.

Recommended Citation: Miles, Sara (2018) “Eating Jesus,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 4: No. 1, Article 1. Available at https://ismreview.yale.edu

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What about the Woes?

On a recent Sunday I was leading singing for my small congregation, Faith Mennonite Church, in Goshen, Indiana. We were introducing several new songs for a denomination-wide “Great Day of Singing.” As part of the Worship and Song Committee preparing our new hymnal, I helped to prepare the materials, from gathering hymns right down to engraving the music for the brochure.

As text editor and a hymn writer, I tend carefully to the words of our songs. And yet, once those words are voiced by a community of faith they can take on a more profound meaning. My congregation includes a significant proportion of people on the economic and social margins of our community. When we sang “Sing a new world into being / where the homeless find a home,”[1] I was facing people who could not take shelter for granted. Some lived in transitional housing owned by the church; some were very recently homeless. Mary Louise Bringle’s text was not an abstraction for our congregation.

Too often churches sing about the poor or to the poor as objects of external ministry. What might it look like instead to sing with the poor?

Too often churches sing about the poor or to the poor as objects of external ministry. What might it look like instead to sing with the poor? In the words of Gustavo Gutierrez, “So you say you love the poor. Name them.” To take this challenge seriously, we must consider not only how we sing about poverty, but also how we sing about wealth. In the language of our hymnody, who are the poor and who are the rich?

Jesus’s economic teaching, and particularly the Beatitudes, can be quite disturbing to the wealthy. One of my seminary professors pointed out that if we look to Luke’s version of that text we cannot simply spiritualize Jesus’s blessings. Luke follows the blessings with corresponding “woe” statements. While it might make sense to promise blessings to the poor “in spirit,” it would be strange to pronounce woe on those who are rich “in spirit.” Instead, in Luke, Jesus is clearly speaking in economic terms—blessing the poor, and warning the rich. The one who came to “preach good news to the poor” also brought some bad news. Can we dare to echo that in our singing?

A quick search of the scriptural indices of some recent hymnals reveals a dearth of hymnody dealing with the “woes.” Settings of the Beatitudes tend to work from Matthew’s version rather than Luke’s. Few hymnals list anything for Luke 6:24-26.

One exception is Graham Maule and John Bell’s “Heaven shall not wait.”[2] The hymn appears in the Church of Scotland’s Church Hymnary (2005) and in Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal (2013), among others. While Bell and Maule do not directly paraphrase the “woes,” they offer a present-tense vision of the inverse blessings of Jesus. In this text, the statement “Jesus is Lord” defines the work of heaven on earth, whether or not humans are on board with the program. Thus it is not up to the poor to “lose their patience” or “the rich to share their fortunes, the proud to fall, the elite to tend the least” in order to bring heaven to humanity. Instead, Jesus has done that work already: “he has championed the unwanted,” and we have seen him “kneel and wash his servants’ feet.”

Heaven Shall Not Wait

 

In “Woes and blessings,”[3] Bringle reverses the scriptural order and opens each stanza with the bad news: “Woe to you,” addressing the rich, well-fed, those who laugh, and the proud. In the refrain the passage is described as “a judgment upon us all.” She wrote the text for a tune by Sally Ann Morris, which the two agreed “is forceful and rather commanding.”[4] It is worth noting that Bringle embellishes the category of “the rich” as those “who show no grace or pity.”

Woes and Blessings

 

In my text “Blessed are you,”[5] the second stanza reflects the “woes,” recasting the phrase as “Ruin awaits the wealthy,” the gluttons, the laughers, and the haughty. Benjamin Brody’s driving tune captures the strident feeling of the text, and then leaps into a swinging refrain on “The doors of heaven are open / and glory is shining through.”

Blessed Are You

I qualified “the wealthy” with “who live to serve their greed.” This was something of a capitulation to my fear that the text would be dismissed as too radical if it simply pronounced ruin on the rich without pointing to a related negative attribute deserving of rebuke. Popular writer Rachel Held Evans recently paraphrased the beatitudes in a tweet, including the phrase “cursed are the rich.”[6] The post generated so much negative response that she posted the same day, “Turns out, a lot of Christians are offended by the Beatitudes. (Especially Luke’s version.)”[7] Do the embellishments that Bringle and I add to the text have the effect of softening Jesus’ pronouncement when a little offense might be in order?

In one of my earliest texts, “God, your knowing eye can see,”[8] I was less equivocating in my approach. While the hymns above are voiced in the second person, in this one the congregation sings explicitly to itself: “Woe to us with earthly wealth, / wasting money, land and food.” Chris Ángel’s melody invites a reflective approach appropriate to a confession. Though the text appears in GIA’s Worship (Third Edition), 2011, it has not received widespread use. I suspect that its somewhat scolding, didactic tone diminishes its appeal.

God Your Knowing Eye

 

Shirley Erena Murray’s “Forgive us, God, for all the things we waste”[9] uses a similar approach, casting the singers as the rich in need of forgiveness. With her customary vivid language Murray invites us to confess the wastefulness that defines much of western society. She asks God to “convert our currency to care” and to “shake our shallow, plastic ways of thought.” In this text (as with “God, your knowing eye can see”), the first person plural voice introduces the possibility of dissonance if the hymn is sung by people experiencing economic hardship or homelessness. Should “the poor” be expected to confess the very societal sins that contribute to their suffering?

hs_4954

 

The question of who can honestly sing what words points to an essential challenge of living as the Body of Christ.

The question of who can honestly sing what words points to an essential challenge of living as the Body of Christ. Voicing praise, lament, and confession together in song viscerally enacts the unity of the Body. We literally breath and move as one.[10] That Body holds within it the entire range of experience of its constituent parts—wealth and poverty, power and disempowerment, security and instability. In the context of corporate song individuals are invited to sing on behalf of the Body as a whole.

While preparing this article I wrote a new text. It is not a paraphrase of the Beatitudes, but the middle stanza references their economic themes: “Peace confounds the wealthy, / peace lifts up the poor.” Sally Ann Morris happened to be working on a tune in the same meter at the same time that she sent me for comment. I realized that the tune would be a compelling vehicle for my text, offering the right kind of harmonic struggle for these difficult themes. Her progressions are rich and warm, but they are not simplistic.

peace-to-you

The texts discussed here do not provide a uniform approach to singing about wealth and poverty. As with all congregational song, context dictates selection. What congregations needs to sing on a given Sunday will vary from church to church. Words of woe and words of blessing are needed to echo the scope of Jesus’s teaching, and those who write congregational song should find ways to give voice to both.


Adam M.L. Tice

Adam M. L. Tice is a widely published writer of hymn and song texts, with four collections available from GIA Publications. He is editor of The Hymn: A Journal of Congregational Song for The Hymn Society, and text editor for the forthcoming Mennonite hymnal.

[1]   “Sing a new world into being,” Mary Louise Bringle, 2005; © 2006 GIA Publications, Inc.

[2]   “Heaven shall not wait,” John L. Bell and Graham Maule, 1987; © 1987 WGRG, Iona Community (admin. GIA Publications, Inc.)

[3]   “Woes and blessings,” Mary Louise Bringle, 2006; © 2009 GIA Publications, Inc.

[4]   Sally Ann Morris, To Sing the Artist’s Praise: Hymn Tunes of Sally Ann Morris, GIA Publications, Inc., 2009, 109.

[5]   “Blessed are you,” Adam M. L. Tice, 2013; © 2015 GIA Publications, Inc.

[6]   Rachel Held Evans, tweeted on November 26, 2017, https://twitter.com/rachelheldevans/status/934787395689598981

[7]   Rachel Held Evans, tweeted on November 26, 2017, https://twitter.com/rachelheldevans/status/934930943986499584

[8]   “God, your knowing eye can see,” Adam M. L. Tice, 2004; © 2009 GIA Publications, Inc.

[9]   “Forgive us, God, for all the things we waste! (Hymn for a dollar-rich society),” Shirley Erena Murray, © 2010 Hope Publishing Company.

[10] See Nathan Myrick’s 2017 article for a discussion of the power of music to join bodies into one body: “Relational Power, Music, and Identity: The Emotional Efficacy of Congregational Song,” Yale Journal of Music & Religion: Vol. 3: No. 1, Article 5. DOI: https://doi.org/10.17132/2377-231X.1060

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Recommended Citation: Tice, Adam (2018) “What about the woes? Singing with the poor (and wealthy),” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 4: No. 1, Article 6. Available at https://ismreview.yale.edu

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The Poor

The poor are many
and so —
impossible to forget.

No doubt,
as day breaks,
they see the buildings
where they wish
they could live with their children.

They
can steady the coffin
of a constellation on their shoulders.
They can wreck
the air like furious birds,
blocking out the sun.

But not knowing these gifts,
they enter and exit through mirrors of blood,
walking and dying slowly.

And so,
one cannot forget them.

— Translated from the Spanish by Spencer Reece

 


Translator’s Note

Anglican missionaries first arrived in Honduras in 1768. Sponsored by the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, which, in turn, was backed by a royal charter from England, these missionaries introduced themselves with the explicit aim of enlightening the Hondurans, whom they referred to in their tracts as “infidels” and “heathens.” In the nineteenth century, American banana companies established plantations, and by 1913 these companies controlled most of the production.

Today, Honduras is one of the poorest countries in Latin America. In the cities, legless beggars plead around the rotaries. The hills in the country are denuded and look like poorly shaved chins. Thousands of Hondurans leave the country every year to find work.

In the summer of 2009 I went to San Pedro Sula as an Episcopal priest in training. One night after dinner, I was introduced by my bishop to his favorite poem, Roberto Sosa’s “Los Pobres.” He felt “Los Pobres” captured the tone of long-silenced Hondurans. I had come to work in an orphanage for abused and abandoned girls. There were seventy girls I lived and worked with that summer. The stories of their pasts were terrible. Some had been so malnourished that their intellects were damaged. But after receiving food and permanent shelter, these girls came to life the way Lazarus must have.

Most evenings I spent alone in my room with dictionaries, flashcards, and lizards. I first memorized Sosa’s poem, then, bit by bit, tried to put it into English. I spoke the poem in Spanish to myself before I completely knew what I was saying. Spanish generally felt lush in my mouth, but the music of “Los Pobres” was sharp and blunt. As I began to comprehend more Spanish, I found the poem’s tune magnifying its harsh intent. The poem became my anthem. I began to want to bring the words into English for others to hear without it becoming one more pillaged thing. I wanted it to be about Sosa and Honduras and the girls and not me. First published in 1969, “Los Pobres,“ in its sparse language, captures the pain of that overlooked country. Stripped of baroque excess, the poem hangs on the page like a crucifix. — SR


Roberto SosaRoberto Sosa (1930–2011) spent his early life working menial jobs to support his family. Sosa published Los Pobres, his first book, in 1969, which won the Adonais Prize in Spain. He edited the magazine Presente and taught literature at a university in Honduras.

 

Spencer Reece
Photo © Rosanne Olson

Born in Hartford, Connecticut, and raised in Minneapolis, poet Spencer Reece is the son of a pathologist and a nurse. He earned a BA at Wesleyan University, an MA at the University of York, an MTS at Harvard Divinity School, and an MDiv at Yale Divinity School. He was ordained in the Episcopal Church in 2011. Reece’s debut collection of poetry, The Clerk’s Tale (2004), was chosen for the Bakeless Poetry Prize by Louise Glück and adapted into a short film by director James Franco. He is also the author of the collection The Road to Emmaus (2013), which was a longlist nominee for the National Book Award.

This material is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

Recommended Citation: Sosa, Roberto, trans. Spencer Reese (2012) “The Poor,” The Yale ISM Review: Vol. 4: No. 1, Article 4. Available at https://ismreview.yale.edu

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