If someone was to ask what it is that we regarded as the central act of worship of our faith, what would we say? No doubt we would reply that it was the Mass, or more specifically the Eucharist. Perhaps others, in line with the new-orthodoxy, would solemnly speak of the ‘sacrifice’ of the Mass, or of the ‘Real Presence’, or perhaps the muttered hope of a return to the essentially Mithraic rite of the priest worshipping the rising sun with his back to the rabble behind. There is something dislocated about such responses, no matter how well intentioned. Something vital is absent if all we are concerned about are issues of ‘presence’ or of ‘sacrifice’, or if our focus is upon formulae and rubric. It is because of this dislocation that all too often the Mass has become a tired performance piece at best, and a corrupted tool of exclusion and esotericism at worst, serving the interests of sterile form and incantation. That’s what happens when language becomes dislocated from something deeper, broader, and sustaining. That’s what happens when language becomes reified from its ground in life and in being-human. What are missing from such dislocation are the realisation, and the memory, that our central act of worship is that of relationship and of friendship.
This forgetfulness is understandable. Contemporary Eucharistic celebration of all manifestations plucks the liturgical formula of consecration from out of its Gospel context, leading us to be unaware of the immediate and more developed context of the words: a context of friendship. The distinctive communities out from which each of the Gospels developed had already been using Jesus’ words liturgically, as is evident from the liturgical tone of each of the ‘last supper’ narratives, already the reification was happening. Nevertheless each scene still depicts a meal, and it is a meal shared by friends, friends who had been through much together. Friends who had fought and disagreed; who had known each others failings and strengths; who had felt pain at the harsh words spoken to them by those they loved dearly. In John’s Gospel, its last meal narrative has the beloved disciple lying against Jesus’ chest, looking up at him. The intimacy of friendship is clear. Why has this context of all too human love and friendship been excised from our liturgical narrative and practice?
It is too easy to forget this needful context, too easy to strip our words of the life from which they originally came from. No matter how well spoken, how purely intoned, or how neatly formulaic, to focus upon the disembodied words is to enter a ghostly space of worship which has nothing to do with the life of Jesus of Nazareth – the Lord of feasts and of healing, and much to do with the shrivelled emotional world of cultic ritual and taste. To simply utter the formula in cold hearted divorce from the life which gave them birth is surely to distort what the Eucharist is about, and to indulge and cultivate our own addictions to the morose and the life-hating. The mass as sacrifice is all the more meaningful if we are grounded within the memory of the sensitivity and human interrelationship of a man sharing a meal (and all that such a meal symbolised) with those he loved, and those that loved him.
Of course there is eschatological significance to each of the meal scenes throughout the Gospels, both actual and those described in parable, and what a robust and exuberant eschatology it is! It is one of feasting in which the sterile and dislocated norms of commonplace religiosity have been overturned. It is the ritually impure that are at table sharing the atmosphere of conviviality, the invitations cast wide and far. Just as we cannot read any of the meal scenes in the Gospels independently of that scene we know as ‘the Last Supper’, and just as we cannot read ‘the Last Supper’ narrative independently of the variety of meal scenes before it, so too we cannot – in memoria – enter into meal with Christ without also taking with us the very real significance of meals and friendship of our own lives.
Such worship is a living worship in which our humanity entwines with His, His life speaks to ours, and the food that we are offered and share is that well grounded and nurtured within the fullness and gift of friendship.
Mark Johnson teaches in the Department of Studies in Religion at the University of Sydney, where he is a PhD candidate.
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