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Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Theological Tempests in Musical Teapots, Part 2

Maybe you saw this coming after Monday's post.

The song of mine that continually has received the most bad internet press from the champions of their own orthodoxy is "(I Myself Am the) Bread of Life," which I originally wrote in 1985, and was first recorded on the CD Mystery in 1987. Later, we recorded the song again when anthologizing the NALR years for Oregon Catholic Press. This CD was called Change Our Hearts, and we recorded it in 2000. (You can listen to a brief clip on iTunes by clicking here.)


First, let me say that I'm trying to be positive here and not be negative about the "conservative" movement in the church which tends to label as heresy everything with which they disagree. This is hardly conservatism in a church that began with political enemies breaking bread at Jesus' table (Levi, the tax collector, and Simon the Zealot) and blossomed by opening its narrow Jewish theological doors to Aristotelian logic, Roman rhetoric, and Eastern mysticism. The Christian church always been the church of "the big tent." We don't call ourselves "catholic" in the creed for nothing. We're not a parochial, civic, national, or even international church. We're catholic - universal! So the narrow-mindedness of some conservatives is a little distressing to me. Used to be more distressing; now I'm really, really trying to be less caustic and reactive, since narrow-mindedness can run both ways.


There's been an article circulating for years on the internet that originated in the Adoremus bulletin that contains the passage quoted below, which summarizes the objection to the lyrics to "I Myself Am the Bread of Life" in certain quarters. The author, I believe, mistakenly constricts all of liturgy action under the umbrella of dialogue, as though in the liturgy itself the assembly is not self-aware, or is only aware of itself when it sings praise to God in the second person. This rubric covers much of the Eucharistic liturgical action, but does not explain, for instance, the Creed, the General Intercessions (which are addressed to the assembly, then offered to the Lord), the Confiteor, liturgical hymns like Victimae Paschali Laudes, which is directed in all kinds of ways, or many liturgical acclamations from other rites, such as the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults. The author accuses a dozen or so composers of getting the theology of the eucharist wrong, alleging that the Eucharist is a dialogue between us, the "bride," and Christ, the "bridegroom."



But this isn't the essential dialogue at the heart of the Eucharist at all. The dialogue at the heart of the Eucharist is the dialogue between Christ and the Father in the Holy Spirit. The task of the Introductory Rite is to awaken in the assembly its true but often forgotten identity: Christ. In the baptism of every person present at the Sunday Eucharist, we ceased to live as ourselves. We died in the water, and rose up again as Christ. That is the source of our identity and mission; it is the reason we gather around the table where we remember the Lamb of God who is offered again without blood to the Father, ending the murderous, bloody sacrifices that religion to that day had concocted. We are Christ. Every one of us belongs to Christ, members of his body. We did not choose to be so. We were chosen for this, filled with the Holy Spirit in our baptism, sealed with that Spirit in confirmation, and summoned again and missioned by that Spirit in the Eucharist. 

Here's part of the article, "Ritus Narcissus," by Father Paul Scalia in Adoremus vol 5, #1, March, 1999. It is reprinted and quoted in numerous places on the internet:

"Bread of Life" by Rory Cooney, provides a splendid example of this self-centered conversation. The theme of the song lends itself to the Communion rite. But unfortunately, the words distort the meaning of Communion and the dialogue that should be taking place: I myself am the bread of life you and I are the bread of life taken and blessed, broken and shared by Christ that the world may live.Aside from the fact that this song radically distorts Our Lord's "Bread of Life" discourse, it also leaves God out of the conversation: we talk to ourselves.

I, for one, don't see the rhetorical difference in the language of that refrain from, for instance the Creed:
I believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ...
or the Confiteor:
I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters,that I have greatly sinned...

or the Easter sequence, also an ancient Christian hymn:
Christians, to the Paschal Victim offer your thankful praises.
The Lamb has redeemed the sheep,
The innocent Christ has reconciled sinners to the Father....
Communion antiphons of the Roman Missal often employ the first person in their rhetoric:
This is how we know what love is:
Christ gave up his life for us; and we too must give up our lives for our brothers (sic).
(26th Ord. A)
Because there is one bread,
we, though many, are one body,
for we all share in the one loaf and the one cup.
(27th Ord. A)
Perhaps most tellingly, this antiphon uses the words of Christ on the mouth of the assembly without using a qualifier like "says the Lord":
As the living Father sent me,
and I live because of the Father,
so he who eats my flesh and drinks my blood will live because of me.
I point this out not to confuse the issue further, but merely to point out that the nature of the liturgical dialogue is not as univocal as the author says, and, in fact, contrary to the authors explicit statement, we sometimes do in the liturgy make the Lord's words our own in song.

The lyric of the song attempts to do exactly what the General Instruction says to do, namely, "to express the communicants' union in spirit by means of the unity of their voices, to show joy of heart, and to highlight more clearly the "communitarian" nature of the procession to receive communion." (86)


So, yes, it is the community that sings "I myself am the bread of life" and the rest of that text. How can I sing that authentically? Not because of anything that I did, but because by baptism, "I live now no longer myself, but it is Christ who lives in me." Therefore, whatever in scripture Jesus says about himself, whatever the spirit does through him, that is the calling that we have received in our baptism into Christ. Here's a comparison that IS in scripture: in John, Jesus says "I am the light of the world." In Matthew, Jesus says "You are the light of the world." Why? For the same reason. The gospel compilers believed that the community was the ongoing presence of the risen one in the world.


So I think that we are the bread of life, we are the resurrection and life, we are the way, the truth, and the life. Not because of ourselves or anything we can do, but because by baptism we live as Christ. Either we are the body of Christ or we are not. The same spirit that made Jesus messiah fills the church to make it the "anointed" of God in every age. All of 1 Cor 10-12 is about this.

The final stanza of my song "Walk in the Reign" says the same thing:

When we stand together to stand against hell,
The name of this people is 'Emmanuel.'
A couple of more thoughts: the line "a living sign of God in Christ" refers both to the bread (and cup) and the assembly. "Sign" does not mean that the presence of Christ is not real! It means that Christ is visible in a different form. The 'real presence' is the real presence of Christ, head and members. Not just Jesus, but all of Christ, because Jesus himself, through the gift of the Spirit from the cross and at Pentecost, intended it to be so.

Finally, let me make one more plea here on behalf of metaphor and poetry. If I say 'you and I are the bread of life', I'm not saying we're made of yeast and flour. I'm saying that Christ can break us, and nourish the world with us. If this is not an expression of the Catholic theology of eucharist, then all that I believe is wrong. Not only has it been wrong, but I would prefer to believe it to the alternative that some revisionist folks would have us think.


Some closing thoughts: I'm grateful to OCP for keeping this song in their hymnals for all these years in spite of the outrage of the few. That means a lot to me, but it should also mean something to you, namely, that I'm not just making this stuff up! This is a valid way for us to think about and sing about Eucharist. Also, in honor of the 25th anniversary of the publication of this song, I wrote some new verses last summer. 


I leave you with the word of St. Augustine that further help us see that this idea that we are the bread of life is a genuine and mainstream theology in the church. In one of his most famous homilies, Bishop Augustine speaks to this reality in these words: 

“If you therefore are Christ’s body and members,
it is your own mystery that is placed on the Lord’s table!
It is your own mystery that you are receiving!
Be a member of Christ’s body then,
so that your ‘Amen’ may ring true!
Be what you see; receive what you are!”