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Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Taken, Blessed, Broken, Shared: Being the Bread of Life (B19O)

Being given away is part of the eucharistic "deal."
Last weekend, we finished the week of music and mentoring that is MMA, Music Ministry Alive!, the wonderful work of David Haas and Lori True and many, many others that took place July 26-August 2 at St. Catherine's University in St. Paul. Part of my work there was a set of four sessions with the adult track participants on the four movements of the Eucharistic action that are generally identified from scripture as "taken, blessed, broken, and shared." In the short term, David suggested these movements as an outgrowth of his delight in Henri Nouwen's work, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World. Nouwen's little book is written as a love letter to a friend, a secular Jew who challenged Nouwen, a prodigious writer on spirituality, to write a book that young, secularized people like himself could use to make meaning out of their lives. Nouwen's principle was an attempt to invite people to understand themselves as beloved by God, and called to a kind of life that recognizes that belovedness and acts on it. To his friend, the work ultimately failed because of its presuppositions and assumptions about God and Christ, but the work still stands to anyone by whom Nouwen's assumptions are also assumed in the simple rigor of it message. As part of his entree into his subject, he tries to help the reader see the movements of being chosen (taken up, as it were), blessed, broken, and given away (or shared) as part of being God's beloved.

That's the call I got when I was asked to be a presenter/mentor at MMA. Of course, I'm not stranger to that fourfold template of spirituality. Those who know me know that one of my most well-known songs, "I Myself Am the Bread of Life," makes that dynamic explicit in the chorus, which sings,
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.
© 1987, OCP Publications, Portland Oregon. All rights reserved.
I'm quite sure that John Gallen, S.J., either planted that mantra in my head, or awakened it from its slumber since liturgy and New Testament classes in college, when Gary and I were taking classes with him those two years in Phoenix at the Corpus Christi Center, or I heard them from Mark Searle or Ralph Kiefer or one of the other giants of the liturgical awakening at one conference or another in the 1980s. But it's not the song I wanted to talk about the day so much as the dynamic itself,

When I entered "taken, blest, broken, and shared" into a web browser, I got half a million hits. Half a million. So this is no recent addition to the catalog of scriptural buzzwords. This one has been around the block, and I'm guessing that there's not much new to be said about it, however brilliant my insights might seem to me when I'm hyperventilating my way down the lanes of my hometown in the humid 80º morning sun. But one little possibility jumped out at me as I was thinking about it in preparation for the week.

First, just to be sure we have the same starting place, those verbs in that order possibly represent a catechetical code for the eucharistic meal. They appear in the first part of John 6, the feeding of the multitude, on the first of the five Sundays in year B that present the "bread of life" discourse, this year, July 26. It came like this:
Jn 6:11 Then Jesus took the loaves, gave thanks, and distributed them to those who were reclining, and also as much of the fish as they wanted.
You will notice that the notion of "breaking" does not appear in this version of the story. In the first gospel, Jesus is always in control of events, and the mandatum to and commission to "feed my sheep" are associated with the passion and resurrection narrative, as the mission is passed on to the church. In his feeding narrative, John also uniquely introduces the idea that "the Jewish feast of passover was near," juxtaposing this event with the Last Supper and marking it as a significant moment in the Lord's ministry. But notice how, for instance, Mark, the earliest gospel writer, describes the same event (6:41)
Then, taking the five loaves and the two fish and looking up to heaven, he said the blessing, broke the loaves, and gave them to [his] disciples to set before the people; he also divided the two fish among them all.
Now, the gospels were written late in the first century CE, into the second. However, the earliest  reference to the Eucharist in the Christian scriptures comes from St. Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians. He is addressing certain abuses in the community's way of life that are showing themselves in their celebration of the Jesus meal. So he tells them what the genuine tradition about the meal is, in this letter which predates John by three or four decades, and Mark's gospel by perhaps two.
1 Cor 11:23-24 For I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you, that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over, took bread, and, after he had given thanks, broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” 
The sharing (giving) of the food seems to be understood here, since it is in the context of the meal.

Compare this rhythm to Mark's description of the Last Supper:
Mk 14:22-23 While they were eating, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take it; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it.
...and also to Luke's story of the meal at the end of the Emmaus story, a post-resurrection narrative:
Lk 24:30 And it happened that, while he was with them at table, he took bread, said the blessing, broke it, and gave it to them.
The NT writers use the same vocabulary each time to describe meals which have very different apparent context, but we have to conclude that using the same verbs to describe the action means we're supposed to hear them as a whole, describing something in the life of the community that is still finding its way, surviving now some twenty to seventy years after the death of Jesus. "Take, bless, break, and share" has come to describe the way that the community celebrates the meal that identifies them as followers of Jesus, the table-sharer, how they "do this in memory" of him. And we see from the letter to the Corinthians that the first thing we know about Christians in the Greek cities is that they are already doing it badly. They are not living in community in a way that expresses the meaning of the Jesus meal, and Paul is trying to correct that in this first and formative and invaluable letter.



Now the thing that occurred to me was that the servant songs in the book of Isaiah (really, in Second Isaiah, probably written in the late 6th century BCE at the end of the Babylonian captivity and redacted to its current state in the 3rd century BCE) trace this same pattern of God's taking, blessing, breaking, and giving the Servant for the life of the community. In Isaiah 42: 1-7, the first of the great Servant Songs, we hear language later used in the gospels to describe Jesus, but which is used here to describe the nation of Israel, or some of its people, as the Servant. And notice the language of "taking" or "choosing" and then blessing by God ("I have put my spirit"), all "for the people." Then in the later canticle, the fourth Servant Song in Isaiah 53, the missing piece, the being "broken," is told in all its painful and familiar detail, but ending in that new and surprising "givenness" of the suffering: that it is not in vain, but, somehow, "for our sins" and "our iniquity," and that by it we are made whole and healed.
Isaiah 42: 1-7 passim 
Here is my servant whom I uphold,
my chosen one with whom I am pleased.
Upon him I have put my spirit; I, the LORD, have called you for justice,
I have grasped you by the hand;
I formed you, and set you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
To open the eyes of the blind,
to bring out prisoners from confinement,
and from the dungeon, those who live in darkness.
Isaiah 53: 3-5  
He was spurned and avoided by men,
a man of suffering, knowing pain,
Like one from whom you turn your face,
spurned, and we held him in no esteem.
Yet it was our pain that he bore, our sufferings he endured. We thought of him as stricken, struck down by God and afflicted,
But he was pierced for our sins, crushed for our iniquityHe bore the punishment that makes us wholeby his wounds we were healed. 
Just "how" we were healed by his wounds or it was our pain that he bore is beyond the purview of this article, but I would say two things. Insofar as we might apply the Isaian servant canticles to Jesus, we are seeing the concavity of the impact of the paschal mystery of God, that is, the utterly transcendent and beyond-our-understanding God directly acting in our world, revealing everything about the universe in the death and resurrection of Jesus. "No one has ever seen God," writes John, but the Creator leaves a big footprint, and this is the biggest, clearest one. At his baptism, Jesus heard the voice of God call him "beloved Son (with words that recall the "servant," note the parallel in Mk 1:9-11 to Is. 42:1-2 above). After wrestling with his vocation in the desert, Jesus accepted the call to proclaim a different way to "civilize" humanity, an empire based upon a universal awareness of our belonging to one family, sisters and brothers with one abba, and we're supposed to act like that. It is giving away that brings greater life, not hoarding. It is loving enemies that brings security and peace, not armies and organized murder. It is healing the sick and feeding the hungry that fulfill the law, not laws and rituals that restrict and impoverish the soul. And when Jesus was eventually rejected by "church" and state and subjected to capital punishment for his treason, he was so full of the creating, life-affirming presence of Abba that the grave could not hold him. In raising him from the dead, God again spoke from heaven, "This is my servant, whom I uphold. Listen to him."

What is really critical for Christians to understand is that definitively through baptism and confirmation repeatedly and normatively through eucharist we ourselves are made part of the body of Christ, of which Jesus is head and the Holy Spirit is the breath and soul of life. The belonging of being called into the family of God is transformed and completed by a mission, God's mission, the mission of the messiah (i.e., of Christ) to announce the alternate vision of civilization, the "peaceable kingdom," the empire of God. We rehearse that mission week by week, every Sunday, as we, with the gifts we offer, are taken, blessed, broken, and shared by Christ in the meal that is the Eucharist. We see ourselves in the eucharistic bread and cup—our history, our giftedness, our sense of vocation, our forgotten and forgiven sinfulness—we see ourselves, together, taken up by Christ, proclaimed as blessed with God's presence and beloved, broken into pieces and shared and consumed for the life of the world.

Then, we are told, "Now, darlings, go on. Get out of here. You have work to do." Being sent, given away, is part of the deal begun with being taken up with unconditional love and named God's "beloved," part of the same body of Christ that rose up sparkling from the waters of Jordan two millennia ago. To the extent that we are faithful to our calling to act as brothers and sisters, children of abba, to the extent that we practice enemy love, heal the sick, feed the hungry, and announce the good news of empire of God by our living, we participate in the mission of the Messiah. God is inviting humanity to join together in saving the world, and through us, through the the Holy Spirit, the world can finally become aware of that, by seeing us at our loving work.

Music this Sunday at St. Anne:

Gathering: Table of Plenty (Schutte)
Kyrie: Mass of St. Aidan
Psalm 34: Taste and See (Kendzia)
Presentation of Gifts: Faithful Family (Cooney)
Notre Dame (Isele)
Communion: One In Love (Kendzia)
Recessional: All Are Welcome (Haugen)