Tuesday, March 14, 2006

my favorite heresy: catholic nuts for communion

A favorite article of mine..
My Favourite Heresy:
a short essay by Andrew Alder

Some years ago now, I attended a Mass at St. Marys Roman Catholic Cathedral, Sydney, in the company of two friends, one a protestant and the other a catholic. I still remember the address - it was on the subject of "Why every Catholic must read their bible, on a daily basis" (!) and, if you had replaced the word "Catholic" with "Christian", it would have made a very good sermon for our own (protestant) pulpit.

We celebrated Mass afterwards - at least, the priest did, and my protestant friend and I sat while our Catholic friend went and received the elements.

Years before I had a very painful experience when, as the then secretary of Macquarie Students Christian Association (Chrissoc), I attended the weekly Mass which the Catholic chaplain, Father Alex, conducted at our invitation. In my ignorance I presented myself, and received the elements for what is likely to remain the only time. We were given a wafer dipped into the chalice. Later Alex, not a lot older then me and a cherished friend, had the rotten job of asking me quietly not to do it again. He was almost as upset as I was.

After the Mass at St Marys, we were invited into the Chapter house for afternoon tea. One of the Holy Sisters - don't ask me what order - served me with a delicious cup of tea and a biscuit. The biscuits were assorted plain, already on the saucers, one each, and by luck of the draw I got a gingernut.

You can't bite a gingernut. You must dunk it. So I did, and suddenly my eyes were growing moist. Memories of the earlier Mass with Alex flooded back, but with them a word of knowledge which was both healing and brutal, and bitterly funny. And which I invite you to share.

Even the way my protestant church celebrates communion has always worried me a bit. At my confirmation I struggled with the incredible seriousness of what seemed a rather silly ceremony. Some months later, at an EU houseparty, we had communion using a slice of plain bread and a glass of water, conducted by the EU president rather than a minister. It was very meaningful.

I read a little Greek - not enough to argue with scholars about their translations or to do my own, but enough to sometimes understand where the difficulties of translation lie. With some points of course there are no difficulties. Jesus says, "remember me when you do this" (1 Corinthians 11:23-26, Luke 22:19), and it seems to mean quite clearly "whenever you do this". Now, that could mean one of two things. It could mean once a year, at Passover. Or, it could mean, whenever you eat together. The disciples seem to have taken it to be the second meaning.

In recognition of this, whenever Christians meet for dinner at my home, we all say grace together beforehand, remembering the Lord's death. This to me is the proper obedience to Jesus' and Paul's instructions. This is my favourite heresy. I still take and am moved by communion - even more than before I developed this unorthodox belief. But the shared meals are more important to me.

But that's not the healing part, or the bitterly funny part that I promised you. At least, not until you look at the logical consequences of my heresy, assuming for a moment that it may be correct. If it is, if God sees every meal shared by Christians as being the proper place to commemorate the Lord's death until He comes again, in obedience to His plain instructions, then things get very interesting. And, I think that's exactly what God thinks. Come with me in investigating what the consequences are, and I think you'll understand that while I didn't like calling God "brutal" before, I'm struggling to find any more adequate word. His sense of humour is awesome. His justice is surrealistically beautiful. It has a tragic, inhumanly perfect, existential punch to it - sorry about the big words, and they're inadequate too.

You see, it would mean that the Holy Sister who served me and my friends was presiding over the holiest ceremony in all creation, the most precious and touching thing in God's view. Something really important to God. I think she was. And it would mean that the ceremony we had just had next door, while not a complete sham, was second best in every possible way.

It means that the men who preside over the Mass, and who have reserved this privilege for themselves, have grasped at second best, while the real thing is given to those whom they have forced to humble themselves and serve. In Mark 9:35 Jesus says "...if anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all".

It hangs together rather well, and it puts both the ordination of women and intercommunion in a whole new light.

If ordination means encouraging people to hog the highest privileges, we shouldn't ordain anyone, male or female. It's just not Christlike. As for the Pope's recently pointing out that the Apostles were all men, well, they were all Jews too, so what have the Italians, the French and now a Pole been doing on the throne of Peter? It just doesn't hang together, neither by logic nor by Jesus' clear instructions.

Yes, Jesus himself was a man, but being his follower doesn't involve a sex change any more than it involves learning carpentry or donkey riding. What it involves is obedience, humility, repentance, forgiveness, and above all love - for men as well as for women.

If communion means commemorating in our hearts the Lord's death whenever we eat together, we're all ordained for that already, and many of us do it frequently, naturally, and across all denominations. Whenever means whenever, and Jesus said whenever, and I think he meant whenever. Even if he meant every passover, any male Jew could preside over that. But I'm convinced that women, even nuns (!), can and do preside at the Lord's table, because as I described above I've seen them do it.

And one day, my dear friend Alex and every other priest who ever lived will each know exactly how God views their actions. How they served Him and how they blew it. Please, pray with me that they will all ask and receive God's forgiveness. Because, those who don't ask for it, won't get it. I'm not too worried about Alex, I've seen his tears, but some of them will find it very, very hard. Please, please, please, try to find the love to pray for them all. God is not wishing any to perish. It is difficult I know, even though I am a not a woman I do know, because I have known exclusion too.

I have shared this heresy with a great many people, both men and women, young and old, new converts and old bigots, so if it's badly off beam I'm in real trouble with God. But I don't think it is. So many people have been blessed by it, either changing their abusive ways or their bitter resentment, and adopting anew the Christlike servanthood which it's impossible to hide. I am becoming more and more convinced that while I may have details wrong, the main ideas have the enormous power of God's truth behind them.

In which case, it's neither mine nor a heresy! But it's still a favourite.

Which is good news for me and appalling news for lots of people... Except that it's not too late! It's really good news for anyone who will listen. That sounds familiar too.

God's dreams, God's imagination, God's... creativity?... consistently outperform mine, and I rather enjoy it. Lord, you're brilliant.
-Andrew Alder

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