In John Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath” there is a scene of a box car full of starving jobless people on a way to find work in California. There is a young woman, who just gave birth to a still born baby. There is a starving man on the verge of death. She has nothing to give him so she lets him suck on her breast. I heard of a retired teacher who received a complaint from parents by speaking about that part of the novel in his highschool English class in Southern Alberta.
Learning another language is difficult. I have been speaking and working in English for more than a half a century. But I still have problems with English. For example, the Japanese language does not have articles. So I still have problem in the use of articles. The Japanese way of thinking is that life is full of ambiguity. Trying to be definite or precise about life is futile. We have to live with ambiguity. Who needs a definite or indefinite article? When I was at the United Church General Council in Fredericton in 1992, the assembly spent a half a day hotly debating whether the Bible was the authority or an authority. I had no idea what the fuss was all about.
In Sesotho language in which I preached in Africa, there are two ‘e’ sounds. A French speaking person can pronounce them distinctively ‘e’ with an accent grave and ‘e’ with an accent aigu. But I can not hear the difference those different sounds nor produce them distinctively. In Sesotho, ‘body’ is ‘mele with an accent grave and woman’s breast is ‘mele’ with an accent aigu. For the first two years, every time I gave out “body of Christ” in the communion service, people giggled. I didn’t understand why it was so funny. It so happened that I was giving out the Breast of Christ.
Lately as I was thinking about the meaning of communion, I began to develop a deeper meaning from my mistake because of my inability to distinguish “body” from “breast”. If you look at Renaissance paintings and sculptures, by Michelangelo and Donatelo and others, you will notice the only exposed female body part is Mary’s one breast, nursing Baby Jesus. The word ‘Christ’ is not Jesus’ last name, it’s a title. It means the anointed one. King of Persia, Cyrus was called the anointed one in the Isaiah, because he defeated Babylon and freed Israelites. It can also be technically male or female. If the Christ was a woman, isn’t it meaningful to receive her milk when a minister gives out communion by saying like I said in Lesotho, “this is the breast of Christ” through which we receive life’s sustenance? After all, the meaning of the word ‘communion’ is sharing. In communion, we remember that Christ shared himself. So why not through the breast. I was reading a book about the development of Mary’s status as the mother God in the early Christian church, recently. The status of Mary we know today is not from the Bible. It comes from the yearning of new converts, who missed a female divine figure because they were used to worship goddesses. So Mary as a mother of god, a mediator between Christ and us, was a theological compromise in early church. When you hear people who believe in Mary as the ultimate mediator between Jesus and people, you could feel a tremendous adoration for her almost equal to that you give to Christ. I am not saying that we should replace Jesus for Mary. All I am saying is that my mistake in pronounciation gave me an opening into a different kind of understanding of the Communion Service and how we may eb nourished by God. Try to think of communion as an act that is as intimate and basic as a baby nursing at mother’s breast.
In order to understand the deeper meaning of the breast of Christ, you have to switch your mind into the way hungry people think about the communion. In Lesotho, communion services are held only once or twice a year. Because the church is poor and often could not pay a full time minister, one ordained person looks after at least three or more congregations, sometimes in the mountains, thirty congregations. Each congregation is looked after on Sundays by a part-time trained and certified lay preacher called an “evangelist” who is usually a teacher in a city and a farmer in the countryside. So if an ordained person has ten congregations, for example, communion services are held jointly once or twice a year with a few neighbouring congregations. A host congregation holds fundraising events in order to sponsor such an event. They have tohave sufficient funds to feed the crowd who may walk hours to come to the special joint communion service. It is called ‘mokete’ meaning “Feast.” It’s a joyful occasion.
When I went to administer a communion like that for the first time, I had a few surprises, not only the breast of Christ I gave out unknowingly. They used home-baked hearty bread and sweet South African wine in a common cup. Bread is held by the minister which each communicant tear away a chunk, and a cup of wine is held by an elder from which each person has a sip.
But what surprised me was that the a group of elders surrounded me and the cup holding elder like the honour guards. What surprised me even more was that their role was to make sure people didn’t take too much of bread and wine. They pushed them away if they thought someone was taking too big a chunk and tear them away from the cup if they stay there too long. People were hungry. For them, even a bit of bread and a drop of wine were food. It never dawned on me, since I came from an affluent society, that communion could mean food when you are hungry.
In Communion Service, we remember that Christ shared his own life, the most precious thing any living person has. Food is precious for a lot of people in the world. By taking communion, we
must remind ourselves that this symbolic act is a beginning of our action to try to eradicate hunger from our world. In conclusion, I wish to go back to John Steinbeck. The communion is a remembrance of an event as intimate and embarrassing as the young woman’s act who had nothing else to give except what she had.