Thursday, December 31, 2009

The Sacred Meal

Yesterday I finished Nora Gallagher's reflections on communion that she offers under the title, "The Sacred Meal". It's published by Thomas Nelson and in a series called, The Ancient Practices Series. Not surprising, the series editor is Phyllis Tickle. It was Tickle's stamp that drew me to this series that has had a great deal of focused writing. The a priori of the writer and publisher must be that a fresh work on these practices are needed for a generation of people who have now encountered Christ, are exploring the practices of Christianity, especially ancient, and are essentially devoid of theological reflection.

Gallagher's writing style is extremely accessible. Her stories and reflections keep the text moving. She doesn't however do a great deal of plumbing the ancients. It certainly could have been stronger on that front.

She advances some present understandings of the meal that would not have been shared by the ancients. She claims this ability because not every early account is to be seen as being a universal practice. For instance, she writes of Justin Martyr's depiction of the Sunday practices of the Christian in Rome in the early 2nd century. Gallagher then determines to quote Paul Bradshaw and offers this for a reading of the ancients: "there is no justification that what these authors describe as practices familiar in their region were necessarily the universal customs of the time." (p.102).

She surprised me with a (paraphrased) quote that I rather agree with, delivered by Episcopal Bishop John Shelby Spong. Before this quote I wasn't sure I could agree with on much of anything with Bishop Song.
"Did Jesus come to give us a religion, to give us the right way to worship? No.
Well then, did Jesus come to teach us how to follow the law, be righteous, be ethical? No.
Did Jesus come to teach us the truth, the one truth against which all other claims can be measured, all heresies decried? To give us orthodoxy?
No. Jesus came to give us life, and life abundant."

Out of this quote she adds: "The early followers of Jesus didn't have a creed or a codified set of prayers. They did not all worship in the same way. They had some form of baptism and some forms of prayers over bread and wine, and that was about it. They didn't have many of the religious traditions that today we call "Christianity." I suspect they were living by the seat of their pants."

A serious question for her writing will be to see if she directs her readers toward embracing ancient practices, or if in her interpretation, they are jettisoned from the practices of the church? I fear that subjecting this work to strict philosophical consistency would reveal a work of Swiss cheese, but in the new emergence, that is acceptable, even laudable.

While not thrilled with her rationale, her Myth and Tradition reflects a Wesleyan(theological) perspective on the table. She writes: "Jesus practiced a radical faith: everyone was welcome at his table. You are welcome at this table. The altar is the big table. This is the table that wants everyone there: poor and rich, women and men, children and older people, mentally disabled and depressed . . . The gospel reading that makes the most sense to me about the Eucharist is the feeding of the five thousand. Jesus didn't ask those thousands of people camped on that hillside whether they had confessed their sins or how clean they were. He fed them." (92)

And possibly her best quote: "Taking Communion every Sunday is a creative act, and it makes no more "sense" than writing a poem, or, for that matter, reading one. It isn't going to get you anywhere in the world; it's not networking; it has no practical worth. Every creative act, Simone Weil said, is a 'folly of love'." (95)


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