About two months ago, I got to go on a 10 day guided tour of Israel. It was my first time. You can imagine how excited I was.
We got to see all the major spots: Capernum, the Sea of Galilee, Magdala and Jerusalem. We even drove on a highway that led to the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna?). I kid you not, there was a fire there. Apparently some jokester, probably a seminary student, started a small brush fire.
And while I found all of those places riveting, the most insightful thing that really stuck with me didn’t come from those places. It actually came from an offhand remark our tour guide made on our very first day.
She told us that in Israel, people tend not to cut bread with a knife. Instead they break it by hand. And when asked why, she explained that it was because Bread is a symbol of life. You eat it and live. But a knife is used to kill…or to shed blood.
To help me remember the concept, I made up a maxim and immediately linked it in my mind to communion: You break bread…but you cut a covenant. And never shall the twain meet.
I’ll share more on that later.
Kashrut: Jewish Dietary laws
Well, after coming back to the states, I researched this idea about breaking instead of cutting bread. It turns out that not every observant Jewish person follows this rule.
Instead, a more common expression that more or less gets the same idea across, has to do with the separation of meat and dairy.
Perhaps you noticed, observant Jewish people will never eat meat and dairy in the same meal. In fact, whenever we had breakfast, lunch or dinner in a cafeteria, you would always see one or the other, but never both offered at the same time.
Jewish people call this separation an expression of “Kashrut” which simply means “fit” (for consumption), and refers to Kosher dietary laws.
The basis for many of those laws comes down to a verse in Exodus, which reads:
“Do not boil a young goat in its mother’s milk.” Ex 23:19
The reason this seemingly strange command is there is to highlight something pretty foundational in Judaism.
A baby goat, which is also called “a kid”, is just starting out in life. Its mother’s milk is designed by God to nourish and help the kid live. Just like the aforementioned bread, milk then is a symbol of life. But to cook the young goat means to kill it. The irony is that a symbol of life (mother’s milk) is being used to kill instead of nurture her kid.
So the underlying principle that not only undergirds Kashrut but all of Judaism is that life is good, death is bad and never shall the twain the meet.
What does this have to do with communion? I’m getting to that. But first, let’s take this Life/Death thing a step further.
In Judaism, life is not merely the fact of being alive. It is a metaphor that encapsulates all goodness and every blessing that one could possibly have in life. As a Biblical theme, life, particularly life at its highest potency is an all encompassing metaphor for our highest good.
Conversely, death is its opposite…and never shall the twain meet.
What ended up happening was that the rabbis quickly understood that underlying thinking behind the command.
Life is important. And as per Genesis 1 and 2, cultivating Life is our job. To be Jewish then is to be “pro-life”. And this pro-lifeness is embedded even in their eating habits.
What Christians can learn from this Pro-Lifeness
Now, at first, I was really reluctant to use what has become a highly politicized and polarizing term. But after thinking about it, this actually might be the best illustration of what we are talking about.
Last week, Tim Keller spoke at Princeton Seminary’s Kuyper conference. One of his illustrations involved how Christians in the early church handled things like abortion and infant abandonment.
Citing Rodney Stark’s work, Keller pointed out how early Christians didn’t merely force women to stop having abortions. Instead, when many throughout the Roman Empire discarded their infants, usually because the babies were female, it was Christians who would collect them and raise them as their own.
They did this not just because they were anti-abortion or anti abandonment, but because they were pro-life in the way we discussed above.
Father James Martin, SJ, is a Jesuit priest, editor at large of America magazine, and the author of Jesus: A Pilgrimage, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything, and Between Heaven and Mirth. A little while back, he posted his understanding of what it means to be pro life that captures what I am talking about1:
“I am pro life.
That means that I’m also pro social justice.
That means that I am not only for the dignity of the human being from the moment of conception, but also for the dignity of the human being until the natural end of life. For life does not end with birth. A person who is truly pro life is pro all life, pro every stage of life, pro every stage of life for every person. For all life is sacred, because all life is created by God.
That means that I support anything that helps a person live a full, healthy and satisfying life, in every part of the world. So I am for care for the poor, for a living wage, for affordable health care, for adequate housing, for a humane work environment, for equal pay for women, for generous child care, for the support of the aged and the infirm.
That means I support caring for the marginalized among us: the refugee, the migrant, the displaced person, the homeless, the unemployed, the person with disabilities, the single mother, women who are abused, minorities of every kind who are persecuted, and all those who feel left out, mocked, lonely, ignored or frightened.
That means that I am against torture, because it is an affront to human dignity. I am against the death penalty, the most serious affront to an adult life. I am against abuse and mistreatment in prisons. I am against war as a way to solve problems.
That means I respect the lives of all creatures, and am therefore for the care of the world in which we live, for the environment in the broadest sense.
That means I am pro peace, pro justice and pro reconciliation.
The longer I am a Jesuit, the longer I am a priest, the longer I live, and the more I pray and listen and observe, the more convinced I am of the sanctity and beauty of life.
So, yes, I am pro life. Pro all life.
I hope you are too.”
My point in using this quote is not so much to critique modern anti-abortion efforts as much as it is to highlight how narrow a view that many people on both sides of the aisle have of what it means to be pro-life.
Pro-life does not simply refer to being anti-abortion. Instead, it refers to a multitude of things in this world that diminishes and dehumanizes life.
Thus when confronted with things like poverty, pro-life people see that as an affront to human life and dignity. We not only oppose it, we fight against it vigorously. When we see racism or sexism or oppression of any kind, we vigorously oppose it because it causes human suffering and injustice. You cannot be pro-life and not have these things at the forefront of your heart…seeing these things as your specific responsibility to address.
One more illustration, this time of Death
When I was in college, my college pastor sat us all down and asked us to reflect upon and share how we wanted to die. I think he just wanted us to understand (alla Star Trek 2) that facing death is just as important as facing life. So we all went around sharing, starting with, ‘I want to die…’ and ending with a nice soliloquy on our last days.
When it was my turn, I answered in my most somber voice,
“I want to die…(pause for effect)
…like Elijah died”.
It was my college-brained way of saying, ‘are you crazy? I don’t want to die!! I hate death! As per Jn 11:25, that’s the whole reason I became a Christian in the first place!!”
Now that was 20 some years ago. I have since learned how to pick my humorous outburst moments more carefully. But even so the point, at least the more serious part, still stands.
Christians shouldn’t make peace with death. Death is the enemy. Instead, we make peace with God through Jesus Christ. Ironically, this helps us to face death more bravely, knowing that you are safe in your Father’s hands.
How this effects our understanding of Communion
What does this have to do with Communion?
A lot actually.
Communion is one of two Sacraments in Christianity. And out of the two, it is the one that is to be practiced over and over again.
In this sense, it is a ritualized (ie., repeated) sacrament that codifies what we have in Christ.
The tour guide told us that bread and knives are never to meet because of what they represent; life and death respectively. But in the elements of communion, we have both in the same place.
The Bread is Jesus’ body, which is broken for us. But the wine is Jesus’ blood, shed for us.
Life and death are two things that never should meet. But in Jesus Christ, they reside in the same space…or better yet, the same person.
Furthermore, Our Holy and Living God and unclean, dead persons (Eph 2:1) like ourselves are also two parties that never should meet for much of the same reason. And yet, because of Christ, the two are reconciled (2 Cor 5:18-19) and now occupy the same space (Rev 21:3). Or to put it differently, in Jesus Christ, God is with us. And never shall the two be separated again.
- Earlier, I had a pro life quote from Sister Joan Chittister, OSB. After reflection, I realized that Fr Martin’s thoughts better capture what I am trying to convey. I apologize if this causes any confusion or trouble. Sister Chittister’s quote can be found in this meme.