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For Christians, this is Holy Week. For Jews, this week is Passover. Two thousand years ago, these were the same events: Jesus’ celebration of Passover was at the center of the original Holy Week. Yet this week our Holy Week services at our church in Squirrel Hill will have a distinctly Christian flavor, while the Jews in our neighborhood will celebrate Passover according to their traditions. And though these two celebrations are deeply related, most of us will remain ignorant of what our neighbors are doing. Why is this? Should it really be this way?

Rabbi David Zaslow’s book Jesus: First-Century Rabbi seeks to remedy this ignorance by reminding its readers of the common heritage of Judaism and Christianity. Jesus was thoroughly Jewish, and so were the first “Christians.” But since the first-century, the divide has continually grown between followers of Jesus and Jesus’ Jewish brothers and sisters. In some cases, this has led to tragically violent manifestations of anti-Semitism. Seeking to build bridges between Jews and Christians, Zaslow writes from a place of optimistic belief that deeper understanding of each other’s faiths can help lead us to greater harmony, calling us to “ask God together to turn Constantine’s sword into a pruning hook” (p.xxiv).

For one example of our common heritage which is relevant for this week, consider how Zaslow’s description of the Hebraic understanding of time illumines our understanding of Passover and our practice of Eucharist. At his last Passover meal, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples saying, “This is my body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” As Zaslow examines what remembrance would have meant to first-century Jews, he quotes Lawrence Hoffman, saying “the rabbis saw zikarone [remembrance] as anamnesis: making the past present. Continuing, Zaslow writes,

This same sense of anamnesis, time past experienced as time present, is central to the annual Passover seder, the yearly retelling of the Passover story accompanied by a festive meal in Jewish homes. In the Hagaddah, the book containing the stories and prayers to be read at the seder, it is written, ‘In every generation a person must regard himself as if he came forth himself out of Egypt.’ The annual retelling of the Exodus story is accompanied by wine and foods emblematic of slavery and liberation, and has the effect of a spiritual time machine.  (p. 102)

This worldview in which zikarone makes the past present is the same worldview that enabled early Christians to speak of the “real presence” of Jesus in the bread and wine of communion. Though it runs contrary to the sensibilities of many modernist Protestants, this “spiritual time machine” was part of the worldview of the early Christians and is at the root of our practice of the Lord’s Supper.

Zaslow of course presents many other interesting examples of Jewish roots of Christian teaching which make it worth reading. But I have to observe that Jesus: First-Century Rabbi also has a few serious limitations. As a Christian, I found myself objecting to many of the caricatures of Christian theology Zaslow makes when comparing Christian beliefs to Jewish beliefs. There’s not room even in 200 pages to accomplish what Zaslow sets out to do, so doctrines such as the Trinity receive only two pages. Zaslow himself acknowledges his limits in the book’s introduction, and asks his readers to grant him some poetic license. I can do that in many places, but not all.

I struggled especially with Zaslow’s very short chapter on the Apostle Paul. Describing Paul as “antinomian,” Zaslow wonders, “Did Paul really love his own Jewish faith,or was he just pretending to practice Judaism in order to win people over to the new gospel?” (p. 174). Such a question reveals a very shallow reading of Paul. Zaslow makes no mention of Romans 9-11, where Paul himself shares his theology of the relationship between Judaism and Christianity and expresses a deep yearning for his brothers and sisters to see Jesus as Lord. Why would Paul pretend to be Jewish when all that brought him was persecution? As he lists in 2 Corinthians 11, Paul endured floggings, stonings, sleeplessness, and hunger for the sake of telling others about Jesus. Zaslow writes wisely earlier in the book that “Christianity is at its best when it is expressed from the cross – from the place of sacrifice, suffering, failure, and not from a position of power” (p. 130). This was exactly the position taken by the Apostle Paul, who suffered even to the point of martyrdom for his faith in Jesus.

While I admire Zaslow’s bridge-building intentions, and am grateful for the insights this book gave me into the Jewish roots of Christianity, I cannot minimize the differences between our faiths as Zaslow wants to do. I grant that Jesus: First-Century Rabbi was supposed to be about the Jewishness of Jesus, not Paul, but Zaslow’s difficulty with Paul still reveals how great the difference is between Christianity and any other faith. So much depends upon how we answer Jesus’ question: “Who do you say that I am?” Zaslow writes from the perspective of one who believes Jesus was a righteous Jew. I read this book from the perspective of someone who believes that Jesus is the Son of God incarnate. I pray that this Passover, this Holy Week, God will grant Christians and Jews the grace to learn from each other and grow in relationship, while still answering Jesus’ question clearly and honestly. Who do we say that he is?

 

 


 

Thank you to Paraclete Press for sending me a review copy of Jesus: First Century Rabbi.

 

The House of St. Michael the Archangel just published an essay that I wrote called So That Your Hearts Will Not Be Weighted Down. It’s an extended meditation on  watchfulness, revolving around Jesus’ words in Luke 21:34: “Be on guard, so that your hearts will not be weighted down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of life.”  It’s also an invitation to repentance, to turn away from all the figurative and literal drunkenness of the world, and to instead receive the blessed inebriation of communion with Christ.

I wrote most of the essay months ago, but the timing of its release is perfect: Advent is an appropriate time to grow in watchfulness, as we “wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).

Hard copies are available for suggested donations of $6. A free pdf is also available. Both can be ordered here.

 

While you’re at the House of St. Michael’s website, also check out Shea Cole’s album of original worship music. It can also be downloaded for free, or hard copies are available for a suggested donation. (The cds make great Christmas presents, if you’re still shopping.)

I’ve been slow to speak any thoughts about the tragic Sandy Hook elementary school shooting last week. The nation has heard a lot of reactions, from the President to the news media to ordinary people through the eruption of commentary on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve paid attention to some of this, agreeing with some comments and ignoring others. But internally, my thoughts keep circling back to one question: What if more people had intentionally befriended the shooter before this happened? Could simple friendship have changed anything?

I’m thinking this way because friendship keeps coming up as a theme in my ministry. I’ve written elsewhere about how God gave my co-pastor and me a unique friendship through this call to plant a church together. In many ways, our church has quietly become a community where the lonely discover friendship. John V. Taylor wrote in The Go-Between God, that “every Christian group or cell should look for some way in which it can meet a genuine human need in the situation in which it is placed” (p. 150). When I read that two years ago, I scribbled in the margin a note saying “emotional needs are a genuine as physical.” The fellowship which authentic friends share is one example. Friendship doesn’t appear to be an immediate physical need for survival, but without friendship our souls slowly starve, wasting away until death comes to us – or others – as the result.  Surely one manifestation of Christ’s life-giving victory over death is the community of genuine friendship which bears His name.

Significantly, the most authentic friendships look outward. C. S. Lewis observes in The Four Loves that “Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest” (p. 61). Those in the friendship of the Church stand side-by-side absorbed in their common interest in Jesus. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than at The Lord’s Supper, when the community gathers like a family to partake of one loaf and one cup, side by side, but with eyes focused upon their Savior. Accordingly, Taylor wrote that if the Church gathers in order to . . .

 . . . enable members to live in that current of mutual awareness and communion which is the gift of the Holy Spirit and the element in which he moves in our midst, then a simple sharing of the loaf and the cup should be the natural summing up of the group experience.  In many of the ‘little congregations’ today this has become a regular and essential element. Someone brings bread and wine to a coffee table, all stand round while one or another reads the scriptures and offers the prayers, and then the authorized celebrant, wearing his ordinary clothes, leads them in the great thanksgiving and the consecration prayer; plate and cup are passed from hand to hand and the denominational question seems irrelevant in such a context.  This is what must come – not twenty years hence, but now – as the normal way in which the majority of Christians make the Holy Communion central to their lives. (150)

Next to that paragraph, in the margin of my book, I wrote “Upper Room!” Taylor’s description of intimate fellowship during Eucharist reminds me so much of how Upper Room started, celebrating communion around a coffee table in a living room, and how we continue to worship as a larger and still-expanding family. I think this is one reason why visitors to Upper Room sometimes say they can tell that we have authentic relationships with each other.  We have friendship and community, not because we strive for the ideals of friendship and community, but because we focus our attention on Christ together. 

Like Christ, this fellowship exists not for its own sake, but for the life of the world. Christ calls us His friends (John 15:14-15), and if friends stand side by side looking at a common interest, then we’re called to stand next to Jesus and focus on the lost and broken of the world.  We were enemies of God when Christ chose to befriend us, so its only fitting that in His Name we befriend even our worst enemies. Even the mentally ill. Even the potential murders. Jesus called Judas “friend”, even when Judas came to betray Him (Matthew 26:50). Throughout The Go-Between God, Taylor argues that the Holy Spirit is constantly calling us to a new awareness of God and others. That new awareness could show up in such simple ways as us humbly taking the time to listen to the person we’d never noticed before. We can’t force these friendships to develop, but if we open up to such possibilities, God may surprise us with new companions.

So, let us be vigilant, especially in this season when so many feel lonely or isolated, to not let people fall through the cracks of relationships. Pray for God to show us the people we’re called to befriend. Ask the Holy Spirit to humble us and make us more aware of the significance of every person outside ourselves. If we listen, in a few weeks or months we might discover new companions next to us when we receive Communion. May God grant us the grace to do what Christ our Lord has done for us: befriend the friendless.

https://christopherbrown.files.wordpress.com/2011/08/charles_de_foucauld.jpg?w=545Today is the feast day of Charles de Foucauld, the anniversary of his martyrdom in the Sahara Desert in 1916. Br. Charles carried with him for much of his life a notebook which had this written on the first page:

“Live today as though you were going to die a martyr. The more we lack in this world, the more surely we discover the best thing the world has to offer us: the cross. The more firmly we embrace the cross, the more closely we are bound to Jesus, who is made fast to it.” (Charles de Foucauld: Essential Writings ed. Robert Ellsberg [Maryknoll, NY: Orbis 1999] p. 127)

Brother Charles lived every day after his conversion seeking greater intimacy with Jesus, and his martyrdom was the culmination of that pursuit. Specifically, he tried to imitate the “hidden life of Christ,” the first thirty years of Jesus’ life before His public ministry, even to the point of moving to Nazareth and working a humble job so that he could pray and learn humility in obscurity there.

One of the things Brother Charles meditated on during these years was the family life of the child Jesus.  He was fascinated by the humility of Jesus, who while being God would submit himself and be obedient even to his earthly parents: “You were subject to them – subject as a son is to his father and mother.  Your life was one of submission, familial submission. You were obedient in every way that a good son is obedient.” (p. 49) In these meditations, there is a sense that a deep loved filled the household of the Holy Family. Jesus was humble and obedient, but in truly joyful ways. Foucauld, in his imitation of the hidden life of Jesus, seems also to have longed to be a part of the Holy Family himself, deliberately taking the name Brother Charles of Jesus. The orders which follow his example today are called the Little Brothers and Sisters of Jesus.

Two months ago, I went to a week-long gathering for pastors at the Serra Retreat Center. One afternoon, while looking for some solitude, I went into the chapel. There I was drawn to this icon of the Holy Family which was on the eastern wall of the room.  There is a sense of intimacy here between Joseph, Mary, and Jesus which I had never considered before. Not only are they physically close, but they are gazing at each other. Joseph’s eyes are toward Mary. Mary’s eyes are toward Jesus.  The child Jesus has his hand raised in blessing. Near to each other, with Christ at the center of their embrace, they are filled with joy. They even have the same smiles on their faces that Charles has in the picture above.  Brother Charles believed that followers of Jesus today could live with this same joyful sense of the nearness and intimacy with Jesus.  He sensed that nearness through practicing humility and taking up his cross, but he also sensed it very powerfully in Eucharist. In one moving meditation written during adoration he wrote:

You were not nearer to the Blessed Virgin during the nine months she carried you in her womb than you are to me when you rest on my tongue at Holy Communion.  You were not closer to the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph in the caves at Bethlehem or the house at Nazareth or during the flight into Egypt, or at any moment of that divine family life than you are to me at this moment and so many others – in the tabernacle. (p. 52)

This life spent meditating upon nearness of Christ sustained Charles during his years in the northern Sahara, where he lived as missionary-by-example among the Tuareg, and gave him the courage to accept martyrdom when his day came. The nearness of his Beloved in communion gave him an irrepressible smile, even when he was suffering greatly. Even in solitude, Charles knew he was never alone, but part of a Holy Family devoted to the life-giving cross of his brother Jesus.

I think I’ve found a new spiritual role model.  I just finished reading Charles de Foucauld: Essential Writings in Orbis Books “Modern Spiritual Masters” series.  Brother Charles (b. 1858) was a French man who converted to Roman Catholicism after serving in the French military and exploring the deserts of northern Africa.  Following his conversion, he became a Trappist monk at a monastery in Syria, but even this life was not rigorous enough for Charles in its discipline or asceticism. Inspired by God to imitate what he called “the hidden life of Jesus of Nazareth”, Charles moved to Nazareth and took a position as a servant at a women’s monastery there. There he sought to live a simple life of poverty, prayer, and service, just as he imagined Jesus had during the first 30 years of His life.  Eventually, Charles felt led to pursue even greater degrees of solitude, so he moved to the deserts of Algeria and Morocco to pursue a life of poverty, prayer, service and quiet witness amongst the region’s Arab Muslims and the nomadic Tuaregs.  In 1916, he was martyred there.

I found may things about Charles inspiring, but I want to highlight three in particular here.  These were his approaches to work, Eucharist, and witness.

Work: Foucauld believed that a life in imitation of Christ was a life of ordinary work, often doing the lowliest and most humble tasks available, but working to support oneself in ministry.  (In this sense his ministry is both inspiring and challenging for those of us in tentmaking and bi-vocational ministries.)  But work wasn’t about money for Charles.  Instead it was about learning humility and obedience.   He journalled Christ’s voice speaking to him about Christ’s hidden life in Nazareth: “How clearly I preached humility at Nazareth, by spending thirty years in obscure labors, and obscurity by remaining so completely unknown for thirty years – I who am the light of the world – and obedience, in that I, who am God, made myself subject for thirty years to parents who, although unquestionably holy, were human beings nonetheless” (p. 48).  Humble and obscure work for Charles equalled intimate imitation of Christ.

Thus it makes sense that for Foucauld work went hand-in-hand with simplicity of life.  He journalled in the voice of Jesus speaking to him, “Work hard enough to earn your daily bread, but less than ordinary workers.  They work to earn as much as possible.  You and I work only so as to earn a very frugal diet and the poorest of clothing and lodgings, together with enough to give small sums in alms” (p. 57).   In the Rule he wrote for the monastic order he hoped to found, he said the brothers would be forbidden to receive any gifts.  Instead, “We will live solely by the work of our hands. . . . On Saturday, when the weekly pay is received, all money that is left over from the week before will be given to the poor.” They would earn their living doing ordinary labor and give away (rather than save) that which exceeded their simple needs.  Surely this example raises serious questions for the state of Christianity in America today.  Too many pastors and church workers understand their careers in terms more similar to climbing corporate ladders than to this example of simplicity.  How much more could ordinary church members give to mission if they simplified their lives in such a way?  Would not joy replace much of the stress in our lives if making money were not the goal of work?

Eucharist: Brother Charles was so in love with Jesus that he spent hours upon hours meditating upon Christ’s presence in the sacraments. “You were not nearer to the Blessed Virgin during the nine months she carried you in her womb than you are to me when you rest on my tongue at Holy Communion,” he wrote (p. 52).  This sense of sacramental intimacy with Jesus was like Foucauld’s approach to work: all he did was for the sake of drawing closer to Christ.  But this also translated into the fruit of witness and mission in Foucauld’s life.  Writing about his vision for a monastic community following his pattern of life in the Moroccan desert, he said that the men would live in adoration of the Holy Sacrament, because the practice both bore witness to the real presence of Christ with them in the desert and inspired hospitality and love toward every human being they came into contact with.  Meditating on Christ’s presence in the Eucharist led him even more deeply to sense Christ’s presence in “the least of these” (Matthew 25).  Personally and pastorally, I rejoice that many people are saying the sacramental piece of our church’s life is a place where they meet Christ. I pray that it will inspire mission as the Eucharist did for Foucauld and his followers.

Witness: One does not normally think of a hermetic monk in the African desert as an example of mission or evangelism. But Foucauld believed he was called to “cry the Gospel” with his life, just as every follower of Jesus is called to do. He wrote, “the salvation of one’s neighbor is as important as the salvation of one’s self.  Every Christian must be an apostle. That is not advice; it is a command – the command of charity” (pp. 80-81). By living in imitation of Jesus in the deserts of northern Africa, Foucault believed he was participating in apostolic presence among unreached peoples.  And what was his method of sharing gospel amongst non-Christian people groups? Prayer. Intimacy with Jesus. And presence.  The prayerful person who lets Christ’s presence shine through him or her becomes a conduit through which others are drawn closer to Christ. Hence he writes, “By entering into friendly relationships with people totally opposed to religion we can, by our goodness and virtue, destroy their prejudices and bring them completely to God” (p. 83).  I find this personally inspiring because it’s what I pray could happen through my presence working as a barista at a local cafe.   Indeed, Foucault has much to teach those of us who are engaged in mission in the post-Christian west. He realized a hundred years ago that the West was becoming as much of a mission field as the rest of the world: “One has to be as much a missionary in France as in a country of unbelievers, and being so is the duty of us all, priests and lay people, men and women” (p. 83).  He wrote that in 1914, decades before talk of the “missional church” became a trendy topic in our context.  Now, as the Church in the West is awakening to the reality that it lives in a mission field, I think we need to recover much of the spirituality of people like Foucault.  Simply put, a culture that likes Jesus but not the Church needs to see Jesus. A culture that’s spiritual-but-not-religious needs to see true spirituality in action. Witness in our context will not succeed unless it boldly displays Christ-likeness and intimacy with Jesus.