Reckless Beauty

Such beauty should never be in the hands of children, especially badly brought up ones, but that is exactly why it is beautiful!

What is called the Eucharist has been given over into the hands of businessmen, metaphysical accountants and lawyers, but even they have been unable to destroy it. Its sheer profligate giving leaks through the control of temple priesthood, creating a new universe, beyond imagination.

I have calculated that during my time in seminary and afterward as a priest I received the communion bread and wine 7000 times. I could perhaps add another thousand for the times I took communion as a child and teenager. Over the course of the years my experience went from a queasy awe at the holiness of the wafer, to a profound sense of giving and humility, to strange, overpowering love, to finally an absolute nothing. The last feeling came in situations such as the one where a generous local pastor invited me to the table even though I was not “in good standing” with the hierarchical church. When I went up I was grateful for the personal gesture but I felt its utter meaningless. The institutional semiotics that are part and parcel of formal “communion” stood four-square against me.

And, now, paradoxically, it is semiotics that have become the whole point. Forgetting the first and last situations (of holiness and exclusion), the experiences of eucharist spread over those eight thousand times often come drifting back to me, and with a generosity which defies calculation. They come to me purely as sign, a remembered meaning, a memorial moving on the neural pathways of the brain. I believe now and understand that you cannot keep ownership of a sign. As the Sesame Street Muppets might say, how can you own the letter “W”, or the letter “P”! How can you copyright the alphabet? Or, bread as a sign? It’s only when you rig the eucharist as priestly sacrifice—including in the Protestant traditions, as recall of substitutionary death—that you bring it back to the language of mimetic exchange and hence ownership.

In fact in received atonement theology Christ is the supreme commodity—something offered to God as substitute or compensation for sinful humans—and therefore “owned” by the priestly “offering” class. But Rene Girard has given us insight into the violence that is at the root of all exchange (do ut des). At the same time he has highlighted the infinite nonviolence of the gospel which lays that violence bear, and strives to bring new meaning to humankind.

Such reckless beauty to make of a single human body a sign! One of sheer giving to spread abroad in the world! The body of Christ is the transcendental signifier of a new human way, the logos, the word. And the bread and its story is sign of the sign: deep visceral-neural sign of radical newness! Which makes Jesus a directorial genius-artist as well as Messiah: the Martin Scorsese or Andy Warhol of biblical first centuries. Indeed he is Messiah as first-person genius-artist.

Then there’s the consequence. The more this sign is understood in and for itself the less the sign-possessing priesthood makes sense, and the more a sign-proclaiming priesthood is called for. The more the hidden articulations of violence come to view, in the broad revelation that Girard describes, the more the offering priesthood becomes archaic and nonchristian. It is God who first makes the offering to us and gives us it as digestible sign, and all we can say is “mmmmm, thank you”: hence eucharist! A sign works at the level of constructed human meaning and this sign works at the root level of source code. All the Christian community can do is celebrate this source code and stay in its presence, over and over until our root meaning is changed.

Here is the best sense of “metanoia,” a reprogramming of human meaning. Christianity has always been a radical remake of religion, amounting to a new religiosity without duties to God, only the embracing of God’s first giving to us. Over the years, with the accommodation to empire, it took back many aspects of archaic religiosity, above all the exchange of sacrifice as fundamental relation to God. But today God’s true reckless beauty is returning fully to view, and it’s happening because it has itself worked tirelessly at the level of the sign to change our human point of view. At every eucharist we have partaken of the altar’s semiotic destruction, at the same time as taking in a code of unbelievable human newness.

Tony Bartlett

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