PARISH BULLETIN: Liturgical reflections
Harvesting the Cup: The Promise of Mystagogical Drinking
The harvest season offers us a kind of new year, and a time to deepen our understanding of the mystery of Christ’s Blood.
For many worshipping communities in the United States, autumn is start-up time. It is that annual moment of regathering the choir, recruiting and training lectors and ministers of Communion, commissioning catechists, and hunting for those elusive teens to repopulate the youth group that scattered over the summer. In some sense, the start-up scenario suggests that the autumn is a time of parochial planting, seeding organizations, and nourishing projects in hopes that they will bear fruit over the coming year.
From an agricultural perspective, however, the fall in the northern hemisphere is not so much seeding time as it is harvest time. In the great plains states, it is the season when huge combines are combing fields of wheat and corn for their golden treasures, while enormous tractors with their earth-plowing hardware are uncovering potatoes and other tubers. In the more northerly regions, seasonal workers are hoisting ladders to heavily laden trees in groves of apples, pears, and peaches. And in a growing number of states from New York to Michigan—but especially in Northern; California—tons of grapes are being cut from their vines, as the cycle of wine making, fermenting, uncorking, and toasting is renewed.;
In some cultural and religious traditions, this harvesting moment is a beginning point and a literal “new year.” Our Jewish sisters and brothers exemplify this tradition with the feast of Sukkoth (Hebrew “tabernacles” or “huts”). The central characteristic of this seven-day celebration (beginning October 3 in 2009) marking the end of the agricultural season is the harvesting of fruits. Because it “begins” a time of celebration and thanksgiving, as well as a time of rest before the next planting and harvest season, Sukkoth has traditionally had a kind of “new year’s” feel to it. This parallels the “new year’s” feel that marks the spring festival of the Passover. In the development of Jewish festivals the new year’s tug of Sukkoth eventually and the feast of Rosh Hashanah or “head of the year” was born. This new year’s festival, placed fifteen days before the onset of Sukkoth, arrives this fall on September nineteenth.
Despite the practices of our Jewish forbears, it may seem odd for; many of us—especially urban dwellers—to consider autumn as a period of ritual or liturgical harvesting. Pondering the importance of the fruit harvest, and its most potent liquid offspring, however, might help us to uncover something of the mystagogical promise in the fresh harvest that unfolds before us. That most celebrated offspring, of course, is wine that ancient civilizations have revered as the nectar of the gods, and Christians profess to become the Blood of Christ.
The Gravity of; Wine
Years ago, as a graduate student, I spent a few years in Paris. That probably sounds more glamorous than it actually was. Fighting the Byzantine library system that reigns throughout France was exhausting. Being a Yankee with almost incomprehensible French made the situation even more precarious. The spirit of Charles DeGaulle and French resistance to U.S. influence was heavy in the air during those years of the presidency of François Mitterand. I was thus advised by a colleague that things would go better for me if I tried to pass myself off as Canadian citizen who failed French in high school. He even gave me a small Canadian flag to sew onto my backpack.
Despite the scholarly and political challenges, there were yet magnificent sights and sounds, cheeses and breads, monuments and museums to distract even the most; fatigued students. One event that I remember with particular delight was the night when the Beaujolais nouveau hit the streets of Paris. While dismissed by many critics as a commercial venture intent on selling very young wines—which some contend are; undrinkable after less than three months in the; bottle—the arrival of the Beaujolais nouveau is a festive time. By government decree, the release date for this freshly harvested and very light wine—designed more to be gulped than savored—is the third Thursday in November. Cafés plan special menus for the new vintage, wine stores stack bottles of the product to the ceiling, parties are timed to coincide with this gustatory advent, and I distinctly remember the parks and plazas populated by transients and students alike, uncorking the new liquid across the city. That night the city of lights seemed to sparkle all the more.
Some would argue that this selling of very young wine is simply a brilliant marketing strategy. Yet, the Beaujolais festival may reveal something about not just the French but also the human spirit. It reveals a longing to be close to the source, an instinct to taste the harvest and to revel in the shared joy that comes after the grueling work of pruning, caring, cutting, harvesting, crushing, and fermenting. From such suffering comes great joy.
The Mystagogical Turn
A consistent theme rehearsed in this column is the power and importance of mystagogy. From my perspective, mystagogy is a type of bottom-up theologizing that considers seriously our embodied and communal experiences of the rites. While a fancy term, it is a simple idea. Mystagogy admits that—whether conscious of it or not—our liturgies and the galaxy of symbols whirling in and around them are a kind of; elemental “skin theology.” Whether vibrant or lethargic, the ritual environment shapes our faith and our belief, sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. An unavoidable consequence of this mystagogical perspective is the irrefutable responsibility of liturgical leadership to engage the symbols, exploit the ritual, and crack open the sights and sounds, texts and gestures, people and places of our worship. Note that the goal is not “to explain.” Liturgy is not about information but about formation. Liturgical leader as mystagogue is charged with inviting worshippers into the ritual matrix to encounter anew the God of Jesus Christ and the community in whom their Spirit dwells.
One of the most potent symbols of the eucharistic liturgy is the cup of wine. The pouring of wine, blessing of God over the cup, and sharing this salvific drink has defined the eucharistic action from the very dawn of Christianity. The gospel memory of Jesus speaking his great thanksgiving over the cup at his final earthly meal is not only determinative for the very shape of the Eucharist, but is considered by many to be the wellspring of the eucharistic prayer. Despite the centrality of this ritual element, however, I would contend that most Roman Catholics do not have a theology of the cup apart from a baseline belief in the Blood of Christ. Evidence of the impoverished state of the religious imagination here is the ease with which Roman Catholics bypass the cup although the vast majority would never consider bypassing the consecrated bread. It is the consecrated bread that dominates the Catholic imagination as the true Body of Christ, mediating his essential presence. The cup, on the other hand, appears as a somewhat risky duplication of Christ’s presence, whose very invitation to drink raises many questions of hygiene in this sometimes mysophobic society.
Harvesting the Cup
Biblical scholar Xavier Léon-Dufour changed my thinking radically about the importance of the cup with his splendid Sharing the Eucharistic Bread; (Paulist Press, 1987). Until then my own theology of the cup was quite underdeveloped. While I believed drinking from the cup at Mass was a fuller form of participation, beyond that I did not have much of an explicit theological reason for drinking from the cup. Since the Middle Ages the church has taught that when one receives Eucharist under a single species (like the bread), one received the whole and entire Christ, body and blood. This doctrine of concommitance was ironically introduced at a time when the cup was being withdrawn from the laity, and they were eventually forbidden to drink from the cup.
When the Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy in 1963 allowed for communion under both species (no. 55) it did so in the context of emphasizing more perfect forms of active participation. The Council itself, however, did not offer any further theological rationale for the importance of the cup, and the continued teaching of the doctrine of concommitance actually could be understood as providing a theological rationale for not receiving from the cup. Since the whole Christ was received in the bread, why receive the whole Christ again.
Here is where Dufour offers a compelling mystagogy of the cup. He first invites us to consider what Jesus means when he says “This is my Body.” As a Jew, Jesus could not have meant, “This is the solid part of my self,” as though the solid and liquid parts of the human anatomy were in question here. For Jesus to say, “This is my Body,” was for him to say, “This is my whole self.” As for the meaning of the cup, Dufour invites us to look at the other cup references in the gospels, like Mark 10 that we will proclaim on the twenty-ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time (October 18). At the heart of that Gospel, the Sons of Zebedee ask Jesus if they can sit at his right and left hand when he comes into glory. Jesus does not question their motives, but offers as a litmus test the question, “Can you drink of the cup?” As demonstrated in Jesus’ own agony in Gethsemane when he asks for the cup to pass away (Mt 26:39), the cup is a symbol of a willingness to die, to give one’s life for the furthering of God’s reign. In his theological summary of these texts, Dufour suggests that the bread demonstrates “what” we are to become (Christ’s Body), but the cup more powerfully symbolizes “how” we are to become Christ’s Body in the world, by our own suffering and dying to self.
I am struck by how much suffering and pain people bring with them to Eucharist, but sometimes how little we speak to, sing of, and pray for those body aches and heart aches that are the subtext of so many lives. This puts Eucharist in danger of becoming some kind of sacred “happy meal.” Harvesting the cup is an invitation for people to bring their own broken relationships and broken lives in contact with the living Christ. Even more than reverencing the cross on Good Friday, an invitation to drink of the cup is an invitation to ally our own brokenness with Christ’s suffering and death, and there find hope that our own suffering might truly be redemptive. In your preaching and catechesis, musical ministry and pastoral care, consider harvesting the cup this autumn. There is immeasurable treasure there, and the true Christian elixir of life.