It certainly sounds bizarre: the ritual consumption of food or drink that symbolizes or transmutes into the body and blood of a god. Atheists love to mock the ritual and inexperienced theologians try to find rational explanations for it, but the answer to this seemingly barbaric practice is best answered by endocrinologists and perhaps a few priests who have witnessed the exclamations of mothers and the confessions and orations of lovers.
First, there can be no historical beginning for the ritual. Communion celebrations are surely as old as man’s capacity to feel and to demonstrate love. For as long as the parasympathetic nervous system has provided an undeniable connection between adoration and eating, there has been an innate desire to assimilate the beloved, to have him or her in every cell in the lover’s body. Nobody screams “cannibal” when a new mother cuddles her baby and nibbles playfully on the baby’s foot, cooing, “I’m gonna eat you up!” If there are six billion people in the world, they each have a mother and it would be nothing short of sensational to find even one of these mothers who did not make raspberries on her baby’s belly and say “Momma’s eat her little peachy cake all up! Yes, she is!” or something equally sinister.
In the mammalian world, the first post-partum meal is the exchange of flesh: the baby drinks its mother’s milk and the mother consumes the nutrient-rich placenta, raw, cooked or dried. While the practice was mostly discontinued a few hundred years ago, human placentophagy was revived during the 1970s. On Google’s pages and in YouTube, information about preparing the placenta for consumption can readily be found.
Likewise, in the first overwhelming stages of sexual infatuation, cannibalistic terms of endearment are used. A female will gush, “Oh, he’s so cute I could just eat him up!” and a male will start to call his beloved delicious food names… “Sugar,” “Sweetheart,” “Honey,” or even, in a return to the original, “Babe.” Putting one’s salivating mouth upon the beloved’s body, biting, sucking, licking, and nibbling – it’s all part of the parasympathetic nervous system’s accommodation of love and nutrition, the hormones of ecstasy and feeding. The verbs we use for eating are also used for love making.
Additionally, in the delirium of this infatuation, we find cases of urophagia as an expression of adoration – of merging substantive identities with the beloved by taking the beloved into oneself – actually digesting and assimilating what had been part of the adored body. The links between sex, food, and urine consumption are most clearly seen in the ancient holiday practice of drinking the urine of anyone who was brash enough to eat Amanita Muscaria (a.k.a. fly agaric, the toxic, red and white Santa Claus mushroom) – in order to appreciate its wild, maenadic erotogenic properties.
Throughout much of the world, wherever we find birch and pine forests, we find frenzied religious rituals associated with this mushroom. Sometimes the mushroom would be boiled or fed to a deer so that the animal’s kidneys would filter out much of the toxic ingredients; but often the shaman would consume the mushroom and then, using his own kidneys to process the substance, he would urinate for his congregation who in turn would pass on their urine to others. It is an elixir of this hallucinogenic mushroom that is claimed to be the “Divine Soma” imbibed in Vedic India. Robert Graves, an authority on Greek myths who had steadfastly believed that the wild celebrations of Dionysus and other gods were alcoholic but otherwise drug-free orgies, re-evaluated the evidence and now acknowledges that mushrooms had indeed made their hallucinogenic way into Hellenic rituals. Further, as Wikipedia notes, “The Dead Sea Scrolls scholar John Marco Allegro also proposed that early Christianity sprang from cultic use of the fly agaric in Second Temple Judaism and that the mushroom itself was used by the Essenes as an allegory for Jesus Christ.” There is virtually no civilization in the northern hemisphere that does not have in its ancient history religious rituals that involve the consumption of mushrooms and sacred urine. The fly agaric high was, sexually speaking, stratospheric and quite beyond the reach of mundane socio-religious law.
Set against this practice, the Last Supper request to consume bread as the body and wine as the blood of the Savior seems a distinct refinement in the practice of theophagy.
In Southern School Zen Buddhism, the Communion ritual follows the early Christian practice of “dismissing the catechumens.” While confirmed Christians were permitted to participate in the ritual, the newer members of the congregation were dismissed (hence, calling the Mass “the Missa” in many European countries). In Zen Buddhism only ordained members may participate. Lay members of the congregation are dismissed and the temple doors are shut. Altar boys pour water into a goblet and the officiating priest, after reciting the required mantras and making the required mudras – and often slapping the water with a small willow branch – consecrates the water which becomes the amniotic fluid that nourishes the Future Buddha – which was the ancient supposition regarding the function of amniotic fluid. The ritual, then, unites the priest with the gestation of Mithras-Maitreya-Miroku, the Future Buddha. However, for the ritual to be a valid communion and not just a liturgical drama, the participants must respond emotionally, and this requires gratitude and love for the hero-savior who did, in fact, save them from a life that had become unendurable.
Especially in Zen Buddhism, where participants are usually not raised in the religion, the ceremonies and rituals are not followed as a matter of custom. Most of us are converts to Zen, and our conversion comes as a rescue. We found ourselves depressed and agitated, disappointed in our relationships with family, friends, and work. We felt either unwanted or used, betrayed or ignored, filled with both regrets and accusations, and grudgingly tolerated by those who had become increasingly intolerable to us. Like Yudhisthira in the Mahabharata, we found ourselves standing amid the smoking ruins of our life and could not see a way to escape the desolation. And then we turned to Zen and the Bodhisattva’s great mercy filled us with new life. Rescued? You bet. Grateful? More than we can ever express. This new life, this rebirth, is of the Future Buddha now gestating within each of us.
Christians who assert that they have been reborn in the spirit claim also that they feel the same gratitude and love when they consume the sacramental bread, and whether or not they believe that it becomes the living body of their hero-savior who was sacrificed specifically for their redemption, the ritual accomplishes its purpose.
In Sir James Frazer’s overview of such universally observed rituals, The Golden Bough, we find under the heading, “Eating the God,” many examples of the sacramental regard of flesh and bodily fluids. The ritual is known among the more obviously primitive societies among us, as well as those who are the most religiously refined.
Frazer asserts that one motive for these rituals is simply the belief that the food source itself, “is animated by a conscious and more or less powerful spirit, who must be propitiated before the people can safely partake of the fruits or roots which are supposed to be part of his body.”
Breatharians notwithstanding, another motive is the obvious fact that we are made of whatever it is we eat and drink. Extending this into a spiritual realm, it becomes unassailable to some of us that feeding upon the flesh of a hero-savior imparts whatever spiritual property there was within him or her. The question then concerns the manner in which we consume the heroic savior or the divine inhabitant of grains or animals upon which we depend for survival. It may be a symbolic theophagy achieved by a special preparation of certain foods, or in ancient practices by the actual flesh of a sacrificed person who has been chosen to represent the divinity, or through a miracle of Transubstantiation of foodstuff into flesh.
Our atheistic friends always seem to confuse Communion rituals, which are, by definition, expressions of gratitude and love made by those who have been saved from sin, starvation or a deplorable existence, with cannibalism as a menu choice. There have been instances, probably many more than we know about, in which under conditions of extreme hunger people have resorted to consuming the flesh of the dead. The most publicized instance of such an event was the 1972 airline crash two miles high in the Andes mountains. Sixteen people survived the crash and during the two months they were stranded in the barren snow and ice, they subsisted on the flesh of the crash victims. All Roman Catholics, the men decided to consume the flesh ritualistically. Survivor Nando Parrado wrote, “Shortly after our rescue, officials of the Catholic Church announced that according to church doctrine we had committed no sin by eating the flesh of the dead. They told the world – as Roberto [Canessa] had argued on the mountain – that the sin would have been to allow ourselves to die.”
The attempts by atheists to link such extraordinary acts of spiritual exaltation with vampirism or cannibalistic lust fail because those of us who know better also know that those who disparage the rite are simply unlucky souls who have so far been excluded from the joy and peace of redemption. They have denied themselves the beauty of Michelangelo’s Pietá and Dali’s Corpus Hypercubus; they have limited their appreciation of the Parthenon, Hagia Sophia, Tikal, and Notre Dame to architectural considerations. They are deaf to Mozart’s Requiem and Bach’s B Minor Mass. Against their sophomoric arrogance stand mankind’s most wonderful accomplishments. Were we to eliminate all the religiously inspired art, architecture, music, and literature from all the world’s civilizations – from the caves of Lascaux to the stage of La Scala – we would not have a brave, new world of clever atheists but a world that lacked awe and was more than a little dreary.
Maybe someday they will understand. It is devoutly to be wished.
Image credits in order: Yao Xiang Shakya. Wikipedia.com