There’s a story told of a young Jewish boy named Mortakai who refused to go to school. When he was six years old, his mother took him to school, but he cried and protested all the way and, immediately after she left, ran back home. She brought him back to school and this scenario played itself out for several days. He refused to stay in school. His parents tried to reason with him, arguing that he, like all children, must now go to school. To no avail. His parents then tried the age-old trick of applying an appropriate combination of bribes and threats. This too had no effect.
Finally, in desperation they went to their Rabbi and explained the situation to him. For his part, the Rabbi simply said: “If the boy won’t listen to words, bring him to me.” They brought him into the Rabbi’s study. The Rabbi said not a word. He simply picked up the boy and held him to his heart for a long time. Then, still without a word, he set him down. What words couldn’t accomplish, a silent embrace did. Mortakai not only began willingly to go to school, he went on to become a great scholar and a Rabbi.
What that parable wonderfully expresses is how the Eucharist works. In it, God physically embraces us. Indeed that is what all sacraments are, God’s physical embrace. Words, as we know, have a relative power. In critical situations they often fail us. When this happens, we have still another language, the language of ritual. The most ancient and primal ritual of all is the ritual of physical embrace. It can say and do what words cannot.
Jesus acted on this.
For most of his ministry, he used words. Through words, he tried to bring us God’s consolation, challenge, and strength. His words, like all words, had a certain power. Indeed, his words stirred hearts, healed people, and affected conversions. But at a time, powerful though they were, they too became inadequate. Something more was needed. So on the night before his death, having exhausted what he could do with words, Jesus went beyond them. He gave us the Eucharist, his physical embrace, his kiss, a ritual within which he holds us to his heart.
To my mind, that is the best understanding there is of Eucharist. Within both my undergraduate and graduate theological training, I took long courses on the Eucharist. In the end, these didn’t explain the Eucharist to me, not because they weren’t good, but because the Eucharist, like a kiss, needs no explanation and has no explanation. If anyone were to write a four hundred page book entitled, The Metaphysics of a Kiss, it would be not deserve a readership. Kisses just work, their inner dynamics need no metaphysical elaboration.
The Eucharist is God’s kiss. Andre Dubus, the Cajun novelist, used to say: “Without the Eucharist, God becomes a monologue.” He’s right. A couple of years ago, Brenda Peterson, in a remarkable little essay entitled, In Praise of Skin, describes how she once was inflicted by a skin-rash that no medicine could effectively soothe. She tried every kind of doctor and medicine. To no avail. Finally she turned to her grandmother, remembering how, as a little girl, her grandmother used to massage her skin whenever she had rashes, bruises, or was otherwise ill. The ancient remedy worked again. Her grandmother massaged her skin, over and over again, and the rash that seemingly couldn’t be eradicated disappeared.
Skin needs to be touched. This is what happens in the Eucharist and that is why the Eucharist, and every other Christian sacrament, always has some very tangible physical element to it—a laying on of hands, a consuming of bread and wine, an immersion into water, an anointing with oil. An embrace needs to be physical, not only something imagined.
G K Chesterton once wrote: “There comes a time, usually late in the afternoon, when the little child tires of playing policeman and robbers. It’s then that he begins to torment the cat!” Mothers, with young children, are only too familiar with this late afternoon hour and its particular dynamic. There comes an hour, usually just before supper, when a child’s energy is low, when it is tired and whining, and when the mother has exhausted both her patience and her repertoire of warnings: “Leave that alone! Don’t do that!” The child, tense and miserable, is clinging to her leg. At that point, she knows what to do. She picks up the child. Touch, not word, is what’s needed. In her arms, the child grows calm and tension leaves its body.
That’s an image for the Eucharist. We are that tense, over-wrought child, perennially tormenting the cat. There comes a point, even with God, when words aren’t enough. God has to pick us up, like a mother her child. Physical embrace is what’s needed. Skin needs to be touched. God knows that. It’s why Jesus gave us the Eucharist.