By Fr. Ron Rolheiser
“Take it; this is my body.”(Mark 14:22-23)
Then he took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it.
Eucharist as God’s Physical Embrace
There’s a story told of a young Jewish boy named Mortakaiwho refused to go to school. When he was six years old, hismother took him to school, but he cried and protested all theway and, immediately after she left, ran back home. Shebrought him back to school and this scenario played itself outfor several days. He refused to stay in school. His parents triedto reason with him, arguing that he, like all children, mustnow go to school. To no avail. His parents then tried the ageoldtrick of applying an appropriate combination of bribes andthreats. This too had no effect.
Finally, in desperation they went totheir Rabbi and explained thesituation to him. For his part, theRabbi simply said: “If the boy won’tlisten to words, bring him to me.”They brought him into the Rabbi’sstudy. The Rabbi said not a word. Hesimply picked up the boy and held him to his heart for a longtime. Then, still without a word, he set him down. What wordscouldn’t accomplish, a silent embrace did. Mortakai not onlybegan willingly to go to school, he went on to become a greatscholar and a Rabbi.
What that parable wonderfully expresses is how the Eucharistworks. In it, God physically embraces us. Indeed that is whatall sacraments are, God’s physical embrace. Words, as weknow, have a relative power. In critical situations they oftenfail us. When this happens, we have still another language, the language of ritual. The most ancient and primal ritual of all isthe 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, hetried to bring us God’s consolation, challenge, and strength. His words, like all words, had a certain power. Indeed, hiswords stirred hearts, healed people, and affected conversions.But at a time, powerful though they were, they too becameinadequate. Something more was needed. So on the nightbefore his death, having exhausted what he could do withwords, Jesus went beyond them. He gave us the Eucharist, hisphysical embrace, his kiss, a ritual within which he holds us tohis heart.
To my mind, that is the best understanding there is of Eucharist. Within both my undergraduate and graduatetheological training, I took long courses on the Eucharist. Inthe end, these didn’t explain the Eucharist to me, not becausethey weren’t good, but because the Eucharist, like a kiss,needs no explanation and has no explanation. If anyone wereto write a four hundred page book entitled, The Metaphysicsof a Kiss, it would 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 amonologue.” He’s right. A couple of years ago, BrendaPeterson, in a remarkable little essay entitled, In Praise ofSkin, describes how she once was inflicted by a skin-rash thatno medicine could effectively soothe. She tried every kind ofdoctor and medicine. To no avail. Finally she turned to hergrandmother, remembering how, as a little girl, hergrandmother used to massage her skin whenever she had rashes, bruises, or was otherwise ill. The ancient remedyworked 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 theEucharist and that is why the Eucharist, and every otherChristian sacrament, always has some very tangible physicalelement to it-a laying on of hands, a consuming of bread andwine, an immersion into water, an anointing with oil. Anembrace needs to be physical, not only something imagined.G K Chesterton once wrote: “There comes a time, usually latein the afternoon, when the little child tires of playingpoliceman and robbers. It’s then that he begins to torment thecat!” Mothers, with young children, are only too familiar withthis late afternoon hour and its particular dynamic. Therecomes an hour, usually just before supper, when a child’senergy is low, when it is tired and whining, and when themother has exhausted both her patience and her repertoire ofwarnings: “Leave that alone! Don’t do that!” The child, tenseand miserable, is clinging to her leg. At that point, she knowswhat to do. She picks up the child. Touch, not word, is what’sneeded. In her arms, the child grows calm and tension leavesits body.
That’s an image for the Eucharist. We are that tense, overwroughtchild, perennially tormenting the cat. There comes apoint, even with God, when words aren’t enough. God has topick us up, like a mother her child. Physical embrace is what’sneeded. Skin needs to be touched. God knows that. It’s why Jesus gave us the Eucharist.
Fr. Ron Rolheiser