Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Food Chain: For Corpus Christi Sunday

We who believe often speak of the need to "grow in faith." I've never been certain exactly what that means. But as time has passed, my own faith has become ever more important to me: not as a comfort against the certainty of bodily death, and not as some sort of confirmation of my own superiority, but rather as a unifying set of premises that allow the universe, and human life within it, to make sense.

This is critical for one overriding reason: the incoherence of every other religion Man has ever practiced with the observable laws of Nature in action around us.

Today being Corpus Christi Sunday -- a holy day celebrated much more enthusiastically and demonstrably in Latin countries than in us of the AngloSphere -- allow me to reprise an old favorite from Eternity Road.


The most fundamental of all relations among living things is the food relation. For any two species, which one can eat the other, either in theory or in practice, determines just about everything else about their interactions.

This might seem a little fuzzy in certain cases. Beyond question, a dog can kill and eat a man. The same is true for the Portuguese Man O' War. But how often does it happen? Yet there are millions of people in various parts of the world for whom dog or jellyfish is a regular part of their diets. (You can stop shuddering now.) In the usual case, Man is considered the eater and these other species the eaten.

Thus, a brief exploration of the food chain.

Man has been an eater for a lot longer than he's been a builder of civilizations. His career as a hunter has established him as the world champion at that contest. His development of systematic agriculture demonstrated that his hegemony extends equally well to the plant kingdom. By all measures, he's at the pinnacle of the food chain. He eats whatever he wishes, and only in the rarest of cases does any other species eat him.

The centrality of food relations to Earth's biosystem is so obvious that we're all but unaware of it. Two of the more significant but less frequently pondered manifestations of the thing can be found in our nightmares and our rites of worship and propitiation.

Almost as soon as men began to compose tales for one another's entertainment, they invented creatures with power to hunt, kill, and eat human beings. Vampires, ghouls, and werewolves are items of fantasy, traditional terrors that have been invoked in horror tales for many centuries. Yet what is it that makes them so terrifying? Not that they can kill men, for far lesser creatures can do that, if they get the breaks. No, their ability to frighten comes from their greater-than-human hunting ability, and their view of men as food.

There's nothing that terrifies like the prospect of being eaten. Men have gone into battle against other men under conditions that virtually guaranteed their deaths, yet they've often gone willingly, sometimes even eagerly. They still do. But no man can face the prospect of becoming an entree for a greater creature without quaking in fear.

Mess with a man's assumptions about the food chain and you upend his whole concept of himself as a man.

On the other side, there are human practices with relation to their concepts of divinity. Divinities -- gods -- are by definition superior to men. Yet their participation in the life of Man is not categorically predatory, even in those creeds which place evil gods on an equal par with good ones, and see the history of the world as a struggle between equally matched forces of light and darkness in which humans are less than pawns. In our attempts to win the favor of the gods, and on occasion to avert their wrath, men have traditionally offered sacrifices to them. Those sacrifices have almost always been food.

Contemplate the nature of ritual sacrifice for a moment. What's offered to the god being propitiated is something valuable to men: creatures men had to hunt or cultivate, whose substance could nourish and sustain human life. Yet it is deliberately removed from the human economy, usually by burning, in the attempt to convey to the god the sense that we acknowledge his superiority to us. By denying themselves the consumption of the offered food and instead offering it to the god, the sacrificers make plain that they submit themselves to him. Metaphorically, the sacrificed items are substitutes for human bodies: pleadings that the shamans and their congregants not be eaten.

The Biblical story of God's command to Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Abraham's readiness to obey, is terrifying and exalting for that reason. On the one hand, the God of the Old Testament was not perceived even by His Chosen People, of whom Abraham was the progenitor, as being so intrinsically kindly disposed toward Man that He would never, ever demand such a sacrifice. Moreover, His power was such that there was no question that He could enforce His will in such a matter, and much worse besides. On the other hand, God intervened at the last instant to prevent the sacrifice, having established to His satisfaction that Abraham submitted entirely to His will. Thus, the pact between God and the children of Abraham -- the Jewish people -- was sealed as one of guidance and beneficence from above in exchange for worship and obedience from below. God did not intend to eat His people.

***

Clearly, the food relation is a superiority / inferiority relation. He who eats is the stronger, who can have his will in all things. He who is eaten is the weaker, who must prostrate himself before the other in the hope of benevolence or mercy.

Men, the highest of the creatures of this world, do not eat one another, except in the most extraordinary circumstances. Those micro-societies that have practiced cannibalism have extinguished themselves thereby -- there are some very nasty diseases, with fatality rates approaching 100%, that arise from cannibalism -- or have been humbled and re-educated by more civilized, more insightful peoples. We have attained enough insight into moral matters, and most particularly into the fundamental equality of rights all men should enjoy, to regard cannibalism with appropriate horror.

But we still tell, and shudder over, stories of powerful, inhuman creatures that hunger for human flesh and blood. Vampire legends make up a healthy fraction of our fantastic literature. When we figure in the werewolf, the ghoul, and the occasional extraterrestrial who regards us as haute cuisine, we've covered the overwhelming majority of our scare stories. That's how fundamental the food relation is to our view of our place in the natural world.

There aren't many religious sects in the modern world that still practice the old form of ritual sacrifice, in which a food item -- usually an animal -- is offered up to a god in hopes of winning his favor or pardon. The devotees of Santeria do it, now and then, as do the practitioners of voudoun. But these are meager survivals of old, animistic-pagan creeds. Their adherents are few and will probably never be many.

However, a form of sacrifice still characterizes the most important religious rite in the world. Its devotees number in the billions. They partake of this sacrifice at every opportunity; to them, it is the highest a living man can rise in communion with God. And most curiously of all, it is a bidirectional sacrifice, the only such ever celebrated in all the eons of Man.

I speak, of course, of the Miracle of Transubstantiation in the Christian Eucharist.

In the days of Christ, the ritual sacrifice of food animals at the Temple in Jerusalem was still the preeminent religious rite in the classical world. The Hebrews regarded those sacrifices as God's due for extending His protection over them as His Chosen People. Indeed, according to the Book of Exodus, such sacrifices were ordained by God Himself, as He gave the Ten Commandments to Moses. The Jews of that time considered them the only truly complete act of religious devotion.

Christ upended their world by inverting the food chain. No more would they give up their sustenance in propitiation of the divine will. Henceforward, it would be the other way around: the Son of God would be the Sacrifice, and His people would partake.

From the Gospel According To John:

"I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats of this bread will live forever; and the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh."

The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, "How can this man give us his flesh to eat?" So Jesus said to them, "Very truly, I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day; for my flesh is true food and my blood is true drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood abide in me, and I in them. Just as the living Father sent me, and I live because of the Father, so whoever eats me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, and they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever." [John 6:48-58]

The rite of the Eucharist, in commemoration of the Last Supper, offers bread and wine to God and prays that they might be found acceptable. In response to this humble offering, and in fulfillment of Christ's promise, through the celebrant-priest He works the Transubstantiation, which allows the form of the bread and wine to remain as they are, but converts their substance into the body and blood of Christ. At each Mass, a traditional sacrifice of food to God is met with a renewal of the offering of Christ's body and blood to the world, for the remission of sin and as a perpetual grant of His grace to all who will accept it.

No other creed has anything to compare with the Eucharist. Nor could any conceivable rite, however elaborately crusted with mystery or symbolism, approach the stunning power of God Himself, in the Person of His Son, offering Himself as food to lowly Man.

He could eat us all. Instead He offers Himself as food, that we may remember His Sacrifice for us, and draw as close to Him as mortal creatures can get while still in this world.

Today is the Sunday ordained for the celebration of the Body and Blood of Christ, the Sacrifice beyond all others, that no offering by mortal men could ever equal. The proof that the food chain is not God's manacle about our hands. The unanswerable refutation of those who insist that a malevolent power bestrides the universe. The ironclad guarantee that we are not to be eaten, but to be fed.


And may God bless and keep you all.

5 comments:

  1. Don't tell me you've missed the Gay Cannibal of Canada story?

    I hope so.

    ReplyDelete
  2. I know you're not calling them "Sunday Ruminations" anymore, but I've missed them. And whenever you post one, whether called that or not, I'm grateful.

    Just wanted to tell you that.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Is this an original perspective?

    I've not heard it expressed this way before, but it seems to make so much sense.

    Whoever Jesus really was, Divine Son, or Jewish Cultist Gone Big, he had some pretty radical ideas.

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  4. I can only say that I arrived at it on my own, Paul. In that sense it's definitely "original." Someone else might have reached the same conclusion at an earlier time, but if so, I don't know of it or him.

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  5. This is good stuff. It's a precise meditation and well-presented.

    Hmmm. . . shall we meditate or ruminate on its substance?

    Still, our God is an all-consuming fire, once we have passed from the fear, which you artfully describe here, and into the surrender to the Fire that burns but does not consume.

    Yes, this will sustain my heart and thoughts as I travel yet again to bury now the fifth family member to pass in less than four years.

    May He bless you for your faithful seeking and sharing. It has blessed me and kept me in a sorrowful hour.

    ReplyDelete

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