To Hold Death’s Hand: On How the Dead Matter for Communion

In the last post Communion was connected with the physical reality of Jesus’ sacrificial death. Most of the people who are able to read this blog, but not all, are disconnected from anything remotely like the brutal death of Jesus at the hands of an oppressive political force which followed his act of proclaiming bread and wine as symbols of his body and blood. Most, but not all. Many are likely also insulated from the “good” deaths of the aged and suffering, the tragic deaths of the young, and deeply painful neo-natal deaths. Most, but not all. When a dear friend died a little over a year ago, I was in my late forties and had not had to contend much with death at all. As I cared for his body after his death, however, I learned that dead bodies have much to say.

My friend’s body had changed tremendously due to his illness, and then, over the 48 hours following his death, it was clear that the corpse was increasingly a very small remnant of who he was. There was something of him there; that remnant allowed many of us to sit with him and feel that he was still somewhat present. Yet what was essential was clearly not there any longer. This allowed me to begin to understand more deeply the reality of our physical human frailty and by the same token the tremendous force of the spirit. I do not remember my friend’s body as my friend. I remember his dead body as the proof of his departure. As the reality of his death sank in, the essence of what his life meant to me also began crystalize within me. I now remember him alive in the way I knew and loved him best: sitting in conversation with me and others, thoughtfully listening, chuckling at something that surprised him, telling stories about the people who had shown him the light of divine, encouraging his children – or confronting them, or confronting my own child at times… all the ways that he blessed those around him.

It has often been claimed that a body, when presented at a funeral service, should look as if the person is asleep, calm, and at peace. The reason for this has often been described as the “memory picture” that the loved ones will carry with them going forward. Having dealt with the body of my friend for three days between the moment of his death and his interment, I reject this idea completely. To remember him asleep would be not to remember him at all. For me, the drastic contrast between the dead body of my friend and the memory of my friend alive helped me understand the relationship between the body and the spirit. How they nourish each other, and how, ultimately, only the spirit survives.

Getting involved with the dead body of my friend illuminated the true nature of the body, the spirit and the act of remembering. All of these are the elements of the Communion rite, also known as Eucharist: Christ’s broken body, his blood spilled out for us, the act of remembering, and the intangible meeting with the tangible. But the story of my experience with my friend is only one story. The stories of other deaths, and the lives that went with them, will also help illuminate the mystery of Christ’s death and why we are to remember it in action.

In recent years the bloody deaths of marginalized people in America have been lifted up and lamented publicly. Their dead bodies have led many to proclaim that their lives mattered. If the Christian understanding of our own bodies as bodies connected to the brutally executed body of Jesus was more deeply understood, how deep would our outrage at contemporary events be, regardless of the color of our skin? How might understanding this connection be reflected in our regular worship services if we dared to really connect these deaths with the rite of Communion?

black-pieta-by-stacey-torres

Black Pieta by Stacey Torres

The connection between communion and dead bodies is perhaps the most important aspect of this call to engage with the dead. Without an understanding that the body symbolized by the elements of bread and wine is a dead (as well as risen) body, a body that stood on the margins, under foreign oppression and under those who colluded with the oppressors, a body that was beloved by his mother and his followers, the action may become reduced to a meal that is not much different than any meal. Communion may become a rite centered on a feeling of unity that is not well connected with ultimate physical or spiritual destiny. It may lose the gravity of what it means to be human, and so fail to proclaim the good news that death has lost its sting.

Communion, even simply as an act of profound togetherness, has been literally life saving for me in my own journey. Yet one must not be satisfied merely with the milk of human kindness; the meat of this rite is in the connection with the dead. A body broken and blood poured out are what we consume together in the Eucharist.

How might the experience of bodies broken in war, of neo-natal losses, of suffering bodies and the end of suffering, illumine our understanding of the God with us, God who suffered and died? How might caring for the bodies of those who have died violently and the ones who mourn them embolden the Christian community to confront violence and oppression? How might the loss of one hoped for just when that hope seemed to be coming to fruition help us understand Christian hope and the heart of the God who weeps for Jerusalem as a mother weeping for her children?

Death matters because lives matter. If Jesus died for all, then we must dare to engage with all kinds of death if we want to know Jesus.

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