Apologies for the dry nature of this post.
Last month there was a big to-do about a student who left a communion ceremony without having consumed the communion bread he had in his mouth. He apparently wanted to show it to someone outside the church who was curious. When they realised he wasn’t playing by the rules, people even tried to compel him to eat the bread but he â€œescapedâ€. He kept the bread for a week before returning it because he had received death threats.
Now, there are a number of issues at stake here: is it reasonable to threaten the life of someone for the desecration of what is considered sacred? By taking part in a religious ceremony, should we then be bound by the rules and norms surrounding that ceremony? Also, there is the matter of the rather controversial doctrine of transubstantiation, which holds that the bread and wine taken during communion actually becomes the body and blood of Christ, hence why some people claimed the student’s act was an act of kidnapping.
I don’t want to talk about any of these issues, what I’d like to focus on instead is this idea of a â€œtabooâ€. The word â€œTabooâ€ derives from the Maori / Tongan word â€œTapuâ€ which means (for lack of a better word) â€œsacredâ€. Places that are â€œTapuâ€ in Maori culture are considered so sacred in fact, that in some cases they are simply off limits.Â New Zealand roads have been planned in order to take into account the areas of land considered sacred by the Maori people.
Now, you and I may see that as silly. No bit of land is more important than any other. It’s all the same. Furthermore, surely it’s counterproductive to hold these superstitions? Well, yes and no. Taboos and sacred things are our way of demarcating things that are important to us. Having limits allows us to define something of who we are. Jews don’t eat pork. It’s an easy way to set themselves apart from others, to have an identity. My personality type tends to like to break up taboos, to take them apart and see what makes them tick. One big taboo for me used to be communion.
You see, growing up, I realised my mother no longer took communion, because she was divorced & remarried and her tradition was apparently quite clear that she shouldn’t take communion. In protest, I refused communion for many years, until I was finally challenged in a Baptist church of all places. They asked me to explain why I didn’t want to participate in this symbolic act with them.
It took a lot of thinking on my part to realise that my taboo was silly. Bread and wine only have meaning if we choose to give them meaning. I could perform a communion ceremony with tomato soup and a piece of toast and it could be just as meaningful (or meaningless) as I wanted it to be. The symbols we use are merely representations of something more important.
I started participating and to my surprise, the act became more and more significant to me, until now, I can say that I consider it to be an important part of my faith. Why? Because I choose it to be.Â
I recently had an unusual experience with communion that gave me more understanding. Last week, I was responsible (with a friend) to set up the service. This involved preparing the wine and bread, the whole shebang. Unfortunately, we were a little heavy-handed with the wine so, come the end of the service, our homilist (the person doing the preaching, also called Stephen) that evening stood before the two goblets of wine with a slightly pensive expression on his face. The problem is that the wine now has to be consumed by someone, ostensibly the priest concerned.
â€œCould you help me with this?â€ Stephen beckoned to me.
â€œSureâ€ I said uncertainly, â€œI don’t think I am allowed, thoughâ€ I added uncertainly, looking over my shoulder.
â€œOh, no, it’s quite simple, you drink that one, and I’ll drink this oneâ€
I took the cup dubiously in my hand and regarded the wine swirling ominously within. â€œAre there words I should say?â€
â€œNo, no, it’s just a reverence for what is sacredâ€
We both swilled our cups in unison and I tried not to cough up the wine as I did so. I am not much of a wine drinker.
I know some people who would find the above story quite offensive. It’s not usually done that a lay-person be allowed to finish with the wine and bread after communion. Being a part of the â€œbehind the scenesâ€ I can honestly say that communion preparations are far more humble than the grand show going on out at the altar during the ceremony. There’s nothing special about the wine, or the bread, or about the way it’s prepared. The bread and wine only become sacred because we call them sacred, the act of communion only has value because we choose to give it value.
To the student who stole the bread, the communion presumably had no value. He may as well have just taken a piece of bread from home and popped it in his mouth without a second thought. To those people around him, however, that thing had an immense value. This is why they behaved the way they did. It seems to me to be rather thoughtless to flaunt his irreverence in the face of the people around him. I am not suggesting that he should have behaved differently because the bread was somehow inherently sacred, but because it was sacred to someone else. That should have been enough.
Still, I don’t think it’s good to take ourselves too seriously. We cannot expect everyone to adhere to our taboos and we’re going to have our feathers ruffled from time to time. This doesn’t diminish the value of what we call Tapu.