Sign Value: It’s A Thing

During the pandemic, some congregations began using all-in-one containers of bread and juice that look for all the world like holy Keurig cups, or those little crinkly plastic coffee creamers you get in motels. You peel back a lid of plastic film to find a perfectly round, perfectly white, stiff and starchy stamped out wafer, and underneath, a precisely measured prim little thimbleful of juice. Exactly the same for everyone, compact, sanitary, not cheap, but very convenient. 

I devoutly believe that the contents of that little contraption, duly blessed and consumed, were true Communion for all who partook of them. Which simply confirms my suspicion that Jesus has a quirky sense of humor and an infinite store of humility to be pleased to come to us by such fleshless, bloodless signs. That’s what you’ve got? Yuck, but good to go. Not even plastic can keep me away.

Still, judging by all the meals Jesus enjoyed that earned him a reputation as a glutton and a drunk, I think he might be just as glad to get back to being present with us in real chewy, slurpy, unprepackaged food, so that, having consumed his ample life, we might be present to the world in real chewy, slurpy, bodily, ample unprepackaged (and even unsanitary) ways, a kind of holy excess of real presence to all who hunger for the taste and mouth feel of companionship and compassion, not pale, plastic, finicky facsimiles thereof.

And judging from the miracles of multiplication Jesus performed, I wonder if he might not be just as happy to get back to being present with us in food distributed not according to strict, uniform, and teensy parity, but according to the measure of real hunger and need and the human right to a share of enjoyment of all earth’s goods, with doggie bags when we’re done, so that, having consumed his life, we might be present through food banks and soup kitchens and doorstep casseroles and loud table whacking advocacy in the halls of power for economic justice for those who starve amid plenty. 

And judging from all the stories Jesus told about plowing and sowing, owners and workers and wages, I think he might be just as pleased to be present to us again in food that’s recognizable as food that labor actually produced, food that somebody sowed, reaped, milled, kneaded, baked, pruned, plucked, pressed, refined, bottled, and transported, so that, having consumed his life, we might be present to those who do all that every day yet whom we deem essential only when there are mortal risks to run and they’re the ones running them for us, present to them with a living wage, better conditions, and other effective affirmations of labors’ worth and workers’ dignity.

And judging from the gospels where Jesus is never depicted as eating alone, I think he might be just as glad to get back to being present with us in, with, through, under (or whatever you believe) signs that have to be taken, touched, broken, poured and passed from human hand to human hand, not personally packaged for antiseptic private ingestion, so that, having consumed his life, we might abandon the aloof isolation, self-protection, and self-delusion in which we often operate, reading and discussing the latest powerful book about issues and the people who have them but not rubbing bodies with anybody in hard won relationship, and be present to the world like he was and still is when we obey him, among and within and beside and wholly given away.

The holy Keurig cups were a necessary fallback (and they can still be useful for home visits and the like), but in my view the fact that they have been sold in bulk for years and widely used in many Protestant churches as a safe convenient delivery system for the Lord’s supper long before Covid came along, with its prudent precautions, betrays a fear of mingling and contamination that, were you to take a hard look at the history of such things would turn up no shortage of racism and xenophobia, a horror of a different sort of viral and uncontrollable infection, the hordes and all that.

Then there’s the sacramental minimalism they represent, the not so subtle embarrassment that we have to “Do this” as Jesus commanded, so we do it a little grudgingly mostly because he said we should, and even as we talk a good game about the feast, God’s abundant banquet table, the bread of heaven, and y’all come, we don’t have to bless and serve food that any basic regular person would recognize as such, and we don’t have to love it or enjoy it, much less be it or become it or live what at Christ’s table we say we do, re-member, and become one bread, one body, one flesh and blood.

The coffee creamer container with the tiny wafer (you can’t make me call it “bread”) and lipslip of juice were OK as emergency rations, but you can’t escape the possibility that they conveyed nothing of the lusty tasty gospel Jesus but rather a miserly, private, flavorless Jesus, convenient to use in the comfort of your own home or in a sanctuary where everyone can remain where they are and need not bestir themselves in any way to take and eat or to go and do likewise in this God-beloved world that so desperately needs abundantly-communionized people to communion all of life in Jesus’ holy and abundant name.

We like to say that a sacrament is an outward sign of an inward grace. True, but not just of inward things. Sacramental signs point to outward reality, too. Who we think God is, who we think we are, what we think we are doing in Jesus’ name as Christ’s Body fed with his life, what we are called to become, how we think the world was meant to be, how it was meant to feel and taste and smell and sound, and where that meant-to-be world is breaking in around us with justice and celebration, pardon and healing, reconciliation and joy. 

People read signs. What are we giving them to read? 

People feel meaning, they suss it out almost unconsciously from ritual actions and words. What are ours conveying?

3 thoughts on “Sign Value: It’s A Thing

  1. dkm1724

    Glorious! Thank youMary, you’ve done it again! You seem to take the thoughts and longings of so many of us and put them into words of comfort and challenge, words that point us back to Jesus. I want to be a part of the “abundantly-communionized people to communion all of life in Jesus’ holy and abundant name!”

    1. Carter West

      You have indeed done it again, my treasured teacher, as incarnationally as ever, with great good humor wrapping around your genuine substantive piety. And with style! I’m going to go practice a few paragraph-long sentences of my own. So good to spy “Sicus” in my in-box again! All kinds of love to you.

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