The Eucharist as Embodiment: Toward a Sacramental Theology of Sexuality, Part One

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EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article by Rev. Jennie Boyd Bull is Part One of a two part series titled "The Eucharist as Embodiment: Toward a Sacramental Theology of Sexuality." The excerpts are taken from her ordination paper. FFO is developing a grass roots Christian Theology of Sexuality. The following does not report an official stand of the commission.

by Jennie Boyd Bull

Chair, FFO

"Embodiment" is a term used by James Nelson in his book of that title, EMBODIMENT: AN APPROACH TO SEXUALITY AND CHRISTIAN THEOLOGY. The book’s primary focus, and one that is shared in this article, is that God’s acts are always "em bodied" in the reality of human history and in our sexuality, in the fullest sense of personhood as male and female. "The Word is made flesh and dwells among us, full of grace and truth." (John 1: 14). In particular, Nelson seeks to refute traditional western Christian concepts of spirit/flesh dualism and subsequent degradation of the bodily, which has in turn led to ascetic denial of sexuality by much of Christianity. In one sense, for Nelson embodiment is another word for incarnation, the essential Christian mystery that God and world, spirit and flesh, divine and human are made one in Christ. However, it is the particular strength of this word that it helps one focus on the "bodiliness" of Christianity. As Nelson States: Sexuality is a sign, a symbol, and a means of our call to communication and communion. This is most apparent in regard to other human beings, other body-selves. The mystery of our sexuality is the mystery of our need to reach out to embrace others both physically and spiritually. Sexuality thus expresses God’s intention that we find our authentic humanness in relationship. But such humanizing relationship cannot occur on the human dimension alone. Sexuality, we must also say, is intrinsic to our relationship with God.

 

This article will approach eucharist from this perspective of embodiment. More importantly, eucharist will be used to give full meaning to sexuality, to define it. One implication of this approach is that it necessitates primary consideration of the embodied reality of eucharist, its real place in worship, practice by real people with real elements in real congregations today, in situations of historical particularity. This paper will begin with that perspective; the eucharist will be described as it is celebrated in UFMCC worship, not primarily as defined in the UFMCC Statement of Faith or any other credal or theological statement. Then the discussion will proceed to specific elements of eucharist as they are embodied in worship: the role of the priest, the bread and  wine, the assembled congregation.

Church as Sacrament

Part of this theological perspective is an ecclesiology seeing the Church as Sacrament, as the Body of Christ broken for the life of the world, risen to newness of life in community and living in present joy of the future parousia.

"Christ has died.

Christ is risen.

Christ will come again. "

As the Church, the Body of Christ, we are called to "die," broken in service to the world; the risen Christ is present among us in the power of the Holy Spirit; and we live in present joy at the future feasting with Christ.

 

"Christ has died" speaks of our brokenness, sexually.

As Ernest Becker says in DENIAL OF DEA TH, the particular dilemma of oursexuality is that it both keenly reminds usof our bodiliness, our mortality, and of our transcendence, our symbolic creativity as a"sign" of relationship. "Sex is an inevitablecomponent of human confusion over themeaning of life, a meaning split hopelesslyinto two realms – symbols (freedom) andbody (fate)." As human beings, we areconstantly aware of the brokenness of ourbodies around sexuality, not only throughthe obvious brokenness of sexual violence,abuse, incest, rape, but through the "petitmort" of the fleeting orgasmic experience,the loneliness of physical passion withoutemotional and spiritual intimacy, the fearsof sexuality that bind our hearts and bodiesfrom the full enjoyment of ourselves and aloved one. So many of us are ashamed of,even hate our bodies.

 

"Christ is risen" speaks of relationship

Christ present with us in resurrection signifies the reality of sexuality as a feasting,a healing, a shared love in relationship that is at the core of the resurrection as apresent intimacy with Christ and with each other as the Body of Christ. Just as in eucharist we feast, celebrate, know the healing of being present with one anotherand with Christ, so in sexuality we feast oneach other, celebrate our union, know the healing of that intimacy. A holy union is not only that love celebrated between two people, but also the union we know in eucharist with Christ at the feast of the Lamb. The male/bridegroom/Christ andfemale/Bride/Church image has been used for centuries to promote dualism, sexist hierarchy, excluding women from priesting, and a host of other tragic sins but the sexual imagery implicit in the marriage feast must not be lost. The image must be redeemed as "holy union" with our God. We as the Body of Christ (with the priest as one among many) are both male and female (Gal. 3 :28), made one with God at the marriage feast (Song of Solomon 2), the communion of saints (Rev. 19). And that union includes the fullness of our bodiliness, the resurrection of the body, our sexual fullness in God. And the Holy Spirit is that passion that binds us together, pulls us toward each other in giving and receiving, mutuality, openness to one another.

 

"Christ will come again" is the resurrection of the body

As a resurrection people, Christians know the hope of resurrection beyonddeath; we know forgiveness, that bodilydecay is not the final reality, that fear ofdeath may be overcome in the hope of Christian community in God’s grace.

 

Personal Embodiment

These three faith acclamations about Christ reflect a major theological struggle in my own life. The maleness of Jesus has been a major question: How can I as a Lesbian, who claims that sexuality is oneaspect of the fullness of spirituality,celebrate holy union with a male Christ? My spiritual journey on this has been, and continues to be, a healing and growing one.

 

. . . First I needed to claim that God could be woman for me, and in the process claimed selflove as a woman, God’s love of me as a woman. One of my most profound experiences of grace was God speaking to me as a woman while I was spending time alone with my body, during a painful time of separation from women. She said to me, "Did you forget about ·me?"

 

. . . That freed me to accept Jesus as a man without ultimate authority in hismaleness, rather seeing all of him as friend,dance partner, one with authority based in trusting relationship.

 

. . . I struggled with sexual attraction to men. It was not until I accepted that itwas ok to have sexual feelings for men,that they did not threaten my primary,deeper attraction to women, and that I chose to act on my feelings for women,ie., once I accepted the full range of myown sexuality, that the question of the sexuality of Jesus also became less threatening and primary.

 

. . . My view of sexuality broadened from a genital focus to a sense of myself as a sexual person in all of my relating: for example, intense intimacy with friendsis important, acknowledging the sexual aspect of that intensity but understandingno need or desire for genital activity, I grew to separate the need for physical intimacy from genital relating and came to cherish many diverse forms. Worshiptimes also include sexual excitement and intimacy and preaching is an act of releasingsexual energy, in some sense "making love"with the congregation. All of these arepersonal experiences that have helped meget beyond the focus on what I do or donot do genitally, and with whom, but onfulfilling my sexual needs in a variety ofways.

 

In our culture, women are taught that intimate bonding and sexuality can only happen with one person, and any sexual feelings must be accompanied by romantic love. It has been a slow, growing process for me to broaden my intimacy openness, allowing my feelings to expand to more than one, loving myself. It is a growth in selflove, of openness to loving others in non dependent ways, of a supportive webof friendship in which sexuality is only one aspect. I still have "miles to go" in all of this, but at the moment, three years of being single and the ways this has forced me to deal with intimacy, friendship,sexual feelings and needs, is one of the best gifts God could give me. (One always feelsambivalent about gifts, methinks.)

 

In the male culture, both Gay and straight, one of the brokennesses is the separation of the sexual from the emotional and spiritual, leaving many menrelating genitally, and genitally focused, without any risk of feelings or meeting ofintimacy needs. We all come at brokenness from different places. Genital sexualitywithout relatedness is like an empty sign, a eucharist of motions and words without feeling or love. Another important relationof eucharist and sexuality is that both eucharist and worship are but a part of thefullness of our life. All life is eucharistic, is worshipful, and the experience of eucharist itself as sacrament is an embodied sign of what is true for all creation. Just so, our genital sexual relating is a sign, (a sacrament?)of the fullness of all our relating.

 

Embodiment in Priest

The question of the priest as "sign" of Christ in eucharist, at the head of the table sharing with the disciples in the words of institution, has a symbolic role in signifyingthe incarnation of God in humanity. Schmemann states it profoundly: The first, the basic definition of (humanity) is that (we) are the priest.We stand in the center of the world and unify it in our act of blessing God: of both receiving the world from Godand offering it to God and by filling the world with this eucharist, we transform our life,· the one that we receive from the world, into lifein God, into communion with God.The world was created as the "matter, "the material of one all-embracing eucharist, and (humanity) was created as the priest of this cosmic sacrament.Romans 1 :25 has always testified to me of my purpose as a human being, to worship and serve God. It also defines sin as the idolatry of worshipping and serving thecreature (including our sexuality – so many of us make sex into God, make humanrelationships into God).

 

However, emphasis on the priest as head of the body has supported a hierarchical understanding of the realm of God. The radical equalizing of the meals of the kingdom portrays tax collectors and sinners all sharing equally with Jesus, who is among us as one who serves, washing our feet (John 13). The sexual dualism of Christian tradition, fed by references to Christ as male/head/husband and Church as female/body /wife (Ephesians 5 :23) has contributed to denial of the bodily, the sexual and the female, and thus has led to exclusion of women from service at the eucharistic table for much of the Christian tradition. This alienating specificity betrays the false understanding that women are not fully created in God’s image. Nelson argues that our understanding of God as a unity of transcendence and immanence is paralleled by our understanding of true humanity as androgynous,claiming the polarities within each of us rather than a dualistic dichotomization of our selfhood – or of God. The eschatological realm overcomes all dualisms, for in Christ there is neither male nor female, but all are one in Christian baptism (Gal 3 :27-28). Given this basic Pauline understanding of the nature of the realm of God, the commonwealth of God then one implication for eucharist is that both women and men may stand as priest at the table. The union of male and female in the wholeness of gathered community with diverse gifts in the Spirit is the centralBiblical, and eucharistic, image (I Cor. 12).

 

Concelebration of eucharist is also a powerful way to speak of the sexual experience, as con-celebrating together.The frequent concelebration I have experienced in MCC has spoken powerfully to me on several occasions, often in a sexual way, of the communion we all seek.It can be a powerful symbol of holy union. At General Conference 1983, the Commission on Faith, Fellowship and Order offered a eucharist that reflects this unity. All FFO commission members, lay andclergy, concelebrated. The worship service was led by speakers standing from among the people. All of us distributed communion. We gathered up the diversity of our Fellowship into one communion one body con-celebrating the presence of Christ in each other and in our holy union.We named our brokenness, rejoiced in our oneness, celebrated our future worktogether as we continue to journey in relationship

 

Part of the struggle with head/body dualism, and one that is especially poignant for me as a woman, is the ancient menstrual taboo that separated women from service at the altar. It is a supreme irony of the alienation of the sexes that the very blood of Christ that is elevated at the eucharist is the same substance that in women has prevented access to that elevation. Barbara Deming says,Rape is an act by which men violently refuse to remember that the placethey batter is the place that gave them birth.

 

Too often our culture refuses to remember that blood is a primal symbol of life-giving in women, of birthing, of creation. I as a woman affirm that blood is for me a basic symbol of life, of the potential for life, of the often painful process ofcreation. Blood is not for me primarily asymbol of death, of woundedness, of lifepoured out to death, but rather a sign oflife poured out for life. (See John 19: 34for an image of Jesus’ life poured out asliving water, for life). And this understandinggives much power to celebration of eucharist for me. As a woman, to standat the altar and say, "This is my blood,poured out for you," is to speak profoundlyof the mystery of death and life in the eucharistic meal. The exclusively malepriesting of the sacrament for centuries hascontributed to the "deathly" focus of themeal, in the sense that this life-giving understanding of blood is usually not acknowledged and is rather feared as some mysterious, "disembodied" power. There is clear Hebraic precedent for this emphasis on blood as life: For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to youto make atonement for yourselveson the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for ones life.(Lev. 17:11)

 

Nelson speaks of Hebrew holiness depending on order and separation, with those who embody transition or defy classification seen as "polluting." More to the point, perhaps, is the threat such disorder brings to power relations: When rituals express anxiety aboutthe body’s orifices (menstruation would be a prime example) anthropologically they appear to expressanxiety about the political and cultural unity of the social group.It is the institutional church’s need for maintaining established social power relationsof men over women that has brought emphasis on fear of menstruation the taboo of female blood at the altar’And yet, the very nature of the eucharistic feast is that it is a supremely political act (sexual politics included), manifesting the essential unity of all creation in Christ which no political or cultural unity or disunity of any social group can possibly threaten. And that unity is one of radical discontinuity with all earthly power relations and self-seeking of earthly status — the first shall be the last and the last first. The menstruating woman as priest at the eucharist defies earthly power relations and embodies that radical new realm in a directly political way. And Christ embodies the radical discontinuity of a man who pours out his blood – not for death – but for life, the life of the world. This is a powerful resurrection statement, and a supremely political statement.

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