In one of his many essays on Christianity,1 C.S. Lewis paints a most telling picture of the earliest days of Christians in Jerusalem. In upper rooms and out of sight, there they were offering the Eucharist with simple bread and wine as the elements of sacrifice. When just down the road in the rambling Temple complex, actual animals were having their throats cut, and actual flesh and blood offered up in the ritual.
Two sacrifices. To the same God. One where the elements of sacrifice perished and the other where they took on life.
But, as Lewis points out: at the time "it must have been all but impossible to resist the conviction that the Jewish service was the reality and the Christian one a mere substitute...".2 Flesh and blood after all are visibly "real"; while bread and wine a seemingly pale and pathetic substitute. "Real" religious sacrifice came with the shrill noise of terrified animals and blaring trumpets; with the acrid smells of spilled blood and burnt flesh; with the swirling sweaty crowds and the rising dust from their feet. This was how it had been for far longer than anyone could remember.
How incredibly courageous then for those early Christians to so resolutely stand in such stark contrast to the religious norms of the day? The counter-cultural enormity of what they were doing in those rooms of Jewish houses is, perhaps, often now lost to us in our familiarity with our own Eucharistic practices developed from those earliest of days in Jerusalem.
We tend to think, perhaps, of early Christian courage through the dark mirrors of imprisonment and martyrdom; of chains and stonings; of flails and crosses, and later wild beasts and unimaginable tortures dreamt up by vindictive (though more often politically scared) cruel Roman Emperors and their brutish henchmen.
But courage to change culture by seeming to do something which, on the surface, appears to be a parody of — a substitute for — the reified practices of the day; that is courage that goes beyond the personal, rationalised, conviction of an individual. It is not born out of philosophy or reflection; it is not created from analysis of the world of humans and nature. It is courage born from supernatural gratuity — from the freely God-given gift of grace.
Where else would it come from? How else could it be motivated? How else should it be invested with purpose and meaning? Its complete unfamiliarity to the mores and culture of the time is so breathtakingly daring, and so apparently bereft of the naturalised "realities" of contemporary religious practices, that it might be expected to be doomed to oblivion as a pastiche of the real "natural" religious practice, so to speak. Like magazines as substitutes for 'real' books perhaps? Like paintings as substitutes for 'real' landscapes? Like Facebook and Twitter as substitutes for "real" conversation? Like television dramas as substitutes for "real" theatre? Like CDs as substitutes for 'real' concerts?
But, are these comparisons fair? The contemporary social mantra is, after all, and has been enshrined as "natural" since at least Nietzsche, that "everything has equal value because everything is equally real". What is now as "natural" to the world as was once the offering of flesh and blood in the temple of Jerusalem, is therefore almost total acceptance and naturalisation (reification) of reality as relative to whatever we want to make it mean.
And that, perhaps, is the point, and the continuing value of a powerful observation like Lewis's. That whilst we might like to think that we are in control, say of "truth", "values", "reality", "liturgy", "doctrine", "the future", "the Universe and all that's in it etc etc" , we are, in fact, simply substituting our own naturalised changeability for the supernatural reality of the unchanging.
We do so, not because we are no longer able to comprehend the concept of the supernatural, but because we no longer wish to accept the actual, unchanging, reality of that supernatural which we see as somehow diminishing or marginalising our own sense of self worth; our own control of meaning and purpose; our own interventions into God-given practices; in short, our own personally created and controllable reality
Our "own" sense of importance, and the seemingly overwhelming need for us to intervene, can be seen everywhere, and it is perhaps something of a cliche to consider it, in this day and age, as all-pervading. But its hydra-headed nature, so to speak, struck me quite forcefully in a letter headed "Pre-Vatican II" by Kevin McManus (AD2000, Melbourne, Australia, 24/9 October 2011) when he speculated (tongue-in-cheek?) on what actual participation in a Mass attended by only 10 or 12 people might look like. Two people to be assigned to readings; two for the Offertory; two or three for the choir; two or three altar servers, and perhaps most remarkably of all in a Mass of such small numbers, but nevertheless presumably celebrated by a perfectly competent Priest, "two for extraordinary ministers". Newman himself (an absolute master at satire) could not have engaged the current preoccupation with such interventions (or indeed our fears for the lack of them) in that particular context with greater wit. What, I wonder, would he have made of the absolute rugby scrum that often ensues in some peoples' anxiety to shake the hand of everyone in church at the Sign of Peace, regardless of the numbers and distances often involved?
But, that aside, what he would have had no truck with whatsoever, is the cavalier replacing of the supernatural, and our historically weak struggles to place ourselves as best we can in its Presence, with an assumption, indeed in some quarters (both within and without the Church) a now not-to-be-questioned thesis, that such struggles are no longer necessary because we "the people" are sufficient unto ourselves. He would have had no truck with the incredible contemporary conceit that we can, or should, substitute the unchanging "awful" reality of God with something we ourselves have come up with, either as evidence of our "actual participation", or as justification for our privileging of ourselves as arbiters of reality, meaning and purpose.
Whilst it might take good Christian courage to withstand the onslaughts of the well-intentioned at the Sign of Peace in some places, as the early Christians demonstrated so well, it takes real Christian courage to resist making easy substitutions, in and at any level of our lives and activities as Catholics, for the difficulties, and uncertainties, often, of supernatural reality. It couldn't have been easy for the early Christians in Jerusalem, practising Jews all their lives thus far, to substitute the external elements of bread and wine for those of "actual" flesh and blood, regardless of their unfailing belief that such bread and wine did in fact become the actual body and blood of Christ.
They could not have done that without the grace of God. Similarly, it takes real Christian courage today to resist the ever-increasing lure of substitution of the "natural , coming at us from all places (some parts of the Church included) for the (uncomfortable to some) reality of the supernatural.
We no longer easily believe what we are told. The one abiding (and still dominant) legacy of Marx, for example, is his dictum to question absolutely everything. We have been making an art of that for a long time now, and for many, it gets no easier to believe what we are told by a Church which appears to reel from one shocking crisis to another, now luridly played out in the everyday media, like some cheap reality TV show. In short, we have, using a favourite word of Newman's, lost credence. That is we now tend to doubt more than we have no doubt about, things. He defines it quite lyrically as follows:
"Credence is the means by which, in high and low, in the man of the world and in the recluse, our bare and barren nature is overrun and diversified from without with a rich and living clothing".3
It is time, perhaps, for us to redress that "bare and barren nature", and to pray for the courage of the early Christians to be able to do it as a powerful sign of our willingness, as Catholics, to be counter-cultural, as they were as Jews.
* Professor, now retired Chair of Literary and Communication Studies, Deakin University, Melbourne, Australia
1 "Religion: Reality or Substitute?" (1941) reprinted in Walter Hooper (ed.) C.S.Lewis. Christian Reflections, Geoffrey Bles, London, 1967 and Collins (Fount Paperbacks), 1981 pp. 56-64.
2 Op.cit p. 56.
3 John Henry Newman, An essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent (1870) Image edition 1955, p. 61.