My students have a hard time embracing any symbolic ritual that, if done literally, would be horribly taboo. Take barbecuing a kitten. To literally or symbolically roast a sweet little kitty on a George Foreman Grill (for whatever reason) seems tabooishly wrong no matter how you look at it. Of course there is no ritual that requires a kitten – literally or symbolically – to be roasted (at least not here in America). Whew! But we do have a well-established ritual that requires people to partake in a sacrament that employs the cultural taboo of eating human flesh. It is known as The Eucharist, or Holy Communion.
I recently read an article in Psychology Today about serial killers and cannibalism. I was struck by how similar the motives of a cannibal are to those of Christians partaking in Holy Mass. If you go online to the Catholic Education Resource Center(CERC) you will read that one of the benefits of eating the body of Christ is that it “strengthens our union with Jesus; he lives within us in a special way.” Keep in mind, for Catholics this is not symbolic, it is a literal eating of the body of Christ (known as transubstantiation).
Below are excerpts from Psychology Today and the Catholic Education Resource Center. When read together they are, to say the least, “eye-opening.” Is it possible that a cannibal and a Christian share a common appetite to ingest flesh and blood? Is it possible that Christians feel close to God through the Eucharist in the same way that cannibalistic serial killers feel close to their victims? And what did Jesus really mean when he said “Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me and I in him”? (John 6:55-56). I’ll let you decide. But first, a quote from the convicted murderer and cannibal, Armin Meiwes (convicted in Germany in 2004):
“At the age of 12 I began to fantasize about eating my friends so that they would become part of me and stay with me forever.”
Regardless of how you may view the act of eating the body of Christ, I can assure you that teenagers, especially those unfamiliar with Christian sacraments, find it “weird” and “gross.” They want nothing to do with it. They see it as taboo as barbecuing a cat; and it doesn’t matter to them if it is literal or symbolic.
Despite their disdain with the idea of eating flesh, I do try to help my students understand that “ingesting the body of a savior” is a world-wide practice. For example, the Plains Indians see the Buffalo as a savior-like god, and they ceremoniously ingest the heart of the Buffalo to both honor it and put its divine power literally into their bodies. The Inuit (Eskimos) do the same with the whale, as do Hopi Indians with corn. But, as my students are quick to point out, buffalo, whale, and corn are “not as taboo” to eat, at least not to them.
Regardless of how young people feel about Holy Communion, Christian churches are clearly not going to give it up any time soon. So, perhaps Christians are really just stuck with this “one awkward thing” that they will always have in common with cannibals. Just how appealing this will be to future generations remains to be seen.