A few years ago Brenda Peterson wrote book of essays entitled, Nature and Other Mothers. Her first entry is wonderfully named, In Praise of Skin. In it, she tells how at one point in her life she was afflicted by painful skin rashes. Like the woman with the haemorrhage in the gospels, she tried every possible doctor but found no cure. Medication after medication, proved ineffective, and eventually the doctors ran out of things to try. The rash always came back.
One day her grandmother assessed her and pronounced a more ancient and accurate diagnosis: “Skin needs to be touched!” Her grandmother then began to give her regular skin massages and these did what the more sophisticated medicines couldn’t do. They cured her.
Peterson’s grandmother is right: Skin needs to be touched!
God knows that better than anyone. It’s why Jesus gave us the Eucharist. In the Eucharist skin gets touched. The Eucharist isn’t abstract, a theological instruction, a creed, a moral precept, a philosophy, or even just an intimate word. It’s bodily, an embrace, a kiss, something shockingly physical, the real presence in a deeper way than even the old metaphysics imagined.
For whatever reasons we tend to shy away from admitting how radically physical the Eucharist actually is. St. Paul didn’t share that fear. For him, the physical communion that takes place in the Eucharist, between us and Christ as well as among ourselves, is as real and radical as sexual union. Thus, for instance, he argues against sex outside of marriage by saying that our union with Christ and each other in the Body of Christ is so intimate and real that, in effect, we would prostitute that Body if we had illicit sex. Strong words. They’re predicated on a very earthy conception of the Eucharist.
The early church followed Paul on this. They understood the Eucharist as so real, so physical, and so intimate, that they surrounded it with the taboos of privacy, reverence, and reticence that we reserve for sexual intimacy. For some centuries, the early church had a practice (still partially followed in some of our own church programs) they called the DISCIPLINE ARCANI. Their rule was that nobody who was unbaptized or not fully initiated into the community could participate in the Eucharist (beyond the liturgy of the Word) and that Christians who were fully initiated were forbidden to speak to outsiders about the Eucharist. The intent of the discipline was not to create a mystique around the Eucharist so as to draw people to it through curiosity. The opposite. The idea was more that the Eucharist is so intimate an act that propriety, respect, and reverence demand non-exhibitionism: you don’t make love in public and you don’t talk to outsiders about this kind of intimacy.
We tend to shy away from that kind of talk. Partly that’s understandable. It’s hard to be comfortable religiously with how Christianity understands the physical and the bodily. Christianity is the most earthy of all religions. It doesn’t call you out of the physical, out of the body, or out of the world. Rather Christ enters the physical, becomes one with it, blesses it, redeems it, and tells us that there is no reason to escape from it.
Something in that goes against the grain. Christ’s relationship to the physical scandalized his contemporaries (“This is intolerable language!” is what the crowds said when Jesus spoke of the physical character of the Eucharist in John’s gospel) and is still hard for us to accept today. But it’s also a wonderful part of Christianity. In the Eucharist, our skin gets touched.
And, given all our tensions, we need that touch, frequently, daily even. The late essayist and novelist, Andre Dubus, once wrote a wonderful little apologia as to why he went to Eucharist regularly, despite the critical circles he moved in: “This morning I received the sacrament I still believe in: at seven-fifteen the priest elevated the host, then the chalice, and spoke the words of the ritual, and the bread became flesh, the wine became blood, and minutes later I placed on my tongue the taste of forgiveness and of love that affirmed, perhaps celebrated, my being alive, my being mortal. This has nothing to do with immortality, with eternity; I love the earth too much to contemplate a life apart from it, although I believe in that life. No, this has to do with mortality and the touch of flesh, and my belief in the sacrament of the Eucharist is simple: without touch, God is a monologue, an idea, a philosophy; he must touch and be touched, the tongue on flesh, and that touch is the result of the monologues, the idea, the philosophies which led to faith; but in the instant of the touch there is no place for thinking, for talking, the silent touch affirms all that, and goes deeper: it affirms the mysteries of love and mortality.”
Skin heals when touched. It’s why Jesus gave us the Eucharist.