Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, in his Mass for the World, shares how he personally understands the offering of the bread and wine at the Eucharist. When the bread is held up in offering, he says, we are holding up this world, with all its achievements, legitimate glories, real progress, and many strengths. In offering the bread, we identify with the world’s triumphs, celebrate them, and ask God to bless them. Conversely though, one second later, we hold up the wine, crushed grapes symbolizing blood. In the wine, we hold up all that has been crushed and brutally trampled on as human progress moves forward. In offering the wine, we identify ourselves with what is broken, crushed, crucified, and dying in this earth and we ask God to empathically identify with it and bring divine power to bear upon it. Thus, in the central ritual of Christianity, we offer to God both the glorious and the crushed bodies of this earth. We bless and celebrate the former, even as we identify with the latter.
There is more in that understanding then merely a rich theology of the offering at the Eucharist. In Teilhard’s insight, I believe, there is also a secret that can help us to maintain a proper attitude towards the world because, as we know, our world is a very mixed place and it is not easy to keep things in proper perspective. Why?
Because on the one hand, undeniably, our world is full of a beauty, goodness, and love that honours its creator and accords dignity to its inhabitants, us. There is so much around us and within us of which we can rightly be proud. Humanity is not without its legitimate achievements. More obviously, we see these in the areas of technology, communications, the arts, sports, entertainment, food, and health. Daily we see progress, fabulous achievements, beautiful things, advances in health and beauty as these pertain to the human body, and a myriad of other steps forward in terms of the quality of our lives and the opportunities that life can offer. Moreover this is true too in the areas of love, worship, and morality. There is a history, even in the present, of altruism, prayer, and sanctity on this planet. Today too, like in every other age, saints and moral martyrs stalk the planet.
On the other hand, just as undeniable, is the fact that our world is full of greed, crass egoism, blind selfishness, the drive for power and privilege, unspeakable cruelties, hardness, constant betrayal, and straight old-fashioned sin. Evil too stalks the planet. Daily on our newscasts, we are made aware that millions of human beings suffer from hunger, violence, exclusion, and injustices of every kind. There is more than enough within us and around us of which we cannot be proud and which dishonours both the creator of this world and its habitants, us. We also have a history, even today, of selfishness, godlessness, and sin.
Hence, as we can see, progress is not without its price … but the price is also not without its progress. As some of our world moves forward, other parts are crushed; and as some parts are crushed, others move forward – all as part of the same movement. There is something within this that speaks of more than simple moral ineptitude on our part, though that obviously is part of it. The dynamics of nature, it seems, are themselves cruel, brutal, almost Darwinian; nature all on it own is ruthless enough to make one wonder about a creation within which some parts have to eat others to remain alive and grow. But this innate brutality within nature is a mystery for which there is no full answer. Rather a certain attitude is asked of us.
What Teilhard so brilliantly captures in his understanding of the offering of the bread and wine at the Eucharist is the attitude we might ideally have in the face of so mixed a world. Simply put, unlike the one-sided view of so many today, we may not simply see our world as cesspool of evil, ignoring its real beauty, goodness, moral and technological achievements, and legitimate triumphs. To be blind to these is to be dishonest. It is also to ignore many seeds of hope. Conversely, we should not unequivocally bless this world either, as if millions were not being crushed as part of the very cost of progress and as if all the blood that is spilt, all the lives that are crushed, and all the hearts that are broken might be deemed an acceptable price for progress. In a Christian, another attitude is called for, one which takes into account both the triumphant and the crushed bodies on this planet. So what are we to do?
Like Teilhard we must recognize and celebrate our world’s progress and achievements, even as we identify with those parts that are being crushed – and then hold them both up to God.