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August 8: Eating God

Quam singulari (1910):
Christian Communion

Medieval Communion

It was on this date, August 8, 1910, that "Quam singulari," a decree of the Sacred Congregation of the Sacraments, specified the age at which children are to be admitted to first Communion in the Roman Catholic Church.[1] The Catholic Encyclopedia, the authority on the subject, says that conditions for first communion include being at the "age of discretion" – defined as knowing right from wrong – and being capable of "using ... reasoning powers." This last condition would seem to contradict the very idea of faith, but no matter.

In order to partake of Christian communion, the child must also "be able to distinguish the Eucharistic from the common bread; that is, to know that what looks like bread is not bread, but contains the real, living Body and Blood of Christ." Leaving aside this patently ludicrous statement, what do you suppose it means that this miraculous bread, that looks like ordinary bread, "contains the ... Body and Blood of Christ"? If you eat this bread, are you eating God?

And why would you eat a god?

In ancient superstition, if you eat the flesh of your enemy, you can magically acquire his courage, his strength or even his magical powers. This "eating the god," as the Aztecs of Mexico literally called it, was described by Sir James George Frazer in The Golden Bough: "by eating the body of the god, he shares in the god's attributes and powers."[2] When the Spaniards conquered the Aztecs, the perplexed missionaries, bent on converting the heathens, found that they were already performing a Eucharistic ritual: dough images of Huitzlipochtli were blessed by the Aztec priests, the people fasted before the communion, and the priest's words were said to cause a transubstantiation, turning the consecrated "host" into the flesh of the god!

Likewise for drinking the god's blood. The ritual cannibalism began with the real sacrifice of human captives of war, but evolved into a substitution of wine and bread – or grape juice and bread for the more timid churches – for the literal flesh and blood of the god. Similar communions were found in the cult of Dionysos, the cult of Mithra and the cult of Isis and Osiris – all of which influenced the adoption of the Christian Communion.[3]

As historian and ex-priest Joseph McCabe writes:

It must not for a moment be supposed that modern educated Catholics do not literally believe this jumble of pagan superstitions and medieval verbosity. They do. ... The priest dons his mystic (or Mithraic) garments, and carries his wafer to the altar. ... At the middle of the "mass" he consecrates the bread and wine ... If he does not articulate each word of the Latin formula..., if he does not say it right at the bread and wine, there will be no magic. ... He must, of course, swallow the large wafer ... without putting his teeth into "the body of Christ." He must take the "blood" without spilling a drop, for in each visible crumb of bread or drop of wine there is the whole Christ, godhead and manhood.[4]

Communing with fellow Christians may encourage fellowship, but there is always a side dish of comical consequences. In his 1911 recollection of fourteen years in the Jesuit priesthood, Count Paul von Hoensbroech tells the story of an old woman who, after receiving the wafer in her mouth, contemplated that she was swallowing the genital organs of Christ himself. She spat the wafer into her prayer book, gave it to the priest, and he had to eat it![5]

The very idea that symbolically eating a god can confer on the communicant some kind of benefit is magical thinking at its most primitive. When a child takes her first communion, the church says she has to open her mouth wide enough to swallow dusty superstition along with the dry wafer.

[1] This was officially promulgated as Acta Apost. Sedis, 15 August 1910.
[2] James George Fraser, The Golden Bough, Chap 50, §1. "The Sacrament of First-Fruits." See also Robin Fox, "Food and Eating: An Anthropological Perspective: The Holy Meal."
[3] For the communion in the cults of Dionysos and Mithra, see John M. Robertson's Pagan Christs, 1903, pp. 201 and 334; for the cult of Isis and Osiris, see Rendel Harris, Eucharistic Origins, 1927.
[4] Joseph McCabe, The Popes and Their Church, 1918.
[5] Count Paul Von Hoensbroech Fourteen Years a Jesuit, 2 vols., 1911 (II, p. 223), as told in McCabe, ibid.

Originally published August 2003 by Ronald Bruce Meyer.

Ronald Bruce Meyer

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