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Michelangelo’s fresco of God and Adam on the ceiling of Sistine Chapel is spellbinding: God coming with hand reaching out and Adam waiting with hand reaching back. The gap between the fingers. The moment before the touch. God so near, but the communion for which humans long not yet realized. In his fresco, Michelangelo has rendered a fundamental tension of human existence.
I am Adam waiting with my hand reaching for God, and the gap between us is never more real than when I gather with my fellow Christians and celebrate the Lord’s Supper. The liturgy with its affirmations and prayers leads to the drum-roll moment when the worship leader recites the epiclesis: “Send your Holy Spirit, we pray, that the bread which we break and the cup which we bless will be to us the body and blood of Christ.”
And there it is. The gap. I wait for some indication of Christ’s presence. I do not have to hear a rushing mighty wind or see tongues of fire. I do not have to stand before a burning bush. I do not have to feel Mount Sinai quake. I do not expect the hands of the worship leader to be the hands of Jesus multiplying the bread to feed the multitude. But if the spiritual world and material world come together in this sacrament, if Christ is really present in the bread and wine, I do expect to experience it in some way. Barring such an experience, the sacrament becomes an empty ritual, at best a memorial service for many of us Christians.
One Day at the Lord’s Table
I was sitting one particular Friday in Western Theological Seminary’s chapel. The architecture blends the vertical and horizontal and suggests to those gathered that spiritual and material realms meet at the table of our Lord. Chapel every Friday was the culmination of a week of services that prepared our hearts to celebrate the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. During the homily, my mind wandered, and my eyes took in the colors and contours of our recently renovated chapel. Then I looked down and saw small brown ants foraging on the tile floor under the table. I smiled to myself. These were the same ants I had been watching for years. They had survived the renovation of the chapel and were in attendance once again.
As the liturgy progressed, I heard again the familiar words of the epiclesis, “Send your Holy Spirit, we pray.” It was a call, better a plea. All of us gathered were there with our hands reaching out to God. The worship leader moved to the table and in dramatic gestures broke the bread, poured the wine, and invited us to file forward in two lines to receive the consecrated elements by intinction.
As I waited for my turn to join the line, I looked down again. I saw the small brown ants filing toward the crumbs of bread that had fallen to the floor after the loaf had been broken. I was stunned. I felt like I had passed through a door into an unfamiliar world. I was unsure what I was seeing and what it meant. I was unable to take it all in and have been trying ever since.
Go to the Ant, Consider its ways
When I saw both the ants and the members of Western’s community filing forward to partake of the bread, Jesus’ words to Nicodemus came back to me: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only son…” In this oft-quoted verse, we recognize that Jesus uses the word “world,” but we fail to ponder the significance of his choice of this word. Jesus came and died for the whole world. He offered his body and blood for us humans, the ants, and all the creatures of the world.
The ants and the congregants all filed forward and ate from the same loaf of bread. We were companions. The word companion comes from the Latin, com panis, sharing bread together. Along with other Christians who are struggling to raise awareness of the looming environmental ruination, I have been searching for the right word to convey humankind’s relationship to the rest of the created order and to rally Christians to respond. Finding the right word is important because words are embedded in world views, and they can open vistas to see the world more clearly and to love it more dearly.
“Dominator” is one such word and an awful misreading of the verb in Genesis 1 “have dominion.” It implies that the world is raw material to drill, cut, and extract for the sole benefit of human beings.
“Steward” is an improvement over dominator but leaves the impression that humans are distinct from the created order and managers of it while God is absent.
“Kin” encourages humankind to see the created order as family.
But “companion” goes beyond kinship by emphasizing that all creatures are dependent on the gifts of the created order and that we all eat together at the Lord’s table.
The ants knew nothing about the liturgy taking place in the chapel that morning (granted what do any of us know about ant-consciousness or an ant’s awareness of God?), nothing about Christ being present in the bread, yet they came forward to take what was made available to them. I realized that I had much in common with them. I too know nothing about the mystery of Christ’s presence in the bread and wine, and more fully the mystery of Christ’s presence in the larger world — how the Word of God speaks the world into existence and how the breath of God imbues it with life. But knowledge is not a prerequisite to come forward and take the life God offers.
A Still Small Voice
Reflecting on the meaning of sharing the Lord’s Table with the ants eventually brought me back to the story of Elijah fleeing Jezebel and coming to Mount Horeb. As the Lord passed by, Elijah experienced the three classic signs that accompany God’s presence as recorded in Scripture: wind, earthquake, and fire. Yet the Lord was not in any of them.
Then Elijah heard the “still, small, voice,” and wrapped his face in his mantle because he could not see God face to face and live. There was no mighty rushing wind that Friday morning in Western’s chapel, no tongues of fire, no earth quaking. There was only the still small voice of the ants.