The Bread of Life

Living life as a Christian is, at least in part, a matter of practices, doing Christian things, developing habits of faith: praying, worshipping, singing, sharing, giving. Augustine wrote about cultivating the habit of Christian virtue in terms of four specific forms of love. When scholars take up the topic they are inclined to use the term praxis. Alastair Macintyre, for instance, in After Virtue, proposes that virtues are formed by a community’s “social praxis”.

In a recent issue of The Christian Century, Benjamin Dueholn, “Habits of Reverence: Why I Kiss my Stole”, Dueholn reflects thoughtfully on the place of practices in the formation of faith and a faithful life. “Rituals”, he says, “bridge the divide between inward and outward, spirit and flesh, intention and action.”  Dueholn began to kiss his liturgical stole before placing it around his neck for worship years ago. He understands Augustine’s concerns that rote practices can become compulsions and Jesus’ prophetic words about empty piety. Nevertheless, he still kisses his stole “as a sign of reverence for a task that must be lovingly and faithfully done whether or not I feel awed by it at a given moment.”

For as long as I can remember I have always sensed a poverty of praxis in my Reformed ecclesiology. My Catholic friends wore crucifixes, crossed themselves, went to weekly confession, conspicuously carried cheese sandwiches in their school lunch sacks on Friday, and one day in early spring showed up at school with a smudge of ashes on their foreheads. Although we made innocent fun of our Catholic friends crossing themselves at the free throw line or as they stepped up to the plate, I always secretly envied them. When, in a moment of religious enthusiasm, I purchased a Celtic cross on a chain and showed up at home wearing it around my neck, my father did not approve. “You look like a Catholic,” he said. “We don’t wear our religion on our sleeves or around our necks like they do.” Now, we Reformed types have come a long way in my life time. We are actually talking seriously about practices: anointing, laying hands on the sick, and some of us even impose ashes on Ash Wednesday and wear our own forehead smudge. As for the Celtic cross my father disapproved of, I dug it out recently and gave it to a grandson on his Confirmation. And, years later, standing with a family around the bed of a dying husband and father, I have been known quietly and inconspicuously to cross myself.

I was reminded recently of the importance of praxis at a granddaughter’s First Communion in her Roman Catholic parish church. She and her two sisters attend parochial school, go to church with their Roman Catholic mother and Presbyterian father, mostly at her church, occasionally at his. When the girls stay with us and we say our bedtime prayers, they cross themselves and I want to, but have not yet, cross myself too. There were fifty second-graders celebrating their First Communion with Lilly. The church serves its urban residential neighborhood, and its congregation and school are at least half Hispanic. The sanctuary was full of proud parents, grandparents and extended families for the great event. Down the aisle they came, two by two, girl and boy, the Hispanic children proudly reflecting their culture with their handsome attire, girls in lacy white dresses and veils,  looking like little brides, the boys in coats and ties, some tuxedoes, one lad in an elegant white tux. Anglo girls mostly made do with modest white hair bows although I am told there was a fair amount of “veil envy” among them. The children sang a song, some had speaking parts in the mass and when it came time for the sacrament, the priest, a good friend of mine, invited me to administer the cup to my granddaughter. She looked up at me as I said, “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation, for you, Lilly”. It was ‘a moment’, and I was deeply grateful to be part of it.

Happily, eight year old grandson Alex’s Presbyterian church also understands the formative importance of practices for little ones. Alex’s mother, our daughter, volunteers to help with communion which is celebrated by intinction. Alex helps. His job is to hold the basket with a loaf of bread in it. As a worshipper takes a piece of bread, Alex says, “The Bread of Life”. His mother does the same thing with the cup: “The Cup of Salvation.” Alex takes his responsibility very seriously. One Sunday recently they were assigned to take the elements to the people sitting in the balcony. As Susan climbed the balcony stairs she realized Alex was not following behind. She turned around and saw him at the bottom of the stairs. “What are you doing, Alex?” she asked. His answer is so packed with theological, sacramental, praxis significance as to require no commentary or explanation. He said, “I’m eating the Bread of Life. I’m hungry.”

Comments

  1. Ya gotta love Alex Brown…..Wonderful story.

  2. That was so sweet. I laughed out loud.

  3. Jeanne Bishop says:

    Beautiful.

  4. I love this story (and all kids stories) and I love you, dear John. As an attendant of 4th Pres Church for almost 40 years, I am ready for something new – I’m tired of the tradition, the black gloomy Calvin robes, the emotionless black-garbed ushers, the rote prayers (especially the inexplicable Apostles Creed). I like to see the sign of the cross in others as an expression of belief in God. I don’t understand the ominous ashes, am still puzzled by communion, infant baptism (tho I love those babies) and the shock, cynicism and/or sarcasm of most people in the church family when God or Jesus or the Holy Spirit is mentioned conversationally among the non-credentialed. People at the 4 pm Jazz Service seem happy to be Christians and it seems more like God is there.

  5. My closest friend from K – 8th grades was Catholic and I was United Methodist. I experienced the same envy of her outward signs of faith. Especially when she described times she had to put a tissue on her head when going to mass. I am glad to finally find out I wasn’t the only one who experienced such feelings. Thanks for sharing.

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