Bread and Grape Juice

I’m reading Martin Luther: Prophet to the Church Catholic by James Atkinson, which is all about Luther’s dispute with the papists back in 1517 and the wonderful advances that were made in the cause of reconciling the Roman Catholics with the Lutherans – and other Protestants – by Pope John Paul XXIII at the Second Vatican Council in 1959. I picked it up at a thrift store while still sorta reeling from the unexpected call to ministry – I figured I better get to learnin’ everything there was to know about Luther and Lutheranism and the books were cheap.

Thing is – the (Roman) Catholic church that Luther grew up with and tried to reform was an unbelievably monolithic, legalistic institution that had almost ten centuries of hair-splitting dogma backed up by an astonishing disregard for human life. Then along comes this German monk who thinks selling indulgences is wrong. I honestly don’t know why they didn’t just kill him. I mean, if you’re gonna burn people for not being able to get their brains around the idea that a piece of bread that looks, smells, feels and tastes like a piece of bread is actually, really and literally a part of the living body of a living human being who lived several hundred years prior and was also literally God, was killed, then got up, talked to some people and floated, bodily, up into the sky, but somehow magically continues to give up chunks of flesh every Sunday – and the Church did burn people for that reason – then why would you not send some goons to whack an uppity monk? Then again, why would you come up with that ridiculous doctrine in the first place? And that’s just one tiny thing – there were reams and reams of excruciating minutia that Catholics were expected to proclaim their belief in, so much that no one person could know it all. Fortunately, most Catholics were never put in a position where they were asked about any of it – as long as they showed up to Mass, tithed and didn’t bother the bishop, nobody gave a shit. It was only people who raised a ruckus or who were unlucky enough to own something that the Church wanted who got called up to answer for themselves. So – how Luther avoided getting torched is a mystery to me.

But for whatever reason, they didn’t burn him. Maybe the Vatican lawyers were intrigued by the opportunity to debate the number of angels who could buck dance on a pinhead. Luther was trained as a lawyer before he became a monk and Old Testament scholar, so he was up to the task. And it took 450ish years for the dust to settle. (Full disclosure: the official Lutheran position is that the body and blood of Christ are really present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist – it ain’t just symbolic – but Lutherans ain’t never burned anybody over it.)

I don’t understand any of that shit. I do not, cannot, comprehend how anybody could get het up about so much purely irrelevant and utter nonsense. I would like to just write it off as the zany antics of dark ages and medieval celibates with nothing better to do than quibble about insignificant details and made up trivia, but I know people who are that obsessed with rules and regulations. I work with people who are slaves to “how things are supposed to be” and who can’t just do a thing until they have it all written out in a manual and approved by a person in authority. It’s fuckin’ annoying. I guess there’s some value in that if you’re a lawyer or something, but how did anybody think it mattered so much whether or not Jesus’ flesh was in bread that they started making up words like “transubstantiation” and burning people who were pretty sure it was just bread?

Those people I work with – the policy wonks – are all, of course, atheists. 1500 years ago, they wouldn’t’ve had that luxury. They woulda been obligated to participate in the Church and they woulda done pretty well for themselves, by the standards of the time, to enter monasteries and bring up a buncha petty details to debate about until they got it all settled out into dogma that they could burn people about. So – I guess that’s how it got that way. But things’ve changed and the anal retentive and left-brained are now free to just declare themselves unbelievers and then go get all obsessive about Dune or Star Wars or whatever.

I do want to have some basic grasp of the tenets of the church that I’m gonna be clergy in – obviously, or I wouldn’t be reading Mr. Atkinson’s very well-researched book. But I don’t think that shit matters. Luther did a good job of breaking free of all that and bringing the whole thing back down to the relationship between the individual sinner and God. Certainly, the church has to make some statements about somethings in order to have a coherent organization, but the fewer, the better. It’s good enough for me that the pastor blesses the bread and wine – or grape juice, because I’m a recovering alcoholic and I really appreciate that my local church puts out a couple shots of grape juice. At this point, recognizing that things can change, and despite the assertions of the church, I think the bread and grape juice are symbols. I think they represent the body and blood of Jesus, but that they are not the body and blood of Jesus and I’m fine with that. Symbols are good things – especially when the subject matter is ineffable. The word “God” is a symbol. The Cross is a symbol. The fancy outfits pastors wear are symbols. That doesn’t make them meaningless or insignificant – it just means they stand for complicated things.

God is beyond comprehension. Symbols are all we have to work with. That doesn’t make any of it less real.

I’m really glad people don’t get burned over that dumb shit any more – though people do get burned because they happen to be in the fire zone between factions who are determined to kill each other over their symbols. But again, the Lutheran church isn’t involved in that. Most Lutherans – most people – seem to be pretty willing to argue a bit, but otherwise to let it go, which is fine with me. The Lutheran church is more focused on welcoming strangers, ministering to the faithful and some social justice stuff. That’s cool. That’s really about all the church can do, since the real spiritual work is between the individual sinner and God.

I am gonna finish Martin Luther and then I’ll probably get into Luther’s Germanica Theologica, which will hopefully be more exciting. It seems like the thing to do.


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