In 1983, I was privileged to attend the three-week World Council of Churches Assembly in Vancouver. Although it was an awesome experience, most of the events have now faded into the recesses of my memory. One talk I do roughly recall, however, was that of a Protestant preacher from a South Pacific island. This preacher expounded something he called "coconut theology."
Basically, he maintained that while the bread and wine Christ consecrated were appropriate for a first century church in the Middle East, they present symbols to which South Pacific islanders cannot relate. For them, bread and wine are not a regular food.
So, this pastor suggested that the Eucharist in his part of the world be celebrated with coconuts. A coconut is a fitting symbol because it combines liquid and solid sustenance in one food. It is dark and hard on the outside and white and soft on the inside.
By this line of thought, we on the Canadian Prairies might someday be celebrating the Eucharist with Saskatoon berry wine and seven-grain bread.
There are a few things wrong with this picture, however. For the Protestant tradition to which this pastor belonged, the Eucharist is essentially a meal. The notions of the Eucharistic sacrifice and the transformation of the elements of the meal into the body and blood of Christ are just not part of his understanding.
Further, a coconut Communion tosses away the notion that the Eucharistic sacrifice is a fulfilment of the Old Testament. Bread and wine were not just food items which Jesus arbitarily picked out of the grocery basket to transform into his body and blood. They had a deep resonance with the key Old Testament symbols. Change the material of the sacrament and you have changed its meaning -- and its reality. Coconut Communion is a human symbol, not the one instituted by Christ.
One key Old Testament figure who makes but a fleeting appearance is the priest Melchizedek. Melchizedek brings out bread and wine to offer to God following a military victory by Abram (Genesis 14:18-20). Melchizedek was not a Jew, a descendant of Abraham.
Some early church fathers noted that the Jewish priesthood, which came later, was, in some ways, a regression from the priesthood of Melchizedek. The Jewish priesthood was reserved to the tribe of Levi and its sacrifices were localized to the Temple in Jerusalem. The priesthood of Melchizedek, however, was a universal priesthood -- it was performed by a priest chosen by God, not by his ancestry, and its sacrifice could be performed anywhere.
By choosing bread and wine to offer at the Last Supper, Jesus linked his own priesthood with that of Melchizedek. His offering would extend beyond the Jews to all nations. And Christ's sacrifice would fulfil all the sacrifices made by the priests of all nations. The bread and wine are a sign of the universal call to salvation.
The Catechism of the Catholic Church notes that the bread and wine offered by Jesus also fulfil signs crucial in Jewish liturgy -- the unleavened bread and cup of blessing at Passover, and the manna in the desert (see no, 1334). Christ himself explicitly links the manna with the bread of life: "Your ancestors ate the manna in the wilderness, and they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die" (John 6:49-50).
Our modern tendency may be to see sacramental signs -- the water of baptism, the oil for various anointings, and the bread and wine of the Eucharist -- as arbitrary contrivances. They are anything but that. Those signs are all charged with biblical memories which would have raced to the minds of the Jews when Jesus employed them. Moreover, Jesus' use of those symbols gave them their full meaning. In his hands, they were no longer just signs of faith; they became signs which are effective in giving a share of God's life to those who shared in the sacramental rites.
We tamper with these signs at our peril. The more we tamper, the more these signs become human inventions, rather than signs of God's grace. Their ability to transform us and our world is diminished.
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