Friday, March 2, 2012

The Pagan Eucharist??

Would it surprise you to know that many pagan traditions have an aspect to our rituals that is very much like the Eucharist?  For the pagans out there, have you ever considered how similar Cakes and Ale is both symbolically and physically to the tradition of Christian Communion?  In yet another installment of my current seminary inspired series, "Hey!  We do that!  Wait, you do that too??", I figured it was time to talk about the Eucharist.

The Eucharist (from the Greek for Thanksgiving) is another name for Holy Communion, the Christian sacrament which enacts the tradition set down by Jesus during the Last Supper.  In Holy Communion, the followers of Christ partake of bread (or crackers) and wine (or grape juice).  The bread represents the body of Christ and the wine represents the blood of Christ.  There is disagreement about whether or not the bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Christ during the ritual or if it is only a metaphor, but all of the people in the Christian faith who participate in the Communion ritual take this very seriously as a personalized and embodied experience of the sacrifice that their savior made for them.

While (as always), I can't speak for all Pagans or even most Pagans - many Pagan traditions that I am familiar with have a function of their ritual that is often called "Cakes and Ale".  Each ritual will have different food items for Cakes and Ale - often cookies or bread and perhaps punch or lemonade.  It can also be water or wine.  There are rarely limits here, though I know that most public circles avoid alcohol to honor those people who are in recovery.

From a theological standpoint, the purpose of pagan communion (which is what I think I want to call it from now on) is to honor the bountiful blessings that we are provided from the god/goddess and which are manifested through the earth.  We don't specifically have a Savior who has sacrificed for us, but Pagans are very mindful of the blessings of the harvest and the gifts we receive from the divine.  Most of the time when we talk about the gifts of the divine, we are taking about the food we harvest from the earth, though we also talk about the more intangible blessings in our lives as gifts from the divine.  In thanks for the many blessings in our lives, we share this food and drink, first by ritually charging it with energy and our intent that it represent ALL gifts we gain, and then by sharing it with one another.  While there are many ways that Cakes and Ale can be performed, my very favorite tradition is the one that follows:

The High Priestess (HPS) and High Priest (HP) stand in the middle of the circle.  She takes up the chalice of liquid and charges it, saying something about how it represents the gifts of the Goddess.  He holds up the pieces of bread and charges them, saying something about how they represent the gifts of the God.  They meet each other in the center.  He leans closely and feeds her a bit of bread while saying: 
May you never hunger. 
He take a piece of bread off of the plate and, feeding him, says the same.  Then she leans the chalice closely to his lips and as he drinks she says:
May you never thirst.
She take the chalice from her hands and places it to her lips as he repeats the blessing while she drinks.  Then they part, each one with either cakes or ale in their hands, and then move to the circle.  The HP and HPS offer the blessing to the first person they find, feeding or holding the chalice for them to drink while they do so.  At this point, the person they have blessed takes the cakes or ale and offers it to the person on their left.  In turn, the congregational members bless each other, as the cakes and ale slowly move around the circle until everyone has been blessed.  At the very end, some of the bread is crumbled onto the ground and some of the drink is poured out, to return a little of the gifts we receive back to the earth and her creatures.

I think the reason I love this version of Pagan Communion the most is because it is true to the idea I have always thought was the most important aspect of this ritual - the fellowship and symbolism of interdependence.*  As much as I may wish I could be completely independent, that simply isn't the way human beings are created.  Through this ritual, we bind ourselves together in the name of our divine intention to support one another as the God and Goddess support us, to share the blessings of our lives so that none among us go hungry or thirsty.  In a spiritual tradition that doesn't have a savior, we become saviors for each other and the community flourishes even when the individual may struggle.  It's a beautiful part of our spiritual path and one that I treasure deeply.

There is also the completely practical perspective, from which Pagan Communion has another purpose.  This part of our ritual normally occurs after our HP and HPS have led us through whatever magickal work we are doing that night.  We have raised and released huge amounts of energy.  To translate into Christian liturgy terms, we are tired the way you are tired after a good "Praise and Worship" session.  We are often kinda floating too, high on the energy that we have been surrounded by.  So eating and drinking helps to ground our energy, pull us back into our bodies, and bring is all back together into a more connected physical space.  Soon after, we wrap up our rituals and then go have the big social time that always follows a ritual.

*Okay, okay.  There is another reason why I love the version of Pagan Communion where everyone feeds each other.  It's because sometimes it's funny.  There are plenty of times when this kind of ritual goes off with a hitch.  But sometimes, it's a little awkward.  Sometimes you get a little misstep here or there.  And sometimes it gets downright messy.  People struggle to help each other drink out of the chalice.  Sometimes there is a little bit of a trust issue, mostly cause the joksters love this part of ritual.   Sometimes there are almost spills and actual spills and even the rare spit-take depending on how bad it gets.  One time the corn bread I made was SO dry that we had to go fill up the chalice twice and we ended up spraying crumbs on the ground as we tried to say, "May you never thirst".  For an intimate ritual with a close circle of well bonded friends, this is probably the best kind of ritual.  The joy and laughter that comes when part of the ritual breaks down like this can also help bring is together and ground us back down into our bodies.  There is nothing like a good belly laugh to pull you back into your solar plexus.

Besides, the gods love it when we laugh, and so do I.