Prof. Richard Lederer in Canada once offered, as an entertainment, the History of the World as culled from the papers written by undergraduates. The inventory would contain items of this kind: that “Socrates was a Greek teacher who died from an overdose of wedlock”; that the children of Israel, fleeing from Egypt, ate “unleavened bread, which is bread made without any ingredients.” The unleavened bread was worth mentioning in the Exodus because the Hebrews had to leave “in haste.” Their lives were on the line, and so they had to leave before they could take the time to leaven their bread with yeast.
But in this week of Passover and Easter I found myself wondering just what translations would make their way into the papers of the students if they had latched upon this part of the story in Exodus, not often noticed: “And when a stranger shall sojourn with thee, and will keep the Passover to the Lord, let all his males be circumcised, and then let him come near and keep it; and he shall be as one that is born in the land; for no uncircumcised person shall eat thereof.” (Exodus, 12:48)
Christian friends are often invited to a Passover seder, for indeed that was the setting for the Last Supper, but in these lax times, the hosts no longer enforce those old rules, or even make delicate inquiries. In our own time, the unleavened bread, the matzo, on the shelves in the supermarket marks the most noticeable sign that Passover is coming. It is taken a symbol or a reminder of the story: the deliverance of the Jewish people from bondage.
But it’s curious that the other side of the story, with another moral dimension, seems to have faded from view. The bread may be unleavened, but it is the mark of a communion, nevertheless, and communion comes along with the moral requirements that attend belonging. It is not merely the sharing of a common meal, but of something far more serious.
In the Biblical account, God unfolds a set of plagues upon the Egyptians in order to induce Pharaoh to let the Hebrews leave. At one point Pharaoh is ready to give in, and says: “Go ye, serve the Lord; only let your flocks and your herds be stayed: let your little ones also go with you.” To which Moses replies: “Thou must give us also sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice unto the Lord our God.”
In other words, they may be leaving, but they must leave in such a way as to preserve their character as a people, and that character can be preserved only by preserving the rituals that mark their devotion to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
A neighbor of mine in Washington, learning that I was Catholic, expressed some surprise, for the Church, he said, seemed so ridden with rules. He attended a Mass a while back, and he was mildly affronted that he, along with other visitors, was not welcomed to join everyone else in taking Communion. But it was a question, as I sought to explain, of what exactly was being shared. And did we even understand, in the same way, what we are doing when we come up to receive the Eucharist?
It is not offered, after all, for people who might just have a taste for a cracker. And it curiously never occurs to us whether it would have been even better with a bit of brie attached to the wafer. There are serous concerns about taking the host on the tongue, not in one’s hands, for the body of our Lord should not be “handled.”
I made what I thought was a joke a few months ago by remarking that we may find ourselves soon at a Christian service announcing “gluten free” wafers. And sure enough, at a Memorial service, not Catholic, that mark of enlightened offerings was proclaimed on the program. The church decorously liberal can now advertise to the world that it will offer wafers “without gluten and the Real Presence.”
In Plato’s Crito, Socrates imagines the Laws of Athens, embodied, standing before him, asking, “Who would care for a city without laws?” Who would care for a city with no judgments to cast on the things that are right and wrong? Who would care for a city, or a political order, so wanting in character?
People routinely go into voting booths in this country, marking preferences among candidates, but without much awareness that, in this small, prosaic act, they are entering a communion of sorts. Are they aware that, in voting, they are also affirming the rightness in principle of a regime of free elections? Are they aware, then, that they should foreclose to themselves the right to vote for a party – say, a Communist party or a Nazi party – that would deprive the people around them of that same right to vote, and even remove from them the protections of the law?
Entering citizenship is entering a kind of communion, with moral requirements, raising anew the question about the kind of “people” we wish to be. As St. Paul had it then, we celebrate the paschal lamb and the risen Christ “not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.”