Addressing the topic of Liturgy & Mission for Liturgy 31, no. 4, guest-edited by Thomas Schattauer, Cynthia Moe-Lobeda writes about the power of the sacraments, especially the eucharist, to form the faithful to care about just relations with Earth and with our fellow humans. Here is the first of a two-part abbreviation of her argument. Her full essay, as well as the rest of the issue, can be read online through subscription.
An ancient Chinese proverb warns: “If we do not change direction, we will end up where we are headed.” And so we reach the question of this essay: In the current context, can and how can Christian liturgy play a role in re-forming U.S. society toward lifeways that allow earth to flourish and earth’s goods to be distributed more equitably among people? Tutored by Christian communities of the first two centuries and by Martin Luther, I will argue that Word and sacrament may profoundly reorient us toward earth-honoring, justice-making worldviews and ways of life, and may reinforce the opposite. The focus here is the liturgy’s historic centerpiece, the Eucharist.
. . . “Faith,” writes Luther, “is not the human notion and dream that some people call faith … O it is a living, busy, active, mighty thing this faith … A divine work in us which changes us and makes us altogether different.” The sacraments, then, are God’s ways of getting through to us in at least two ways. They open our eyes to reality. . . [and] they bring us faith, hope, and love, the ingredients of agency for responding. . . to heal and liberate the world.
Christian liturgy can help to reshape society because in the heart of word and sacrament, the living God who is creating, saving, and sustaining the world comes to, into, and through us. That inbreaking Word of God changes the world and society.
. . . North American Christian communities in sites of relative economic privilege regularly and sincerely celebrate the Eucharist, yet our lives are not regularly transformed toward social and ecological justice. We do not love neighbor by resisting unjust economic arrangements. Instead, we tend to carry on with life as usual. History deepens the offense. Christians celebrating the Eucharist practiced chattel slavery, plundered Africa, and committed genocide in the Americas. . .
Sri Lankan theologian Tissa Balasuriya, O.M.I., puts it starkly: “Why is it that in spite of hundreds of thousands of Eucharistic celebrations, Christians … who proclaim eucharistic love and sharing deprive the poor people of the world of food, capital, employment, and even land … inequities grow … [and] the rich live like Dives in the Gospel story?” According to a United Nations agency, “estimates show that the world’s 225 richest people have a combined wealth … equal to the annual income of the poorest 47% of the world’s people.” The transfer of wealth from impoverished nations to the rich is mind-boggling. . .
. . . Given the role of United States society in the Earth story and the global economy, how are we to receive, perceive, and practice the world-changing gift of Christ’s body and blood such that we repent and take our place in God’s work to save this generous and broken planet?
The path into this query is the teaching, both ancient and contemporary, that the Eucharist is a school for living and for morally empowering seeing.
Cynthia Moe-Lobeda is professor of theological and social ethics at Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary of California Lutheran University, and Core Doctoral Faculty at the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.