The Mess of the Mass
Several years ago I was having an early breakfast with a friend who is a Catholic priest. We were in the middle of a good chat when he suddenly looked at his watch and said, “I’ve got to go! It’s time to go kill Jesus.” And he headed off for the daily morning mass. Well, at least he was honest about it. After all, Christianity is, at its heart, a cult of human sacrifice. All orthodox Christian denominations teach that the execution of a First-Century Jew somehow atoned for all the sins ever committed by human race. Although nobody can agree on exactly how the atonement works. And apparently you can still go to hell for your sins, even though they’ve been paid for. Go figure.
Apparently the Mass/Communion/Lord’s Supper did not start out as a meal commemorating human sacrifice. One of the earliest descriptions of the Christian communion ceremony comes from an ancient document called The Didache or The Teaching of Twelve Apostles. This early description of communion makes no reference at all to Jesus’ body and blood being consumed in the meal; nor is there any reference to the bodily resurrection of Jesus. How could they have forgotten to put in something that important? Well the obvious answer is, they didn’t forget. Those aspects of the sacrament were added later.
And that actually makes some sense because it would have been very strange for First Century Jews to consume the blood of any creature. The Torah contains strong prohibitions against ingesting blood: “You must not eat any blood whatever, either of bird or of animal…” (Leviticus 7:26) So that seems to nix rare prime rib. Why is it that Yahweh is always against yummy food?
Long story short–several popular Roman mystery cults back in the day had communal meals which celebrated the death and resurrection of a god. The cult of Dionysus and Mithraism are two examples. In a stroke of marketing genius Paul and others most likely grafted elements of these ceremonies onto the Jewish Passover meal, and that’s how Christians ended up with the Mass. It was a big hit.
Does anybody taking communion nowadays really believe they are ingesting the body and blood of a First Century Jew–either physically or symbolically? Probably not many. Polls show that more than half of Roman Catholics can’t tell you anything about transubstantiation. But communion still seems to have some kind of powerful attraction for believers. What is the draw of the ceremony? My hunch is that the act of gathering together for a communal meal speaks to something deep within our psyches that was there long before the advent of Christianity or Judaism. Evolutionary psychologists and paleo-anthropologists, among others, have suggested that humans really took off as a species when our distant ancestors began cooking and started sharing meals together around campfires. That’s where language began to develop, along with advanced social behavior. The power of communal meal sharing as a source of social bonding is so primal, and that probably explains the attraction of rites such as the Mass, Passover, and Eid Al-Fitr.
I think there are perfectly good and rational explanations for the origins of most religious behavior. It’s just that those answers don’t have anything at all to do with the metaphysical claims of religion.