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Politics of Scripture

A Sensuous Eastertide

Access to the sacrament of the Eucharist has been weaponized against all those the church deems unworthy, immoral, or in sin. The sacrament that was meant to be a way of knowing and encountering the risen Christ through breaking and sharing of bread has been made into its opposite.

36b Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 37 They were startled and terrified and thought that they were seeing a ghost. 38 He said to them, “Why are you frightened, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? 39 Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see, for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” 40 And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. 41 Yet for all their joy they were still disbelieving and wondering, and he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” 42 They gave him a piece of broiled fish, 43 and he took it and ate in their presence. 44 Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures, 46 and he said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day 47 and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.”

Luke 24:36b–48 (NRSVue)

In their unique and varied ways, the post-resurrection stories speak to the sensuous ways of knowing the reality of the risen Christ. “Queering” the sacraments can help attune human senses to new experiences of the divine.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances portrays the disciples as frightened because they think Jesus is a ghost (Luke is unique among the gospels in this portrayal). Earlier in Luke 24, two angelic men tell a group of women that Jesus has arisen, but the rest of the disciples take this only as “an idle tale, and they did not believe them” (Luke 24:11).

The gospel continues with the story of the walk to Emmaus, after which Jesus makes himself known to two disciples in the breaking of the bread (Luke 24:13–35). It is when these two are recounting this encounter and revelation that Jesus makes his sudden appearance to all the disciples.

The risen Jesus startles the disciples by seemingly teleporting into their room. He then tells them to touch him and look at his scars, and he eats with them. Each of these interactions is offered as a way of demonstrating that Jesus is truly physically and materially there with them. A ghost or spirit could not be grasped and held. A mass hallucination could not take and eat their broiled fish.

Through these two vignettes, first the encounter on the road to Emmaus and then Jesus’ appearance to his disciples in the flesh, Luke is saying something about knowing the divine. Moreover, the author is making a theological claim about how the church community encounters the divine: Jesus is truly physically present in the giving of thanks and the breaking of bread, and that physical manifestation is important.

Theologians and ecclesial institutions have picked up on these stories and baked them into sacramental dogma. In some Christian traditions, the Eucharist is heralded as the primary place of divine encounter. Just as Jesus’ identity was hidden from his disciples until the breaking of the bread to those on the road to Emmaus, so the hidden Jesus is known in the church’s practice of the remembrance of the Last Supper.

Yet access to the sacrament of the Eucharist has been weaponized against all those the church deems unworthy, immoral, or in sin. Divorcees, LGBTQ+ people, and any others the church has deemed sinful have been denied a place at the table. The sacrament that was meant to be a way of knowing and encountering the risen Christ through breaking and sharing of bread has been made into its opposite. The Eucharist became a proxy for the exclusion of the impure.

Despite the barriers, borders, and exclusion, God has revealed God’s self whether or not the church has recognized the revelation. This is something queer Christians—and many other groups—know well. Queer theology traces a sensual and sensuous epistemology for knowing and encountering the divine.

Where I live in Aotearoa, New Zealand, the celebration of LGBTQ+ pride is treated as a moveable feast and shifted to the southern hemisphere’s summer months. At a Christian pride service that I helped organize in early March, we went back and forth on whether we would offer the sacrament of Eucharist. On the one hand, it could be a powerful invitation for those who have been excluded in the past to be invited back in. But on the other hand, it felt to us that the structures of the institution were indelibly marked in the ritual itself by hierarchy and exclusion—marks that don’t feel very queer at all.

We settled on offering a time of meditation and adoration of the blessed sacrament, in place of the standard liturgy. The consecrated host, in wafer form, was placed inside a monstrance. A “monstrance” is a vessel used to hold the consecrated bread and is either processed or used as a focal point for meditation and devotion. In this way, we still offered the sacrament, but in a different mode. This disruption to the flows of the liturgical rhythm of a Sunday service interrupted the normal experience of the sacrament, allowing for new encounters with divine presence.

Displayed in the monstrance, the presence of God was signified in the presence of the host. But the display acknowledged the ways that it has been locked away. The glass cover symbolized the institutional barriers that have kept many from the sacramental table. Withholding the sensation of touch recalled the ways that LGBTQ+ folk were rendered “untouchable” by the church and broader public, especially during the AIDS crisis.

And yet, the host was still there, able to be sensed in other ways. Without the sensations of taste and feel, holding the host in one’s gaze shifted the sensuous experience of the sacrament, opening up another mode of encounter with the divine.

The host was set on the high altar, and as people sat or knelt before it, I noticed that the shift in the host’s placement and engagement produced a change in the physical postures and thus the spiritual experience of the sacrament. To hold the host in one’s gaze, the normal posture of bowed head and eyes cast down was impossible. Chins had to be up. Eyes had to be lifted up.

As people came to look upon the host, they were visibly moved. Beholding the sacrament in this way makes one acutely aware of that space between one’s own position and that symbol of Christ. At the same time, whether someone was near or still a long way off, the sense of sight connected each person to the sacrament. In this way, the “space between” was transformed from a barrier of exclusion into a medium of connection to the host; the sacrament remained the sacrament no matter where one was in relation to it. Just as in Luke 24, expectations, the laws of physics, and great distances do not keep the risen Christ from becoming tangibly present to those who desire him.

For Marcella Althaus-Reid, pioneer in queer theology, unmasking and exposing the distance between the center and the excluded is one of the primary tasks of a queer and indecent theology. For her, liberatory theology is not about making the center bigger or bringing the marginalized into the center, but about uncovering the unexpected and scandalous places where God is revealed.

The queer theologian looks for those places and encounters that are startling and unexpected—much like Jesus’ sudden appearance to his disciples in Jerusalem after his resurrection. The queer theologian looks to disrupt and interrupt the normalcy of everyday religion, finding and crafting new ways of sensing the divine.

To know God is to know a divine being that reaches out through the human senses. Queering, disrupting, and interrupting the regular flows of liturgical rituals and rhythms can help open up unexpected encounters with ourselves, others, and the divine. The season of Easter is a season of resurrection, and there is space for all to find God in a sensuous disruption to the regular rhythms and patterns of each day.

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