In the first weekday Mass that I celebrated, a chalice with hosts (a ciborium) stood on the altar. However, I had forgotten to place it on the small white linen cloth that is spread out halfway during the Mass (the corporal). I had also forgotten to remove the lid from the ciborium. As the time came to distribute Communion, I was suddenly faced with a major problem: could I distribute these hosts as the “Body of Christ”, because they had been on the altar? Or was it still only ordinary bread, because it had not been placed on the corporal, and would I commit idolatry by calling it the “Body of Christ”?
I have become rather a fan of the book These are the Names by Tommy Wieringa. It is more exciting than the story above, but to my mind, there is a connection. Spoilers alert!
the Names has two
main storylines. The first one concerns a band of refugees in the former Soviet
Union, no friends of each other but clinging together for a greater chance at survival,
making their way across a barren wasteland, hoping to find a habitable place to
live. They remember being in the back of a truck, and a moment of tense silence
at a border crossing – which would presumably make them ‘illegal aliens’.
Because of the harsh conditions, some of them fall sick or die. But in the end, the remaining five struggle into the town of Mikhailopol.
The second storyline concerns the police chief of Mikhailopol, Pontus Beg. He is part of a corrupt system and has made his peace with the occasional indulgence of dishonesty or violence, though he is not a bad man in general. He has been in love once, a relationship that did not last a year, and since then has been relatively successful in ignoring his grief and settling into a convenient life. He has a sexual relationship with his cleaning lady, which could be considered an abuse of power and a boundary violation; but while she is dependent on him economically, she holds the power in the relationship, as she decides the time and frequency of their sexual encounters (only during infertile periods).
Near the beginning of the book, the Jewish rabbi of Mikhailopol dies, and there are no other Jews in town. The responsibility of organizing the funeral falls on Pontus, who finds himself confronting the puzzling question: how does one bury a Jew? At a loss, he visits the rabbi of a neighbouring town, Zalman Eder. As Pontus learns more about Judaism, he becomes intrigued by it, and eventually he finds out that his mother had a name of Jewish origin. Was she a Jew? And if so, has Pontus always been a Jew without realizing it? Is he accidentally within the boundaries of the community chosen by God?
The title of
the book, These are the Names, corresponds to וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֺת, the opening words of the book of Exodus
(of which the Hebrew name is Shemot, ‘Names’). Exodus is about a chosen
community leaving behind their old life of enslavement, oppression and scarcity.
Through the agency of Moses, they are liberated by God from the Egyptians while
passing through the Red Sea. At Mount Sinai, God gives them directions about
how to live, and promises that He will lead them to a good land. But while the
book looks forward to the Promised Land, they never actually get there.
In fact, we learn from the other Books of Moses that most of the people who set out from Egypt die on the desert journey. Even Moses himself dies in the desert; he sees the Land but does not enter it. That is the task of his successor, Joshua / Yehoshua.
Christians believe that a certain Jew named Yeshua (a variant of Yehoshua) has crossed the boundary of the spiritual Promised Land and that everyone who believes in Him already lives there with Him. Jews are sceptical of this claim and argue that no such boundary has been crossed.
Some of the refugees are Christian, including a man from Ethiopia. He does not speak the others’ language, but he is seen kissing a cross. Another refugee from Ashgabat considers this insulting, because to him Black men are on the level of animals, and so they do not belong within the community that honors God.
Pontus is probably
Christian in a vague cultural way. From the Jewish perspective, however, he is a
goy. He learns that while it is possible for a goy to embrace the
Jewish customs and to study the faith, he will always lack something. If he is
not biologically related to the patriarchs, he will always lack something undefinable
that is passed down in Jewish heredity. The rabbi tells him, ‘The goy can cross
the bridge but never reach the other side.’
Pontus reads in an old Jewish book (all translations are mine):
The Jews are not bound to the Torah because God has created us, but the Torah was given to us because God brought us out of Egypt, because He has bound himself to us and because we have been chosen. If this were otherwise, Blacks and Whites would be equal as well, because God has created all people.
Of course, there
is an indication that Pontus is possibly Jewish. In that case he would be able
to live as a complete Jew. But perhaps he does not want to become a Jew. For
one, his cleaning lady would not understand and probably disapprove of his
However, he is fascinated by the ritual bath of Judaism:
He was not sure if it was allowed, but sometimes he longed, even more than for the Eternal One, for submersion in the mikve, the stone niche deep in the earth, where the living water would cleanse his soul.
But Pontus will always be Pontus: a ‘bridge’ hovering over the water, connecting two shores. You start with the Baptist, you end up with a Pontifex – that is what history does.
The longing to
start a new life is mirrored in a more fear-filled conversation with one of the
‘Where are you from? Is there someone we can inform that you are here? Wife, children, family? Someone will want to know where you are?’
‘And where are you from?’
‘The hedge… The hedge of terrors.’
‘What is that?’
‘The poacher says…he says we should cross it, in order to be at home.’
Near the end of the book, we discover that the refugees have been deceived. The people who took their money to get them across the border did not want to run any risks. The border crossing that the refugees remember was artificial, fake: in reality, there was no border. They are in their own country after all, even if they cannot prove it. However, that does not matter – there are also Chinese immigrants, and as long as they are harmless, no one investigates too closely.
Likewise Pontus does not know which country is his home: the Promised Land, or the lands of the goyim. He is invited to cleanse himself in the mikve, but hesitates and refuses. He finds consolation in participating in Jewish rituals with the rabbi in the other town, without choosing on which side of the boundary he wants to live. The rabbi does not have that liberty: he is clearly a Jew living in a foreign land, but he is alone, old and tired, he does not have prayer services and does not observe all the commandments.
In the final
chapter, Little Moses, Pontus takes a young boy, one of the refugees, to
the border of his own country. The border is heavily guarded from the other
side. The other side offers a better life, so obviously the government there has
an interest in limiting the influx of migrants. It would be very unlikely that
the boy could cross that border, given the technology they have to hunt down
Pontus offers the boy to become his adoptive father, to give him a chance of acquiring an Israeli passport, permission to enter the Promised Land.
Pontus, who is perhaps a Jew, will perhaps become the legal father of someone who will perhaps have better opportunities after crossing the borders of the Promised Land. Within those boundaries is life, outside of the boundaries is struggle.
The boy gazes into the distance. What he thinks or what he chooses, we do not know.
In my first
weekday Mass, rather than repeating the long Eucharistic Prayer and upsetting the congregation, I distributed
the hosts from the ciborium that had escaped my attention, and proclaimed them
to be the “Body of Christ”. After Mass, I went to the tabernacle as secretly as
possible and whispered the words of the consecration of the bread once again,
under my breath. Consecrated hosts and unconsecrated hosts should always be
kept clearly apart.
Sometime after that experience, I talked to a young colleague who asked with some surprise, ‘Did you not form an intention before your ordination either to consecrate only the bread and wine on the corporal, or all the bread and wine on the altar?’
I never did.