Oct 19, 2021 Last Updated 7:03 AM, Oct 19, 2021

The Eucharist in African Perspective (1)

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The title of this article makes assertions which have not always gained the assent of all. One is that any matter of faith (here the Eucharist) can be understood and expressed differently across time and across cultures. Another is that an African way of looking at things exists. The first raises the question of the unity of faith in the diversity of expressions; the second that of the unity of humanity in the diversity of cultures. I here take up reflections begun in a paper in 1992 entitled, "The Eucharist and African Culture" (Okoye 1992).

Questions of Culture

Are Africans really so different from others? Are there characteristic traits which distinguish them from all others? Not long ago a missionary in Africa had this to say:

in an age of rapid translation, the mass diffusion of new books . . . it would be as bizarre to expect the growth of a characteristic African liturgy or theology as to expect the growth of English ones (Hastings 1967: 31).

The "bizarre" is actually in progress: elements of an African liturgy and theology are in process. Some doubters point to the increasing impact of globalization and internet culture: a global culture, it is affirmed, is not only setting the pace but is actually in the process of assimilating all cultures to that of Europe and the United States of America. Any programs based on a supposed African culture would be labor lost; what is more, it would be working against the insurmountable currents of civilization. It would be like returning Africa to the Dark Ages and snuffing out the light brought by colonization.

What is culture, and how resilient can it be in the face of the onslaught of "modernity"? Culture is not a reality on the ground: it is in the mind. It is constituted by lines of demarcation that the mind draws between peoples and groups. The mind may see all persons as similar (over against animals for instance); it then includes all persons in a species called humanity. When the mind chooses to concentrate on what is proper to each, it discovers not humanity but individuals, no two of whom on earth are ever the same. All human persons are thus somewhat similar and somewhat different. The mind may draw a line across peoples and discover Americans. Americans drink coffee, the British drink tea; Americans are warm, the British are cold. Americans play baseball and basketball, the British play cricket and soccer. Advertisers know how to exploit cultural sensitivities. Mazola oil is advertised in Britain as healthy, in America as full of flavour.

When the mind looks closer at Americans it finds Amerindians, African Americans, Anglo Americans, Hispanic Americans and others. It is the same with Africa. Depending on how the mind draws the line it will discover an African culture or African cultures Bantu culture, HamitoIslamic culture, Negroid culture and so on. What the mind attends to are worldviews and spontaneous explanations of reality, characteristic behaviors and institutions, elements of history and tradition, characteristic differences in material culture. All derive not from nature, but from nurture: culture is learned through socialization. An example from the socialization of children may help make the point. In the United States a parent would say to a child, "look me in the eye and tell me what happened". To avoid the parent's gaze would be to be caught in a lie. In most of Africa children do not fix their eyes on parents, nor young persons on elders; that would be gross disrespect, even challenge to authority. But an African born and bred in the United States would probably be socialized to look everyone in the eye, including elders. Traits taken in isolation do not make a culture; they must be viewed in concert with other traits and in context.

Are human beings then imprisoned in culture? How is understanding and communion between individuals and cultures possible? Difference is never absolute; there is always an element of sameness. Further, all share the same human quests of happiness, success, communion; all are affected by the same vital passions of joy and sadness, fear and hope. The configurations of these differ, however.

The presence of a trait in a culture does not mean that every person in that culture shares the trait. Some Americans actually prefer soccer to baseball or American football! The line of culture is the trend set by the dominant majority.

Culture is not static: Americans have continued to change since 1776. But just as a person retains identity while going through the life cycle, so culture retains a certain homogeneity through all its changes, unless it is violently altered, for example, through conquest, exile.

There are three levels of culture: material culture, institutions of society, and worldview. Material culture house, furniture, food, appliances is easily adaptable. Arab bedouins have integrated cell phones and computers into their desert tent lifestyle! Old habits are given up, new habits and skills are learned, but culture stretches itself to integrate these. Societal institutions are more resilient; for example, marriage and family mores, traditions of sickness and death. The constitution of the United States is one institution which is very significant for American culture; "amendments" keep it in line with changes in society. The worldview, which enshrines models of how the universe works, is at the deepest level of culture and is least amenable to change. An element of the American worldview is that all human persons are born equal and are subject to equal treatment. Another is that the individual is paramount.

As regards Africa, the seedbed of culture is village life. The African is fully a person in his/her village life. "Man is man in his village life … security, unconditional readiness to share, complete surrender of individuation" (Taylor 1963: 86). Even with the advent of urbanization, "home" is still the village. Some vital areas of life, like marriage and death, are governed by the customs and mores of the village. Rural populations still predominate in Africa: Malawi and Rwanda are 90% rural, Burundi is 95% and Tanzania 96% (Spearhead, 1984). Africans bring the village to the city; they live in the city from the worldviews of the village. There is western medicine and traditional medicine. There is divination even in the cities. In the 1970s Dar es Salaam had seven hundred full time diviners who were consulted daily by ten thousand people; more than half of these clients were worried about witchcraft (Shorter 1973: 41). In the city Africans create associations of people from the same home area for purposes of solidarity. That way they impose village values upon urban culture. The African worldview may even enlist aspects of Christianity and modernity! An example is how some African Initiative Churches have pressed the biblical psalms into service as alternatives for traditional charms. They group the psalms into protective, therapeutic and success psalms. For protection against fire disasters, soldiers, police officers and fire fighters read Psalm 60 with the name Jah; Psalm 35 defeats the evil plans of enemies, especially witches and evil men, when read in conjunction with other prayers between midnight and 3 AM in the open air while the reader is naked; for success in examinations choose Psalm 4 (Adamo 1999: 75, 76, 82).

There is no doubt that a global culture is being disseminated through western education, urbanization, the mass media, and especially the internet. The fact is, however, that some elements of this global culture are reinterpreted by the local culture: instead of a reduction into one, wI1at results are plural modernities colored by the various cultures (Schreiter 1997: 10 11). In some places local cultures have protected their values by regression to nativism. Indeed even in the First World itself, the globalizing process seems to have induced a search for identity through the revival or accentuation of cultural traits. The outflow of modernization curves back upon the West, creating multicultural societies in previously monocultural situations (Ibid. 13).

Culture and the Unity of Faith

There have always been diverse ways of celebrating the Eucharist; rather than hinder the unity of faith they give it vitality. Gregory the Great (540 604) declared: “in una fide, nil officit consuetudo diversa" (in the one faith there is no harm in diverse custom). Various Rites developed in the ancient patriarchates between the fourth and sixth centuries. The Roman Rite is only one among many rites, and is itself a particular example of inculturation. Others are the East Syrian and West Syrian (Jacobite, Maronite, Byzantine and Armenian), and the Alexandrian Rites (Coptic and Ethiopic). The Liturgy Constitution of Vatican II declared that:

in faithful obedience to tradition, … holy mother church holds all lawfully acknowledged rites to be of equal authority and dignity; that she wishes to preserve them in future and to foster them in every way (SC, 4).

In itself nothing prevents the emergence of an African Rite or even of other rites. There is the Coptic Rite in Egypt, the Ethiopic in Ethiopia and Eritrea. The Roman Rite came to the rest of Africa with the missionaries who established their own way of worship in what was then called the "missions." The church has always accepted that the Roman Rite may need adaptations in order to suit the genius of various peoples. At the Second Vatican Council the church declared:

even in the liturgy, the church has no wish to impose a rigid uniformity in matters which do not involve the faith or the good of the whole community. Rather she respects and fosters the spiritual adornments and gifts of the various races and peoples (SC, 37).

On the first visit of any pope to Africa in 1969, Paul VI gave the go ahead to the emerging project of an African liturgy and theology when he declared at Kampala:

The expression, that is, the language and the mode of manifesting the one faith, may be manifold . . . . From this point of view a certain pluralism is not only legitimate but desirable. An adaptation of the Christian life in the fields of pastoral, ritual, didactic and spiritual activities is not only possible, it is even favored by the church. The liturgical renewal is a living example of this. And in this sense you may, and you must, have an African Christianity (Paul VI, 1969).

In 1994, the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacraments issued guidelines for the adaptation of liturgy in a document, called The Roman Liturgy and Inculturation. It states that the aim of adaptation is in order that "the liturgy of the church must not be foreign to any country, people or individual, and at the same time it should transcend the particularity of race and nation" (Vatican 1994: # 18). Paragraph 40 of the SC states that "in some places and circumstances . . . an even more radical adaptation of the liturgy is needed, while the above mentioned document on the Roman liturgy and inculturation emphasizes that "adaptations of this kind do not envisage a transformation of the Roman Rite, but are made within the context of the Roman Rite" (Vatican 1994: #63).

The door is left open, however, for proposing "innovations" to the Holy See after an Episcopal Conference has exhausted all the possibilities of adaptation in the liturgical books and evaluated these adaptations.

Elements of Inculturation

Inculturation is genuine when texts and rites are so inserted into culture that they absorb its thought, language and ritual patterns; liturgical celebrations thus become cultural events. Neither liturgy, nor culture, is to impose alien meanings and patterns on the other (Chupungco, 1989: 29). There was a feeling among some missionaries that African culture had nothing to offer the faith. The contrary is the case. Actually traditional religion has been a force in the spread of Christianity; the core values of African religious culture are at bottom Christian. J. V. Taylor wrote that "the Christian understanding of man has far more in common with the solidarities of Africa than with the individualism of the western world" (Taylor 1963: 109). Furthermore, this religious culture continues to be the underlying support and term of reference for many African Christians.

Adaptation must respect certain principles of liturgy. Chupungco distinguishes the theological content from the liturgical form. The Eucharist is a sacrifice, but not every model of sacrifice is suitable for structuring it: the theological content of the Eucharist is that of Christ's paschal sacrifice, its liturgical form is that of a meal. Hence any adaptation of the Eucharist must have the recognizable form and structure of a meal. The Eucharist is essentially a prayer of praise (Eucharistein in Greek means to give thanks) over bread and wine, resembling the Jewish blessing (berakah), said over meals and especially over the Passover meal (Emminghaus, 1978: 20 23).

Jesus reinterpreted its meaning to refer to the liberation to be given in his death and resurrection. "Sacrifice" must be understood in a Christian manner as "a person's total self surrender to God represented in an exterior gift offering" (Jungmann, 1978: 99). With the words at the last supper Jesus laid down his life and announced his future sacrificial death; in the Eucharist, Christ re presents this offering, drawing the faithful into his one self offering. No church is free to use whatever symbols it likes; the symbols must relate to those arising from the very ministry of Christ. Hence the symbols of bread and wine in the Eucharist and the form of words said by Jesus at the last supper are irreplaceable. The Eucharist involves a meal in which eating is symbolic and sacramental (Emminghaus, 1978: 23).

Some theologians have argued that bread and wine simply mean "food and drink," and should be able to vary in different cultures. Jesus used the elements of food and drink available in his culture; the sacramental sign is not seen to inhere in the particular form of food and drink. In fact, it is questioned whether he actually used wheaten bread. Passover was the time of the barley harvest; the harvest of wheat did not usually come till about Pentecost. Traditional practice in the church has been to use wheaten bread and wine from grapes. Such materials native to the Mediterranean area cannot grow in many parts of the world. These theologians are seeking a way to make what the African eats "proximate matter" of the Eucharist (Okolo, 1978: 135; see also Uzukwu, 1980). Bishop Dupont of Pala (Chad) experimented with millet bread and wine between 1973 and 1975 before Rome stopped the experiment. But in a similar case there has been some change. Until 1971 the oil for consecration on Holy Thursday (used in baptism, confirmation, ordination and anointing of the sick) had to be olive oil; since then other oils have been allowed.

James Chukwuma Okoye, CSSP, is Associate Professor of Old Testament at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago, Illinois, USA. He has served as provincial of his congregation in Nigeria, as a member of the Spiritan General Council in Rome, and as a peritus at the 1994 African Synod.



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