Indigenous Religion and the Sacrifice of the Mass

Douglas McManaman
April 22, 2023
Reproduced with Permission

It is always inspiring to teach a World Religions course. What becomes obvious to anyone studying the religions of the world is that man is naturally a religious animal; he has always aspired to seek a relationship with his origin, the very source of his being, either God, or the gods, or both. Particularly fascinating are the myriads of creation myths of the indigenous peoples around the world, from Australia to Africa, to North America and the Amazon basin. For the indigenous, life itself is religion, that is, life is ritual, and ritual is ordered to joining the realms of the sacred and the profane. The more one becomes familiar with indigenous myths, the more one understands the essence of ritual as precisely a joining, for the day-to-day activities of the indigenous peoples are really an emulation of the gods of these myths, which is the way to making the past present. Everything they do, i.e., hunting, cooking, giving birth, basket weaving, etc., is sacred to the degree that it imitates the acts of the gods or ancestors whose deeds are recounted in myths and legends.

The indigenous believe that the great sky god created lesser deities, who in turn created the earth, mountains, rock formations, trees, rivers, man, and the basic pattern of his daily life. All this took place in what the indigenous refer to as the creation period (or the dreaming), a period of time that is sacred, for it is a time that measures the very work of the gods. This sacred time is of an entirely different dimension than ordinary time. To get a better understanding of this notion of sacred time, consider C. S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia, specifically The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. When the children pass through the wardrobe, they enter a different world, the world of Narnia, and many years in Narnia amount to about a minute or two of earth time. Similarly, for the indigenous, there is earth time, which is profane time (our time), and there is sacred time in which the gods dwell, and the two are not perfectly parallel. Ritual is precisely the way that the indigenous bring sacred time into contact with profane time. In performing ritual, such as an elaborate initiation ritual - which may require an entire season to complete - , they imitate the ancestors or lesser deities, and in doing so, sacred time is made contemporary with profane time. The two different realms are in contact, all as a result of ritual. In other words, the acts of the gods are made present, in the here and now, through the ritual acts of the indigenous, and it is by virtue of this contact that they are renewed, strengthened, and made holy.

There is one feature of indigenous myths and legends, however, that I have always found particularly striking, and this feature is found all over the world, in the myths of the Australian, African, South and North American tribes. In these myths, there is very often an account of a murdered god. It is often an unjust murder of an innocent deity or ancestor, and from the body of this murdered deity arises vegetation of all kinds, i.e., beans, melons, corn, tobacco, or a certain tree from whose wood are made flutes that produce enchanting sounds, like the archetypal flute that was played by the murdered god in sacred time. To create such a flute out of the wood of this particular tree is a ritual that makes present the murdered deity. And to harvest the crops in the fall is a ritual act that includes sacrificial offerings to the deity and festivities, since it is from his sacrificed body that the fruits of the earth come to us year after year. Even the headhunting and cannibalism of certain tribes can only be understood in light of the tribes' myths, for these acts are always offerings to the murdered god, a re-enactment of the myth carried out for the sake of the blessings that will inevitably follow upon such ritual.

Consider the following excerpt from an ancient legend, "A Boy's Vision and the First Corn".

A young boy on his guardian spirit quest sees a handsome young man coming down from the sky and advancing toward him. Every movement of his body was graceful. "I am sent to you, my friend, by that great and good spirit, the Master of Life, who made all things in the sky and on the earth. He knows your motives in fasting. He sees that you have a kind and unselfish wish to do good to your people, to seek some benefit for them. He knows that you do not ask for strength in war or for the praise of warriors. I am sent to instruct you and to show you how you can do good for your people. Arise now, young man, and prepare to wrestle with me. Only in that way can you hope to accomplish what you want to accomplish. And so they wrestled until the boy was exhausted; the handsome young man returned the following day; for they wrestled on three consecutive days. Finally, on the third day, the heavenly stranger stopped. "I am conquered," he declared. "Let us sit down, and I will instruct you." So the two sat together in the lodge, and the visitor began to speak. "You have won what you desire from the Master of Life, my friend. You have wrestled manfully. Tomorrow will be the seventh day of your fasting. Your father will offer you food to strengthen you, but as it is the last day of trial, you will prevail. I know this, and I will tell you what you must do to benefit your family and your tribe. Tomorrow I shall meet you and wrestle with you for the last time. As soon as you have conquered me, you will strip off my garments and throw me down. You will clean the earth of weeds and roots, make it soft, and bury me in the spot. Leave my body in the earth. Do not disturb it, but come occasionally to visit the place, to see whether I have returned to life. Be careful never to let the grass or weeds grow on my grave. Once a month cover me with fresh earth. If you follow my directions, you will accomplish your object of doing good to your fellow creatures by teaching them what I have now taught you.

At sunset, the visitor from the sky returned, and the two wrestled for the last time. In spite of the fact that the boy had refused the food his father had brought, he felt that new strength had been given him and that his courage was greater than ever. He grasped his opponent with supernatural strength, threw him down, took from him his beautiful garments and plume. Finding him dead, the boy buried him on the spot, following all the directions that had been given the day before. He was confident that the stranger would come to life again, as he had promised.

Throughout the spring he visited the grave, pulled out the grass and weeds, and kept the ground soft. Soon he saw the tops of the green plumes coming through the ground. The more carefully he followed the directions to keep the ground soft, the faster the green plumes grew. But he did not tell his father or anyone else about his vigil or about the grave. Days and weeks passed. One day when the summer was drawing to a close, he [Wunzh] invited his father to follow him. Together they walked to the quiet, secluded place of the youth's vigil. He had removed the lodge and had kept the weeds from growing on the circle where it had stood. In the center of the spot the father saw, for the first time, a tall and graceful plant with bright-coloured silken hair. It had long green leaves and on every side were golden clusters. Nodding plumes seemed to grow from its top.

"It is my friend, the friend of all people," explained the boy. "It is the friend who came to me here - Mondawmin, the spirit of corn. We need no longer depend upon hunting and fishing only. As long as this gift of the Good Spirit is cherished, as long as it is taken care of, the earth itself will give us a living." (See E. E. Clark's Indian Legends of Canada. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 1960, p 46 - 49)

What is it in the human subconscious that can account for this universal theme found in the creation myths and legends of tribes separated by oceans and thousands of miles? The Church may have an answer for that, and the clues are in the first reading from the Solemnity of the Most Holy Body and Blood of Christ:

Melchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine. He was a priest of God Most High. He blessed Abram with these words: "Blessed be Abram by God Most High, the creator of heaven and earth; and blessed be God Most High, who delivered your foes into your hand." Then Abram gave him a tenth of everything.

How do we explain this reading in which the ancient king of Salem and priest of God the Most High, Melchizedek, brings bread and wine to Abraham, with a blessing? Melchizedek, a pre-Israelite, prefigures the priesthood that Christ established, and of course Melchizedek knew nothing about this foreshadowing or prefiguring, nor did Abraham. And well after Abraham, at the time of the Exodus, the Passover feast was established. The Seder plate prefigures the Eucharist as well. Here the original Passover lamb is sacrificed, and it is the blood that marks the doorposts of the Israelites that is their deliverance.

To share in the Seder meal is to be part of that Exodus; for the Jews, to share a meal is to enter into communion with all who are at table, because all share in the one food, which is a source of life. When they celebrate the Passover, they believe that what is past is made present, in the here and now, and so each time the Passover is celebrated throughout the centuries, Moses is present in their midst; Jews who celebrate Passover believe they leave Egypt with all of Israel at the time of the Exodus.

In the gospel reading for that same Solemnity (Corpus Christi), the miracle of the multiplication of the loaves and fish also prefigures the coming reality of the Eucharist. We see this prefiguring of the Eucharist not only in the New Testament, and not only in the history of Israel, which includes a small account of the pagan king Melchizedek, but it goes back further, as far back as the indigenous peoples of the world. God leaves clues throughout history, in every continent and in every people, clues about where He will be found. In the Person of Christ, myth becomes reality. All that the indigenous dreamt of, believed in and articulated is affirmed by God and is brought to reality. We (Catholics) worship a murdered God, a crucified God, and from his body come the fruit of the vine and the work of human hands, the bread of life and the cup of salvation. To partake of this thanksgiving sacrifice is to enter into him, to live in him. And just as the indigenous regard ritual as the way of making sacred time contemporary with ordinary time, a way of making it touch profane time, thereby renewing it, sanctifying it, and healing it, so too has this come to reality in the Eucharist, because to be present at an ordinary Mass is to be just as present at the foot of the cross as Mary and John were two thousand years ago. The sacrifice of Good Friday, which took place 2000 years ago, is made contemporary, that is, re-presented in the here and now. It is not this or that priest who is offering the sacrifice, it is Christ who is the priest who offers the sacrifice, and Christ is the victim, the murdered God, who is being offered. The individual priest is only acting in the Person of Christ (in persona Christi).

And Catholics believe that Christ is the new Passover lamb, whose blood frees us from the slavery of sin and death, and of whose flesh we partake, making us one with that sacrificial offering. And so to eat of this Eucharistic meal is to become one not only with every member of Christ's mystical body, past and present, but it is to become intimately one with all the faithful of Israel, as well as the indigenous peoples who knew something of this sacrifice, however obscure that understanding might have been.

One year as I was explaining to some students that the Eucharist is truly the body and blood of Christ, not merely a symbol of his body and blood, a girl raised her hand and said: "It can't be. That would make us cannibals". And of course, she had no idea the religious significance of ancient tribal cannibalism. She saw primitive man with the condescending eyes of the western world, that is, as backward and unintelligent. But it is not that we cannot be like them; rather, when we understand the significance of indigenous myth and the rituals that enact them, we begin to see that we can be like them, we are like them, and indeed they are like us. They yearned to participate in the life of the gods, that is, they yearned for the sacred to repeatedly touch their ordinary existence and make it holy and complete, as we do now. They yearned for the deification of the earth, the deification of creation. God answers man's deepest longings and aspirations in the mystery of the Incarnation, and ultimately in the Eucharist, which is ultimately the source that heals all intergenerational trauma. God reveals His mercy and humility in joining a human nature and entering into human suffering, and dying on a cross. Like every child, God loves to play hide and seek, and like a good player He hides Himself in unexpected places, under a humble disguise of one form or another. He continues to hide in our midst under the ordinary and humble appearance of a wafer of bread. After consecration, it is no longer bread, although it looks like bread, tastes and feels like bread; it is the substance of his murdered and resurrected body. The sacred has joined itself to the profane, matter is made holy, the food which is creation itself has become the Bread of Life, the bread of angels. Had we in the west paid more attention to the deeper significance of indigenous myth and allowed indigenous knowledge to open our eyes to what has always been present but hidden in our own theology, we would have become more fully cognizant of the deeper brotherhood that unites us all.