In understanding ‘celebration’ as a new sacramental model, George Worgul sees it as a human event, which participates “in human historicity exhibited in its triple modality, i.e., past (anamnesis), present (kairos), and future (eschaton).”1 In light of this, I will attempt to contextualize ‘celebration’ by exploring the hypothesis that the Eucharistic celebration has far-reaching implications in the Church’s life and mission, and also values to be harnessed from the African communitarian sense of celebration to anchor it in the African cultural milieu.
This is attuned to the understanding of the eucharistic celebration as meaningfully ‘constitutive for concrete life’ experiences and contexts of the participants.2 Thus, this paper, framed within the context of a koinonia ecclesiology and based on the Second Vatican Council’s encouragement for ritual contextualization, will examine the eucharist as a celebration from an African perspective. How can African Christians, in their traditional setting, understand and integrate the all-enriching Eucharistic celebration in their own cultural milieu? The answer/s to this question should be cognizant of the catechetical need/s of the eucharist as a celebration in Africa’s communal context.
Sacrament: An Expression of Faith in the Community
Sacrament, of and through the Church, is importantly considered in “a community, a koinonia, a way of being together in Christ.”3 The Church perpetually manifests the real presence of Christ in the world through its sacramental activity.4 It continually offers God’s love and salvation to humankind. It holds firm to this function as it realizes that the communion of people stands as the substrate for God’s self-gift. As the people of God gathered in the form of koinonia ecclesiology, the consciousness, experience, and actuality of the community of Christ’s faithful being saved are realized. Thus, it is evident that celebration and its sacrament are both grounded in community as a way of being together.
In light of this, the onto-theological concept of sacrament as causality of grace, hence, God-centered and working mechanically, does not stand the taste of today. For when ‘cause’ is tied to production, and considered as an ‘instrument,’ grace takes the form of a mere ‘object.’5 This places human beings in the attitude of recipients/beneficiary toward the ‘Master of entities.’6 Thus, there arises the need to abandon the thought of sacramental causality in favor of sacrament as a celebration. Nonetheless, the modern era, in taking sacrament to be human-centered, and in advancing it as a personal encounter with the divine, makes sacrament to assume a homology of attitude, where reality is never present to humans except in a mediated way.7 Sacrament is, thus, conceived as an essential approach for ‘thinking’ grace. It is characterized by ‘generosity-in-chain,’ manifest in the obligation to give ‘for nothing’ and the interdiction to refuse a gift.8 Hence, modernity places over-confidence in both symbolic systems and organizations, and thus confuses sacrament with supreme confidence in the power of human to dominate the world and to create a new kind of unity that is elusive.
In postmodern era, sacrament is seen as performative, as it begins and terminates “in the reality-event of God’s loving kindness and faithful presence in human history, his gathering of a people to himself, and his abiding with them in the power of his spirit enfleshing his love in their midst.”9 Sacrament, anthropologically, belongs to the contextual expression of religious feelings and experiences, as it is now situated in the ritual sphere and life in the community.10 In the ‘language of God’s giving’ and in a symbolic expression of human and cosmic interconnectedness and interdependence,11 it enhances the life of the faith community. God is thus seen as “the cause of the sacramental celebration which has as vehicle, goal, and effect, a deeper union of the participants with the approaching God and one another.”12 However, since the sacrament of the encounter with God13 cannot do without Christ, the challenging queries still remain. How can Christ’s visible presence, God’s greatest revelation, be furthered in the acts of the Church, as the gathering community of God’s people?14 How is the freeing power of his paschal mystery to be further emphasized and effectively communicated to humans, especially the less privileged of the community?
The Eucharist: Summit of Christ’s Presence with and in the Community at Celebration
As a celebration, the eucharist brings to the fore the propelling force of koinonia, expressing the larger community gathered for the fellowship occasions. The koinonia in occasions is highly expressed in the celebration of the eucharistic meals. Its rite is the highest expression of the community in union with Christ and humanity in mutual interconnectedness. The Second Vatican Council, in Sacrosantum Concilium, talks about it as the source and summit of all the sacraments.15 It situates the Church as a praying, a ‘bread breaking’ and sharing, a God-praising, a generous and a united community (cf. Acts 2:40-42).
The basis of this mutual koinonia and generosity is Christ’s selfless offering of himself. The Church perpetuates this sacramentally in the eucharistic celebration. This envisages preparedness to share one’s own life and possessions with others (cf. Acts 4:32-37). As a sacrament of love par excellence, it makes the Church a community of love impelling and propelling the efficaciousness of love and sharing.16 Louis-Marie Chauvet describes this love sharing as the symbolic efficacy of the sacrament.17 This practical love of neighbor, draws its strength in the love of Christ and fellow humans, where the faith-commitment to Christ and hope of salvation finds full complement and existential grounding. The Church authentically manifests, to the extent that in its activities, it is a visible and attractive sign of love, a response to God’s love to all in its very essence. The eucharistic celebration, thus, draws humans to completely join together “in a single coexistence. Love of God and love of neighbor are now truly united: God incarnate draws us all to himself…: there, God’s own agape comes to us bodily, in order to continue his work in us and through us.”18
Thus, Christ’s presence in the world is mostly manifest in the eucharist. Its celebration reflects the Church as both ‘instituted’ and ‘instituting.’ The Church in the celebration of the eucharist continues expressing itself, embracing people as its members and constantly nourishing them. Its manner of nourishment makes Christians holy and builds up the Church in a symbolic expression of relational interconnectedness with God and humans. Not only that it presupposes faith-communication; it also nurtures human conviviality by strengthening and expressing it. How then can we contextualize this eucharistic celebration in other cultures?
Contextualizing the Eucharist in an African Communitarian Concept of Celebration
Africans maintain an integral sense of celebration in which all are included and felt important, too.19 African celebration is done mainly through the performances of rituals, such as rites of passages, circumcision, marriage, funeral, and so forth. It is marked by community-orientedness and ‘egalitarian’ tendencies.20 Influentially, mediating the life experiences of Africans, their celebration revolves around God, humans and nature.21 It is strongly anchored on interconnectedness and mutual dependence. According to John Mbiti, it “…forms a long line which links African forefathers with their descendants….”22 Thus, Africans, while indubitably believing in a Supreme Being, also hold to a cosmos that is rich in spiritual forces – such as the spirits, the living dead.23 They see their human community as existing in an unbroken cosmic and ecosystemic interconnectedness. This forms the central elements of African celebration, in which all are seen as interrelated.
In light of this, the social values accruing from African celebration are manifest in the pursuit of individual happiness and the common good. Such values enhance a just and equitable society, in which all share in common.24 From the children, the elders, to the long departed ancestors, all bear a significant role in the celebration for the furtherance of the community.25 Thus, celebration in the African way, generally engenders meaningful human existence and conviviality by enriching humans through relationships where the community-consciousness reigns supreme.26
Hence, the African myths and fables provide proofs and justification of human existence and interpersonal interactions of all humans. African meaningfulness of life is, thus, judged from the celebration’s dynamic aspects, which are closely related to the ideals particularly that of human interdependence. The farther an African is removed from this truth, the more insignificant, inconsequential and non-valuable he/she is conceived to be. In fact, he/she becomes a nobody in his/her community. These African ‘celebrational’ values can be harnessed to situate the eucharist as celebration in African context. This will serve as an introduction to the catechesis on the eucharistic celebration to African Christians.
Harnessing Some Values in African Celebration to Concretize the Eucharist as Celebration
The Family Bonding:
African celebration is known for its impact on family bonding.27 African community-consciousness and orientedness are gained, nurtured and upheld through the celebration in the family, the lineage, the clan, and the tribe.28 In it, every person has a place. The elders are respected. The young people are treated with love and kindness. The family bonding goes beyond the living members to include ancestors and all the dead members of the family.29 This manifests that the spirit of togetherness, of we-ness, in African celebration is not limited to the nuclear family; it extends beyond the group from the same ancestral tree to a clan or village or even the local community. The individual is not alone in the world as members of his/her community in celebration surround him/her.30 Thus, an African is complete only in so far as he/she is part and parcel of the community.
Thus, the community-consciousness in celebration makes an African to realize the necessity of contributing for the welfare and well being of others.31 The success or failure of a member is not only for the individual concerned; rather it impacts the whole community. Thus, Africans show compassion for the weak members of the community, such as the sick and the aged, more especially during celebration. The sick are not left alone; the aged are not kept away. Rather, they join with the members of their families. Thus, euthanasia – mercy killing – is never considered as an option to end the pains of the weak members of the community. They are shown love and are cared for until they die and join the ancestors.32
Socio-anthropologically, the world, as an inexhaustible source of life, in celebration, reinforces the human vital force and propels it toward meaningful living and acting.33 Through African celebration, “… there is an inseparable link between politics, economics, spirituality, morality and indeed every other aspect of life….”34 This promotes solidarity between brothers and sisters by uniting their social and political life with the exigencies of their spiritual lives.
The African sense of celebration encourages the practice of hospitality and reciprocal family relationships. This encourages mutual commitment to social justice and egalitarianism. It is the foundation on which Africans articulate their values toward the sojourner, stranger, and toward themselves.35 This is manifest in African concept of richness attached to sisterhood and brotherhood, which helps to form a community driven by solidarity, forgiveness and reconciliation.36 This envisions respect and equality of all in the community. However, the challenges of polygamy, childlessness, human sexuality and other crises, prevalent in various African communities, including the current devastating pandemic of HIV/AIDS, have to be dealt with adequately for a more lively African celebration. This is necessitated by the fact that an African celebration is synonymous with its communitarian life.
Eating Meals Together
In African celebration, interpersonal relationships are deepened by the act of eating meals together. It is a sign of unity and love. The meal is a special symbol of celebration and a real medium of communication. According to Brain Hearne, in it “people come together, renew their strength, and share not just food but also friendship. A meal is a sign of reconciliation and peace, of hope that God’s purpose in creation is being fulfilled.”37 African celebration is filling the gap through eating meal together. In most African communities, hospitality to a visitor at meals is considered a duty.38 An African, while preparing a meal, also prepares a meal for an unexpected guest. Mostly, meals are eaten outside the home. This is to offer passers-by the opportunity of joining in the meal celebration. An African believes that meal shared is love and life extended.
As meal celebration is always inclusive, the food and drink are always shared among all present. Welcoming people to the ‘table’ is considered very important as it is in Isaiah, 58: 7: “share your bread with the hungry.” The African meal celebration goes back to a very long time in human history. Ab initio, meal has been intertwined with religion and spirituality through the centuries and is closely related to the deepest religious values. Admittedly, it is the symbol of unity in all cultures, not only in Africa.39 The rites of passage, such as circumcision, marriage, or a funeral are always seen as a celebration of unity, like the African common meal, which affirms the people’s sense of interconnectedness. These aspects are likewise found in the eucharist as celebration.
Theological Imports of African Eucharistic Celebrations: An Evaluation
The eucharistic celebration seen from an African perspective serves as an essential element in the catechesis for African Christians on the eucharist as celebration.40 The African sense of celebration, with its attending values and strengths, has sustained Africans throughout their history. It enhances and promotes peace, social justice and human dignity. African celebration schematically hinges on the riches issuing from African worldview, beliefs, life and practices that are incentives for building communion. It promises hope and vision of a sustainable human community,41 as it strengthens vital forces in the world. It situates the world as operating with some degree of order and predictability, which upholds an adequate interpersonal connectedness.42
Nourished by an understanding of the eucharist as celebration, the African communitarian sense of celebration encourages the existence of a never-ending interplay of ‘sending forth’ and ‘receiving from’ between humans bonded in love and mutual commitments.43 This practice of love in action points to highly symbolical relational expressions. It manifests celebration as closely bonding together all who participate in it.44 The corporate conviviality fostered in it expresses our being made present to Christ, as its origin is traced to the sharing of the Passover meal.45 The eucharist as celebration urges practical commitment concerning human attitudes to one another. Christ identifies himself with those in need, with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and those in prison (cf. Mt 25:31-46). This concrete manifestation of love in action “becomes the criterion for the definitive decision about human life’s worth or lack thereof.”46 In light of this, love of God and love of neighbor, in the eucharistic celebration, go pari passu. In the eucharistic communal sharing we discover the least of the brethren in Christ, who abides in God.47
Thus, human beings are transformed while being Christ-like in their interpersonal relationships (cf. Gal 2:20). This empowering transformation aids us to be truly human, such that the symbolism of interiorizing and living out our participation in Christ’s flesh and blood enkindles within us an ardent desire to express and communicate his real presence in the community.48 Through the eucharistic celebration, human beings are united with those who are departed, with the whole human family – the poor, the sick, the outcast, the downtrodden and the oppressed.49 The African communal meal sharing, for instance, enhances communal spiritedness and upholds community consciousness. In African communal meals, the connections between sacred symbols of culture, myths and rituals are given practical expressions.50 They also commemorate certain occasions or events vital to the celebrating community, and “present the community in its socio-cultural life’s real context.”51 They are external manifestations of African religiosity and often include sacrifice as a prominent part of African communal meal ritual.
This enhances community feelings and identity.52 As the Eucharistic celebration is to establish union and communion with Christ, it challenges humans to be Christ-like in their interpersonal relationship.53 Acknowledging Christianity as upholding the rich sense of African celebration, Nlenanya Onwu argues from the fact that Africans think of human relationships in terms of Christ’s covenant as well.54 He cites as an example the Igbo people’s use of a common meal to cement relationships. For him, Igbo people, in their meal celebration, believe that when two or more persons eat or drink together from the same bowl, they have entered into a covenant relationship. They lick their common saliva, which has a spiritual quality in Igbo culture.55 In Onwu’s elucidation, sharing a meal in common affirms the values attached to African celebration, and enhances the contemporary eucharistic sharing among Christians.56 It reminds Christians everywhere that at the eucharistic celebration, they share in a universal communal meal, and not just that of any particular church or culture.57 The eucharistic celebration should serve as a pivot of unity and peace in human relationships all over the world.
The African sense of celebration, thus, takes the covenantal and communal dimensions of the eucharistic celebration seriously. As the eucharistic life has the propensity of becoming either a blessing or a curse, depending on the participants’ dispositions toward it, all should respect the eucharistic celebration’s eminence and significance. In light of this, Onwu observes that: “Participation in the eucharist makes believers not only more committed to their Lord but also more responsible for one another in mutual service, love, and unity.”58 During the eucharistic celebration in an African context, members of the worshipping community often bring the elements of offering to the altar with dancing and rejoicing. The eucharistic celebration is not something that the priest or minister prepares all alone. The traditional patterns in Africa call for an all-encompassing participation. Peter Sarpong, drawing insights from Ashanti culture which involves all the people in the Catholic Mass of Kumasi, Ghana, elucidates the symbol of African life of participation as loaded with meaning.59 An active participation in the eucharistic celebration actively communicates the good news of the Church to the gathering community.
Thus, as the eucharistic celebration emphasizes God’s love, which compels all to help the poor and the oppressed, a strong social ethic flows from African celebration, which advocates that no one should go hungry while others feast. The African communitarian spirit is mainly enshrined in the African values of family-bond, community-consciousness, and mutual help to one another. From the ideals of the eucharistic celebration, African values offer a wider range of social services, which include addressing people’s most basic needs. Christopher Ejizu identifies three priorities in the transforming love of the eucharist as celebration, understood in the African communitarian context as “evangelism, education, and service to the poor and the sick.”60 African celebration takes seriously Christ’s command to feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, take care of the sick, and visit the prisoner (cf. Mt 25:31-46). In the community celebration, Christ calls all to serve one another. This entails mutual commitment toward eschewing poverty, injustice, suffering, religious bigotry, ethnicism, immorality, and hatred in human relationships.61 Through these insights, the eucharistic celebration serves as agape that calls for service, and which encourages all to love and serve others as Christ did.
One noted difference between the eucharistic meal and the meal in African context is that Africans usually welcome everyone to their meal whereas the Church emphasizes “worthiness” of participants before partaking of the meal. Also in the eucharistic meal, certain kinds of preparations are necessary, such as the RCIA programs designed to educate those who wish to partake of the meal. In the eucharist meal recipients are supposed to attain a certain age to qualify; while in African communal meal there is an open-ended invitation to join.
Thus, the eucharistic celebration in African understanding is anchored on sharing with one another. This is believed to be the substrate for the ‘ontological balance’ between God, nature and humans in their co-relatedness.62 It is characterized with a liturgy celebrated in word, song, body movements and dance.63 It is possible then to explore further the idea of a contextualized African eucharistic celebration. For in the African sense of celebration are values that need to be harnessed to concretize the eucharistic celebration in the African context. It is an ongoing process.
However, an African understanding of the eucharist as a celebration would strongly symbolize the active presence of Christ in the community. As a communitarian being, African identity is defined by multiple solidarities: “I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am.”64 Therefore, for an African, a celebration is a communal event, which expresses and builds up the community. There is no room in the African mind for a eucharistic celebration where an individual worships on his/her own without concern for the needs of the other. It allows a new manner of conceiving the presence of God: in the fraternity among the faithful and their engagement in the world.65 It is a communal celebration in union with God and with the other human beings. It both enhances communion with the Invisible and promotes communal participation with all. This is manifest in most African shrines built in semi-circular shape. Here the participants are depicted as sitting to form a semi-circle, which is a sign of active participation and total commitment to the celebration. With this African understanding and practice, synonymous with the eucharistic celebration principles and ideals, there sprouts a veritable fertile ground for teaching Africans the values of the eucharist as celebration.
1. George Worgul, From Magic to Metaphor: A Validation of the Christian Sacraments (New York: Paulist Press, 1980), 214.
2. Ibid., 219.
3. Ibid., 218.
5. There exists a dichotomy between subject and object in sacrament. In light of this, Louis-Marie Chauvet observes that, “the relation of being to humankind has become a dialectical relation of face-to-face and no longer a mutual belonging of one to the other.” Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament: A Sacramental Reinterpretation of Christian Existence, translated by Patrick Madigan and Madeleine Beaumont (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1995), 36.
6. Ibid., 43.
7. Ibid., 73.
8. Ibid., 99-109.
9. Worgul, From Magic to Metaphor, 219.
10. Cf. Lambert Leijssen, With the Silent Glimmer of God’s Spirit; A Postmodern Look at the Sacraments (New York/Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 2006).
11. Cf. David Power, Sacrament: The Language of God’s Giving (New York: Crossroad, 1999).
12. Worgul, From Magic to Metaphor, 219.
13. Cf. Edward Schillebeeckx, Christ: The Sacrament of Encounter with God (Kansas: Sheed and Ward, 1963).
14. Sacrosanctum Concilium, 7.
15. SC, 18.
16. Mary Clark, “Irenaeus,” in Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, Everett Ferguson, ed. (New York: Garland Press, 1990), 471-472.
17. Louis-Marie Chauvet, Symbol and Sacrament, 430-444.
18. Benedict XVI, Deus Caritas Est (Vatican: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2006), no. 14.
19. G. Aderibigbe, “African Religion and Christianity in Dialogue: An Appraisal from the African Perspective,” Africana Marburgensia 32 (1999): 39-56, esp. 42.
20. Jacob Carruthers, “Review of Cultural Unity of Black Africa, by Cheikh Anta Diop,” Black Books Bulletin 5,no. 4 (1977): 46-48.
21. Christopher Ejizu, “African Traditional Religious Ritual and Symbols,” Pro Dialogo 87 (1994): 243-258.
22. John Mbiti, Introduction to African Philosophy (Nairobi: Heinemann, 1986), 2.
24. Innocent Onyewuenyi, “Is There an African Philosophy?” African Philosophy (La Philosophie Africaine), ed. Claude Summer (Addis baba: Addis Ababa University, 1980), 310-311.
25. Chuba Okadigbo, “The Philosophical Foundations of African Personality,” an unpublished philosophical essay (Enugu: Bigard Memorial Seminary, Enugu, 1976).
26. Innocent Onyewuenyi, “Is There an African Philosophy?” 311.
27. Nwankwo Ekwunife, “Philosophy and African Traditional Religious Values,” Cahiers des Religions Africaines (1989): 17-35, esp. 21-22.
28. Ibid., 22.
30. Anthony Echekwube, “The Question of Reincarnation in African Religion: A Re-Appraisal,” Orita 19 (1987): 10-26.
31. See Pantaleon Iroegbu, Appropriate Ecclesiology: Through Narrative Theology to an African Church (Owerri, Nigeria: International University Press, 1996), 147-149.
33. Chuba Okadigbo, “The Philosophical Foundations of African Personality,” 1.
34. Peter Sarpong, “Everyday Spirituality,” Ecumenical Review 38, no. I (1986): 4.
35. Emmanuel Ifesieh, “Igbo Traditional Religion: A Cultural Means of Cultivating Discipline,” Cahiers des Religions Africaines (1985): 235-247, esp. 244.
36. Christopher Ejizu, “Human Rights in African Indigenous Religion,” Bulletin of Ecumenical Theology 4 (1991): 31-45, esp. 37.
37. Nick Booth, “Tradition and Community in African Religion,” Journal of Religion in Africa 9 (1978): 81-94, esp. 89.
38. Christopher Ejizu, “Endurance of Conviction: The Persistence of the Traditional Worldview in Igbo Christian Converts,” Neue Zeitschrift fur Missionswissenschaft 43 (1987): 124-135, esp. 125-126.
39. Emmanuel Ifesieh, “The Three Basic Aspects of Sacred Meal Tradition in Igbo Religious Culture: A Case Study,” Cahiers des Religion Africaines (1988): 7-16, esp. 11.
40. Edmund Egbo, “Conflict between Traditional Religion and Christianity in Igbo, South-Eastern Nigeria,” West African Religion 10 (1971): 1-17, esp. 6.
41. Christopher Ejizu, “Oral Sources in the Study of African Indigenous Religion,” Cahiers des Religions Africaines (1989): 37-47.
42. G. Aderibigbe, “African Religion and Christianity in Dialogue: An Appraisal from the African Perspective,” Africana Marburgensia 32 (1999): 39-56, esp. 44.
43. Michael Ekpenyong, “Ecclesia in Africa: The Challenges of the Third Millennium,” in Ecclesia in Africa: The Nigerian Response, ed. Obi Oguejiofor and Innocent Enweh (Nsukka: Fulladu Publishing Company, 1997), 10.
44. Worgul, From Magic to Metaphor, 220-221.
45. Benny Koottanal, “Eucharist: Love in Action,” Indian Journal of Spirituality 18 (2005): 372-390, esp. 380.
46. Ibid., no. 15.
48. George Therukattil, “Eucharistic Mysticism,” Bible Bhashyam XXVI (2000): 96.
50. Oliver Onwubiko, African Thought, Religion and Culture (Enugu: Snaap Press, 1991), 43.
51. Ibid, 45.
53. Edward Schillebeeckx, The Church with a Human Face: A New and Expanded Theology of Ministry (New York: Crossroad, 1987), 259-267.
54. Nlenanya Onwu, “The Eucharist as Covenant in the African Context,” African Theological Journal 16, no. 2 (1987): 151-152.
56. Emmanuel Ifesieh, “The Three Basic Aspects of Sacred Meal Tradition in Igbo Religious Culture,” 7-16.
57. Ibid., 12.
58. Onwu, “The Eucharist as Covenant in the African Context,” 156.
59. Peter Sarpong, “Everyday Spirituality,” 4-11.
60. Christopher Ejizu, “African Traditional Religious Ritual and Symbols,” 243-258, esp. 245.
61. Joseph Ukpo, ed., “The Eucharist and Evangelization,” The Second Nigerian National Eucharistic Congress (Owerri 23-25 October 1992), 14.
62. James Okoye, “The Eucharist in African Perspective,” Mission Studies 19, no. 2 (2002): 159-173.
63. Ademola Adegbite, “The Drum and its Role in Yoruba Religion,” Journal of Religion in Africa 18 (1988): 15-26, esp. 19.
64. Onwu, “The Eucharist as Covenant in the African Context,” 108.
65. Conférence Episcopale du Zaïre, Présentation de la Liturgie de la Messe. Kinshasa/Gombe, Zaïre: Secrétariat Général de la Conférence Episcopale, Zaïre (1989), 5.