I am approaching this grisly story in the spirit of the Roman playwright Terence, who declared:
Homo sum: humani a me nihil alienum puto. In English, I am a man: nothing human is alien to me.
Abu Sakkar is the Syrian rebel who was filmed eating the body of a government soldier. That is, he is seen dismembering the soldier’s corpse and pulling out a body part – heart, lung, liver? – which he lifts up and holds in his hands before his mouth closes round it in a cannibal’s kiss.
Take, eat, this is my body….
Not merely unpalatable, Sakkar’s action was widely condemned as barbaric and inhuman: an affront to all human beings; the desecration of our common humanity. In response, Sakkar insisted that anyone who had suffered like the people of his home town, Homs, would be prepared to do as much. He also maintained that his was a symbolic act intended to humiliate and terrify the enemy.
…. this is my body which is broken for you. Do this in remembrance of me.
In the ritual act at the heart of the Catholic Mass, bread and wine are transformed – transubstantiated – into the body and blood of Christ. In the outward form of unleavened bread, the priest holds aloft the body of Christ – tinga-linga-ling goes the sanctus bell; eats him and drinks his blood before inviting the congregation to make a meal of it.
The avowed aim is the direct opposite of Sakkar’s depravity: to dignify rather than terrify; and so an end to enmity.
Instead of appearing to desecrate our common humanity, transubstantiation serves to consecrate ordinary things and everyday people in the name of Jesus Christ. As bread becomes body so Christians come collectively alive in Corpus Christi. They don’t see it as such, but composing themselves as one body is the real substance of their ‘God’.
Yet in order to achieve this, liturgy is obliged to become mythology. And it turns out that the myth of the Catholic mass is the mirror image of Abu Sakkar’s ritual display: both are peddling a memorable line in sacrificial victims; each entails eating the Other.
But one’s for good and the other’s pure evil, someone’s bound to say. Also, words, however lurid, are by no means the same as deeds. Nonetheless, if on this showing man’s inhumanity to man inhabits the same semantic field as the sanctity of God, that makes them a perfect pair as well as polar opposites.