“And on the night Jesus was betrayed…” We all know how it goes. Communion, that is. The Pastor breaks the bread, pours the wine, we go up in our lines and eat the bread dipped in wine, and then we pray and give thanks. For 22 years, that was communion for me. It was all I had known. Sure, I learned the theology and meaning behind communion, God opening his table for us, forming a community of Christ Followers, but the repeated same action over and over again for 20+ years, I started to loose track of what communion meant.
Fast forward to early December, when I went hiking with fellow members and pastors of the UCCP Middle Highland Conference to some of our churches within the Kankanaey community (one of the many indigenous groups of northern Luzon in the Philippines) located way up in the mountains, only accessible by foot. I work with UCCP North Luzon Jurisdiction doing research on the effects of Christianity in the indigenous culture, so I was invited to tag along to add to my research.
Needless to say, I was unbelievably excited. This was a dream come true, and quite literally a taste of what I want my future career to look like. But, as most people (including myself) would tell you, the reality of our dreams never turns out quite like what we thought they would be, for better or for worse. The reality of this dream was, that at the last minute, I was told my translator was not going to be able to come, but that the others in the group could help me out. So I went.
I should pause here and explain the language dynamic of the Philippines. The official language of the Philippines is Filipino, which is really just Tagalog. But in total, there are over 170 different languages and dialects spoken in the Philippines. Which means that just learning one language here is not going to help you really communicate effectively. For example: at the North Luzon Jurisdiction office in Baguio City (where I am based), pastors from various parts of northern Luzon also work here and all speak a different language. Sometimes English is spoken in the office, not for my sake, but because its the only common language. English or Tagalog. It’s actually popular all over the Philippines for different friend or social groups to come up with their own language or words to be inclusive of a multilingual culture. Needless to say, I am constantly overwhelmed and amazed at the linguistic abilities of Filipinos.
The Kankanaeys, of course, speak Kankanaey, a language I thought I was a bit familiar with because I lived for about a month in Sagada, where they also speak Kankanaey. But upon starting this trip, I learned that this Kankanaey was a different dialect of the Sagada Kankanaey so I was really flying blind in terms of communication.
What ensued from there, was a week of beautiful views, but an intense and frustrating battle of trying to communicate and learn but constantly reaching road block after road block. I was overwhelmed, angry, and heartbroken that I was there, present and ready to learn, but I couldn't scratch past the surface. The people were so kind and hospitable, and I just felt like such an enormous burden, one that was causing more trouble than its worth.
The trip concluded on a Sunday, and we worshipped with our last church. Of course, the service was in Kankanaey, and lasted over two hours. It was about the fifth 2+ hour service in a week in a language foreign to me, and by that point, I was overstressed, exhausted, felt like a failure, and just wanted to be home in Baguio. My anger and frustration reached a climax during the service when I thought to myself, I don't feel like I'm worshipping my God. I feel like a guest, worshipping someone else’s God, a God worlds different from my own.
The trip finally ended with no satisfying conclusions, and I spent the next day hiding in my house watching movies, trying to forget. The next day, I dragged myself to the office and met with my boss. We began to discuss the trip, its frustrations, crazy experiences, and insights. I told him that on the first night, the first church we visited was in the middle of a wake, mourning the loss of a man in their community. I was invited to attend the service that night. It was an experience to say the least- the tradition in indigenous communities is to keep the coffin with the deceased in the house during the wake and the services are held in the home, in front of the coffin (open casket). So I walked into this little house, filled to the brim with the community members, so many showed up that they had chairs set outside all around the house, and sat down in the front row in the living room, in front of an open casket. The preacher said a couple of prayers, we sung some songs, and then we took a break for dinner. Again, sticking with indigenous tradition, plastic bags full of rice were passed out to everyone (like 100 people) and a crate full of giant cuts of pork (from a native pig they butchered earlier that day) were also passed out to everyone. Because I was a guest I was given two HUGE chunks of pork. And we all sat there, eating rice and pork with our hands out of plastic bags. They called the sides of pork “wat wat” and everyone was so excited to having “rice and wat wat!” After the meal they continued with the service. Everyone was expected to come up and share a memory of the deceased or share in condolences (I also didn't get out of this tradition). This continued all night- sharing memories, singing songs, drinking coffee, just being a community celebrating and grieving the life of a beloved friend. They did this routine for five days before finally have a burial.
This this series of events is pretty much the norm for wakes in northern Luzon so my boss could relate well to what I had experienced. As a way to help me process, he casually suggested that I could think of that meal as communion in a theological sense. If I had been a cartoon, my jaw would have dropped to the floor. It was a such a obvious and beautiful connection, how did I miss it?! I thought back of all the meals that had been prepared for me that week, and I was overwhelmed and almost ashamed at the amount of grace shown to me, and that I was so blind to see it. To see that the meal was a way of coming together in Christ, in a way that language barriers are broken
Back in April, at the YAV discernment event where I got placed in the Philippines, we took communion as part of the closing worship. When I went up to receive communion, the pastor (the head of the YAV program) didn't say the traditional, “the blood of christ, poured for you.” Instead, he simply said, “This is what heaven tastes like.” I remember that moment so clearly. I paused and smiled and the simplicity and clarity of that beautiful revelation.
I kept that understanding in mind as I spent Christmas with Flanny and his host family. At the time, I was battling my first bad case of homesickness and just wanted to get Christmas and the holidays over with. I was sure spending Christmas away from home would make things worse. But on Christmas Eve Flanny, his host family, and myself all went to his host family’s Christmas celebration. His family was very warm and welcoming, and the celebration started with dinner. For dinner, they had prepared lechon baboi which is a special way to prepare a pig. They had a whole pig resting on the dinner table and they ran to us telling Flanny and myself that we had to hurry and eat. At first, I wasn't sure what the rush was, but I soon realized its need when the entire family (about 20-30 people) all grabbed forks and starting digging into the pig- skin and all. I was thrown off guard at first but quickly joined the fun, grabbing my fork and digging in to the pig. It was much harder than it looked- everyone was getting the fat and meat so quickly while I struggled to break through the skin but everyone helped me, flinging chunks of meat onto my plate. Someone even brought out a giant machete to help me cut through the meat. It was crazy, but it was so refreshing and filled with joy- to be able to just grab and fork and dig into a whole pig.
That moment held special meaning for me when I thought of communion. I saw the pig as the body and blood of christ and felt the urgency of His follows to come to Him, to taste heaven. It was a unique urgency- when most people are urgent for something they bypass other to get what they want, in this case the urgency was inclusive, even more than that, it was an urgency dependent on community. That moment we all needed Jesus desperately, but through the excited chaos of celebrating God’s table together we helped and depended on each other to reach Him, to get a taste of Heaven.
It was the same at the wake, I saw a community broken and hurt that desperately needed Jesus. And through the community of eating rice and pork out of a plastic bag together, they found Him. His spirit was present and overwhelming in that little house filled to the brim with people mourning and rejoicing in the life of a beloved.
So what I’ve learned, is that Heaven tastes like pork. But it also tastes like broken hearts and spirits being mended through strength in community, it tastes like a room full of laughter when life has gotten too ridiculous to do anything else, and it tastes like experiencing a love for a people and place that continuously knocks your whole world from underneath you, but then cements you stronger in the love of Christ.
But it mostly tastes like pork, which is just fine by me :)