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Real Food and the Eucharist

Response to Shannon Jung - @ThisPoint – November 2008
Kimberly Bracken Long


    Shannon Jung is telling the truth.  It is a moral crisis indeed when "fulfill[ing] our desires conflicts with others' abilities to meet basic needs."     Those of us in the middle and upper classes in North America have bought into the "myth of unlimitedness" that Wendell Berry describes, a myth that leads to death, not only for those we deny and oppress, but for ourselves as well.  It is true on so many levels – in our interpersonal relationships, our communal structures, our relationship with the land as well as with the people who work it, our participation (unwittingly or not) in the food production system that values quantity over quality and expediency over justice.  We do indeed live in a "culture of narcissism."

    On the whole, Jung is dead on.  He asserts that this narcissism is embodied in "the consumer who puts the quality of their food before the possibility of others' even having food."  If he means that I insist on buying caviar while my sister cannot scrounge up enough to make simple cakes over a fire, then yes, he is right.  Yet the quality of food does matter, if "quality" means that it was grown and made and brought to our tables in a way that honors the earth, and honors the people who harvest and produce the food – both in terms of economics and in terms of artistry.

    We have indeed bought into the idea that there is a limitless supply of food, and that it's all there for the taking.  Greed is inevitably the result of living into that myth.  Yet overeating is not always only about greed; often it is about constantly trying to feed a deep hunger that is not only physical.  In either case, Jung's question of how we are to "re-educate our desires" is key.  Whether we have fallen prey to gluttony and the endless desire for self-gratification, or to insidious self-doubt and relentless seeking of whatever it is that will ease emotional and spiritual hunger, the Christian practices of gratitude, fasting, and eucharist are crucial.  Here I would like to focus on what Jung calls the "master practice," eucharist.

    Jung points to several core meanings of the Lord's table:  the showing forth of the depth of God's love; the hospitality expressed in Jesus life, death, and resurrection; the mission of sharing to which we all are called; the profession of loyalty to Christ and to the membership of his body that occurs in the eating of this meal; and the inclusive nature of God's love, expressed in turn by those belonging to Christ's body.  One might also say that the practice of the Lord's Supper meets the human need for being fed as well as the need for being in communion, with Christ and with one another.

    In the eucharist we are fed, not just with vague spiritual experience, but with real food.  Especially when the bread is hearty and good, and the wine is sweet and biting, the meal enables  us to "taste and see that the Lord is good" – that in this meal, Christ meets even our deepest hungers, in ways we cannot fully imagine or understand.  Good bread and wine also spark the imagination, eliciting questions about where this food came from and how it came to be.   Who made this wonderful bread?  Where did this amazing wine come from?  We are connected with those who brought those gifts to our table.  Does it matter that we serve communion bread that is made by someone in the church with organic flour from a food cooperative, instead of overprocessed white bread that is factory-baked with preservatives, packaged in plastic, shipped across country, carried from the grocery in more disposable plastic bags, then diced into precise cubes that go stale before they are served?  Yes.  It matters.  For God feeds us well, with what is real and good; the elements we use on Christ's own table should reflect the same richness.

    In the church where I worship, we are joined regularly by a handful of folks who do not have homes.  There is hope, somehow, when we come to the Lord's table together and there are big hunks of bread being passed out.  This is no stingy God.  Christ does not forget what we need and does not hold back that for which we hunger.  And then, when we gather around the same lunch tables after worship, we remember that God intends goodness and fullness (of stomach and of life) for all God's children.

    Our need for communion is also met in this meal.  We yearn for oneness with Christ and with one another; we long for reconciliation that is beyond our own power to bring about.  In sharing this simple meal of bread and wine, we are tethered to a body, one which Christ and all of his brothers and sisters are a part.  All of us are bound in this sharing.  Even if we forget it as we live day to day, we are reminded here:   we are all equally welcomed to the table at which Christ is host. 

    That this sharing anticipates the heavenly banquet, where there is room for everyone and plenty for all, is no small thing.  It is the vision of that banquet that keeps us going, and fuels us for the living of the Christian life.   It gives us a reason to keep striving for justice, courage to keep working and hoping for reconciliation, a pattern to keep act out the reign of God wherever we are.  Without the vision of that heavenly banquet, our good deeds rely only on our best ethical impulses, which may not be enough to sustain us for a lifetime.  In other words, the eucharist does not just keep us there at the table, but propels us forward into the world to live out the same hospitality, equality, and self-giving love. 

    Rightly celebrated, the Lord's Supper makes us mindful that we are not just disembodied spirits at worship, but real bodies.  The story of Christ's own body being broken – and raised – insists that Christians attend to our own bodies and to the bodies all around us.  In their book, Bodies, Bread, and Resurrection, Andrea Bieler and Luisse Schottroff  put it this way:

         "The Eucharistic life is about the real stuff:  bread and hunger, food and pleasure, eating     disorders and global food politics, private
           property and  the common good. . . . It is about     holiness and resurrection; it is about gift exchange, sustainability, and the economy
           of  grace.  When we share the holy meal together, when we bring our gifts to the table, when     we intercede for the world, when we
           collect money, and when we give thanks we are     entering the realm of eschatological imagination."  And, they insist, "at the center
           of all these things we do is the body."1

    In other words, our Eucharistic celebrations do more than feed and nourish those gathered around Christ's table.  Sharing in that meal heightens our desire to enact that banquet here and now – at tables in our churches, to be sure, and at other welcome tables, too.  Sara Miles' memoir of her coming to faith, Take this Bread: A Radical Conversion, paints a vivid picture of what this extension of the table looks like.   She describes how she was converted to faith by the eucharist – how Jesus "happened to her" in the eating of the bread.  New to Christianity, she was converted not only to intellectual assent and spiritual vitality, but to a new way of life.  In eating the bread of the eucharist week after week, she soon discovered her call to feed others, and began a food pantry at her church.

    Miles describes how she eventually became a deacon in the Episcopal church and began assisting with the Eucharist on Sunday mornings.  Often she would don her bright yellow St. Gregory's Food Pantry apron after the service, during the church's coffee hour.  Circulating among the parishioners while they sipped coffee and enjoyed one another's fellowship, she would offer the remaining Eucharistic bread.  "More Jesus?" she would ask politely, and then she would mention that the eucharist continued on Fridays, at the food pantry.  "Same table," she would say.  "Come feed and be fed." She made the connection clear between the two tables of feeding – the eucharistic table and the pantry table – where the body of Christ was broken and shared.  If one were to visit St. Gregory's Food Pantry, it would be nearly impossible to miss the link; the fresh fruits and vegetables, the cereals, breads and soups, are not set out in the fellowship hall or some storage closet.  They are arrayed around the communion table itself, the very place of feeding.

    As individuals and as a church, we are sustained as the body of Christ by what we receive at the table of the Word and the table of the Meal. Our deepest hungers are met there.  But we are not fed only for our own sakes; we are sent out to be Christ's own body.  In exhorting his hearers to grasp the mystery placed before them, Augustine once proclaimed, "Be what you see.  Receive what you are."  He urged the people to take the bread, the body of Christ, and to be that bread for others as they went out to live and work in the world – to become, in fact, the meal3.

    When we gather around the Lord's table, we do so not only for our own sakes, but for the sake of all God's people.  For the one who gave up his own body, that we might have life, demands that we tend to the bodies of others.   How we share the meal at Christ's table informs all of our meals – where our food comes from, how much of it we eat, how we take part in the sharing of food.  Whenever we gather for worship, we do so as the very body of Christ -- our bodies washed and blessed and fed, that we might be scattered, ourselves bread for a hungry world.  


Notes

1 Andrea Bieler and Luise Schottroff, The Eucharist: Bodies, Bread, and Resurrection
        (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007), 127.

2 Sara Miles, Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion (New York: Ballantine Books, 2005),
        140.

3 Augustine, "Your Own Mystery," in Assembly, Vol. 23:2 (March 1997), accessed on line at
        http://liturgy.nd.edu/assembly/assembly23-2augustine.shtml.



Possible Questions:


1.    How do you see the family table linked to the communion table? In other words, how do you see your daily food consumption influencing your participation in the Lord's supper?

2.    Describe your church's practice of communion as if you were talking to someone who had never experienced this. How does this description of your regular church practice compare to other experiences you may have had of the Eucharist feast? Are there certain rituals or ways of celebrating the Eucharist that connect more deeply with your spiritual hunger than others?

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