Sacred Meals

Reclaiming the Gospel Practice of Commensality

by Daniel Deffenbaugh

Jesus was always feeding and eating. He fed the 5,000. He shared meals with his disciples. He turned water into wine and broke bread with outcasts. Too often we forget that one of the main charges leveled against him by some of the Pharisees was that he was a glutton and a drunkard. Jesus clearly loved food, both as nourishment for the body and sustenance for the soul.

I have often wondered what would happen if Jesus were to wander into an average American home today, say, around suppertime. What would he find and how might he respond? Most likely, he would walk in on someone eating alone, probably in front of a television or a computer. And in the absence of any recognizable community, he might fail to acknowledge that what he was seeing was in fact a legitimate meal. After all, only lepers eat alone.

Since the introduction of the TV dinner in the 1960s, Americans have been increasingly less interested in eating together and more concerned with grabbing a “quick bite.” Single-serving entrees now grace the frozen food aisle. Energy drinks, power bars and nutritional supplements are a common feature of our daily diets. Sadly, what was once seen as food is now only fodder.

In a 2009 study, sociologists Claude Fischler and Estelle Masson observed that most Americans think of what they eat primarily in terms of nutrition. We have reduced our food to a list of recommended daily allowances, mere fuel to keep us up and running. The perfect meal, in other words, has more to do with a calculator than it does with taste, freshness or eating together. Its real value is now scientific, divorced from the experience of how it was prepared or shared at the table.

Moreover, it is now common to insist that food is our enemy. We hear it often: “That donut is just a gut bomb.” “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips.” For many these days, our fare is to be feared. And with good reason. We can no longer ignore the apparent correlation between highly processed foods and the rise of obesity, especially among children.

We are up against a tough situation. But I believe our churches can point the way toward a healthier alternative by modeling practices of sacred eating in their sanctuaries, fellowship halls and Sunday schools. There is much at stake, both in terms of what and how we eat. But if we are to uphold Jesus as our model, we will strive to make each meal an exercise in holiness. Eating must become for us an act of sanctification.

A friend who knows my interest in all things culinary once asked, “What has been your most memorable meal?” I have been to wonderful dinner parties, experienced freshly-picked Georgia peaches, and attended some amazing Appalachian picnics. And though these were all extremely satisfying experiences, they lacked the depth and dimension of the storied meal I sometimes share with my Jewish friends: the Passover Seder.

What makes this night different from all the rest? For me, it is the fact that we gather not simply to eat but to participate in a holy ritual. Seating ourselves around the table, we are reminded that what we are about to experience is a tradition that spans the centuries. As our host reads from the Haggadah, the Jewish text outlining the order of the Seder, we are invited to join in spirit the many people who have shared this sacred meal before us.

The table’s centerpiece is arrayed with what seems like an odd collection of food items: a roasted shank bone, a sprig or two of parsley, a hard-boiled egg, a small bowl of salt water. It is understood, though, that these things are not meant for filling our stomachs. On this night, they are the morsels of memory that will nourish the identity of a people. At this gathering of family and friends, we feed on tradition, dine on hope, and keep the door of hospitality ajar in the expectation that Elijah will join us to announce the messianic age.

Those who have experienced the Passover Seder often come away with the feeling that they have been part of something much greater than themselves, that the time, the story, and of course the wine, transported them to a very different place. There is something enchanting about the ritual that is unlike anything we experience in our workaday world. It is a meal, yes, but it is not about the food.

As Christians, we have much to learn from such a tradition if we ever hope to transform our homes into places of holy eating. I don’t imagine that we will significantly change what we eat anytime soon but it may be important for us first to take on a different attitude toward how we eat. And it is here that the church can provide a scriptural and theological basis for a change of heart. The sharing of food lies at the heart of Jesus’ ministry, yet we have often glossed over these stories, neglecting their message of commensality, the act of eating together.

Food played a pivotal role in Jesus’ proclamation of the Kingdom of God because it was the one symbol that could effectively convey the radical notion that, in the eyes of the Creator, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male and female (Gal. 3:26). In the feeding of the 5,000, food was shared among a rag-tag collection of strangers who were able to experience a new sense of community in an unfamiliar place. Similarly, when we share a meal, there is no “other.” In the breaking of bread, as the disciples at Emmaus learned, Christ is revealed in a special way (Luke 24:35). Those at the table become one flesh, one blood.

The apostle Paul also understood the symbolic importance of a church that eats together. One of the hallmarks of his missionary journey to Corinth, a city known for its wealth and depravity, was his firm insistence that the Agape Feast be observed regularly and without division or strife. While many in the community wanted to hang on to former habits that allowed them to segregate into rich and poor, Paul knew that the communal meal was the one place that best demonstrates the social unity found in the body of Christ. For Paul, the real intent of the Lord’s Supper lay not in the eating but in eating together (I Cor. 11:17-34). We find this same emphasis in Acts: “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (Acts 2:46-47).

It is difficult to know where we should begin to change our attitudes about how we eat, but given our scriptural and theological heritage, the church should not shrink from the challenge. To do so would be to ignore the spiritual and physical health of the body of Christ. Our congregations are among a handful of places in our society where people gather to share a common story. There is no reason why they cannot also be places where the tradition of sharing a sacred meal is revitalized. Many churches already share regular meals on Wednesdays and Sundays, yet these could go further in their quality and depth, perhaps by offering opportunities to think about how these gatherings reflect the gospel meals.

To move a congregation forward, the simplest steps are the best. It is difficult to find a balance between good eating and good community, yet we must do just this if we are to lead the way. Educating ourselves about the path from plant to plate, for example—focusing on how our food is grown, who harvested it, how it came to be placed before us—is one way to help us reflect on the spiritual quality of our meals. It provides important insights into the role that God’s creation plays in the process. Also, our prayers of thanksgiving prior to eating invite the Spirit to open our hearts to God’s presence. They empower us to see the sacramental quality of what we offer and what we receive.

But most importantly, we must take the spirit of commensality—of eating together—back into our homes. What begins at church will flow into our daily lives. And our homes are, indeed, sacred places where we can come together as the body of Christ. We are called to affirm that our communal meals have the potential to transform the profane minutes and hours of our workaday lives into a sacred time in which broken bodies and harried spirits can both be nourished. When this happens, what was once seen simply as a collection of individuals can be revealed anew as the body of Christ, and what was once regarded merely as utilitarian fodder can be perceived rightly as food.

 

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