The heart of my studies has been pushing me deeper into a realization of the power of the Eucharist (the ritual with bread and wine) and eucharistic practices (figuratively and literally gathering diverse people around tables of fellowship and equality). In reading about Reformed, Roman Catholic, and other perspectives about the Eucharist, I am finding myself saddened by what has become a narrow discussion and understanding of what the Eucharist is and represents—I feel like we’re missing out on so much.
In the Reformed Tradition, it would seem, we have spent most of our energy the past 500 years or so discussing and arguing about the “mechanics” of Eucharist as it relates almost entirely to the Last Supper: what happens, if anything, to the bread and wine once consecrated. Our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers seem to have moved on from the Enlightenment focus on mechanisms of the bread and wine toward a deeper (and maybe even more biblically apropos), post-modern conversation exploring the meanings (yes, plural) of Eucharist. At minimum they are talking about how eucharistic practices (in and out of the mass) might help us look more deeply into our contemporary state of local and global affairs and ask some difficult questions.
Sister Margaret Scott, acj, has written an inspiring book boldly and appropriately titled Eucharist and Social Justice. In it she makes no apologies for the connection between the Eucharist and issues of justice: she “convincingly makes the argument that the Eucharist is deeply political and potentially subversive” (from the back cover).
I imagine too many Christians, including me, have been taught that the Lord’s Supper, Eucharist, or Communion is almost exclusively linked to Jesus’ last supper with his disciples before his being crucified (after being convincted of being a political seditionist by the Roman Empire, I might add). But, as I have been challenged by Scott and others (including a fellow Presbyterian, Claudio Carvahleas, who bravely pushed the boundaries of Reformed Christian Eucharistic practices in his book Eucharist and Globalization: Redrawing the Borders of Eucharistic Hospitality) to see there is so much more to this ancient practice of breaking bread and sharing a cup.
It’s source of inspiration, according to some authors, goes back to the centrality of meals in early Judaism. Even in Luke’s history of the early Church in Acts 2 and Paul’s first letter to the Church in Corinth (1 Corinthians 11) we learn that early Christian communities shared full meals that challenged the social norms of first century Roman culture. Roman banquets helped establish hierarchies, political and social connections, and informed the social policy as to who was “in” and who was “out”—a very fluid state of affairs with ever-shifting balances and centers of power and influence. But the Christian banquet (the Lord’s Supper, as it is described in 1 Corinthians 11) upsets these norms, elevating the lowly and humbling the lofty with the expressed values of equality and mutuality.
Through the Eucharist, reduced as early as the late first century to a symbolic meal before work on Sunday mornings (cf. Carvalhaes), the lens through which we experience the world shifts from one that views privilege and inequality as “normal,” to one that sees compassionate justice and reconciliation as absolutely necessary for there to be any real or lasting peace. Where inequality breeds violence and war, justice joined by forgiveness and reconciliation breeds understanding, hope, and ultimately, peace.
In Scott’s words: “The Eucharist models a shared vulnerability that can break the cycle of violence” that has been witnessed in Northern Ireland and South Africa (Scott, 24). To eat together is to seek understanding of and with one another (Scott, 23). This speaks to the reality that Eucharist is not, nor should it ever be, a private act in the context of community, but a very social act in the context of a very complex world in which people have the “capacity to create events either of communion or disunion with God and with others” (Scott, 26)—what we in the Christian faith refer to as our God-given free-will.
God also made us a ‘hungry people’ and gave us the whole world as our food. Food, then, together with all the resources of creation, is God’s gift to the whole human family, for everyone, everywhere—both rich and poor—to enjoy and reverence as sacrament of communion with God. (Scott, 36)
Food, whether in Eucharistic ritual or in regular meals, is a gift from God and a sign of our common heritage and covenant with/from God. The meal—our physical and spiritual sustenance—is a reminder and an act of recognizing and embodying our mutual interdependence with God and one another. Unfortunately, our North American fast-food culture has obscured the reality beneath our desires and our worship practices. Drive-thru Eucharist, anyone? Could there be anything more antithetical to our communal human nature?