Eucharistic Table Manners: Learning How to Eat

Eating with small children is rarely a dull affair. I remember my son Benjamin years ago standing up in his high chair, lifting his bowl of oatmeal above his head, only to throw it down with the exclamation, “Down went Goliath!” I have little idea about what was going on in his brain. What I do know is that I, as his father, had some teaching to do. Though I was proud of the fact that he had picked up on the biblical story of David and Goliath, he had not yet picked up appropriate table manners. I imagined myself standing up in a restaurant, lifting my plate high above my head, and then throwing it down with the shout, “Out with the Romans!”

When we are born we don’t know much about how we are supposed to eat. Though sucking, slurping, burping, and chewing come fairly naturally, we all have to be taught the manners that transform biting and chomping into fellowship and celebration. The most vital thing about table manners is not that they help us know which side of the plate the fork belongs to. More importantly, table manners are about growing into human beings of a particular sort. Sitting at a table, saying grace over the meal, engaging in conversation, thanking the cook, cleaning up the food and dishes–all of these are ways we have for communicating what we think important about life. Why not always eat alone, on the run, and oblivious to the food we are eating? Why bother with gratitude or cleaning up our messes?

If eating is about the formation of persons, that is, if eating is more than the filling of a gustatory hole, that still leaves open the question of what kind of persons we desire to become. History shows us that people have answered this question in a great variety of ways. The way people sit around a table (if they sit at all), who gets to eat, who does the preparing and serving, what food is served, along with myriads of other questions, become ways to understand what a community thinks about gender, embodiment, power, status, agriculture, and ultimately God. The food we eat and the way we eat it make up a system of communication. We read the scene and listen to the sounds to determine the character of the place and its people. We learn fairly quickly if the table we are near will be hospitable or not.

Is there such a thing as a Christian way to eat, a way that gives expression to distinctly Christian ways of evaluating and furthering life? Most people have heard about Jewish dietary laws (even if they don’t understand them) and about the Muslim tradition of fasting during Ramadan, but relatively few would be able to list a distinctly Christian contribution (church potlucks excepted) to the way humanity eats. In part this may stem from the belief that Christians are somehow “beyond” rules and laws. After all, didn’t Jesus say, “Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:31-33).

The trouble with the belief that Christians are excused from serious deliberation about food matters is that it ignores the fellowship of eating that was a vital ingredient in the formation, survival, and spread of early Christianity. This fellowship centered on the Eucharist. Coming to the table, followers remembered Jesus and consumed his flesh and blood so they could be re-created and thus become witnesses to God’s continuing presence in the world. The evidence of the early church suggests a community of followers that ate together regularly and often (Acts 2:43- 47), and that in their eating tried to bear witness to Christ’s way of dwelling upon the earth. Eucharistic eating was not yet highly ritualized. As John Howard Yoder put it in Body Politics, “The meal Jesus blessed that evening and claimed as his memorial was their ordinary partaking of food for the body.”1 If the Eucharist did in fact grow out of the transformation of daily eating, then we need to pay particular attention to what this transformation is about. Why did Jesus choose mealtime as the time to focus his disciples’ attention and imagination? What sort of focus did he want his disciples to have? What practical difference would this Eucharistic focus make in the world?

In a remarkable phrase, John’s gospel tells us Jesus understood himself to be the “bread of life” (John 6:35). Jesus is the “living bread” given for “the life of the world” (6:51). What sort of bread is this? Clearly it is not the same as the bread that Jesus earlier, and miraculously, multiplied to feed the five thousand. John’s point is that Jesus is not simply the provider of bread, as important as that is. He wants us to know that Jesus is the full meaning of bread and the complete expression of life’s nurture. Jesus is the bread that “comes down from heaven and gives life to the world” (6:33). Jesus does more than temporarily satisfy a gustatory need. Jesus is food for the healing, transformation, and fulfillment of life. Eating him we discover what life in its truth and abiding significance is all about. Sharing in his body, we learn that life is ultimately about hospitality, reconciliation, and communion.

Christians do not eat Jesus as an act of cannibalism. They consume his flesh and blood so that Jesus can abide in them and they in him (6:56). This means that Eucharistic eating is about learning to abide in Jesus so that we can learn to abide with others in a way that gives evidence of Christ’s presence in our midst. Jesus’ abiding within us transforms us from the inside–recall Paul’s famous formulation that “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20)–so that the kinds of relationships we pursue and cultivate here and now express his nurturing and caring ways with the world.

Persons who feed on Jesus are inspired and energized to relate to others in a new way. Rather than engaging them primarily in utilitarian terms, absorbing them to suit personal need and satisfaction, eaters of Jesus are invited to extend his ministries of attention and welcome, feeding and forgiving, and healing and reconciliation. These are ministries that require us to remember others, appreciate them as gifts of God, and keep them in our hearts and minds. Remembering Jesus, in other words, inspires us to remember others. Eaters of Jesus thus become hosts to the world who consider, respect, and serve the integrity of those who co-abide with them. In this coabiding we honor the grace of life and witness to the power of love as the desire for another to freely be and develop. Jesus calls us to the deep commitments that make genuine fellowship possible. To join Christ’s body is thus to begin a patient, affectionate, and responsible commitment to others–farmers, cooks, servers, and the fields and animals that make our eating possible–so that the memberships of creation and community that nurture us are strengthened into a more integrated and healthy whole. Significantly, these are ways that find a regular and practical focus at kitchen tables where the sharing of food also becomes a sharing in the ways of Christ.

It isn’t easy to share food. When something tastes really good we tend to want to keep it all for ourselves. We can also be fairly picky about who we will eat with, making strategic calculations about who is in a position to advance our ambition. Or, given our busy schedules, we find that we don’t have the time to give ourselves or our food to another. To eat in a “fast food nation” means that we have come to think of food as fuel that we need to get into our bodies as conveniently and cheaply as possible. The idea that food is the delectable expression of God’s love and nurture for us, or that the sharing of food can be a powerful means for sharing life with each other, is readily forgotten or ignored if we don’t have catechetical formation and communal support to teach us in the ways of sharing and nurture. This is one important function of Eucharistic table fellowship. Coming to the church altar and sharing in the meal of Christ’s body and blood, we are invited to transform our kitchen tables into altars where selfoffering is learned and extended to others.

The act of hospitality is a prophetic act. What I mean is that for us to share food and be hosts to the world around us presupposes that we have moved into a prophetic mode of subjectivity. If we return to the book of Acts, we learn that these early Christian followers were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to prophesy and speak in foreign tongues. I think we need to see that their prophesying and speaking in tongues was closely related to their glad and generous sharing of food, their praise of God, and the remarkable possibility that there was “not a needy person among them” (Acts 4:32-34). To live in a prophetic mode means that we no longer “see” others from our own point of view. Instead we see them as God does. We see them not as threats or competitors but as the gifts and children of God that they are. Consumed by God’s vision our entire approach to them takes on a different character. Modifying the Pauline phrase, we can say that the person who lives in a prophetic mode says, “It is no longer I who live, but others–their needs, their joys, their hopes–who live within me and direct me.” To speak in another person’s language is but the audible expression of how another’s life has taken residence within me so that the life I live is no longer simply my own. When this happens it follows that the table at which I eat is no longer my own either. Kitchen tables are for welcome and sharing. They are the places of hospitality where we share in God’s primordial hospitality.

Jesus’ ministries of welcome and hospitality do not end with the gathering of diverse people into a group. This is because a “group” is not yet a place of communion. It is not yet a healthy body of members so intimately and beneficially bound together that each individual finds in the presence of another his or her source of inspiration, nurture, and joy. To participate in the body of Christ is not only to have Christ in me as the one who corrects and transforms me. It is also to have others in me in such a way that what I know of life–what I need, desire, and enjoy in life–makes no sense apart from the fellowship of life together.

Life’s genuine togetherness presupposes the work of reconciliation. Reconciliation is so important because it communicates that we can stand before each other without shame, knowing that we do not have to apologize for the ways in which our relating to others does them harm. Paul says that anyone who is “in” Christ is a “new creation.” Old ways of relating have passed away. “All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:17-19). Reconciliation describes a Christ-shaped economy and politics. It testifies to a peaceful ordering of relationships in which the fruit of the Spirit are made evident. The work of reconciliation, however, is not confined to human relationships. It extends to all creation, to all creatures and things “whether on earth or in heaven” (Colossians 1:20).

Eating can be a powerful lens through which the wide scope of reconciliation can be understood. To appreciate this possibility, however, requires us to admit that we can be ashamed of our eating. I don’t mean that we can be ashamed because of how we treat fellow eaters at the table (perhaps by eating too much or making some rude remark), but that we can be ashamed of the food itself and perhaps feel the need to apologize to God for our treatment of animals and fields. In our eating we are not simply to be reconciled to fellow human eaters. We must also be reconciled to what we eat.

To see how this is so, consider the shame that circulates through much industrial food production and consumption. In Eating Animals Jonathan Safran Foer describes the many ways in which chickens, pigs, and cattle are made to live miserable lives and endure cruel deaths all so that we can have cheaply priced meat. Factory farms and large confinement feeding operations regularly crowd and restrict animals so that they cannot live their God-given potential but are made–in some cases genetically engineered–to grow to slaughter weight as quickly as possible. “Life” for these animals is so stressful and damaging that they could not survive without a steady diet of steroids and antibiotics. Of the billions that do survive this industrial ordeal, even death becomes a shame. Describing the slaughter of cattle, Foer observes that a typical steer enters a chute in which a “knocker” shoots a steel bolt into its skull, rendering the steer unconscious or dead. The steer is then hoisted up by a leg and sent down a dis-assembly line so it can be skinned, gutted, and carved up. In many instances “animals are bled, skinned, and dismembered while conscious.” Industry and government know this happens, but the practice carries on. In fact, some slaughterhouse managers admit that an animal can be “too dead” and thus slow the heart rate down too quickly. The ideal, it seems, is to have a heart pump for a little while so that the blood can drain quickly and speed up the line, thereby making the overall slaughter process more efficient and profitable.

Reconciliation presupposes the welcome of the other as other. It entails that we enter into relationships that honor and nurture rather than degrade and deplete others. It requires attention and listening so that we can sense the damage and participate in the work of healing broken relationships. No doubt, this listening has become especially difficult in a global food economy where the people growing our food (often in the developing countries of the global South) are far away. Many of these people live under the burdens of trade agreements and lending policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund that require them to grow commodities for export to the developed North rather than feed themselves. Christians who are serious about reconciliation, especially those living in countries of power and privilege, need to learn to listen to their brothers and sisters as they witness the harsh, often lifethreatening demands that trade agreements impose upon them. We need to be exposed to how our desire for “cheap food” impoverishes the lives of others and degrades the land, water, and animals these people depend upon.

The listening I have in mind is not confined to people. Abused animals, polluted waterways, degraded soils, languishing plants, farm worker trailer parks (described by some as the new ghettos of the rural poor)–all of these speak to us of a reconciliation that needs to happen. Sensing this need for reconciliation is very difficult to do because we so readily divide and then manipulate the world to our own glory rather than God’s. We often lack the attention and the desire to listen or see. If reconciliation is to become a reality it must therefore begin with confession and an earnest desire to repent of our sinful, relationshipbreaking ways. We need to be taught to see how our eating implicates us in processes that violate rather than serve. Eating Christ and being transformed by him, we can then be inspired to eat in ways that cherish food as a gift and a blessing to be shared.

Eating at the Eucharistic table we are asking to be transformed so that whenever we eat, those we eat and those we eat with will have been welcomed and cherished as manifestations of God’s love. This is no mere theoretical act. It is an economic and political act because it entails that all our relationships be inspired by attention and care. In a global economy, where food often travels 1300 miles before reaching our plates, it is very difficult for us to determine if farm workers, fields, and animals have been treated properly. This is why it is so important that Christian eaters be involved in their own food production whenever possible, making sure that all of the table’s human and non-human ingredients have been honored. Failing this direct participation we will want to support local gardeners and farmers we know to be taking care of soil, water, plants, and animals in ways that bring glory to God.

The Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann once observed, “We were created as celebrants of the sacrament of life, of its transformation into life in God, communion with God . . . [R]eal life is ‘eucharist,’ a movement of love and adoration toward God, the movement in which alone the meaning and value of all that exists can be revealed and fulfilled.”2 When we eat at the Eucharistic table and acquire there the Eucharistic table manners that define and inspire us as Christians, we learn to participate in God’s nurturing, hospitable, healing, and reconciling ways with the world. We bear witness to Christshaped ways of eating that are good news for the whole creation.