The Table & the Shared Meal

16 07 2014

We need to eat to live. It is a simple and basic fact of human existence. Why have we made this straight forward reality into such a complex, multi-layered, thoroughly enjoyable activity?

Eating is a multi-billion dollar industry. As a seminary student I was hired to wait tables at Olive Garden. For my family, this is not a cheap place to eat, making it a rare treat for my wife and I. While being trained the manager told us, “People do not come here just to eat food. They can do that anywhere. They come here as a form of entertainment. Presentation is everything.” This has been true for many millennia, as kings of long ago insisted that their food be served on gold platters.

However, eating has many other complexities. Many cultures, from wealthy English aristocracies to equatorial tribal peoples, have specific and set rituals for meal sharing which, if in ignorance, are performed improperly will give great offense to the host. Even heads of state meet and conduct world-changing meetings at a table, over shared food. When couples court or “date”, what is always the common denominator? A shared meal, every time! Eating has endless layers of social meaning and import.

Is it any wonder the Bible describes the tragic tumble of the human race as the result of a fruit picked, eaten, and shared between man and wife? Should we really be surprised that Jesus sealed the New Covenant between humanity and the Creator with bread and wine– a shared meal?

Eating together creates a bond, a union, a communion. Our current culture tends to trivialize most everything, shared meals included. But most cultures throughout history (and it’s still alive in ours as well) have viewed breaking bread together in sacred and holy terms. You only have to think of the famous middle-eastern custom of hospitality: even if your enemy comes to your door and enters your house, you must feed him, be courteous to him, and even protect him from harm if need be. A shared meal demands an “upgrade” in the nature of our relationships.

What is often overlooked in our modern celebrations of the Lord’s Supper, is how it should affect the relationship between participants.

A common lament in modern times centers around families not sharing meals together on a regular basis. This reality reflects both the break-down of our relationships and a partial cause of it. Our focus is elsewhere than on one another, even when we eat. Nearly all our restaurants have multiple screens to keep us distracted from those sitting across the table. Even our architecture reveals our conflicted desires on this matter– instead of “dining rooms” where the focus cannot be anything but each other and the shared meal, we now have “open concept” kitchen/dining room/living room areas. These are lauded as brining us together because those preparing the food can now participate with the larger group. But the focus tends to be on the screens or other media, and not on each other as persons who deserve attention and a hearing by loved ones. I do concede that the “open concept” is a step in the right direction away from the horrible individual TV trays where all the members of the family are oriented towards the media screen, and never on each other. But still, the disappearance of the formal dining room is a significant window on our changing culture.

In modern, Evangelical worship, we have plenty of “open” café style worship spaces, but the Table is absent or off to the side. Additionally, our focus is on the multi-media up on the platform, which includes the ubiquitous screen, the praise band and the speaker. We don’t see the other members of the family of God with that way of being oriented. In contrast, the architectural pattern of the ancient basilica had the people seated on all sides of the Lord’s Table– where they could see the focus of their worship, Christ, AND they could also see each other. The basilica was in the shape of a cross, with clergy and the choir seated “up front” behind the Table, and with worshippers to the right, left and center. This communicated something about the nature of the people of God, the church, AND about the Lord’ Supper as received by the people.

As Augustine said in the late 4th century, “You become the body of Christ; you become what you eat.”

Hans Boersma (in his book, Heavenly Participation) states: “
. . .[Paul] maintains that when, by faith, we share in the one eucharistic body, the Spirit makes us one ecclesial body. As Augustine would put it, we become what we have received. Or, as de Lubac famously phrases it, the Eucharist makes the church. . . . The telos [ultimate goal]is communion [of believers]. (pg. 114)

Boersma continues:

The goal of the celebration of the sacraments was the unity or communion of the church [the people of God in Christ]. In the last part of the Apostles’ Creed, we confess our faith in the “communion of saints.” At least, that is how we often put it. But the Latin is ambiguous: sanctorum communio could be translated either as “communion of saints” or as “communion of holy things.” For the medieval tradition, it was not an either/or option. Communion of holy things — meaning, communion with the body and blood of Christ, — was related to the communion of saints. . . . “Being in communion with someone means to receive the body of the Lord with them.” [de Lubac]. The Eucharist makes the church. . . . Sacrament and church were regarded as one and the same. (pg. 115)

Too often, the individualism of our Western culture gets the better of us in our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. I tend to view my reception of the elements as something I am doing for my personal, spiritual betterment. I rarely see that I am taking from the same loaf and cup my brothers and sisters are receiving from– I fail to see that we are united in Christ, through his sacrifice– His body and blood. This means I am not alone AND that I have a responsibility to be my brother’s (and sister’s) keeper. The meal of Christ makes this a joyous obligation. If we want Jesus, his family comes with Him– with all the joy and responsibility that implies.

Let me end with Boersma’s poignant words:

The ecclesial body was the sacramental reality to which the Eucharist pointed and in which it participated. . . .throughout much of the Great Tradition, the Eucharist had been regarded as the activity that created the unity of the church. (pg. 116)

I pray we see each other at the Lord’s Table the next time we gather there– that we truly see and recognize each other in Christ.

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