I recently re-discovered the theological richness and symbolic value that is embedded and embodied in several Christian rituals and symbols.
“Symbols, being roomy, allow many different people to put them on, so to speak, in different ways” says Aidan Kavanagh. I use the word “ritual” here to denote the idea that religious people, for the most part, tend to be repetitive in what they do in their assembling together – whether their gatherings be in a church, a bar, a coffee shop, a house, or any other place where a communal coming together takes place to honor shared beliefs and values.
In most of these rituals, symbols are thrown together and layers upon layers of a multiplicity of meanings are in sight to help participants recall meaning of the past, find value in the here and now, and have a concrete way to envision and remember the future. Yes, I said remember the future. Remembrance of the future takes place in limnality, i.e., in a tertium quid or in-between space where time ceases to exist for a moment.
In this post, I want to discuss one of these particularly Christian actions or rituals, namely, the practice of eating meals together. I want to juxtapose this practice, in particular the ritual of Eucharist, with the current fad of competitive cooking shows that are so readily seen on television these days.
The “history-of-religions school” (religionsgeschichtliche Schule) exhibited that Israelite, Jewish, and Christian religion owed much to the surrounding world of the Ancient Near East and the Greco-Roman milieu. This comparative methodology has forever transformed our understanding of the biblical religions originating with Abraham. While it has radically improved our understanding of the origins of Judaism and Christianity, it has also prompted acknowledgment of the degree to which these religions are historically conditioned.
Christianity arose within Judaism and around Hellenism. Christianity began not as a new religion but, rather, as another movement within the multiform of Judaism, cutting out its own unique niche on a range of potentials as to what it meant to be “Israel” in the Greco-Roman world. As a result of its origins in Judaism and Hellenism, Christianity was a multifaceted religious phenomenon from her inception, made up of many heterogeneous rudiments. In other words, Christianity, from the outset was syncretistic and many of its symbols and rituals originate elsewhere.
There are several community rituals that were important in the Greco-Roman world that contributed to Christianity. For instance, “Roman cities boasted a wide variety of eating clubs, associations that included communal meals and gave their members a strong sense of belonging…” (Ramshaw, 54). However, the distinction between the Greco-Roman eating clubs and the early Christian community was that the Greco-Roman eating clubs were exclusively male (much of our inherited misogyny comes from the Hellenistic hatred for women) while at the Christian meal one would likely find slaves and masters, both women and men eating together sharing in the feast.
Obviously, not only did Christianity inherit her rituals from the Greco-Roman world, she also owes much to the world of Judaism. The Passover feast, “the primary annual festival of the religion of the Jews, included a family meal, at which time the father offered a prayer of thanksgiving. At the beginning of the meal, God is thanked for bread, which then is distributed to everyone at the table, and at the conclusion of the meal, God is praised for wine, which is then passed around for everyone to drink” (ibid., 60).
The ritual of sharing a meal together, in the Christian context, is formally referred to in theological vocabulary as: “Eucharist” – which is derived from the Greek word eucharistia, which means “thanksgiving.” It is generally agreed upon by New Testament scholars that the early church, in the 2nd century C.E., congregated together frequently to share a complete meal together. Many churches still partake in this ritual today and call it a “potluck.”
Jesus’ meal practice, depicted here in this painting of the Last Supper, is remembered as the central practice that has become the ritualistic centerpiece for many who gather for Christian worship. On the night before he was detained, tried, and executed, Jesus distributed and shared a meal with his followers and said some important words.
The Markan account describes this event and quotes Jesus calling the bread his body and the wine “my blood of the covenant”, while the Lukan account calls the blood “the new covenant in my blood.” The followers of Jesus perceived in the Eucharistic meal a symbolic presence of Jesus himself. I use the word “symbol” here to denote the idea that within the abstract meaning of the meal, something concrete is being communicated to those who observe the image or object of the bread and the wine. Religions rely heavily on this type of symbolic communication due in large part to the fact that religious beliefs are a mystery and can’t be explained empirically.
As Gail Ramshaw observes, Christians from theologically diverse backgrounds name their Sunday ritual meal in numerous ways.
- The Breaking of Bread evokes first century allusions to the meal shared between Jesus and is followers.
- The Divine Liturgy, a phrase used by Eastern Orthodox Christians emphases the otherworldliness of the event. In this system, believers are “divinized” or transformed back into the imago dei.
- As mentioned above, Eucharist comes from the Greek word for “thanksgiving” and emphasizes soteriological appreciativeness.
- Holy Communion emphasizes the distributing of goods and sharing in the meal which was so common in the book of Acts.
- The Lord’s Supper, a term used particularly by Protestants, underscores the idea of eating with Jesus and communicates a certain sense of God’s immanence.
- The Mass, a term used by Roman Catholics , derives from the closing dismissal of the medieval service
All of these diverse understandings of the nature of the meal are in agreement that in the communal act done in remembrance and celebration of Christ and in thanksgiving for what God has done once and for all through Christ, humanity is confronted by the presence of the Risen Lord, whether literally (transubstantiation), symbolically (per modum symboli), or as a “real presence”, as an incarnate reality, joining together into one body the individuals gathered together for the purpose of remembering the past and recalling the future that awaits.
There are eschatological implications involved in the meal. In the symbol of the meal, the people of God look back and remember what has already been done for all, they look around their present context to ask how they can become co-agents with God in the work of reconciliation today, and, lastly, they look forward and remember the future consummation of what is to come in the coming of the Kingdom of God and fulfillment of the messianic feast, of which the Sunday ritual of the Eucharist is their foretaste.
As the 1st century lay Apologist Justin Martyr observed, the Lord’s Supper is a “collecting our prayers and connecting us with the needs of those around us.” God is calling humanity to make a deeper connection with one another and creation as a whole that is grounded eschatologically in the “joyful feast of the people of God.”
Last night, after coming home from a long day, my wife asked me if I wanted to watch this new show called: “The Taste.” It’s one of these new cooking shows on TV that make cooking into a competition of sorts. Anthony Bourdain is one of the hosts of the show. There are others like it on TV, e.g., “Top Chef” or “Master Chef” or “Hell’s Kitchen.” These shows are theologically asinine.
What is theologically stupid about them is that they have effectively taken something that is by its very nature about replenishment, charity, hospitality, and enjoyment for humanity and turned it into another mode of competition. The religion of capitalism continues to reign supreme in America. Competition is engrained in our minds from a very young age - from competitive sports to pageantry to 4H clubs to spelling bees – we are taught and conditioned early on to compete with one another. This is a problem.
To make cooking (and eating) a competition, especially in a way like “Hell’s Kitchen” does by making mockery, rejection and embarrassment, part of the meal process is a defilement of everything sacred about the meal as understood through the lens of the Judeo-Christian feast, in particular the hospitality that is a noticeable feature of the Eucharistic meal in the New Testament.
In the Christian context, the meal is an invitation where the word “all” should be emphasized more than ever. The Book of Common Worship, the standard worship book for my particular denomination, the Presbyterian Church, says that “This is the Lord’s table. Our Savior invites those who trust in him to share the feast which he has prepared.” There is no competition. There is no mockery. There is no shame at the table of the Risen Lord. Enjoy the meal, drink the wine or beer, remember the past, ask what can be done for others in the present and remember the future banquet that ALL are invited to, eat drink and be merry, but don’t make the meal into a competition.