The Shape of the Table

Eucharist

The Shape of the Table
Sunday, July 22, 2018

Our spirituality is inseparable from the way we live in the world. Over the past several weeks we’ve explored some controversial topics: justice, economics, politics. If you’re still reading, thank you for hanging in there with me! Learning and growing is not always comfortable. Whether or not you agree with everything I say, all I ask is that you witness your response with patient and loving attention. From a contemplative stance you can see yourself and the world more truly and approach problems more creatively.

This week I’d like to bring all of this to the realm of embodiment through the Christian sacrament of Eucharist or “communion.” More than a theological statement that requires intellectual assent, the Eucharist is an invitation to socially experience the shared presence of God, and to be present in an embodied way. Remember, within a Trinitarian worldview, everything comes down to relationship.

First, let me share some context. In Jesus’ time, the dominant institution was the kinship system: the family, the private home. That’s why early Christians gathered in house churches, much different from the typical parish today. In Matthew’s Gospel the word house is used many times. Jesus is always going in and out of houses (as in 8:14, 9:10). What happened around the tables in those houses shaped and named the social order. Table friendship ends up defining how we see friendship in general.

Jesus often used domestic settings to rearrange the social order. Nowhere was that truer than with the meal—with whom, where, and what he ate. This is still true today, more than we might imagine. (Another example of Jesus changing the social order is in the relationship between employers and workers.) Jesus’ constant use of table relationships is perhaps his most central re-ritualization of what family means. Note that he is always trying to broaden the circle (see Luke 14:7-24 for three good examples). Jesus brought this all to fullness in his “last supper” with “the twelve.” This was not to emphasize male fellowship, but the full quorum of the twelve tribes of Israel. (I know it does not look that way to us now, but the Eucharistic meal was from the very beginning a gathering of both women and men, which shows how Christians understood equality.) [1]

Jesus didn’t want his community to have a social ethic; he wanted it to be a social ethic. Their very way of eating and organizing themselves was to be an affront to the system of dominance and power. They were to live in a new symbolic universe, especially symbolized by what we now call open table fellowship.

In all cultures, sharing food is a complex interaction that symbolizes social relationships and defines social boundaries almost more than any other daily event. Whom you eat with defines whom you don’t eat with. Certain groups of people eat certain kinds of food. Through our choices and behavior at table, we name and identify ourselves.

This might seem like an unfair example to some, but today a vegetarian (or even vegan) diet has become a conscious choice for many because they’ve studied the politics of food: who eats meat and who can’t eat meat; what eating meat is doing not only to our health but even to the planet. Researchers surmise that the meat-heavy Western diet contributes to one-fifth of global emissions on our planet. [2] Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh writes:

As a spiritual family and a human family, we can all help avert climate change with the practice of mindful eating. Going vegetarian may be the most effective way to stop climate change. [3]

Jesus already showed us in practice and in ritual that the spiritual, social, political, and economic move together as one. In fact, that is what makes something “spiritual”—that is whole, combining sacred and secular, matter and spirit.

References:
[1] See Edward Foley, From Age to Age: How Christians Have Celebrated the Eucharist (Liturgical Press: 2008) for a historical overview of Eucharistic practices from the early church to the present.

[2] See Drawdown, http://www.drawdown.org/solutions/food/plant-rich-diet. See also Vandana Shiva, Who Really Feeds the World?: The Failures of Agribusiness and the Promise of Agroecology (North Atlantic Books: 2016).

[3] Thich Nhat Hanh, “Blue Cliff Letter,” 2007, https://plumvillage.org/letters-from-thay/sitting-in-the-autumn-breeze/.

Adapted from Richard Rohr with John Bookser Feister, Jesus’ Plan for a New World: The Sermon on the Mount (St. Anthony Messenger Press: 1996), 67-68, 77-79.

Image credit: Sharing a meal in the Philippines (detail), photograph by Avel Chuklanov, 2017. Magalang Road, Mabalacat, Philippines.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Jesus’ most consistent social action was eating in new ways and with new people, encountering those who were oppressed or excluded from the system. He didn’t please anybody, it seems, always breaking the rules and making a bigger table. —Richard Rohr

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