Communion as a Culinary Art
by William Willimon
Dr. Willimon, a Century editor at large, is minister to the university and professor of the practice of Christian ministry at Duke University, Durham, North Carolina. This article appeared in the Christian Century September 21, 1977, p. 829. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.
Recently Aidan Kavanagh, O.S.B., professor of liturgy at Yale divinity school and sometime gourmand, commented that “the church will not recover the Eucharist as its central act of worship until we recover our ability to eat well.” As one who is in a continual lovers quarrel with my own Methodist liturgical tradition, I think I know what Kavanagh is referring to. Having been nurtured on a lifetime of Methodist teetotaling, Welch’s-grape-juice holy communions, having gone to the Lord’s table only to find a meager repast of stamped wafers, compressed cubes or dried pellets, I know what it is to hunger and thirst and yet be sent away empty. Unfortunately, too many holy communions are more expressions of holy hygiene (with their disposable, individual, antiseptic plastic cups) and sanctified sobriety (with their lock-step directions from officious ushers and nervous ministers) than of the worship of God. We invite people to come to the Bridegroom’s feast and then treat them to a weight-watcher’s fast!
How will we eat and drink with Jesus until we recover our ability to eat and enjoy not only the Lord’s Supper but all other meals as well? That question is confronted in Robert F. Capon’s delightful Supper of the Lamb (Doubleday, 1969). Between outrageous directions for such culinary concoctions as tripe Nicoise, Cuban bread, sweet martini, and just plain pot roast, Capon reflects upon the divine gifts of food and drink and humanity’s divinely given commission to eat, drink and be merry. There is not much wrong with us, Capon would argue, that can’t be cured by a sniff of roast lamb or a stint in the kitchen baking bread. And if these two culinary delights don’t coax us into ecstasy, we are probably too far gone in body and soul for resuscitation by any means.
One of the greatest challenges to the Christian faith in recent years may well be the widespread notion that food is a necessary evil, an invitation to addiction, a source of carnal lust that must be curbed at all costs. Dr. Atkins, Dr. Stillman and their colleagues, with their all-meat, all-rice, all-water, all-pills ventures in masochism, are subverting our God-given inheritance. A new religion has arisen in our midst -- the cult of the diet, with its shopping-center temples masquerading as “health spas” and “reducing salons,” where devotees abuse themselves for the goddess of leanness and shapeliness. Have you talked with a member of Weight Watchers lately? An examination of Weight Watchers’ ritualistic weighing and preparing of food, the detailed rubrics for eating, the confessions of sin while standing on the bathroom scales, and the testimonies of salvation at weekly meetings, suggests that we may have a new religion on our hands.
In close competition with the dietists for our religious affections are the health-food sects with their cult of wheat germ, yogurt and “organic foods” (show me a digestible food that is not “organic”). I for one am not happy eating sprouts of any kind, nor am I happy paying for “organically grown” food (i.e., grown in manure rather than fertilizer) double what the same item costs in my neighborhood supermarket. Anyway, why are all the people who work in my local health food store so unhealthy looking if their “natural” condiments are able to produce such dramatic results? As Nietzsche said to certain Christians, “You will have to look more redeemed if I am to believe in your redeemer.”
As a Christian, I am compelled to take seriously the fact that, when Jesus came to the end of his earthly ministry, when he gathered in the Upper Room and tried to show that dozen half-hearted, half-understanding disciples what it had all been about, he showed them in a meal. “Eat this bread; it is my body,” he said. “Drink this wine; it is my blood.” That was all he needed to say. It was all still a mystery, but it was a mystery which they now, in the eating and drinking, became part of. Nobody knew what redemption, grace, reconciliation or salvation meant. Everybody knew what it meant to eat. Precisely.
Now that we have spent much time arguing over what Jesus said, believed, taught and meant, and who Jesus was, let us now get back to basics and talk about the significance of how Jesus ate. Perhaps Luke tells it best: scandalous meals with Pharisees and tax collectors, table talk with sinners and saints, feeding the 5,000, a final meal with disciples who did not understand, a resurrection meal with disciples who were beginning to see the light. The Pharisees’ charge that Jesus was a “wine drinker and glutton who eats with tax collectors and sinners” (Luke 7:34) is well documented. And who can forget the stories about meals: the Great Banquet at which the outsiders become insiders, the big bash which the father threw for the prodigal son when he returned home?
And as for the church, the miracle of Pentecost was not so much that people could speak in strange tongues as that diverse people of many races and nations could sit down and eat together (Acts 2:42). The first charge against which the Christians had to defend themselves was not that their theology was bad but that they were drunk (Acts 2:13). They were drunk -- but not with wine. They were drunk with the dizzying vision of what happens to people who feed together at the Lord’s table. In fact, as Paul told that contentious crowd at First Church, Corinth, the mark of a real church is when all of you strangers can eat and drink together as members of the Body of Christ (I Cor. 11:27 f.).
I detect a subtle Manichaeistic dualism in our insipid, dietetic meals -- sacred and secular. Jesus, good Jew that he was, did not just save the soul; he also healed, touched and fed the body as well. For the ancient Jew, every meal was full of deep significance. The Lord’s Supper, so scandalously earthly and corporeal, is good Jewish ballast to offset some of our Christian pneumatological and eschatological excesses. It reminds us that we survive only because of the gifts of a gracious God. It reminds us that we live and grow only because of the creation of gracious farmers, bakers, farm workers and others whom we so easily take for granted. If Jesus could have said it, he wouldn’t have served it to us as bread and wine. And if we could feed on that, we wouldn’t be debating what true “Eucharist” means.
Wafers and pellets that look more like fish food than bread of the world will not do. Grape juice with too much water and too little spirit will not do. What is more basic and symbolic than bread? What is more joyous and sad than wine? And yet, bread and wine, like all human creations, are ambiguous gifts. In a world where one-third of humanity is starving or close to starving, do we Americans need to be reminded of the demonic nature of selfish, egocentric gluttony? (Christians have an age-old answer for the sin of overconsumption, and it is called fasting.) And do we pastors, who so frequently encounter the human ravages of alcohol, need to be lectured on the evils of drink in a lonely and desecrated world?
Against my own abstaining Methodist forebears I would argue (and I think John Wesley would back me up on this) that wine is necessary at the Lord’s Supper not only because it is obviously related to the full range of biblical imagery of the “fruit of the vine” and the “spirit” but also because it is a symbol of humanity’s creative and demonic potential. We sometimes use God’s gifts in a way that makes them humanity’s curses. What is more blessed than fine wine at a good meal? What is more destructive than addiction and Dionysian submission to wine when it is used in inhumane, unredeemed ways? For the Christian, all foods are good and clean, not only because they are gifts of God but also because these ambiguous human creations have meaning only under the name and blessing of Christ.
Away with these docetic diets and natural-food fetishes! Before we Big-Mac and TV-dinner ourselves to death, give us bread: large, hearty loaves of it that taste like “the bread of life.” Give us wine: dark, blood-red cups of it so that our sagging hearts are gladdened and the gospel feast can continue. Only as Christians are nourished, sustained, kneaded and fermented will we be able to rise to the needs of a hungry world whose spiritual and physical hungers require something more than fried chicken from the Colonel.
We may have to start teaching cooking classes in our seminaries. Only as we ministers rediscover the joy of inviting people to a bountiful table which we have helped prepare will we be able truly to invite people to the Feast which Christ prepares. Isaiah cried to the poor, “Come and be filled.” Jesus gave the invitation to “feed on me” and then the command to “feed my lambs.” We are still awaiting an ecclesiastical Julia Child who can set the Lord’s table in proper fashion and with a eucharistic “Bon appétit” invite God’s hungry people to come and be filled.