Thursday, October 3, 2013

Let's talk about food: Practicing the Presence

[Jordaens, The Supper at Emmaus, 1645]
And now back to food as sacrament--what we'll be talking about this Sunday at St Barnabas. In Monday's post I wrote, "A sacrament points to something beyond itself, but it is more than a sign. It has multiple layers of meaning, but it is more than the religious version of a symbol. A sacrament is a special kind of symbol that actually makes present the reality it evokes." The sacrament of bread and wine, then, in some way makes Jesus Christ present.

How does that work?

Catholics still use a medieval explanation called "transubstantiation." Lutherans speak of  "sacramental union." Calvinists talk about "spiritual presence." Other Protestants use terms like "holy mystery" or "real presence." Orthodox Christians like the word "mystery" and, as far as I know, don't try too hard to explain it. Many evangelical Christians celebrate the Lord's Supper but don't really believe in sacraments at all (my husband once referred to their theology as the "real absence"). Anglicans, as John Cleese wittily pointed out in his "Consumers Guide to Religion," have a democratic spirit--"if you want transubstantiation, you can have transubstantiation. If you don't want transubstantiation, you don't have to have transubstantiation. All you do is go down the road to another Church of England church and not have it."

I'm not going to argue for or against any of these positions. I rather like the quatrain that probably originated with John Donne but is usually attributed to Elizabeth I:
’Twas God the word that spake it,
He took the bread and brake it,
And what the word did make it,
That I believe and take it.
Whatever our theology about sacraments, most Christians agree that
  • eating together fosters community
  • the Christian community is "the body of Christ" (1 Corinthians 12:27)
The earliest Christians "devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). Somehow when they broke bread together, Jesus was present with them and in them, and they were present in him.

Bread and wine are dynamic symbols. Sharing bread and wine is a powerful sacramental act. All explanations inevitably fall short, as the disciples on the Emmaus Road discovered. Only when they broke bread with the stranger did they realize who he was.

This is part of a series of short posts especially for people who attend St Barnabas Episcopal Church in Glen Ellyn, IL, where I'm leading conversations about food on September 22, September 29, and October 6. I'll post about food every weekday between September 16 and October 4.

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