Monday, September 30, 2013

Let's talk about food: Signs, symbols, and sacraments

[Renoir, Le verre de vin, 1908]
We're into the third week of conversations about food at St. Barnabas. Week 1 we talked about celebration, because until we really believe that food is good, anything we say about food is likely to be skewed. Week 2 we talked about hospitality and the role food plays in fostering community. Now we're going to look at food as sacrament.

So, what's a sacrament?

If you are of a liturgical persuasion, you probably associate the word with the sacraments of the church, which, like the animals entering the ark, come in twos (baptism and communion) or sevens (those two plus confirmation, marriage, holy orders, anointing the sick, and reconciliation).

Let's back up for a minute and look at the concept itself, not the actions it's usually associated with. A sacrament is a kind of symbol - but not necessarily in the way we often use the word symbol today.

In popular parlance, a symbol is pretty much the same as a sign. Some academics, however, make a helpful distinction between the two words.

A sign stands for, reminds us of, or points to something else. That red octagonal thing on the street corner is a sign that reminds us to put on the brakes. Those yellow and orange leaves just beginning to show up on maple trees are a sign that autumn is here.

A symbol, by contrast, has many more--sometimes even inexhaustible--layers of meaning. That metal band on your finger is a sign that you're married, but it may also be for you a symbol of permanence or value or eternity or faithfulness (and you can keep coming up with more). A good symbol has rich personal and cultural associations. A really good symbol works for many people in many different cultures.

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.

Three theological examples:
  • Jesus is the sacrament of God: "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father" (John 14.9).
  • The church is the sacrament of Jesus: "Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it" (1 Corinthians 12.27).
  • Eucharist is a sacrament of the church: "Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread" (1 Corinthians 10.17).
Back to food. A loaf of bread is not generally a sign. Hansel and Gretel used their bread as a sign, but for most of us most of the time, bread doesn't point to something else: it is what it is. (Some Protestants do see bread as a sign: something that makes them think about Jesus. I confess I've never found bread very helpful in that regard.)

Bread can be a symbol, though, and not necessarily a theological one. "A jug of wine, a loaf of bread--and thou" is not a depiction of Eucharist, but it is richly symbolic.

And bread can be a sacrament. More about that tomorrow...

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.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Of course the Sabbath is also a sacrament. A gift of time. a gift that, not unlike one's wedding band, is a love gift of remembrance. Sad when the gift is abused, thinking of it as some sort of theological test or a sign of allegiance; "keeping it" for the wrong reason magnifies the denigration of the hallowed gift, sadly, more importantly its giver. But this "keeping" does fit nicely into the self-centeredness of some Christian's salvic underpinnings, sad.