There are people out there who like to work out frequencies. How many hours of my life have I spent at stop lights? How many hours a week do I spend sending emails? How many times have I said ‘I love you’. Enough? If you are a churchgoer you might have tried to count how many of those thin, little Communion wafers you have placed in your mouth through the years – 100, 1,000, 5,000? I think the people who ask these sort of frequency questions do so mostly for one of two reasons: they have an exceptional amount of spare time on their hands, or they want to tell the world something about why it is that we do the things that we do. So, on this Maundy Thursday, when the church recalls Jesus’ last supper with his friends before his arrest and death by crucifixion, what is it exactly that is going on in the meal of Holy Eucharist?
In the history of the church this question has been highly contentious: families have broken apart, nations have warred against nations, churches have suffered schism and centuries of estrangement from one another. It can all seem a bit distant today, odd even, in our increasingly post-religious age, when the debate that people are having with the church is not about the significance of what is happening during acts of worship and but the relevance of the life of faith and worship altogether. Indeed, it can be tempting to believe that in a time of the increasing secularization of society, and when there are seemingly far more pressing needs in our world from the tragic event of this week in Brussels to the shrinking ice caps of the Arctic, our beliefs about what Holy Communion is may not seem to matter that much in the larger scheme of things.
Yet as little their significance might seem today, the truth about the practices of our lives, especially ones that we might repeat as often as the Eucharist, is that they have the power to shape us more than we might realize. Augustine, the early church bishop and theologian, said of the Eucharist that we should ‘become what we see’ – become the body of Christ – and ‘receive who we are’. This encouragement to ‘become what we see’ is much like Jesus’ encouragement of his disciples as he washed their feet: to go and do likewise, to wash one another’s feet. ‘As I have loved you, you also should love one another’, are his words. Be the serving church. Be a people who give to others. Be the body of the Christ whose body was given for you.
Many see the Eucharist, the meal of sharing that body of Jesus, as that from which we gain nourishment, food for the journey of faith. For some, to receive the bread and wine is to receive Jesus himself. For others, it is to draw near to a memory, yet for others it is to enter a mystery and partake in the same final supper that the disciples partook in with Jesus two millennia ago, to be mystically present in it as Christ is present in us. Beyond this, though, the Eucharist has the power to shape us not only internally but in our relationships with others. In other words, the Eucharist is a gift that we receive that fits us better to be a force of good for the world.
For the early church, meals mattered, both for the predominantly Jewish church in Jerusalem and in the church which spread across the gentile world through Paul’s missionary activity. They mattered in a world shaped by Roman and Greek culture and politics because sacrificial meals were key in imperial cult and city celebrations serving as an embodiment of the dominant social order. Public meals were occasions for careful observance of social rank, at which slaves were required to stand in silence, and poorer quality food and drink was served to guests of lower rank.
The New Testament writer, Paul, was concerned not only that the record of the last supper be passed down but that the sharing of such meals in Christ’s name be fitting for the gathered church community. In his first letter to the church in Corinth, he challenged the alleged practice that some were eating whilst others were hungry (1 Cor. 11:20-22), going on to encourage the church’s members to ‘wait for one another’ so as to eat together (1 Cor. 11:33-34), thus subverting the established Greco-Roman hierarchy of subordination to supposed superiors. We also learn in Paul’s Corinthian letters that for Gentiles members in the church, the challenge was whether or not to continue to eat food that had been offered to idols. For Paul, theologically, there was little reason for Jewish members to be concerned – who would not be permitted to eat the sacrificial meat of the gentile temples – arguing that ‘we know that no idol in the world really exists’ (1 Cor. 8:4). Yet, for the sake of the whole body, the Corinthians, Paul argues, should abstain from the practice of eating food offered to idols so that others are not ‘tripped up in their faith‘ (1 Cor. 8:9).
What informs these instructions to the early church that seek to put others first in the sharing of a common meal is knowing who it is that sits at the head of the table of fellowship. In the Roman world, the head of every social gathering and the place of greatest honor would go to whomever represented the ultimate head of Roman society, the emperor Caesar. Indeed, tributes to Caesar were visible all over the cities of the empire, in the form of shrines, temples, festivals and athletic games; he was the power above whom no power could be uttered socially and politically. Caesar was Lord, the ‘Son of a God’, through whom the ‘Pax Romana’, the peace of Rome was spread across the earth by conquest and governance.
Knowing this, that for the early church it is not Caesar who sits at the head of the table but Christ is an indicator at how counter-cultural this table fellowship, this common Eucharist was. It represented not only a fellowship where people might take their turn to eat in consideration of others, but an entirely new image of society constituted not in the hierarchy of political power, but in the radical equality of being the body of Christ. To be in communion around that table was to be as the Lord who serves his disciples, who washes their feet, and who suffers and dies for their sakes.
‘Become what you see, receive who you are’, says Augustine. Every time we gather around a table of fellowship where all of us are equals, where each of us serves the other, where every one of us is gifted the opportunity to be seen for God’s own children, we proclaim the Lordship of the Christ whose headship of our table is at the place of the servant. And as we do, wafer by wafer, sip of wine by sip of wine, we lay ourselves open to be changed by that servant king who is making all things new, even you and I.