Fifty years ago, in teacher training college, I had my first class in Biblical Studies- mainly Hebrew Scriptures. Exciting! The importance of the world views and the narrative that portrayed them had never meant much to me. Until then, in spite of having a degree in Latin and Greek, I hived off Bible stories as not really being in the real world and in spite of several years as a nun, I thought of Old Testament stories as pretty irrelevant! “Exodia” was the name we gave our lecturer (- I forget her real name-) because she insisted that Exodus was the key story of the whole of Biblical and Christian history.
God hears the cry of the poor, sets them free, and leads them to a better place. God’s will is not that we be ground down by the Pharaohs of the world, or the Caesars, or “satan” the adversary. The Passover Seder reminds the Jewish people of this every single year. For those celebrating, it is as though they themselves are part of the event. And it was the meal connected to the Last Supper, so is vital for Christians too, who celebrate Jesus with a meal.
In Subversive Meals, An Analysis of the Lord’s Supper under Roman Domination during the First Century R. Alan Streett explores the theme through Passover Seders, the Last Supper, and all the meals Jesus shared with all sorts of people, and then the way early Christians celebrated. It is a paradigm shifting book! It gives a theology towards which I have been groping. I loved it!
The meal which it describes is a celebration of the Kingdom of God. All of us need water and food. Even if the CEO of Nestle claims that to claim that water is a basic right is “an extreme view” we all know that without it we die. Sharing food is key to human community, from the day a baby first sucks milk to the day an old person is spoon fed again in helplessness. Between those days, what humdrum meals we share, and what parties we enjoy, and how we mark life’s big events and family occasions with eating together! Fixing dinner is not my favorite form of cooking, (largely because it is a never ending need!) but the elemental sharing of basic food is a part of my becoming a bread baker years and years ago. It connects me to the wheat, to the millennia of human bread baking, and to the people who enjoy the bread.
It also connects me to the Lord’s Supper, and therefore to the Seder, with an awareness that all bread is sacred and holds memory. Strangely perhaps, this led me, as a Roman Catholic, to feel uneasy with some medieval aspects of honor and worship at a distance of a substance that we were told to eat. Understanding a multivalent symbol flows from experiencing it, not from studying it, protecting it, and removing it from experience.
And then I began to question the custom of refusing this shared food with any who want to share it. I appreciate the Episcopal/C of E practice of welcoming other Christians, and the wider welcome of any who wish to take part that I found in US Methodism. I feel increasingly uncomfortable with the exclusiveness of my own church: in the 70s and 80s my minister husband was welcome, by name, at communion, but in the 90s exclusiveness returned. It is, though, a meal! It is most uncomfortable to sit down to a meal with someone who doesn’t or can’t join in eating and enjoying the sharing.
It is also not a crumb and a sip- those are vestiges, scant, not nourishing. Since my University days, 50 years ago as I said, there has been much study of Greco-Roman meals, and of Jewish practices at the time of Jesus and early Christians. This author, R Alan Streett, is not from a “liturgical” church background, but he sees the early followers of the way joining together maybe weekly for a meal, in line with other associations, guilds, and clubs of their world.
He details Jesus’ openness to all and his communities’ egalitarianism, contrasting this with the Roman world, where sharing a meal was a demonstration of relative status, acknowledgement of a patron’s authority and a ritual that was supportive of the power of Rome, with libations and dedications to the gods, to Caesar, Savior, Lord and Peace-giver. The Christian meals seem to have followed the same format but subverted this world order. With the same outward appearance, the dynamic was utterly changed. Women and men, slave and free. No delicacies or gluttony for the rich while the poor of the community skimp. We only have to listen to Paul’s tirade against the wealthy Corinthians who are behaving in just those (traditional) ways when they come together to realize that the whole nature of eating this meal together to remember Jesus entailed a change in way of life and relationships. Pliny tells us, in a letter he wrote to the emperor, that Christians meet together to sing a hymn to Christ as God, and to eat a meal together. We are so used to the separation of church and state that the affront to the emperor and to the order his power controlled, which is involved in that practice has eluded us. No “First Class”senators, “Business Class”business men/equites etc or “economy class” plebs with different meals on this flight. We are all going the same way. And no Pledge of Allegiance to the power that rules the world if that power is Caesar: Sing a hymn to Jesus, prophecy, teach the way instead.
In my lifetime I have been part of the crossover in which Catholics learn from Protestant Biblical scholars to appreciate the Bible and in turn share a lectionary which is now basically used by a great number of denominations. Now I am seeing a renewed awareness that the fundamental historical form of Christian worship is Eucharist/Lord’s Supper/ Mass. In my time in California, the United Methodist Church has moved from quarterly to monthly to weekly celebrations. It would be good to see a renewed awareness that we are sharing a meal as followers of Jesus, which involves not following whatever current empire rules.
Where can I see even glimmers of possibility for this? Perhaps I deprecate our ubiquitous coffee hours and potlucks too much. Especially when I look back to a recent church community where we tended to run out of food! I thought that was greedy and ungenerous and all sorts of horrible- but what was really happening was that there were lots of families who really were pretty pinched, and older people who cooked little and ate less! We collect food in our churches for “the poor” but I am aware that the poor are us, part of each congregation, as we should be. Feeding each other is good.
Now to celebrate what Jesus told us to, at the Last Supper, in the course of those meals, instead of in a prior “holy bit.” I know husband has done this but not as a regular event. Again, when I think of my Catholic celebrations, the Catholic Worker Masses come to mind. We gathered in a fairly run-down house in a city area (which may be a lot closer to historic worship settings than church buildings are.) The house was lived in by the Catholic Worker community plus, at that time, lots of immigrants/refugees from the civil wars in Central America. The garage where we met, with the parish priest presiding, was lined with bins of vegetables and staples which the community bought wholesale and sold at low cost in this poorer area of the city. We sat on broken-down couches or the floor and shared communion – French baguette and wine. That was a Mass! As was the celebration outside Lawrence Livermore Lab, where the joined local christians of various labels refused allegiance to the power of the Nuclear State- and the celebrant, (my husband’s Bishop) was arrested, along with many others. God’s Kingdom or Empire. As Joshua said back in the days of the Exodus, “Choose this day whom you will serve.”
P.S. Recipe for communion bread, aka Bible Bread by my Sunday School classes: from a Catholic church in San Leandro, California,but used in many places.
Unless I convert the recipe for you, you will need an american cup measure and teaspoon. It tastes good. It tastes like food. Bake it (maybe with children too) and share it.
Mix together in a bowl: 1 1/2 cups white flour 1 cup wholewheat flour 1 teaspoon salt 8 teaspoons sugar (oh dear) 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder Add and mix in: 1/3 cup oil 1/3 cup honey 2/3 cup of water. Roll out the dough like pastry, but not too thin (1/4 inch maybe) and cut it in circles.(Use a plate on top to cut around.) This recipe makes three big circles Bake for about 12 minutes at 375 F/190C/Gas#5 until it’s light brown on the bottom but still a bit soft. Serve as it is or with cheese, fruit, honey or whatever.
Added later:I just (Feb 15, 2015) read a blog that is along similar lines: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/formerlyfundie/5-reasons-why-many-american-christians-wouldnt-like-the-first-ones/