by Niles Eastman
So, on this particular read through of the Maundy Thursday lectionary, I happened to notice something that I don’t think has ever really occurred to me before. It’s a pretty subtle theme so I don’t know if anyone else has really picked up on it. Perhaps, though, a few folks out there have realized that a lot of the readings for this day seem to focus on…ready for it?...food.
Okay, I’ll stop being quite so tongue in cheek now. So, yes, obviously, the story of the Last Supper focuses a lot on food and eating. But to be honest, the reality of that never really caught me until now. It actually really showed up in reading the story of the Passover in Exodus. That story puts a LOT of time and focus into explaining the Israelites’ meal. It goes into major detail about what they were supposed to eat, how they were to pick the animal, how they prepared it, who they ate with, and how they ate the meal. When we talk about Passover we tend to remember the blood on the lintels and the death of the firstborn children; we don’t spend quite as much time remembering how the Israelites ate their dinner with their loins girded.
Thinking about how these stories rely on food and meals for meaning got me thinking about how we carry on that same meaning in worship today. Yes, we quite obviously ritually re-enact the Last Supper every time we share the Eucharist in church, right down to reciting Jesus’ speech at the table. Of course, our meal doesn’t usually look much like the Last Supper. The quintessential Christian “meal” is a flavorless wafer of – ostensibly – bread, and a sip or a dip of cheap wine or grape juice. But still, at the core of the ritual is the notion of sharing a meal as a community. We come together to nourish our spirits in the same way we nourish our bodies – how’s that for a metaphor?
The way food gets centered in this liturgy really struck me because, lately, I’ve had to start confronting the fact that I have a serious eating disorder. I struggle constantly to control my eating – I eat when I’m tired; I eat when I’m sad; I eat when I’m anxious and depressed (and surprise, I’m *always* anxious and depressed). My relationship with food has been horribly corrupted. Food isn’t nourishment for me anymore, it’s temptation. Food is my greatest enemy, and literally every time I eat I do it with a low-level screaming pain in the back of my head, reminding me that what I’m doing is wrong and bad and evil, because I can’t control how much I eat. I’m overweight, I loathe myself, I loathe how I eat…I loathe food, entirely because I can’t stop eating it.
(Brief aside here – I don’t in any way want to suggest I support the idea that being fat is bad or that fat people aren’t every bit as wonderful, valuable, and beautiful as skinny people. I want to acknowledge that my issue is with my self-worth, not my weight. Anyways.)
The concept of eating being a holy act is really difficult for me, because I really have never considered eating food to be something to be happy about. I mean, yes, I enjoy eating food, but for me its inextricably linked with guilt and shame. I want to focus on that disconnect – between the importance of the sharing of the Last Supper and the shame I feel towards eating. I’m speaking from my own experience, of course, but I’d be absolutely shocked if this didn’t resonate in some way with a lot of folks out there. It’s incredibly disheartening when our internal struggles become barriers to our own experience of the divine. Eucharist is supposed to be a powerful, divine experience that literally causes Jesus Christ to enter into us and free us from bondage to Sin and death, but all I can really think about in connection with it is how many calories I’ve consumed – and that’s with just a pinch of bread and a sip of wine, I can’t imagine how hard it would be if the Eucharist was an actual *meal.*
Something else to consider, too – we break bread and distribute it to one another because of the Last Supper, but the text from John doesn’t actually include that particular activity. The only bread-breaking that goes on in John’s account of the Last Supper is when Jesus does it to identify Judas as his betrayer – and the Gospel even specifically notes to the reader that it was after Judas took the bread that the Devil entered into him. How would it affect our perception of Holy Communion if we also routinely remembered that breaking bread was integral to Judas’ betrayal?
Food may be my struggle, but it’s certainly not the only one out there. So many of the experiences, rituals, and traditions that we cherish in the Church can become corrupted and end up being barriers to someone’s connection with God, rather than conduits. It’s a symptom of our ongoing brokenness and our need for God’s presence and action in our lives. Sadly, I really don’t have a good answer for how to fix it. It would be great if there was a straightforward way to heal the corruption and restore the relationships that get broken, but there isn’t. Instead, it falls to us as children of God to reach out to marginalized and excluded folks and support them and love them and accompany them as best we can, whether by helping them to heal or by reconsidering what we do as a church if those actions are driving people away. After all, ultimately the importance of the Last Supper wasn’t that they ate bread and drank wine, but that Jesus and the disciples were together with one another.