Incarnation and Eating

The Hipster Conservative is honored to feature this guest post from Hännah of Wine and Marble.

October 2012

Loving your food

I love to eat what I eat. My pleasure at the stove and table are sincere and coherent.

— “Learning How to Eat Like Julia Child” by Tamar Adler, New Yorker

I think about this a lot—what food means to us, what it should mean to us, how we use it, how we taste it, how we feel about it, what it means to relate to food as a human being.

It’s frustrating to see people using food, instead of relating to it. “Eating is a chore,” says a friend, and it’s not the first time I’ve heard someone say those words. This utilitarian, eat-because-I-have-to relationship with food is unhealthy at best, and is perhaps a reflection of more serious issues: displacement, non-identification with one’s physical self (is there a word for this?), and a lack of ability to savor life outside of the manufactured world of technology, efficiency, and production.

I would argue, even, that it is anti-Christian to have a merely utilitarian relationship to one’s food. I’ll write more about this later, but if God Incarnate as the man Jesus made such a point of instituting the sacrament of communion and said that the bread was his body and the wine his blood, food can never again be just something we put in our bodies (“fuel” says that horrible industrialist metaphor) to provide energy for our day. God has eaten with us and made the very act of eating together something that he not only identified with, but made a vital part of how we relate to him and each other.

Part of my interest in food is driven by my family’s culture. We have always gathered as a family for dinner, and my parents have always involved us in the preparation of meals and taught us to enjoy a wide variety of foods. We’ve had a garden for years, experimented with trying to make authentic dishes from other cultures, and always tried new things together. Various family members have had food allergies or intolerances, and so we’ve had to get creative to accommodate each other’s needs.

Our holiday traditions, as a whole, center around food more than anything else, I think. My twin brothers were born in early May, and we’d go strawberry picking together and have fresh strawberry shortcake at the peak of strawberry season. Christmas Eve was always a seafood dinner with artichokes. Christmas lunch would be tamales and pico de gallo, and dinner would be a full feast with ham. Thanksgiving saw us putting out the very Northern dishes of rutabaga and creamed spinach with nutmeg, as well as the Southern roasted sweet potatoes to accommodate the family traditions of both my mother’s family and my father’s. Our loyalty to our hometown in California dictates the type of oranges, lemons, olives, and steak salt rub we use. My grandma’s favorite spice cake recipe is the family standby for birthday cake.

My dad teaches us all how to use knives efficiently, how to read a recipe and be precise. My mom teaches us the chemistry of baking ingredients and what one can substitute for something in a pinch. My dad interacts with flavors like a painter with colors, mixing and adjusting until he hits on the right combination, and teaches us confidence to create variations on favorite recipes.

Food is a curiosity and a communal art for us, and so it’s been a bit amazing to me to leave home and discover that this is pretty unusual (in middle class America) today. Most people don’t know where their food comes from, don’t know how cook beyond following the directions of a recipe, and don’t have much of a personal relationship to food beyond silencing hunger and supplying energy. There’s no holistic ethos for why we eat and where and how.

I’m not a fan of ignoring physicality. So, why do we eat?

Eating in Community

As a culture, we like to forget our dependencies, yet we still observe small reverences to the sacred act of eating food with another person: a first date usually means dinner; a death or birth signals the community to bring meals to the bereaved or the new parents; and weddings are often celebrated with multi-course receptions.

Breaking bread in community is an illustration of our common physical weakness and our common spiritual weakness–our need of others. In some eastern cultures, this reality is honored by tradition, as a guest who breaks bread with his host comes under the protection of the household. Food binds us together.

Since food is intrinsically connected to the land it comes from, to seasons (time), and our human dependence on it, the need to make a meal becomes the catalyst for people to be dependent on each other and tied to a physical place. Usually, the act of preparing and eating a meal draws you away from the computer and internal monologues, and forces you into the physical reality of your geographic location, your neighborhood, and your personal community.

Here’s an example of what I mean: the other night, I made Korean barbecue for dinner. Now, we live in a basement apartment and don’t have any place for a grill. The last time I tried to cook a steak indoors in my cast iron frying pan, the smoke detector serenaded us and everyone was grumpy (and I didn’t even burn anything). So this time, I planned ahead.

I made it based on my grandmother’s recipe, substituting what I had in the house and adding this and that to balance the flavors. This recipe is one that her kids remember with great fondness, and she gave it to me in a book she made of family recipes (complete with stories prefacing most of them) for my twelfth birthday. And most recently, we made it in her honor at our family memorial dinner when she passed away in May.

This has to marinate overnight, and I hoped to grill it up for dinner on Sunday evening. Our pastor lives down the street from us, and he and his wife offered us the use of their grill anytime we needed it. So we headed down the street with tongs and the pan of meat, and chatted with this kind couple while the meat cooked. My husband had a beer, and we met some of their family who was visiting.

When we got home, I stuck the steak in the warming drawer, and started cooking the rice and pot stickers while my husband biked down to the grocery store for broccoli. While he was there, he ran into a new friend and her son, and they chatted and made plans for us to have them over for dinner one night.

When he got back, I finished cooking, and we sat down to eat. He took a picture of the food, posted it on Facebook, and later I ended up having a conversation with my younger brother about the recipe which turned into a good talk about life in general.

And we had a lovely dinner together, which shortly turned into canoodling while watching Some Stupid TV Show.

And so, just making dinner together turned into a series of interactions with people in our community and families. Now granted, not every dinner is a conversation piece (I like mac ‘n’ cheese a lot), but it’s when your need for food drives you to interact with other people (even if it’s just the lady at the checkout in the grocery store or the waiter at the bistro…or fast food joint). You may not have much to talk about and it may be more of a transaction than an interaction. Yet it’s still evidence that we can’t quite digitize our need for food and our need for community infrastructure.

Modern food methods and experiences tend to create either an imitation of a real community or family meal (restaurants!) or reduces food to a caricature of the real thing (frozen dinners, box mix desserts, Velveeta, margarine?!). It’s efficient for us and sometimes cheap, but the existence of these things and the cultural dominance of cheap, pre-prepared foods reflects a pivotal shift in our value system.

Another reflection of this shift is how we have ceased to use physical language (metaphors derived from nature) and are now dependent on mechanical or industrial metaphors for our linguistic rubric. We develop things, we don’t grow them. We download or upload, instead of plant or store. I’m a productive worker, not someone with stamina. Try listening for this in your everyday language–our society has become industrial, rather than agricultural, and our language reflects that.

Similarly, the family and household has stopped being a place of creation and production, and has instead become a place where we consume products and store ourselves and our stuff in between work days. Our lives have become defined by industrial efficiencies rather than natural cycles and relationships. We perform tasks in a process in our cubicles, we eat fast food, we relate over text messages and the internet. The value of our physical bodies is secondary to the worth of efficiency (which probably contributes to our national problem of poor body image and crippling physical self-consciousness).

We’ve all heard our fair share of lectures about the detrimental effect on the family from not eating dinner together, but it’s worth reiterating: unless you take time to let yourself be human and hungry with other hungry humans, you isolate yourself and ignore the basic need of body and soul to eat in community. We are a displaced and existentially challenged people for a reason: we have forgotten that we are dust, and we have sanitized human processes [ah-ha! mechanical language] until there is nothing human left about them.

(Which may be why sex seems to be the most significant thing for our generation–it’s the last place we are able to be simply physical beings and need another person. And even here, our atomizing, mechanistic culture gets in the way.)

This is my apologetic for cooking and eating your own food: the process of coming together for mealtime is the most natural place for community to grow. You can have your slick blog community and guest posts and a thousand Twitter followers [Ed.: we wish!], but it will not feed your soul quite so well as eating spaghetti and garlic bread you made yourself with your spouse, family, or friends. This is coming from me, the introverted nerd who sometimes really dislikes people. You need community. I need community. Food is normal and good and somewhat of a social equalizer, and sharing food with people makes you belong somewhere real. Even if it’s Kraft Mac ‘n’ Cheese in your dorm room with your roommates.

Jesus Ate

I mentioned earlier that I believe it is anti-Christian to have a merely utilitarian relationship to one’s food. Maybe this is a bit of a stretch, but I think it’s worth considering.

I think that prior to the fall, food was good and our relationship to it was utilitarian in the manner of good things taken for granted. This wasn’t wrong—eating was good, food was good, and we ate because our need for food was pure and good. We ate when we needed to, and it was good and nourishing. God had called it all good. Its existence was a reflection of God’s provision of good things for all our needs. The fall changed this by introducing (through the act of eating) corruption into man’s relationship with God, with himself, and with nature.

After the fall, eating became much more complicated. Eating could have negative effects—it was possible to eat the wrong thing, eating something spoiled or poisonous or harmful. Nothing was forbidden, but not everything was safe. We still ate for necessity, but the relationship of humans to food became not just a hearty utilitarian goodness, but was now a craving neediness driven by fear and insecurity. Our dependence on God for provision was not blissful as it had been prior to the fall—we were still just as dependent physically, but the rift between human beings and God also separated us from nature, and we could no longer simply eat good things and be full. We had to work hard for our food, growing it by struggling with the land, and offering sacrifices of the first fruits to atone for our blood guilt. Our dependence wasn’t just limited to our everyday need to eat—it also required that we give up the first of the harvest and of the flocks to the altar fires, to satisfy the terms of our destroyed relationship with the Creator.

The law given to Moses refined this relationship (between God and man) in new ways and allowed for some better ways for people to draw near to God. But the law—designed to highlight man’s inability to atone for sin despite all good works—still emphasized that the fall had removed from us a pure and good relationship with food. Under the law, dietary restrictions were abundant, food was regulated and sacrificed, and the burden of guilt and work was heavy.

To this day, dietary restrictions are still the hallmarks of most law/deity appeasement-bound religions (Muslims, Hindus, practicing Jews, Mormons). Food is restricted and forbidden because man is not trustworthy with it, and eating the wrong thing is an easy way to taint oneself. Even absent religion, it’s a common part of secular culture to associate food with guilt or righteousness–eating is “indulgent” and eating too much or rich things is “sinful” or “being bad”—you’ve seen the TV commercials. Then we “make up for it later” with exercise or eating disorders. Our relationship to food often (oddly) reflects our relationship to grace.

The most unique part of Christianity is our belief in the incarnation of Jesus. God becoming man, and thereby validating humanity, the human body, and human life by taking on a body and human needs—this is the most radical, paradoxical concept, especially for a religion that also teaches the utter otherness and holiness of God, and the depravity of man. The incarnation is polarizing, so opposed to the concept of God as other and man as fallen. Because we Christians hold this utterly illogical and bizarre thing to be true and because it is such a huge assumption, it necessarily affects every element of the faith. If Jesus was a man, he had to deal with sibling spats and learning how to obey his parents. If Jesus was a man, he has a body and natural bodily functions (this may explain his sympathy on those suffering physical ailments as a major element of his earthly ministry). If Jesus was a man, he had to eat, sleep, and have social interaction.

This reality—that God took on a fully human body and life—can be a real comfort for Christians suffering from depression, body image issues, eating disorders, sexual desire and sin, loneliness, and fear.

In the gospels, we see how the incarnation of Jesus meant that his humanity required him to relate to food, and here I lean in and start taking notes. How the sinless Son related to food is, to me, an obvious pattern of how the redeemed can relate well to food.

The most striking thing, I think, is how normal he was. He was hungry. He took account of others’ hunger. One of my favorite stories about this is in Luke’s rendition of his first appearance after the resurrection to his disciples—he arrives at the house, reassures them that he’s not a ghost, and the first thing he says is, “Have you anything to eat?” Jesus needed food and Jesus affirmed this need in others with great tenderness. When he fed the 5,000, it was out of compassion for their hunger. When he defended his disciples to the Pharisees for breaking the Sabbath, it was in defense of their hunger and eating the wheat kernels in the field: “The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath.” Eating was more important than keeping the man-made religious laws.

Jesus ate almost exclusively in community. His tenderness toward the physical hunger of others is a repeated theme, and food and eating are like the punctuation marks of his ministry. He joined in with the community for celebrations, and was thoroughly engaged in the merrymaking. Jesus liked his food and drink with people—with “sinners” usually, distressing the religious leaders by his hearty engagement with those who were seen as incontinent or debauched. The perceived sinful excesses of the quasi-religious were the good things that Jesus affirmed. His first miracle—turning water into wine at a wedding feast near his hometown—is a prominent example of this.

One of the most-used metaphors for the kingdom of heaven, in Jesus’s stories, is that of a wedding feast. In all of these, he is the bridegroom, and the bride or the guests are those who choose to welcome and follow him. This metaphor takes on flesh at the last supper, and at the meals eaten with his disciples after his ascension. The wedding feast is a symbol of God’s new relationship to his people. God is the overjoyed host who wants to bring in the whole community to have dinner with his Son, to celebrate the Son. The Son is the bridegroom inviting everyone to share his wedding feast. The Son is the manager of an estate, holding a feast of the best of the land to celebrate the harvest. The guests are the dirty, the prodigal, the faithful idiots, the poor, the outcasts. The least likely is the one called to sit at the right hand of the host.

And again and again, Jesus instructs his disciples to practice hospitality in the same way their Father in heaven does. Invite the poor, share your food, eat generously, feed the lonely. Food and community are inseparable in his mind. You eat to be with people, you are with people to eat. Your table is open to those in need. This isn’t just throwing food at anyone who walks in your door—this is a full familial welcome where everyone joins in, preparing, eating, cleaning up, talking, living.

The young church took this seriously (and lots of home churches do this today, too). Worship was centered around eating together. Breaking bread together was to build bonds of unity. Communion didn’t start as just a wafer and a sip of wine—it was often part of a full-out meal. And this, too, was the early church’s primary evangelistic tactic—you’d invite someone to dinner, and the church would gather, and the love and fellowship would be tangible. Jesus would be made real by the generosity and love there at the dinner table.

This sharing of the table was made even more open when the church decided to open up the table to Gentiles and to non-Kosher foods. We see Peter and his vision of the sheet, and then welcoming Cornelius into the fold. We see Paul rebuking Peter for only eating with Jews, like a Jew, to impress people. Paul rebukes the church for forcing guilt on each other in regard to meat sacrificed to idols. It’s not wrong, he says, but don’t make your friend sin if he thinks eating it is sin. Be generous to each other in the grey areas.

The establishment and meaning of communion engraves this further, but: Jesus ate, with people and relationships as the compass rose for how he used and related to food. Food is useful, but eating in community, with generosity, would seem to be the real purpose of eating. Not for energy, not for health, not for a certain BMI, not because he just had to. Because eating together is the most true way relationships are made.

Communion and Eating

Jesus eating, as a man with ordinary people, transformed the manner in which we as Christians and humans can relate to each other and food. But that Jesus ate is really the fluffy part of his reinvention of community and eating through his incarnation. The real weight of this new perspective comes in his institution of the sacrament of communion. Every time he ate was either a foreshadowing or echo of this act, and every time the church gathers, we reverently participate in the ceremonial recalling of this act and acknowledge our odd but profound need for it.

The most sacred act of the church is the practicing of the sacrament of communion. This is really rather odd. It can seem crass—the idea that we receive grace and sustenance because God died and we can eat his body and blood? It’s a repulsive concept in the elemental ways. Perhaps as a result, most evangelical churches skirt around the reality of what is implied by communion by sanitizing the sacrament into a mere memorial act, a bread-and-wine mimic of the last supper to honor Christ’s final hours. The idea in these circles is that we eat the bread and wine a few times a year to remind us that Jesus broke bread and drank wine with his disciples as a foreshadowing of what would happen to his body, and so the church now mimics this last supper to recall what was done to his body for us. It’s tidy and clean. All symbolic, no gore, no rush to do it every week. This perspective is Gnostic, which is to say, it is a heretical mockery of the real thing.

Gnosticism is often explained in terms of its mysticism and achievement of holiness via secret knowledge and gradual initiation into said knowledge. But the reason it existed (and is still alive and well in a new form in the church today) is because the humanness of Jesus and the physicality of the cross and resurrection and ascension were difficult paradoxes in the ancient world. It didn’t sit well in the context of philosophies like Stoicism to have a God who affirmed the body. To accept the paradox of incarnation and Jesus as fully God and fully man would require believers to accept the worth of one’s own flesh and physicality. Instead, Gnosticism simplifies Christianity and removes this paradox, allowing Christianity to be all about the intellect, spiritual experience, and the knowledge of truth. There is little value in the body or the physical life—because the flesh is wholly sinful, it should be dominated and made as irrelevant as possible to the spiritual life. The creeping discomfort of the Gnostic Christian with the physical aspect of being human undermines the sacraments and the daily routines of life. It says that your time is better spent in the Word than studying for tomorrow’s test at school. It says that prayer is more valuable than doing household chores. It says that worship songs are inherently better than any other songs. It says that art should only ever be beautiful, because only the true things are beautiful, and the nude body is always pornography and that a mundane or grittily gross scene from real life can’t be true art because it has ugliness (and so we get Thomas Kincade and his ilk). In essence, Gnosticism is an impatience with the realities of daily life and the sin and ugliness and slow realities of a physical body. It tries to practice Christianity as a sort of pre-heavenly escapism by devaluing anything that is physical or mundane or ordinary.

Now, I understand the impulse which draws people to this skewed perspective. Life as a physical being is contradictory, and the most beautiful and the most gross are usually two sides of the same thing. Sex, for example, is a beautiful union where the purest of passions can be expressed in the safety of your lover’s affections and embraces. But it’s also a gross bodily function with funky noises and awkward angles. Likewise, eating can be an almost spiritual experience if the food is really good. But you still have to digest and pass it later. Childbirth, as well: it’s a life-changing and beautifully holy moment when a baby is born and takes its first gasping breaths and begins to cry, and suckles at the breast of its mother. But there’s also blood and mucus and feces to be cleaned up, and the mother may have tearing, and will usually be exhausted, pale, with greasy hair, and sweat trickling down her face. These ugly and gross sides of these events are things we’d like to do without, but because we are physical beings in a physical world, we cannot. Likewise, to sanitize communion as only a memorial act is an immature, escapist impulse. We are physical beings, Jesus is a physical being, his death was a physical act, and communion cannot be just symbolism. To treat communion as a mere symbol is to cheapen Jesus’s death in a way that is dangerous and irreverent.

Please understand: I am not trying to give a completely thorough, systematic apologetic for the theological nuances of “real presence” in communion. I am only trying to impart here my layperson’s understanding of the significance of communion as a physical sacrament whereby God imparts grace tangibly to his people.

So here we are: Gnostic Christianity creates a bad substitute for the real meaning of communion. Having explained this, I can now continue onto my larger point: Jesus ate, and because he ate I also can eat with a holy enjoyment of food and fellowship, imitating his united experience of food with people as a centering activity for healthy relationships.

Jesus is God incarnate, and as God incarnate, he achieved a restoration of relationships in the context of food as good and a guiltless pleasure. When he ate the Passover feast with his disciples he made this personal, as he broke the bread and passed the cup and said to them “This is my body” and “This is my blood.” Suddenly it became more obvious what he meant during a talk with leaders of the Jews, when he said to them,

“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him, and I will raise him up at the last day. It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me. No one has seen the Father except the one who is from God; only he has seen the Father. I tell you the truth, he who believes in me has everlasting life. I am the bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.” Then the Jews began to argue sharply among themselves, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” Jesus said to them, “I tell you the truth, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is real food and my blood is real drink. Whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood remains in me, and I in him. Just as the living Father sent me and I live because of the Father, so the one who feeds on me will live because of me. This is the bread that came down from heaven. Your forefathers ate manna and died, but whoever feeds on this bread will live forever.” – John 6:44-58, NIV

Jesus’s speaking of his body as manna for his people is, clearly, a reference to God’s provision of the appropriate salvation for the needs of his people in their physical wilderness wanderings, and in the spiritual desert of the old-covenant isolation from God without blood appeasement for transgressions. This is an appropriate metaphorical parallel for Jesus, as the sacrificial Lamb of God, to draw. Whoever fed on the manna was saved; whoever puts their faith in Jesus’s sufficient sacrifice on their behalf is saved.

But it’s much more literal than just this, as became evident during the last supper. Jesus reiterated the literal command to eat his flesh and drink his blood, passing the bread and wine as physical symbols of this. He was there with them in this shared, communal experience, and partaking of it was in a way, the last seal of the fellowship existing between the disciples and with their Lord.

And when Jesus died on the cross, bleeding and mangled, and the propitiation for sins was achieved, the reality of partaking in the supper as partaking in his death and living by his death—both physically and spiritually—the deeper truth was made firm. At the command of Christ to remember his sacrifice by sharing the bread and wine as they shared in his body and blood whenever the disciples gathered together, the routine of communion was established, and fellowship with each other was renewed by the common need and the common cup, and the Holy Spirit sustained the fellowship and blessed the act of communion to the church.

This is, sort of, what is implied by the term “real presence” in communion: Christ is present through his Spirit when the believers gather in his name, and Christ is made tangible in the body and blood, the bread and wine, and the Spirit restores and renews the faith of the individual believers taking of this food, and restores and renews the unity and fellowship—the communion—of the church, of the saints.

And because of this, I say that tangible grace is directly imparted to the soul of the believer who partakes of the sacrament of communion. To take part in this sacrament requires nothing of the believer except for an acknowledgement of his sinfulness and need of spiritual food, his need of grace, and his need of fellowship with other believers to sustain his faith. This is why, in the Anglican church, one joins in a congregational confession of sin and hears the words of peace from the scriptures, and then offers the hand of peace to the other congregants, before going to the altar to kneel (an appropriate posture for those dependent on Christ for life) and receive (not take, but passively receive, reflecting our helplessness and God’s willingness to meet us just where we are in our worst selves) the sacrament and the blessing. Grace is unmerited favor poured out with generosity from God on man. Communion is the most physically real experience of grace, in the purest, most elemental form a believer can have.

I like how one author describes it:

“Not only is Christ present at the altar, but He also gives Himself to us. As we eat the bread, we are receiving, in an intimate and personal way, His body that was broken on the cross. When we sip the wine, we are receiving His blood that sealed the covenant, assuring the forgiveness of sin. We are literally united with Christ—Christ crucified, resurrected, and ascended—bridging the gap between here and Golgotha, now and eternity.

It has been said that this contact with Christ is more direct and closer and more intimate than what His disciples enjoyed. Again, Christ comes to us. It is not something we do, but something Christ does, which we have only to receive. The Lord’s Supper is nothing less than the Gospel. . . .

There is nothing vague here. There is no need to worry about my decisions or whether or not I have been elected to be saved or whether or not I am sinful. In the Sacrament, Christ gives Himself to me. All of His promises and everything He did for my redemption and forgiveness on the cross are made so tangible, I can taste them. I am touching, in fact, the risen Christ, as the first disciples did. And God’s Word, ringing in my ears as I take this nourishment, tells me that His body and blood are for me. That means that my sins are actually forgiven, that I can be assured of God’s favor.” (Gene Edward Veith, The Spirituality of the Cross)

Because God Incarnate made such a big deal of instituting the sacrament of communion, for the Christian food can never again be just something we put in our mouths to give us energy. Seriously, just reread the gospels with an eye out for the phrases, “body and blood,” “eat my flesh,” and for the idea of Jesus as food for eternal life. It is a central theme in his ministry, intertwining elegantly with his affirmation of the physical body as he walked about the country healing the bodies of those who believed, and eating with them and knowing them intimately through that fellowship.

God has taken flesh and eaten with us and made the very act of eating together with him and others a vital part of how we relate to him and each other. I would argue that a church isn’t a church if it’s not celebrating communion together regularly, because without it, our fellowship is only a heady and intellectual, rational sort of relating to God and to each other. With communion, our practice of faith and our need of grace and our need of each other suddenly become powerfully physical, and we must be united to take the elements in a sacramental, reverential way. It is the literal lifeblood of the church.

In our church on Sunday mornings, the priest prays over the elements and when he is done, he lifts them up for the congregation to see, saying,

The gifts of God for the people of God. Take them in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your hearts by faith with thanksgiving.

And when I kneel to take the bread, he says to me,

The Body of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was given for you, preserve your body and soul unto everlasting life. Take and eat this in remembrance that Christ died for you, and feed on him in your heart by faith, with thanksgiving.

And then as I am given the cup,

The Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, which was shed for you, preserve your body and soul unto everlasting life. Drink this in remembrance that Christ’s blood was shed for you, and be thankful.

Some versions of the liturgy have this, instead:

The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven.

The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.

The wedding feast of the Lamb. The body and blood on the cross. The breaking of bread with the disciples and with the faithful, socially despicable. The God of holiness in human flesh, hungry. Jesus Christ, the bread of life.

Eating can’t be done just for its own sake ever again. It is now Christ-haunted.

Iron and marble, wood and stone
Craftsman’s chisel, hammer and nail
All the straight lines form our gath’ring place
At the Altar of God, at the Communion Rail

And the powerful and common, we all come alike
With our faith so weak and our souls so frail
To dine upon the promises of Christ the Lamb
Kept safe for His sheep at the Communion Rail

I can’t help but watch this blessed parade
Of strangers and neighbors, we all fall and fail
We come to have our lives made new again
And to return our thanks at the Communion Rail

And a great cloud of witnesses surrounds us out of time
We will follow their footsteps beyond this earthly veil
We will all join together at the Supper of the Lamb
And we glimpse that shining time
At the Communion Rail

We will follow their footsteps beyond this earthly veil
And we glimpse that shining time now
At the Communion Rail

—Bob Bennett, “The Communion Rail”

Last thoughts: Place and food

 “Like industrial sex, industrial eating has become a degraded, poor, and paltry thing. Our kitchens and other eating places more and more resemble filling stations, as our homes more and more resemble motels.” – Wendell Berry, “The Pleasures of Eating”

One afternoon during college, a professor was lecturing on the idea that college is a sort of like slash and burn farming–we are raised in communities and they nurture us, and then we leave them (with all of the gifts and wisdom they have invested in us) and we go to college. There we feed off the riches of the professors and the learning community there until we suck them dry and walk off with our degrees. And some of us go home and reinvest in our original communities, and return to them what they gave us. But most of us follow the jobs and go wherever we can find work or the career options we like best, and leave behind two communities we have benefited from, but have not given returns on their investments.

And he then asked us what we were doing, there in that town at that little college, to invest in the community while we were there. We mostly looked at our notebooks and vigorously pretended to be taking down every word, not wanting to get called on. So he changed the question: “do you know where your water comes from?” And when we again looked stupid, he proceeded onto his conclusion, visibly irritated with our lack of interest in the place we had chosen to live for those four years.

***

When my family moved from California to Virginia, I was just about to enter high school. I suppose it was unusual that my first (and initially, biggest) culture shock was the realization that I didn’t know the crops or the flora and fauna of our new region. The county where I had grown up was highly agricultural and I knew the seasons and the implications of a weather pattern on the crops around us. I knew to recognize artichoke fields, and to pray for rain for the broccoli farmers, and I could tell you all about the process of harvesting cotton or walnuts or oranges. My favorite smell was in early April, when the air became alive with the scent of orange blossoms. I visited the local water reservoir with my homeschool co-op and we toured the dam and learned where the water came from and where it was treated and how it got to us. I could recognize birds by their calls and tell you where to look for them, and I recognized the different types of pine trees in the nearby mountains by their different needles and cones.

But when we moved to Virginia, I felt bewildered. I couldn’t recognize or name anything, there were very few farms near us, and I didn’t know anything about what foods grew well in the area or when they were in season.

Over time, as I learned to cook more and helped with the shopping for the family, I began to get a feel of the seasonal rhythm of the Virginian produce (ever lamenting the fact that those things requiring a Mediterranean climate would never be quite as good on the East coast–I haven’t had a good artichoke in years). And I slowly learned to appreciate it–the peanut soup and boiled peanuts, the eastern shore crab harvest, the fall apples, the local wines, the sweet corn, the venison, etc. I have acclimated, and I am able to navigate eating locally with some degree of skill now.

Obviously, this is important to me because that’s one thing I love about my dad (his awareness of the geographic attributes and produce the region where he lives). But it’s important for Christians in a larger way, too. If eating isn’t just something we do for fuel, and if Jesus affirmed the physical world with his incarnation, and if we are made to be stewards of the earth, we have an obligation to shop for our food in a way that reflects these things.

I feel frustrated sometimes, with other conservative Christians who assume that issues of environmental concern are just “evolutionist” or not worth their time. For them, loving Jesus is enough for life. And strictly speaking, they’re not wrong. But to use “loving Jesus” as carte blanche to ignore ethical living on the earth is indulging in a sort of Gnosticism that allows disinterest in where one lives and how one lives in that place, which runs against the concept of human stewardship of the earth and the embodied Christianity that Jesus established in his incarnation.

There are a lot of causes related to this idea of stewarding the earth well, and many of them are silly or reactionary. It’s hard to know how, in this industrial age of suburbia and mass production, to live well in the place one lives. To do so entirely holistically would be overwhelming–so much of our society is built around ignoring place and refusing to let the unique nature of a geographic locale influence how we live. Everything must be standardized, democratized, universal. We transplant ourselves to new place, following jobs, and don’t think much about being affected by where we live (except to grumble about various inconveniences). And it’s hard to actually go off the grid without cutting oneself off from relationships with everyone else on the grid, which would be ideologically contrary to the concept of Christian community and fellowship.

I live in a place and I am part of a physical community, whether I like it or not. Wendell Berry calls the idea of belonging to a community “membership.” But membership doesn’t (according to Berry) come by just living in a community. It requires active participation in it to the point that you identify with the community and the community in return chooses to identify itself with you. This requires more than just living in a place, commuting to your office, and then coming home and getting groceries at the supermarket, taking out your trash, and checking your mail. It means interacting with your neighbors, it means making the land better than how it was when you came to it, and the people richer culturally. Suburban “bedroom communities” are the antithesis of this idea of real community and membership therein. And I would argue that it is the thinking Christian’s obligation to choose wisely how to become invested in the membership of his or her physical community.

So how to do this? Determining how you choose to live well in your physical place will be a rather individual decision. But some basic steps to get started might include: learning about your town or county, perhaps by attending a meeting of the local planning commission, to understand the ways land is being used where you live, and why; or perhaps you might do research to learn about the food co-ops available in your area, where you can purchase produce seasonally from local farmers. You might see if you can find a local butcher, and purchase humanely raised meat. Or you could start a small garden in your backyard or on your windowsill, and make compost from your refuse.

All these things take time and deliberate effort, so it’s worth being thoroughly careful to make sure that you do these things out real conviction, rather than jumping on a fad because you feel guilty.

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