I’m not really thinking about Christmas much right now. There are too many pieces of life still unresolved this December. I can’t see very far ahead–this is driving in fog with my low beams on, not knowing when I’ll arrive where I’m going. But I’m still walking forward, or trying to.

This past weekend I spent most of my free time revisiting my undergrad thesis on Derrida and T.S. Eliot, immersing myself in that headspace after years of absence. I’d forgotten about pieces of it, absorbed them so thoroughly into my thinking that the origin of the parts had become obscured. One of these pieces that became so much a part of me is Derrida’s concept of à venir.

I spent last year’s Advent season meditating on the idea of it being a penitential season. It was for me, a time of preparing the self, stripping the distractions, waiting for the arrival of the Christ child. It was a time of soul-stripping, and I had no idea how few things I’d be holding in my hands by the time it was over. The year before was much the same — feeling pressed in, pressed down, holding my breath as I let things go and slapping God’s name on it to make sense of it all.

There is so much brokenness. My brain is on overdrive, filled with stories. The pain of the people dear to me is a loud white noise in my head, keeping me awake at night. The idea of Advent being a time for introspection and penitence is still true, but it doesn’t fit this year. This year I can’t “God’s sovereignty!” myself out of the questions I carry, all balled up in my pocket.

Revisiting that thesis for my applications made me laugh. I’d tied up the loose ends in pretty bows at the end — I had succumbed to the internal pressure of working with Derrida at a Presbyterian college, leaned a little too hard on the Christianity-fixes-this-tension conclusion. Derrida didn’t go for answers, for tidy bows. That’s the whole point — he saw how uncontainable language and ideas and belief were, and talked about it. And the moderns couldn’t cope with the tension he embraced.

So now to explain: à venir. It’s Derrida’s term used to describe the space of tension between the idea of a thing and it’s actualization. It’s that time when you’ve had an idea for a recipe, pulled together your ingredients, and you’re waiting for the timer to take it out of the oven and see if it turned out how you hoped. It’s the moment between when you, a poet, have an idea for a poem and sit down to write, and when you give it to someone to read for the first time, and wait breathlessly to see their face and know whether or not you succeeded at yanking them into that first moment when inspiration struck.

À venir means “to come” or “forthcoming.” It’s the same root from which we name this time of year Advent. And Advent is about this, the tension of anticipation. That which is to come — we have no idea what it will turn out to be like, but we know it’s coming, and we wait, fully present.

I chuckle, because it seems that I’m not alone in feeling the anticipatory discomfort this year. Cara blogged yesterday, saying

I’m sitting here, in the present tense, realizing that I’m breathing somewhere between has come and will come, between Advent and Adventure.

Sarah wrote on it, too.

Now that I have wept, now that I have grieved, now that I have lost, now that I have learned to hold space with and for the ones who are hurting, now I have a place for Advent. Now that I have fallen in step with the man from Nazareth, I want to walk where he walked into the brokenness of this life, and see the Kingdom of God at hand. Now that I have learned how much I need him, I have learned to watch for him.

Advent is perhaps for the ones who know longing.

Two parts of the same à venir tension: adventure and longing; hope and grief. Advent, the penitential season. Advent, the season of tidings of great joy. Advent, the birth of the one who is to die. Advent, the birth of the King who will reign forever.

Advent, the messy season of the soul at its most human and most holy — when we don’t know what’s coming, we don’t know what we need, and we’re waiting and getting so antsy for something to change that we half don’t care what it is.

Maybe that’s why all my favorite Advent hymns are in minor keys? It’s a season of being unresolved. We may have a great hope, a great faith, a Messiah we watch for, but the beauty of à venir is in the surprise.

I like to hope I’m a lot more open to the surprises that may come this season, after a year full of them. But I know I’m not, not really. I love creature comforts, tidy endings, white hat/black hat thinking. Yet, that’s just not real. Real is nuance. Real is discomfort AND extravagant beauty mashed together in the same day. Real is unresolved melodies that are left unfinished.

And real is our very human, very beautiful innate ability to hope in the midst of crap. Even if it’s just the anticipation of sleep at the end of the day, or a warm cup of coffee in the morning, or a hot shower when it’s all over. We hope. That’s what we do. We look forward to things. And that’s the heart of being human, the heart of à venir. It’s the unquenchable spirit of Advent, and ideally of Christianity. Hope without ceasing, right? A God who cares, intimately. A God who took on flesh, who took on our tension and our humanity, our existence of nobility of soul and thought plus farting and tears.

Some days I don’t know if I believe, or if I do, what I know. But it’s human to hope, and it’s Christian to hope, and the messianic impulse of expectancy is strong. Things can get better. Things should get better. Love is real, and it is healing. The Incarnation is mystifying and surprising and good and I expect no less of final redemption. I don’t want a bow. I want a minor chord, I want the slice of surprise of the unresolved, the unknown. It’s more true.

À venir. God is with us. And it’s uncomfortable and surprising.


This summer and fall I did a series of posts on incarnation and eating (my two great passions in life), and the [pompously pseudonymous but] excellent and genial thinking fellows over at The Hipster Conservative decided to run the series as a long essay.

If you’re new around here, please go read! This is one of my favorite pieces I’ve done yet.

I would argue that it is anti-Christian to have a merely utilitarian relationship to one’s food. 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.

<< Read the whole thing here. >>


[This is one of the promised posts about why I chose the name “Wine & Marble.” Communion has been a huge part of my spiritual life and binds me to Christianity in a way I can’t really understand or explain. I’ll tell my story and perhaps begin to work it out.]

Sometimes I wish I could shut off the part of myself that subconsciously breathes in and out scripture verses memorized long ago, the part of myself that is perpetually mulling over questions of faith, the part of myself that is bound to the idea of Jesus. For some reason, it’s indelibly part of who I am. I can turn most of that part of me and my experience off if I need to (it’s right there next to the “pretend you weren’t homeschooled/aren’t ignorant about pop culture” switch in my head), but the sacrament of communion has made leaving or forgetting my faith complicated and impossible. If it weren’t for this, I think I might have left the Church for good, long ago. But the offering up of the Body and Blood every week for my crooked self’s physical and spiritual renewal is stronger than my apathy and I am transfixed by it.

When I was a small child, my desire to “be right with Jesus” (the idea was vague, but I understood that it was essential to ending nightmares and live without fear) was united and inextricably joined with a craving need to take communion. I wanted to take the cup and eat the bread with a desire that is still the deepest of any I have yet experienced. I was only four or five, but I had a powerful need to be right with Jesus (which is a whole other topic–in the evangelical culture there’s a lot of fear-based pressure on little children to say the sinner’s prayer) which was centered on this assumption: I couldn’t take communion until I understood and could explain to my parents what it meant and had said the sinner’s prayer and accepted Jesus “into my heart.” Conversion and accepting Jesus was a way to get to communion and there was nothing I craved more than to participate in that ceremony.

Every Sunday I watched the communion ritual with awe and desire. I wanted that and everything it seemed to be about.

When I was maybe 5 or 6, I remember visiting my grandmother’s Episcopal church for the first time. The candles, the hush and reverence, the prayers and the kneeling–these were new elements of my church experience, and I felt both delighted and annoyed. I liked the loud praise band and worship dance of our Vineyard church, but this new mood was better suited to communion, and the beauty of it enchanted me. I remember how tender the priest was with the elderly parishioners  bringing the chalice and the wafers to their seats, blessing them right where they were. The body of Christ was brought to his people, and it was fitting.

Shortly thereafter, communion was served at our own church one Sunday. I don’t remember if they did it once a month there, or twice a year, but it was infrequent. And it was a big deal in my mind, though [obviously] not in the minds of those leading that church. I asked my mom if I could take part, and she pulled dad and me out of the service into the foyer. Dad told me that I couldn’t take communion until I could tell him what it’s significance was and why it was part of the church practices. [The thought of this amuses me now.] I told them what I could grasp: it was representing Jesus’s body  and blood after the cross and we took it to eat and drink because it reminded us of how he saved us. This was satisfactory, and I took communion for the first time that Sunday. I was baptized about a year later. [Again, how odd.]

***

A few years later, I was in Awana and was inundated with Baptist guilt-trips that caused me to fear for my salvation over and over again. I told myself that I had first believed that day I took communion for the first time, but fearful of my own anger with my younger siblings and losing my salvation over it, I walked the aisle again. Twice I prayed in fear, ashamed and wondering if God would be angry at me for trying so many times to “get saved.” Once was at a Billy Graham crusade event–my dad was with me.

“Let’s go down,” I said.
“You’ve already been saved!” he said.
“I need to do it again,” I said, and started walking, not looking back to see if he was following me.
“She’s rededicating her life to the Lord,” the older woman whispered to him when he joined us on the football field a few minutes later, as Crystal Lewis began to sing over us.

***

In the middle of these years of fear and shame and walking the aisle again, as I questioned my salvation nearly weekly, I found myself becoming callous to the ceremony of communion. I needed it, and it happened once a month at the church we attended at the time, and I was glad to participate and receive it. But the bread was a sweet, eggy bread made by some dear soul in the church, and I was always stuck late after the service while my family helped take down the sound equipment. My friends and I were all at that rowdy age where you’d catch us sneaking down forbidden hallways, climbing onto roofs, hanging upside down from trees, begging the teenage boys to let us play chicken on their shoulders, etc. And we were hungry after a long 11am service.

So we stole the bread, bit by bit. Nibbled it under the bleachers, giggling in the streams of dust-filtered light. “It’s for us, anyway!” we said. “And we’re hungry–Jesus wouldn’t mind.”

After several weeks of doing this, we got caught and reprimanded by the pastor. He spoke of eating and drinking wrath upon ourselves and told us to ask our parents for snacks, instead. So we stopped.

But maybe we were right, after all. It was for us.

***

Later we moved across the country for a church, and I was 12 and lonely and hungry to understand more about the faith I professed. I wanted to make it my own and I read and talked and asked questions.

At this church, they did little different from the others–communion once a month or less frequently, little cups of white grape juice passed in trays (white to prevent stains in clothing), little pieces of matzo or water crackers, broken in a basket on a napkin.

More organizational structure at this church and fewer spirit-led moments or maybe just the absence of California chill caused me to feel stifled, and communion began to hold no power. It was something that happened, and when it did we were prompted to meditate on the gore of the cross, on the agony of Jesus and his separation from the angry Father. Mood lighting was introduced, synthesizers were played. The first year or so I was truly moved by these things–they were new then. But month after month with no script change and no shift in focus away from the cross the rest of the time, and soon the potency of the moment was drained. The cross, the cross, the cross, the cross. Pull your chairs in circles, meditate on your sin. Pray for forgiveness with each other. Eat the bread. Drink the cup. Raise the lights. Sing about how you love the cross.

There was no resurrection hope, no advent, no saints rejoicing in new life. Only your sin, the cross, his death, your fault. Meditate on your sin.

Not knowing better, I found myself attending a similar sort of church for the first two years at college. Communion was every week there, and while it felt more genuine as we went through a corporate confession and received a pastoral benediction and sang hymns that celebrated new life, I was still numb. My Sin and The Cross were my blinders and I was only moved when I felt particularly filthy or like I had something truly awful to pray about during the confession.

***

And then. And then. 

I found myself caught up in a different church through my social group. It was an Anglican church with communion every week and grace preached from the pulpit like a relentless storm.  The sermons alone were the perfect antidote to the legalistic naval-gazing of SGM teachings, but the communion was really what brought me back every week. I couldn’t resist it. It called to me, I needed it. Like when I was small, this was a source of life and I found myself craving it all week long. It wasn’t particularly remarkable–wine in a chalice, pita bread torn to bits, lining up pew by pew and walking forward to receive it, recessing to a hymn led by some barefoot student playing guitar.

But the mood was set by the fixation on grace, on healing, on acceptance. And I felt little shards of healing tear me to pieces every time I processed and accepted the gifts of Jesus given for me. Grace was being made real by the physical act, and it knew my name.

Shortly thereafter I went to England for a short class trip in January, with the rector of that church and a professor and an armful of books on the Inklings. Our focus was on Epiphany–the season, the writings on it by these authors, and the Anglican church teachings focused on it. Our study took us to an evensong service almost every evening, and we were immersed in the Book of Common Prayer every day. We visited Salisbury, Ely, Canturbury, St. Paul’s, Westminister, St. Mary’s, Christchurch, and Little Gidding. We took communion every day. It was sustaining and beautiful and holy, and I let the rhythm and art of the BoCP prayers become part of me, journaling them, twisting them into my poems every night. And despite the daily ritual of it, I found myself shaken by it every time. The Eucharist was breaking me, healing me, stripping me of old lies and fears and letting me relearn how to open up and welcome the burning love of Jesus.

***

After college, after getting married, I was at a small church. My husband was obligated to attend as part of his job in the church office, and I went with him. But the observation of communion there was as bad as the soulless communion experiences I had in the nondenominational churches I grew up in. They did it infrequently, saying things that seemed like they were trying to remember how the Anglican service went, but not really sure of the right order or phrases. There was a lot of emphasis on the death of Jesus, a lot of emphasis on remembering. But it all turned from harmless to sour for me when the pastor said that communion was a memorial service for Jesus, like a memorial service we might have after the death of a friend. Nothing more. Just: he has died, let us remember him.

That’s when I took my Harry Potter books to read outside in the sunshine during communion Sundays thereafter. Sometimes we squeezed in an early morning service at a friend’s Episcopal church. “So we can have real communion before we go to our church,” my husband said. When he left that job and we were free to find our own church, I was very glad.

Since then, we’ve been at an Episcopal church near home, where the Eucharist is celebrated with reverence and joy. The priests exude tenderness and love for the congregation, and I am again finding myself soothed and healed each week by confession, communion, absolution, and the washing of the Word.

Last Sunday I came to church emotionally drained and fragile. It had been a rough week and painful things were raw and in my face. The words of joy in the hymns (Advent hymns are almost all about promises of hope and joy) were biting, rubbing the hurt. And when I realized that this service was lessons and carols (which doesn’t usually involve the Eucharist), I fell to pieces and had to leave.

Why? I’m not entirely sure. But I know this: a church service should not be about a teacher or a leader (the focus should not be on the sermon, meaty though it may be). The heart of the gospel is fully encapsulated in the Eucharist, and this should be the focal point. It’s about God meeting us in the flesh, healing us where we’re at, sustaining us in his love and self. I need the physicality of it. I need the mystery and the healing of Emmanuel. It’s everything.

[and it won’t let me go]


We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
– T.S. Eliot, “Journey of the Magi”

Last year, I started writing this post. But life swallowed me up and my job was difficult and my husband started working at a restaurant, and suddenly our life was stretched too thin for me to think real words anymore.

I was having a discussion with a friend (who is now a new sister!) and she asked me something or other about how I felt about Christmas coming. I paused. I felt strange answering her question honestly, because she probably expected something about how happy I felt about decorating or making Christmas desserts, or how good it would be to spend the holiday with family. But I was weary and emotionally drained, and I told her that I liked the season of Advent, anticipating Christmas, because it is a penitential season. I said that I always feel more like fasting than feasting while I wait for Christmas.

She asked me to explain what I meant and got me thinking on this. Since I still feel this way a year later, returning to the Advent season, I think I will return and finish my thought.

Advent is a season of anticipating God’s arrival in the flesh, of waiting and watching. It is much like Lent in this yearning and anticipation. But Lent is a time when Jesus was on earth with his disciples, and I feel it’s more appropriate to be meditating on mortality, penitence, and abstinence during the time leading up to the incarnation, while we prepare for his arrival. The time leading up to Jesus’ birth was a time of silence among the prophets, and the Spirit had left the temple, I’m told. Everything was centered on keeping the feasts and waiting for the Messiah, not unlike the Jews still do today. There was an absence of God’s presence among his people.

Likewise, during Advent, we wait and we watch. We hunger for the coming of Christ the baby like we hunger for heaven or for his eventual return, because it parallels that scene so well–the common yearning for God with us. We speak of heaven: Jesus is coming. But not yet. Reflect and watch and pray.

Advent is a picture of where we are now, everyday. We don’t find Jesus in the plenty–though we can. Instead, he more often comes to us in the silence, in the waiting. We anticipate him and grow tired. But then he comes and finds us in the aches and pains and weariness.
And then he dies. And Easter has so much power and might and life and joy, but we know the promise of heaven best in Jesus incarnate. So we wait for the “second death” when we live with him, like the Eliot poem says.

The magi saw the Christ, they rejoice, and then they go home, tired and weary. And they wait for death with quiet reverence and anticipation of the promise fulfilled in death by the baby king. And like them, we wait for his arrival at Christmas just as we wait for death to unite us with him in the flesh.

This Advent (which starts on Sunday), I’m going to be meditating on the incarnation and on mortality. I’m going to be choosing something to fast from in the spirit of Lent, and I will break my fast at Epiphany in the spirit of the resurrection promise made in the incarnation of Christ. Join me?


This week’s collection is a little more light and brief than the last few have been. Enjoy!


“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 we 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 a 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.

***

  [Following up next week, we’ll have a guest post by the delightful Marianne, with a sort of Eating Locally 101 for those   who interested in the practical elements of this.]


Previous posts in this series: Loving Your FoodEating in Community, and Jesus Ate.

For the benefit of my readers: I write this for Christians, with the understanding that communion is a sacrament and an essential, regular part of a healthy practice of faith and a healthy church. For my own part, I am of the Anglican persuasion, believing in what is called the doctrine of “real presence” (as opposed to transubstantiation or the idea that communion is simply a memorial act). 

Anglican service in Portland, ME last week.

As I touched on in my last post, 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 dutifully walk through the ceremonial reverencing 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’s 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, and allows 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 (e.g., 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, and tries to practice Christianity as a sort of pre-heaven escapism by devaluing anything that is physical or mundane or ordinary. [My apologies to Dr. Messer for the content of this paragraph.]

Now, I understand the impulse of 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 breathes 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 if it was just symbolic is to cheapen his death in a way that is dangerous and irreverent.

[Before I continue, I must ask my readers to do me a favor: be comfortable with mystery, and don’t expect of me a theologian’s precision. I am not trying to give a completely thorough, systematic apologetic for the theological nuances of “real presence” in communion. I gave up on being Presbyterian in part because of the OCD-like obsession with a wholly reasonable theology. Paradox is an essential part of the Christian faith, and I am not equipped to be an educated defender of it. I am only trying to impart here my layman’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 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 was 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 body as manna for his people is, clearly, symbolic of God’s provision of the appropriate salvation for the needs of his people in the 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 processing 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 its 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.” (The Spirituality of the Cross, Veith)

Because God incarnate as the man Jesus made such a big deal of instituting the sacrament of communion food, for the Christian, 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 has 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.

{This post was written with this song on repeat in my “mental stereo.” Go listen.}

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”


In my first food post, I mentioned 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 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 a rift now permeated our relationship to our food and we could no longer just eat good things and be full. We had to work hard for our food, growing it  by warring with the land, and offering for our blood guilt sacrifices of the first fruits. Our dependence wasn’t just limited to our every day 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 man 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 “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 effects every element of the faith.  If Jesus was a man, he had to deal with sibling spats and learning 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.

To me, 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 teachers with 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.

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 symbolic 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.

[next in this series is a post on eating and communion]

Previously: Loving Your Food, Eating in Community