Years ago I stumbled on a documentary about a certain entrepreneur marketing what he claimed to be the richest, most nutritious milk shake ever made— a drink so replete in proteins, vitamins and minerals that it could be substituted entirely for a solid diet. In one segment of the show, the inventor railed against the very act of eating— the unseemly chore of shovelling spoonfuls of organic matter though a small hole in our face in order to survive.1 If we can’t dispense with this task altogether— so his logic went— why not do the next best thing? Why not simplify the eating process to the point where it involves the barest effort? (Hence the milkshakes). In the final scene of the documentary, our intrepid entrepreneur attends a birthday celebration for one of his friends at a restaurant— sipping awkwardly at his pinkish-brown slurry while the rest of his friends tuck into their striploin steaks and seafood dinners.
Despite the appalling unfairness of it all, the Good Lord has indeed seen fit to make eating a biological need for the human species. And, as if this weren’t spiteful enough a curse, he has even added the crowning humiliation of making us actually enjoy it. Small wonder then that, throughout the centuries, mystics and ascetics of all stripes have sought to defy the very need for food— fasting away into nothingness in the heroic attempt to transcend our supposedly weak and corrupted physical nature.
Needless to say, Jesus never counselled such a thing. Although known to fast himself, he never declared eating (or any bodily function, for that matter) to be unclean. On the contrary, his teachings (and, indeed, the overall witness of scripture) seem to revel in our carnal natures. We were made, so the story goes, from the very stuff of the earth— placed in a world of matter to eat and breath and breed. Indeed, not only did the Creator declare this, his material creation, to be good; he actually entered into it. He robed himself in human flesh, walked among us and, yes, even went so far as to sit down at table and eat with us. In fact, he feasted so often that he was slandered as a glutton and a drunkard by his opponents.
Most telling of all, however, is the way that Jesus described the coming era of justice and peace that many Jews of his time anticipated (what they called “the kingdom of God”). Jesus spoke of the Kingdom as a great wedding banquet— a glorious celebration where his beloved ones would sit forever at his table, dining eternally in his divine presence. In this Kingdom, scarcity, poverty and want have no place— only feasting and abundance. Indeed, much of what Jesus said and did in his earthly ministry bore witness to the coming of this Kingdom Feast.
Whenever Jesus stayed in the homes of friends like Mary, Martha and Lazarus he’d invariably break bread with his hosts, proclaiming, in this small and humble act, the coming of his Kingdom. When Jesus took a child’s bagged lunch of fish and bread and turned it into a glorious seafood bonanza, he was giving the crowds a tiny glimpse into this eternal wedding feast that he had been preaching about. When— to the horror of the Pharisees and scribes— he sat down and ate with tax collectors and prostitutes, he was throwing open the doors of that kingdom to all and inviting them in. Anyone can pass through the twin gates of repentance and faith to find themselves guests in the wedding banquet— not just pious, Torah observant Jews but even outcasts and gentiles.
It comes as no surprise then that, in the final moments of his earthly ministry, Jesus solemnly enjoined his disciples to continue sharing this common meal together even in his physical absence. Indeed, the words he spoke at this time were so important that they were treasured by those present and eventually passed along, word for word, to others. Eventually, these words were incorporated into Holy Scripture then burned into the very hearts of those who believe.
We are told that Jesus, “on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, ‘This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ In the same way he took the cup also, after supper, saying, ‘This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.’ ” (1 Corinthians 11:23-25).
The simple but profound meal that Jesus bequeathed to his disciples was clearly meant to be, among other things, an act of collective remembrance— a meal wherein the assembly of Jesus’ followers were to recall the sacrifice of their Lord on the cross. However, in addition to this, there is an often overlooked feature of the Lord’s supper; namely, it’s function as a foretaste of the Kingdom of God.
“Truly I tell you,” Jesus declares in his institution of the Lord’s supper “I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until the day when I drink in new in the kingdom of God” (Mk. 14:25). Along the same lines St. Paul, in his teachings on the Lord’s supper, writes, “For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). There is an obvious future orientation, here. This means, of course, that the Lord’s Supper isn’t just a memorial of Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross but an anticipation of his coming again and the inauguration of his kingdom
All of this should add fresh insight into our celebration of the Lord’s Supper. When we gather together to break bread and drink wine, we allow the Lord to remind us that the Kingdom of God is imminent; that the Bride Groom is approaching fast; that the table is set for the Wedding Banquet. When we share in the eucharistic feast, we are allowing the Lord to remind us of our urgent need to repent— to turn from the vain and futile ways of this present era— and embrace the coming Messiah in faith. When we celebrate this meal, we gain renewed impetus for doing as Jesus did; namely, calling the outsiders to table fellowship with us— inviting them into our homes and lives and hearts, proclaiming to them the good news as we do so; inviting them to share in the coming Kingdom of God.
- I can’t take credit for this turn of phrase. I think I stole it from G.K. Chesterton but I can’t, for the life of me, find the original quote.