The meal of memories: common action, ecclesial worship

eucharist meal of memories

In recent debates a serious misunderstanding of Christian practice is often put forward by those who seek to defend the so-called ‘Tridentine Rite’ which has the effect of juxtaposing a ‘meal’ and a ‘sacrifice.’ These objectors completely ignore

  • not only the fact that within our deep tradition – much older than the time of Jesus – that thanksgiving sacrifices of praise invariable took the form of a shared meal as we see, for example, in the eucharistic prayer embedded in 1 Chr 29.
  • That it is our collective sacrifice of praise, all of us who are gathered acting as one body offering one sacrifice praise, not a jumble of individuals just doing it as a group for convenience. As such, the one communal act of praise has a basis in a communal action – and a shared meal is their human expression of united corporate action.
  • But, most importantly, the objections do not take account of the role of shared meals in our foundational memory: the meals of Jesus, and as such the eucharistic meal is the meal of memories.

That remembered meal

For all who read the gospels, the words of Jesus at the final meal have special significance in one way or another.

Having taken a loaf – itself a wonderful example of scattered grains being gathering into a unity that is greater through its transformation by milling and kneading and cooking into bread than simply a heap of wheat – he shared it among them.

Then having asked them to share a single cup – an action so culturally exceptional that it most probably copies the actual meal practice of Jesus when he blessed God addressing him as ‘Father’ – he commanded those at table that they should continue this meal practice in his memory: ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ (Lk 22:19).

For Luke, writing around the end of the first century, and after several generations of Christian practice, having the Christian meal together was linked with the desires of the Anointed One and was an act of remembering him and making him present within the community at the table.

At least a generation earlier, writing in the early 50s, Paul also had linked the Christian meal with the desire of Jesus that this gathering should be the communities’ way of remembering him.

‘… on the night of his betrayal he took a loaf, and when he had given thanks, he broke it, and said, “This is my body which is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” In the same way, also the cup, 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 Cor 11:24-5).

The horrible irony is that while Paul saw this meal as the place where Christians would learn the importance of being united and of working together (1 Cor 10:17: ‘Because there is one loaf, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf’), it is for most Christians today a litmus text of disunity and a source of painful memories.

At this point, it is worth noting two key aspects of our humanity and its relationship with memory.

First, we are constituted as humans with a society and culture by having memory, stories in languages, common history, and the ability to remember shared dreams.

Destroy our memory and our humanity/identity is destroyed: memories are, therefore, precious.

Second, while memories unite us and can empower us towards new goals, they can also destroy us, rekindle old bitterness, and set us at odds with one another.

When two groups find themselves in bitter strife, one can be fairly sure that they have embattled memories of past disputes: memories are, therefore, powerful.

Disputes

We see these twin aspects of memory, precious yet powerful, in the ways groups of Christians dispute with one another about the Lord’s meal.

For some it is a central sacred act of Christian living around which an entire life of prayer revolves, for others it is an occasional ritual akin to dramatized sermon; and there are groups that take every position between these poles.

For most it is so overlaid with the memories of disputes from the Reformation about what it ‘means,’ what it ‘is,’ what is ‘does,’ that it can often be the point at which otherwise friendly ecumenical relations descend in factiousness and obscure theological jargon that few – even in the churches that are proud of that jargon – are now property trained to use.

Put simply, an action, that of thanking the Father, an action to be done – ‘Do this,’ and the meal at which it was all supposed to occur, have become invisible under a web of memories that come from factious theology rather than by trying to recover the original precious memory.

If we want to try to penetrate that web of secondary encrusted memories, then a starting point is to look at the whole meal practice of Jesus – not just the event of the ‘Last Supper’ – in just one of our narratives so as to see how one strand – I am going to use just Luke – of that memory was preserved.

Jesus as ‘a party animal’

The sheer number of times we see Jesus in eating situations in the gospels should be enough to make clear to us that Jesus was, in the words of J.P. Meier, ‘a party animal.’

Around the table there was the conversation about the new Israel and the anticipation of the never-ending feast, there was the Father’s goodness acknowledged, there was where he blessed and thanked, and there was to be found the image of the new type of community Jesus wanted.

Some theologians talk about the Eucharist making the Church in the high-language register of theology, but we can see the new community imaged and set out as a fact around the tables at which Jesus sat and talked and ate.

Here we need to recall another aspect of our humanity: we are the only animals who do not eat our food raw, and so eating is normally a social and community activity.

Feasting together is part of being human; and every meal has its own in-built ‘grammar’ (a fact recognized explicitly in Lk 14:10) which show us how to behave and what being at table together means.

This grammar has three main elements.

First, a meal together says much about the work and life we have together now. The meal only comes into existence because we have worked with farmers, butchers, bakers, shop keepers, the people who cook, and the people who wash up.

Every meal has a unity and community dimension when we look at its origins: just look at the next plate of food you see, and you glimpse our global society in both its glory (people able to talk and trade together) and its shame (food miles, exploitation farming).

Second, every meal touches identity: who you share food with defines the group to which you belong.

Jesus was criticized for the company he kept at table, and today we might be offended about not being asked to a meal or might be unwilling to share a meal with others lest it be thought of as endorsing them.

Third, a meal together is the paradigm of a party: it represents our hopes and longings.

Joy and peace and well-being seem to come together in the notion of banquet; and can you imagine any happy gathering that would not come eating together?

Luke – a story of meals

Let us look at the sequence of meals in Luke. Jesus dined with his disciples at Simon’s house in Capernaum; his presence brought healing to Simon’s mother-in-law (4:38-9).

Clearly, the group around Jesus took sharing meals with him for granted: the table seems to have been his classroom in discipleship.

However, dining with the tax collector Levi when he called him to be a follower was an expression that the new kingdom would break the boundaries of existing societies (5:27-32).

Part of our memory is that Jesus was prepared to keep dangerous company, and make a place for that person at his table.

Jesus remained seated at table with Levi despite murmurs that he ate and drank with tax collectors and sinners.

Staying there at table is a crucial insight into the identity of Jesus.

That the kingdom of Jesus was the arrival of the great feast – the beginning of the never-ending banquet of the all-generous Father – rather than arrival of divine punishment for sinners can also be seen in a meal (5:33-39).

Jesus ate and drank with his disciples even when it scandalized the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist who fasted often and offered frequent prayers.

The coming of the Son of Man is not the horror of divine retribution, but begins with him eating and drinking, and inviting every, even the sinners to the table (7:24-35).

One shudders to think how poorly we have remembered these meals in the eucharistic meals in churches and chapels down the centuries.

The theme of Jesus’ shocking welcome continued when he accepted a Pharisee’s hospitality and ate at his table.

Then a woman from the city, the sinner, anointed his feet and wept – breaking even more boundaries – while Jesus; sitting there amidst followers, forgave her sins (7:36-41).

The meal of memories must not only be a place of open welcome, it must be a place of forgiveness and reconciliation.

But Jesus not only ate at a table in a house, he ate with the multitude in the wilderness.

This eating showed his followers his miraculous abundance: he satisfied all with five loaves and two fish (9:10-17).

When we remember the meals of the Christ, there must be care for all the hungry. We cannot enjoy our meals or be true to our Christian meal-memories and be complacent about the poor.

We next find Jesus sitting at table in Martha’s house while her sister Mary listened to his words; once again, the teacher doing his teaching to those who sit with him – and the very act of sitting together shows the kernel of his news about a loving welcoming Father (10:38-42).

But all this teaching about table fellowship is dangerous: he dined with another Pharisee who was shocked he did not first wash – the meal and not the law was the important thing.

In the kafuffle Jesus taught us there that what disqualifies us from the table of the Lord is the neglect of justice and the love of God (11:37-12:1).

And he seems to have gone out of his way to share his table with those who might disapprove of him: he dined one Sabbath with a ruler who was a Pharisee; then healed a man with dropsy at that meal and told us: ‘Blessed is the one who shall eat bread in the Kingdom of God’ (14:1-24).

When the good news came to Zacchaeus it came in the form of Jesus inviting himself to dinner at the man’s house: it was remembered in Luke’s preaching as a dinner that changed Zacchaeus’ life, and brought salvation to his whole household (19:1-10).

Only when we know the story of all this eating and drinking, showing disciples, friends and even enemies, the new banquet paradigm of God’s love can we start remembering when he sat at table for the Passover meal, and his command to those at table to gather at a meal of a loaf and a cup in your memory (22:15-20).

From the perspective of all these meals we can understand why Luke expects his hearers to understand that the disciples recognized Jesus in the breaking of the loaf at the table in Emmaus (24:13-53); and to understand that people could come from North, South, East, and West to sit at table in the Kingdom of God (13:29).

The ecumenical challenge

One of the great challenges facing virtually every Christian group today is to rediscover the meal of memories.

It is easy to change ritual details or verbal formulae (even if such changes provoke outrage from those who think that ‘tradition’ equates with living in a museum; remind them of what Picasso’s saying: ‘Tradition is having a baby, not wearing your grandfather’s hat!’), but what we need to do is to re-establish the actual meal, share a loaf of bread, share a cup of wine, rejoice in the Lord’s goodness, welcome, forgiveness, and recall all the memories of the Lord’s meals.

The Eucharist is a precious memory not only of the past but of the future.

But before that memory can be fully activated it must become a real meal of disciples, and not simply a ritual game to which an abstract lump of doctrine is hooked on. Then our doing and our remembering may bring up into the presence the forgiveness and welcome of the Lord.

  • Thomas O’Loughlin is a presbyter of the Catholic Diocese of Arundel and Brighton and professor-emeritus of historical theology at the University of Nottingham (UK). His latest book is Eating Together, Becoming One: Taking Up Pope Francis’s Call to Theologians (Liturgical Press, 2019).
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