Communion at its most abstract barely resembles a meal anymore. In the high church traditions, restrictions are placed on who can touch the food and the words connected to it are in a highly stylized form. What passes for bread may take the form of a compressed wafer to avoid theological pitfalls like crumbs of God being lost. Perhaps the low church extreme is unprogrammed Quakers who see waiting worship as their expression of communion. The fellowship portion of a meal is still evident, at least to some extent, though conversation is considered gauche. The middle includes more recognizable forms of food and greater freedom to participate. Regardless, the connection between a meal or feast and communion seems broken.
From Meal to Symbol
Brethren attempt to more closely replicate the Last Supper from the Gospel of John in a version of communion called the Love Feast. There is eating together and even opportunities for conversation. Unfortunately, the opportunities for conversation are not a uniform expression of the Love Feast. Some expect there to be silent, contemplative eating instead. Of the ritual parts of the Love Feast, only the bread and juice portion truly stands out as overly stylized.
Brethren communion bread more closely resembles pie crust than it resembles tortillas, pitas, or other flat bread than the unleavened bread that it represents. The juice is hardly wine, but that can be forgiven, allowing for the variety of beverages that people consume at meals today. Wine is hardly a uniform part of meals today. What seems more problematic is the tiny glass or plastic flutes. These are clearly not cups that one would drink from on another occasion. They stray about as far as one can from a common cup while still drinking.
Returning to the Beginning
Brethren strive to be like the early Christians. The first Brethren read Gottfried Arnold’s Die Erste Liebe der Gemeinde Jesu Christi, das ist wahre Abbildung der ersten Christen und ihres lebendigen Glaubens und heiligen Lebens (1696) in order to figure out what the early Christians were like. Today, I read the work of John Dominic Crossan among others to understand what Jesus and his followers were like before they even began to call themselves Christians. While Christians over the centuries have tended to look to the Last Supper in the gospel accounts as a model, I would suggest that we turn, at least in part, to other stories of Jesus eating meals in the gospels.
Jesus ate with all sorts of people, breaking with cultural norms to eat with prostitutes, people who collaborated with the Romans and those who were outcast for other reasons. While bread and wine would have formed an important part of most meals in Jesus’ time, what we see at the core of many of his meals was bread and fish. According to Rita Nakashima Brock and Rebecca Ann Parker’s book Saving Paradise, more than the cross, bread and fish dominated early Christian artwork. The feast was key to Jesus and early Christians.
Companionship: United in Eating
In my family of origin, eating meals together at a round(ed) table formed the heart of our family life. We might spend the rest of the day doing other activities, but meals–particularly dinner–eaten together kept us connected. Acts 2 points toward a similar tendency among early Christians. They too were united by eating together. Even in traditions that have communion every week, communion usually only comes once a week. Some Catholics take communion daily, but they are the exception rather than the rule for Christians and, as I mentioned earlier, high church communion of the sort Catholics have is hardly the same as a full meal. The Brethren Love Feast comes closer to a full meal, but falls down on the criterion of frequency. Love Feast for Brethren comes only once or perhaps twice a year. Many churches both high and low limit access to their communion to insiders and fail to live up to Jesus’ example of the open table.
To truly get the full impact of frequent, open commensality we would need to eat complete rather than symbolic meals together and do it at least several times a week if not daily. We would need to invite the outcast and the downtrodden rather than applying doctrinal tests to see who should be allowed. Only then would we begin to see the transformative power inherent in these feasts.
I am not anti-ritual. Meals can certainly still include prayer and reading of scripture. Brethren drawing on the Gospel of John include washing each other’s feet. While such a practice was not likely to have been included all the times that Jesus ate in community, it does teach us important lessons. Feetwashing teaches us to be vulnerable before others and to serve them. It fills us with humility and a sense of the sacredness of each person.
So what of bread and wine? Bread, rice, or noodles still play an important role in many meals. Wine today carries more of a celebratory connotation than it might have in the ancient near east. Celebration is not out-of-place, but care should be taken for alcoholics and those that are drinking to drown their troubles. The precise menu of these meals is not so important as them being such that people do not have to eat before hand or afterward to make up for the meal’s lack.