I love food! Being an Italian it’s no wonder. I grew up in an Italian household in which my mother made the most amazing Italian meals and my father made salami, prosciutto, sausage, cured cheeses and, of course, lots of wine! Unlike many of my Canadian friends who brought to school in their lunches ham and cheese (if they were lucky!) and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches (which was more often), I brought three homemade salami, prosciutto, cheese, tomato, lettuce filled sandwiches for lunch every day. At first, I was embarrassed by the strong garlic smell that permeated the whole classroom as soon as I opened my lunch. My classmates sniggered as they looked at me. But I was to have the last laugh. One day a friend asked if I would trade one of my sandwiches for his. It wasn’t long before everyone wanted to trade their food for mine. I quickly realized my food was special.
Food is special, not just because I say so, but also because, as the German materialistic philosopher Feuerback once said, ‘Man is what he eats.’ Feuerback didn’t know but he was expressing the most religious idea of man. For long before Feuerback, we humans are presented in the creation story of the bible as hungry beings and the whole world is our food. In the first chapter of Genesis it says, ‘Behold I have given you every herb bearing seed … and every tree, which is the fruit of the tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat … .’ We must eat in order to live. We are what we eat and the whole world is present to us as our banquet table. This image of the banquet table continues to pop up throughout the Bible and is also the image of life at the end times: ‘ … one day you will eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom.’
Why am I addressing the theme of food? Is it just because I love food? Well yes, but also no. It helps us address two very important question: Who are we as Christians? And, of what life are we expected to preach, proclaim and share with the rest of the world? In other words, what is this life that God gives us and to what end?
Let me begin with giving two typical, but misguided directions we most often take in our Christian life. The first one is a religious life. This religious life that we live both inside and outside the Church thanks to today’s popular ‘spiritualities’ of inward mysticism that we, for instance find when doing yoga and walking in the woods, are of some benefit. They allow us to enter into the inner sanctuaries of our souls where we can leave behind the noise, the rush and frustrations of life. It helps us restore some peace of mind, endure our external secular lives with its tribulations, and help us ‘keep smiling’ as the culture tells us to. There exists a variety of emphasis and theologies in this inward approach to a spiritual being. But the result is the same: religious life makes the secular life of eating and drinking irrelevant, void of spiritual meaning, and thus, deprives it of any real meaning. I’ll say more about this later.
The second is the activist lifeor what’s called the ‘Social Gospel’ approach to the world. Christians of this approach believe we are constantly called to repent for having spent too much time in contemplation and adoration, in silence and liturgy, for having not dealt sufficiently with the social, political, economic, racial and other issues of real life. To some degree, they have a point. Yet in this approach the eating and drinking individual is taken very seriously, maybe too seriously. Contrary to what we do on the inside, Christianity needs to be all about what we do on the outside.
And yet the basic question remains unanswered in both approaches: What is the ultimate end of all this doing and action? What is the ultimate end of this spiritual inward turn? Suppose we have reached the goal of our Social Gospel project. To what end do we eat, drink, fight for freedom, justice and fullness of life? And, what is it? What is the life of life itself? By itself action has no meaning. When all the committees have fulfilled their tasks, all the lunches have been delivered, money has been raised and goals achieved there must come a joy. But about what? Whether we inwardly ‘spiritualize’ our lives or ‘secularize’ our religion outwardly with good deeds the real life of the world, for which the bible tells us God gave his only begotten Son, remains hopelessly beyond our religious grasp.
It continues to remain beyond our grasp because eating and drinking has just a material function in our lives. For religious people there is a fundamental opposition of the spiritual to the material – ‘sacred’ versus ‘profane, ‘ supernatural’ versus ‘natural’ etc. But nowhere in the bible do we find these dichotomies. In the bible the food we eat, the world of which we must partake in order to live, is given to us by God, and it is given to us so we can have communion with God. The world as our food is not something ‘material’ and limited to material functions, thus different from, and opposed to, the specifically ‘spiritual’ functions by which we are related to God. All that exists is God’s gift to us, and it all exists to make God known to us, to make our lives one that is in communion with God. God blesses everything that He creates and so, all of creation is a sign and means of his presence, wisdom, love and revelation: ‘O taste and see that the Lord is good.’
I’ve defined us as hungry beings, But we don’t just hunger for food. We ultimately, if we are to be truly human, hunger for God. But we are not the only hungry being. The whole of creation depends on food of one sort or another. That food might be light, nutrients, water, plant life, or other creatures. But we are in a unique position in this world because only we blessGod for the food and the life, we receive from Him. In the Garden of Eden Adam was tasked with naming the animals by God. In the Bible, a name is given to manifest the meaning and value God gave to whatever is named and thus, to show it as coming from God, its place and function within the cosmos created by God.
To name a thing, in other words, is to bless God for it and in it. In the bible to bless God is not a ‘religious’ or ‘cultic’ act, but the very way of life. When God blessed the world, man, the 7thday, He filled all that exists with His love and goodness, made all this ‘very good’. And so, the only naturalreaction is for us to bless God in return, to thank Him, to see the world as God sees it – in this act of gratitude and adoration – to know, name and possess the world. In receiving and returning a blessing from and to God, we are all by nature priests. We stand in the center of the world called to unify it in our receiving the blessing of this world from God and offering back to God as a blessing. In other worlds, we as God’s priests stand at the center of this cosmic communion or ‘eucharist’, receiving God’s blessings and blessing God for all that’s He’s given to us.
People understand this instinctively if not rationally. That’s why for my Italian family eating is not a strictly utilitarian exercise. Food is treated with reverence beginning with how a meal is made fresh ingredients to the first taste of a fine pasta dish, fresh bread along with some good wine that culminates with a piece of well-aged cheese. To eat is more than just maintaining bodily functions. People may not understand what the ‘something more’ is, but they nevertheless desire to celebrate it. They are hungry and thirst for sacramental life in which we’re in communion with God.
But as the story of Fall in Genesis teaches us, we’ve set our hunger and thirst on the wrong sort of food. The fruit of that one tree was not offered as a gift to man. It represents a world in love with itself instead of God. Not given and blessed by God, it was a food whose eating was condemned to having communion only with oneself, and not with God. We love the world, but as an end in itself and not as a means to loving God as was intended. We do not see the world as opaque and shot through with God’s presence. Therefore, we do not live a life of thanksgiving for God’s gift of the world. We’ve turned away from being eucharistic, acting as God’s priests, and thus, in communion with God.
The world is fallen because it has fallen away from the awareness that God is all in all. Even the religion of this world that’s infiltrated Christianity contributes to the fallenness of this world by accepting the reduction of God to an area called ‘sacred,’ ‘spiritual,’ or ‘supernatural’ as opposed to the world as profane. In the name of religion, many of us have accepted secularism that teaches God is not all in all. Consequently, we forget that we are God’s priests, called to offer everything in the world to God and in this offering receive the gift of life. Instead, we direct our hunger and thirst towards what this world offers for its own sake. We’ve forgotten or rejected that the food this world offers by itself cannot bring us true life, but when it is received and accepted for God’s sake.
When we turn away from seeing the world as the ‘sacrament’ of God’s presence and instead, as an end in itself things destroy themselves because they only have life in God. That’s why the world of nature, cut off from its source of life, God, is a decaying and dying world. We destroy the environment because we no longer see ourselves as God’s stewards over His good creature, but masters of the world. And, we destroy each other because we don’t see each other as God’s good creation so that we see each other as a gift from God. That’s what the bible means when it says, ‘the wages of sin are death’. Ceasing to be a priest and living a eucharistic life, we’ve lost the life of life itself, the power to transform it into Life. We’ve ceased to be priests of the world and become, instead, its slave.
It’s commonly assumed that ‘original sin’ was about disobeying God. But that is not primarily what and continues to happen. It’s better to say that sin is us ceasing to be hungry for God and for Him alone and therefore, ceasing to see our whole life as depending on the whole world as a sacrament of holy communion with God. We seek the things of this world for themselves as opposed to loving, enjoying and eating them for God’s sake and in a spirit of thanksgiving. The Fall is not that we prefer the world to God, distort the balance between the spiritual and material, but that we make the world material, whereas we are to transform it into ‘life in God,’ filling it with meaning and spirit.
But God did not leave us in exile, in place where our hunger is never fulfilled with the right food. To complete what God had undertaken from the beginning, He sent His Son so that we might realize who we really are and where our hunger can rest and be fulfilled. Leading up to the incarnation of God’s Son, God had promised and spoken of his coming through the prophets of Israel. In the religions of the world there are foretastes of the incarnate Son of God. In a way, anyone seeking truth, even though he may be running away from Christ,as Simone Weil says, if it is towards what he considers the truth, he runs in fact straight into the arms of Christ.Therefore, much that is true about God can be found in the long history of religion.
Christianity, however, is in a profound sense is different from all religions because it is the end of all religion. In the Gospel story about the Samaritan woman at the well, after she said to Jesus that Jerusalem is the place where one ought to worship God, Jesus squashed all religious and cultic ideas when He said in response, Woman, believe me, the hour cometh, when ye shall neither in this mountain, nor yet in at Jerusalem, worship the Father …. But the hour cometh, and now is, when the true worshippers shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth; for the Father seeketh such to worship Him (Jn. 4.19f.). Religion is needed when there is a wall between God and us. But Christ, who is both God and man has broken down that wall and therefore, He has inaugurated a new life, not a new religion.
It was because of this freedom of the early church from ‘religion’ in the usual traditional sense of the world that pagans accused Christians of atheism. Christians had no concern for sacred geography, temples, and pilgrimages. There was no need of temples built of stone because Christ’s Body, the Church, are the people themselves gathered in His name. What makes the Church the Body of Christ is not a building or an institution, but that the risen and crucified Christ comes and is present to and when people gather in His name to be blessed by God. In return, at the Eucharist we return our blessing and give thanks to God with our lives as the Eucharistic prayer says, as a living sacrifice.
So, what does all this have to do with the Church’s mission? Everything of course. Wrongly Christians think mission is connected to the reading and proclamation of God’s Word in Scripture and not the sacrament of Holy Communion. Furthermore, we think the sacrament is an act of the Church and within the Church, but not the Church itself being the sacrament of Christ’s presence and action. And, because we, the Body of Christ, are the sacrament of Christ’s presence and activity in and for the world, we can’t be the Church unless we reach out and invite others to bless God with us. There is no part of the world that is profane and not a result of God’s blessing. Christ is present in and to all of His creation because it is His creation. Therefore, it’s our responsibility as the Church to point this out to the world and invite it to participate in the goodness of God’s blessings.