First we eat

Discussing the Divine Comedy with Dante 2006

Dai Dudu, Li Tiezi, and Zhang An, “Discussing the Divine Comedy with Dante” (2006)

A sermon for Corpus Christi Sunday, June 7, 2015.  The lectionary readings are Deuteronomy 8:2-3, Psalm 116:10-17, Revelation 19:1-2a, 4-9, and John 6:47-59.

The other day I sat down in a restaurant and at the top of the menu was a quotation by one of my favorite writers, MFK Fisher. It said, “First we eat, then we do everything else.” Margaret Francis Kennedy Fisher, was a great American food writer who died in 1992. Her early books in the late 30’s and 40’s helped people make the most out of skimpy pantries and war rations. She taught how to make a feast out of simple things.

“First we eat, then we do everything else.” I resonate with her words when I think of the many family gatherings, dinners with friends or parishioners, and fundraising banquets. Even whenI forget the squabble that broke out at the table, the topic of the conversation, or the famous speaker– I can still remember many of the foods from those occasions.

Those words about the priority of eating, the importance of food, are appropriate today as we the Church reflects on Corpus Christi, the Body and Blood of Christ, the Sacrament of Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Mass, or the Holy Eucharist.

In a longer passage, Fisher says more:

Food for the soul is a part of all religion, as . . . savages know when they roast a tiger’s heart for their god, as Christians know when they partake of the Body and Blood at the mystical feast of Holy Communion. That is why there can be an equal significance in a sumptuous banquet for five thousand heroes, with the king sitting on his iron throne and minstrels singing above the sound of gnawed bones and clinking cups, or in a piece of dry bread eaten alone by a man lifting his eyes unto the hills. [Here Let us Feast: A Book of Banquets (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1986) xiv, reprinted from 1946 Viking Press.]

Fisher is pointing out that every meal, no matter what, when or how—has some trace, some slight flavor, some hint of the Holy within it. She suggests that there can be “equal significance” in all meals and from a food writer’s point of view that may be so.

But from a Christian perspective, something else entirely happens in the Holy Eucharist. The Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ shared in Communion is of a different order. At first, made of ordinary bread and wine, with the Holy Spirit, it is a meal that becomes “super-sized” beyond all imagination.

In the back of our Prayer Book is the Catechism, often helpful for reminding us of some of the basics of Christian faith through an Anglican lens. In the section on the Holy Eucharist, there’s a wonderful part that talks about the benefits of what we do, the benefits of partaking of the Body and Blood of our Lord Jesus Christ.

It says simply, “The benefits we receive are the forgiveness of our sins, the strengthening of our unions with Christ and one another, and the foretaste of the heavenly banquet which is our nourishment in eternal life.”

When we partake of the Body and Blood of Christ, we are forgiven. We are forgiven again. Our sins are washed away at Baptism, but the ongoing accumulation of sin in our life meets its match in Holy Communion. Ignatius of Antioch called it the “medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, … that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ.” Medicine can taste bitter, sometimes, especially if our tastes are accustomed to other things. But the Holy Eucharist helps us. Like good medicine, it increases our resistance level. Like vitamins, it strengthens us.

The second benefit according to the Catechism has to do with strengthening our union with Christ and with one another. In a world that often suggests we live only for ourselves, that we protect at all costs what we think is ours; the unifying work of the Blessed Sacrament is counter-cultural. But it is live-giving.

In Communion we are reminded that we need each other. The common cup and common bread underscore that we are not so different from one another, after all. Barriers of race and class and education, differences of national origin, or sexual orientation or marital status or income are all dissolved in the common chalice.

They are diluted by the cleansing water of the Holy Spirit. And the blood of Christ, which is to say the blood of God our Creator, restores us into once again being fully human even as it fills us with what is fully divine.

Finally, the Body and Blood of Christ, this holy Sacrament, gives us a foretaste of the heavenly banquet. Mindful of the present, grateful for the reality of here-and-now, we are made aware in the Eucharist that we are also living toward a great feast that has no ending. Today’s reading from the Revelation to John is filled with images of this feast of praise and joy and love. We live into the salvation and power and glory of God. The voices of the faithful from all times and all places blend together in a holy noise that sounds like water rapids, like the clapping for joy of great waves, like a thunderstorm of laughter. This vision of heaven reminds us of our destination.

And so we celebrate this mystery, we step into it, we are drawn into it by God.

Dom Gregory Dix was an Anglican Benedictine who wrote an incredibly influential book on the way we think about worship and the sacraments. Near the end of his great work on the Eucharist, Dom Gregory Dix points out that, of all the things Jesus said and taught, most have been ignored. Or, if remembered, his followers (his disciples and us) have usually failed at doing them.

But there was that one command on that one night, the night before his betrayal and arrest and crucifixion, in the meal he celebrated with his friends, when Jesus took, blessed, broke, and shared in eating and drinking, he commands his disciples, “Do this in remembrance of me.” Keep on doing this, he commands. Dom Gregory wonders about this and ask, “Was ever another command so obeyed?”

He goes on to reflect, “For century after century, spreading slowly to every continent and country and among every race on earth, this action has been done, in every conceivable human circumstance, for every conceivable human need from infancy and before it until extreme old age and after it, from the pinnacles of earthly greatness to the refuge of fugitives in the caves and dens of the earth.”

Dix doesn’t suggest “why” we continue to fulfill this command, but I think in part, one reason is because it’s something we can do. As Dix says,

[People] . . . have found no better thing than this to do
for kings at their crowning and for criminals going to the scaffold;
for armies in triumph
or for a bride and bridegroom in a little country church;
for the proclamation of a dogma or for a good crop of wheat; . . .
or for a sick old woman afraid to die;
for a [student] sitting for an examination. . . .
for the famine of whole provinces or for the soul of a dead lover;
in thankfulness because a father did not die of pneumonia;
for a village headman much tempted to return to his fetishes
because the yams had failed; [The Shape of the Liturgy, (London: Dacre Press, 1945) pp. 743, 744.]

… and on and on the list continues.

But we have our own lists, too, don’t we. When we can’t control the economy, when we can’t heal the ones we love, when we can’t do so many things—we can, nonetheless turn our anger, our frustration, our hopes, our deepest desires into prayer. We can enact that prayer, embody it, and turn it into thanksgiving, into Eucharist, as Jesus did with his friends.

“First we eat, then we do everything else.” First we eat, then we’re forgiven. Then we’re brought together again into community, and after eating, we are reoriented toward God’s kingdom, God’s kingdom here and beyond.

And so, let us feast with Him who said, “They who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up at the last day ….They who eat this bread will live for ever.”

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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