Eating together, becoming one
The title for this week’s words is taken from a recently published book by Professor Tom O’Loughlin. Tom currently holds the chair of Historical Theology in the University of Nottingham and has recently retired as president of the Catholic Theological Association. He has published numerous books and this one, his latest work, addresses the complex issue of intercommunion amongst Christian churches.
This is his response to the injunction of Pope Francis, made in November 2015, when he visited the Lutheran Community in Rome, for theologians to consider this issue when he asked this question: “I wonder; is the sharing of the Lord’s Supper the end of a journey or the viaticum to journey together? I leave the question to the theologians, to those who understand”.
O’Loughlin’s book is a challenge to read, for it addresses an issue that so many experience as a source of pain particularly within the context of marriage.
Meal times are a central feature of our social lives where we come together to share a table of food and to enjoy the talk of friends and family. The transitional times such as baptisms, birthdays, weddings and funerals are always associated with a celebration meal, when a variety of people, whose common interest is the occasion, meet and share food together.
Sharing a meal may be a first introduction to a new group, or it maybe the celebration of meeting old friends after many years of absence. Either way the important feature of the gathering is the sharing of food. It is not just a matter of eating and drinking, but of eating and drinking together. It is a gathering place for the exchange of stories, a caring place for the mythology of group.
There are many occasions in the Gospel narratives where the story is centred on the meal, the first being the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee on through to the Paschal meal in Jerusalem to the post-Resurrection stories of Jesus meeting with the disciples.
We should remember how important ‘recognition’ is when they greet the Risen Lord. The Emmaus story has its culmination in the disciples recognising the Lord through his actions at their supper table. Those who had been fishing on the lake, beaching their boats early in the morning, recognised their Master as he prepared a fire to cook their breakfast.
So too in our Eucharist, we recognise the presence of Christ at the table we set and gather round that table to share with each other.
It is ironic that the very centre of nourishment within the Christian family has become the point of division between us, a matter of confusion rather than an occasion of joy and close companionship. A table of food, to which all are invited to share, to make ‘community’, for however brief a time, is a special place. To say to someone in the room ‘I am sorry but this is for us, not for you’ is hurtful and selfish, just as refusal to take part when invited is a rejection of a gift.
We face this problem, not just between communities that we call ‘Church’ but within the Latin tradition of the West. We have defined rules regarding who can and who can’t share at the table of the Lord and to the pain of individuals and their families, have imposed exclusion.
Meals are not only inherent to cohesion in our secular society, they are central to our specific religious inheritance. O’Loughlin’s reference to the ‘Didache‘, possibly the earliest text we possess describing Christian custom, emphasises that.
We have all experienced the joy of a family meal round a table that we share day by day. We have celebrated with friends on special occasions, have joined others at the curry house on a Saturday night. Each sharing has had its own tone and texture, each valued in its own way.
Yet too often we look for differences, we set up restrictive practices and discord takes the place of harmony. The advice from the priest over who may receive at weddings and funerals is but one telling example.
In the end maybe we should examine the nature of our Sunday Eucharist, which Tom examines in greater depth in his earlier book ‘Eucharist‘ about our relationships with each other, between priest and people and the experience we have of community round the table of the Lord, his gift to us and our gift to him whom we owe our sustenance. The community that gathers is Church. It is an acknowledgement before others of who we are and a personal commitment of who we are before God.
This new book is a significant response to Pope Francis’ request to theologians to ask questions. It is well worth reading.