There’s been quite a discussion online and in print lately about the practice of Open Communion (or “communing the un-baptized”). In my study this week preparing to preach tomorrow, I came across this research into what meals, and specifically participation in the Lord’s Meal means in terms of an anthropological study of time of the early Church:
“Gillian Feeley-Harnik (1981) offered a more anthropological interpretation of Jewish and Christian meals, as she drew upon formal cultural studies of diet, commensality, and cultural values. Dealing first with Jewish sectarianism in the Greco-Roman period, she indicates that commensality or its absence should be interpreted in terms of group membership. ‘Likes eat with likes.’ Hence the meals of Judeans indicate either their distinctive group affiliation, if eaten with other Judeans, or their separation, if commensality was refused. Food, moreover, functioned as a metaphor for the word of God. Hence concern for doctrinal and ethnic purity are replicated in the dietary and commensality practices of the Judeans. Her basic thesis can be succinctly summarized:
[F]ood, articulated in terms of who eats what with whom under which circumstances, had long been one of the most important languages in which Jews conceived and conducted social relations among human beings and between human beings and God. Food was a way of talking about the law and lawlessness (1981:72).
She then states her hypotheses about the symbolic nature of food and eating in the Hebrew scriptures:
1. The power of the Lord is manifested in his ability to control food: to feed is to bless, to confer life; to feed bad food or to starve is to judge or punish, to confer death.
2. Acceptance of the power and authority of the Lord is symbolized by acceptance of his food.
3. Rejection of the power and authority of the Lord is symbolized by seeking after food he has forbidden.
4. People ‘limit’ or ‘tempt’ the Lord–that is, question the extent of his power or authority–by questioning his ability to feed them.
5. The Lord’s word is equated with food.
6. Eating joins people with the Lord or separates them (1981:72).
After this, she studies the Christian custom of eating Christ’s body and blood. Examining how Jesus’ last supper differed from the passover meal, she offers the summary conclusion:
The eucharist . . . is a symbolic representation of salvation in food patterned exactly after the passover. The difference is that in this case, as in Jesus’ interpretation of the heavenly marriage feast and other traditional statements about politico-religious and social relations, the significance of the meal–the food, the host, the guests, the circumstances–is absolutely reversed. Temple and sacrifice, family, priesthood, and nation are radically redefined (1981:130).
Put more simply, ‘in contrast to the passover that brings the family together, Jesus’ sacrifice breaks it apart to create new bonds’ (1981:144).
For a reader looking for an succinct entrance into the ‘language of food,’ Feeley-Harnik’s fourth chapter will serve as a most useful tool (‘Food Symbolism in the Judaic Tradition,’ 71-106). The approach is that of cultural anthropology, which aims to offer a model which can be applied to a cross-cultural analysis of meals in various geographical regions and at different times. The chapter is deftly organized around the key question of ‘who eats what with whom under which circumstances,’ which links food consumption with group identity and values.
Highly recommended is a brief study of meals and their social dynamics in Luke by the Norwegian scholar, Halvor Moxnes (1987:158-67). While focussing on Luke’s gospel, Moxnes reads the document through the lens of a multi-dimensional model of meals drawn from cultural anthropology. The delight of this piece lies in its easy, but solid presentation of a series of critical perspectives on meals. They function as boundary markers between groups (i.e., Jesus and the Pharisees), as starting mechanisms for new groups (i.e., Jesus’ feedings), as indicators of hierarchy and internal social stratification (i.e., seating), and as occasions for reciprocity. When applicable, Moxnes contrasts the tradition social expectations encoded in meals with the strategy of Jesus and the new portrait of God developed by Luke. Because of its brevity, depth and application to a text, Moxnes’ article is an excellent place to start a critical study of meals.”