Because we must eat in order to live, a considerable part of our life is spent at table. Apparently, our first parents, Adam and Eve, were vegetarians (Gen. 1:30) until they took a big bite of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:17). In any case, food customs are deeply embedded in every culture today, and food preferences identify many ethnic groups. In my judgment, no matter who is around the table and no matter what is on the table, a meal is time for pure and simple conviviality — good friends, good food, the Lord be thanked. If I were the Czar, or even the Czardine, I would prohibit the stomach-churning abomination of the working lunch. How can anyone enjoy gustation when he must watch out for kissing cozens of knaves and fools? At meals, the over-learned and the hyper-righteous are also pains in the lower back. I admire the great Nero Wolfe who resolutely forbade business in combination with food.
Food rituals are rich and varied and often confusing. I sympathize with the guest who thought the soup was rather tasteless until he realized that he had consumed the contents of his fingerbowl. Some years ago at an Ethiopian dinner, I was baffled by the absence of silverware, but just to the left of my plate in the napkin position I saw what looked like a large piece of foam rubber. I spread it across my lap only to discover that I had cleverly draped the bread across my knee. Even worse was the custom of the hostess feeding the guests. It has been many years since a woman placed food in my mouth, and I have lost the knack of opening my jaws at the right time. Closing them is no snap either. Naturally, I proceeded to bite the hand that fed me. The last time I tried to eat a ladyfinger, I was into uncontrollable drooling and had no teeth. This condition will, of course, return in time.
At the heart of Christian faith and life is a dominically instituted meal. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9). Our Lord said, “Take, eat” and “Drink of it, all of you.” As a child I was deeply impressed by the solemnity exhibited by our elders folding the cloth covering the communion table. I assumed this action had some profound liturgical significance, and only years later learned that the custom of a cloth over the bread and wine was derived from the days when churches did not have screens on the windows.
Among the books we read early in our seminary career was Ludwig Feuerbach’s savage attack on The Essence of Christianity. However, Christians are in agreement with Feuerbach that man ist was er isst (one is what one eats) because Our Lord said, “Except you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood you have no life in you” (John 6:53).
Hegel was probably right, “Thinking is also worship of God” (Denken ist auch Gottesdienst), but I really don’t want to know how many Presbyterian ministers are able to identify the Zurich Consensus (Consensus Tigurinus) and have some idea of its meaning. Moreover, I would be afraid to inquire how many Presbyterian elders understand the Eucharistic convictions of Reformed theology in contrast to Catholic, Lutheran, and Zwinglian. Surely every Presbyterian minister knows that the supper strife of the reformation era was based on divergent Christologies.
I suppose investing so much youthful devotion onto an entirely practical tablecloth has made me suspicious about the relation between action and significance. For example, the Eucharistic distribution of bread and wine usually involves two clearly separate physical actions, but there is only one theological meaning. In every Presbyterian church I have attended the bread is first distributed and then the wine. Clearly, by my count, two actions. However, in the bread/body and wine/blood we are not being offered two things but one. According to William D. Maxwell, “There should not be two separate actions in the communion of the people in both kinds, and there should be no delay between the deliveries” (Concerning Worship, p. 61). If we suited the proper action to our theological conviction, the elders distributing the wine would follow close upon the elders distributing the bread. The Word made visible is one two-part action with a single two-part meaning: In communion with Jesus Christ Our Lord we become one with Him and He one with us.