The April-May 2017 issue of Liturgy focuses on Liturgy and Food Culture, guest-edited by Jennifer Ayres. Benjamin Stewart writes about the relationship between the funeral liturgy and the liturgy of the funeral meal, recounting scriptural references to food imagery in its connection with death and life and urging our churches to encourage meals as vital to the funeral remembrance.
Christian funerals in North America have long been associated with food. A number of practices have been relatively widespread: food carried to the bereaved by fellow members of a congregation; the funeral communion rite; a post-funeral meal; and food traditions at the grave, including food offerings for the dead and yearly meal-sharing among the living. While its symbolism is complex and multivalent, food has proclaimed the power of life in the face of death, including through the sharing of food across the boundary of death.
Today, however, many of the food practices associated with Christian funerals are disappearing in dominant North American cultures. What is lost as these food practices wane? Especially given the trends toward delayed memorial services, declining communal participation in returning the dead to the earth, and replacing bodies with images on screens as the chief representation of the deceased, does the disappearance of long-standing food practices at death contribute to a larger trend in which communal, ritual engagement with embodied, earthly, mortality is receding, replaced by the ethereal and the virtual? . . .
Prof. Stewart links food with faith in many ways throughout his essay beginning with the references in scripture to food as a metaphor.
Food may help us in the face of death to taste and see the goodness of God, and to know it as the land of the living. . . .
In the Gospel of John, Jesus describes his death as a single food grain dying in the earth to bear much more food. . . John represents Jesus’ death as that of a lamb slaughtered for the Passover meal: the first sighting of the earthly Jesus is announced by John the Baptist, “Behold the lamb of God.”
Jesus’ death in John occurs at the time of the slaughter of the lambs, and a branch of hyssop—used to sprinkle the blood of sacrificial lambs—is used to offer Jesus a drink of wine as he dies.
Paul reminded the community at Corinth that their eating and drinking is ongoing engagement with death: “As often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes.” Paul suggests that trying to separate the Christian meal from the suffering and death of the body leads not to suffering-free life but rather, in a mystical reversal, to illness and death.
The understanding of Christians as themselves “body of Christ” extended to striking images of food offerings in some accounts of martyrdom. Ignatius of Antioch described himself as “God’s wheat … ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread of Christ.” Polycarp, burned to death in a martyrdom remembered in Eucharistic terms, was said in his death to have the golden appearance of baking bread.
With the study of ancient Christian catacomb art. . . it was commonly taught that Christians pragmatically used the catacombs as a hiding place to carry out secret Eucharistic gatherings during persecutions. . . . While, as we will see below, the practice sometimes drew stern rebukes from church authorities, eating food among the tombs seems to have left lasting influences on Christian practice.
Further remarks about this important window into Christian witness will be offered on March 24. Check back!
Benjamin M. Stewart is the Gordon A. Braatz associate professor of worship and director of advanced studies at the Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago.