Benjamin Stewart writes about the relationship between the funeral liturgy and the liturgy of the funeral meal in the April-May 2017 issue of Liturgy focused on Liturgy and Food Culture, guest-edited by Jennifer Ayres. Here, Stewart further explores the relationship between eating and the death of Jesus in order to bring to the funeral meal the weight it carries in comforting the bereaved.
Do our scriptural accounts of the Lord’s Supper bear evidence of an early ecclesial conflict around the meaning of food and death? In his work of liturgical-biblical scholarship, Gordon Lathrop suggests that Paul, in a project partly continued in the Gospels, seeks to reorient the Christian meal more directly toward the account of Jesus’ suffering and death for all the suffering mortals. (The Four Gospels on Sunday [Fortress, 2012]).
Paul is clearly determined to strengthen the link between the Christian meal and the death of Jesus. Some of Paul’s correspondents in Corinth seem to have been delighting in the life of the resurrection, especially at the table, without concern for the cross, and in Lathrop’s view, it is this mistake that leads them away from solidarity with the sufferings of the poor—those who share most visibly in the sufferings of the crucified Christ. Thus, in the scriptural meal narratives, especially of Paul, Mark, and Luke, Lathrop sees strong theo-ethical reforming interest in the meals of the church, accomplished especially by tending to the cruciform marks of the meal: “These central meal characteristics—the ones accentuated by the climactic Lukan narratives of the Last Supper and of Emmaus—are being urged by the Gospel exactly so that the meal keeping of the churches may be the meal with the widow, with Levi, and with Zacchaeus, and may thus become the breaking of the bread and distribution to the poor imaged in Acts 2:42–27.
Lathrop argues that the reforming proposals of the Gospels—holding together the death of Christ and the meal, and therefore all of the suffering mortals—are always actively before the church. Among other reforms, Lathrop urges “better preaching conjoined with strong intercessory praying for a suffering world … [and] attend[ing] to what seems to be the counsel of both Mark and Luke, echoing Paul: hold no Eucharist without a collection for the poor and hungry beyond our assembly.”
. . . While it is perilous to assert definitively the experienced meaning of any ritual practice (and the distinction between deathbed communion and bread for the corpse was likely of little significance for some), the church seems to have been wrestling here with two significantly distinct interpretations of bread at the time of death. One set of food practices suggested the transactional payment of a debt that comes due after death, while another set suggested nourishment and comfort for the living in the face of suffering on the journey into death.
. . . Both food and funerals lead us back to the earth. It may be that in this age of ecological emergency we rediscover ancient wisdom in our encounters with food at a time of death: strict human limits along with the fecundity of God coursing through the good earth. Three final images hold together these themes of mortality: earth, God, and food.
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Benjamin M. Stewart is the Gordon A. Braatz associate professor of worship and director of advanced studies at the Lutheran School of Theology, Chicago.
Benjamin M. Stewart, “Food and Funerals: Why Meals Matter for Christian Mortality and How We Might Respond Gustatorily to Changing Death Practices,” Liturgy 32, no. 2 (2017): 52-61.