Friday, April 7, 2017

Eucharist and Ordinary Food: Questions

Liturgy and Food Culture is the theme of the April-June 2017 issue of Liturgy, guest-edited by Jennifer Ayres. 

An essay by Edward Phillips of Candler School of Theology takes on the question of the appropriate foods to be used for holy communion. This selection of his longer essay deals with early church and medieval records on this topic.

Evidence from the early church. . . illustrates a varied range of considerations regarding the foods of the Eucharist in the first three centuries. . . that continue as points of discussion in subsequent church history: 

1.    concern about what foods imply about the church’s relationship to broader cultural meanings of food (such as pagan sacrifice);
2.    growing attention to the concrete practice of Jesus at the Last Supper as an irreducible precedent; and
3.    theological interpretation of the physical qualities of bread and the cup.

If the early church used ordinary, available bread and wine mixed with water, in the Middle Ages we see a gradual development of attention to proper material and preparation. Monks in the business of making bread followed a ritual for selecting the grains of wheat, cleaning the mill stones, wearing of vestments, and ensuring use of the proper psalms during the preparation of hosts. Monks also produced communion wine, though as late as 1076, the Council of Winchester legislated against priests using only water or beer (!) in place of wine––evidence that such practices were known, though probably not widespread. 

The thirteenth-century theologian Thomas Aquinas. . . identifies several issues regarding proper Eucharistic food. . . In Article 1, he raises the problem of food for a country that does not have easy access to bread and wine, asserting: “Although wheat and wine are not produced in every country, yet they can easily be conveyed to every land, that is, as much as is needful for the use of this sacrament.” For Thomas, the historical continuity of the actual food is essential to the validity of the sacrament. Local food practice of a culture per se is irrelevant, but at least he notices the problem of local accessibility of proper elements. . . . 

Phillips discusses several issues addressed by Aquinas in addition to the question of culturally appropriate foods, including concerns about those for whom receiving wine may be harmful, whether the bread must be wheat and/or unleavened, what of spoiled bread, and whether meat would be most appropriate. 

Modern readers may note that some of Thomas’s arguments imply a slippery slope. Just how spoiled can the bread be; how sour the wine? Or how much wheat versus other grain? What constitutes the necessity that would allow the use of grape juice? And we may challenge some of his presumptions. What if there were a place in the mission field where it was actually impossible to take wheat bread and grape wine?. . . .

 At the heart of Thomas’s arguments, however, is his theological conviction that the church does not construct the Eucharist based on what seems right or meaningful as a sort of object lesson. The church need not argue about whether meat, water, or the blood of infants is a more evocative representation of Christ’s body and blood than bread and wine. These are human manipulations of the meaning of the elements, misplaced attempts to make them better symbols. Rather, we receive the sacrament as it is first described in scripture and passed on to us. . . We draw meaning from it as it comes to us. . . .   Compared to the early church, Thomas is less concerned about cultural meanings for food, and more concerned about the continuity of practice. . .
For more in-depth information on eucharistic food considerations, see the entirety of Phillips essay.

Edward Phillips is associate professor of worship and liturgical theology at Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, and most recently co-authored Baptism: Understanding God’s Gift (Discipleship Resources, 2013).

Edward Phillips, “Eucharist and the Meaning of Ordinary Food,” Liturgy 32, no. 2 (2017): 24-33.

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