“The Sacred Meal” not so filling

27 01 2010

“The Sacred Meal,” written by Nora Gallagher, is part of “The Ancient Practices Series” – a collection of books meant to explore some long-held Christian disciplines that perhaps have been lost over the centuries, if not in practice, at least in meaning. Ms. Gallagher tackles the subject of Communion, one of the two most widely observed ordinances in the Christian church universal. As a worship pastor, I was excited to read “The Sacred Meal,” hoping for some new (old) insights and practices from the church fathers or church history that would put the breath of life back into that holy and mysterious practice that – to be frank – is simply ritual for too many of us. Apparently, my expectations for the book were misguided.

I was treated to a number of Ms. Gallagher’s personal experiences and stories related to taking or administering communion in different places, times, and forms. Each story led to discourse about something that we’ve lost in the practice of Communion through our history, but I felt like each chapter and story led to the SAME thing we’ve lost – a sense of community around the table of the Lord. While I agree that the church is rife with divisions of denominationalism and doctrine and traditions of men and the prejudices of our depravity, I don’t think that the only issue at stake is our lack of unity. I don’t believe that the practice of “Communion” is primarily about being together or simply sharing an experience together as such. Yes, I agree that’s a big part of it; but, while Communion is meant to be done in community (and probably not in any other way), it is the community together focused on something ELSE other than the community. It is a time to share and reflect on the atoning work of Christ that has made our particular kind of community possible. Jesus didn’t get the disciples together simply to enjoy each other’s company over a meal. He met with them for the Passover meal that he interpreted for them in real time. No longer is this bread and wine simply symbolic of God’s ancient deliverance of Israel from Egypt, but they are present symbols of God’s deliverance through the work of Christ, which they would see played out over the next few days and which we have come to hold as the object of our Christian faith.  “This is my body…this is my blood…do it to remember me,” were the words of Jesus. Paul recognizes the church’s experience in the observance of that sacred meal is “to show forth the Lord’s death until he comes.”

Community is the arena in which we partake of our sacred meal and true Christian community becomes the expression of what we have remembered in our sacred meal, but the meal is refocusing on the One who formed this community and not on the ones who comprise this community. Ms. Gallagher’s book seems to point only toward a raw existentialism and blind ecumenicalism for Communion (even seemingly inclusive in some way of non-Christian faiths such as Islam). While I appreciate and echo her passion for a Christian church which as Jesus stated is known by its love for each other (and the world) and which as Paul wrote actually looks like the workmanship of God created in Christ Jesus and carrying out the good works prepared for it in the eternal mind of God, I believe we can only find that in the BASIS of what Communion is and the REASON our community even exists – not in the existential moment of being together, but in remembering together what that moment means. Then we can live it out together to the world around us.

All in all, Ms. Gallgher has many things to say that are good, sound, and inspirational. But it’s a bit like a nice meal at an expensive restaurant where the portions are not quite as large as you might like them to be. Tasty, enjoyable, but ultimately unsatisfying simply for lack of content. Her anecdotes make for good reading, but they would have been even more effective wrapped around a treatment of Communion that also considered the emphasis of the Biblical text to help us develop a deeper understanding of her personal experiences.

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