In his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul brings us to the heart of Christian worship that Jesus inspired at what we call his Last Supper. His followers were doing what he told them to do: Do this in memory of me. While both the myths and rituals obscured the sacrificial stories on which they were based, the Eucharist clearly tells the story on which it is based: the betrayal of Jesus, his subsequent crucifixion, and his rising from the dead. This earliest account of the Eucharist, predating all of the Gospels, enshrines the Words of Institution that are repeated in celebrations of the Eucharist two thousand years later. The Eucharist teaches us through its story but it also teaches us at a deeper, more substantial level through actually feeding us with the Word of God so tangibly that we chew on it and swallow it. Celebrating the Eucharist places our desires into Jesus’ Desire for us to gather with him and the other Persons of the Trinity.
The meal is probably the oldest of rituals performed by liturgical animals. Eating is the first activity that immerses us into mimetic desire as we imitate the desires of our caregivers to desire food and, by the time we are old enough to be conscious of what we are eating, to desire certain foods because those around us desire them. However, as much as meals have to do with providing necessary bodily nourishment, they are always more than that. An intrinsic part of learning to eat is learning how to eat in the company of others. It may be culturally arbitrary whether we use eating utensils and plates or large leaves and fingers, but in every culture I have ever heard of, there is always a way of eating that is learned. The shared desire for food extends to a shared desire for the way of eating it. By rooting liturgy in a meal, the Eucharist roots worship in the sensuous act of eating; of tasting food and drink on our tongues.
In this same letter, Paul brings up the manner of table manners in regards to the Eucharist. He berates the richer members of the congregation for their insensitive treatment of those who are more economically challenged. To flaunt their superior food in front of those who cannot afford it without offering them anything was a serious violation of everything the Eucharist stands for. This desire shared by one group in the congregation to demonstrate their superiority over others, to put them in their places, breaks the unity the feast is supposed to create and strengthen. Paul makes it clear that there is much more to worship than saying or singing words together while celebrating a sacrifice. If people are not treated well, worship is diminished if not rendered nonexistent.
John’s version of the feeding in the wilderness brings all of these themes together. The event is explicitly brought into the context of Yahweh’s feeding the Jews in the wilderness after their escape from Egypt. Raymond Brown pointed out that rabbinic teaching interpreted the manna as symbolizing the Torah, thus uniting food and teaching, something the Eucharist also does. While Matthew and Mark recount two feedings in the wilderness, one for the Jews and one for the Gentiles, John has one story of feeding for all people. Jesus’ blessing of the bread and fishes has ritual overtones although the feeding is taking place in the open air, away from temples, synagogues and churches. The social unity that Paul enjoins is embodied in John’s vision where it gains a deep universality. Unfortunately, the people then unite in trying to make Jesus king, which destroys the social vision as surely as the Corinthians did.
The Eucharist teaches us that we don’t outgrow our earliest lessons: table manners. Without them, we don’t grow up.