Reclaiming the Kitchen Table
~ COLLOQUIUM ~
SOUTHWARK CATHEDRAL ~ 9 NOVEMBER 2002
Reclaiming the kitchen table:
the domestic roots of eucharistic transcendence
Now that the Eucharist occupies a central place in the worship of the Church of England, there seems to be a growing trend to see non–eucharistic worship as the primary means of contact, invitation and involvement of those on the fringes of the church or beyond. In this short paper, I am trying to clarify and organise for myself in print some thoughts and feelings about the Eucharist and its unique claim of universality as the form and place of corporate and personal encounter with God in Jesus Christ.
The Eucharist makes the Church
Whether because of, or in spite of, my Calvinist upbringing, I was particularly struck by the assertion the Eucharist makes the Church which the Second Vatican Council eloquently re–enunciated as it reflected on the meaning of the Church and eucharistic living in the second half of the 20th century. The Eucharist, a strange word in itself, and not illuminated much by its synonyms, is, I hazard, not remotely associated in the popular mind with the words, ‘Jesus’ and ‘Church’. I would think that for most people, Christianity is in some way associated primarily with ethical behaviour and ‘church going’. And church going has become in many ways separated from the rest of life. Church going has also rendered the people of God largely passive and almost silent in worship particularly in terms of the language of daily living and the words, food, tradition and common experience that God in Jesus reaches out to touch, to fill and transform. So how can ‘the Eucharist make the Church’ – not only in terms of common worship but also in terms of the sanctification and transcendence of our lives, our families and our homes? This, I believe, is a question that should have a much greater priority in our liturgical life than we have until now given it.
The roots of the Eucharist lie in our homes but our need to meet as an inclusive and wider community requires a setting for larger scale corporate worship. Yes, we need church buildings and our lives would be impoverished without them but we must never forget that the Eucharist does not stand outside our daily lives but claims every meal – including the kitchen table!!
In the Jewish faith, the home is sacred, and prayers, light, food and story are shared naturally and without embarrassment. What happens in the home is neither separate from the praise and teaching of the synagogue nor from the sacrifice of the Temple. It is within this truth, this experience and tradition, that Jesus gives us the Eucharist. The setting of the Last Supper was the Upper Room, and although scholars discuss whether the meal might have been the Passover, the Chaburah fellowship meal or the Kiddush – all were celebrated in the home. In the case of the Passover meal the firstling sacrifice moved out from the home to the Temple (cf Deut 16) and there was a changeover from family celebration to public ceremony. However by New Testament times, the Passover victim was slaughtered in the Temple but the meal could be eaten in any house within the city bounds, and any company bound together by some common tie (like Jesus and his disciples) could celebrate as though they formed a family unit. The meal itself remained essentially a meal and intrinsically domestic.
Jesus: universal Saviour – universal food
But does the Eucharist connect with our daily meals? Does it feel not only a part and foretaste of the heavenly banquet but also a powerful influence on the way that we value, treat and share food, and indeed one another? Here, I fervently believe, is a truly universal need and the accompanying language of God: hunger, sustenance through food and then the possibilities that the meal provides for fellowship, hospitality and encounter. The universal language of the meal finds its principal setting in the home (though obviously this is not exclusive) and this language affords a value to food and hospitality that needs to be re–connected and re–discovered within our Sunday worship and reaffirmed in British society.
The detached and the disintegrated
The Eucharist (like so much of our worship) has become detached and rarefied in that its language, forms and culture are removed, inaccessible and disconnected from the vocabulary, concepts and emotional wells of everyday life and people. And there is another huge area of change and disintegration in that home life has become largely fragmented and distanced from the language, practice and articulation of common faith and worship. We have to work with reality and allow it to be transformed and transcended: our attitudes to food and practices of eating have to be consciously re–integrated into our thinking about the liturgy of the Eucharist. At the same time, we cannot ignore our lack of a cohesive story as community people. The story of Jesus is both history, present reality and our future hope but how can his unity, his peace and his life be shared in the breaking of the bread – if we have forgotten how to eat together and how to speak to each other in trust and at depth?
This fragmentation so often starts in family life itself. The family was popularly defined in the 1960s and 70s as a huddle of people around a television – by the 1980s and 90s it had become an arrangement of bedrooms around a refrigerator. People today often sit and eat apart in separate rooms in front of their own chosen entertainment – computer game, internet chat room, CD, television set, mobile phone and texting, video/DVD etc. Our very culture has split generations and siblings: intimacy has become debased from an increasingly young age. People still talk, some perhaps more than ever before, but at a distance and often without the risk of mutual trust and commitment.
A common fragile need
Amidst these complex and confusing developments, people still find meaning and solidarity in television soaps and football, in clubs and leisure. Telling the story of God and his love has to start where people are and it is food and faith, the kitchen table and eucharistic living, that I believe challenge the Church in this land to listen and to proclaim. The human power of self has in its independence and freedom managed successfully to separate the sacred from the secular, the spiritual from the material, and God from his creation. The kitchen (or dining room!) table of our homes carries the sacred species of bread and wine quite naturally – and people still can stop and talk and share. The Eucharist is Jesus’ meal where he is both host and guest, and claims all human living with the promise of transcendence and glory. The life and the mission of the Church wells from our common human hunger – our daily need for bread and our mortal need for Jesus, the bread that comes down from heaven. The bakehouse and the brewhouse, the field and the kitchen, the pub and the party are holy ground. The incarnation claims all: love knows no barriers – the Eucharist claims the kitchen table!
The promise and the challenge of the Eucharist
This is not a proposal for an outbreak of house churches or a spate of house Eucharists! The greater assembly of the people of God is paramount but our worship must contain the integrity of our lives and homes and speak to the world in theirs. Wholeness and holiness, unity and integration, personality and transcendence are the hallmarks and the promises of God’s kingdom. In offering worship, in creating liturgy together and realising the divine drama, here lies the challenge of the Eucharist:
to change our attitudes to food and consumption, so that encounter and wonder supplant indifference and selfish indulgence
to tell the story of faith from within the communities around us
to re–establish the home as the arena of the sacred and for the gathered family of the church to flow from this
to rediscover prayer and story, bread and wine, as the universal language of celebration, revelation and divine love and to work out the repercussions for mission
to explore what the family meal of God can say and do in terms of interfaith dialogue and meeting
to allow the radical and revolutionary power of God into our homes
to recognise food as the vehicle of divine intimacy and encounter
to risk God’s eucharistic claim of our kitchen tables in terms of the impact and consequences for our politics and the contemporary climate of trust and certitude in temporal power alone
© Neil Thompson