Taste ...and see!

Taste …and see!
The sensate encounter with Christ in Holy Communion

The marriage of body, mind and spirit is a great and wonderful mystery which humankind can try to unravel, explain and explore without ever exhausting its essence. Similarly the encounter with the Spirit of God is equally open and unlimited but revelation has not only focussed truth and experience into story and event but it has also emphasised knowledge sometimes at the expense of being.

So it is that in the history of the Christian Church, people have been ‘prepared’ for initiation – baptism, confirmation and admission into the eucharistic fellowship. In the western church, catechetics has developed as some sort of course of teaching by which we acquire understanding which can be examined and tested. The result is that because believing is equated with intellectual comprehension, children have been prevented from receiving Holy Communion. Age (normally) brings a growth in intellectual development and articulation, and only when this threshold is crossed can Christians be allowed to receive Holy Communion. Roman Catholics have modified this by delineating another threshold: that of moral discernment – and this is signified and celebrated in Christian terms by a person’s first confession and communion at the age of 8.

All this seems very far from the urgency and emotional power of Jesus’ words and gifts at the Last Supper. Did the disciples understand what Jesus was saying and doing in the Upper Room? Were they in a state of grace? Were they aware of the significance of the events which were overtaking their lives? All this surely came later. Certainly the associations with the Passover meal were strong – and that is a meal shared by every member of the family regardless of age. (Indeed the youngest in the family always has a crucial role in the celebration by asking the critical questions! I realise that this requires the child to be able to speak but the purpose of the meal and the rite is for all to share and learn and remember.) The new covenant that is forged by the Christ event of Easter is contained and at the same time extended by the Eucharist. The meal that is a basic human physical necessity becomes a theophany: we need to eat, and in the sharing of food, God bestows an experience of blessing, belonging and redemption. The transcendence of the divine invades the particular and the tangible: the bread and wine of an earthly table and those who taste and eat it.

The very term communion tokens the encounter of the created with the creator, the mortal with the eternal, and the flawed and forgiven with the redeemer. And this sacrament of the Gospel instituted by Christ was the result of the fully human Jesus sharing bread and wine with his friends. If any kind of examination or worthiness was required, none of them would have been at the meal – an ‘unworthiness’ or inadequacy is recorded in so many incidents e.g. immediately after the Last Supper they fled at the arrest and so on.
But just as no one is worthy or adequate, so in terms of discipleship and God’s invitation in Jesus, everyone is invited.

This particular meal was lifted into the bloodstream of a faith community. From this time on, all of Jesus’ followers and friends can encounter and experience the crucified and risen Jesus in the way that he commanded them to: through the meal that lifts salvation into the new and universal covenant. The words of Jesus to remember him are not the monopoly of an esoteric group. The exclusivity of the old covenant is rent and torn open like the veil of the Temple. In Jesus, God extends an open invitation to all people. Quite distinctly this invitation includes children. And Jesus made this particularly clear.

Amidst all the remembering, the story telling and the worship, the essence of the experience is mediated by taste! It is so easy to overlook the power and the moment of the physical encounter. Here is something literal: the language, God’s language, of taste. God meets us as food, recognised and signified by taste (and sight and touch, perhaps even smell!).

The senses are the moment of primary encounter – and in themselves they present a challenge to our intellectualising of the eucharist and our relationship with God and one another. This is not to replace or eradicate the importance of reason, thought and the realm of invention and idea in relation to the Spirit but to discover or rediscover the holiness of matter and the integrity of our senses and sensibilities.

Within the history of faith, the imagined and the promised are released and realised. And here in Holy Communion, the realisation is by taste and touch. If the heart of the ‘good news’ is the incarnation and the transformation that comes through Jesus’ death and resurrection, how do we value the incarnational qualities of Holy Communion that bread and wine are touched by? And the changed and transformed value of the ‘accidents’ or species, are these only experienced by those who can testify in a prescribed manner? Are children’s perceptions inferior to those of adults? Is the reality of a young life of a lower order? Our human differences of age are surely complementary and of equal value to God? (Furthermore, there is much in our approach to receiving Holy Communion that is pronouncedly ‘child–like’ and dependent.)

This experience of encounter in taste and touch throws down a real challenge to faith and revelation. Just as the binary system in arithmetic resets and re–presents to us the experience of number and value in a different and equally valid way (the present computing technology is predicated on the binary system), so the physical senses re–form and reshape our spiritual perceptions. The sense of taste brings an alternative order to our sense of cognitive priorities. So is there a simplicity and directness that is equally valid in our experience of the divine as well as the complex, subtle, intellectual and cerebral? Taste in itself is, I imagine, morally and spiritually ‘neutral’ but in God’s hands it can surely communicate at a level different and perhaps even deeper than words. The world of taste is, of course, different from that of sight and sound and thought: it is a doorway that may prove more critical to some e.g. those with disabilities and those whose intellectual strengths are very limited or declining. Many of us share the strange trigger of taste and smell in remembering and belonging and being taken into an experience beyond that of the moment and the place. Certain smells like coffee beans being roasted, a baker’s or confectioner’s shop, and mostly childhood smells, create sort of déjà vu moments of recognition, remembering and retrieval of the lost and bygone. None of this is irrelevant to the value and meaning of Holy Communion, and children in particular are likely to be sensitive and involved in this way.

The language of taste takes us into another realm – that of the intimate. Amidst the community experience of a shared meal, food is placed intimately into our hands, and on to our lips and tongue. God is so near. The universal call and story breaks into the intimacy of our being where social and personal barriers keep the world at large away. Again, it is children who have a naivety and innocence that values and fearlessly crosses into the vulnerability and sensitivity of intimacy. This inner and closer world lies below and beyond mere words and thoughts, and as we enter adulthood it has to be regulated and ordered to make it safe beyond the corrosive effects of selfishness, cruelty, lust and greed.

I am convinced that children naturally ‘understand’ this intimate world – it is their natural language and reconnects our humanity with the eternal possibilities that are lost with the constraints of the adult ego and the ordering of the world and universe through the powers that we can explain, manipulate and even think that we control. As sensate beings, we are tempted to order and divide our world and our experiences into a single viewpoint. The harmonies of our differences are powerfully intimated through the senses that we so easily blunt and repress as part of the divine music.

So the admission of the young (and perhaps especially infants) increases the value and the blessings of eucharistic communion. Frequency, tender age, ‘understanding’, frailty, depression, – nothing cheapens or degrades the value of Christ in the Eucharist. It is only our rules, our egos and our powers that betray and diminish the grace and miracle of God in Holy Communion.

In a society of privilege and material plenty, we have a strangely limited and cerebral understanding of hunger. Do we miss or dismiss the value and holiness of food, because it is so commonplace and plentiful? This leads on to a further demanding question: are we sated, too, intellectually, morally and spiritually inasmuch as we are tempted to feel that God is no longer necessary because we have (almost) everything that we need? Hunger is a precious reminder of our dependency and our mortality. It is only when we live in the humility of that truth that we can be touched by grace and transformed by God and his love. And so it is, in a strange way, that the physical presence and taste of the eucharistic bread is a profound and critical part of our experience of Christ in Holy Communion. Our children may help us to learn this – when we share Christ with them in what we have made an excluding and divisive eucharistic fellowship.
Neil Thompson
Limpsfield Rectory
November 2003

© Neil Thompson 2003