NOW ABOUT THIS DINNER
Isaiah 50:4-9, Psalm 31, Matthew 26:26-35
Tad Mitsui, March 31, 1996
In our church, there are two most important rituals. They are Baptism and Holy Communion. It is interesting that those Sacraments relate to basic events in our daily life; washing and eating. In Baptism, we join the community of faith through a symbolic act of cleaning ourselves with water. In Communion, we affirm the sharing nature of our community by symbolically eating a meal together, in doing so we also remember that Jesus made an ultimate act of sharing in giving his own life.
The ordinariness in our most sacred religious acts shows a very important aspect of our faith. In our spiritual tradition, there is no division between sacred and secular. This is God”s world. So everyday ordinary act of life is holy. Where we stand in our daily life at home or in our work is a holy ground. One day, last week, I was in a car with two of you. The conversation was fun. But at one point, one man said to another, "You watch your language. The minister is here." I assumed his remark was meant to be a joke, but had it been serious, it would be very unfair to the minister. He would miss out on all the fun of this world. There should not be the world of fun separate from God”s world, because there is only one world, which is God”s world. For our God, every ordinary thing is his business also. There is something wrong in our faith, if we feel that God takes fun out of our lives. He doesn”t. If it is important to us, it is important to God, also.
Eating is one of our most important functions. Therefore, it is also important in our faith. We spend a lot of time thinking, planning, acquiring ingredients, preparing, and eating food. We spend more time in learning to cook, reading recipes, and talking about what we ate. I am sure that we spend more time on food related activities, perhaps next to sleeping, than on any other daily task. Human beings used to spend a lot more time, growing, hunting, preparing food. In fact, until a century ago, food production was almost the full time occupation of a majority of people. Because the activities relating to food gathering and consumption took more time, food was arguably more precious than it is to us today. Thus it is not surprising that much religious significance come to be attached to it. If it is important for humans, it is important to God also.
There were many religious instructions about the selection and preparation of food. Many of them made a lot of sense, especially in a hot climate and with less than perfect sanitary conditions. Much of worship service was concerned with the act of dedicating food items to God. In fact, the first five books of the Old Testament are filled with instructions about preparation of food and about offering food items to God as acts of worship. Faithful Jewish people still today observe many of those ancient practices. It is called keeping kosher. So paradoxically food is important in our religious life, because it is so ordinary. There is no separation between ordinary and sacred.
There is another reason why food had much spiritual significance. It is due to the collective nature of food production and consumption. One of the reasons why human beings thrive despite our many physical shortcomings is because we are good at working together in groups producing and sharing food. Any predatory animal, which operates alone, may look fierce and strong, but actually has less chance of survival. Ants and bees may look tiny and vulnerable, but they have potential to outlive eagles and lions, because they are better at working together and sharing food. We are one of the best animals at acquiring and producing food together. Peaceful relationships are the most important element in enabling such cooperation and sharing. Justice is an important part of the code of sharing. It was not just profit that enabled human beings to become so efficient in food production. We should not forget that only a community bound by a code of justice and peace can work together well.
Food also has important religious significance because most of the food we eat comes from living organisms. In fact, we can live because many lives are sacrificed for us. This is where the notion of sacrifice emerged as an important spiritual element of food preparation and consumption. Ancient people were familiar with the sight and sound and gore of animals which were being killed for food. So thanksgiving before the meals had another dimension, which we seldom recognize today. People in earlier times remembered with thanks those who lost their lives to sustain lives.
Unfortunately, we have sanitized the process of slaughter of animals. It is shielded from the eyes of most of us. So the element of sacrifice has been lost in our idea of food. In an African country where I once lived, it was the custom to slaughter a cow for the dinner at every wedding and funeral, and at other special occasions. To kill the animal before all the invited guests was an important ritual. The animal was bound and tied down to the ground. An elder of the village would slit the throat with a sharp knife. It was important that the blood was spilt on the ground as a symbolic act of sharing the life of the sacrificed animal with God. Most of us who came from the west could not eat the dinner. We were not used to seeing such a gore before a meal. But witnessing the agony of the animal was an important part of recognizing the nature of sacrifice. By sanitizing the process of slaughter, we have encouraged people to forget the cost of our food, and thus diminished our appreciation of it.
The enslaved Jews took the best looking lambs without blemish, slaughtered them for the last meal before their liberation, and smeared their doors with the blood of the lambs. This was how the angel of death passed over the Jewish households. They also sacrificed the young and best-looking animal annually to ask God”s forgiveness for the sins committed in the past year. So for the Jewish people, dinner was not only a symbol of the sharing community where justice and peace prevailed, but it also signified what we owed to other creatures who sacrificed their lives for us. So, as we partake in this symbolic meal of communion, we not only remember the last supper Jesus shared with his followers, but also we cerebrate the everyday meals we share with our families and friends including last week”s pancake breakfast, the Spring luncheon, and Fall turkey dinner! We are what we eat. The everyday defines our lives. Yet they are not just ordinary dinners. As we enjoy the food and the company, meals remind us also of our obligation to share and to be grateful for the cost of food, in labour and sacrifice. Holy Communion reflects holiness of our daily food. I hope that this does not spoil the fun of eating. It”s like having fun, even in a company of a minister.