“For breakfast, I usually have a cappuccino—espresso made in an Alessi pot and mixed with organic milk, which has been gently heated and hand-fluffed. I eat two slices of imported cheese—Dutch Parrano— on homemade bread with butter. I am what you might call a food snob.
On a recent morning, my neighbor Alexandra Ferguson sipped politically correct Nicaraguan coffee in her kitchen while her two young boys chose from among an assortment of organic cereals. As we sat, the six chickens the Fergusons keep for eggs in a backyard coop peered indoors from the stoop.
In her Newsweek story “Divided We Eat: What Food Says about Class in America,” writer Lisa Miller notes the the language of worship and devotion in how her neighbors, the Fergusons, refer to themselves as “disciples” of Michael Pollan, who wrote the 2006 book which made the locavore movement a national phenomenon.
“[Alexandra Ferguson] believes that eating organically and locally contributes not only to the health of her family but to their existential happiness—and, indeed, to the survival of the planet.
“This is our tithe. This is my offering to the world,” says Alexandra,we contribute a lot. What’s on the table represents our goodness— our efforts to be good and do good.”
Lisa Miller goes on in “Divided We Eat” to demonstrate how food is the first form of conspicuous consumption in American history that’s divisive.
The excesses of America’s elites have always been open to critique; however, their indulgences have always simultaneously united Americans. The cool car, the big house, the luxury fashion brand— the lifestyles of the rich and famous have traditionally unified people because people who didn’t have those things aspired to have them.
Conspicuous consumption has always united Americans, Lisa Miller argues, because the have-nots have always wanted what the haves have.
The Food Culture, though, is different.
Food is uniquely divisive in America, Miller suggests, because people who eat Big Macs instead of local kale don’t want the local kale. Worse, the Big Mac eaters resent the cleaning-eating, all-organic crowd’s disdain and self-righteousness.
Food has always been inextricably linked with Judaism and Christianity, but in America Food has become a rival religion— what my friend David Zahl calls a seculosity— and it’s an idol that has inverted the symbolism of the table for those more ancient faiths.
In our politics today we speak often of everyone having a place at the Table, but in our new religion— the religion of Food— only the faithful are welcome.
Thinking ourselves advanced, Miller says, we’ve gone backwards and made the Table an icon of division.
What Jesus does with his last meal, however, undoes what we’ve done to the ancient iconography of the Table.
After all, Jesus’ last meal is Jesus’ last meal because Jesus has been betrayed by Judas, yet even before the supper has been served Matthew wants you to know that Judas remains welcome at Jesus’ supper table. Betrayal unto a god-forsaken death on a cross apparently makes for awkward dinner conversation.
As soon as Jesus sat down in the upper room, Jesus prophesied his imminent passion: “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.”
Matthew tells us that upon hearing this prediction the disciples became “greatly distressed,” the very same language John uses to describe Jesus praying before the grave of Lazarus who’d been four days dead.
Greatlydistressed, the disciples respond one after another “Surely, not I Lord?”
Surely not I, Lord!?
So Jesus elaborates: “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.”
The bowl to which Jesus refers is the basin of water required by the Law for the ritual hand-cleansing prior to the passover meal. The bowl was part of the prescribed place setting; the handwashing happens near the top of the script for the holy supper.
That is, Jesus outs his betrayal by Judas just as Jesus passes the bowl of water— family style— around the table.
Judas is still holding the bowl, both his hands and the towel damp, as Jesus drops the truth of Judas on Judas: “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me.”
And Judas passes the basin and towel to the next disciple and says: “Surely not I, Rabbi?”
Notice, Judas does not call Jesus “Lord” like the eleven; he calls him “Rabbi.” Judas can be a traitor because to Judas Jesus is not the Lord. Judas’ treachery is made possible because to Judas Jesus is not the Lord, the Maker of Heaven and Earth and the firsborn of creation.
To Judas— as he is to many today— Jesus is but another teacher among teachers.
“The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me,” Jesus says.
Look, here’s the point:
The handwashing happens at the start of the passover script. Matthew doesn’t even pick up the story again until they’re in the middle of the meal.
They wash up.
Jesus airs the dirty secret about Judas ratting him out.
Judas responds by lying and— noticeably— not calling the Lord Lord.
And then what?
And then Jesus serves him supper, that’s what.
Jesus eats and drinks with sinners even if it kills him.
Medieval painters always depict Jesus giving over the gossip about his betrayl as the moment of shock at the Last Supper, but that just goes to show how few Jews those artists knew.
The moment of shock at the supper comes later in the meal.
This Last Supper is the twelve’s third passover meal with Jesus. It’s the third time they’ve marked the doorframe with the blood from a lamb— just as the script instructs— blood to remind them the cost of their deliverance was death.
It’s the third time they’ve set the supper table for Jesus.
Just as the script instructs, they set the dinner table not with a single cup and a lone loaf but with four cups of wine— that’s why they fall asleep later in the garden, they’re hammered.
Each cup, according to the supper script, symbolizes of a part of Israel’s life with the God who brought them out of Egypt.
This last supper is the third passover they’ve laid out with the ingredients the Bible commands:
Nuts and Fruit Shaped to Look Like Bricks to Remember Their Forced Labor Under Pharaoh
A Plate of Bitter Herbs to Recall the Bitterness of their Slavery in Egypt
A Bowl of Saltwater Symbolizing the Tears Shed During their Long Captivity
Unleavened Bread to Remind Israel of the Haste with which they Fled for Freedom
And Lamb to Point Back Towards the Cost of their Freedom
There’s always lamb on the supper table, sourced according to the rules of scripture for the sake of righteousness. The lamb is the star of the supper.
The lamb is the main if for no other reaon than the sound and the smell of lamb was unavoidable for the passover pilgrims coming to Jerusalem. Passover week you couldn’t come to Jerusalem for the supper without being aware of all the lambs.
The Jewish historian Josephus writes that two million Jews crowded into Jerusalem each year to celebrate the Passover.
Two million people: teeming like tourists, filling all the hotels, arguing over tent space on the Mount of Olives, and all of them- all two million of them— searching for, sourcing and shopping for the right ingredients to keep the feast.
Now, according to the script given by God in the Bible, it takes at least ten people to celebrate a Passover supper.
You do the math: a couple million divided ten ways.
That’s 250,000 lambs in Jerusalem when Jesus entered it donkey-back on Palm Sunday— lambs clustering into gateways, lambs bursting down passageways, lambs pouring into barns and shelters, and lambs making markets chaotic.
One-quarter million lambs— imagine the sound for most of that week.
The constant all during holy week would’ve been the bleating of all those baby sheep being readied for supper. It’s a wonder that anyone heard him when he shouted “You’ve turned my Father’s house into a den of thieves!”
And any foodie would know— it wasn’t just the sound but the smell.
The morning of the supper (straight through that Thursday afternoon) every single householder would’ve brought their lamb to the Temple where they’d kill it with their own two hands, taking care not to strangle it.
Just as the script demanded.
There at the Temple two long lines of priests, robed in their vestments, would’ve received the blood of every one of those 250,000 lambs in a cup. Like an assembly line, each cup is passed from priest to priest through the Temple until finally it’s splashed upon the altar.
By the time the twelve are setting the supper table for their third meal with Jesus, the blood of all those lambs has flowed from the altar and out through pipes in the Temple floor and into the Kedron River; so that, by the time Jesus hosts the supper for the last time, the river has turned to a red, moving sludge— just like the Nile before Pharaoh let God’s People go.
The lamb was the most obvious ingredient.
The lamb was the icon of the table.
At this last passover, Jesus changes the script, and he deletes the line about the lamb. According to the script, about a quarter of the way in to the meal, Jesus is supposed to take the bread and scrape it together with the lamb and he’s supposed to say “This is the body of the Passover.”
“This is the body of the Passover.” This— as in, this lamb is the body of the Passover. That’s what Jesus, the host, is scripted to say. Instead Jesus says “This is my body broken for you.”
That’s what Leonardo should’ve painted because you can be damn sure that’s where the needle on the Bible record scratched off. “This is my body broken for you.”
And then— Jesus changes the script again and sticks himself in it.
When Jesus pours the third cup of wine, the cup of redemption, the cup that remembers the deliverance God worked all in Egypt, Jesus doesn’t say as scripture scripts him to say: “This is the blood of the Passover.”
No, you know our script.
He says: “This is my blood poured out for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.”
Not the blood of the passover. This is me.
He never mentioned the lamb because, like the bread and the wine— he’s it.
On this third and last time, with wine and bread, with his betrayer to Pharaoh seated beside him— I mean, Caesar— Jesus says “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt.”
This body of the passover is me.
Which is not only a way of Jesus saying with wine and bread “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt” but it’s also a way of Jesus saying “These creatures of wine and bread— they are the Creator, who has and who is and who will deliver you from captivity.”
With bread and wine, Jesus signals that he is both the cost of the passover and the Living God who carried it out. In doing so, Jesus undoes what Judas attempts to do— what we so often attempt to do— that is, with bread and wine Jesus makes it impossible for us to separate the person of Christ from the work of Christ.
Because he’s given us the bread and the wine, no longer like Judas can we call him “Rabbi” without also confessing him as “Lord.” Christ does not simply point to the truth by his teaching— indeed there is no such thing as “truth” that lies behind Christ to which Christ might point— Christ just is the way, the truth, and the life.
Just as Christ binds all of himself to the bread and the wine, those who eat it accept all of him. That is to say, to eat of the bread that is his body and drink of the wine that is his blood means you cannot have this Jesus as your Teacher without also having him as your Lord and Savior.
Likewise, the bread and the wine mean that you cannot have Christ as your Lord and Savior without also having Jesus as your Teacher.
For in declaring by bread and wine that he is the Lord our God who brought us out of Egypt, Jesus simultaneously declares that through bread and wine we are made the Israel of God.
To get hung up on material questions like “How can the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ” is to miss the more fundamental transformation of the meal; that is, through the body and blood of this passover, Christ makes us his pilgrim people.
The invitation to eat and drink of the Lord who is our passover, therefore, is an invitation to be initiated into the New Israel, who witness to a reality otherwise unavailable to the “real” world.
“You are what you eat,” we say, which is a frightening thought considering it makes me alot more Big Mac, Beer, and Flaming Hot Cheetos than Kale or Quinoa, yet even more frightening is that, after tonight, there is no Gospel without those who eat and drink this bread and wine.
With this bread and this cup, Christ makes it impossible for there to be a Gospel apart from the People constituted by eating and drinking the Gospel.
We cannot separate the person and work of Christ, the Church has always taught, but we ourselves— the Church— are the work of Christ who cannot separated from his person.
Which is to say— what the Church has always said— that outside the Church there is no salvation. Or, better put: without the Church there is no salvation.
Without the Church, there is no salvation.
For as Jesus declares here with bread and wine, and as Jesus teaches again and again in the Gospels, salvation is his Kingdom People feasting with him at Table.
“People will come from east and west, from north and south,” Jesus announces in Luke, “and they will feast in the Kingdom of God.”
“The Kindgom of God is like a wedding feast, with wine and food…” Jesus says earlier in Matthew’s Gospel.
“Drink from this, all of you;” Jesus invites us tonight, “for this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. Truly, I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.”
Until that day when I drink it new with you…
Without the Church, there is no salvation because salvation names what only this Table heralds.
Until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s Kingdom.
We always leave off this last line, but the emphasis in any good sentence falls at the end. Jesus would have us do with this meal the opposite of what we so often do with this meal.
We sometimes think, especially on a day like Holy Thursday, that Christ gives us this bread and wine so we can look backwards in time to what Christ has done for us. “Do this in remembrance of me,” the communion celebrant always says at our table, yet notice how Jesus does not say any such thing at his Table.
Jesus does not speak of remembering at all.
Jesus speaks of anticipating.
Jesus does not point backwards.
Jesus gestures forwards.
To the extent we remember anything at all in the eucharist, we’re remembering the future.
Indeed the future is the only direction for us to go if this new passover in fact make us his new Israel. If he is to make us his new Israel with this meal, then he does not give us this bread and wine so that through them we might remind the world of Christ, as though he is dead.
Rather, if Christ our Passover aims to make us his Israel then at this Table we are fed by Christ so that we might become Christ’s memory for the world in order for the world to be reconciled.
Christ is in the world, in these things, bread and wine, so that through his Body, the Church, all things might be reconciled to him.
And so this Table tonight is not like so many of our tables.
It is not a Table of division.
It is not a Table set aside for the righteous or the clean, the faithful or the good.
While we are yet sinners, this is a Table where Christ our Lord dines with the ungodly and, by doing so, unites us together until Christ comes back in final victory and we feast at his heavenly banquet.
The bread and the wine— they’re not a memorial.
They’re binding agents.