An all-you-can-read buffet

ON THE FEAST OF CORPUS CHRISTI LAST YEAR Pope John Paul II called for a special year dedicated to the Eucharist, and Christians looking to nourish their eucharistic spirituality this year with a good read have been blessed with a bounty of literary manna. Even better, these books on the church’s central sacrament of unity come from Catholics and Protestants alike, reminding us of the full communion to which this sacrament summons the whole body of Christ.

Jesus told his disciples to celebrate the Eucharist “in remembrance of me” but also commanded them to invite the poor to their banquets and to find something for the hungry multitudes to eat. So it is not surprising that some of the best reads for the eucharistic year remind us to make room for the poor at our tables.

In Food for Life: The Spirituality and Ethics of Eating (Fortress), L. Shannon Jung offers “a theology of eating” that explores the spiritual, moral, and political meaning of the ways we produce, consume, and share our food. Jung, director of the Center for Theology and Land and professor of rural ministry at the University of Dubuque and Wartburg Theological Seminary, argues that scripture and tradition reveal a God who wants us to enjoy and share our food, and that the Eucharist celebrates and demands these divine intentions.

But social and personal sin have disordered the ways we make and eat our food, alienating us from the one providing our daily bread and the neighbor with whom we are to share this bounty. So Jung directs us to confront and repent the sinful structures shaping our global table and to become a church that breaks bread with justice and compassion for all.

With essays by the likes of M.F.K. Fisher, Eric Schlosser, Thomas Moore, Elizabeth Johnson, Diane Ackerman, George McGovern, and Wendell Berry, readers will enjoy Michael Schut’s Food and Faith: Justice, Joy, and Daily Bread (Living the Good News) as an anthology exploring the spirituality, economics, and politics of food. Parishes and faith-sharing groups can use it as the handbook for a short course on eucharistic spirituality and justice.

A writer and staff member with the ecumenical environmental group Earth Ministry, Schut has put together a collection examining our religious and ethical ties to the food we eat and the laborers who bring this bread to our tables, and he offers suggestions for how we might eat and drink more justly. He supplements this material with an excellent study guide and manual for Christian groups.

Cathy Campbell’s Stations of the Banquet: Faith Foundations for Food Justice (Liturgical Press) is also an excellent resource for faith-filled individuals and communities seeking inspiration and sustenance in the struggle against global hunger and injustice. An Anglican priest and professional nutritionist who has advised the White House and the World Health Organization on questions of hunger, Campbell has written a spiritual handbook in which the traditional Way of the Cross is transformed into a pilgrimage from the bounty of creation to the banquet of heaven.

Along the way she identifies the biblical and theological voices summoning believers to awaken to the suffering and injustices shaping our global food system and to practice simplicity, hospitality, gratitude, solidarity, and generosity at all our tables. This excellent manual and prayer book also provides readers with prayers of lament, repentance, and thanksgiving to celebrate our faith in the one who feeds us and calls us to feed one another.

McCormick's Quick Picks

image39.jpgBabette’s Feast (Orion Classic, 1987) The granddaddy of all Eucharist films, Gabriel Dixon’s translation of Isak Dinesen’s novel to the big screen has been played for more church groups than Pachelbel’s Canon.

Two Danish sisters caring for the aging flock of their deceased father’s parish take in a French Catholic refugee as their cook and servant.

But Babette can cook more than the simple fare these two Marthas provide their charges, and when the exiled chef of Paris’ “Café Anglais” wins a national lottery, she creates a banquet of heavenly delights that warm the hearts and souls of her mistresses and gives us a taste of holy communion.

Gosford ParkGosford Park (USA Films, 2001) Robert Altman’s satirical comedy about a murder at an English country estate during a weekend hunt uses the vehicle of shared meals to uncover the deadly chasms sundering families and communities.

While all guests and servants in this Upstairs, Downstairs story gather at their prospective tables to break bread, there is little or no communion among them. Instead, rivalry, jealousy, deception, and arrogance make a sham of their table fellowship, separating not only class and gender, but spouses, companions, parents, and children. This film offers a darkly prophetic vision of our own anti-Eucharists.

image41.jpgBig Night (Columbia/Tristar, 1996) Brothers Primo (Tony Shalhoub) and Secondo (Stanley Tucci) are a pair of Italian immigrants trying to keep their New Jersey restaurant afloat. But the neighborhood clients lack the palate to appreciate chef Primo’s cuisine or the wallets to keep manager Secondo in the life he so richly desires.

Still, even if the brothers do not succeed in wooing a special local client with their sumptuous feast, this film delights the taste buds of viewers. Primo and his team create a banquet of delights that will remind us why food is a heavenly blessing, and how good it is to “taste and see” God’s bounty. Go to dinner after seeing this film.

Hotel Rwanda (United Artists, 2004) Terry George’s drama about hotel manager Paul Rusesabagina (Don Cheadle) shows how one man offered safety to 1,200 Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide of 1994.

The Hutu manager of a four-star Belgian hotel in Kigali, Rusesabagina opens his doors and heart when his nation descends into genocidal chaos while the world looks away. Relying on his diplomatic and managerial skills, the understated and urbane Rusesabagina protects hundreds of Tutsis, calling in favors, offering bribes, negotiating private deals, and maintaining the fiction that his hotel remains an island of culture and civility in a world gone mad.

Joseph A. Grassi’s new edition of his 1985 text, Broken Bread and Broken Bodies: The Lord’s Supper and World Hunger (Orbis), once again argues that an authentic celebration of the Eucharist can empower Christians to challenge and transform the unjust economic and political structures that create global hunger. Grassi, professor emeritus of the religious studies department at Santa Clara University and founder of the Skip-A-Meal program to care for the poor and hungry, explores how Jesus taught his disciples to practice a revolutionary and inclusive table fellowship that welcomed and provided for the poor, and suggests that the Eucharist commands modern believers to imitate Jesus’ radical hospitality to the poor, hungry, and oppressed.

And what are liturgists saying about the Eucharist and justice? Liturgy and Justice: To Worship God in Spirit and Truth (Liturgical Press), edited by Anne Koester of the Notre Dame Center for Pastoral Liturgy, answers this question with a fine collection of essays by Catholic theologians and liturgists concerned with the link between worship and justice and committed to helping eucharistic communities preach and practice God’s justice in the world.

Articles by Walter Burghardt, David Andrews, Frances O’Connor, R. Kevin Seasoltz, and others explore the connection between the Eucharist and world hunger, globalization, colonialism, liberation, and the reign of God, and ask how our eucharistic liturgies are schooling us to be assemblies where all women and men of every color and class are indeed one in the Body of Christ.

A Banqueter’s Guide to the All-Night Soup Kitchen of the Reign of God (Liturgical Press), my own humble offering at this banquet of books, explores the ties between the Eucharist and justice by asking what it means to call this sacrament bread, table, body, and sacrifice.

Seeing the Eucharist as bread reminds us of our ties to the hungry and to those who prepare our food. Being at table with Jesus means we must practice his radical hospitality, friendship, and service to the poor, outcast, and lowly. Becoming part of the Body of Christ binds us to the burdened, broken, and disappeared bodies of the poor, neglected, and oppressed. And celebrating the sacrifice of the Eucharist summons us to stand in solidarity with the world’s scapegoats and sacrificial victims.

Still, the Eucharist summons us to be in communion not only with the poor and marginalized, but also with other Christians. As Paul tells the Corinthians, the one bread we share makes us one in Christ. So good books on the Eucharist should help all Christians overcome the scandalous divisions that have wounded the Body of Christ, separating us into denominations and sects that do not and cannot break eucharistic bread together.

The Sacrament of Unity: The Eucharist and the Church (Crossroad), by Cardinal Walter Kasper, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, is a slender volume of thoughtful meditations on the Eucharist, the church, and ecumenism.

Arguing that the Eucharist is the sacrament of unity that “makes the (local and global) church,” Kasper is deeply concerned about the growing number of parishes deprived of the Eucharist because of the priest shortage and the divisions keeping different Christian churches from celebrating the Eucharist together. And while some of the solutions he recommends seem overly cautious, the cardinal’s text calls all Christians to work and pray for a fuller eucharistic communion grounded in a shared “Amen” to the Body of Christ.

A few years back Jeffrey VanderWilt won high praises for A Church Without Borders: The Eucharist and the Church in Ecumenical Perspective (Michael Glazier), and now the Marymount University professor of liturgy, sacraments, and theology has returned to the subject of the Eucharist and ecumenism in Communion with Non-Catholic Christians: Risks, Challenges, and Opportunities (Liturgical Press).

Like Kasper, VanderWilt wants to explore ecumenical steps Catholics and other Christians can take in approaching the same eucharistic table. With high-profile cases involving both the Baptist Bill Clinton and the Anglican Tony Blair receiving Communion at Mass, VanderWilt examines the notion and practice of eucharistic sharing, introducing readers to liturgical rules and discipline.

Again, like Kasper, VanderWilt is aware of the real risks associated with this practice. Still, he is more optimistic than Cardinal Kasper about the opportunities and benefits created by welcoming other Christians to our eucharistic tables and more willing to practice a radical hospitality in hopes of a full communion for the Body of Christ. 

Pat McCormick is a professor of Christian ethics at Gonzaga University in Spokane, Washington.

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