Today at Regis College here in Toronto we celebrated World Food Day. The event began with that greatest of foods, the Eucharist, and was followed by talks from various perspectives and, of course, eating. My mind is absolutely swimming or, perhaps better, stuffed, and I’d like to share with you a few thoughts from the day.
My first thought was, “Is there anything the Bible talks about more than food?” Just think about it. From the bounty of Eden and the meal gone wrong to the wedding feast of the lamb, the Bible never stops talking about food. There is, of course, the Passover, instituted at the time of Israel’s liberation so that it would become absolutely central to Israelite identity. Many of the prescriptions in the Old Testament dealt with food – and not merely with its ritual purity, as is commonly supposed, but with its just distribution. And let’s not forget that the whole worship system of the temple was a barbeque.
Of course, we hear in the gospels that Jesus’ habit of feasting was so well known that he was called a glutton and a drunkard. Many of the great gospel stories – the feeding of the 5,000, the road to Emmaus, the Last Supper – are meal stories. And who can forget Paul’s rage at the Corinthian church for their unjust and unholy eating?
The Bible is chock full of stories about food and eating. But why?
There is a tradition in the eastern Church that teaches that all food was meant to be Eucharist. God has given us life, and so we give thanks, which is what the word Eucharist means. Every meal should be eaten in gratitude for all that we have been given. But we ate ungratefully. What is the Eden story about if not ingratitude? We had everything we could possibly want, but we allowed ourselves to be seduced into wanting the impossible – to be other than what we were. And to wish to be other than oneself is to spurn God’s greatest gift.
All food was supposed to be Eucharist, but our ingratitude upset the balance and desacralized, unconsecrated, the world. This is why Jesus comes to us precisely as food. Food is life and Jesus is life. Our gratitude for our redemption must echo back and become gratitude for our creation. And so, when we take the Eucharist, we take that which reminds us of our intimate relationship with the whole created order. Bread and wine are made of dirt and sunshine, water and oxygen – earth, water, wind, fire.
At least, the Eucharist should remind us of our intimate connection with creation.
Two of our presenters today were young men working to set up community garden projects. Last year they produced so much food that the gardeners who had worked for it couldn’t eat it all, and they made massive donations to the local food bank. And they produced it all for free. The only donations they took were some seeds, but they now reclaim seeds from their produce and maintain a seed bank. They actually turned down money. They said, “What can I do with $20? I’d rather get to know you. If you want to help out, why not swing by the garden some time?”
I didn’t get the impression that these young men were Christians, though they may well have been, but the whole time they were talking, images from Scripture were bouncing around my head. A massive community garden with no financial input? Eden! Unexpected largesse given to the poor? The feeding of the 5,000!
But what really got me was when they talked about how food had brought the community together. Working on a common project and sharing common meals had introduced them to so many people they would never have met otherwise. And working in an economy that was not a zero-sum game had brought so much life. The connection with their food system gave them an elation that they could only express in cosmic terms. Their language about taking off their shoes and feeling connected to the universe might have struck some as a bit new-agey, but the fact is that, for most of the history of the Church, the people receiving the Eucharist knew a lot more than most of us today about where our food comes from.For those of us whose food arrives prepackaged in a cooler at the nearest grocery chain, it is very difficult to recapture a sense of the deep symbolism of the Eucharist. When we try, as I’m trying in this piece, to lay it out, it often becomes so didactic that it stops functioning precisely as a symbol. Or, at least, what used to be a natural symbol has become an arbitrary symbol, and arbitrary symbols cannot shape community with the same kind of impact as what people feel naturally in their souls.
How many of us gloss over “give us this day our daily bread”? I suspect it’s not so easy to gloss over if you and most of the people you know are farmers depending on this year’s crop. Or if you bake your own bread every day from grain you grew yourself.
Eucharist should tie us intimately with the rest of creation, should remind us of the cosmic nature of our salvation (“God will be all in all,” not just in bread and wine), should tell us who we are, namely creatures, utterly dependent on a creator.
Another thing struck me very deeply, perhaps because, as a father of 3, I am held suspect by many for my use of the world’s resources. The province of Ontario contains some of the best farmland in North America. Toronto itself is built on a particularly rich tract of land. But if Toronto’s supply lines were cut off, the city would be out of food in 3 days. We have the capacity to grow a very significant percentage of our own food, but we don’t do it. We grow a lot of grass, but not food. But, far worse than this, 40% of the food produced in Ontario is wasted. 40%!
Grocery stores, restaurants, catering companies and cafeterias toss out huge percentages of their inventory daily. More prepared meals from the average deli are thrown out than sold. The industry calls it “shrinkage.” The next time someone gives me grief for my family size I’m going to ask them if they have a garden!
In the spirit of St. Ignatius, the young Jesuit who organized our celebration of World Food Day went begging locally to see if he could provide hospitality for the event from the leftovers of local restaurants and cafeterias. He was turned down because of liability issues (though a couple Catholic residences and a student hub donated fresh, rather than leftover, food).
I couldn’t help but think back, on hearing these obscene facts, of the meal I had just shared in the chapel. There was enough for everyone, but when I noticed, walking back from communion, a small crumb in the palm of my hand, I reverently brought it up to my mouth and took it on my tongue, careful not to waste the smallest morsel. I knew that my life was in my hands. Everything left over was gathered. It ended up in one of these:
And though both were locked, they were locked for opposite reasons: one to keep the starving out, the other so that the starving would always have access.
Food is life. It should be treated with reverence.
Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of three (so far) and husband of one.