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I think like everyone I’ve been missing meals together. It was such a central part of my life up until the pandemic started — dinner at a new restaurant with my partner, a potluck with my young adult group, coffee hour after church, shared birthday treats with my coworkers, a dinner party with friends. Of course, all that has stopped for the time being.

Samin Nosrat, award-winning chef and author of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, recently wrote about this loss and our feelings surrounding it. In an article for the New York Times, she reflected on how central sharing meals together is for most of us and what we’ve lost now that it is not a safe option.

Nosrat captured a feeling we share: “For as long as I can remember, gathering people around a table has been a sacred act for me.” I think it’s one of life’s simplest yet most profound joys.

When I think about the last year or so, preparing and sharing meals make up the great majority of my best memories — preparing Thanksgiving dinner with my brother and sister, being the guinea pig for my boyfriend’s baking adventures, making Christmas cookies with my mom, throwing a giant dinner party with friends when my best friend was visiting from New Zealand.

The sadness I feel about losing those opportunities in the coming months is similar to the sort of longing I get when I think about church and especially about how long it will be before we get to participate in communion again. After all our liturgy revolves around a shared meal and celebrates our connection with Christ and with others.

In one of my favorite books, Searching for Sunday, Rachel Held Evans discusses the centrality of this shared meal to the Christian faith. Our roots are in groups of Christians coming together to share a meal and to remember and commemorate Jesus’ friendship and presence. But this communion is more than just a shared meal. As Rachel points out, Christians “believe bread can satisfy not only physical hunger but spiritual and emotional hunger too.” It’s kind of our main deal.

Our diocese here in Massachusetts is grappling with what to do now that that central aspect of our spiritual practice is not a safe to participate in for the time being. They’ve released new guidance in the last few weeks as churches look to some sort of reopening, but it makes it clear that things will not be normal at church for a long time. One of the hardest parts of the new guidelines is that we can’t resume full communion until we have an effective vaccine. It’s not a surprise, but it is still disheartening.

Communion is one of the main reasons I still attend church, and I think it’s one of our most beautiful and meaningful practices. The first Episcopal church I attended was probably my favorite. To receive communion, we gathered in a big circle around the altar, and to me it was always the perfect reminder that through the Eucharist, we are all connected, in solidarity with Christ and with the whole communion of saints, past, present, and future. It was the physical manifestation of my own firm belief that all are welcome at Christ’s Table. And the rector reminded us of this each week: “We remember that this is God’s table, and not our own…Wherever you are on your journey with or toward God, from any tradition or none at all, you are welcome and invited at this table.”

Shortly before releasing the guidance for the slow process of reopening our churches, one of our bishops sent around a letter addressing the “sacramental hunger” all are feeling during this time. While acknowledging how hard it is to give this up, he noted that while we can’t receive the sacrament in the ways we normally would, that doesn’t mean that we’re going completely hungry. Instead, he urged us to expand our understanding of the sacred: “Through history the church has identified particular capital-S sacraments. But those in no way limit the sacramental quality of an infinite number of other experiences we may have.”

It’s like Samin Nosrat says in her article. Gathering together and sharing a meal is a sacred act, even if now it might look like a socially-distanced picnic, preparing a meal together via Zoom, or dropping off your latest baking experiment at a friend’s home. And these practices can and will sustain us until church can happen again.

Allison Vander Broek

Allison Vander Broek is a historian of American religion and politics. She recently graduated from Boston College with her doctorate in history. Her dissertation, Rallying the Right-to-Lifers: Grassroots Religion and Politics in the Building of a Broad-Based Right-to-Life Movement, 1960-1984, explored the origins of the right-to-life movement in the 1960s and its rise to national prominence.

2 Comments

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Allison, for the reminder of the broad sweep of what people feel when they come to the communion meal. Certainly the format that churches use for participation and the symbolism represented by the bread and wine (or crackers and grape juice) contribute largely to what individuals feel at this meal. Whether, with Catholics you feel you are actually eating Jesus’ actual body and drinking his actual blood to the experience of many evangelicals who see the meal as less of a participation in Jesus’ actual death but that of recalling or remembering a past historic event. The level of one’s subjective experience will depend, to some extent, on the format used and symbolism represented. That also includes the level of communal participation, whether eating from a single loaf of bread and drinking from a single cup of wine in a circle with others or having your own miniature cube of bread and your own miniature cup of wine or grape juice. Allison, your article demonstrates just how subjective one’s participation can be in the Lord’s Supper and actually how subjective Christianity, itself, can be. Thanks for sharing your feelings.

  • /svm says:

    Now that we are home more, it would be a good time to recognize the sacramental nature of meals around the family table, even returning to the practice of Scripture reading after dinner — physical and spiritual food together.

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