Still Hungry at the Feast

By Samuel Torvend

By my calculation, I have participated in the Eucharist 8,050 times since I was five years old, a calculation that includes Sunday, daily, and feast day masses. I remember some of them because of the place in which the liturgy was celebrated—the shore of Similk Bay in my native Washington, the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, St. Paul’s in Seattle, the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, the medieval Selbu Kirke in central Norway, the monastic church of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville. Others I remember vividly because of the events that called for the Eucharist: the death of my father; the day I was married to my beloved; ordination to the priesthood; the Sunday liturgies after the assassinations of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.; the huge crowd crammed into our parish church during the Cuban Missile Crisis.

And yet, significant places and significant events have not obscured that dimension to which the eucharistic liturgy invites those who receive bread and drink wine—the ethical invitations and instructions offered in this ancient communal ritual: “Eternal God, you have graciously accepted us as living members of your Son our Savior Jesus Christ, and have fed us with the Sacrament of his Body and Blood. Send us now into the world in peace, and grant us strength and courage to love and serve you with gladness and singleness of heart.”[1] In the world of specialization that marks the academy and much of contemporary life, sacraments and ethics, liturgy and life are usually separated from each other in study and in practice—one of the reasons why the yearning for an integrated and holistic spirituality can be so easily thwarted. Such compartmentalization of Christian faith and life seems more the norm than the exception.

But need it be? For centuries, the fathers and mothers of the church have unfolded the meaning of the liturgy for daily life because they understood that the words, gestures, and postures of the Christian assembly have the power to form the actions of the assembly in the world: the rule of prayer shapes the rule of living.[2] Consider, for instance, the mystagogical sermons of John Chrysostom and Ambrose of Milan; the sacramental poetry of Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine of Siena; the eucharistic hymns of Thomas Aquinas; the artwork of Giotto di Bondone and Andrei Rublev; the sermons of Martin Luther and the eucharistic collects of Thomas Cranmer; the writings of Virgil Michel, Romano Guardini, Photina Rech, Balthasar Fischer, Antonio Donghi, and Gordon Lathrop.[3] All of these and many others recognized that the Mass, the Holy Communion, orients the worshiping assembly toward its life in the world, a life marked by an ethic of care for other people, their communities, and the earth.

In 1977, the Sri Lankan theologian and priest Tissa Balasuriya, OMI, published Eucharist and Human Liberation.[4] In this provocative work, Fr. Balasuriya asked a number of troubling questions that startled readers who found it difficult to imagine any relationship between sacraments and ethics:

Why is it that in spite of hundreds of thousands of daily and weekly Masses, Christians continue as selfish as before? Why have the “Christian” Mass-going peoples been the most cruel colonizers of human history? Why is it that persons and people who proclaim Eucharistic love and sharing deprive the poor people of the world of food, capital, employment and even land? Why mass human sterilization in poor countries and affluence unto disease and pollution of nature among the rich?[5]

Exposing what he considered the compartmentalization of Christian faith and life—worship directed to the Holy Three yet separated from daily practice in the world—Balasuriya argued that the meal practice of Jesus, soon to be called the Eucharist, soon to be called the Mass, clearly expressed Christ’s commitment to all who participated in his ongoing table fellowship. But at the same time, participation in the sacramental encounter asked for commitment from those who participated—and that commitment “to love one another as I have loved you” was and is confirmed in action: “The Mass,” he wrote, “leads us to respond to the suffering of the masses.”

While J. S. Bach signed all of his sacred music compositions with the Latin phrase Soli Deo Gloria (“Glory to God alone”)—and many church musicians since the eighteenth century have been diligent in copying his practice—this one phrase alone is insufficient and misleading. The lexicon of Catholic and historical Christianity, inspired by its central text, the Bible, is shot through with metaphor, with the linking of two images, two words, two phrases: an implicit antidote to the fundamentalist tendency that lurks in every human being. Praise of God—giving glory to God—never takes place in a vacuum. The assembly gathered for the liturgy gathers on this earth, in a particular place at a particular moment in human history. Set next to the praise or worship of God, set next to this acceptable sacrifice, is the suffering of the many and the earth itself. This should come as no surprise: in Jewish and Christian practice, thanksgiving to God always leads to supplication that God act in the present, in the world, with and through the people of God. Indeed, as I write these words, famine sweeps through large portions of the African continent. Species are dying rapidly for lack of sufficient food due to climate change. Child hunger and chronic malnutrition continue in the United States, though political leaders rarely mention the embarrassment of such statistics and the suffering they represent.

Here we ask the question, “Who is hungry at the feast?” To be honest, I think I am. I yearn for, I am hungry for the word, the image, the lyric, and the prayer that will invite many others and me to “redress the terrible injustices, deprivations, and imbalances that surround us.”[6] Who is still hungry at the feast? The many who will never read this text because they must work two or three jobs each day, six days each week, in order to feed their children in a society that rewards the wealthy and stigmatizes the working poor. Who is still hungry at the feast? The people of this world “deprived of food, capital, employment and land.”

Here we consider ethical dimensions of this ancient and contemporary practice. There is no prescription, only fragments of words and practices that offer an alternative to the perception alive in many ecclesial communities that the Mass, the Holy Eucharist, is really about this one thing: my personal relationship with the Lord, my union with Christ, my forgiveness of sin. Not so, I say, not so. One word is never sufficient. Set next to this communion is a sharing, an abundance, that extends beyond the assembly and me. The eucharistic table holds the finest wheat and the richest wine drawn from the earth and fashioned by human labor. But the stewardship of these gifts has been placed in the hands of the assembly who live in the world, a world marked by the many who continue to hunger for bread, for companionship, for justice—and yes, for nothing less than life itself.

Rev. Samuel Torvend is a priest of the Episcopal Diocese of Olympia and professor of the history of Christianity at Pacific Lutheran University. This post is taken from the introduction to Still Hungry at the Feast: Eucharistic Justice in the Midst of Affliction, recently published by Liturgical Press.

[1] A post-communion prayer in The Book of Common Prayer (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation, 1979), 365.

[2] But before we accept at face value the oft-used dictum about prayer and life, let us note clearly the insightful criticism of feminist Christians who expose the patriarchal power manifest in the use of exclusive language in worship and the rejection of women in liturgical leadership in some Christian communions; the deployment of strategies to limit or exclude the use of musical traditions of cultures different from the dominant one in a parish or cathedral; the use of insipid lyrics in the liturgy that obscure the rich metaphorical tradition across the centuries and across the globe; artwork that communicates racial bias and is historically inaccurate—all of these and more participate in the deformation of common prayer and Christian witness in the world.

[3] Virgil Michel, OSB, The Liturgy of the Church (New York: Macmillan, 1938); Romano Guardini, Sacred Signs (St. Louis: Pio Decimo, 1956/Wilmington: Michael Glazier, 1979); Photina Rech, OSB, Wine and Bread, trans. Heinz Kuehn (Salzburg: Otto Müller, 1966/Chicago: Liturgy Training Publications, 1998); Balthasar Fischer, Signs, Words & Gestures, trans. Matthew O’Connell (Freiburg im Breisgau: Herder, 1979/New York: Pueblo, 1981); Antonio Donghi, Words and Gestures in the Liturgy, trans. William McDonough, Dominic Serra, and Ted Bertagni (Rome: Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1993/Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2009); Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003).

[4] Tissa Balasuriya, OMI, Eucharist and Human Liberation (Colombo, Sri Lanka: The Centre for Society and Religion, 1977/Eugene: Wipf & Stock, 2004).

[5] Balasuriya, Eucharist and Human Liberation, 2.

[6] Monika Hellwig, “The Eucharist and the Hunger of the World,” in Word and World 17, no. 1 (1997): 65.

One comment

  1. What a beautifully written introduction. And on an essential subject. Now I look forward to reading the book!

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