A Hearty Eucharist

April 4th, 2013

Every Christian denomination that includes communion—the Eucharist or Lord's Supper—as one of its regular practices recognizes the thanks-giving aspect, and in that regard Jesus’ original institution of the meal is remembered. At the most fundamental level, eucharisteo is the Greek word for “giving thanks” (Matthew 26:26-30).

But the similarities between the original last supper and our churches’ communion services tend to end at remembering Jesus’ words and sharing some form of bread and wine. Jesus’ “giving thanks” has turned into a fairly circumscribed prayer of thanksgiving; abundant bread shared and passed has turned into a small morsel of bread at best or, at less-than-best, a wafer resembling cardboard (so says my spouse Jennifer Creswell, an Episcopal priest). For the most part, these changes have been for sound historical and/or practical reasons. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for going back, insofar as possible, to a practice that more closely resembles the early church or Jesus’ last meal with his disciples itself. How can we reclaim, for our congregations and our worship services, a sense of how the early church both commemorated the last supper and ate together? How can we, in our communion practices, strive to (in the most literal sense) be more Christ-like?

When I worked as a chapel minister at Yale Divinity School in 2002, the chapel team was discussing an upcoming communion service when I verbalized some of my thoughts: “How did our modern communion services get so far away from the original last supper as it is pictured in the gospels?” This question got the chapel team’s imagination and liturgical juices flowing, and before long the first “Hearty Eucharist” was celebrated.

Hearty Eucharist

The idea behind the Hearty Eucharist is simple. As the service begins, congregants are welcomed and gathered in the singing of a hymn. The words of institution—traditional or contemporary—are then said over the bread and wine immediately. After the words of institution, all are invited to come to the table, where large cups of grape juice and wine, loaves of bread, olives, cheese, and occasionally fish are served. Everyone may take as much as they wish, returning to their pew with the food. At one Hearty Eucharist service, we put the bread in baskets so that each pew could have its own meal and share family style. (It should be noted that the pews were arranged in an octagon at this point, so that the congregation looked in toward a central space and across that space at one another. Some churches will have more flexible worship space, with chairs for seating, and may add tables to the worship space.)

As the congregation eats, words from scripture are read and a short sermon—generally more informal in tone—is given. All the while, people are encouraged to get up for more food if they would like. Another hymn or two is sung, a prayer is offered, and the service concludes. This service most often took about forty-five minutes.

The worshiping community at Yale Divinity School came to love Hearty Eucharist. Hearty Eucharist helps the congregation truly to “do this in remembrance of” Jesus and the disciples. Reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ final meal with his disciples, Hearty Eucharist is perhaps a truer way of honoring and recreating that meal—including, perhaps, a common first-century menu—than our normal meals of scant bread and wine. In many ways, it is a grand and faithful thanks-giving and is easily adapted for churches of almost any size. (We even discussed the idea—but never did it—of making Hearty Eucharist a potluck-type meal. This would certainly be a possibility depending on your congregation’s gifts, needs, and resources.) For various theological reasons based on denominational beliefs, a non-crumbly bread will work best for Hearty Eucharist.

At Table

A similar effort to recreate and restore early Christian eating practices is an “At Table service which was born in the 2004–2005 academic year, when Union professors Janet Walton and Hal Taussig taught the course Ritual Meals and Ritual Baptism. One result the professors wanted to try out was a regular service that would invite people to come and eat together, such that the shared meal itself was the ritual.

Unlike Hearty Eucharist, At Table was never intended to be a communion service per se but instead takes as its starting point the early Christian practice of eating together in community. When the service first began, the intention was for the service to have little structure, but to be primarily a place for students to come together and eat. Casual café-style music originally welcomed worshipers as they came into the space, and group conversation made up the bulk of the service.

With refinements to At Table over time, the developed a regular structure, but one that is fairly transparent to congregants. When entering an At Table service the worship space is strikingly different by virtue of the tables set up, each one with chairs around it. People come and sit down to share all manner of food—from quiche to cookies, casserole to kabobs, cocoa to candy—most of which is made by members of the community. After a few minutes, a leader rises to welcome all to the service and invite all to eat heartily. After a few more minutes of discussion, another leader rises to invite individuals to share their joys or concerns with the congregation. A song is often sung at the close of the joys and concerns. Following the song, further conversation goes on for a few more minutes until someone rises for the “storytelling” portion of the service. The story is often a biblical story, an explanation of early Christian eating or worship practices, or a story of a recent instance of Christianity encountering the world. The storyteller finishes with a specific suggestion for discussion at each table. After a few minutes of conversation, the service is closed with a brief benediction.

Clearly, At Table services are highly structured and planned. However, this detailed planning (and timing) of each service is fairly transparent to the congregation. The unique setting—with tables spread around the worship space—allows for extremely intimate community building. The sharing of a meal can create instant communal bond.

The point here is simply that At Table has the potential to be a profound and community enriching service, shared—in the style of the early church—over a communal meal, songs of worship, and prayer.

We are invited to imagine how best to give thanks to our God, and in the process to reimagine and recreate the early Christian practices of eating together and celebrating thanks-giving in community. May we give thanks as Jesus, the disciples, and the early church did!

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