SLOW FOOD SACRAMENT
It’s when we embrace what Jesus went through for the person kneeling next to us for communion that our own perspective on them is changed irrevocably.
It can’t have escaped your attention that the French have a problem with McDonalds. This is in spite of France having more branches of the fast food chain on their soil than any country outside the United States. When the Football World Cup took place there in 1998, FIFA allowed them to emblazon ‘McDonalds Restaurants’ over their advertisements. To call McDonalds a restaurant anywhere in the world is pushing the limits of language. To allow them to do this in France was too much for the Parisian culinary elite, who staged protests. McDonalds is seen by a segment of the French population as some kind of vulgar American protestant conspiracy against civilised continental Catholic values. Outspoken Roman Catholic priests have even been known to condemn fast food as unsacramental. You might think that’s a little extreme, but like most forms of polemic, it contains a grain of truth.
Eating together is at the heart of the Gospel: it nourishes the Church. Communities which are steeped in this also take great care over how they eat together outside church. Think of Spanish, French and Italian mealtimes and you get a very different picture to British or American ones. Quality of time is devoted to the family, and there is acceptance of the need to give a good quantity of time to achieve this. By contrast, our culture of fast food encourages us to eat on the go or while doing something else. The results are striking. We can poke fun at how the strength of family ties in a country like Italy has fed organised crime, but surveys show also that Italian children are happier on almost every count than British children.
When Jesus gathered his friends together on the night before he died they were expecting to recall the deliverance of the Israelites from the Egyptians. It was the nation’s Independence Day. But Jesus reinvented this meal for them by saying that in future they should eat bread in memory of his crucified body and drink wine to recall his spilt blood. Hours before dying he gave them directions on how they were to remember this death.
It’s said that wherever you go in the world the burgers and chips of McDonalds are cooked to the same instructions so that customers know exactly what they are going to get. This homogenisation is the genius behind the market. By the same token, you can enter a church anywhere in the world and participate in the same act of drinking wine and eating bread. There is a wonderful equality when we approach God: no-one eats a meal that is better or worse than the next person. And everyone eats the meal they require.
Yet living in a fast food culture, we should be aware of how the surrounding world affects our approach to communion. There is a growing tendency for people to approach church like individual consumers. They look to what they are going to get out of it. In a sense I hope this happens, because if God’s Spirit is at work they should be blessed. People are here to be served. But they are also here to serve. They are, if you like, on both sides of the counter at the same time. I heard from a church leader recently who told me about how a worshipper had said he was a consumer of the church on a Sunday morning, that he expected to have his needs met and no other duty placed on him so his life would be unfettered. Put like that it’s quite alluring. But it is actually a travesty of the faith, where others are there for you but you are not there for them. Fast food religion, I suppose.
If you’ve ever lined up in one of the five queues in McDonalds, waiting impatiently to be served, you’ll know how easy it is to enter into that kind of urban trance where you don’t notice the people lining up next to you. As we line up in church to take the sacrament, we’re not entitled to ignore the person standing next to us, because Jesus calls them a brother or a sister. Yet it would seem these ties are loosening across Britain, judging by declining incidences of fellowship. There is a risk of these ties becoming so slack in some places that they won’t be worth wearing.
One way of doing this is to renew our perception of what Jesus was prepared to go through for the person standing next to us in the line. I am not vegetarian; in unrestrained moments I can’t wait to bite into a burger. Yet research on the fast food industry has laid out in horrific detail the callous and indecent way cattle are slaughtered to make up a big Mac. In 2009 this research was turned into a film on general release: Fast Food Nation. You might want to catch it for yourself. Since this encounter I have often thought twice before eating certain cuts of meat. Should any creature die brutally so that I can eat and live? Well yes, actually. The death of Jesus was indescribably painful and horrifying. And it happened so that I could eat the bread of life today.
The consumer in line at McDonalds might not give a second thought over how this meal arrived in the carton thrown at them over the counter, but the communicant in church is called to make this reflection over and over again. Not so they give up the practice out of guilt, but so that their sense of wonder and gratitude is deepened year on year. It’s when we embrace what he went through for the person standing next to us that our own perspective on them is changed irrevocably.
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