We do not presume to come to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies. We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord, whose property is always to have mercy: Grant us therefore, gracious Lord, so to eat the flesh of thy dear Son Jesus Christ, and to drink his blood, that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body, and our souls washed through his most precious blood, and that we may evermore dwell in him, and he in us. Amen. ~The Prayer of Humble Access
The Eucharist is supremely an act of godly charity. The chief characteristic of Communion is its givenness. In this Holy Mystery, God gives himself to his people by the power of the Holy Spirit through the material gifts of bread and wine. As we approach the table, we come as spiritual beggars; empty handed, hungering and thirsting for righteousness. We kneel before the King, having nothing to our name save the Triune Name that was written on our foreheads through baptism. Ah! But that it is enough! For that watermark is a pledge, the imperial seal of Heaven identifying us as heirs to the promises of God. When we come to the table, needy though we may be, we come with that indelible emblem writ large upon our brow. That baptismal imprint is a tangible reminder of God’s eternal yea and amen to every oath he has sworn to us in Jesus.
So, as we make our way to the altar, we already have the assurance that we shall be satisfied with every good and perfect gift. We stretch forth impecunious fingers and lay hold upon the fullness of God. Our sin-parched lips long for the cooling stream that flows from our Savior’s riven side. And for our poverty, he places the chalice to our lips and says, “Open thy mouth wide and I will fill it.”
All of this is but the extravagance of our Prodigal God whose every action outside of himself is sheer opulence. We need no more than a sampling taste to know that he is good, yet he throws wide the gates of the kingdom, seats us at a sumptuous feast as princes and sons, and raises the royal standard above his once-indigent guests. Impoverished and broke we come, half naked but for a few fig leaves and tattered rags of our own crude devising, yet he ushers us into his banqueting house where his banner over us is love. Indeed, the Eucharist is charity, and our only reasonable response to such a lavish display is thanksgiving.
But there is an aspect that is often forgotten by those of us who are regular recipients of this act of divine benevolence. We fail to remember that it has become our duty to exemplify this same economy of grace in our own daily lives. Indeed, we who have been forgiven much must love much. And having received more than we can deserve, much shall be required of us. We receive grace in communion, and this means that what we have been given is to be shared; this is the essence of communion. We receive forgiveness and the assurance of pardon, and we are called to give the same in turn. We who were once outcasts and strangers were drawn near and accepted in the Beloved. Should this not affect how we view the stranger within our gates? We drink the fruit of vines we did not plant, and we eat of bread for which we did no labor. We would be hungering still if not for the generosity of others. How can we not, then, care about those who will close their eyes on another day without having had the opportunity to close their mouths on a single bite of food?
The Eucharist is food, and as such, it cannot be separated from food politics. In the sacrament, God communicates his eternal kindness to us through material means—through bread and wine. He does so by giving them as gifts. Such humble exercises of divine charity should have the effect of inducing the same spirit of charity within us, for indeed that same Spirit does live within us.
Someone might object by saying that such an argument confuses the spiritual with the material. After all, they are spiritual benefits that we receive at the table. But the question remains, by what means did those spiritual benefits come to you? Was it not through eating and drinking? Was it not by means of grapes and grains? And were those things not really given to you? The categorical confusion isn’t between spiritual and material (where no conflict has ever existed), but between selflessness and selfishness, between gratitude and greed, between loving our neighbors and loving ourselves to their hurt. Ultimately, it is the spiritual gift of eternal life that we hope to give to the world. Pray tell, how effective do you suppose we will be in our preaching about the Bread of Heaven to starving people when we won’t even offer them a sandwich and a hot bowl of soup? Perhaps there is a bit of confusion concerning spiritual graces and material beings after all…
If the hospitality exhibited in the Eucharistic meal doesn’t flow out into our personal lives—our day-to-day experiences of eating and drinking, then what we do at church is not the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. If we share bread in church but hoard it at home; if we receive the broken as brothers at the table but shut them out of our gated neighborhoods; if we say our prayers as servants but spend the week preying on the helpless—then our altar has become a table of demons.
In this supreme act of charity, Christ gives himself away that we might live. His body is broken, blessed, and distributed for the life of the world. What should happen then, when the world approaches the Body seeking bread? “Herein is our love made perfect, that we may have boldness in the Day of Judgment: because as he is, so are we in this world” (I John 4:17). Communion with God through bread and wine should compel us to commune with our neighbor by the use of our own pots and pans. But sadly, what P.J. O’Rourke said is too often true of us: “Everybody wants to save the world, but no one wants to do the dishes.”