Christianity is often characterised as a ‘religion of the book’, alongside Judaism and Islam, but it seems to me that one of the reasons this definition fails is that it leaves out a central aspect of Christian religious practice: eating and drinking.
On the feast of Corpus Christi this is what we celebrate: Christ’s body and blood, given to us under the appearance of bread and wine. Given to us for what reason? Not to nourish us physically, certainly, not to sustain mere biological life, but to enable us to live with ‘eternal life’ pulsing in our veins, with the life of Christ animating our every moment: ‘He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood lives in me and I live in him’.
We are probably fairly comfortable with this mystery – we have grown up with it, and its strangeness no longer strikes us. In the ancient world, food and religion were certainly connected, above all in the practice of sacrifice. In ancient Greek religion, for example, an animal would be sacrificed in honour of a god, and its thigh-bones wrapped in fat would be burnt on a fire, so that the smoke could ‘feed’ the god in question. Such a practice was designed to curry favour with the gods – the sacrificer has given of his best in the sacrifice, and he hopes for the god’s best efforts in return.
The Eucharist turns this standard scheme of sacrifice upside down. Just as God fed Israel in the desert with manna, so the Eucharist is God’s way of feeding us. Yes, we offer Him a meagre amount of bread and wine as our sacrifice, but the real sacrifice in question is Christ’s offering of himself to the Father, and the real feeding in question is God’s nourishment of his people, not their feeding him.
This is all well and good, and the notion of being fed by God might be comforting to us, but this idea is just the sort of thing that made Sigmund Freud see religion as essentially ‘infantile’. He saw religious practice as stemming out of childhood anxieties about being fed, and the Eucharist he would dismiss as a symptom of this repressed anxiety.
How can we as Christians respond to this suspicious attitude to the eating and drinking which is so central to our worship of God? It seems to me that the best way to respond is by pointing out that all acts of eating and drinking involve a childlike recognition of our limits. We are not supermen, we have basic bodily needs which we must respect, and which make us dependent on each other. This was exactly the experience of Israel in the desert: ‘God humbled you, He made you feel hunger, He fed you with manna’ (Deut 8:3).
The Eucharist is the sacramental embodiment of this principle – we humans are not self-sufficient, we need to be fed, physically and spiritually. We should not be ashamed, then, of feeling like little children as we approach the Bread of Life – children, after all, are blessedly free of the illusions of independence which complicate and corrupt the lives of grown-ups.