Food and Religion
By Reverend Tom Capo
Preached on November 23, 2014
What is the significance of food as it relates to spirituality or religious tradition? In Steve’s story, little Carrie travels to different homes looking for her brother, but instead finds various cultural dishes made with rice. Just like Carrie, I spent much of last week exploring the ways in which various religions include food in their rituals and traditions. In this journey from virtual house to house, I was surprised by what I feasted upon.
Our journey starts with the Sikh religious home. The Golden Temple Complex is the Central worship place for Sikhs around the world, and it is in Punjab, India. The Sikhs are serving a free communal meal known as Langar. The concept of `Langar' is a very old tradition of great importance for the Sikhs. This tradition was started by the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak. It was designed to uphold the principle of equality between all people regardless of religion, caste, color, creed, age, gender or social status. This was a revolutionary concept in the caste-ordered society of 16th century India where Sikhism began. In addition to the ideals of equality, the tradition of Langar expresses the ethics of sharing, community, inclusiveness and oneness of all humankind.
Let’s now head to the Christian religious home. I grew up Catholic and I felt I had some knowledge of this religion and food. Communion. The little wafer and a sip of wine that is given out in remembrance of Jesus Christ. According to the Catholic faith, this wafer and wine is transubstantiated, actually becomes, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. In Protestant Christian traditions, this wafer and wine is either though to be consubstantiated, that is, becoming the body and blood of Christ while still being wafer and wine, or is thought of more metaphorically, not actually changing. The wafer and wine are used to remember Jesus, his wisdom and life. But what is interesting to me is that this tradition of bread and wine didn’t really become part of the worship service in the Catholic Church until the time of Constantine around 313 CE.
Before that time, many of the followers of Jesus chose to gather to share meals and discuss their spirituality. This is what their worship was. I use the word followers because they did not think of themselves as a religion at the time. Based on new research on the early Christian writings, the following narrative of what that early Christian meal would be like was created: “The dining room was already crowded, with every couch occupied with at least one person [reclining comfortably]… the blessings had actually been said over the bread before the last group had even come…Two servants were carrying large baskets of bread, fruit, and vegetables around each couch. Bowls of olives seemed perched everywhere…Then two other servants came in with large platters of lamb and pork. The aroma of the meat wafted into the room, and several of those reclining clambered up to grab a piece as soon as possible…The president [of the evening] declared, ‘Because we are all brothers and sisters in Christ, we share this bounteous feast equally…’ ‘Excuse me,’ [a young man] pleaded, ‘I do not approve of this meat. It is pork. God’s people are not to eat pork. How do we celebrate our community in the Christ, when we are not one in our eating?’ [The president replied] ‘Brothers and sisters…it is not appropriate for us to have this debate [over what is appropriate to eat] now. I propose to discuss and decide this later after the supper and the raising of the cup to Christ. So, for now, let everyone eat what they wish, and we will honor the objection about the meat after we have raised the cup…’ After this feast, they drank their wine, first pouring some of the wine on the ground as an offering to Christ.
This is probably not how we think of how the early Christians gathered. One other note on this second house on our journey, there was a lot of subtext going on during this meal that most of us wouldn’t even realize – for instance this meal was a mini rebellion against the Roman Dictators. The Hellenistic meals of the time were based on class and rank. If you were higher class or rank, you got the best food and you got the best couch and you got to recline. Those of the lesser classes only got to eat what was left and they had to stand during the feast. As you may have noticed the early Christians all reclined and shared equally what was served—rejecting the social boundaries of the Romans. In addition, the early Christians were still experimenting with how to eat together, trying to figure out what to serve, how to honor the Jewish and Gentile members of their community, and even what rituals to use.
Let’s continue our journey to the next religious home. We enter a Shinto service. A Shinto service is said to be comprised of three parts. The first part is the ritual or ceremony that begins with making food and sake offerings to a god or gods. The second part consists of taking down the offered sake and food so the god(s) and human beings can share in meal together. This is called the “naorai.” During this part of the service, a symbolic feast occurs and a priest or female attendant offers those in attendance a sip of sake. The third part of the Shinto service is the “banquet.” This when the food is actually eaten by those in attendance.
The next home we will visit is that of Ethical humanism. The ethical humanist comes to the communal table giving thanks for the work of those whose labor helped make the feast possible, while keeping in mind that right relationship demands that the ethical humanist continue to work for fair labor laws and equity for all people. Percival Chubb, who worked with the Ethical Culture School in New York and was leader of the Ethical Society of St. Louis from 1912-1933, wanted to celebrate Thanksgiving, but he felt that Thanksgiving was a theistic celebration. He decided to create a non-supernatural Thanksgiving ritual. So if we were to join him during his Thanksgiving feast, Percival would start the meal with this blessing:
“Once more the fields have ripened to harvest,
and the fruitful earth has fulfilled the promise of spring.
The work of those who labor has been rewarded:
They have sown and reaped, planted and gathered.
How rich and beautiful is the bounty gathered:
The golden grain and clustered corn, the grapes of purple and green,
The crimson apples and yellow pears,
and all the colors of orchard and garden, vineyard and field.
Season follows after season, after winter the spring,
after summer the harvest-laden autumn.
From bud to blossom, from flower to fruit, f
rom seed to bud again, the beauty of earth unfolds.
From the harvest of the soil we are given occasion
to garner a harvest of the heart and mind:
A harvest of resolve to be careful stewards of all life's gifts and opportunities.
A harvest of reverence for the wondrous power and life at work in things that grow, and in the soul.
A harvest of gratitude for every good which we enjoy,
and of fellowship for all who are sustained by earth's beauty.”
So now I come to Unitarian Universalism and our religious home. What role does food play in our tradition in our worship? What meaning does food have for us in this faith? Today, we shared a ritual meal of rice crackers and water, a sparse meal to say the least. We shared this meal as an expression of our connection to this community and the holy as each of us understands the holy. This ritual means something to all of us, but what that “something” is, is different for each of us. This is the essence of Unitarian Universalism. We have a few rituals, most of which mean something to all of us, but is different for each of us. For instance the lighting of the chalice each Sunday to begin our worship service. What does it mean to you? I have spoken with many Unitarian Universalists about this ritual. Some experience the chalice lighting as a way of connecting with other Unitarian Universalists around the world, feeling a part of this religious movement. Some experience the chalice lighting as a call to the holy to be present with us as we worship. Some experience the chalice lighting as a means of remembering our history, when the flaming chalice symbol was used during World War II to help people escape Nazi Germany. Some experience the chalice lighting as a time of grounding, a time to bring oneself to this time and place to prepare for reflection and discernment.
So, back to food. This is from Jessica Chen’s book “Pigs, Purity, and Protection”: “Gillian Feeley-Harnik’s study on ‘Religion and Food. In a study on religion and food, anthropological Jane Fajan asserts religious food symbolism is not static, “but rather moves, penetrates, and transforms.” She goes on to say that “symbolism … is constantly changing.” So the question is: Do we here at DuPage Unitarian Universalist Church want a food based ritual like the Christians, the Shintos, the Sihks, the Muslims, or the Jews that means the same thing to all the people who participate in it? We, Unitarian Universalists do have the flower communion each spring, during which we collectively affirm that as a gathering of diverse individuals with varying beliefs, talents, and perspectives we are able to create a beloved community, a beautiful bouquet of people that can transform the world. And while this is a communal ritual with common meaning, there is no food there. Many of our Unitarian Universalist communities do have food related traditions, the empty bowl, during which Unitarian Universalists eat a sparse meal of rice and beans, reflecting on all those, homeless, destitute, who experience frequent food insecurity, not always knowing if they will have even rice and beans to get them to the next day. Many Unitarian Universalist churches raise money during this ritual for local food pantries. I have also have heard of a Chocolate Communion practiced in UU churches on Valentine’s Day. Don’t get any ideas about that, no chocolate in the sanctuary.
I would welcome your ideas about what food means to us as Unitarian Universalists, and how ritually sharing food might symbolize something of importance to us as a community. Perhaps part of our food ritual might include a sharing with one another about the meaning of the ritual to us. Perhaps we can have conversations about how this ritual is a reflection of our personal beliefs. In this spirit, I encourage you, after the service, to talk with one another about what this little shared meal ritual meant to you.
Unitarian Univesalist minister, Reverend Richard M. Fewkes wrote:
For the sun and the dawn
Which we did not create;
For the moon and the evening
Which we did not make;
For food which we plant
But cannot grow;
For friends and loved ones
We have not earned and cannot buy;
For this gathered company
Which welcomes us as we are,
from wherever we have come;
For all our free churches
That keep us human and encourage us in our quest for beauty, truth, and love;
For all things which come to us
As gifts of being from sources beyond ourselves;
Gifts of life and love and friendship
We lift up our hearts in thanks this day.
May these words be a blessing for those of us fortunate enough to go forth from this time to share meals of food and fellowship with ones we love. And for those of you who may not be so fortunate, please reach out to us here in this community, we are here for you. Happy Thanksgiving everyone.