Search This Blog

Friday, September 13, 2013

All are welcome—to what? The quandary of the open table

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.

The whole ecumenical, what-would-Jesus-do scene gets a little mixed up when it comes to the Eucharist. Everybody believes the Eucharist should be for everyone, but the how of that is where we get messed up and start arguing.

Christian communities with open tables welcome all believers to the Eucharist. It's not that there's any kind of test, but they don't make an issue over your confessional status when you come to worship with them. Communities with closed tables, and Catholics are among these, believe that the table of Lord is a rite reserved for the confessional community, for those whose belief is the same. For us, this translates into having been initiated into the Church through baptism, either as an adult through the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults or as a child through baptism. What we believe about baptism is, in fact, that it is the doorway to the Eucharist. Baptism incorporates us, with confirmation, into the body of Christ. The Eucharist is the sacramental celebration of that reality, in which the gift of the fullness of Christ, head and members, is given by Christ to the Father in love and to the world as food. That is to say, the Eucharist is always a visible sign of the invisible reality of the kenosis (self-emptying) of the Logos, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity. Eucharist thus completes, in an ongoing and repeatable way, the sacraments of initiation. Just as the self-gift of Christ is eternally present in every place and time, and the ministry of the church in the world is eternally present in every place and time, so the table-fellowship of Christians around the Eucharistic table takes place throughout time and space to signify the work of God among us.

Now, incorporation into Christ in baptism means something. It means a lot of somethings, but among those many things it means that a person is delivered from the separation and isolation of sin by being made a member of a community, permanently, filled with God's Holy Spirit. A person becomes  a member of Christ's body, a living reality, and thus shares in the mission and destiny of Christ. As we have shared in his death, so we shall share in a like resurrection. "As the Father has sent me, so now I send you." Christ is sent on mission to the world, to announce the forgiveness of sins and the immanence of the dominion of God, and to begin living in this world that reign of equality and peace. Thus, incorporation is both a matter of being (a member of Christ) and doing (the work of Christ.) It is both a matter of belonging and mission, being in and being sent, organically, at the same time.

The Eucharist is sometimes narrowly seen as having been invented or instituted by Christ at the Last Supper, but a richer and certainly more revealing view of Eucharist would include the entire table ministry of Jesus, much of which is described in the gospels, both during his life, including the Last Supper, and even in the post-resurrection meals, such as at the household of Clopas in Emmaus, and on the shore of Lake Tiberias, where Jesus cooks breakfast for the disciples. All four gospels recount one or more miracles of Jesus feeding multitudes after giving thanks over small amounts of food, a remarkable narrative confluence not often repeated between the synoptics and John. The Last Supper itself, while mentioned in John, makes no mention of sharing food, bread, and cup, only referring to Jesus' washing of the disciples' feet after the meal. 

Mealsharing in the New Testament always has some revelatory aspect. Matthew reports that Jesus was called a glutton and a drunkard; one can only imagine that, for such epithets to be remembered, he must have been known as someone who made a point of eating with others a lot, and certainly the number of meals that are reported in the gospels bears that out. Those with whom Jesus ate are also mentioned: prostitutes, tax collectors (collaborators with the occupying and ritually impure Romans) are mentioned as his table companions. He also ate with those wary of his status, like Simon the Pharisee, whose banquet was infiltrated by a woman of the town who had a bad reputation, and whose love and hospitality Jesus commended as having originated in God's forgiveness of her sins. Each of the three great parables in chapter 15 of Luke, which we hear in this weekend's liturgies, have at their literary centers a meal or celebration over the finding of a lost sheep, coin, or child. Wedding banquets make up the context of parables, Jesus' first miracle is at a wedding feast where the host runs out of wine. Food and eating seem to be so much a part of the messianic message (see Isaiah 25:6ff) that we first meet Jesus in Luke's infancy narrative when his mother wraps him in swaddling clothes and lays him in...a manger! Already, just a few minutes into his earthly existence, the divine Logos is, literally, at the eating place!

So for Jesus, table fellowship with the outsider, with those deemed "unworthy" by the religious establishment, seems to be a kind of street theater. This is not to say he was "acting," but to say that he was making a public proclamation by his deeds. It wasn't enough to "speak" the word, he had to live the word in a visible way. He was making sacrament, using signs and symbols to forge new meanings for those who were able to see. The sharing of life and hospitality, the welcoming of the other, the stranger, even the perceived foe, at the dining table is to make visible and present the reign of God. Michael Joncas makes the point that one of the great miracles of the table of the Lord is that for the duration of his public ministry, people at opposite ends of the political-religious spectrum, who probably began regarding each other as bereft of honor, dined together in something like harmony. On the one hand, Matthew, the tax-collector, was a collaborator in the employ of the Romans. On the other, we have Simon the Zealot, a member of a party dedicated to the violent overthrow of the Roman occupiers, along with Judas called "Iskarioth," which might put him in a cabal called "the dagger," a group of assassins who killed collaborators and Romans by stealth. All three were members of the Twelve, Jesus' inner circle of table companions.

There is some modern scholarship suggesting that the open table in early church life was a recruiting strategy. Imitating the behavior of the master, the apostles (particularly the latecomer Paul, whose influence in the history of the church in nothing short of remarkable) would host tables to which all were invited. Wealthier sympathizers might provide the location and board, but the meals were occasions for evangelization, continuing Jesus's invitation to participation in a different worldview, the "kingdom of God," contrasting it with the hollow, fearful drudgery of the Pax Romana.

In modern church life, too, table-fellowship means something outside of Sunday Eucharist. As a matter of fact, like every sacrament, the authenticity of the sign depends
to some extent on the conscientious participation of those who take part in it. In a wedding, for instance, if there is any indication of coercion, or doubt, or fear, or incapacitation (say, a drunken bride or groom), there is no wedding, no matter what is said on the day of the ceremony. This is not to say that God was not present, or didn't want the wedding to happen, or even that there was not love between the partners. It's just that, as Jesuit liturgist John Gallen used to put it, "you can't say 'I do' if you don't," or if you literally can't. The same must be said of the Eucharist, of baptism, and any sacramental action of the Church. God is here. God wants to save the world. But those who are taking part in these sacred actions must also "show up." We have to be there, too, and want to act in love, in good conscience, to be part of the divine action. If you don't know there is a divine action, then you can't authentically take part in it. If you aren't connected to Christ through the community (in baptism), then you really can't share in the Eucharistic table, because there's no 'there' there. This is not to say that everyone is not called to the table, somehow, in God's plan. But the way there isn't through coercion, or a good feeling, or a general invitation to eat, as though that's all there is to it, because it isn't. Being called to the table of the Lord is being called to the community made by baptism. The way to the table is through the font. The way to the font is through bonding to the community through ministry of the word, through prayer, through common life and missionary attitude. The font, and sealing with the Holy Spirit in Confirmation, makes us members of the Body of Christ, and thereby we are called to eat and drink at the table to be made, week by week, ever more conformed to Christ, or remade in his image, by the work of the Holy Spirit. The Eucharist is the outward sign of this action. Most of it happens in the other 167 hours of the week when we're NOT at mass.

So is everyone welcome at the Catholic eucharist? Yes, of course. But there's only one way in, and that is through baptism (and, in the case of adults and children who are old enough for understanding, confirmation). Is everyone welcome on Sunday? Yes, of course, to partake of the table of God's word, where Christ is truly present, and to know the real presence of Jesus in the ministry of the church (priest, assembly, musicians, readers, etc.) and in the very gathering of the ekklesia, those who are called out for this work. The Eucharistic meal, though, is for those who have been called to it through baptism. No one has a "right" to it. It is God's gift to the Church, through faith, made visible by a person's assent to (and the community's discernment of) that choice by God in baptism. Chosen by God to feed the world, the Church is fed in the Eucharist. 

One might say, "But not even all Catholics live this way, live differently." You would be right. We have a lot of work to do.

Still, no IDs are checked. Priests who act responsibly in the liturgy don't say, "only Catholics may approach." It's certainly not part of the Roman liturgy in any book I've looked at. But just like a marriage in which there's some impediment to authentic consent, it may be that nothing happens. Kisses may look alike, but they don't all say "I love you." If Catholics want to do what Jesus would do, I would suggest we do less of inviting people to pretend that they belong at the Eucharistic table, and more of what we know Jesus did: go out and make friends with people who are shut out. Let them eat at our tables. Eat with them at theirs. Make the connection to the banquet of the Messiah, and show them how followers of Jesus live. They might just get interested in what makes us tick, why we go to the "bother" of being with them. At that point, we might be able to tell them who taught us how to eat and drink, and ask them whether they'd like to know more. All of those gospel meals with the Lord happened after they heard the words, "Follow me," and set out on the road to Jerusalem, the cross, and the empty tomb. Sometimes we need to be reminded that “when we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim the death of Lord, until he comes.” If someone sits down to this table, they ought to know what they’re getting into. That includes us.


  1. I have to admit, I've struggled with the Church's closed communion stance. I grew up in a church with open communion (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada, sister to the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America) and thus, feel that Christ's invitation to come is for all of us who believe in Him.

    I get where the Catholic Church is coming come theologically, but it's hard to reconcile the idea of "this is Jesus, who loves everyone" and "sorry, Jesus in the Catholic tradition isn't for you".

    I'm adding this question to the list of mysteries of the Church I will figure out when I grow up. ;) (Watch for pigs flying around the same time....)

    1. I think many of us struggle with it, which is why I bring it up: both to articulate the (good) reasons for a "closed" table, and to suggest that maybe it's not the only way. I have more to say about this (who doesn't?) but it will wait until next week. In the meantime, I'll look for the flying bacon, Jen!