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Eat, drink, and be holy: it's not what you eat that counts but with whom you eat it, says Jesus, who had some pretty remarkable eating habits himself. (testaments).

THE THING THAT GETS YOU RIGHT AWAY ABOUT Jesus and food is that he's always eating, or talking about eating, or feeding people, or being fed. Jesus takes mealtime seriously. I like that in a person.

Start with the big story, the miraculous one about feeding 5,000 (not counting women and children). Liza Minnelli only fed 1,200 at her recent wedding--counting the women and the kids--and she seems to have more assets than Jesus did. With nothing more than a bit of bread and fish, Jesus met the need of several villages.

The fact that Jesus cared about the hunger of the crowd, and did something about it, puts him in a different league from all the people who talk about the problem of hunger and then go home to their own supper. The feeding of the multitude was such a signature event in the minds of the people that all four gospel writers wrote it down. In fact it is the only story, short of the Crucifixion, that gets recorded all four times.

The Last Supper may not have grabbed the headlines at the time, but it makes up for it in the next 21 centuries. Three of the gospel writers make a point of telling about it. (John skips it in favor of some bread-of-life teachings earlier and the washing of the feet on that particular night.) Surely this event, upon which the church founds its central celebration--the Eucharist--demonstrates how profoundly a meal captures the very reality of God among us. Jesus knew, no matter how busy people get, they never forget to eat. He didn't need a better reminder of the vital presence of God than food.

And when Jesus wanted to teach his followers, he told stories about food. He spoke about wedding feasts (probably not like Liza's) to which the humblest souls were randomly invited. He talked about the rich who ate well while their poor brothers sat by the gate and hoped for scraps. He assured them that God's reign was hidden in the world the way a woman hides yeast in the dough when preparing bread. He warned about the leaven of the Pharisees and celebrated the goodness of salt. He compared his teaching to new wine being poured into the new wineskins of his listeners. Jesus talked about vineyards and winepresses and fields and grain, trees that bore fruit and trees that did not. Once he punished a fig tree for not offering its fruit when he was hungry.

When Jesus taught his disciples to pray, he instructed them to ask for their daily bread. He assured them that God wanted to give them the good things they need for their lives, the same way they gave bread and not stones to their hungry children. In one of his most memorable stories, Jesus declared that God would welcome back sinners like a father kills the fatted calf for the son he thought he had lost. When Jesus speaks about the kingdom coming, there's always a groaning board of delights awaiting us there. Get ready to party!

Pharisees were quick to invite Jesus to dine with them. But later they grumbled behind his back that he was nothing but a glutton and a drunkard. There may have been rumors floating around about a certain wedding feast in Cana that got out of control. But what bothered religious people most was not what he ate, but with whom. Jesus and his disciples sat down to dinner with tax collectors and sinners. That put the whole lot of them in conflict with religious custom and culture, and made them fundamentally unclean.

Consider the times. People ate with their kin and with their own kind. Scribes ate with scribes, priests with priests, Pharisees with Pharisees, and Jews most certainly with fellow Jews. The fact that Jesus "ate around" with anyone and everyone was a rather shocking thing. He ate with total strangers, and, frankly, there's no telling where they'd been! People like Zacchaeus, who must have fallen out of the tree when Jesus said he wanted to stay with him. Jesus even picks a tax collector as one of his companions, so that once Matthew joins the group, they never eat another "clean" meal again.

And, of course, Jesus encouraged his followers to pluck the heads of grain on the Sabbath when they were hungry, which drove law-abiding folks to distraction. The bottom line was, when it was time to eat, Jesus was willing to break each and every law to make sure people got fed.

YOU WANT TO TALK ABOUT REMARKABLE EATING HABITS? Jesus was willing to share his Last Supper with Judas, dipping into the dish with a man he knew flat out was a traitor. As he had explained once before, when Pharisees balked at his willingness to eat with notorious people, only the sick need a doctor. He came for the sinners, not for the righteous. He came for the Pharisees and ate with them, too--an irony that seemed to be lost on them. Self-righteous people in every age seem to lack a sense of humor.

After the Resurrection, Jesus revisited the same bunch that deserted him in the hour of his death and ate with them again. So in light of all of this, it can only seem odd, maybe even off-kilter, that generations of Catholics were taught not to approach the table of the Lord unless they were "in a state of grace." We had to be "worthy." What's with worthy? Who was ever worthy to sit down to dinner with Jesus when he walked among us? And who among us could ever be worthy, even after going to Confession and saying a hundred rosaries? We even admit this every time we pray that little prayer of the centurion right before Communion: "O Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed." None of us are worthy, by our own admission. And yet some of us feel our unworthiness too keenly to come and eat, and many others were told (all too often, misinformed) that they could not.

Scrupulosity is a category of sin that could use a little attention from the church. The scrupulous invent obstacles to receiving the grace and mercy God offers us with outstretched arms. They worry and fret about their sinfulness, as if their power to sin is greater than God's power to forgive. Another word for scrupulosity is, to put it bluntly, pride. If we believe we are greater sinners than God's compassion can handle, then we think a little too highly of our lowliness.

Scrupulosity happens to the nicest people: Saint Therese of Lisieux, one of the Doctors of the church, wrestled with it for years. She finally let it go when she read the gospels for herself and saw how attracted Jesus was to sinners and not to the morally perfect. Her whole spirituality of the Little Way is based on her discovery that Jesus wasn't kidding when he chose the company of the fallen over the obedient. If Jesus really came to call sinners--and we have to take him at his word here--then knowing we are sinners cannot disqualify us from his company.

If Jesus were perfectly willing to eat with tax collectors (who collaborated with the Roman occupation), prostitutes (who collaborated with anyone who had the time), Pharisees (who were notoriously scrupulous), women (who were not even worth counting in a crowd)--not to mention the fellow who called him Lord and then denied him, and the fellow who kissed him and then stepped aside as they killed him--I can only imagine that it would be a rare person indeed who is unwelcome to sit down to dinner with Jesus.

But just when we are convinced that the importance of celebrating at the table of Jesus is "the point" he was trying to make, Jesus flips it all around. He taught the other side of the story just as fervently: that life is more than food, that we shouldn't worry so much about where our next meal is coming from. The birds don't have barns, yet God feeds them. On one occasion when the disciples bring food to Jesus, he says dismissively, "I have food to eat of which you do not know." Perhaps he was recalling how the devil had come to him during a long fast and tempted him to turn stones into bread. He resisted, knowing that human life is not defined by the bread you can hold in your hand.

Jesus reserved his most strenuous words about making too much of a meal for the Pharisees--who, quite honestly, made too much of just about everything. When they fretted about how Jesus' followers spoke of holy things yet ate their meals with unclean hands, he cut them off bluntly. "Do you not realize that everything that enters the mouth passes into the stomach and is expelled into the latrine?" (Matt. 15:17)

This is the only "potty talk" by Jesus that ends up on the record, but it makes his position on the matter brilliantly clear. Uncleanness or unworthiness or sinfulness is not something that can be gauged by external cues. The only real pollution, Jesus declares, comes from within the human heart. Yet because the Pharisees are so obsessed with appearances of piety, Jesus identifies them with the ritual washings they dutifully embrace when he calls them, in effect, dirty dishes.

Eating and drinking is not enough, however piously managed and sacramentally enacted, to identify us as friends of Jesus. And so Jesus taught that, in the days before Noah, people ate and drank, up to the day of the flood, never suspecting the disaster that would overwhelm them. In the same way, some would come forward in the final hour and insist, "We ate and drank in your company," and the master would declare to them, "I do not know where you are from."

The only way we can be sure that the door will not be closed on us, then, is not to count on what we eat, but with whom. Jesus said we should plan our meals around the poor, the lonely, and the stranger. Only then can we be sure that Jesus will say these words to us in the reign of God: "When I was hungry, you gave me to eat. When I was thirsty, you gave me to drink."

As far as we can tell, Jesus did a lot of eating and drinking during his ministry. He ate with people who were hungry for what he had to give. And by the time of the writing of John's gospel, a full generation into the life of the church, something curious happened to the telling of these stories. No longer was Jesus portrayed as a guest at every table. Instead, he became the main course. "I am the bread that came down from heaven." "Let anyone who thirsts, come to me and drink." "I am the vine." His final charge to Peter in that gospel is to "Feed my lambs. Feed my sheep." It's as if the church finally got it, after sitting down to countless Eucharists and after listening repeatedly to the stories of Jesus' many famous meals. It isn't about rituals and appearances, worthiness or status. It isn't even about bread and wine. It is about sharing in the life of Christ, as heartily and essentially and memorably as we await our next meal. Every celebration of our Eucharist is another opportunity for us to get it, too.

By ALICE CAMILLE, author of Invitation to Catholicism (ACTA Publications) and a collaborator on the homily series, "This Sunday's Scripture," available through Twenty-Third Publications.
COPYRIGHT 2002 Claretian Publications
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Title Annotation:source and meaning of the Eucharist
Author:Camille, Alice
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 1, 2002
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