Virtuous Eating, Part 3: Spiritual Food

(This is the last of a series of three post examining the Christian’s relationship with food. The first covers the reasons we should take food seriously, and the second takes a stab at identifying pitfalls in the way Americans think about food.)

I ended the previous posts with two uses of food which most nutritionists ignore: food as the means of thanksgiving and as the means of love. These two are, of course, very weird.

Modernly, food is about the body rather than the soul. Since we believe food is primarily fuel, things like thanksgiving and hospitality appear secondary to its “real” function. It seems only an accident that gratitude and love enter the picture.

However, this is backward. At the heart of it, heaven’s love for the earth is the reason behind the necessity of food. One theologian even wrote that food is God’s love made edible. Biblically, food provides a banquet in the Garden, a sacrifice in the temple, a feast in the Passover, a miracle in the wilderness, a lesson in the crowds around Christ. Miraculously, from the night He was betrayed, food – simple bread and wine – even offered humankind a means by which to bring God directly into ourselves, a feast which began with giving thanks and never ended.

I wrote before that the impulse to say grace before a meal holds the key to how the Christian ought to see food. Even Christ, incarnate God, chose to thank God for the food He ate. Just as He looks at you or me and sees our true potential as human beings, He understood how to perfectly realize the nature of food. And, at every turn, He acts as though the fulfillment of food is thanksgiving. Just as the purpose of humanity is to glorify God and to adore him forever, the purpose of food is to give us an opportunity to be grateful and gracious. It drives us to remember our limitations and needs and to help our neighbor. It constantly reminds us that we are not self-contained worlds, but interactive and needy.

We are dependent creatures, and this is not a fault. Nowhere is this as easily seen as the dinner table. It is the delight of the host to place glistening, savory food in front of her guest, and it is the delight of the guest to receive it, compliment it, and be fed. At the moment of the dinner party, fuel is secondary to love. The table of a dear friend’s house is a sketch of the dependence we have on God. It is a mutually delightful interchange.

For those of us with strong faith, this dependence is joy. The more we accept our state as dependent creature, the more we realize that food is God’s response to our dependence on Him. Every response from God is a species of love, and food is no exception. If our side of eating means giving thanks, His side of food means providing love. Beholding His creatures in need of His help, He graciously and gloriously sprouts wild mushrooms and rice patties and strawberries, almonds, carrots out of every nook of the earth and the trees. The whole world bursts with the answer to our dependence – God’s loving provision for our ever-needy bodies. More importantly, the church gushes with God’s provision for our ever-needy souls: the spiritual food, the Eucharist, which (we should not forget)┬ámeans “thanksgiving.” Christ crystalizes this providential love in our communion with Him.

The fact that we can take God into our bodies by receiving communion must shape the way we see the very act of eating. It seems impossible that communion could be just one thing among many instead of the model for all other eating, just as it is impossible for Christ to be a part of our lives instead of our whole reason for existence.

All twelve apostles attended that first communion. They heard Christ give thanks, but one of them refused to do the same. Judas left the feast filled with the good things Christ had given him, but without gratitude. He ended up with his intestines bursting open in his death.┬áThe stomach which couldn’t respond with thanksgiving couldn’t remain intact.