Meal as Eucharist

Milton H. Coleman – 2018


Although the regular participant today at the Sunday Eucharist probably does not regard that ritual experience as a meal, there is little question that the Eucharistic rite arose from the meal practice of both the Greco-Roman periods and from the habits of the Jewish order of the day, before achieving a regular formula of the symbolic meal we would recognize today. The meal as a response to Jesus’ command and a core means of being with God grew through many variations and intentions. The route of the often elaborate meal of Roman culture to the ritualized symbolic offer of thanksgiving was a lengthy affair and the liturgical rite we have today seems remote to what we know of the meal structure at the time of Jesus.

The purpose of this essay is to review the original sources of Judaism and the ancient church with regard to the sacred meal, the Eucharist, in order to inquire as to whether some sort of return to a calorific meal might have promise in today’s contemporary Christian experience. By that I mean can the Eucharistic sharing of the body and blood be enhanced by incorporating it in a structured meal of appetizer, entre’ and dessert?

Of course a more basic question when considering if the Eucharistic meal can be offered in another fashion is this: Is the Eucharist which arose from Christian communal practice in the early years after Jesus a symbolic remembrance of the last supper as the gospels relate or is it founded on Jewish meal practice, especially the Passover meal? And if this question is anyway resolvable, is the current formula of the Eucharistic meal the best approach to anamnesis and thanksgiving? Because meal seems some distance from the Sunday somewhat dry rite of word and tasteless communion, it may help to review the purposes of meals in pre- Christian and post-Jesus history.

The many meals Jesus ate with his disciples, with the Pharisees or with others were not unique in themselves but a continuation of the Greco-Roman normal practice. The evening meal of that culture, the deipnon, in Greek or convivium in Latin, is best translated as a banquet – a formal meal with accompanying ceremony and proper conduct. (1) This was the basic social institution of the time. (2)

Today the term banquet carries a somewhat different image – a meal usually in a public space, organized around a cause or a particular celebration such as a wedding of an evening of praise for a politician or an athletic team. The banquets of the period in question were primarily in homes, in relatively simple surroundings and often for a limited number of guests. There were exceptions to this norm, of course with some larger meals in public spaces. The purpose of the meal was twofold: provision for the consumption of food, of course and secondly for serious discussion of the issues of the day. This after dinner period was the symposium, a term that signifies the drinking course where copious quantities of wine provided by the host were used to lubricate the discussion. (3)

Invitations to the evening meal were often quite formal, prepared on papyrus, referencing the invited guest and the host together with the occasion, place date and time. Invitations from the period of these meals show a common structure, again indicating the importance of formal meals as basic elements of the culture of both Greek and Roman times. (4)

The dining space in the home, the Triclinium, usually consisted of couches of stone or wood, arranged around a central axis with food and wine brought to a central table. In some houses there was an interior space, the Andron or men’s room was so designated because only men were invited to this meal; women had separate spaces elsewhere in the house. (5) On the other hand, Blake Leyerle’s research shows that women did accompany their husbands to formal dinners and when females were in leadership positions, they did occupy privileged couches at festive occasions. (6) The meal was usually preceded by the washing of the guest’s feet by a servant of the house. Bowls of water were also available for hand washing. Hand washing was also done after the first course, undoubtedly because hands were the required utensils for eating.

Although most banquets had two courses, appetizers (gustatio) may have been added on some occasions and unmixed wine (no water) was standard for the meal. The basic staple of food across the Greco-Roman world was bread, both leavened and unleavened. It was the core of the meal. Other ingredients may have included fish, salt, vegetables, oil, cheese and on occasions, meat.

The conclusion of the main course required the servants to sweep the floor of scraps and leftovers, bring in the new wine accompanied by a ritual passage or song. Often dessert of fruit and nuts with salt was brought to initiate the next course, the aforementioned drinking course, where much wine, often mixed with water assisted the other essential basis of the meal, the serious discussion of the issues of the day, the symposium. (7)

If philosophical conversation was lacking or if the host deemed otherwise, entertainment was added to the evening. In Smith’s research the usual center of entertainment was a “flute girl”, a female servant whose job was to lure the wine infused guests to relaxation at the close of the evening. (8)This form of communal supper continued for many years; a North African banquet followed the Greco-Roman custom as late as 200 CE (9)

Meals had a special place in the social world of second temple Judaism. Of course the dietary restrictions influenced the nature of the meal but Jewish meals were quite similar to those previously described in Greco-Roman society. Research into meal customs prior to the Maccabean Revolt (200-180) shows formal meals to offer luxurious foods with the best wine available as being essential to the ideals of civilized living. Indeed, “Ben Sira, a scholar of the third century, BCE, championed the aristocratic life of leisure as a necessity for the proper cultivation of wisdom.” (10)

Obviously, such meal practice did not apply to many Jews; food and wine of the level required at these banquets was beyond the reach of the farmer, the craftsman and other members of the working class. Later Rabbinic literature describes the formal meal at the time of the first century CE where each course is marked by handwashing and benedictions of each cup of wine. At the conclusion of the meal another cup of wine, the ceremonial cup, is blessed by all present prior to the start of the symposium. (11)

The Passover in the years before the days of Jesus was the primary sacrificial meal of the year. It was largely based in terms of preparation, on the food and wine of the Greco-Roman banquet previously described. But there were specific differences: There was no desert course, four ceremonial cups of wine were required, the paschal lamb was the final food served. Each of the four cups of wine signaled a new section of the rite, with each benediction, as outlined in the Mishnah. The meal order, the Seder, although not fixed until the second century CE, was intentionally part of Israel’s practice for many years before that time, Indeed, the book of Joshua positions the first Passover at the point when the Israelites left Egypt and the second, at the crossing of the Jordan into Canaan. (12)

Jesus, of course, grew up in the Jewish culture of Roman occupied Palestine and when he began his ministry included both large formal meals and simple village food, both for his own sustenance and that of his disciples and followers; these meals served as platforms for his teachings, the purpose of his life on earth.

Details of meals enjoyed by Jesus are somewhat scarce except, of course the references contained in the gospels. Surely the meals he ate with the Pharisees would have been compared to the formal practice of Jewish leadership. But eating, drinking and the sharing of food as he went about Galilee was very common to his everyday life.

Brian Doyle put it this way: “The Christos, for a skinny guy, sure was interested in good things to eat: he is constantly talking about bread and wine and oil and grain and seeds and vineyards, and he turns a hundred-some gallons of water into excellent wine, and he turns two fish (probably sardines) and five loaves of barely bread into so much food that twelve baskets of bread shards remain after 5000 people have eaten, and he grills fish (probably St. Peter’s fish or tilapia) and bread on the shore of the Sea of Galilee; and even after he died and traveled unto the nether reaches of hell, and was returned by the word of the Father to life, and walked along the road to Emmaus expounding learnedly, and appeared suddenly amid the rattled remaining 11 disciples in a locked room, he is still absorbed with food, , for the first question he asks his followers is this: “Have ye here any meat?”  (13)

Luke’s gospel lists 10 meals of Jesus; there were undoubtedly many more. Three of those 10 were with Pharisees in their homes; each of the 10 were basic to Jesus’ teaching ministry and all of these meals were an integral part of Luke’s story. These meals anticipated the ultimate meal, the Last Supper and the meal we celebrate today as the Eucharist.  (14)

Some of Jesus’ meals were in the same style as the pattern of Greco-Roman practice – the Deipnon – the formal invitation dinner which was followed by the Symposium. At these meals Jesus was the guest and not only allowed but encouraged discussion of societal events. But the stories of these meals that come down to us are those where Jesus seized the opportunity to teach the kingdom of God, sometimes to the discomfort of his hosts. (15)

In contrast to the formal meal there were hospitality meals, some of which are found in his parables, such as the story of the Good Samaritan. Hospitality was an essential part of pre-Christian times; quite probably, the kind of meals Jesus ate with his disciples, meals not considered essential to the telling of the gospel. Hospitality meals could be as simple as sitting on the ground, tearing off pieces of the local bread and dipping it into a common pot of stewed lentils and then perhaps, eating some of the dried fruit in pottery bowls. (16)

But as previously mentioned, Jesus also ate in days of celebration; the food might have included mahnoosh (flat bread with a paste of thyme, and sesame seeds in olive oil), a ground chickpea dip, baba ghanoush (another dip made of roasted eggplant), lamb, basmati rice, grilled vegetables, tabbouleh, falafel, shish kebab, pita and, of course, the local wine. (17)

Jesus did more than dine with those on the margins of society; he also called them to new life, to repent and be reconciled to God. Jesus’ boundary-breaking practice of table fellowship was thus an enacted parable, a proclamation that the reign of God had come near. He also used the image of a banquet in his teaching about the reign of God. The Jewish community of his time would have been familiar with the vision of the eschatological banquet, illustrated by Isaiah in his description of the Lord of Hosts providing a “feast of rich food and well-aged wines.” (Isaiah 25:6) Clearly the opportunity to eat and drink with all sorts of people was important to Jesus and essential to his ministry. (18)

The book of Acts notes that the first Christian community in Jerusalem was devoted to the Apostles teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. The regular gathering was for a meal. (19)

The Synoptic Gospels present the Last Supper as a celebration of Passover; the relationship between the Last Supper and the Passover banquet or Seder is not clear despite the gospel text. How the death of Jesus and/or a last meal with his followers related historically to the celebration of the Passover is still debated;  most scholars are inclined to see the meal as a formal Passover banquet. Christians certainly went on celebrating a form of Passover in their new feast of Easter, and used paschal imagery to interpret the death and resurrection of Jesus. Bread (artos) and wine (oinus) formed the structure of every evening meal. (20)

If a meal was so basic to Greco-Roman culture, to pre-Jesus Judaism and to New Testament expressions of the meals of Jesus, how does Christian history integrate these experiences into the Eucharistic liturgy that evolved?

Jewish understanding of memory and hope, through which events of the past are re-presented through ritual – the Passover Seder being a prime example – and in the early days after Jesus, the Last Supper would have been recalled and reflected upon in daily meals. Virtually every meal in those days was permeated by Jesus’ presence. (21) While we cannot say with full assurance that some form of the Lords Supper was always a part of Christian worship gatherings, some such Christ-centered meal was in all likelihood of a familiar and normal aspect of corporate Christian religious life. (22)

The earliest commemorations of the Last Supper had their origin in the memory of the Apostles who carried on the impact of Jesus’ life. Paul, in First Corinthians 11,  writes of such a meal with the Last Supper words which he learned from Peter; he uses the phrase, “ As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup”; suggesting frequent celebrations with some kind of set liturgy. (23)

John Koenig is very clear in pointing out that Jesus was a Jew and Christians need to understand Jesus’ view of transformative meals, both before and after the resurrection, would be shaped by the Sabbath supper and the Passover. (24)

The Eucharist, instituted by Christ during the course of a meal, is deeply rooted in a human action indispensable to life and moreover rich in human and sacred symbolism; eating and drinking and having a meal. (25) In the Eucharist receiving the consecrated bread and wine one nourishes oneself with the wheat and grapes but also with the body of Christ given for us and with his blood shed for us. (26)

The Eucharist covenantal meal is also a memorial meal situated in the context of the Passover feast, the memorial of liberation of the Hebrew people. (27) The Eucharist of the Christian community invokes memory and symbolism not only of the Passover meal but of all the meals in which Jesus revealed himself to human beings and communicated salvation to them. (28)

Most of the waking time of most of the men and women who have ever lived has been given to finding nourishment. Eating food is an inescapable fact of our existence. (29) We do not simply eat food, we eat it together, we share meals. The meal is as much a fundamental element of humanity as shared rationality or language. (30) Every meal is an activity, an event shared with a group that is bounded and bonded by that sharing . (31) While, increasingly, many of us today eat our meals alone, treating this as a normal way to eat is a departure from our history.

Meals enact the community’s structures; any understanding of the sacred meal, the Holy Eucharist, needs to have as its starting point a recognition that all meals, because they are so culturally human, form a point of contact with the divine mystery that suffices the creation. This reality, that we beings of food-as-meals, forms the bedrock of any theology of the Eucharist. (32)

In any form Eucharist is a meal; in the practice of most churches the meal is :

  1. Both atrophied and desiccated
  2. Nonetheless it involves humans sharing of food
  3. Uses language and gestures of a meal
  4. Remembers a meal
  5. Claims to re-enact a meal
  6. Declares itself as an interim anticipation in a future banquet, the meal of all meals (33)

The question for the apostles and later for the church was how to best remember Jesus and how to formulate a regular means to accomplish that purpose. What began as a nourishing daily meal had to evolve as more and more people came to believe and join the community of Christ.

As I said early on, most of the members of the church today do not see the symbolic Eucharist of Sunday morning as any kind of a meal. O’Loughlin puts it this way: “It is difficult, I think, to preach the Eucharist as a meal when the elements of the meal consist of a flattened disc of stiff paper and an instinctive dip into the wine.”

Can we therefore communicate more fully the memory of and thanksgiving for the gift of our Lord by incorporating the ritual and textual expressions of the Eucharist into a calorific meal?

The sources I have quoted of the recorded history of the meal foundation of the pre-Christian Jewish culture and the daily practice of Jesus in his ministry in Galilee seem to provide the basis for examining contemporary meal structure for the Eucharistic liturgy. What are the basic elements that would guide the use of a contemporary meal as Eucharist, as containing the remembrance of our Lord’s command and to give thanks for the salvation he provided us in faith?

A common,”real meal”, eaten with fellow members of the Christian assembly, which both remembers the Lord’s command and bonds its participants to life in the love of God should, it would seem, could be the basis for Eucharist. But such a meal, to be seen by its participants and by the church as Eucharist would need to incorporate the essential liturgical meaning of the symbolic liturgy of the current Eucharist. It would have to remember the passion and resurrection of Christ; it would have to call upon those eating the meal to go into the society as witnesses of Christ’s message of salvation; and it would have to invoke the Holy Spirit over the food to be eaten, making it the body and blood of our Lord.

Well, what would a “regular”, contemporary American meal look like in the context of the Eucharist? I should say that having a meal in the Eucharistic service is not a new idea; it has been tried in several parishes.

The setting of the meal will have much to do with its effectiveness. If such a meal is created in a traditional nave or chancel filled with pews or choir stalls, the unity of sharing, of common face-to-face position is easily lost. For some, holding the meal in the open space of the parish house will not “feel” like church. But for those church buildings where the pews have been replaced with movable chairs or where the altar table, ambo or other traditional elements of worship are movable, the opportunity for a fully shared common meal is considerably improved.

Such liturgical spaces exist in both Anglican and Roman Catholic traditions. Cathedrals rarely have fixed seating and most new church buildings now no longer insist on isolating, fixed seating. A recent article in the Christian Century strongly recommends such flexible, open arrangements in contemporary church buildings.

Tables and chairs are undoubtedly necessary but imitations of the last supper as painted during the Renaissance would be unwise, as would long medieval tables as existed in the days of royalty and country estates. In order to create a sense of sharing, of enabling the food to be distributed to all, round tables or small rectangular tables arranged so that the people can see and interchange with each other would seem to be required.

In planning a Eucharistic meal the next question is, what food is to be served and how is it to be integrated with the invocation of the Holy Spirit? One example would be to have simply bread and wine. Instead of pressed, thin wafers and an intinction cup from the altar, real loaves of bread, perhaps challah, and bottles of an acceptable red wine would provide the necessary nutritious food. Each participant would have a plate, napkin and a wine glass. And each table would have a carafe or bottle of wine. ( I am aware that grape juice or other sans alcohol liquid is necessary in today’s culture) The president of the assembly will remember in prayer the gift of Jesus Christ and give thanks for God’s presence in a normal Eucharistic ordo and then would call the assembly present to eat and drink of the body and blood of Christ. Each member would then tear a piece from the table loaf pour some wine, consuming it in memory, before rising to give thanks and to move into the world.

In another example, with bread and wine as the requisite  food, the bread and wine are placed on each table, a large candle is lighted at each table and the biblical record is read by several members of the assembly. After prayers for the church, the community and the peoples of the world, bread is broken by each communicant and wine is poured into each glass. The Eucharistic prayer is read by all present; the consecrated bread and wine is then consumed. Each table enters into discussion regarding the effect of the Eucharistic meal on their lives before dispersing, having given thanks to God.

For a more complete meal, consider this arrangement: The Eucharist begins with the Collect and follows with the propers for the day. Appetizers are distributed to the tables; they are consumed during the readings; all now stand for the presider’s reading of the gospel. Prayers for the community, the church and the world are offered by the members present; the creed is omitted and some members go to the kitchen to obtain plates and bowls of the entre’. When all is ready, the presider begins the Eucharistic prayer, stopping at the epiclesis. The assembly now consumes the food in silence during which the presider or preacher delivers the homily of the day. At its conclusion, the thanksgiving is said and dessert is distributed. The Eucharist concludes with the peace and blessing.

Here then are three examples of the integration of a real meal with the Eucharistic texts of word and sacrament; there are probably many more ordos possible.

The reaction of a given assembly to the use of full quantities of bread and wine or of a complete meal integrated with the Eucharistic offering will depend largely on how a particular assembly now understands the history and purpose of the rite. Why do we celebrate the Eucharist as Christians each Sunday, instead of the Office or other liturgy? Few Christians today think of the Sunday morning meeting as a meal; it will therefore require a fair amount of liturgical formation before a meal Eucharist can be offered to an assembly.

We cannot understand the full meaning of the Eucharistic meal if we do not reflect first on the meaning of the meal as a human reality. (34)

The assembly is the foundation of the remembrance of our Lord in the Eucharist. Assembly, a gathering together of participating persons, constitutes the most basic symbol of Christian worship. All the other symbols and symbolic actions of liturgy depend upon this gathering being there in the first place. No texts are read, no preaching occurs, no hymns sung, no Eucharist is held without an assembly, however small or large this gathering of persons may be. (36)

If assembly is the primary ecclesial symbol and if ministry is subordinated to this symbol, it follows that many persons have critical gifts to give and to take from each other. (37)

Eucharist is not the action of one person; it is the action of the body of Christ, head and members. The catechism makes it clear that the ministers of the church are lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons and that all have their roles in the celebration of the Eucharist. The multiplicity of ministers and of liturgical roles is theologically significant, signifying the unity of the body of Christ. The Eucharist is the action of the whole church. (38)

Baptismal ecclesiology emphasizes that in Eucharist all the people gathered are celebrants. If the Eucharist is truly the shared action of the whole people of God, all the members of the assembly are celebrants, not simply the priest. (39)

It is in the context of this understanding of the nature of the Eucharist that this essay has been prepared and the suggestions of incorporating the sacrament of thanksgiving for the gift of our Lord into the ordinary meal of necessity and purpose. Moving the teaching of the Eucharistic meal from the purely symbolic, clerically enveloped action to that of anamnesis and epiclesis in a contemporary meal may well bring home to the members of the assembly their responsibility and clarify their participation in the Sunday Eucharist.


1. Andrew McGowan, Ancient Christian Worship, Baker Academic, 2014, 20

2. Denis E. Smith, From Symposium to Eucharist, Fortress, 2003, 2

3. Ibid, 22

4. Ibid, 23

5. Ibid, 25-26

6. Blake Leyerle, Meal Customs in the Greco-Roman World in Passover & Easter, Notre Dame Press, 1999, 29

7. Smith, 27-31

8. Ibid, 35

9. McGowan, 22

10. Smith, 141

11. Ibid, 146

12. Ibid, 147-150

13. Brian Doyle, America, March 28, 2016, 26

14. Eugene Laverdiere, Dining in the Kingdom of God, Liturgy Traing Publications, 1994, 12-16

15. Ibid, 18

16. Douglas E. Neeland and Joel A. Pugh, The Food and Feasts of Jesus, Rowan & Littlefield, 2012,2

17. Ibid, 6

18. Ruth A. Meyers, Missional Worship, Missional Mission, Eerdmans, 2014, 152-153

19. McGowan, 19

20. Ibid, 20

21. John Koenig, Feast of the World’s Redemption, Trinity Press International, 2000, 65

22. Ibid, 66

23. Ibid, 68

24. Ibid, 258

25. Philippe Roulard, From Human Meal to Christian Eucharist in Living Bread, Living Cup, R. Kevin Seasoltz, Ed., Liturgical Press, 1982, 65

26. Ibid, 128

27. Ibid, 139

28. Ibid, 146

29. Thomas O’Loughlin, The Eucharist, Bloomsbury, T&T Cark, 2015, 61

30. Ibid, 62

31. Ibid, 63

32. Ibid, 65

33. O’Loughlin, 65

34. Roulard, 126

35. Gordan W. Lathrop, Holy People, A Liturgical Ecclesiology, Fortress, 1999, 21

36. Ibid, 96

37. Ruth Meyers, Praying Shapes Believing, Leonel Mitchell, Revised edition, Ruth Meyers Seabury,2016 145

38. Louis Weil, A Theology of Worship, Cowley, 2002, 31