Nora Gallagher, The Sacred Meal (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2009).
Part of the Ancient Practices series, The Sacred Meal is a look into the practice of Communion (or Eucharist). In this book Nora Gallagher reflects on her own experience with communion and invites the reader to join her in imagining “a new story regarding Communion, rather than the one you may have experienced or heard about.” (73) The book is short at 137 pages and offers a brief study guide for each chapter offering one or two reflection questions.
The first two chapters try to answer the question, Why talk about the sacred meal? The next three chapters look at the act of participating in the practice: preparing to receive Communion, receiving Communion, and what happens after one has received Communion. Chapters six through eight focus on common questions about Communion: in what sense we mean the “body and blood”; why giving thanks is so “magical”; and who should and shouldn’t share the meal. Chapter nine offers a brief history (as the title of the chapter reveals) of Communion. The final two chapters look at the importance of connecting the sacred meal to life outside the meal; an extension of the “afterward” in chapter five.
Chapter one was difficult to read for two reasons: first, it was not well written (at least not compared to the rest of the book); second, it had almost nothing to do with Communion. Chapter two, which was easier to read, explained the purpose of Communion – it moves its participants from one place to another. However, that place is described well here or throughout the rest of the book. The greatest contribution these chapters make is the description of Communion as web that stitches its practitioners together.
The section on waiting, receiving and afterward is the best the book has to offer. According to Gallgher, waiting to receive the elements is our opportunity to examine our lives and ask ourselves how we have been like the citizens of Sodom and Gomorrah (who were in love with the empire’s kingdom). It also a time to examine what we did since last we took Communion to find the kingdom of God in our midst and to help others find it. To receive the elements is to learn to inhabit the present – no struggling, no toiling, no earning. Although her description of receiving is thoroughly influenced by her tradition (the Pastor does not place the wafer in the member’s hands in every church) it is well worth pondering over since none of us takes the body and blood, but instead receives them. The afterward is about connecting not one experience but a multitude of Communion experiences to our daily lives.
The chapter titled “Eating the Body and Blood” is not about the elements at all, but about her childhood experiences with Communion. This chapter does nothing to explain Communion in any tangible way. Chapter seven, “Magic and Thanksgiving,” argues that there is nothing inherently magical about the bread or the cup. Rather, the “magic” is in the act of giving thanks and being thankful. “Myths and Traditions” briefly addresses what happens to the elements, “Do the bread and wine literally turn into the physical body and blood of Christ? No, and yes.” Ultimately her position is one of real presence but she does not explain it very well.
Chapter nine, “A History in Brief,” offers a brief look at the historical development of Communion – very brief. Essentially its development looks like this: both Passover and the evening meal influenced the Eucharist; Jesus’ words of institution created a blessed meal and a meal meal that was observed by early believers; this meal was transformed by the “cult of Rome”; it was recovered by the Reformers and given to the people; and now there are those seeking to recover the early implications and applications of the meal. It was encouraging to read about the connection between Communion and Passover, a connection that is often not mentioned in Communion discussions.
The final two chapters seemed to be an attempt to explain how Communion applies to life outside of the experience. Apart from some interesting anecdotes there was not much in these two chapters.
My overall impression is that this book is okay. It is not offensive, but it’s not informative either. Some of her comments about the resurrection could leave the reader wondering if she believes the mystery of faith (in any real sense) often proclaimed in the Great Thanksgiving: Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again. There seems to be a push within the series (this is the third one I’ve read) to bring together the three Abrahamic Faiths. The same assumption has been made in all three – if adherents to these three great faiths would return to their common practices then peace would be possible. The problem is the practices are merely channels for a deeper reality. Communion itself does not shape us into the character of Christ. Christ shapes into his character. I’m not sure that Jews and Muslims would agree with this. To be sure these practices provide a common ground for dialogue, but they are not the solution to all the world’s harms.
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