by The Rev. Porter Taylor
Our most powerful memories are often tied to our senses and the way we experience the world. We can usually remember the first time we read a certain book or listened to a new album because of the feelings they evoked in us; we can smell the brand-new pages or remember the weather outside because the memory is made all the more tangible by these seemingly insignificant factors.
A meal can have the same effect. Associations form in the brain as we experience particularly enjoyable or upsetting events, and those associations can include the taste and smell of food, sounds, and sights. Often, we remember a place rather than the meal itself; for instance, Rebecca and I spent a weekend in San Francisco before Jet was born for a “babymoon.” We ate our way through the Golden Gate City having some of the best food ever…and I could hardly tell you what we ate. I could tell you the restaurants we visited and the delightful memories we created strolling through San Francisco and talking excitedly about becoming parents, but the food plays only a bit role in this story.
There are other times, however, when the food is the vehicle by which we make and enter our memories. We are able to conjure up feelings of profound love and happiness as we remember someone while eating. Have you ever wondered why we call it “comfort food?” Sure, a bowl of hot, creamy soup might bring comfort to your heart and stomach, but that’s not the point. At least, I think we are missing the fullness of the picture here. The food is comforting because it reminds us of someone, something, some time, or some place that we miss, want, or desperately need to remember.
My dad has an interesting dish that was a mainstay in my house growing up. I want to prepare you for the culinary sophistication oozing off of its name: Hotdog-on-bread-cheese-on-hotdog. Yes, that’s right: a piece of bread with a hotdog sliced on top and with cheese melted over everything. This meal, of course, could only be properly concocted in the miracle that is the toaster oven. Don’t knock it until you try it, friends.
I have not eaten one of these delicacies in many, many years. I honestly cannot remember the last time I had one, but I can tell you that even the mere thought of eating a hotdog-on-bread-cheese-on-hotdog floods my heart and mind in a very real way with warm and tender memories…as though I am eating with my dad presently.
So, imagine with me the scene as the disciples walked along the road to Emmaus after the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem. The pair is joined by a stranger who begins asking about current events, and they are surprised because the pain is all too real, all too fresh.
Have you not heard about the execution in Jerusalem? We thought he would restore Israel…
The stranger then begins to unlock the Scriptures for them, explaining God’s active plan and the fulfillment reached in the crucifixion, but they still don’t see that Jesus is the one present. Our Lord then breaks bread, just as He had during the Last Supper, and immediately they see Him for who He truly is: their Rabbi, their leader, their master, their Lord.
It wasn’t the breaking open of Scripture that gave the disciples understanding; it was the sharing of this holy meal. Jesus told the disciples at the Last Supper that He was leaving but would send the Spirit to them – that He would not leave them as orphans. The Spirit would come to comfort, guide, and lead them in all truth, and the disciples would be in Jesus just as he is in the Father. The meal Jesus shared with His followers on that fateful night would be forever etched in their memory—both bodily and mentally—because the events which took place after they got up from the table irrevocably shaped their lives.
What is the Eucharist if not the joyous celebration of Jesus’ presence with us? We often hear talk about how Jesus is present in the bread and wine, but we rarely embrace and celebrate that he is present. It is his presence that carries meaning for us and not the method. If Jesus is present in the bread and wine, in the celebration of the meal, then He is present with us in our very lives. We have a weekly reminder that Jesus will never leave us nor forsake us, that He comes to us even in the most mundane things and fills us with His peace and love.
Indulge me for one technical moment: there is a word in sacramental theology that bears great meaning: anamnesis. This is a form of remembering that is active, dangerous, volatile. It is a form of memory that does not merely rest in the past, but drags past events forward and makes them present in the here and now. It is what Israel knew as she celebrated (and still celebrates) Passover annually. It is what we know when we celebrate Eucharist on Sunday. Somehow, in some mysterious but real way, the events of Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection come charging into our present. “Does this in remembrance of me,” he said.
I will probably make a hotdog-on-bread-cheese-on-hotdog sometime soon. When I do this, it will be to celebrate the memories I have of eating that meal with my dad as a young boy. I will probably share that meal with Rebecca and my boys in the knowledge that passing it down to them is a way of inviting them into that loving tradition. Jesus shared a meal with His friends, and for the Church, this meal is the pinnacle of our corporate worship: we gather together as the church to remember Jesus and share in His presence through praise, Scripture, sermon, prayer, and the bread broken and the wine poured. This is why we celebrate Eucharist; this is why we need Eucharist as part of our Rule of Life; this is why our shared memories shape us as a people of bread and wine and a people who know Jesus’ real presence…even when we can’t see him.