On gobbling up the leftovers at God’s table

A video from 2006 has gone into recirculation. It shows Gordon Atkinson, who was then a Baptist minister in San Antonio and (is still) affiliated with the Real Live Preacher blog, trying out different kinds of communion wafers and being disgusted by each and every one of them. (Even after rating one kind of wafer as being better than the others, Atkinson dismisses it by saying, “Don’t get me wrong, it’s still bad.”)

Halfway through the taste test, he muses,

I mean, there’s not a theological reason why communion bread should be bad, is there?

…then, after trying the most expensive kind and finding it also devoid of flavor:

That’s very funny to me, ‘cause that means the rich Christians are spending all their money, and they’re gettin’ the same crap as everybody else.

His summation:

What are these things saying about the church? I mean, are we saying – if this is a symbol for who we are, it’s really a tragic one, because it sort of, like, looks fancy and nice but there’s no nourishment there at all. It’s empty and hollow.

I pray that’s not what we’re about; communion is supposed to have been about something better than that. But anyway. Maybe I’ll try something else next time.

Let’s set aside for now the question of whether Atkinson is gunning for liturgical churches and is using satire to take shots.

In an ENS opinion piece yesterday, Danielle Tumminio opined that anyone who’s gotten hung up on the taste of a communion wafer has already lost the point of the exercise. Tumminio is anxious to point out, as have many throughout the years, that the symbolic power of eucharistic bread is in how it points towards Jesus Christ rather than whatever it is itself made of – however it tastes, whatever it looks like.

As one who has placed all manner of bread on altars both as sacristan and as presider – from King’s Hawaiian rolls to fresh-baked loaves to pita and beyond – and as someone who has distributed perhaps tens of thousands of those flat, tasteless discs Atkinson finds so objectionable, I don’t take issue with his findings. There is little to smell or taste in them, though their ability to snap smartly in twain (especially a priest’s host on a Sunday morning in a quiet chancel) has the capacity to wake us up. To wake us up, I say, to find we are part of a gathered community washed, forgiven, and prepared for something beyond description in the distribution of God’s holy promises.

I guess what I do take issue with is how in the video Atkinson gobbles up the wafers, one after another, like potato chips, trying by pure quantity to gain a maximum sense of their taste. As though something so bland can be made to give up its secrets if only more of it is consumed.

In the training of future presiders of Holy Eucharist, some teachers are careful to point out that Jesus’ table is no place for greed – that the “finishing-up” of communion following distribution ought not to end in the consumption of remaining elements by certain persons who happen to be on one side or other of an altar rail. (Sometimes such rails must be drawn as imaginary lines, but you get the point.) This exhortation to exercise thrift at the table has to do with the need for everyone who would participate to have something, but for no one to have more than anyone else. To not publicly gobble down the leftovers, in effect – and especially not out of a sense of holy obligation because “that’s how we’ve always done it.”

It strikes me as more than bad table manners (but certainly at least that) when I see presiders or other members of altar parties having more than their fair share, especially when we have just declared a word that is supposed to proclaim justice, which means fairness, which means you getting the same as I get and me not getting more than you and vice-versa.

Beyond the which lie other issues, like what to do if the presider shakes hands with people and is trying to listen to them pastorally while standing there buzzed.

Can anyone provide me with sound justification – other than the expectations of tradition – for eucharistic ministers, deacons, acolytes, and priests consuming leftover communion elements? Otherwise, isn’t it time we thoughtfully approached the question?

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