Over the centuries, the theology and practice of the Eucharist have been distorted in many ways. One of the most fateful distortions is also one of the subtlest: the tendency to set the Eucharist in its own special zone of life, the domain of the “sacred” or “religious.” Life is here, the Eucharist over there.
Alexander Schmemann showed that this tendency is deeply rooted in the Western theology of symbolism, and it blinds us to the Eucharistic contours of work, vocation, creativity, and culture—of life. Reflecting on the Eucharist is the beginning of cultural wisdom. Partaking in the Eucharist orients us rightly to the whole realm of human making.
How so? We can start with the obvious: At the Lord’s table, we don’t eat grain, but bread. We don’t eat grapes straight from the vine; we drink wine. Bread and wine are cultural products, creation glorified by patient, skilled human labor.
The Creator can make by fiat. Jesus turns water into wine in an instant. We can’t. Still, our work replicates God’s. Most of Genesis 1 isn’t creation ex nihilo. Instead, it describes how God forms and fills the shapeless void. He takes hold of the world, breaks it down, puts it back together in new ways, assigns a new name, and pronounces it good.
As James Jordan has argued, this pattern is inherent in human action. We grasp the world, shatter and reassemble, rename, and assess the product as good or bad. We plough, plant, cultivate, harvest. We pulverize grain into flour, mix and bake, and call it bread. We squeeze blood from grapes, manage its fermentation, and call it wine. Made in God’s image, we cannot help but mimic the Creator’s creativity.
At the very least, the Eucharist is a resounding liturgical endorsement of the transformations we effect in creation. Christianity doesn’t teach that undeveloped nature is better than artificial culture. Not all change is good, but God put us in the world to change it.
The Eucharist indicates the proper direction of that change: Our work aims at shared festivity. That “shared” is crucial. True, we work for personal profit; we make bread so we can eat bread. But we aren’t made to eat or drink alone. Our products are loaves, designed to be broken and distributed.
“Festivity” is crucial, too. True, we have utilitarian goals. We build for shelter and prepare food as bodily fuel. But we don’t transform the world only to make it more useful. We’re cooks, bakers, and vintners as well as hunters, gatherers, and farmers. Work is artwork, which makes an enjoyable creation more so.
The Eucharist also points us to the transcendent purpose of our work. The shared festivity that is the end of work takes place in the presence of God. Our making is fulfilled in Sabbath, in worship. We work so that we won’t be empty-handed before God.
At the endless end of all things, our makings will find their place in the bridal city from heaven, the city adorned with the treasures of kings and nations, the city whose life is nothing other than a marriage supper. Between creation and eschaton, all we make and do is ordered to this feast.
The Eucharist is a sacrifice of praise and self-gift. God receives our gifts, then gives them back. He takes pleasure in our gifts by allowing us to take pleasure in them. At his table, the things we manufacture and manipulate are revealed as means of communion with him.
That’s why the Church’s meal is thanksgiving, “Eucharist.” On the face of it, giving thanks for food is a strange habit: We make the bread and wine, yet we’re grateful to God for them. But we are professing the truth about culture: that the things we make and enjoy are God’s gifts to us.
Thanksgiving again highlights the transcendent purpose of work. The apostle Paul writes that every created thing is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving and consecrated by the Word of God and prayer (1 Tim. 4). When we give thanks, whether at the Lord’s table or our own, whether at the dinner table or the desk, we devote the works of our hands to God.
Eucharist is thus the vocation of humanity, the work of history: raw creation transformed to grain and grapes; cultivated creation transfigured by cooking and fermenting; cooked creation enjoyed by workers and worshipers, as communion with God. In the Eucharist, we anticipate creation’s climax, the never-ending wedding feast of the Lamb.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.