United Church of Christ

Open Commensality

Commensality – that’s not a word you hear every day. I think the first time I saw it used was in Jon Dominic Crossan’s book The Birth of Christianity. I fell in love with it.

I like the sound of it – but I love the meaning all the more.

Commensality means eating and drinking at the same table. It serves as a cultural investment in creating, building, and maintaining important relationships.

When you ask the question “who belongs at the table,” you may as well be asking “who is important in my life.”

How you answer that will give you a good sense of whom you want to build a relationship with.

Almost every culture has an equivalent experience. All cultures have rules that help answer the question ‘for whom do you set your table’

These rules govern expectations about who eats when, where, and with whom.

We see this in the practices of wedding couples sweating out the details of whose name placard will be placed next to whose. We saw it when black servants in white homes ate in a back room separate from the family they served meals to in elaborate dining rooms. We experience it when we talk about the kid’s table at Thanksgiving. Who sits at the head of a table often denotes power structures in families and households.

In The Birth of Christianity, Crossan is trying to uncover what evolved for first generation Christians after the death of Jesus.

Among the most important practices to evolve in those early faith communites, Crossan notes that most important, and the most impactful, was the table fellowship – or the Eucharist.

We have some idea of what that looks like today, but what was it then and why did it become the normative practice of those nascent Christian communities?

Crossan writes: “The community shared together whatever food it had available, which both symbolized and ritualized but also actualized and materialized the equal justice of the Jewish God.”

Crossan discovered that the most radical undertaking of the early church was this practice of what he called open commensality. The best way they knew how to embody and perpetuate the message and the ministry of Jesus was to reset the table. Expectations about who could, would and should sit where were intentionally violated and recast. Justice demanded it.

And so the table was set so that all ate in common. And this, this practice of open commensality, of setting the table so that while at the table you could not differentiate social status, race, class, gender or economic worth - this became the new norm.

Every time I stand at the table and celebrate the sacrament of the Eucharist – I make sure that this radical practice is fully expressed. No matter who you are or where you are on life’s journey – you are welcome here. That is the table setting Jesus instituted.

May there be a seat at the table for you, gentle traveler. May you know the radical love and hospitality of a Creator who fashioned you with love and grace. May you know a community that, regardless of your position in society, sees fit to welcome you to their table on this, your journey Into the Mystic.

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