Western Christianity (Encyclopedia of Food & Culture)
Christianity traces its origins to the life and preaching of Jesus, a Jew living in Palestine in the first century of the Common Era (C.E.). He taught that all humans are children of God and need to repent of their sins. According to Christian sacred writings, recorded in the New Testament, he was put to death by the Roman colonial authorities but was brought back to life three days later. Christians believe that he was the son of God, and that his death and resurrection save them from sin and death.
Christianity began as a movement within Judaism but quickly spread outside the Jewish community; by the late fourth century it was the official religion of the Roman Empire. During the Middle Ages, there was theological and political conflict between the followers of the patriarch in Constantinople and the followers of the pope in Rome, leading to a split between the Western Church and the Eastern Church (also known as the Eastern Orthodox Church) in 1054. In the sixteenth century, the Western Church divided still further between Roman Catholics and a variety of Protestant groups. Although
One food ritual stands at the center of the religion. Christians believe that on the night before his death, Jesus gathered with a small group of followers for a meal, which, according to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke, was a Jewish Passover dinner, but according to the Gospel of John was a berakah (blessing) before the Passover. Presiding over the meal, Jesus, in prayerful thanksgiving, proclaimed that the bread and wine were his body and blood; he enjoined his followers to repeat this repast in his memory.
Christians today still reenact that meal, under a variety of names. Catholics call this ritual of reenactment the Mass or Eucharist (from a Greek word meaning "thanksgiving"). Protestants call it the Eucharist, the Lord's Supper, the Last Supper, Holy Communion, or simply Communion. In early Christianity it was a real meal with a full menu, sometimes known as an agape (love feast). Now the ritual is celebrated as part of the worship service with only vestiges of the meal; worshipers generally eat only a small piece of bread and drink a small amount of wine or grape juice. Instead of emphasizing food, the ritual focuses on words; participants retell the story of Jesus' life and death and thank God for his salvation.
While sharing this general framework for the Eucharist, different groups of Christians carry out the ritual in different ways. In fact, many of the divisions between Christians are rooted in the different beliefs and practices regarding Communion. Throughout Christian history, believers have engaged in theological disputes as well as actual warfare over the proper celebration of the ritual.
Roman Catholics believe that the Eucharist is a sacrament, a ritual that connects them with God. For them, celebrating the Mass is a repetition of Jesus' self-sacrifice in his death; they believe that receiving Communion will help them reach salvation. In the course of the ritual, Catholics believe, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Jesus. The food attains a distinct and profound holiness. The Catholic Eucharist is very formal; the same words and gestures are used wherever it is celebrated. Specially trained and ordained priests must lead the ritual, using only wine from grapes and wheat bread. Catholic churches celebrate the Mass at every Sunday service; many congregations celebrate it daily. Episcopalians and Lutherans also believe that the Eucharist is a sacrament. Certain Episcopal churchesnown as Anglo-Catholic or "High Church" parishesre very close to the Roman Catholic Church in their beliefs and practices.
In contrast, some Protestant groupsaptists, for instanceelieve that Communion is simply a remembrance of Jesus, without any direct impact on an individual's salvation. The bread and wine remain bread and wine, serving as reminders of Jesus' death but not actually becoming his body and blood. The meal symbolizes the partakers' union with God and with each other. For these Protestants, Communion lacks the formality of the Catholic Mass, and their Communion practices can differ significantly from one place to another. In some cases, lay Protestants can lead the ritual, and it is not uncommon for some Protestant churches to administer grape juice instead of wine. Many of these groups celebrate Communion only three or four times a year. Other Protestant groups occupy a middle ground between the Catholics and the nonsacramental Protestants. They believe that Jesus is somehow present in the meal, but not that the bread and wine have become his body and blood. In their churches, Communion is a slightly more formal service, celebrated perhaps once a month; it is increasingly common in the Lutheran church for communion to be celebrated every Sunday.
Like observers of other religions, Christians also practice domestic food rituals. Many Christians, for instance, pray before meals, giving thanks to God for the food. Some churches also bless farmers' crops and animals. Particularly in the United States, many churches organize informal fellowship meals for their members, designed to strengthen the community within the church.
Taboos, Fasts, and Feasts
Since Christianity began as a movement within Judaism, many of its practicesncluding those involving foodre variations or adaptations of Jewish ones. Judaism has clear guidelines on proper eating behavior, including a taboo on certain "unclean" foods (pork and shellfish, for example) and rules for the preparation of other foods. In the first century C.E., Christians argued over whether they had to abide by Jewish law. There is little in Christian scripture that requires adherence to such food taboos; several texts explicitly free believers from previous laws. Nevertheless, some Christians retained the Jewish dietary laws, while others held that Jesus' teachings did away with these restrictions. Since the latter group became dominant, Western Christianity has no formal food taboos.
Some small groups do shun certain foodstuffs, based on their interpretation of Jesus' teachings. The Manicheans (members of an early Christian movement condemned as heretics by the Catholic Church), for instance, required vegetarianism. The Seventh-Day Adventists also discourage the eating of meat, while members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints (Mormons) avoid caffeine. These and several other groups also discourage the drinking of alcohol. Other than these semiofficial taboos, however, Christianity has little impact on believers' daily diets.
Christian fasting practices have changed over time. Like their Jewish brethren, early Christians fasted twice a weekut on different days. As Christianity grew, fasting became less common among most Christians; the practice was more frequent among religious elites, like monks and nuns. During the Middle Ages, particularly ascetic Christians would abstain from any foodxcept the Communion bread and wineor months at a time. Most Christians, however, observed the penitential season of Lenthe forty days (not including the Sundays) before Easter, the spring festival commemorating Jesus' resurrection. Rather than fasting, most Christians would abstain from meat or some other luxury. The medieval Church also introduced a weekly fast, requiring all members to abstain from meat on Fridays, observing the day of the week on which Jesus was killed. After the sixteenth-century Reformation, newly formed Protestant groups abandoned many of the fasts, although some continued to fast during special times of prayer and penitence. Fasting is rare in modern Protestantism, although some Protestants fast as a spiritual-physical discipline. In recent decades, the Roman Catholic Church has loosened its fasting directives.
While early Christians adopted some of their practices from Judaism, they replaced Jewish feasts with their own set of holidays, tied to historical events in the life of Jesus. The most important ones are Christmas (December 25), marking his birth, and Easter Sunday (a movable feast that can fall from March 22 to April 25), observing his resurrection. These have become major celebrations both in the Church and in Christian societies; in many cultures, the holidays have become secularized as days for shopping and gift giving. Whether Christian or secular, food remains an important part of the holidays, often celebrated by large family meals. There are no common menus for these feasts, however; the meals are determined by the local culture rather than by the religion. In some parts of the United States, for instance, turkey is traditional fare for Christmas and ham for Easter, but other regions and other countries have their own menus.
Like many other religions, Christianity puts a great deal of emphasis on the importance of charity. It inherited from Judaism the requirement to help feed the hungry. In the first few centuries, Christians would invite hungry strangers to join their shared meals. Certain church leaders, called deacons, were responsible for making sure that widows, orphans, and other poor people were fed. Later, monks and nuns established hospices where the hungry and travelers could stay and eat. In the middle of the twentieth century, Western Christians established agencies to help feed the hungry. They opened soup kitchens and food pantries to feed the urban poor. They also raised money to send to countries where natural disasters and poverty threatened starvation. The acquisition and distribution of food and food-related supplies for the needy continues to be among the most visible practices of modern Western Christian charity.
See also Christianity, subentry on Eastern Orthodox Christianity; Fasting and Abstinence: Christianity; Feasts, Festivals, and Fasts; Fish; Judaism; Taboos.
Bynum, Caroline Walker. Holy Feast and Holy Fast: The Religious Significance of Food to Medieval Women. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990.
Capon, Robert Farrar. The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection. New York: Random House, 2002.
Juengst, Sara. Breaking Bread: The Spiritual Significance of Food. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1992.
Sack, Daniel. Whitebread Protestants: Food and Religion in American Culture. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000.
Tappert, Theodore G. The Lord's Supper: Past and Present Practices. Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1961.