Take the Sacraments Shopping
By David A. Zimmerman
“For most people in Western contexts, shopping is spirituality.” That’s one of the many things Alan and Deb Hirsch observe in their book Untamed. I suspect they’re right. We could link endlessly to the litany of commercials that make some claim to divine sovereignty, from the mystically perfect Old Spice guy to the adorably omniscient Progressive Insurance lady. To reach out our hands toward their products, to attend to their services, is to effectively worship.
The problem that the Hirsches observe is that “people [can’t] consume their way into following Jesus.” And if Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life, then the spirituality of shopping is a dead end. We’ve bought the theological equivalent of an Edsel.
(It’s a car, kids. Google it.)
One problem with the Hirsches’ logic: People actually do consume their way into following Jesus. In fact, Jesus commands it. “This is my body, broken for you. . . . This is my blood, poured out for you.” We take and eat, we take and drink, in memory of Jesus, and in so doing we recommit ourselves, resupply ourselves, for the way, the truth and the life that Jesus is leading us into. Consuming Jesus is a sacrament, an arbiter of divine grace.
Sacraments are sanctifying—they focus our attention and chasten our affections. They’re also subversive—or at least they ought to be. What if, for example, the Eucharist—our communion with God—was meant not just to remind us of the gift of God in Christ or to fill us with the real presence of Jesus or any of those things we understand it to do, but also was meant to sanctify and subvert every act of consumption we enter into from that point forward?
Certainly that’s not all communion is. I’m not for a moment insinuating that the Eucharist is anything less than a sacrament. I’m also not suggesting that buying a hot dog and a beer at a ball game is the sacramental equivalent of receiving the elements in the context of corporate worship. But I do think that the latter ought to inform the former. We learn to consume well, in other words, by reflecting on Jesus’ invitation to take and eat what he provides us.
The bread and wine at Jesus’ last supper evoked the manna God provided the Israelites for years in the desert. So did the prayer Jesus taught his disciples: “Give us this day our daily bread.” The love feasts of the early church, consequently, explicitly evoked Jesus’ last supper but implicitly evoked manna and, by extension, the everyday needs of each day. The Israelites were not to take more for themselves than they needed. The disciples were to be content with what God provided. Both, however, lived in an effectively subsistence-based culture, which is not the case for us today. Today we live on credit—prosperity appears to abound, even as its real cost is borne in secret by the underclass a world away, by an over-exploited earth. We are more inclined today than ever to assume privilege on a mass scale, to take what we want when we feel like it, to dispense with what we’ve grown disenchanted by without regard for what happens next. We have learned to consume poorly, and God would have us unlearn it.
So maybe by consuming Jesus—by proclaiming his death and resurrection whenever we eat that bread and drink that cup—we are also being given an opportunity to reconsider how we consume everything else. Maybe at the moment of every purchase, if we listen close, we would hear a whisper:
This new television you’re buying,
This new car you’re leasing,
This new song you’re downloading,
This bread you’re eating,
This is my body, broken for you.
Those new clothes you’re wearing,
That new computer you’re using,
That new amusement park you just bought tickets to,
This cup you’re drinking from—
This cup contains the blood of a new covenant—my promise to you, my claim upon you.
Whenever you eat or drink or otherwise consume all of these things, then, do so in memory of me.
David A. Zimmerman is an editor and author. His new booklet, The Parable of the Unexpected Guest, will be available late summer 2011.