World Communion Sunday, which will be observed this coming weekend, was born out of the ecumenical impulse of 1930s liberal Protestantism — when fascism was real and Americans were really anxious. The day was meant to rally hope in the midst of global uncertainty and to signal ecclesial unity in the face of nationalistic divisions. Like many efforts of this era, World
Communion Sunday was rooted in a sunny theology of progress — the idea that, with enough determination and moral resolve, the Church could, at least for one Sunday in early October, make visible its unity in the face of increasing political strife and uncertainty. As the world has only increased in danger, World Communion Sunday is more popular than ever.

One problem, though, is that unity — theologically, biblically, liturgically speaking — is not a product of (or reward for) our earnest efforts at getting along in difficult times. Neither is it, as is often pointed out, uniformity or the tolerant niceness of a shallow peace. Rather, unity is a gift. Sometimes we receive it badly or not at all but it is nonetheless not our own creation. It is the gift of union with Christ, made known to us in the breaking of bread, and making of us, despite ourselves, a body that lives in and through the power of a healing, reconciling God.

And if unity is the gift Christ offers his transglobal body then, of course, every Lord’s Day is World Communion Sunday. There is no time when we gather that we are not constituted as the body of Christ — taken, blessed, broken, and shared – and thus commissioned for work and witness in a dangerous, strife-filled world. As one liturgy puts it:

By your Spirit make us one with Christ,
one with each other,
and one in ministry to all the world,
until Christ comes in final victory
and we feast at his heavenly banquet.

Because most Protestants don’t celebrate the Eucharist weekly, we suffer from the false view that it’s a “special” meal, and so when we do partake of it (monthly, quarterly, the first Sunday in October), we tend to do it up big. It’s the “extra” we tack on at the end the service (often to the consternation of those with waiting tee times or lunch reservations). By contrast, because the Eucharist is the centerpiece of the Mass, Catholics are better positioned to understand its indispensible ordinariness (you don’t save breakfast for “special” occasions, do you?) and thus to wonder, as I suspect many do, what is up with the Protestants and World Communion Sunday?

Moreover, while we’ve come a long way in recent decades in connecting the Eucharist to hunger and justice, we have a long way to go in linking it to bodily health. If salvation (sozo in Greek) has to do fundamentally with health – with the well-being of the whole person – then the Eucharist and living eucharistically constitute an alternative to our fast-food culture of slow death. Obesity and malnutrition (often existing in the same family, even in the same person) are not mere “indicators” of poor health, they are a call for the Church to preach and to practice the salvation of the whole person.

According to the Centers for Disease Control, since 1980 obesity prevalence in children and adolescents has more than tripled. One-third of all adults in the U.S. are obese; by 2030 half of us will be. Rates for type-2 diabetes have skyrocketed in recent years, especially among the young. Our unhealthy lifestyle choices – mostly having to do with food – will cost us $66 billion a year in health care costs by 2030.

These miserable truths are not unrelated to the table fellowship we share as Christ’s body. Holy Communion makes of us a community of nurture and support (not judgment) for those who struggle to eat well. The “daily bread” we pray for ought to sustain us in healthful living – not clog our arteries, lead to diabetes, increase our chances for coronary disease, and put us at risk for an early death. Grain and grape, transformed into bread and wine, provide the inspiration for working together to grow, harvest, prepare, and share good food from the good earth.

The world is still a dangerous place but a good deal of that danger lurks in our pantries and refrigerators. This Sunday Christians around the world will consume the body and blood of Christ in an ordinary meal shared around a common table. Maybe World Communion Sunday 2011 is a good day to begin to reflect seriously on the eating we do the other 364 days of the year.

This is an overhauled version of last year’s post “World Communion and French Fries.”