On a snowy day in downtown Chicago, as the first day of Advent drew near, I sat with my upper-class systematic theology students to discuss the meaning of the sacraments.
I opened my lecture with a simple question: “If forbidden fruit brought sin, can bread and wine bring redemption?”
At first, some of my students sat and scratched their heads. But over the course of our conversation, the class soon began to understand the theological dimensions of what we eat and drink in this life—and some of these insights are especially relevant to the season of Advent.
Advent, perhaps more poignantly than any other time in the liturgical calendar, reminds the church that it is in a pregnant pause. That is, we find ourselves suspended between the first and second Advents: Christ has died, Christ has risen—and Christ is yet to come again.
In the meantime, while we watch and wait for Christ’s return, we have been charged to partake in the Eucharist, or the sacrament of Communion. So during the Christmas season, we should eat and drink not only in remembrance of Christ’s birth but also in anticipation of his promised bodily return.
But not just any meal nor any table will do.
Whether your church uses bread or wafers, wine or juice—and whether you gather weekly, monthly, or quarterly—the Lord has called us all to gather at his table: the table he himself has set, where we might be fed by him and on him alone. For “whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:26).
And yet there is more to this story.
In Ritualized Faith, Terence Cuneo evocatively states that “it is no accident that the Eucharistic prayers are replete with imagery of sin, health, and food. For, according to the church’s salvation narrative, it is by food that we have fallen and by food that we are redeemed.”
Now, if you’re anything like my systematic theology students, a sentiment like this may make you nervous. Is it not sin that taints us? Is it not Jesus Christ who redeems us? Is Professor Steffey a closet Eastern Orthodox?
To these I answer easily: “Yes, yes, and no.” While drawing a connection between sin, salvation, eating, and drinking might make some evangelicals feel uncomfortable, it is undoubtedly and deeply woven into the church’s salvation narrative.
When the forbidden fruit touched Adam’s and Eve’s lips, our primal parents forgot what they truly hungered for, and a trajectory was set. And if humanity tasted death by eating, it makes sense that God would redeem the act of eating such that it became a way for us to taste true life.
Our Lord put it this way: “Very truly I tell you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:53). If our original sin was a misplaced hunger, then it is at his table that our appetites are reoriented, refreshed, even redeemed.
In other words, the story of our salvation is framed by what we consume, moving us from fruit, to manna, to Communion—and, one day, to the marriage supper of the Lamb.
In For the Life of the World, Alexander Schmemann remarks on the connections between our eating, fall, and redemption. He concludes that the sin of Adam and Eve was not direct disobedience, but a misoriented hunger.
“The unfathomable tragedy of Adam was that he ate for his own sake. More than that, he ate ‘apart’ from God in order to be independent of Him,” Schmemann said. “And if he did it, it is because he believed that food had life in itself and that he, by partaking of that food, would be like God, i.e., have life in himself.”
Or perhaps, as Cuneo argues, the problem was a lack of appetite altogether. He claims that Adam and Eve’s initial sin was not hungering for the wrong things but that their hunger for God had been quelled altogether—and that sin remains an appetite suppressant for our spirits.
Either way, a misplaced or absent appetite clouds the reality of God’s sacramental world, which is recognized and reconciled by the act of partaking in Communion. And it is only at the Lord’s table that the act of eating—what was once our first vehicle of sin—becomes part of the final vessel for our salvation.
Generations after Adam and Eve ingested sin and death, a baby boy with a humble lineage was born to a young unwed mother in first-century Judea. For nine months, Mary carried in her body the only hope of true Life. And in bearing the fruit of her womb, the world received the God-man—the One who is salvation and forgiveness.
After what was surely not a silent night of labor, Mary’s body was broken and her blood was shed. Yet soon after, she offered herself to her newborn baby, as mothers do, and urged him to nurse at her breast. For Jesus Christ, like all human infants, was born hungry.
Mary gave of her own body and blood to Jesus when he was a baby, and in turn she became a recipient of her son’s self-offering when he was grown. Mary was among his closest followers, sharing Passover meals with him in the Upper Room—a symbolic foretaste of the eternal life found in his body and blood.
And like those present at the Last Supper, the global church still breaks bread to confess that Christ died, that Christ rose, and that he has promised to come again in glory. While we wait, wonder, and watch in this time between Advents, we may feel weary, but we are not left hungry.
For now, the supper is a temporary provision—a sacramental snack, if you will—one that truly feeds us, and yet we will never be truly full this side of heaven. Therefore, Christ’s Communion table is eschatological, just like his kingdom: It is for now, but it is also not yet.
In the life of the world to come, Jesus will ultimately join his church not by celebration, party, or ceremony but by feasting. And as we eat and drink this Christmas season, and throughout the year, we anticipate that final feast—looking forward to the marriage supper of the Lamb, when God and his people will feast together, with full hearts and satisfied bodies.
The Eucharist, particularly during Advent, reminds us of a pregnant woman and a pregnant world—both enduring labor pains in the hope of a Savior who is already well on his way.
And in the meantime, we participate in a holy history of sacramental eating, along with the Communion of all the saints—crying out both “Immanuel, Christ is here,” and “Maranatha, Lord, come quickly!”
Riley Steffey is an instructor of theology at Moody Bible Institute and a PhD candidate at the University of Aberdeen in John Calvin studies. Riley lives on the north side of Chicago and is a member of Immanuel Anglican Church.