Thursday, April 16, 2015

Eating our Words

[Originally preached at Trinity College Chapel, 24th April 2005; published in memory of Homaro Cantu, d. 14th April 2015]

The sushi made by Mr Homaro Cantu, the executive chef at Moto restaurant in Chicago, looks a lot like that served at other upscale restaurants, appearing on the plate as round coloured disks; they also, by all accounts, taste deliciously fishy and seaweedy.

It is prepared on a Canon i560 inkjet printer. Cantu prints images of sushi rolls on pieces of edible paper made of soybeans and cornstarch, using organic, food-based inks of his own concoction. At least two or three food items made of paper are likely to be included in a meal at Moto. Even the menu is edible; diners crunch it up into a bowl of gazpacho, creating Mr Cantu’s version of alphabet soup.

The Revelation to John reminds us that eating words and images is not an altogether new idea:
So I went to the angel and told him to give me the little scroll; and he said to me, ‘Take it, and eat; it will be bitter to your stomach, but sweet as honey in your mouth.’ So I took the little scroll from the hand of the angel and ate it; it was sweet as honey in my mouth, but when I had eaten it, my stomach was made bitter. (Rev 10:9–10)
In using this image around the year 100 of our era, the author of the Revelation was actually reviving a traditional recipe going back further centuries to the prophet Ezekiel, who had a similar vision wherein he was instructed to eat a scroll as a prelude to taking its message to Israel (Ezek 3:2). Ezekiel’s scroll however was and remained sweet, and not bitter. This later scroll in Revelation contains a paradox; it is sweet because true, but bitter to the stomach, since the experience of the one who knows the truth will often not be uniformly pleasant.

If Chef Cantu with his Inkjet sushi is one postmodern inheritor of that tradition of eating words, another and more self-conscious one is Umberto Eco, whose novel The Name of the Rose hinges on the quest to uncover another ancient scroll—the lost book II of Aristotle’s Poetics, the section on comedy. Eco clearly has our Revelation passage in mind when, in the climactic scene, the evil Brother Jorge who has hidden this dangerous treatise lest it encourage the dire sin of laughter, eats it and dies in a final act of suicidal defiance, knowing that its humorous content has actually been written with a poisonous ink; the sweet words turn bitter in the stomach.

What Eco and his biblical predecessors are all playing with is the power and paradox of making words into flesh. Each of the eating protagonists seeks to make themselves one with the text: the evil Jorge to destroy both, and the seers Ezekiel and John to give both life.

Thomas Cranmer’s 1549 collect for the Second Sunday of Advent from the first Book of Common Prayer works with the same idea:
Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience and comfort of thy holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast, the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
But the story does not always seem like comfort food, as the seer John knew. Those of us who are concerned with texts—not so much literally eating them, I say to mollify any anxious librarians lurking among us, as studying them and seeking to internalise them—can hear in the idea of eating the text—prophecy, treatise or menu as it may be—the problem and the promise of how words and stories and images impact on us, or not. It is not enough merely to ‘learn’, if learning means that we compartmentalise what we learn into a purely theoretical knowledge. The metaphor of eating words expresses this well; truly to learn is to make what we learn a part of ourselves, not just the object of the mind’s activity but part of the actual means by which we will go on learning. Put thus, wisdom is not just about words and minds; it is about bodies and actions. Truly to learn, truly to be wise, is to make knowledge human, to make it flesh. What others have known with their hearts and hands, as well as minds, must become real in our own lives if we are to be wise.

Today is Passover; this evening, Jewish households outside of Israel celebrate the second of two Seders, the festive meal of the Passover, to commemorate the Exodus from Egypt. The Seder is a sort of eaten story too. One of its principles, expressed in the Haggadah or narrative order of service, is that participants should not simply remember historical events that took place in their ancestors’ times, but understand that they too, as they eat and drink, were brought out of Egypt.

In Christian tradition this motif of making words flesh has its fulfilment in the incarnation. John’s Gospel speaks of Jesus not merely as a divine being who has ‘beamed down’ on an ‘away mission’ to impart propositions to earth-dwellers, but as the ultimate personification, the making human, of God’s Word and wisdom.

In this Easter season for Christians, we affirm that something similar to the logic of the eaten wisdom of Passover can and must take place. Hearing the story again, we are invited not only to examine its propositions but also to consume it, to make it our own. In this last and longest chapter of the resurrection narrative, in the absence of the risen body of the Word once made flesh, we who feed on his story, his wisdom, and make it real in our own flesh, may thereby become that body in the world.