The first piece of furniture I purchased after I bought my home was a large rectangular Shaker-style table of naturally finished pine with six matching chairs. I installed it in my dining area and called my oldest sister, Joyce, to come see it.
Joyce pronounced it good—a double win for me, since she has an eye for decorating and a heart for bargain shopping. And she didn’t even realize that it was more than a table.
No, for me—a single, first-time home-owner after years of apartment living—this was not just a table; it was a symbol of my new status as “the lady of the house” and the hospitality I wanted to express as such.
I was proud of that table and imagined myself hosting dinners at it or standing at the head of it with a huge platter of turkey in my hands, like a matriarch in a Rockwell painting.
Never mind that I rarely ever cooked except by microwave oven and usually dined alone, either in front of a television or behind a steering wheel. I had a table now, so things would be different—eventually. Of course, I still had other rooms to furnish, repairs and renovations on the house to complete, settling in to accomplish. It would be months, I thought, perhaps longer, before I actually had to become the woman in the picture.
Resentment at the Table
Joyce, however, took it upon herself to accelerate my timetable. Looking around my spacious new home, she instantly got an idea about the upcoming holiday weekend, just days away. And before I knew how it happened, she had invited herself and other family members over for a big weekend family dinner and get-together, with a number of overnight guests.
It would be an especially significant celebration for our elderly mother, whose health had been compromised by a stroke and severe dementia. For Mom, the world had shrunk to a tight focus on her own comfort and the well-being of her children—and she worried most about those who lived the farthest away. She would love having all of us together for a sit-down dinner and extended visit.
I don’t clearly remember agreeing to host; I probably just fell into the old habit, as youngest in the family, of going along with things decided without me. I didn’t even mind that much, except for one thing. Joyce had invited an estranged family member, our “middle” sister, Jan, with whom I was angry and not that eager to be reconciled.
So throughout my hasty preparations for the weekend, I seethed with resentment. I kept imagining having to sit at the table with a sister who I felt had wronged me and others in the family, one who neither acknowledged any guilt nor expressed any remorse.
Ruefully, I imagined serving Jan food in my house, and the very thought dulled the shine of my new table for me. I couldn’t help thinking, “Some feast this is going to be!”
A Divine Precedent
As the holidays approach, many people anticipate gathering with family or friends or coworkers to celebrate, often with some sort of banquet or buffet. From ancient times to the present and in cultures around the world, it has long been customary for people to mark important or sacred events with festive meals together. After all, we have to eat anyway, right?
Yet the phenomenon of dining together on special occasions is more than simple custom or pragmatics. Whether we realize it or not, ritual feasting is a matter of biblical principle and precedent—with a heavenly mandate.
God himself approved of the practice: after calling on Moses to lead the Israelite people out of bondage and into the Promised Land, the Lord instituted a number of holy feasts and instructed his people in the proper observance of them.
God meant for those festivals to remind his people of his continued presence and the ongoing history of his grace.
In the New Testament, Jesus’ first recorded miracle occurs at a wedding feast (which, incidentally, is perhaps why bringing good wine to a dinner could be considered a very Christlike gesture). Later Jesus repeatedly presided over important meals, from the miraculous feedings of thousands of listeners to his intimate breaking of bread with his disciples.
During his life and even after his death and resurrection, Jesus frequently shared a meal with those he wanted to comfort or encourage.
Jesus also mentioned feasting in his parables, as when he compared the kingdom of heaven to a king throwing a wedding banquet for his son (Matt. 22). In that story, the king works hard to get people to his table. Nevertheless, many of the invited respond rudely and ruthlessly, if at all.
Eat, Drink, and Be Wary?
Jesus’ parable of the king’s banquet may strike some hearers as an unlikely scenario. Why would anyone refuse such an invitation? Most of us like to celebrate, after all, and a fancy dinner paid for by a rich host is nothing to blow off.
Yet how many of us have foregone a holiday dinner with family to avoid difficult relatives or uncomfortable confrontations? How many workers, perhaps angry over a small or absent bonus or stressed
about their holiday to-do lists, have skipped the office Christmas party?
A holiday feast, if celebrated in the right spirit, is more than a pleasing array of special dishes. It’s a symbol of grace, designed to center our attention on our blessings, our community, our shared history, and God’s place at the center of it all. In that sense, every meal we share with others is an opportunity for communion, healing, and reconciliation, as well as nourishment.
Is it any wonder our adversary, the devil, tries to corrupt our holiday feasts? He has many tools at his disposal, including commercialism (idolatry and lust) and consumerism (gluttony), as well as over-busyness (sloth), holiday depression (acedia), and all kinds of interpersonal strife (pride and anger).
If those influences go unchecked, we can end up being depleted rather than nourished by our feasts. And isn’t it a shame to sit down to an expensive meal, only to leave the table hungry?
Too Broken to Break Bread?
God knew his people needed “appointed feasts” as reminders of his covenant promises and past deliverances as much as they needed to come together to be filled and reassured of God’s presence.
For Christians, the sacrament of communion is a similarly symbolic yet physically significant observance, designed for the health and sustenance of the believer. God invites us: Come to the Lord’s Supper, partake, be filled. It’s hard to see why anyone would refuse.
But when caught up in our own pain, our own disappointments, our own forgetfulness of God’s power, we may tend to avoid or push away from the Lord’s Table—to refuse to eat, so to speak.
Or because of broken relationships or hidden conflicts, we may feel unworthy or unwilling to come to the table, to sit beside others who are likely to be there. Whatever the reason, it is not uncommon even for people of faith to decline God’s invitation to dine when nourishment at his Table is what we need most.
Scripture repeatedly shows Jesus’ concern for the nourishment of his followers. In compassion he always addresses the physical hunger of those who travel with him or who have traveled far to encounter him. But with his words and his presence—his very body and blood—he addresses their spiritual hunger as well. After fortifying them in those ways, he challenges those who say they love him to show it by feeding others.
A good friend of mine worked for a time in a restaurant. She often voiced frustration about what she thought of as the lowliness of her position. By way of encouragement I tried to point out the honor I saw in feeding people, in bringing them something that conferred strength, comfort, nutrients for growth.
Of course, it was easier to look at things that way before I found myself in the position of serving someone I didn’t really want to serve.
When my estranged sister came to my house, she came without any apologies or acknowledgement of a debt to me. She and her children installed themselves in my guest room, asked a few things for their comfort, and proceeded to enjoy their weekend as if there were no issues to prevent it. And, as it turned out, she brought a few pantry items and volunteered to cook, if she might use my kitchen, to make some of our mother’s favorite dishes.
Although I’d spent a great deal on groceries and pre-prepared food, I let my middle sister do her thing. Meanwhile, we both ignored whatever was unsaid between us and focused on giving our mother (as well as our less-emotionally-stunted siblings) a happy weekend.
In retrospect, I suppose the food Jan cooked was as close as she could come to a peace offering. I didn’t think much of it, as such; but then, all our offerings are imperfect compared to the Lamb of God, himself.
Ultimately, I enjoyed myself. It had been too long since we’d come together. We children hadn’t gathered like this, really, since our father’s funeral, and now we were under one roof, celebrating a holiday with our frail mother, whose childlike happiness made it impossible not to smile back. I served some, was served some, and as I hosted, I felt the Lord’s presence among us.
At first grudgingly, then gratefully, I dined with my family. And when the table was cleared, it shone for me once again.
God on the Menu
Author Leslie Leyland Fields has edited a wonderful collection of essays called The Spirit of Food: 34 Authors on Fasting and Feasting Toward God. In her introduction, she explains in an eloquent way part of what I tried to convey to my friend who worked in food service, a truth that I understand fairly well when I’m not actively resisting it.
“Food is nothing less than sacrament,” Fields writes. “All food is given by God and is given as a means to sustain not just our bodies, but also our minds and our spirits. In all of its aspects—growth, harvest, preparation, and presentation—food is given as a primary means of drawing us into right relationship toward God, toward his creation and his people. Even its intentional absence, through fasting, pulls us toward a deeper dependence on God and one another.”
If we find ourselves resisting our own nourishment, or the opportunity to nourish others, it may be that our best remedy is to seek out a place at the Lord’s Table. Jesus invites us to approach and be filled, but also to be healed, unburdened, and reminded of who he is and what that means for our lives. He provides the bread and wine that satisfy, and it is only what he offers that makes our poor offerings palatable at all.
1. Jennifer Parker comments that her new table was a symbol of hospitality for her. What words or images come to mind when you look at your dining table?
2. What is your favorite Scripture passage that relates to eating—being nourished? Why?
3. When do you feel most nourished by God?
4. What are you looking forward to in the upcoming season of feasting? What do you dread?
5. How can a shared meal bring about reconciliation? How does food draw you into right relationship?
About the Author
Jennifer Parker is a writer and teacher from Mississippi currently based in Guangdong Province, China