It’s a wonder I survived childhood. Not only was I a sickly kid, but I seldom ate. I was beyond finicky. I subsisted on Malt-O-Meal, pbj’s, and hamburgers. Oh yeah, and ice cream. But my mom didn’t serve ice cream much.
At dinner my dad made me stay at the table until I cleaned my entire plate. After a while, my dad would forget about me, he now being engrossed in the 10 o’clock news, and my mom would relent. I would then run to the bathroom and spit the offending spinach, green beans, and roast beef in the toilet.
All this made meal-time an unpleasant experience, a necessary evil. Sitting down to enjoy a meal was oxymoronic.
Therefore, it’s taken me a long time to appreciate meal-time rituals. And I’m still a picky eater, though my menu expanded shortly after getting married. “Eat what I fix or die,” my wife, Dee Dee, whispered. I wasn’t sure whether that meant I could starve myself or that she was going to kill me. I learned, however, she’s a great cook and there are several other edible food groups: pizza, chocolate, steak, chips, apple pie, and most Mexican food.
I’ve also discovered gathering around the table is about more than physical sustenance. Over the board is where we connect with one another. Here we tell the stories of our days and even our lives, which is why the command “don’t talk with your mouth full” is so persistently ignored. With four chair legs on the floor–and the occasional phone book under our butts–we come eye to eye with each other. Amidst the clink and clank of fork on plate we invent, learn, practice, and carry on traditions. In the kitchen or dining room the ordinary reigns. “Pass the salt,” we say.
And the only sight more forlorn than a person eating alone, is two gathered together across a table but separated by an ocean of alienation.
Of course God intended our mealtimes to be times of connection not only with one another, but with him as well. The 1987 Danish Academy Award winning film “Babbette’s Feast” tells this truth in a beautiful story about Babbette, a celebrated French chef, who to escape the Revolution, gets stranded on the barren, cold coastline of Jutland with two loving but hidebound religious sisters. The sisters’ lives are ruled by duty and an adherence to the austere religious life their father, a Dutch Reformed pastor laid out for them. (Spoiler Alert)
The sisters take in Babbette and, not knowing she is a chef, teach her to cook. In return for a place to live, Babbette cooks and cleans for the two aging sisters. But Babbette does not feel she has done enough in return, and when she wins the French lottery, she spends all her winnings on a feast she prepares for the sisters and their small congregation.
The irony is that the sisters and their friends decide the feast is too lavish and make a pact to eat the food but not enjoy it.
At that point in the movie, it was hard not to see myself in the dim characters desperately trying not to enjoy this fantastic feast. I played the same game as a child at our dinner table. But I also recognized how many times God, like Babbette, has laid a spiritual feast before me and I have refused to partake. It’s laughable.
Food, from the mundane to the delicious, represents how God loves and sustains us. Food is a direct connection to him. “Give us this day our daily bread.”
Gathering together to eat represents how God loves and sustains us through family and friends. Our relationships also feed us.
It’s no surprise then that Jesus gathered his friends for a final meal. But it is not just the bread and wine Jesus named sacred. “This is my body,” Jesus said, meaning the bread but also us, his friends, the Body of Christ. This gathering at the table, with others, of lesser and greater faith, is Jesus embodying not just bread and wine but his people too. Now I see sitting down for a meal can be not only a joy, but a holy moment, a sacrament.
I hope we can connect even over a virtual table at The Neighborhood Cafe.