“They had come to know Jesus in the breaking of bread.”
The very first activity after his death and resurrection that Jesus renewed with his disciples was eating together. Throughout all of scripture we can find stories where the meal is the focal point, from eating the forbidden fruit in Genesis to the Great Marriage Supper of the Lamb in Revelation. Meal times are central to our human experience. They are at the same time both secular and sacred.
Shared meals are vital to making a family. They are the time of regrouping after a busy day of work and play. My mother made it very clear that she was not a short order cook, and the house was no pit stop. We would all be home and sit down together at five o’clock around the kitchen table. Never, absolutely never, were meals taken in front of the T.V. All meals began with grace and then proceeded with Dad asking each of us for a report, “What did you learn in school today?” Reports all in, we would regularly get into heated debates on the burning issues of the day: Civil rights, the Vietnam war, long hair, rock music. Our seriousness, however, was forever being interrupted with one of six children spilling a glass of milk, at which everyone was cued to chorus, “It never misses! It never misses!” We had even sillier rituals such as , “On the count of three everybody, SCREAM!!!”, or one of us going outside and yelling at the top of our lungs, “Our Dad is the meanest Dad in the whole world!” which we would say only because the exact opposite was true. As much as, or even more than, going to Mass each Sunday these meal times made us family.
Shared meals also help us to form bonds with strangers, to make new friends. Eating with your fingers from the same pot has a way of quickly uniting you with those gathered for an African meal. Scripture enjoins us to eat whatever is set before us when we travel; not just because it is polite, but because by eating the same food we are acknowledging our dependence upon our host; we are allowing ourselves to be nourished, not only by their food, but by their entire culture and tradition. By accepting their food we are accepting them. Through the snapping of bones and sucking of marrow I became an African.
Shared meals humanize us. Not until Jesus ate fish with the disciples were they satisfied he was human. We used to visit Walter, a prisoner in one of Pennsylvania’s medium security penitentiaries. Once or twice each summer the warden allowed a picnic on the grounds. On those occasions we would bring Walter’s children and his girlfriend. The first time we didn’t know what to expect. The guards thoroughly inspected our picnic basket; running their rubber gloved fingers through the baked beans and potato salad, filtering for drugs, crumbling the cake looking for hacksaws, and removing all our utensils. From then on we took only hoagies which suffered less upon scrutiny. Despite all this degradation, these picnics were the highlight of the year for Walter and the other prisoners. Out in the sun, with the sound of children playing, with husbands and wives arm in arm, it could have been any town park, regardless of the armed guards in the towers and three rows of coiled razor wire on the walls. There is nothing like the scene of a mother at a table sharing a meal with her pony tailed, bearded, tattooed son to remind you that these prisoners are human; once they were each some mother’s little baby boy.
Shared meals comfort and reunite us. As an altar boy, I served at many funeral masses. Sad occasions though they were, they were not without happy benefits for a young lad, including time off from school, a small stipend of a crisp dollar bill in the pocket, a funeral meal, and a trip back to school in the undertaker’s hearse. Most funeral meals were held in the family’s home. Grieving spouse, brothers, sisters, children, grandchildren, cousins, aunts, uncles, parishioners, and neighbors spread out through the kitchen, parlor, and living room balancing on their knees the plates of baked ham, beans, cole slaw, and Jell-O served by the Ladies Altar Society. These occasions would begin with solemn faces, hushed tones and whispers, but soon smiles and friendly banter could be found as relatives and friends comforted one another and renewed acquaintances. Before long the little children, who had been held in check, would be dodging in and out between grown-ups’ legs, playing tag and laughing without any sense of the gravity of the day. The laughter of children and the crying of babies signified to all that life was more powerful than death. All this because people gathered together for a meal. In today’s gospel Jesus really drove the message of life over death home by showing up at his own funeral meal!
Finally, shared meals formalize all important transactions in life. Weddings, business deals, state treaties are all concluded with a raised glass and a meal. As Jesus ate again with his disciples, it was to fulfill his words spoken earlier that he would not dine with them again until the arrival of the Kingdom of God. Over a fish dinner, God’s kingdom came to earth and it continues coming to this day, each time we gather at meal time.
Third Sunday of Easter Acts 3:13-19, 1 Jn 2: 1-5, Lk 24: 35-48
Peace Connections: Making the connection between the Sunday Readings and issues of peace and justice. Copyright 1995, by Thomas L. Garlitz. “Not for profit” permission to reprint granted.