Extending the Table
It's 10 p.m. and I'm finally feeling grateful for this holiday meal. Mostly that it's over and we've all finally stopped eating. I consider the destruction. The table lies wasted. The candles have dissolved into stalagmites, which I know will never come out of the tablecloth. The staggering amount of leftovers prompt a rehearsal of my food performance: Was the meal good enough? My sweet potato cheesecake with a gingersnap crust was a hit, but the turkey was stringy and the broccoli was so overcooked I should have just whipped it with a beater and served it with the mashed potatoes. And did I really have to eat that second helping of chocolate-pecan pie with a whipped cream bouffant?
During the dinner, as I passed the platters of ham, turkey, and goose, the salads, the baskets of rolls, I thought of the billion people on the planet who labor daily for little, often nothing, on their plates. Here we are so encumbered with abundance, we seldom ask God for "our daily bread," and our most valiant, laudatory labor is pushing food off our plates.
How much guilt can a holiday meal serve up? Apparently as much as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Making for heavy holidays indeed.
A few years ago, burdened by the guilt and expectations of the feasting table, I began to reconsider the whole topic of food. I remembered the admonition from the apostle Paul that we are to "take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ" (2 Corinthians 10:5, NIV). Have I ever consciously done this—brought my thoughts about food into obedience to Christ? I remembered, too, the familiar passage where Paul is discussing whether believers should eat food sacrificed to idols. He concludes by saying, "So whether you eat or drink [of this food], or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God" (1 Corinthians 10:31).
How could I eat and drink to God's glory then? I began studying the Scriptures and found in its pages an astonishing record of food. From the opening pages of Genesis, the whole story of redemption can be told through edibles, from the bite of the fruit leading to the fall, to the Passover meal eaten just before the flight from Egypt, to Jesus coming as the bread of life, his feeding of the multitudes, and finally, Jesus the bread broken for us.
As I've meditated on these and many more passages, I've been working joyfully at recovering a more biblical practice of eating and drinking, which has changed my holiday meals from a smorgasbord of guilt to real worship and celebration. I offer these suggestions as you begin to think about the foods you'll serve and share these coming days.
Invite the Poor to Your Table.
There's no more humbling and challenging place to start than Christ's own admonition for our guest list: "When you put on a luncheon or a banquet … don't invite your friends, brothers, relatives, and rich neighbors. For they will invite you back, and that will be your only reward. Instead, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind. Then at the resurrection of the righteous, God will reward you for inviting those who could not repay you" (Luke 14:12-14).
How many of us do this? We don't, because it's hard, it's risky, it's uncomfortable. But Christ's message is clear: Our holiday meals aren't just for us and our well-dressed family and friends. It's to be a pure act of generosity that expects nothing in return (not even a hostess gift).
Our own table, then, can foreshadow the table at God's own marriage supper, which will be filled with people like us, who were maimed, poor, blind and undeserving—yet to whom God invited us "to eat and drink at my table in my Kingdom" (Luke 22:30).
Slow Down and Cook More Thoughtfully, Even Prayerfully.
Most of us spend an average of just 30 minutes a day on food preparation. Yes, we're busy! But we're often so focused on the end goal—getting the meal on the table—that we forget the value of the process. The time in the supermarket or farmer's market, choosing the food, and the time in the kitchen preparing the food can be a richly fulfilling time of communion with God.
Take time to consider his gifts. Consider the beauty, the taste, smell, color, and texture of the vegetables, fruits, and grains that pass through your hands.
The savor of sweet potatoes! The marvel of artichokes! The solemn blood of the beet! We can find God's fingerprint in the whorl of a purple cabbage; we can find an image of heaven in the layers of an onion. Each one is a lesson in God's own creativity and his love of beauty, the senses, our bodies. Let our senses remind us of the tangible ways God loves us, body and soul. As we stand at the stove, stirring spoon in hand, wreathed in steam, this, too, can be worship.
Find or Create Foods that Have Spiritual Significance.
As I traced food and feasting through the Scriptures, I was reminded of a truth that we often forget: God intends food to be commemorative. At every Seder, participants remember the historical events of Passover by the specific foods God himself designated: the unleavened bread, the whole roasted lamb, the bitter herbs. When we partake of Communion, we "do this in remembrance of me," as Christ enjoined, the juice and the bread, physical, bodily reminders of Christ's death and the life he has given and now sustains within us. The seven Old Testament feasts God instituted commemorated specific events and moments in Israel's history.
We can do the same at our tables. For Christmas Eve, I created a meal we've not missed in 12 years: a pasta dish called Grass and Straw, Mary and Joseph slaw, babe in swaddling clothes (pigs in a blanket). For Good Friday, we sometimes eat a simple meal of black bean soup and bread to remind us of Christ's death. We can create simple foods that make meals a time of remembering God's work in history and God's ongoing work among those gathered around the table.
"Love Your Neighbor" This Holiday with Your Food Choices.
Can we better eat and drink to God's glory even in our food choices? Indeed we can. With diabetes and obesity at endemic levels, we can honor our God-given bodies and love "our neighbors," the ones we serve, by preparing meals that contribute to their health and strength rather than to disease.
Additionally, rather than buying all our produce and meat from the national chain supermarket, consider supporting local organic farms and buying directly from them. Not only can we "love our neighbor" by serving our family and guests fresher, healthier produce and meats, but we will also be loving our neighbor the farmer by supporting their efforts to raise livestock humanely, and to treat creation respectfully.
Consider Beginning Some Kind of Fasting Practice.
It's harder to be grateful for food and feasts when we "feast" every day. All the more reason to fast.
Jesus assumed that we all would fast. He said, "When you fast …" not "If you fast …"
In our culture of excess, most of us are afraid of hunger and seldom experience it. We may pray, "Give us this day our daily bread," but with weeks of groceries in our cupboards, we forget that we are indeed fed by our heavenly Father each day.
Fasting, even in a modified form, can reset our appetites and help us regain our gratitude for food. It needn't always be all-out abstention from food. I "fast" by eating only vegetables and fruits for several days. During the holidays, I sometimes limit myself to bread and water for a day or two before a holiday meal, using that time for reading God's Word, and letting my hunger remind me that "people do not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God."
Whatever form of fast we choose, it's crucial to remember that any kind of abstention is not about vanquishing the flesh; it's about entering more fully into the life and goodness of God.
Start Slowly and Honorably with Your Family.
As strongly as I feel about each of these practices, my family is probably like most of yours around the holidays. (Can I hear the chorus from Fiddler on the Roof here? "Tradishuuuuuuuuuun. Tradition!") None of these suggestions argue against family traditions, which should be maintained, by all means. Predictability and continuity—yes, even the green bean casserole—strengthens family identity and provides a link to our shared past, even for our grown children. But be wise: Don't implement all your new ideas at once. Begin by incorporating gentle additions to traditions rather than subtractions. No one will object to a new dessert at the table, or a fresh offering of roasted organic vegetables beside the green bean casserole.
If "inviting the poor" to Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner isn't immediately embraced, consider an invitation for another meal around the holidays. Most important, solicit your family's involvement in thinking of new ways to enliven and deepen holiday fare and practices.
These are just a few ways we can extend our tables this season. As you begin these simple practices, you will discover yet more ways to eat and drink to the glory of God. Bon appetite!
Leslie Leyland Fields is the author of eight books, including The Spirit of Food: 34 Writers on Feasting and Fasting toward God. She's a columnist for Christianity Today and lives on Kodiak Island with her husband and children.
Copyright © 2011 by the author or Christianity Today/Kyria.com.
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Extending the Table
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