There are a few meals that I will never forget as long as I live.
I’ll never forget Thanksgiving dinner with my family some years back. We all tried our best to be as behaved and formal as we could, but alas… it’s just not in the Cole genes. Napkins were used as puppets and funny hats, napkin holders became building blocks, and normal, respectable voices turned into eruptive proclamations and impersonations.
I’ll never forget visiting one of our friaries for dinner as a postulant. Spontaneously visiting for the weekend, the five of us not only got the opportunity to meet the three friars living there, we were coincided with the surprise visit of two other friars from out of town. A casual dinner soon turned into a small party: wine, laughter, and a dinner conversation that lasted more than three hours.
I’ll never forget the times I went on retreats or away on Spring Break as a college student. There, away from our normal routines, intentionally together, we set up, cooked, shared a meal, and cleaned up together. With nothing to do or to distract us from each other, dinner was something we did together.
In each of these cases, what made the so memorable was not the food we ate, it was the company that attended. While meals can certainly be practical ways of obtaining calories, a purely physical necessity, meals can also be powerful social, even spiritual experiences. With good friends around a table, time can almost stand still. It’s the place where bonds are formed, relationships are nourished, and memories are instituted for ever.
There’s no doubt that Jesus understood the power of a good meal with friends. In our Gospels, especially the Gospel of Luke, Jesus does much of his ministry around the table breaking bread. It is around the table, not in a synagogue or temple, not in the city streets, and certainly not from a throne, that Jesus has his most intimate moments with his disciples. Just before he died, it was a meal he shared with his disciples; after he was resurrected, it was a meal that caused the disciples to know who he was; just before the ascension, it was a meal that reestablished the fellowship he had begun in order to commission them into the world.
What Jesus did through meals has served as the “source and summit” of our Catholic faith for two thousand years. At the mass, we break the bread of life, our savior given to us, as a means of building our own table fellowship, coming closer to the one who created us, and inspiring us to go out and be the Body of Christ in our world. As Catholics, we marvel at God’s ability to turn bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ, a miracle before our eyes, and offer thanksgiving for the great gift that is his eternal grace.
But as we heard in our first reading at mass today, there can be a danger in such marvels. Witnessing a man healed in the waters, the crowds flock to those who blessed him to see more miracles. A good thing for sure, a sign of faith. And yet Peter is furious. How are you amazed at this miracle but you refuse to accept the one who caused it, Jesus the Christ? What inspired the people was not the person of Jesus; they desired no relationship with him nor did they want to be a part of his community. What amazed them was the external sign, the miracle, the “magic” of unexplained powerful things.
There is, I will say, that temptation in our Eucharistic meal. Focusing solely on the “Holy Sacrifice of the Mass,” there have been times in our history (and spiritualities even today) that are so concerned with the holiness of physical body and blood of Jesus, that the whole experience either becomes, a) the reception of a miraculous, grace-filled wafer that is so objectively powerful that nothing else matters except saying the proper words and personally receiving with proper devotion, or b) something so very holy that one is rarely ever worthy enough to receive, a prize to be won by the perfect but hardly ever earned. Something is surely lacking here.
Jesus instituted the Eucharist as a meal, a form of table fellowship. He established it not to be dispensary of miracles and grace, but as a way to encounter the living and true God in an intimate, communal way. What we do at mass is a very holy experience, one that requires a certain level of reverence for sure. But it is a holy experience because it establishes and nourishes the community that Jesus established and serves as its head. When we gather for Eucharist, we gather together around the table, not simply as coincidental bystanders in a common location, but as men and women forming and nurturing a community of faith. When we gather for Eucharist, we gather together with our risen and living Lord just as we would at our kitchen table: to share a meal with a close friend.
There’s a reason that Jesus gave us a meal as a way to remember him. Meals can be the places where communities are born, where times can stand still, where we can be who we are in a comfortable setting. It’s no wonder that Jesus made the center of our worship a table for eating. Our hope as Christians is that the life we share together at the kitchen table—all of our joys, fears, vulnerabilities, and excitements—will be what we bring to the altar of our Eucharistic table, sharing with Jesus and his gathered Church in a way that makes time stand still and forms memories that we will never forget.