A family meal, gathered around the table together…. recently I asked our Vestry members when they felt particularly prayerful and connected to God – both in Church and outside of it. And a number of them said that having a meal together with their family was a holy and spiritual time for them, and they felt the presence of God,
This is something we have always known, in one way or another – the importance of having a meal together with people you care about. Sharing food together, however simple or elaborate it may be, draws people together; you time becomes more than a meeting of the minds; it’s also a willingness to admit your hunger and your need before someone else – hunger for food, but also hunger for companionship. And when the meals together are few and far between – like Thanksgiving or a family reunion – we spend even more time together, we linger over the dinner table, we share news and stories and family history, and the bond of our lives and the generations get woven more strongly. We affirm and create anew our family each time we gather in this way.
Ancient Judaism understood the importance of sharing a meal, and the most important meal of all was the seder, the Passover celebration. It was rich with the symbolism of the Israelites’ deliverance from slavery in Egypt and their trek into the wilderness where they were held and sustained by the Lord God. It was the place where they were formed into a People – God’s People. And every year this festival of deliverance, freedom, and identity is celebrated at home, around the dinner table, the youngest child asking the question that sparks the recounting of the story: “Why is this night different from all other nights?”
No doubt there was a year – or several years – in Jesus’s family growing up when he was the one to ask the question which Joseph would answer. And the answer wove together not only their family, but their rootedness in being Jewish, in being part of the great big People of God.
In the last week of his earthly life, after the entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, after the final days of teaching in the Temple, of turning over the tables of the money-changers, Jesus and his disciples gathered for a seder meal. It was Passover, after all, the great central feast of freedom. But this year, instead of gathering with family and extended relatives, Jesus gathered with the Twelve, his inner circle. No doubt there may have been some of his closest women disciples as well – Mary and Martha of Bethany, Joanna, Salome, Mary Magadalene, James’ mother who was also called Mary; who else would have coked and served the meal?
As the story of deliverance and God’s providence was told, Jesus took the bread, the flat unleavened bread that symbolized God’s provision for them in the midst of their fleeing from oppression, and said: “This is my body that is for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” The bread that had once been about what God had done that night in Egypt so long ago was suddenly becoming about what Jesus was doing in their midst. He was changing the story and the symbols, interpreting them in a new way. The bread was now to be the Body of Christ, tangible and present among them. And the cup of wine at the end of the meal, the third cup in the seder, the cup of blessing and of covenant was also transformed. It became “the new covenant in my blood.” In the seder, the wine was a symbol of the blood of the lamb sacrificed at the first Passover – its blood spread over the lintel and doorposts so that the angel of death would pass over the houses of the Hebrew slaves, redeeming their first-born sons from death. Now, Jesus proclaimed, the cup of wine would be the symbol of his blood, he who was so soon to be the Lamb sacrificed for our deliverance and redemption from death and sin.
The cup and the bread were now, for Jesus’ followers, to be his Body and Blood – broken, poured out, sealing the covenant with God in a new and life-giving way. Jesus told the story of God’s deliverance in a new and different way, a way that put him at the center of the story. This became the new and central narrative by which we, Jesus’ followers, understand our lives. We are a People who serve a Lord who gathers us around a table, who bids us to come with empty hands and empty hearts so that we may be filled with the grace and goodness of God in the bread and wine, in the Body and Blood. These symbols of death have become vehicles of life for us. And the story we tell as we gather at the Lord’s table is the foundation of our identity, our connectedness, our reality in the world. We are the Lord’s People, Jesus’s disciples, grafted onto the Body of Christ – who know pain and sin, suffering and death, but also know that we have been changed and healed and redeemed by the sacrifice that Jesus made for us. We remember and make present and participate in that sacrifice every time we gather for Eucharist. The story and the sacrifice, the bread and the wine change us, and make us new, and give us strength and sustenance for the journey.
10 How shall I repay the Lord *
for all the good things he has done for me?
11 I will lift up the cup of salvation *
and call upon the Name of the Lord.
12 I will fulfill my vows to the Lord *
in the presence of all his people. ~ Psalm 116:10-12. Amen.
Victoria Geer McGrath
All Saints’ Church, Millington, NJ
March 24, 2016