As you go home after tonight’s service, if you happen to pass by a fast-food restaurant (especially Chick-fil-a), check out the line of cars in the drive-thru. It will be long and littered with SUV’s – a sure sign many American families are not gathering around a dinner table this evening for a meal. I read recently fast-food establishments are transforming their in-person dining facilities. Many are cutting down dramatically the size of their seating areas in favor of expanding curbside and drive-thru capacity. What does this tell you about the current status of the American dinner experience? I noted – with some amusement – KFC is a part of this trend. My two reactions to this news were these: 1) I don’t eat ‘food’ from KFC, and 2) if I did, I certainly wouldn’t sit in their lobby to do it!
At the center of tonight’s service is a meal; a meal which has been given a memorable moniker – “the Last Supper” – and has been depicted by artists thousands of times over, perhaps most famously by da Vinci. The customs and practices around meals will tell you a lot about the culture of time. Just as the drive-thru reveals much about our day, meals in Jesus’ day expressed the social, symbolic, and spiritual values of its time.
Think about the meals mentioned in the gospels and the stories Jesus tells centered around the sharing of food. They are (or should be) expressions of hospitality, affirmations of kinship, friendship, and status, and settings for peaceful interactions. Meals fell into one of three categories: ordinary, festive, and sacred and all three were understood to be spiritual occasions. Ordinary meals might include bread, grains, olives and olive oil, and bean stews, as well various fruits, cheeses, and fish. Festive and sacred meals added different kinds of meat to the menu.
Meals were served indoors or in places shaded from the sun. Typically, food was served on a low table or on mat or simply in bowls passed around among the diners. Those eating either knelt on the floor or sat cross-legged. Reclining by resting your head close to the chest of the person next to you was a common practice at festive and sacred meals, leading to the expression ‘bosom buddies.’ Tables with chairs, as we think of them, were reserved for royalty and the well-to-do.
Because bread was an indispensable staple at most meals it became synonymous with the meal itself. We still hold on to the expression “breaking bread” because bread was torn off from the loaf by hand, not cut.
Most food was passed among guests and eaten by hand directly from the dish, bowl or plate on which was served. This led to some elaborate pre-meal practices around personal hygiene, which included washing of hands and feet as well as the use of perfume or oil. Over time, what once served as a practical consideration (cleaning up before eating) evolved into religious obligation concerned with ritual purity. It was customary to recite short prayers at the beginning of a meal and longer prayers of thanksgiving after the conclusion.
Various specific directions set forth etiquette for Hebrew meals; all practical, some humorous:
· You should not talk with food in your mouth, for it can prove dangerous should it go down the windpipe. Even saying “bless you” to person who has sneezed should be avoided. However, if you push the food to the side of his mouth, there is no concern about talking.
· When you distribute pieces of bread to those eating with you, you should not throw the bread to the recipient nor hand it to him directly. Rather, it should be placed before the person on a plate or in a bowl.
· It is improper to eat or drink while standing.
· It is not proper to wipe your plate clean while eating so that nothing is left on it. Some food, even a small amount, should remain.
· It is also improper to lick your fingers.
· If you are a guest in a home, do not demand food to eat, rather, wait until food is offered.
· If two people are eating together from the same plate (say, sharing olives from a common bowl) and one person stops eating in order to drink or to do another minor act, the other person needs to stop eating from the bowl and wait until his friend is ready to resume. If, however, three people are eating from the same plate or bowl and one person interrupts his eating, it is not necessary for the other two to pause.
All of these cultural expectations serve to highlight a distinctive aspect of the first Passover meal described in tonight’s reading from the Book of Exodus:
This is how you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it hurriedly.
It is the modern day equivalent of having your child in her soccer uniform and cleats as you hit the drive thru on the way to practice. The Passover is anything but a leisurely meal typical of the culture at the time. It is eating on the run. It stands out because it is the exception, not the rule. In our time, dining is the exception. Rushing is the norm.
The early Church soon discovered when they gathered for a communal meal – observing all the norms and customs of the day, but also remembering the last meal they shared with Jesus – the Risen Lord became known to them. Early on, there was a physical presence. After the Ascension, the presence was spiritual. We experience this in our day when we gather in this place around its table and do what we do in remembrance of Christ.
We also experience it in our homes and with our friends as we sit down for a meal where we have time truly to be present to one another. At occasions like these, which are becoming rare in our society, God’s Spirit moves in and through the gathering in ways that refresh and restore us while bonding and binding us to one another in love.
I miss our Agape Meal tonight because of the way it brings together the sacred and the social. It starts with the preparation – food and decoration – continues through the meal, and lingers even into the clean-up. It has a powerful way of connecting us to one another and of connecting us to the One who is our Host. God willing, next year we will gather at table in the Parish Hall once again and dine with one another. Tonight we give thanks for the opportunity to gather in this sacred meal and moment at the Lord’s Table.
Jesus said, “Woman, behold thy son.”
The Greek philosopher Herodotus is remembered for noting the major difference between times of peace and times of war is during peace children bury their parents and during war parents bury their children. Whatever the political climate is, every parent carries a secret fear someday he or she will lose a child. Without question, the most grief-filled memorial services are those where a parent has to bury a child, no matter if the child is two or thirty-two.
What must be going through the mind of Mary, the holy mother, as she watches her son die on the Cross?
As a young girl, perhaps no older than fourteen, she is visited by an angel whose puzzling message proclaims she will conceive through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and give birth to a son. We find the angel’s words in Luke 1:32:
“He will be great,
and will be called the Son of the Most High;
and the Lord God will give to him
the throne of his father David,
and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever;
and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
The fear-filled little girl responds, “Let it be to me according to your word.”
Surely this is one of the memories flooding Mary’s mind as she watches her flesh and blood hang on the tree.
In the months following the angel’s visit, Mary must have endured great shame being pregnant and unwed. Yet she is still able to make this proclamation to her cousin Elizabeth:
“My soul magnifies the Lord,
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for He has regarded
the low estate of his handmaiden.
henceforth all generations will call me blessed;
for He has done great things for me
and holy is his Name…”
Does Mary remember these words as she grieves at Calvary? Surely she does not perceive herself as blessed among all people on that terrible Friday afternoon.
Think of all the unusual events associated with the birth of Jesus. Luke records on the night of Jesus’ birth shepherds come to the manger telling a story of angelic visions and choruses. Matthew records the visit of Magi who follow a star to the place where the child can be found. Luke also records the declarations of Simeon and Anna at Jesus’ dedication in the Temple eight days after his birth. While these events leave others confused, the Scriptures tells us Mary ponders them while keeping them in her heart.
Imagine how great her hopes and expectations for her son must have been. How many days must she have held her child to her breast dreaming of what he might become? How many nights must she have put him to sleep with a prayer entrusting him into God’s care? How many times does she catch a glimmer of the Divine growing in her boy and how often does she wonder what glorious things God will do through him, as she has been promised?
Can anyone at the foot of the Cross be more dissolutioned? Can anyone be more confused? Can anyone be more grieved than Mary?
In the midst of great physical and emotional agony Jesus is aware of his mother and her anguish. Scholars are somewhat puzzled by his words to her, “Woman, behold thy son” and to the disciple, “Behold, thy mother.” Mary has several other children by Joseph who are capable of caring for her. In fact, one son – James – becomes the leader of the church in Jerusalem, so it is not clear to experts why Jesus has to entrust her to one outside the family. But this much we do know, the disciple takes the mother of our Lord into his care from this moment on.
From this I deduce even in the throes of his suffering Jesus has compassion for us and for our needs. He is ever-concerned for us as evidenced by his concern for his mother. Given this, how much more is he able to care for us now in his glory?
I also believe family lines are redrawn not as a way to deal with loss and grief, but as a foreshadowing of what life in the resurrection will be like. In a few short days Jesus will rise from the dead and appear to his followers in triumph. When this happens realities such as biological relations will seem trivial in light of the bonds created among believers who experience the resurrection.
Just as those who wait at the foot of the Cross are bound together by their common experience, we are united in this place at this time because we come to observe Good Friday together. Come Sunday we will be related by more than the fact we gather together in the same place. We will be brothers and sisters in Christ based on the power of the resurrection in our lives. For followers of Christ there is no stronger tie than the faith uniting us in Christ. We rejoice together. We weep together. Let no one make a charge against one of the elect for we are family in Christ. As it was at the foot of the Cross between Mary and the disciple, let it be for us.