The Delicate Dance of Dinnertime

How are your table manners?  What’s acceptable dinner conversation at your house?  Generally, forboden topics are sex, politics, or religion, right? Apparently, they interfere with one’s digestion.  Hard to do though, right?

Growing up at mealtime, my father’s medical talk just about pushed my mother over the precipice. My dad would accept calls from the hospital or patients any time — even dinnertime.  And as we would eat our fried chicken, salad, and macaroni and cheese, my father would discuss suppositories, barium enemas, and bodily fluids. Now this kind of talk just does not mix well with supper. Being part of a large family, there was also a fair amount of one upmanship among my brothers and sisters at the table. This also drove my mother crazy. Who had done whatzit and who had not done whatzit. Who was in the doghouse that week and who had just been let out. 

Table etiquette is a delicate dance of the spoken and the unspoken.  How many forks are on the table?  What’s on the menu? Who is seated where and next to who?  

Remember when you thought you were too old to sit at the children’s table — but you still did? Remember when you had to sit next to obnoxious cousin Fred for an entire evening?  Remember the argument over who would carve last year’s Thanksgiving turkey?  Who serves? And who is being served?  We may not realize it, but a great drama is unfolding at our dinner tables. There are parts and scenes, actors and actresses, and tragedies and comedies.

I’m sure if you looked around the room just about everyone could tell a story of a meal — a special meal — a defining meal. A meal that helps you tell your family story. The Thanksgiving where dad came home from Viet Nam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. That first Christmas dinner without Grandmother. The disastrous birthday dinner where your sister stomped out of the living room. The quiet simple meal you shared when the baby came home. And every time you eat and every time you drink in the same place or with the same food, you remember. You remember the family story. Good, bad, or indifferent, you know you belong.

Now food talk is God talk and table talk is Kingdom Talk. Again and again in scripture, both in the Old and New Testaments, when folks find themselves at table, it’s about more than about food. It’s about relationships with one another. Its’ about our relationship with God.

The Hebrew language has no word for family: it has no word for community. Whoever gathered at your table was related to you — was welcomed. If you had a seat, you were considered — at least for the time being — a friend and not a foe. Gathering at table was a very intimate kind of sharing — akin to the marriage bed. Eat with us and you are one of us.

Biblically speaking at the table, rifts were healed, contracts were made, treaties were signed, and covenants were sealed. Salvation itself was acted out — seated at table with food.

“How eagerly I desire to eat this Passover with you before I suffer,” Jesus says to his friends and disciples — Judas among them.  

Jesus gathers his friends at table. He is keeping the feast — the Passover Feast. Jesus is not making Eucharist as we know it — so ritualized and formalized. Jesus is not a priest at an altar — with pretty cups and plates. Though this day, is the day clergy traditionally renew their ordinations vows, the establishment of a hierarchical clergy is not what this day is about.

Jesus is keeping Passover, and this is a Seder meal.  With his friends he is celebrating and remembering the Exodus: the freedom train, deliverance from bondage, release from slavery. Together Jesus and friends break the bread of affliction and drain the cup of blessing. But this time, the Exodus blessing is mixed with Jesus’s broken body and mingled with Jesus’ blood. 

Remember me when you keep this feast.

Remember me when you eat and when you drink.

Now, Jesus has barely passed the final cup when an argument breaks out — just like at our own family dinners — an argument erupts and petty oneupmanship takes over. Jesus’ chair is not yet empty and already the disciples are scrambling for it. The dinner is not yet over and already the disciples are no longer listening. Jesus was only asking them to remember what he was about to do and where he was about to go. This topic however is too painful for the dinner table. The disciples ignore Jesus, and his words are already forgotten.

How ingenious, how wise then, Jesus was to ask them — and ask us — to remember him every time we eat and when we drink. Jesus knew that if nothing else, in the course of our lives’ ups and downs, we would look after our own stomachs. When you are parched and thirsty, when your stomach growls and hunger strikes, when you are looking for your daily bread, when you keep the feast, remember that your deepest hunger is a heavenly one. Remember that your deepest hunger is for life abundant – not just in the by and by, but in the here and now.

Jesus knew that whenever we would taste again that same bread and drink that same wine, we would remember that particular meal – Jesus’ last meal. And we would give thanks for the Exodus blessing mixed with his body and mingled with his blood.  Each time we eat and drink, Christ would join us at the table. We would remember the story — the family story — who he is and who we are and where we belong: Serving one another, feeding one another, together around that crazy, enormous dining room table, with chairs too many to number. Together we make eucharist — in communion with Christ — blessed by the Creator — in the company of a Spirit infused priesthood of all believers. What matters in the end — as Sunday yields to Monday — is not what becomes of that bread and wine, what matters most is what becomes of us — that we become the healing body and blood of Jesus in this broken and hurting world.

Do this in remembrance of me.

Pax vobiscum,


Lent Spirituality The Episcopal Church

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The Rev. Joani Peacock, Editor for Emmanuel Voices: A Parish Blog

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