14 March 2009

Meals with Jesus (1)

Patrick Comerford


How many of you have given up some food treats for Lent?

How many of you have given up chocolate?

How many have given up sweets?

How many have given up cakes, sweets and biscuits?


There was a priest in this diocese once who was reputed to have said superciliously that every Lent he gave up that slice of lemon in his Gin and Tonic.

We often associate Lent with giving up something, especially with giving up some aspect of food or drink.

And we also make a mental association between the forty days of Lent and the forty days Jesus spent fasting in the wilderness.

This was the Gospel reading we had this year on the First Sunday of Lent (Mark 1: 9-5), two weeks ago (1 March 2009).

Although, surprisingly, that reading does not say that Jesus fasted while he was in the wilderness … it says he was there “forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him” (Mark 1: 13). It is only Saint Matthew who says he “fasted forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was famished” (Matthew 4: 2).

And, I suppose, many of us also make a mental association between the forty days of Lent and the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness, on the one hand, with, on the other hand, the forty years of exile the freed slaves spent in the wilderness after they came out of Egypt.

But fasting is not about starvation.

Saint Mark tells us the angels waited on Jesus while he was in the wilderness during those forty days (καὶ οἱ ἄγγελοι διηκόνουν αὐτῷ). While he was there, they were deacons to him; they served him at his table. The verb διακονέω means to be a servant to, to serve, to wait upon, to attend to, especially to wait at a table and offer food and drink to the guests. It is often applied to women preparing food, supplying food and the necessities of life, meeting the needs of others, even taking care of the poor.

So, unlike Matthew, Mark implies that in the wilderness, Christ was waited up and served by God’s messengers and agents.

Similarly, in the wilderness, the freed salves did not go without being fed. Before they went out into the wilderness they were fed at the meal of Passover. And while they were in the wilderness, they did not starve either: they were fed on manna and on quail.

So often, times in the wilderness and important covenant moments are always linked with sacred meals. Think about the Passover meal, the Last Supper and the Heavenly Banquet.

And so in Lent – even if you have given up chocolate, or that slice of lemon in your Gin and Tonic – it is not inappropriate to be thinking of meals, thinking of covenant meals during this Lenten retreat.

More precisely, it is appropriate because Lent, like those times in the wilderness, was originally more about preparation rather than about reparation; initially, it was more about looking forward to future hope than looking back on past sinfulness.

In the Early Church, Lent began as a time for the catechumens to prepare for baptism, to prepare for dying with Christ and rising again with Christ, and so it was a time of preparation for their participation for the first time in the Eucharist, in the Holy Communion, in the Liturgy.

For those Christians who had erred or drifted away publicly from the communion of the Church, this season of Lent was a time of preparation for restoration to full communion.

As I thought about this I was struck once again by the image of the Prodigal Son who is welcomed home by his Father, and how his father celebrates the son’s restoration to full membership of the family with a meal (Luke 15: 11-32): “Let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” (Luke 15: 23-24).

In other words, Lent is essentially a reminder for us that we were baptised into the Body of Christ, the Church, and we exist as the Church because we come to full life as Christians as we take part in the banquet.

“We who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread” (I Corinthians 10: 17).

Or, as we say in our Eucharistic acclamation at the fraction in the Church of Ireland:

“The bread which we break is a sharing in the body of Christ.

“We being many are one body, for we all share in the one bread” (Book of Common Prayer, p. 218).

We are invited together to the meal. And the one who invites us to dine with him at his table is not the priest who presides at the Eucharist, the Holy Communion, the Lord’s Supper, the Liturgy. The one who invites us is Christ himself.

He invites us not just to the meal Sunday by Sunday, he invites us especially at Easter, because we are baptised into that Body of Christ that best expresses itself in the Easter faith. And he invites us, of course, to look forward to the Heavenly Banquet.

And in looking forward to the Heavenly Banquet this Lent, I invite you today to join me on this retreat in reflecting on some of the meals with Jesus that are a foretaste of the Heavenly Banquet. In each session, we shall look at two meals, we will have some for discussion, and I will leave us with some questions for reflection at the end of each session.

Meal 1: The Hospitality of Abraham (Genesis 18: 1-15)

Are you a little surprised to find that our first meal with Jesus is a meal in the Old Testament?

The story of the Hospitality of Abraham is a key story in the Hebrew Bible. One day in his old age, Abraham finds himself sitting at the opening into his tent, in the heat of the day. And unexpectedly he finds himself welcoming three strangers by the oaks of Mamre. He takes good care of them, sits them down, washes their feet and brings them food and drink.

In welcoming these strangers, Abraham and Sarah find they are welcoming angels, and receiving God as their guest, they come into full communion with God.

Sometimes the guests are referred to in the plural. But sometimes the story uses the singular form when we are told that the Lord is appearing to Abraham, as Abraham addresses “My Lord” and as we are told the Lord spoke.

As a consequence, God makes a promise to Sarah that at first seems laughable and unbelievable. But this is a key story in the unfolding of God’s plans for all of humanity and all of creation.

The story is traditionally depicted in Orthodox iconography as a visit not by strangers or even by angels, but as a visit by the Triune God, with Christ as the central figure. Many of us are familiar with Andrei Rublev’s icon of the Hospitality of Abraham.

Of course the pre-existent Christ exists before the incarnation. Through him all things were made. And his invitation to dine with him transcends all our understanding of past, present and future.

The guest becomes the host. The stranger at the table becomes the host who invites us to dine with him.

Hospitality is no mere human transaction – “I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25: 35).

This story has many resonances of the meals that Jesus will have with strangers in the New Testament, and is also an anticipation of the heavenly banquet.

This story is also reflected in the Letter to the Hebrews: “Let mutual love continue. Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for in doing that some have entertained angels without knowing it.”

Meal 2: The feeding of the multitude (John 6: 5-15)

As you are aware, while Saint John’s Gospel gives us to most detailed account of the conversation around the dinner table at the Last Supper, this Gospel contains no institution narrative.

Instead the whole Gospel can be seen as a Eucharistic commentary, a commentary that continues, of course, in the Book of Revelation.

Indeed, the first of the Signs in Saint John’s Gospel is the Wedding at Cana (John 2: 1-12), and Saint John’s Gospel concludes not with the Ascension but with another meal, the breakfast by the shore of the Sea of Tiberias and the conversation that follows (John 21).

The Early Church, as it read the Fourth Gospel, would have understood each meal in the light of the Resurrection, with a post-Resurrection faith and understanding, and in the light of the weekly Eucharistic meal. And this understanding, of course, would also have applied to John’s account of the Feeding of the Multitude, which we also know as the miracle of the loaves and fish.

There are six different accounts of two miracle stories associated with the Feeding of the Multitude.

The first story, the feeding of 5,000, is reported by all four Gospels (see Matthew 14: 13-21; Mark 6: 31-44; Luke 9:10-17; and John 6: 5-15). This is the only miracle – apart from the Resurrection – that is found in all three Synoptic Gospels and in Saint John’s Gospel. The second story, the feeding of 4,000 is told by both Mark (Mark 8: 1-9) and by Matthew (Matthew 15: 32-38), but not by either Luke or John.

According to the Gospel narratives, the first feeding of the multitude takes place after Jesus has been teaching in an area away from the towns. He insists that the people are fed where they are, rather than being sent away to the nearest towns. The Synoptic Gospels tell us that this takes place in a desert place near Bethsaida, but the Fourth Gospel does not identify the location, merely telling us that this is a grassy place on a mountain overlooking the Sea of Tiberias.

The only food the disciple can find among the crowd is five small loaves of bread and two fish. Saint John also tells us that these came from a single boy in the crowd (verse 9). Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it the people – which is precisely what happens in the Eucharist: the bread is taken, blessed, broken and given in every Eucharist, and that would have been immediately understood by those who heard this story being read out loud in the Early Church.

The Synoptic Gospels tells us that there are 5,000 men there that day, not counting the women and children. So, perhaps, 15,000 or more people are fed in groups of fifty and a hundred. Then, after the meal is over, the disciples collect the scraps, filling 12 baskets.

Saint Luke’s account links the Feeding of the Multitude with Christ talking about both his coming death and the coming of the Kingdom (see Luke 21-27).

In the Fourth Gospel, the preceding food miracle is at the Wedding in Cana, where Jesus turns the water into wine. Now we have a miracle with bread. The Eucharistic connection of bread and wine is obvious even to the first-time reader.

But the story is also full of Messianic hope because it recalls the story of King David. When David first fled from King Saul, he fed his small group of followers, those who acknowledged him as the rightful king, with the priest’s bread, asking the priest: “Give me five loaves of bread, or whatever is here” (I Samuel 21: 3).

In the Fourth Gospel, the account of the Feeding of the Multitude is followed with the conversation Jesus has with the crowds who follow him to Capernaum. The main motif in the passage (verses 26-59) centres on Jesus saying: “I am that bread of life” (verse 48). In this way, Jesus links the Feeding of the Multitude with the feeding of the people in the wilderness with manna and with the heavenly banquet and the coming of the kingdom (see John 6: 25-40).

More strikingly, this story echoes that of Elisha who fed 100 men with 20 loaves of bread (2 Kings 4: 42-44), saying: “For thus says the Lord, ‘They shall eat and have some left’.” The feeding of the multitude therefore may be seen as a demonstrative prelude to Jesus words, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in will never be thirsty” (John 6: 35).

And the feeding with the fish is a prelude to, looks forward to another meal by the shores of Lake Tiberias … that breakfast with the disciples when Jesus feeds them with bread and fish.

Once again, Jesus takes the bread, blesses it, breaks it and gives it to those he is feeding (John 21: 13).

The fish is an early Christian symbol of faith in the Risen Christ: Ichthus (ἰχθύς, capitalised ΙΧΘΥΣ or ΙΧΘΥC) is the Greek word for fish, and can be read as an acrostic, a word formed from the first letters of several words, spelling out Ἰησοῦς Χριστός, Θεοῦ Υἱός, Σωτήρ (Iēsous Khristos Theou Huios, Sōtēr, Jesus Christ, Son of God, Saviour).

Yet, Jesus puts no questions of belief to either the disciples or the crowd when he feeds them on the mountainside. They did not believe in the Resurrection – it had yet to happen. But Jesus feeds them, and feeds them indiscriminately.

The disciples wanted to send them away, but Jesus wants to count them in.

Jesus invites more people to the banquet than we can fit into our churches.

Some questions for discussion:

How welcome is the stranger in my church?

How would I feel when, just as I was looking for a moment’s rest and peace, I was disturbed by the arrival of three strangers?

How far does my hospitality extend?

How seriously do I listen to what strangers have to say to me?

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, Dublin, and a Canon of Christ Church Cathedral. This is the first of four addresses given at the retreat for Bray Church Together in the Priory Retreat Centre, Tallaght, on Saturday 14 March 2009.

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