Flavor, Presentation, and Creativity
We recently joined my extended family for a weeklong vacation on a lake in Tennessee. Twenty-five of us gathered in a big house on the lake to eat, to explore the lake in a pontoon boat, to eat, to play games, to eat, to build puzzles, to eat, to zoom over the water in jet skis, and to eat. Did I mention we ate a lot of food together? We've gone on these family vacations for years, and when I think back over the time we've spent together, the highlights always include our meals.
One night we broke into teams to make a variety of tapas such as spring rolls, crostini, ham and cheese sliders, beer battered fish caught fresh that day, and more! We gathered around the table laughing, telling stories, forming memories, and growing in communion and we feasted until our bellies hurt. Then we voted on the best of the tapas in three categories: flavor, presentation, and creativity.
As human beings we are living bodies and like all living beings we require nutrition to survive. While meals are necessary for our survival, it is rarely the nutritional sustenance provided by a meal that makes it memorable. As I reflected on our tapas competition and on the other meals from our vacation, I reflected on the many dimensions of a meal. Meals are memorable for their flavor, presentation, and creativity as well as the location in which and the community with which the meal is shared.
Reflecting on the centrality of meals in my vacation memories led me to reflect on the meal that is central to our faith. The meals Jesus shared with his disciples, especially the first Eucharist, and the meal Jesus shares with us each Sunday also have many dimensions. Given our current experience of Eucharist in which we eat small wafers while sitting in hard wooden pews and participating in a formal ceremony, it can be easy to forget that the first Eucharist was celebrated as part of a meal. Jesus was accused of being "a glutton and a drunkard" (Luke 7:34). While this characterization may exaggerate Jesus' mealtime behavior, it is clear that a meal with him must have been lively and memorable. While I often imagine the first Eucharist as a somber Last Supper before Jesus' death, it was nevertheless a moment when Jesus reclined at table with his closest friends which may have been much like the meals I shared with my family on vacation.
Jesus did not simply hand some bread and a cup to his disciples. His presentation included the entire meal which began with him washing his disciples' feet and which included the words Jesus spoke as he broke the bread and poured the wine to share them with his disciples. When we serve one another in our family at our family meals, it remains a reminder of how we are to serve all of God's children. Today we do not simply walk into a church and grab a host and leave. The Mass is an essential part of the presentation of the Eucharist. Just as we carefully picked the dishes in which we would present our tapas, the vessels in which the Eucharist is placed are made of precious metals to remind us that this is an extraordinary meal. We may also notice that we do not grasp at the Eucharist for ourselves, rather it is presented to us so we may receive it.
While flavor may not be the first word that comes to mind we when consider our modern Eucharistic hosts, it certainly characterized the early Eucharistic celebrations which included full meals. Flavor makes a meal pleasurable, and hopefully our modern experience does include pleasure. The beauty of the art and the music, our stories which are proclaimed in the readings, the joy of the communion with the friends and family gathered with us at the Eucharistic table, the experience of our Lord's love and grace, and so many more experiences in the Liturgy may provide this flavor. While some Sundays may be challenging at times and we may occasionally find ourselves bored or struggling to concentrate during a liturgy, hopefully through our lives Mass does become a celebration we enjoy.
Creativity certainly marks the Eucharist. It is creative in the sense of being original because few would have predicted that God would choose to save us by becoming one of us in the incarnation and by sacrificing himself for us in the Paschal Mystery. This unexpectedness makes it worth further reflection on God's action in history and continuing action in our lives. The Eucharist is also creative in the sense that it constantly re-creates us and renews us. Our experience of Eucharist is constantly creating our union with God and with each other.
There is a sacramental dimension of every meal we eat and there is some commonality between the meals we share in our domestic churches and the Eucharistic meal we share in our parish churches. Reflecting on the commonality in these experiences of meals can deepen our experience of both the Sacrament of Eucharist and meals shared with our families.