Knowing Jesus in the Breaking of the Bread

Jesus and the two disciples On the Road to Emmaus, by Duccio, 1308-1311, Museo dell'Opera del Duomo, Siena.
Jesus and the two disciples On the Road to Emmaus, by Duccio, 1308-1311, Museo dell’Opera del Duomo, Siena.

Two friends walk along the road, speaking quietly to one another. They are hopeless. They are sad. When Jesus was alive, they were full of hope; he would redeem their nation, set them free. But Jesus is dead, and with him, all their hopes.

A stranger appears. “What have you two been talking about?” he asks. The friends look at each other, and then at the stranger. What else would they be talking about? For three days, all that anyone has talked about is the fact that Jesus—the one that was hoped to be the Messiah, the one to redeem Israel—is dead.

“Do you really not know what has been going on around here recently?” they ask.

“Tell me,” says the stranger.

They tell him. Jesus—the prophet who was so powerful, who healed the sick, gave sight to people who were blind, fed thousands of people with just five small loaves and two fish, and who taught everyone about the kingdom of God—is dead.

“We had hoped that he would be the one to redeem us,” they say, “but now he has been dead for three days. Even worse, now there are odd stories about his tomb being empty, and women seeing visions of angels telling them that Jesus is alive again.”

“Well,” said the stranger, “don’t you realize that all of your Scriptures say that the Messiah, the one to redeem Israel, would have to suffer and then enter into glory?”

Far from being a tragic and unexpected turn in the story, this suffering and death–and the transformation of that suffering into glory, that movement from death to life–had to happen, if Jesus was really the Messiah.

They must’ve wanted to hear more from this stranger, because they invite him to stay.

And when the stranger takes bread, gives thanks for it, and breaks it, they suddenly realize: the stranger is Jesus!

Supper at Emmaus, Giovanni and Francesco Cagnola (?), 15th c.
Supper at Emmaus, Giovanni and Francesco Cagnola (?), 15th c.

Jesus, who taught them about the kingdom of God, who healed the sick, who gave sight to the blind, and who fed thousands of people with just five loaves and two fish; this Jesus was now breaking bread and giving it to them. Their eyes were opened in the breaking of the bread. They were blind to who he was, but now they could see. It is a miracle.

And then, suddenly, Jesus is gone.

But he is not really gone. Once they come to understand that he is not dead at all, they realize that he still is the one to redeem all people.

Knowing this, they cannot stay where they are.

Though they’ve been traveling for much of the day, they immediately return to Jerusalem to tell everyone what has happened: Jesus has risen. Jesus is alive again. We recognized him when he shared bread with us.

It’s typical of Luke’s gospel that their transformation in understanding who Jesus is should take place over a meal. It even sounds a bit like the first meal in the Bible, but in reverse. When Eve and Adam eat the fruit, their “eyes are opened”; when these two take the bread that Jesus has broken, their eyes are opened and they recognize him, and the truth and power of his teaching:

“were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?” 

The one who redeems us lives, and we want everyone to know. We will make him known as we continue to break bread in his name.

“Eating together was an important aspect of the early church’s
common life—a powerful symbol of unity both with Christ and
with one another. Eating with the poorest, the weakest and the
most vulnerable is an essential aspect of those early Communion
meals.” (Eat With Joy, p. 68)

“As God betstoweth his benefites upon us, let us beware that
wee acknowledge it towardes him, by doing good to our
neighbors whome he offereth unto us, so as wee neither
exempt ourselves from their want, not seclude them from
our abundance, but gently make them partakers with us, as
folke that are linked together in an inseparable bond.” (John Calvin, sermon on Deut. 15)

Lenctening Days

No, that’s not a typo.

Recently I learned that the word “Lent” {today–Ash Wednesday–is the first day of Lent} comes from the Old English ‘lencten,’ which sounds a lot like “lengthen” and, not incidentally, was the Old English word for Spring–that time when the days, well, lengthen.

Despite the admiration I’ve always had for traditional Lenten disciplines, this time of year–when I forget to start dinner on time because the growing evening light tricks me, when I’m drawn from sleep by the unexpected brightness of the morning sun–this time of year tends to make me a bit giddy. Meditating on dust returning to dust seems opposite to how I feel when Spring is, well, lenctening. Springing.

But maybe that’s reasonable. Lent is the season where deadness springs to life: snowdrops, crocuses, and daffodils cautiously raise their green and brilliant heads, stoic strawberry leaves unfold and tentatively sent out runners, tired, swollen goats bend to release their burdens in bringing forth light-footed young.

At this time everything in nature seems to be stretching and yawning awake after a long sleep, lively after months of sluggish drowsing.

Maybe Lent serves as a counterpoint to all this; a reminder that even as the grass “flourishes and is renewed” in the morning, “in the evening it fades and withers.” That God alone is everlasting.

It’s a sobering thought, but somehow, a joyful one. And so I hope this Lent not to curtail or cut back but to lencten: to take joy and satisfaction in God and in God’s gift of each lengthening, springing, light-filled moment.

Overly cute bunny gnawing a strawberry leaf. I can't help myself.

Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
   so that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
   and for as many years as we have seen evil.
{…}
Let the favour of the Lord our God be upon us,
   and prosper for us the work of our hands.

Psalm 90, NRSV

I just want to be at OUR table…

While in the magical disembodied world that is the Internet, I have appeared to be where I always am, in fact, my family and I have been in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania for more than a week. We’re getting ready to leave, and while we have had a wonderful time with friends both new and old, we are feeling ready to get back to our home (and our cats.)

(After a stop at the Harrisburg branch of the Appalachian Brewing Company, of course.)

My older son (Aidan, age 6) reminded me of the centrality of the table to what it means to be a family in a home. He’s not much for homesickness, or at least for openly expressing it, but today he asked if we’d be back tonight in time for dinner.

When I said I wasn’t sure, his eyes filled quickly with tears, which he tried to hide, and he bravely said,

“I just really wanted to eat dinner at our table again. I miss our table.

Yes, my son–that longing for the table–our table–is built into you from the beginning. It is a picture of the longing we all have for belonging at a great table with all our beloveds, where we are ourselves are beloved, and where grace and plenty abound.

Aidan and his Grandpa at 'our table.' "Prost!"

That’s why, as the French say, “the table comes first” (when purchasing furniture as newlyweds.)

That’s why, as Robert Farrar Capon says, the table–or board–is one of marriage’s two essential pieces of real estate.

(The other being bed, of course.)

And so we’re headed back to our table.

{Wishing you grace, peace, and love around your table, friends!}

Eating With Dr. Martin Luther King

We’ll be having a birthday cake today, to celebrate the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“I have a dream”

Because, yes, we’ll watch the I Have a Dream speech; yes, we’ll sing “We Shall Overcome”; we’ve read the picture books and talked about the civil rights movement. But to truly mark a day as special–to show a 3 year old and a 6 year old that Dr. King’s birthday is worth remembering in a big way–you must have cake.

Now, Dr. King’s favorite dessert is reputed to be pecan pie–a deeply American dessert, a wonderful recipe for which you can find here–but that’s not a dessert my children will eat, and it excludes my dad because gluten-free pie crust is not easy. So we’ll have something else, but the important thing is, it’ll be Dr. King’s birthday cake.

{Talking to my son last night, I explained Jim Crow and segregation in mild, child-appropriate terms, and he said, with deep concern, “But what if you were white and your really good friend was black or you were black and your really good friend was? You couldn’t be together?” Bless that child.}

{What follows below is excerpted and modified from a previous post on The Help.}

While the film was criticized by some (including the New York Times reviewer) for supposedly showing only the domestic side of segregation, I loved it because of how it (and the book) used basic bodily functions to communicate both the shared humanity of and gulf of separation between blacks and whites in 1960s Mississippi. References to taming hair and clothes to meet societal expectations are pervasive, as are motifs and themes related to toilet functions.

Present also (but in the book, less emphasized) is the motif of food and the theme of shared eating. I’m particularly tuned in to food issues, of course, but there was no missing the way in which the film capitalized on images of shared and segregated eating and drinking. The black maids must take care of their physical needs furtively and shamefully–sneaking a bite of deviled egg on the sly, for example–all the while pampering the appetites of their white employers. Hilly Holbrook (a smoothly hateful Bryce Dallas Howard), will gorge herself on the food cooked by her maid, Minnie (Octavia Spencer, who voiced the same character on the audiobook), but expects her to use a designated outdoor one–even during a tornado. The film portrays the shame and belittlement of this segregation in cinematic shorthand.

{I’m sorry; I’m having formatting issues I’m as yet unable to fix…}

Where the film goes beyond the book (in its portrayal of food and eating), it aligns with my own understanding of a biblical theology of food. So much of food and eating, within the Bible, touches on issues of poverty, justice, community, and inclusion.

In virtually every culture, sharing food non-ceremonially is an important indication of welcome and friendship–Jesus’ ministry emphasized the importance of eating with those who are different as a way of not just symbolizing—but, in fact actually practicing the kind of equality and unity that he proclaimed. Early Christian writers, too,  claimed that sharing life, including meals, with persons of different backgrounds was a “proof” of true Christian faith.
So when the outcast “white trash” Celia Foote drinks a cold Coca-Cola with Minnie, it’s a foretaste not only of the meals she’ll later insist on sharing with (and then cooking for) Minnie, but a foretaste, too, of the coming healing, reconciliation, and deep friendship that forms between Minnie and Celia, and Skeeter, Minnie, and Aibileen.

And a foretaste, too, of the heavenly banquet.

Living the gospel acknowledges our shared humanity and need for reconciliation with God and with each other. When we sit to eat together, we acknowledge our physical needs and that shared humanity (we all eat; we all excrete) while tasting just a bit of God’s graciousness. The Help reminds me again just how countercultural that Supper of the Lamb really is, and inspires me to look for ways to taste the firstfruits of that meal in my own life, right now. And that, as the preacher in the film says, takes self-sacrifice and a willingness to hear one anothers stories. But it’s also the only way to true relationships and genuine joy.
Fresco of an early church ‘agape’ (love) feast

It’s worth asking: what is obstructing true ‘love feasts’ today? In what ways are we guilty of prejudice?

Who is crying out to God for deliverance from injustice and oppression, and what is keeping us from hearing (or heeding) their cries?

Sometimes Old Books are the Best Books (and some thoughts on writing)

You know I can’t resist Robert Farrar Capon. His writing is so quirky (and so, by all reports, is/was he–can anyone confirm whether he’s still alive or not!?) that it defies comparison with any other; Andy Crouch noted in an email that Father Capon’s writing voice sounds like him and no one else.

(Very true. And yet. While I often year “develop a unique voice” as writing advice, I’m not quite sure that this is something that can be aimed at. George Orwell’s Six Rules are a good place to start, especially rule #1: “never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.” Beyond scraping away crusty, dried-out turns of phrase, though, I suspect that a distinctive writing voice from having distinctive things to say than aiming at saying things in a distinctive way. Maybe. End of writing rant.)

Anyway. As with Babette’s Feast, which I wrote about yesterday, I feel reluctant to say much about the book, because a book by Father Capon is an experience in itself; to distill the ideas from the whole of the book is to distort them.

I’ll go out on a limb (sorry, Orwell) and say that this book is unlike any other on marriage I’ve ever read or heard of. It’s certainly the antithesis (antidote?) of a certain contemporary book on marriage that released yesterday. It’s deeply Christian and theological without being sectarian or Biblicist. As in much of Capon’s writing, he celebrates the potential of material particularities to call forth, to anticipate, to celebrate the transcendent–the City of God. The marriage “bed” and family “board” (table) are two of these particular, material places where we enact, however feebly, the glories of the Kingdom in the liturgies of the everyday:

“My bed and my board are the choice places of my healing and I go to them with a glad mind. God wills to build the city but while he makes it matter, he refuses to make it serious. The divine mirth lies behind all things and it is in his light that I begin to see the lightness of it all.”

Plus? The cover copy announces that the book

“snatches the subject of marriage away from the adjustment engineers, the sex technicians, and the whole army of statistical de-splendorizers.”

Statistical de-splendorizers, indeed! I’m stealing that turn of phrase.

Find yourself a copy of this book, or really, any by Father Capon. Tomorrow, I’m going to talk about two other recent marriage books–The Meaning of Marriage and Real Marriage by Timothy & Kathy Keller and Mark & Grace Driscoll, respectively. On Friday, we’ll look at another contemporary book on marriage–Are You Waiting for The One?–that far surpasses its contemporaries.