"The Last Supper" by Stefano di Giovanni (1392–1450)
The banquet is a powerful symbol
The banquet is a powerful symbol of a community of love. Last week, I cooked for an annual feast, The Marco Polo Dinner, to raise money for Covenant House.
The image of the banquet is prominent in both Old and New Testaments. One example is the Passover Supper, originally celebrated in Egypt by the Hebrews as God promised that the angel of death would pass over them if they carried out God’s instructions. Jews have been re-experiencing this event for about 3,000 years in solemnity and joy.
Before the beginning of Job’s misfortunes, we read that, “his sons used to go and hold feasts in one another’s houses in turn, and they would send and invite their three sisters to eat and drink with them.”
How often do we still think fondly of our families sitting around a table and feasting at Thanksgiving or Christmas?
According to John, Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding banquet at Cana. He turned water into very good wine when the supply of mediocre wine had run out. One of Jesus’ greatest acts of love was to feed 5,000 people by multiplying loaves and fishes.
Of course, the greatest of these biblical meals for Christians is the Last Supper. Although there are five accounts of this event in the Bible, one in each of the gospels plus Paul’s description in I Corinthians, there are essentially two versions of the story. John tells of Jesus washing the feet of his apostles, beginning with Peter, and of Jesus’ so-called farewell discourses when he commands that we love one another as he loved us.
The other version, told by the other three evangelists plus Paul, focuses on the fact that Jesus’ Last Supper was the Passover meal. There, he instituted the practice of sharing his body and blood with those present in the form of bread and wine and pronounced this to be a new covenant.
Christians of almost all sorts re-enact this meal in their churches; and for Catholics, Orthodox, and some Protestants, the Eucharist is indeed the central liturgical experience of the faithful.
For people who practice these Eucharist-centered forms of Christianity, there is the always the shock of going to church on Good Friday, when there is no consecration of the bread and wine although there is the sharing of the Eucharist in the form of bread.
Somehow, this deprivation of what is so central to the faith makes the celebration of the Easter Vigil on Saturday night or the Easter service of Sunday morning, where the consecration returns to the center of our celebration and community life, particularly joyful life-affirming.
Many of us will of course also be preparing our own banquets in our homes on Easter. I always particularly enjoy preparing a big Easter feast because of its connections to the Passover of the Old Testament and the institution of the Eucharist in the New Testament.
The word ‘Eucharist’ means ‘thanksgiving,’ and my dinner and yours qualify as Eucharistic feasts, echoing the one with our Christian families in church.
I am particularly eager for this year’s Easter dinner. It will be the first family celebration in my new home. When thinking about buying a new house, I considered whether it had a significantly better space for gathering my large and somewhat unruly family.
With my dining room table plus temporary tables added at either end, we shall have a table about 23 feet long. Everyone will fit around it! I hope I and my kitchen are up to preparing this great feast.
With any large family, there will be members absent. My oldest son Paul lives in Macon, Ga.; he will be in Geneseo a week after Easter for my retirement dinner, but he will be in Macon for Easter. Hanh and his family are visiting his wife’s parents in Vietnam. Myungbo at the moment has chosen to stay away from his family and friends in Geneseo. They all will be remembered.
One thing I like about Easter in Geneseo is that I always invite a few students whom I know well and who cannot go home for Easter since the College does not consider Easter weekend different from any other. I have already invited a sophomore from Massachusetts and a junior from New Jersey. In the past, I have had students from Japan and other really faraway places.
When my boys were younger, I always thought it a good thing to have them meet really outstanding young folks from the College. Here were role models and even friends for my boys. Some of those students and my sons have in fact later crossed paths in Italy and even Japan.
Because not all my family members are Christians and some of the students in the past have been Jewish and Buddhist, on the surface there is nothing particularly religious generally or Christian in particular at Easter dinner, at least on the surface.
If someone looked at a film of our dinner, it would look rather secular and worldly. But it will be profoundly and deeply religious. We will have a diverse group of people breaking bread and engaged in joyful fellowship on Easter at my house.
Our banquet will model how we need to live in the world with our fellow humans. It is hard to hate someone you are sharing a meal with. Lots of differences and disagreements fade when people share a good bowl of pasta and a nice leg of lamb and some homemade ice cream. For a little while, we are profoundly connected.
Of course, a meal, even the sharing of the Eucharist in church, does not take away division and hatred in the world. However, it gives us an experience of love and unity to carry into our complex and often angry world. We cannot help but offer thanksgiving for the food and for the people with whom we share it.
Like many of you, I will celebrate Easter with two Eucharistic banquets–one at church and one on Oak Street. I hope all of us take our love and thanksgiving that we experience that day into the world and into the future. Oh, that every day could be Easter.