Here we go again—all those Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner gatherings! While there are the unfortunate few who long to be part of just one holiday feast, I’m guessing many of us have a difficult time fitting all the dinners into our schedule. There is the church dinner, the immediate family dinner, the grandparents’ dinner on both sides and then those on your spouse’s side of the family. Oh, and don’t forget the company dinner party and the time for just “us friends.” It can spill over past the official holiday season.
And what’s with this change of “capacity” as I grow older? The disparity between youth and age doesn’t seem fair. I recall with some gastronomical pain the days of my youth when I had the ability to “eat until I was sick” but not get sick. Oh, the wonders of those growing years!
Now, in my 70s, I take much greater care in planning my portions. I’m no longer at the head of the line as I calculate marshmallow covered yams, gravy-drenched mashed potatoes, soft butter rolls and mounds of turkey, ham and sausage before I reach the over-loaded dessert table. I know I’ll pay for it later if I fail to exercise a good deal of restraint, but then I weigh that momentary regret against the pleasure of a deep-sleep coma fueled by tryptophan. Oh, the joy of feasting!
Here’s the beautiful thing: Feasting and gathering around tables can be a great opportunity for engagement in spiritual things—eating can be a significant act of worship!
For feasting to be fulfilling I need to remember that people are more important than the food or the seating arrangement.
I’ve been reading Timothy Keller’s Prodigal God in which he looks at the Luke 15 parable of the two sons from some fascinating new angles. In that discussion Keller also observes that eating/feasting is a powerful spiritual metaphor. In fact, it is more than a metaphor; it is a biblical reality. Jesus ate with many people and did some of his best teaching over meals. We shouldn’t miss the fact that the story of the prodigal son ends with a feast, just as the story of human history in Revelation ends with a feast—the marriage supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19).
How significant that Jesus left us the Lord’s Supper (Eucharist) as the sign of his saving grace for all who will believe. I have at times told our congregation that something is not quite right when we offer those little communion cups as symbols of God’s saving grace. His grace is abundant and overflowing! His blood was poured out for us and then we only take a small sip of his grace at the communion “feast.” What if we had large beakers of juice/wine and lots of bread to truly symbolize the abundant blessing we have received?
At a recent Fresno Pacific Biblical Seminary campus gathering, Professor Lynn Jost pointed out that one of the key words in Deuteronomy is “celebrate” which, he added, can be linked to the word feast. God, in calling together a people to reflect his glory and character, invited them to celebrate with numerous feasts.
Psalm 23 declares that our Shepherd will “prepare a table (feast) before us (even) in the presence of our enemies.” And let us not forget that Jesus, not long after feeding the 5,000, stood and declared himself to be the “Bread of Life” (John 6:35). Something about eating together not only brings people together, it also points us to the nature of God and becomes a sign of his presence with us.
Could that happen for you and your families during this season of feasting? Here are a few simple suggestions for enriching your feasts.
Make sure you are present. I need to admit that I often fret about the details. My default in most situations is to ensure that everyone is comfortable and cared for. While not a bad quality in itself, when taken to the extreme I can spend more time on things than on people. When I do, I miss great opportunities to connect with those I love.
For feasting to be fulfilling I need to remember that people are more important than the food or the seating arrangement. I need to be there with my eyes and ears open to others. Being present is more than a physical appearance—it is a choice to really “be there.”
Include a guest. One thing that has given greater meaning to a number of our holiday gatherings over the years has been to include individuals or families that might be feeling alone for one reason or another. Some families don’t live near their relatives and find it difficult to get “home” for the holidays. Having experienced broken relationships often brings renewed sadness that is intensified around family times.
Offering hospitality and including others in our gatherings has been meaningful, an example to our own children and grandchildren and fulfilling. I can recall a few of these that included a bit of difficulty such as guest children “running wild,” but looking back I believe we would do it again as the rewards outweighed the demands. We trust that we were a blessing as we were being blessed.
Create a memory. Something that has added meaning to our gatherings has been simple activities around the table, often just before we stop to give thanks and as we find our seats. At our feasts it has been common to have wide age ranges represented, from infants to the elderly. And one way we have found to bridge these age gaps is to plan a simple activity around the holiday theme.
At times we have prepared place cards with a Scripture verse to be read. At other times there has been a question to answer in a sentence or two, while at other settings we have invited those who can (or want to) to share a blessing from the past year.
There are many more ideas and each family typically has someone that enjoys creating an activity that can bring everyone together in spirit and help make memories for the future.
Jesus’ presence at our family gatherings can turn an average meal into a spiritual feast.
Invite Jesus. Jesus performed his first recorded miracle at a wedding feast (John 2:1-11). A bridegroom’s future was in jeopardy after the wine ran out in the middle of the party. The part of the story I like, among other things, is that John records in verse 2, “Jesus . . . had also been invited to the wedding.” Jesus’ presence made the difference and turned a near tragedy into a triumph as the groom was later commended for “saving the best for last.”
Similarly, Jesus’ presence at our family gatherings can turn an average meal into a spiritual feast. We invite Jesus to our feasts when we take time to pray and read Scripture, to acknowledge the food being part of his provision and welcoming him as the “unseen” guest at each table. When conversation is directed to thanksgiving and spiritual blessings our Lord is welcomed and honored.
Someone has to take the initiative on this or the conversation will stay at the level of weather, sports, the kids’ latest achievements or Aunt Franny’s recent medical procedure. Feasting is fulfilling when Jesus is welcomed and celebrated.
Savor the food. Of course, there is no feast without food—lots of food. Here in the West we are blessed with not only an abundance of food but with an almost limitless variety. In our community we live alongside a number of ethnic groups, each one having a taste for unique dishes. Learning to enjoy this variety adds to the joy of our meals.
While we do well to remember those who have less than they need, we need not hold back in celebrating the abundance we enjoy as God’s good gift to us. In this life our appetites will only be satisfied temporarily, but we can make our feasting fulfilling by adding thought and meaning to these gatherings, remembering that they are only a foretaste of that great feast still to come: “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples, a banquet of aged wine—the best of meats and finest of wines” (Isaiah 25:6).
Dennis Fast is currently part-time associate pastor of care at Hope Kingsburg, a Mennonite Brethren church located in Kingsburg, California He is also the chaplain at Palm Village Retirement Communities in Reedley, California. He has served lead pastor roles in Hillsboro, Kan.sas and Reedley and was interim pastor at Hope Kingsburg. He has also served as the interim Pacific District Conference minister and was the MB Foundation church relations director. Dennis and his wife, Connie, have three adult children and 15 grandchildren.