Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Eating Together

In the old rite, when a cleric preparing for the priesthood was to be ordained a subdeacon (then considered the first of the major orders), he was called according to the title to which he was attached and which entitled him to his living. Once upon a time, for many secular priests, it might have been a benefice. Religious in solemn vows were ordained "according to the title of poverty." Religious in simple vows and members of clerical societies living together without vows were ordained "according to the title of the common table" (ad titulum mensae communis). While those titles have since disappeared from the ordination rite (as has the order of subdeacon itself), their spirit remains. Almost universally, community life - any kind of community life, religious or secular - entails some component of eating together.

Virtually everyone above a certain age has memories of family meals, meals truly shared as part of the very fiber of life in the common home. The contemporary popularity of eating out in restaurants (to the extent that a real meal is eaten and not just fast food quickly consumed) may appeal for the convenience of not having to cook, but also recognizes a real need to commune with others over food. Those who successfully resist the temptation to eat at their desks (or, even worse, skip lunch altogether) and who actually share some lunchtime with colleagues express as much about their need for community as about merely meeting their nutritional needs.

Of course, there are contemporary habits that persistently get in the way of the genuinely common meal. In some settings, it is the ever-present television which intrudes as a dominant and domineering presence, precluding conversation or any real mutuality. Checking one's messages on one's smartphone and texting are even more up-to-date ways to eat alone together. More problematic, because harder to fix, are the different and fragmented schedules we all follow - even in families. Often this reflects the economic realities of work, as the market impinges upon community and breaks bonds which might otherwise be stronger. Competing schedules can also reflect individual choices - a positive product of our greater freedom today. To recover the joys of the common table, people must somehow see it not as being in competition with human freedom but as reinforcing authentic freedom by furthering it fulfillment in relationships.

Meal sharing played a conspicuous part in Jesus' public life and ministry and was widely recognized as a sign of the coming of God's kingdom, in which all sorts of outsiders would now be included. The communal meals of the New Testament churches - especially the celebration of the Lord's Supper - served to create a new kind of connection among people who might never otherwise have shared a meal of any kind. Those common meals - and especially the Eucharistic meal - represented the Spirit's healing of the fundamental rupture in human relationships. As transformed people called to continue Christ's ministry of healing and reconciliation, we do well to recognize the power of shared meals, taken together with exultant and sincere hearts (Acts 2:46). 

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