Our existence at its most elemental dimension depends on food.
Once when we asked my little nephew to lead our family in prayers before our Thanksgiving meal, he said, glancing at his mother: “God is grace. God is good. Thank her for this food. Amen.” Eating evokes expressions of gratitude for our survival, but it also signifies the sheer vulnerability of our human condition. Homeless people on any street do not know whence their next meal will come.
Around the world, if crops fail due to flood or drought, whole populations face the horror of starvation. Miracles do occur, as when God commanded ravens to feed the prophet Elijah in the morning and evening (1 Kings 17:4–6) or when the widow’s oil jar never ran dry (1 Kings 17:8–16).
We can hardly think of Jesus without remembering the times he miraculously fed the crowds who followed him. Not everyone can expect miracles, though, and we should always be mindful of those who do not have enough.
In the West, especially, we have come to expect that our food supply will never run short. So endless is its array that we throw away almost as much as we consume. Whether our food is processed or fresh, we assume there is something for us to eat in the pantry or on the nearest supermarket shelf. Some eat too much and turn their eyes away from the hungry. They complain about obesity and start fad diets while others never have the satisfaction of feeling full.
A Season of Hospitality
Christianity is one religion that places upon us the obligation to care for the least of our sisters and brothers here on earth if we want to share the banquet the Lord of hosts has prepared in heaven for those who believe. The image of an overflowing cornucopia (so common in Thanksgiving imagery) reminds us that eating ought to be not only an obligation but a celebration.
Such a table is a sign of hospitality. When a cook prepares everything from scratch for her guests, no one doubts the efficacy of her loving care for each ingredient. Everyone leaves the table in a jovial mood, satisfied in body and soul, having been the happy recipients of another’s hospitality. We leave the table with a full stomach but, more important, our spirit feels bathed in the warmth of love.
The vital act of eating may seem to be a neutral event, but it has about it both moral and immoral overtones. To feed hungry strangers is as much a moral act as to provide hospitality for familiar guests. To snatch food from the mouths of babes or the frail elderly, to turn a stew into a poisonous brew, to disobey a prohibition meant for our own good, as when our first parents ate of the forbidden fruit or when a greedy restaurateur deliberately serves tainted goods, all these are immoral acts.
It is as sinful to become gluttons as it is to fast for wrong reasons, such as showing others how impious they are compared to us.
Eating is not a neutral act. It is a mirror of our lifestyle and an expression of our commitment to be life-givers. By having supper with sinners (Luke 15:2), Jesus widened the recipients of salvation from the chosen people to all who believe. He invites us to the supper of the Lamb (Revelation 19:9) as the culmination of our having eaten his Body and drunk his Blood in the Eucharistic celebration.
In these few examples from the Bible and our own lives, we have come to see that eating is not only a physical act but also a spiritual event. It affects our bodies and our psyches at the same time. It influences the way people picture themselves as lovable or despicable. In a “thin is better” world, even the most minuscule portion of food on one’s plate becomes an enemy to combat.
Some of us, surrounded by abundance, die of self-willed starvation. Others, surrounded by want, would “kill” for a crumb dropped from a rich person’s plate. Counting calories or having no calories to count spells the difference between wealthy and indigent civilizations. Not in question is the beauty and dignity of everyone’s personhood; what concerns us is the value we place on what and how we eat.
Food is a symbol of our gratitude to God and our mutual appreciation for one another. It is a commodity to share as well as an expression of how much we care. Feeding the hungry is a virtue that must never be forgotten, dining with friends a value we cherish all the more.
It is good to celebrate those moments—rare as they may be—where companionship around the table becomes a form of communion, where fantastic food seals friendships, where our vitality and our spirituality truly “wine and dine” together.