The Significance of the Table

An open the table that welcomes all people in the name of . Practice a scandalous for the day. It was a table where the sexes, classes, and social groups all mixed together as equals. Anyone could have been seated next to anyone – male next to a female, free next to slave, socially privileged next to the destitute, and the ritually pure next to the unclean.

And this practice would have been a social and cultural nightmare and a sincere threat to all who carefully defended and/or benefited from the social constructions and conventions of the ____. The open table is a microcosm and symbol of the non-discriminatory new order of love – and visible, real, and sincere threat to those who supported the Imperial or Jewish ritual orders of the day. 

FOOD

Food is no longer a matter of survival, nor purely power; it confers the status and identity with which we distinguish ourselves from others and at the same time gives us the sense of community we seek. Those who eat as we do have a connection with us; they are as we are.

Food symbolizes life, our bounty, a sharing of that which gives life. The earliest humans, for whom food was scarce and meant life in the most immediate sense – used food to cement bonds and convey peace, welcome, and unity.

Satisfying the physical need to eat is one of the basic human needs. Apparently food plays an important role in our lives, not only in physiological, but also in psychological sense. Emotions are also closely connected to our eating habits. Food or eating itself can have a symbolic meaning.

Group meals from community feasts to dinner parties are indicative of the availability of a surplus; and from a historical perspective, surpluses are significant. To gain an understanding for why, let’s go back to the Mesolithic period. This timeframe, between the Upper Paleolithic and the Neolithic, was a period of immense cultural change. Humans were trending toward domestication and with this development came momentous technological innovations. For example, nets, fishhooks, and weirs allowed for mass fishing techniques. And the emergence of seed processing techniques like boiling and crushing led to long term storage solutions. These advances allowed humans who lived in favorable conditions to stockpile resources, which could then be strategically deployed to support survival and reproductive benefits.

 

 

 

“You are what you eat” is the old cliché that you are no doubt familiar with, but have you ever realised just how profound this notion is and applied it in your life? As a culture we tend to generally accept that some foods are good and some are bad for us but beyond this level of understanding there is no deeper meaning behind the way we eat. We eat habitually and not intentionally. We eat without conscious thought as to what this food is doing within our body beyond the momentary taste sensation in the mouth. And all because we have become so disconnected from the natural world and where our food comes from.

We have somehow come to a point in the human experience where we no longer intuitively know what is correct for us to eat. Let that sink in for a moment. Why is it that we are the only species on Earth to have this problem? There is not a single animal living in its natural environment that is overweight or suffering a chronic illness as a result of their diet. They just know what to eat. They are in touch with the innate intelligence that drives their food choices, and as a result they thrive. If this alone doesn’t show how spiritually disconnected we have become, I don’t know what will.

The Meaning of the Table

Tables are one of the most important places of human connection. We’re often most fully alive to life when sharing a meal around a table. 

Sharing a meal at table together is an innately human act. Something very human happens at the table  – there’s an intimacy of the table – it’s a face to face, measured encounter.

commensality — sharing a meal with someone, eating and drinking together behind the same table — is one of the most important manifestations of sociality in all cultures. Eating together confirms the sense of belonging, being part of a community.

Offering food, no matter how plain, to a stranger is part of elementary hospitality in most cultures. Dinners spent together create and recreate families, friendships, and business relations. Assuring social relationships through food can happen both around the dinner table at home and feasts where those who don’t eat together everyday can meet up. Who’s invited? Who sits next to whom? What do the people around the table talk about, and what themes do they avoid? A shared meal is a social event where thoughts, experiences, and emotions are shared. On a more covert level, acceptance or distance towards other is being expressed, as well as respect or disdain.

The table is a place of memory where we become aware of who we are and with whom we are. Around the table, all previous meals come together in every meal, in an endless succession of memories and associations. The table is the place where the family gathers, the symbol of solidarity.

The human is the only animal species that surrounds its food with rituals and takes account of hunger among others who are not direct relatives. The table makes us human. Cooking is the basis for relationships. We distinguish ourselves from the animals not by our use of tools—the stick other primates use to extract honey from a honeycomb could with a bit of a stretch be called a “fork” or “spoon.” No, we distinguish ourselves by the fact that we eat at a table, or at least a specific place intended for a meal, such as a mat on the ground. We don’t eat as soon as we get our hands on food, to stifle hunger; we usually eat together, if less than we used to and at more flexible times. We generally wait—although again less than we used to—until everyone has food on his or her plate, and we don’t regard the meal as over until everyone has eaten enough. In urban families where older children remain at home and everyone goes their own way, people increasingly eat alone, or at any rate no longer with the whole family gathered at a specific time. The rhythm and communality of meals is declining in single-parent families too.

In Western Europe there used to be three meals every day, but elsewhere too the meals determine the hour, even where breakfast consists of nothing more than the cold leftovers from the previous evening and lunch is carried out to workers in the fields, even where little remains to serve as an evening meal.

How far back does the dining table go? For much of the hundreds of thousands of years of human evolution we did not sit at tables at all. The Roman emperors lay on beds beside low tables, the poor of the Middle Ages had little more than wooden troughs for their food, and in Africa and India people eat crouching down or in the lotus position on the ground. Estimates suggest that a quarter of the world’s population doesn’t eat at a table but around a mat, or standing in the mud of a market with a narrow plank for support. In poor countries, where mothers and children often eat separately from men, usually in or near the kitchen, the cry is not “Dinner’s ready!” but “Come and eat!”—just as the usual greeting in many countries is “Have you eaten yet?” Why should we assume that dining at a table marks a high point in our evolution? Humans are not simply what they eat but how and where they eat. And with whom; in 18th-century Dutch a good friend was called a “table friend.”

The dining table is disappearing. Fewer are being sold now in rich economies, apparently. This says a lot about the times we live in. The table is less and less the center of family life. We eat at the computer, standing in the kitchen, lounging on the sofa in front of the television, in the car, or walking along the street. Best of all we like to graze all day. If we do still eat at the table then it’s no longer a dining table but one where eating shares space with other things, such as a computer, a television, or newspapers. Sales of plates are declining too, and even more so serving dishes and cutlery designed for serving from them. More and more of the food we buy is ready to eat, in throwaway tubs or trays, or designed as finger food to be eaten with one hand and no cutlery. What’s the point of a table if we can devour a microwaved ready meal on our laps?

With the disappearance of the table as the center of existence, a new emotion is coming to the fore. The table exerted a certain discipline; now we feel conscience stricken because we eat too much, while neglecting to cook and forgetting how. Is the table not becoming the place of sin, of guilt about our desire to eat, now that we no longer dare to enjoy food uninhibitedly? Increasingly we eat alone, and what solitary diner bothers to lay the table?

 

Group meals were a social contract. They formed a social network that could be deployed in times of need. They contributed to social status by creating distinctions between and within producers and consumers. Hosting a meal meant that you could rely on labor or resources from attendees; attending a meal meant you owed something to the host. It could be labor, it could be a cup of sugar, it could be a sympathetic ear, or a hand in feeding their family at a later date. People who did not fulfill their social contracts when called upon would not be invited to subsequent feasts, and could ultimately be removed from the network through systematic non-contact.  This link grew increasingly important as social ties were dispersed when connected people began to move away from eat other. It meant that there was a support network available in a separate context, which may not be susceptible to the same challenges.

While our modern-day group dining efforts are largely celebratory in nature on the surface—birthdays, weddings, holidays, etc.—psychologically and socially they serve the same need: they gather our allies (both family and friends) and renew our social obligations to each other. Our holiday gatherings bear echoes of harvest calendars. The generosity encouraged during the holiday season may be derived in part from the surplus of the harvest and the sense that individual larders within the group may have shrunk during this time. It is a time when people may need help but the price for that assistance is an obligation to reciprocate in some way. This debt is recognized and we may try to offset it with a gift brought to the event—a bottle of wine or a hostess gift in some form, for example—but the economics of exchange require an equal-or-better-effort to fully discharge what is owed to the host.

 

 

The Subversive, Open Table

A significant part of life, including our social and communal lives, involves food, feeding people, communal meals, gatherings, and having friends over to table. An open table – a living symbol of the new order of love.

 

The open table symbolizes genuine human community, oneness, equality, and love – exactly the message Jesus intended. This vision clashes fundamentally with the basic hierarchical, elitist values of today’s culture.

Who we eat with, especially at home, symbolizes and reflects the power structures of culture we live in. One cannot state strongly enough how there is a ritual aspect to meals and how they reinforce the Imperium of Empire(s) of today – how you participate in these communal meals – who you eat with and who you don’t – is  directly related to your place in the Imperial order. 

The Open Table is a ritual-practical realization of our vision for a more just, inclusive world based on equality of dignity. The table is a core metaphor – and meeting place – for the new order of love. 

Three sets of questions arise –  First, to what degree do we participate in sacrifices to today’s structures of Empire? Second, do our churches practice a sense of openness and hospitality, including policies regarding Eucharist? Third, do we practice an open table in our homes, welcoming others and offering hospitality?

I’m convinced that one of the most important spiritual disciplines for us to recover in the kind of world in which we live is the discipline of table fellowship. In the fast-paced, tech-saturated, attention-deficit-disordered culture in which we find ourselves, people need to recover the art of a slow meal around a table with people we care about. “Table fellowship” doesn’t often make the list of the classical spiritual disciplines. But in the midst of a world that increasingly seems to have lost its way with regard to matters of both food and the soul, a nature-based spirituality has something important to say about the way that sharing tables nourishes us both physically and spiritually. We need a recovery of the spiritual significance of what we eatwhere we eat, and with whom we eat.

—- should embrace the open table and make it a centerpiece of their spiritual and religious practice.

 

Feasting & Celebration

Feasting seems to be an inseparable element of peoples’ – especially their collective – lives.

feast (understood as a celebration), festival or festivity is “a special day or period, usually in memory of a religious event [or person], with its own social activities, food or ceremonies, or an organised set of special events

The social activities and special events, performed on days free from ordinary, everyday work, comprise, among others, public gatherings, parades, manifestations, games and entertainment. The same source gives also another meaning of a feast, here understood as food: “a special meal with very good food or a large meal for many people”. The latter definition has a secondary meaning and points to one of the aspects of a feast, namely, to the abundance that distinguishes a feast from ordinary days

Feasts are definitely the most ritualised meals, those where cultural scenarios can come to life in their diversity. Feasts have a specific temporal framework and structure. The way the food is served, how people are sitting behind the table, how they communicate — it all has an air of theatricality to it.

important functions of the feast, which is the strengthening of bonds, relations between people, very often in collective effervescence, regardless of the place, culture or time

A feast is always organised around a special value which is important or even venerated by a group or groups of people, often manifested symbolically. Thus, the institution of the feast protects and renews that cultural value, and feasting on a certain day becomes a tradition in which the feast finds its justification and motivation. This tradition shapes societies and preserves specific forms of rituals and customs suitable for the contemporary way of social life.

By marking such calendar events in the form of a feast, we follow in the footsteps of countless generations before us, all the way back to the dawn of human civilisation. Eating has always been important: after all, it is a key necessity in sustaining our physical existence. But as soon as humans developed a capacity for abstract thought, meals must have started to acquire the plethora of symbolic and social connotations they still often bear.

The success of the fall harvest has been a life-and-death event for our ancestors since the first seeds were sowed about 10,000 years ago in the Near East. It is not surprising that, across the globe, many important events of the year coincide with the harvest, including in North America, where we mark the harvest by celebrating Thanksgiving as a sumptuous feast.

 

The centrality of the feast in human gatherings, however, extends far beyond harvest festivals to major holidays and the marking of important life events. Special meals form not only the centerpiece of religious holidays, such as Christmas, Passover, and Eid al-Fitr, which ends Ramadan, but also of weddings, graduations, birthday parties, and funerals. The integration of feasts and special events is universal across human cultures.

At their most obvious, feasts serve to provision guests and to celebrate or commemorate special events. Feasts, however, also play much more subtle social roles. In particular, they serve as a social glue that holds communities together by smoothing tensions, forging alliances, creating shared memories, and exchanging information.

Feasting is not first about the food. It is foremost about the Godward celebration of some specific occasion together. Good food and drink, in abundance, come in alongside our corporate focus to accentuate the appreciation and enjoyment of God and his kindness. The heart of feasting is not the food itself, but the heart of the feasters. A true feast is bigger than the food — infinitely bigger. The center is God and his greatness and grace toward us in Christ.

For Christians, feasting is not the same as mere indulgence. There is nothing particularly Christian about eating and drinking more than usual. What makes feasting a means of God’s grace for nourishing our souls is explicitly celebrating Christ together in faith. Whether it’s Thanksgiving or Easter, a birthday or anniversary, when we feast as Christians, we celebrate the bounty and kindness of our Creator and Redeemer. Feasting in Christ is no mere physical event, but deeply spiritual.

Good preparation for a good feast typically begins before the feast day — not only in our planning, but in our pattern of eating.

In our society, we have so much excess that the idea of feasting is a little lost. A stroll through Costco, a dinner at Buffett King or the average Super-Size meal tells us all we need to know about food in our culture.