The Communion of Casserole: On the Importance of Shared Meals

Before His death, Jesus gathered his closest friends together to share a meal.  They met in a small, upper room.  They ate, prayed, and sang together.  No doubt they laughed.  They even squabbled.   In the process, Jesus shared the deepest secrets and mysteries of the Christian faith.

There is something sacred about eating in community.  Theologian Fredrich Buechner spoke of this when he said, “To eat any meal together is to meet at the level of our most basic need. It is hard to preserve your dignity with butter on your chin, or to keep your distance when asking for the tomato ketchup. To eat this particular meal together is to meet at the level of our most basic humanness, which involves our need not just for food but for each other. I need you to help fill my emptiness just as you need me to help fill yours. As for the emptiness that’s still left over, well, we’re in it together, or it in us. Maybe it’s most of what makes us human and makes us brothers and sisters.”

We tend to think of sacred meals in terms of Holy Communion, and of course that is the quintessential holy meal.  We gather as believers and partake in the body and blood of Christ.  We proclaim the central mystery of the faith by reaffirming, “Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.”  When we take Holy Communion, we share in the One who saves us.  We stand equal in our helplessness before God.  We receive the hosts and ingest them.  In this act of consuming, they literally become a part of us, nourishing and sustaining our body and spirit.  It is a physical representation of a spiritual process.

This is the holiest of meals, but it is not the only holy meal.  As Buechner notes, any time we eat together we are sharing in something holy and sacred.  Breaking bread together is an act of giving and receiving.  We expose our neediness and hunger as we eat; we help fill the emptiness of those around us as we pass food from plate to plate.

A few years ago, my grandmother passed away.  It devastated everyone.  In many ways, she was the bedrock of the family and her loss left a gaping hole in our lives.  The family, scattered across the United States, made the long trip to Washington State for her funeral.

I remember a lot of things from that trip.  I remember the tears and the services held in her church and at her grave side, but I also distinctly remember the meals.  Members of my grandmother’s church (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Lacey, Wa.) brought countless dishes of food to the house.  They came bearing gifts of casserole and bread, pastas and salads.  They delivered them with moist eyes and sympathetic hugs, with words of comfort and the promise of prayers.  Of course, they couldn’t make the pain go away, but they could offer something warm to sustain us in that moment of suffering.  In passing us a dish of food, they were giving something of their love.

When we ate the food, we sat around the dining room table and prayed together.  We shared memories of my grandmother.  We laughed and cried.  The two intermingled into something, raw, broken, and beautiful.  Christ has died. Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.

The day of the funeral, members of the church and family members spent hours preparing food for the reception held after the service.  Friends and neighbors gathered in the church gym and sat around folding tables on metal chairs.  People shared stories about how my grandmother had touched their lives.  They shared deserts and glasses of punch.  They wept without reserve.  The pain remained real and visceral, but in this act of communion we found the first hints of healing.  Christ has died. Christ is risen.  Christ will come again.

                Every meal is a chance to remember this deep mystery, a mystery that we will never fully understand in this life.  Every time we eat together in community, we give of ourselves and receive the gift of others.  It is a sacrament that reminds us of our dependence on the gifts of God and the interdependence of our lives.