The word “solemn” does not suggest gloom, oppression or austerity. The image it evoked was of sparkling lights, gay voices, music, the clinking of wine glasses, the tapping or pounding of synchronized feet and lots of laughter. When you were invited to a solemn occasion such as a wedding party, you would dress up in gold and scarlet. These were solemn (un-common, un-ordinary) clothes to help you make merry as you joined in the dance and partook of the food along with friend and family. This is why feasting is both more solemn and more happy than fasting.
But, where did this idea of feasting come from? Why on these wonderfully solemn events is there such an abundance of food? Why always much more than can be eaten in one sitting? On one day in particular, at least in North America, it is so over-abundant that it almost takes a Dickens to do it justice to the cornucopia.
The dining room table creaks under the weight of a center platter dwarfed by the 26-pound turkey basted and browned and stuffed with corn-bread and celery, onion and sage, next to a sliced ham bedecked in pineapple rounds, almost as large. Concentric circles of deviled eggs on a large oval plate stands guard around bowls of quivering cranberry sliced and sauced along with olives, leeks and pickles, sweet and dilled. Candied sweet potatoes, with brown-sugar and walnut topping, compete with vats of fluffed, mashed potato, crowned with dollops of yellow butter, next to steaming urns of dark, glistening gravy. Pots of golden corn, green peas and tangy Harvard beets provide added color and fibre to the abundance of protein. And, wicker trays of fresh baked rolls with light flour dusting peek out under a cloth ensuring maximum freshness and warmth. And on the side board is the small wagon wheel of strawberry and sour cream jello, the juicy red, sparkling holiday punch and spiced apple cider, elbowing the bewildering assortment of pies: mince meat, pumpkin, apple, cherry and, if one is very fortunate, key lime.
25 years ago a book sent shock waves through the Christian world, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger. It was an attack on capitalism. It struck hard and made some telling points against and idolatrous system of greed. There was no follow up book: Feasting Christians in an Age of Fasting and there probably won’t be. While there is such a sin as conspicuous–or immoderate–consumption, (once known as the sin of gluttony), the occasional and regular feast days do not fall under that prohibition. There is something about these days that we intuitively recognize as not only acceptable but appropriate and, somehow, almost holy. These occasions are more than permissible, they are, seemingly, essential.
Where did this unaccountable sense of propriety about something that seems so unnecessary and–in light of pervasive world hunger–almost obscenely excessive come from? Why does it resonate as being very right and very good when on the surface of things it should prickle and provoke? Food matters a lot. It matters both to God and to mankind. It happens to be a major biblical theme. It is not a stretch to say that it stitches the biblical epic into one cohesive narrative for it begins with God telling man to eat freely and ends with the command “drink freely.” Eating and drinking are no small matter. The Bible treats food as a necessary good and agrees with Feuerbach that, to a very real extent, man is what he eats.
This is what we can glean from a cursory overview of the Biblical narrative:
Man begins life in a garden, a place of delicious fecundity where he is commanded to eat the fruit of every tree except one. Later, the national life of the people of Israel is circumscribed and ordered by a recurring cycle of four yearly feasts–divinely sanctioned invitations to extended communal meals where they are to eat and drink and “rejoice” before their God. When the Messiah comes, His first miracle takes place at an extended wedding feast and involves turning gallons of undrinkable water into vats of consumable wine. Hours before His cruel death He shares a meal together with His disciples. After His Ascension one of the primary sacraments He establishes for His people is the Eucharist, which involves eating bread and drinking wine. This is the act by which His people reenact His sacrifice, receive His life and are reincorporated into His body.
While these strands of the story remind us that the creation is good and eating is both good and important, it does not necessarily justify the excess of food which marks feast days. For that we must look at the creation itself. When God spoke the world into being He flooded the land with a riotous exuberance of color and innumerable species of animals and insects (currently estimated at 50 million). He stocked the seas with an absurd abundance of fish and festooned the skies with billions and billions of stars. If there is one term that best summarized God’s handiwork it is extravagance. It reminds me of Emperor Joseph’s bewildered response to the music of Amadeus: “too many notes!”
The Feast of Tabernacles, one of the four, annual, Jewish feasts, celebrated at the end of the harvest season was to be stretched out luxuriously over a full week. (Lev. 23:39). The Jews were commanded to “be joyful at your Feast–you, your sons and daughters, your men-servants and maidservants, and the Levites, the aliens, the fatherless and the widows who live in your town. . . . For the Lord your God will bless you in all your harvest and in all the work of your hands, and your joy will be complete” (Dt. 16:14-15). In addition, the yearly tithe was to be presented once per year in Jerusalem and then consumed in a delightful celebratory feast. However, if Jerusalem was too distant or that year’s tithe too large, it was to be exchanged for cash to purchase vast amounts of meat, wine and fermented drink, “or anything you wish” so that the entire household “shall eat in the presence of the Lord and rejoice” (Dt. 14:26-27).
During his 3 ½ years on earth Jesus modeled His Father in all ways, including this stunning excess. At the Wedding of Cana He provided a disproportionately large amount of wine: approximately 180 gallons, and this at the end of the several-day celebration.
On the two occasions when He fed the multitudes there was excess: 19 baskets of bread and fish left over. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son Jesus describes the father’s response in extravagant terms. He not only kills the best calf but also hands over to him an expensive robe, a new ring and invites the entire town to celebrate in the joyful feast. Rather than decrying feasts as inherently inequitable, Jesus enlarges their scope by including those who are incapable of participating in the almost delirious good of the feast. He, in fact, frequented them so regularly that His enemies disparaged Him with the snide label: “glutton and drunkard” (Mt. 11:19; Lk. 7:34).
The Epic begins with an excess of food but ends with it as well. When God consummates human history He does so by hosting a lavish celebration, an extraordinary feast of delirious prodigality, a wedding banquet in which all restrictions are removed: “drink freely” the happy guests are commanded. This sanction to joy and delicious revelry is undoubtedly punctuated with a thunderous and infectious laugh. We are not told if the party ever comes to an end.
God is a God of extravagant love. He is a God who covenants to do good to His people all the days of their lives. Some of the good is difficult to bear for it requires the pain of crushing, like the pressure applied to grapes to render the wine. But the juice that seeps out and is stored away for the feast, when the bottles are finally opened, is delightful and stimulates riotous joy. There are bottles and bottles and trays upon trays groaning with choice meats and nourishing food on reserve. There is an overabundance which awaits God’s People that symbolizes the infinite love and faithfulness of their good Father and the limitless love of the Trinity.
So we eat a small piece of bread and take a little sip of wine and we are comforted to know that one day we will be told to take up, enjoy, eat and drink our fill for the great Wedding Day is here, it has come at long last. And, at least once per year, we sit before a table that is heaped to overflow with the delectable provisions of this good earth and our eyes look up and away for we know that this is just a foretaste, a whisper, the sweetest, hint of a taste of the revelry and overwhelming joy that will never, ever end.
But as Alexander Schmemann reminds us, this talk of food goes deeper still. “All that exists is God’s gift to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: “O taste and see that the Lord is good.” Man is a hungry being, but he is hungry for God. Behind all the hunger of our life is God. All desire is finally a desire for Him.”
While the simple Eucharistic meal prefigures this consuming so do our solemn feasts. In the midst of material scarcity, suffering, and the ravages of sin and death there are occasional celebrations that point us away to the One who has no limit and for whom we were made; who we were made to glorify by enjoying forever. Every good points us ultimately to the Good, who is True and Beautiful, and who told us that He is to us and all mankind the Way, the Truth and the (over-abundantly, excessively lavish, fullness of) Life. Therefore, we take our places at the festive board in anticipatory celebration not only of a magnificent event but a majestic Person who will satisfy us finally and forever.
Even so come.