I recently read an article that I haven’t been able to shake. Tamar Adler wrote a piece titled “Eat, Memory” which is one of the most moving articles I have read in a long time. It opens with these words,
Feasts and fasts are bound inexorably, like sleep and waking. If asked why we do one or the other, we likely say we feast to celebrate and fast to remember. I recall one delirious meal, though, in which those equivalencies involuted.
Adler writes magnificently of an incident that happened when she was sixteen years old, which was the year that her father had died. On this particular day, her Mother had to have a minor surgery which left young Adler and her twelve year old brother alone in the house. She tells of how she felt strongly to invite her friends over for a meal that she was to cook for them. After the invitations had been made and the food had been bought, she had a dreadful moment when she realized that she had no idea what she was doing. She had never cooked a meal in her life. In her panic, an image formed in her mind – her brother standing over the stove with their mother night after night. She drove and got her brother from his friends house and the two of them went back to cook a meal for the guests who were to arrive later that day. This proved to be a wise decision.
After their preparations, “The toasts tasted right, and across the counter, John and I shared a look we’ve exchanged dozens of times since. It was our lonelinesses creeping toward each other, the frightened, bold agreement to be in this thing together. ‘To the table,’ I ordered”.
I remember a time, not too long ago, when our church gathered on a Sunday evening to worship God and to celebrate with those who were being water baptized. At the end of the night we all lined up to receive communion and prayer from our Pastor and his wife. It took a long time to get through the line that night, but while waiting I recall looking around at the many different families who stood there ready to receive the bread and wine. As I looked at the different people gathered I was taken with the sacredness of what I was witnessing. I watched some who seemed so full; full of thanks, and life, and love because the person whose hand they held was now cancer free. But there were others who stood in line whose loved one recently died from cancer. They had no hand to hold. I watched a boy get baptized who has been cancer free for several years now. I than glanced at another couple in line who’s young child we had just buried. The newlyweds were there. So were the newly divorced. I watched a lady whose husband had very recently been stationed in another state. For a time he had to live away from his beloved wife and children. Was this the first communion she took without him?
That night I saw them all gathered in a line: the hungry and the full, the broken and the healed, the joyful and the mourners. There we stood, moving towards God, but also “creeping toward each other, [with] the frightened, bold agreement to be in this thing together”. “Frightened” simply because we know that we, at any point, may change places. Those who comfort may soon need to be comforted. Life is both valley and mountain. Sometimes both at once. “Feasts and fasts are bound inexorably” Adler writes. P. T. Forsyth put it like this, “The depth is simply the height inverted…”. That night at church we both gathered at the table; the hungry and the full. Is there a better place to gather? It’s there, after all, that feast and fast, joy and sorrow, kiss. We meet God at the table, but don’t we also miss him? Maranatha (“come quickly”) is a cry of hope, but isn’t it also a cry longing? Of homesickness?
Henri Nouwen, reflecting on the Eucharist once wrote:
We eat bread, but not enough to take our hunger away; we drink wine, but not enough to take our thirst away; we read from a book, but not enough to take our ignorance away. Around these “poor signs” we come together and celebrate. What then do we celebrate? The simple signs, which cannot satisfy all our desires, speak first of all of God’s absence. He has not yet returned; we are still on the road, still waiting, still hoping, still expecting, still longing…The minister is not called to cheer people up but modestly to remind them that in the midst of pains and tribulations the first sign of new life can be found and a joy can be experienced which is hidden in the midst of sadness.
metimes there is a sadness hidden in the midst of joy. I sense this, for example, as I watch my children grow older. It’s a beautiful thing to watch your children grow, but it’s not without it’s sorrow. It’s the bittersweet. But just as there is a sadness hidden in joy, there is “a joy…which is hidden in the midst of sadness”, as Nouwen reminds us. At the table, they both belong. “To the table” God calls to those on the mountain, and “To the table” God calls to those in the valley. Because God is in both. Didn’t the Psalmist remind us?
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there
(Psalm 139: 7,8)
Adler ends her article with these words:
Even after our mother was delivered back to us healthy, the loss of our father throbbed in each instant of our growing older without him. But, still, we feasted. Because to hunger is to live, and even when we lose things that really matter, we can always taste, and in tasting, have our appetites restored.
Let us who have tasted joy and sorrow taste also of the bread and the wine, and in so doing, have our appetites restored.
To the table!