Eating is earthly, but feasting together is divine

Justine Toh explores the spiritual nature of feasting together.

I remember a dinner party last summer. Balmy weather, table set for seven, the mosquito coil burning away, music. We sat down to eat after a considerable wait for all to be ready, but no one tucked in. There was a pause, self-conscious laughter. Someone said, “It feels like we should say … a prayer or something”. I had wanted to suggest something along those lines but didn’t want to intrude on the faiths (or none) of others.

But there was a kind of openness or gratitude in the air that night. We wanted to give thanks for friendship, for time together, and for the succulent spread before us.  

Something mysterious happens when we sit down together to eat. The sensual pleasures of food—its sights, smells, tastes and textures—ground us in our bodies and the immediate present by stirring the individual appetite. We might be tempted to fill our bellies, and fast.  

At the same time, however, eating in company can take us outside of ourselves—so much so that we might be inspired to thank a god not everyone acknowledges is actually there. Feasting with others, in other words, can stir a spiritual appetite that not even food can satisfy—and I think this was what happened that summer evening.  

So eating might be earthy, but feasting together borders on the divine. How so?

A banquet brings people together—even more so when we share from a communal plate. So much of our social interactions are mediated through individualising technologies like the iPhone. This iLife we live is momentarily suspended when we gather around to break bread together. A feast also challenges the rampant individualism of our culture by giving us the opportunity to serve and wait upon each other, which reminds us of the importance of relationships in our lives.  

Moreover, food can nurture a healthy attitude towards difference. What we choose or refuse to eat, and with whom we do so, often marks boundaries between personal tastes, cultures, and religions. If we are what we eat, then when we eat only what we know and like we’re also reconfirming our ideas about ourselves and the world.  

On the other hand trying out unfamiliar foods, as well as supping with strangers, allows us to not only experiment with our tastes, but play with our ideas about who we are and who we might be. Or at least reconsider our position. There’s something generous and humble in that.  

So food threatens our self-containment by opening us up to difference and each other. In encouraging us to let go of ourselves and our own interests, food also introduces the possibility of grace: kindness that arrives, unexpectedly, from elsewhere.  

The Greek myth of Baucis and Philemon recounts how a poor husband and wife receive two strangers turned away from every other home in the town. Though they barely have enough for themselves, Baucis and Philemon reject the selfishness of their community by laying a humble table for their guests. However when the wine pitcher keeps miraculously refilling itself, the couple realise that the strange duo are really the gods Jupiter and Mercury in disguise. Baucis and Philemon, then, are welcoming difference of a divine order.

A feast also challenges the rampant individualism of our culture by giving us the opportunity to serve and wait upon each other, which reminds us of the importance of relationships in our lives.

The myth is often read as a parable encouraging hospitality and kindness to strangers. Its appeal also lies, however, in the grace of both the mortals Baucis and Philemon in welcoming their guests and the gods Jupiter and Mercury in blessing them in return. The grace of both parties transforms a simple, shared meal into a sumptuous feast where generosity flows as freely as that constantly replenishing wine.  

At another table in times past, a different god declared that he, Jesus Christ, was the ‘bread of life’. Christians understand Jesus to mean that just as bread was broken and its nourishment shared by all, so was Jesus’ body broken so that humans could have life to the full. This ‘bread of life’ is a foretaste of heaven—in itself described as a rich banquet to which all are invited. This sensuous description of heaven is all about feasting, abundance, and celebration. It announces the arrival of not only the good life, but perhaps the best kind of life of all.  

I fondly remember that summer dinner party and the moment my friends and I felt the need to say thank you for each other and for the meal we were about to receive. If only we could have agreed on who deserved our thanks.

Dr Justine Toh is Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity and lectures in Cultural Studies at Macquarie University

The article originally appeared at the ABC Religion & Ethics Portal