A few weeks ago, my husband, daughters (ages not-quite-1 and 3) and I embarked on a 500-mile road trip to spend Thanksgiving with my family of origin. It was clear from the start that the baby was not wild about being confined to her car seat for hours on end. But she held it together, for the most part. Until about 8 hours into the 9.5 hour trip. Then, she just lost it.
She had eaten very little all day. She did not take a second nap. She was bored with her toys, and probably sick of watching the interstate float by out the rear windshield.
From my perch in the passenger seat, I tried everything I could think of to placate or distract her, to no avail. Finally, in desperation, I got out of my seat, crawled into the back of our small car, and wiggled myself in between the two car seats, armed with little more than a stuffed animal and a snack cup of cheerios. At first, she cried even harder, because she could now see me right next to her, but I wasn’t picking her up.
But then I brought out the cheerios, and they were a game-changer. She reached into the snack cup and carefully extracted one cheerio. She held it up for me to admire, and then happily ate it. Next, she figured out how to get a whole handful at a time. After shoving a couple into her mouth, she discovered she could toss the rest over the side of her seat and onto my lap. For about an hour straight, she was content–pleased, even–to have a cup of cheerios and her mama to share them with. It would still be another 24 hours before we would sit down to Thanksgiving dinner with the extended family; but clearly, a feast transpired right there in the back seat, on the Ohio turnpike.
That interaction got me thinking about what it means, in our culture of plenty, for Christians to feast.
Over the years, I’ve grown more attuned to the sharp disparities (in terms of production, access, health impacts, etc.) that mark our food system. We waste a lot of food in this country, and that’s often made me feel a little uncomfortable talking about feasting.
Do we food-secure, food-wasting Americans really need another occasion to consume even more than we already do? And when we American Christians talk about feasting and feast days as much as we do, do we run the risk of accommodating or blessing a culture of excess that we should be speaking out against?
But after years spent earning my daily bread as a farmer, and now working as a parish priest, here’s what I’ve come to believe about feasting: Feasting is not the same as gluttony. In fact, thoughtful, Christian feasting is in many ways gluttony’s opposite.
Feasting is, first and foremost, an expression of our membership: membership in a family, in a community, in God’s body, and in God’s created order. It is an opportunity to testify against cultural excess and isolation by choosing to be delighted with the food we have in front of us and the people we have to share it with. The book of Acts tells us that one of the first and biggest transformations the early church went through after the day of Pentecost was in the way they ate: “they broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and generous hearts” (Acts 2:46).
Feasting is a primary means of our formation as Christian disciples. Throughout Scripture, we see that God was pleased to reveal Godself to us in food, and in one another. Feasting, done well, takes these two means of God’s self-gift and puts them together in a way that delights in God’s creation and builds up community.
That’s the faithful sense of feasting I aspire to. Too often, though, our holiday parties and Christmas dinners can become sources of anxiety, or tension, or pressure to get it all just-right. As we head into the climax of our holiday feasting season, what can we do to make our feasts good reflections of our faith? A few thoughts:
Reflect God’s creative abundance in the sensory experience of the feast.
Include a variety of colors, textures, and smells on your holiday table. Emphasize foods (or decorative elements) that were grown or harvested nearby. And thank God for them by name.
This doesn’t mean knock yourself out to be the perfect host, with dazzling options and endless accommodations. In fact, it may mean doing some limiting. If you’re too exhausted or distracted or resentful to really be present with your companions, and to delight in your time together, cut something out. Follow Jesus’ lead here.
Delight in the present.
Cherish whoever and whatever is there, in the moment. Don’t dwell on what’s missing. Choose to be satisfied with the abundance God has provided today.
The day after my impromptu cheerios car seat feast, we attended my extended family’s actual Thanksgiving dinner. I ate and drank deeply of the time-honored family recipes and traditions. But my daughters barely ate at all. They were thrilled by the chance to play the day away with their older cousins, who doted on them fiercely. When it was time for dinner, I could barely get them to sit long enough to eat. The 3 year old shoveled in just enough bites to fuel her playtime for the rest of the evening. And the baby was too fascinated by all the commotion and cuddles to pay much attention to food. Both girls woke up hungry, early the next morning. But there was no doubt in my mind that we had kept the feast.
[Image credit: Public Domain via Pixabay.]
What makes a meal a feast for you?