Early in November, there was a story going round the internet that Stove Top Stuffing was offering branded stretchy pants in time for American Thanksgiving. I don’t know if these really exist. They seemed to be off sale almost as soon as they were offered. However, this tells us something about one of the most common ideas surrounding feasting.
When we talk about feasting it so often seems to be that we are talking about the greatest amount of food, or about the best of foods. We often think about dish after dish of our favourite foods ‒ so much food that we eat until we are more stuffed than the traditional turkey. This is not surprising, as at one time feasts were associated with successful hunts or harvests, where the produce needed to be consumed lest it go rotten.
Feasts are often a mark of prestige. How can we display our wealth or our generosity? By throwing a big dinner with lots of the finest foods. As guests at such feasts, we mark ourselves out as connoisseurs by our ability to appreciate rare and/or expensive foods.
Yet such attitudes to feasting can also demonstrate a sense of exclusion. Those who can’t contribute to the bounty or those whose tastes are not as refined as ours are, if not unwelcome at the feast, at the very least kept on the margins.
Feasts are often associated with Saints days. In Advent, depending on the time at which it begins, we remember such Saints as Andrew, Nicholas, and Lucy. When we look at and celebrate the lives of such saints, we find they were often people of privilege and wealth who gave up position, power, and wealth to serve the poorest and least.
When we observe the great Eucharistic Feast, the apex of Christian feasting, it is generally celebrated with little more than a small piece of bread or wafer and a sip of wine. Yet, whenever we gather at the Lord’s Table, we are coming to a feast. More importantly, we are celebrating as a body brought together not by common interests or hobbies, but by the life-giving sacrifice of Christ.
I find it interesting that the most spectacular of Jesus’s miracles, at least in terms of the number of people involved, was comprised of a little bread and some fish. Much like the Eucharist itself, to which the miracle points to some degree, it’s not about the lavishness of the food, but the lavishness of the God who provides the food.
Matthew’s account of the feeding of the 5,000 in chapter 14 of his gospel can be instructive to us in our thinking about feasting. A few things stand out in this story. First, Jesus invites the people to sit down; the language used suggests reclining at the table as one did for a formal meal or a feast. Second, everyone receives enough to eat. No one goes home hungry.
Third, everyone is fed. This may seem like a repetition of the last point, but it’s not. The story ends with the phrase, “And those who ate were about 5,000 men, besides women and children” (Matthew 14:21). According to feasting traditions of the time, women and children often at only after the men had enjoyed their fill. Here the women and children eat, and as Matthew tells us, they ate their fill. There are even leftovers; God’s abundance is on full display. This feeding of the multitudes is so important to Matthew that we read of another feeding, this time of 4,000, in chapter 15 (sadly, the Lectionary skips over this second reading, seeing it as superfluous). Again, all have their fill, and women and children included.
There is another element of feasting that relates to Advent: anticipation. Both the feeding of the 5,000 and the Eucharist anticipate the great heavenly banquet that will occur when Jesus returns. Often, during Advent, we get caught up in the somber and frightening readings. Many of these readings can take our appetites away.
We need to remember though, that Advent hails the promise of the New Heaven and New Earth that we read about in Revelation. Chapter 22 begins with a description of the City of God:
“Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its 12 kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.”
A tree with fruit and a feast without ending, all enjoyed in the presence of the Lamb. That is the promise of Advent and the hope we look to.
Donald McKenzie is the incumbent at St. Philip’s Anglican Church. You can find more of his thoughts on food at his blog, Dining with Donald.