From Thanksgiving through to Christmas, our tables boast their finest display of the year. Turkeys roasted and basted to a gilt sheen, tenderloins encased in crusty herbs, rib roasts and crown roasts with their buttresses of bone; humble potatoes, green beans, carrots, squash transfigured with spices and sauces; crumby cakes mounded in velvety frostings, pie crusts cradling decadent fillings, every conceivable cookie, brittle, and bark on parade—festal fare will be the centerpiece at nearly every gathering, and our tables and belt buckles will groan with the weight of gastronomic glory.
But perhaps (as seems to be the fashion) someone will ask, “Is all this really an appropriate way to celebrate Christmas? The stable in Bethlehem certainly didn’t have such a spread, and Advent is supposed to be a time of fasting. All this fuss over food seems more like a Christian excuse to indulge the appetite, a shabby attempt to sanctify secular gluttony. Better give the groceries to the food bank.”
In a gluttonous and decadent culture, it is easy to class all abundance as gluttony and decadence. And, indeed, the vices of our culture so condition us that we participate in them by unthinking instinct, resist them only by effortful will. Advent is a time for fasting, and to keep it truly, we must savor the hunger of waiting as well as the satisfaction of fulfillment; only so can we gather our scattered thoughts and yearnings and bind them into one great holy longing for the coming of our Lord.
Yet—we must bear in mind that that coming Lord displays a preternatural penchant for feasting. For His first miracle, He furnished wine to wedding guests already well watered; in the midst of his ministry, He presided at the tables of Zaccheus and Lazarus; on a jaunt to the countryside, He turned a spontaneous picnic into a belly-filling affair with twelve baskets of leftovers. His parables frequently and contemptuously condemn the scrupulous sons and investors and wedding guests who refuse to feast. He instructed His disciples to remember Him in a meal. And even now, He withholds Himself from the cup of the vine, that its pungency might intensify through anticipation of the great Supper of the Lamb at which He declares He will quench His thirst. He is a Son in all ways like unto His Father: for from the beginning when God filled the garden of Eden with all manner of trees to eat, until He spreads the banqueting hall of the New Jerusalem, the feast is the emblem of (and at times, true participation in) communion with God Himself.
And therefore, feasting done right is a sound rebuke to gluttony and decadence, and a needed counterpart to fasting. By putting us in the posture of communion with God—by casting us in the roles He created us to play—the feeding of our bodies can form our souls.
In the first place, feasting reminds us that God has made us eaters; this is to say, He has made us needy, dependent, contingent, and communal. Man can compose symphonies, decipher equations, and found nations—but only if, every day, he finds matter to munch. To be deprived of food is successively to lose good humor, judgment, strength, health, and finally life itself. Hunger pangs are a daily reminder of our need, our dependence, and our debt—for the satisfaction of our hunger depends upon the deaths of plant and animal. Each meal implies that only sacrifice redeems human life, and presses us to wonder what degree of sacrifice could preserve life through eternity; dinner tables, like cathedrals, should be built cruciform. Yet our identity as eaters prefigures our fall, and means even more. In Genesis 2, Adam and Eve in the garden were given the fruit of the trees from which to eat. To eat fruit from a tree is to be nourished by, and yet not to injure or lesson, the life of the tree. Could this have intimated that, even before our lives depended upon sacrifice, we made to be nourished by, and yet never to lesson one jot, the Divine Life of the Trinity?
But we do not feast only because we are eaters; the bare necessity of fueling the body would never inspire people to worry over delicacies, to set tables with flowers and fine china, to dress in their best for the messy business of eating. No: we feast because God, in His extravagant generosity, has also made us tasters. That we do not only need to eat, but so exuberantly enjoy it, is freedom heaped over necessity, the image of God stamped upon the creature, the cup that overfloweth; it communicates to our bodies the gift-beyond-deserving that our souls know as grace. Like grace, taste is an art—a fashioning of raw matter and random happening into meaning and purpose and life. Taste is food’s poetry, placing just the right spice in just the right part of the dish like a satisfying rhyme or rhythm. Taste is food’s narrative, writing particular flavors into each season and holiday to evoke the memory and nostalgia by which we understand our pasts. Taste is harmony and oil pastels, each note and hue of bitter, sour, salty, and sweet blended not to draw attention to itself, but to compound into a far greater whole.
That we can taste, and prepare food to our taste, leads us on to become chefs, cooks, bakers—that is, artists. To be an artist is not, primarily, to have a message to communicate or a theory to present, but to love some bit of matter so much that nothing else seems so pressing or pleasing as playing with it. While admirers of art might love its message or significance or reputation, the artist (knowing none of these things beforehand) had to love it simply as a play in paint or sound or stone. So, too, the chef loves food first of all. Yet the artist does have another love besides the thing he makes: the artist loves himself, in that he creates not for an audience, but for his own satisfaction and pleasure. Even so, when we sit down to a feast, we glimpse an artist behind the food before us; but in that artist, we glimpse also an image of the great first Artist who made both the food and the feasters, and we glimpse our own astonishing significance an object of His delight and a shining of His glory.
Yet we do not come to a feast as aficionados to a gallery, but rather, as guests to the home of a host; in feasting we know ourselves as beloved. Even more than in the food he gives them, the host loves his guests by his own self-giving. To be a host is to humble oneself; stained clothes, burnt fingers, and raw hands come along with the cooking and cleaning. It is to empty oneself; hours must be set aside for preparation, tables and buffets cleared of their usual ornaments, rooms cleaned out to accommodate guests. And through this humbling and emptying, space and a place are made to bring in the beloved guests. It is always, as George Herbert said, Love who bids us welcome, names us guests, compels us to sit and taste his meat. And in the love of hosts, mothers, fathers, grandparents, and any others who cook for us this Advent season, we taste also the love with which our God invites us to His table—today at the Lord’s Supper, and that day at His wedding feast.
A feast satisfies necessity; it lavishes grace; it bestows glory; finally and supremely, it imparts love. In the coming weeks, let us wait, and fast, and feast—not in gluttony or decadence, but as glorious and grateful partaking of the abundant love of our coming Lord.