Sacred Meals: When Food Means Liberation and Redemption

This is how you are to eat it: with your loins girt, sandals on your feet and your staff in hand, you shall eat like those who are in flight. It is the Passover of the LORD. Ex. 12:11

These words from the Book of Exodus are powerful for me.  They are evocative of many images from childhood.  They are part of my recollections of Holy Week spent in our parish church.  While serving as an altar boy I would listen and hear the biblical stories.  I would assist with ancient rituals composed around fire and water, smoke and oils, bread and wine, liberation and redemption.   Christians and Jews share these stories as evidence of God’s power and love for us throughout history.  The Exodus God is the pillar of fire and cloud that leads Israel out of slavery and into freedom; God is the One who hears the cry of the poor and the oppressed and acts mightily to save them.  For Christians, the association of Jesus’ suffering and death with Passover merits him the exalted title: Lamb of God.    It is wonderful to think that both faith traditions represent and recall God’s desire to save us in the most human and essential act of eating.

Sharing a meal:  That’s how so many people of faith know and experience God.  It has been that way for thousands of years.  We come together as people of faith and we tell stories and recall history; we ritualize and make sacred our food and drink.  We make a meal the fullest and most eloquent encounter with Divinity.  We feast on, and are nourished by, God’s love.  There doesn’t have to be a lot of theology around it.  The philosophical constructs and intellectual categories used to explain how a meal can be holy are almost pointless.  For most of us, it is crystal clear.  All one needs to do is watch a young couple in love sharing a romantic dinner, or see an elderly couple gaze at each other across the table at their anniversary and you will know you are on holy ground.  Observe a family enjoying a child’s birthday celebration at a local pizza parlor; hear the laughter and see the smiles and you sense something good, something spiritual about it all.  More often than we realize, our meals are encounters with God.  The act of eating and sustaining our bodies cannot be separated from our spirits.  The biblical authors knew this well and constantly remind us that our meals are spiritual.  Our food and drink have consequences.

Nowhere is this more evident to me than in the dining room at 101 West 23rd Street in Baltimore, Maryland: The Franciscan Center.  In fact, no place has so much shown me the meaning of the words quoted above from Exodus.  The men and women who come into the Center for a meal often “eat as those in flight.”  Quickly, a hot lunch is consumed before….going back into the desert.

Many of the people that sit down for lunch are poor in ways I will never be.  Some have serious mental illness, yet they know to eat and nourish the body and keep the divine spark aflame.  Maybe one day the slavery of mental illness will be ended for them.  Many are drug addicted and alcoholic, but need to eat to survive for the next fix.  Maybe someday the chains of addiction will be broken for them.  Some will sleep on the streets.  Others will go home to a family with too many bills and not enough food.  Perhaps, one day, please God, there will be work for them so that they can feed their children and make their dwelling a home.

It is a sacred meal.  Every day we serve the poor we acknowledge God present in them and we receive from them the acknowledgment that the biblical message of liberation and redemption is still valid, still needed and still potent and effective.  Why else would so many people here and across the world face the struggle day in and day out?  We are born to live.  We are born to embrace life and live it fully.  The days spent with the poor remind me that life is always a sacred event – even the shortest, meanest, most troubled life.  Indeed perhaps even more so than a long and trouble free life.  Because it is there in the struggle of a human being that you can really see it.  It is when you see a cold hand take a hot bowl of soup and relish a piece of bread that you realize just how strong the human spirit is – just how close to God we really are.

Its places like the dining room of a soup kitchen that we can really see the biblical images brought to life.  Images of a people oppressed receiving something liberating, redeeming, and sustaining: Food and Drink.  It is holy.  At the Franciscan Center in Baltimore, a beautiful mural spans one wall and proclaims “you are blessed.”  Yes, we are, we are indeed blessed: blessed by the poor.  Because with them and from them comes the fulfillment of the great promise made in Exodus.

I have witnessed the affliction of my people and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers, so I know well what they are suffering. Ex. 3:7

… This is the Passover of the LORD, the Passover of the LORD, the Passover of the LORD…

Have a blessed Passover and a Happy Easter.

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