What does the Eucharist teach us about how we share meals and what do our family meals contribute to our understanding of the Eucharist?
“[T]the Lord of hosts will provide for all peoples
a feast of rich food and choice wines,
juicy, rich food and pure, choice wines.”
Early Experiences of Eucharist and Eucharistic Devotion
I consider myself blessed for having been born to parents who fully embraced the changes in Catholic worship issued by the Second Vatican Council (1962-65). My father, a man of considerable piety who’d leave his bed on certain Saturday evenings to participate in the rites of the Nocturnal Adoration Society, impressed on me and my siblings at an early age the importance of fearing God. Never, however, were we to fear the immense mystery of the Eucharist, which was, after all, God’s way of holding God’s people in a tight embrace. My father impressed upon us that it was Jesus himself who instituted the sacrament, the same Jesus whose smiling face and ever-outstretched arms we took from Bible pictures at bedtime, yet somehow Christified beyond the limits of our senses. In my father’s mind, eucharistic prayer was the antidote to the feeling of shame or inadequacy that often prevents Christians from drawing close to their God, not its cause. He knew deep down that even the outward extravagance of the Mass for which the Church liked claiming responsibility was, in some roundabout way, God’s own doing. It was the handiwork of a divine parent as eager to set a beautiful supper-table before his children as any other mother or father might be.
One of my earliest memories of my father’s high regard for the sacrament involves the time he welcomed into our home the chaplain for his adoration group, a good-natured monsignor known widely for his talent with a basketball or tennis racket. At some point during his visit, the priest produced a monstrance from the velveteen satchel he carried with him. At my father’s encouragement, he placed the object atop the boxy console of our TV, a makeshift altar of sorts from which it could be admired. The two agreed that it would look even better displayed on a proper altar in a church. The circular frame of the luna at its center served not only as a temporary home for Christ’s round and wafered Presence but also as a window through which their fellow adorers might glimpse heaven itself.
To me, the monstrance looked fine where it was, a golden sunburst-of-a-thing, more brilliant in its own way than any episode of “Bonanza” or “Hogan’s Heroes” that found its way into our modest living room by way of a glowing cathode tube. What the occasion sealed in my mind, however, was the inseparable connection between home and church, a reality to which I’d been introduced much earlier in life through my paternal grandfather’s work as a professional church painter-decorator. Ecclesiastical goods were a regular sight in the duplex-style house that doubled as his business address and in whose upper flat I was raised until the age of five. The elaborate stenciling and faux-marble treatments he’d applied to its walls and ceilings weren’t terribly different from those I’d watched him use to beautify the interiors of dozens of area Catholic churches. To have beheld in that household the sight of a glittering monstrance, then, was not altogether unique for me. Our house and God’s house were simply two parts of an enchanted landscape through which I assumed every family moved as fluidly as mine.
The whole of life, it seemed to me then, as it does even more now, amounts to a banquet laid before us by our creator and presided over by Christ, a vast table of the choicest foods meant to nourish and sustain our souls.
Marveling at the surface luxury of things was not part of my mother’s approach to the faith, I hesitate to note, not even those deemed “sacred” by Catholic practice. As one of eight children born to Calabrian immigrants, the contents of her religious imagination were drawn more from pictures of olive-skinned Madonnas and the divinations of Italy’s peasant class than any canon or catechism promulgated by the Church. Her parents rarely succeeded in taking their children to Mass on Sundays, for example, but were certain every Monday morning to visit the altars of genial San Antonio, San Rocco, and San Rosalia to be found in the basement-grotto of a nearby church. Hers was a piety inherited from people of little means who worked the fields and farms of those on whom fortuna had apparently smiled more favorably. They could hardly imagine the rites of the Church as belonging to them in any practical way. Baptisms, weddings, and funerals were the business of well-groomed priests with uncalloused hands, the sons of wealthier families better suited to titles like don or monsignore. One watched them work their “magic” from afar, as laypersons did almost every other action reserved for the interior of a Catholic church. It was enough that God, the divine Signore, noted their presence there and rewarded it as any earthly landlord or paymaster would at the end of the day.
These things notwithstanding, my mother was one of the first laywomen of our parish in the early 1970s to receive Communion in the hand, a gesture she adopted with unapologetic enthusiasm. She’d been raised in a household where people spoke with their hands, after all. Seldom in that place would a person pass up the opportunity to caress the face of a loved one or deliver “uno scafo in capone” — a swat to the head — to any misbehaving child who deserved it. The fleshy, gnocchi-shaped body-parts of infant children were meant not only to be diapered and dressed with affection but endlessly kissed, pinched, stroked, patted, and tickled, their fannies and toes nibbled on with a playful “Ti mangerò!” — “I’ll eat you (up)!” She knew that to consume the wafer-borne Jesus at Mass was somehow to be consumed by him, too. Yet, burying her head in her hands upon returning to her pew after receiving Sunday communion she showed little interest in such heady theology. It was enough simply to take Jesus at his word, let his flesh and blood comingle with her own, this Savior who promised never to abandon those whom he loved (John 14:18). She would no more regard herself “unworthy” of holding in her hands the little, white host-presence of her Savior in the Eucharist than holding in her womb the children she birthed at the Church’s urging and dutifully presented for rebirthing through the sacrament of baptism into what Saint Cyprian of Antioch (4th c.) is known to have called “other Christs.”
Dining in the Kingdom of God
I present all of this to set the scene for describing the so-called “house Masses” my parents hosted several times in our home when I was a teen. Consistent with the spirit of openness and solicitude that possessed the Church in the years immediately following the Second Vatican Council, they invited a variety of family members, friends, and neighbors (many of whom weren’t even Catholic) to gather in our living room for a celebration in the vernacular of what was being called the “new liturgy.” A well-worn card table placed in the center of the room served as the altar, its blemishes only partly concealed beneath a freshly-ironed tablecloth. Though our pastor and his associate priests had brought with them a Mass kit containing the requisite chalice and paten, they did not disapprove of letting a paper plate serve as a ciborium for those communion hosts awaiting consecration during the service. Fully vested for the ceremony and as crisply synchronized in their gestures as they’d appear together any Sunday morning in the sanctuary of our church, they wasted little time transitioning into greatly relaxed versions of themselves when our worshiping gave way to the minor feast of Italian delicacies and light conversation that awaited us afterward at other locations throughout the house.
Once more, it was the blending of formality and informality, the merger of the sacred and “profane” marking the event, that mesmerized me at the time and contributes still to my appreciation for what Blessed Sacrament Father and former Emmanuel magazine editor Eugene LaVerdiere, SSS (1936-2008), long ago described as “dining in the kingdom of God.”1 The whole of life, it seemed to me then, as it does even more now, amounts to a banquet laid before us by our creator and presided over by Christ, a vast table of the choicest foods meant to nourish and sustain our souls. And the sacrament we Catholics encounter at our altar-tables, in which Christ makes food for us of his own body and blood, expresses this reality most concretely.
Now in my mid-60s, I’m more desperate than ever to pass along these convictions to my own four children, all young adults with spouses or housemates of one sort or another whose connection to the Church and its rites, I must confess, is tenuous at best. Years of parochial school education were simply not enough to stave off the effects on their minds of the wider culture surrounding them. From all appearances, the latter chose decades ago to abandon the ritual-laden art of dining in the company of one’s closest acquittances, let alone the citizenry of some aethereal “Kingdom of God.” More often than not, what passed for family meals in the households of schoolmates they entered during routine sleep-overs, for example, amounted to catch-as-catch-can affairs in which food was seldom consumed among others but instead alone, before a TV screen, computer, or in transit, through some version of “grazing.” The communal act of “dining” had effectively been replaced by the purely biological act of “eating,” and with it any expectation of mealtime social interaction of the sort that has historically distinguished the intake of nourishment by human beings from the habits of lower animals.
Nevertheless, sitting with their companions today at the meals my wife and I place before them on holidays and special occasions, my children can’t help but offer me insights into the sort of divine banqueting that Father LaVerdiere wrote about so movingly. Never do they arrive at our table lacking in appetites, nor depart without carrying large quantities of food home with them in the restaurant-style takeout containers my wife is always sure to keep in great supply. In fact, their perpetual hunger reminds me of the deep longing for fulfillment by something beyond themselves exhibited by deeply religious people. Our hope is that some part of who we are goes home with them, bound up in the food-tokens we’ve prepared to sustain their presence on this earth for another week or two.
So lively are the table rituals that bind the members of my family, that I can only wish the same were true of worship within the parish to which my wife and I belong.
Like all acts of love, however, this one exposes us to the possibility of rejection. By opening our home and table to the horde that bears our name, we extend them permission to scrutinize us at our most domestic and vulnerable. Responsible for every slice of overcooked meat they’re expected to swallow, or fancy desert idea gone awry. We likewise come face-to-face with the sacrificial dimension of meal-making reflected in the toll it takes on our checkbook and the time spent housecleaning, fetching groceries, and cooking it ultimately requires. This is not to mention the most obvious sacrifice that every meal entails, owing to the fact that an array of perfectly healthy animals, fruits, and vegetables must perish in order that we might feast on their remains. Every meal, we’ve come to realize, amounts to a transmission of life-giving energy from one of God’s creations to another, a solemn transaction in which loss and gain, diminution and increase, death and life are real and inseparable. What we call “metabolization” is the body’s way of reducing the dead to their elemental state, a thoroughly corporeal “Rite of Committal” that reverences and inhumes the deceased within the nooks and crannies of the body of another, like the early Christians catacombed their dead.
Prefiguring of the Heavenly Banquet
As for what my children literally “bring to the table” in our home, I can say that they are essential to the riotous, laughter-filled prefiguration of the heavenly banquet that our meals together inevitably represent. There’s a seeming irony here, given their current estrangement from anything resembling formal religion.2 Yet, nothing becomes plainer to me as I behold my children and their respective partners engrossed in dinner-table conversation, in their own candid vulnerability, that Christ is using them to teach me something important about the nature of the kingdom of God. The sheer diversity of lifestyles, habits and interests they reflect challenges any assumption I maintain about who can or cannot claim inclusion in the vast flock of the soiled and stiff-necked that Christ deigns to shepherd for the sake of redemption.
Sitting at one corner of the table, for instance, one son, the shyest of my offspring and in some ways the most cautious, sits beside the lovely, bi-racial girl he’s brought into our circle, fearless of the stares that might still cost him in some settings. On the other side of the relish dish is his sister, a behavioral health nurse whose childhood persona still shows through the hardened veneer of her grown-up self. Another son, a restaurant manager and part-time musician and his wife, a lab technician and part-time artist, are there, too. Together they form a matched pair if ever there was one, the body art so liberally applied to their exposed parts as much an expression of their unity as it is any gesture of individuation. Sitting beside each other, with their inky filigree seeming to extend beyond the limits of their flesh, they evoke depictions in art of Scripture’s first couple, Adam and Eve, whose fallen selves nearly always appear bound together by tendrilous vine-growth of some sort. Closing out the group is my daughter and her fiancé whose recent decision to share a house will soon persuade them, I hope, to share a more formal union, a name, and the blessing of children of their own. Both are hardworking and destined for professional success, she as a social worker, he as a financial adviser.
At our table each bears a name and a place, each a story to contribute to the general conversation that proceeds organically over second helpings of honeyed ham or my wife’s famous mashed potatoes. The sole condition demanded of their presence there is that they luxuriate in the love we extend them.
From Our Homes to God’s
So lively are the table rituals that bind the members of my family, that I can only wish the same were true of worship within the parish to which my wife and I belong. A meal of unmistakable importance routinely unfolds at the center of its regular place of gathering too, infinite in its effect on our souls. For it, Christ stands aproned as “Host and host,” (I like to say, divine “Wayfarer and wafer” in one) who assumes such vulnerability as to make a meal of himself for those he loves. By self-immolation he feeds his flock, the response to which rightly entails some measure of solemnity. Supping on the flesh of one’s savior should be regarded “serious and dignified” business, as any dictionary definition of the term suggests. Nevertheless, a solemn demeanor need not be mistaken for the overly glum appearance some believers prefer to adopt at the moment the focus of the Mass in which they’re participating turns from the action at the ambo to that of the altar. Pope Francis himself has encouraged Catholics possessed of an overly-sullen disposition concerning all matters religious to consider the example of the saints, for whom “funeral wake faces”3 or a visage resembling “pickled peppers,”4 he argues, were unfamiliar things.
We ought to bring to our involvement in every sacramental rite enacted by the Church — but especially to the Eucharist — the lessons of the home regarding love’s breadth and generosity.
The only gloomy looks at the table in my household seem to be those that appear after family celebrations, as dishes are cleared, handsome platters and bowls full of food are transferred to Tupperware, and our guests begin to fret about returning to the workaday lives that await them beyond the limits of our time together. We Catholics can greatly benefit from bringing to every domestic meal the same appreciation for the sacramentality underlying all existence that has been one of the Church’s great charisms from the start. Likewise, we ought to bring to our involvement in every sacramental rite enacted by the Church — but especially to the Eucharist — the lessons of the home regarding love’s breadth and generosity. Christ abides at its table as surely as he does the altar-tables of our churches and calls us to each in ways both bold and subtle.
The Jesuit theologian Henri de Lubac (1896-1991) famously argued that “the Eucharist makes the Church and the Church makes the Eucharist.” Traditionally, at least, a similar reciprocity has operated within our families, whose members find such value in “breaking of bread” together that they end up perpetuating this action in various forms throughout their lives. At both the “table of the Church” and the “table of the home,” each of us enjoys a name and a place, each a true sense of kinship with those gathered there. Our baptisms make this so. The great hyphen-of-a-thing at which we gather leaves us hyphenated, bound to each other in spirit and love, and occupants in the end not of two households but one.
1 In his Dining in the Kingdom of God: The Origins of the Eucharist According to the Gospel of Luke (Liturgy Training Publications, 1994) Father LaVerdiere systematically examined the collection of meal stories from Luke in which Jesus is presented either as guest or host, all of which in some way point to the heavenly banquet we call “Eucharist.” Such stories are pertinent to the Christians even today, LaVerdiere argued, who constitute “a people on a journey, a people of hospitality, both offered and received” (9).
2 As I’ve noted previously in the pages of Emmanuel, however, the professional goals my children have adopted suggest that they benefitted in less obvious ways from the sacramentality and concern for meal symbolism that characterized the home in which they were raised. See Michael E. DeSanctis. “My ‘Death Metal’ Kids: Closet Sacramentalists.” Emmanuel, March/April 2018, pp. 72-77.
3 See the pope’s Mass homily at Casa Santa Marta Chapel, December 21, 2017 (https://www.ncronline.org/news/vatican/francis-chronicles/pope-redeemed-christians-are-joyful-dont-have-funeral-wake-faces).
4 Mass homily at Casa Santa Marta Chapel, May 10, 2013 (https://www.catholicnewsagency.com/news/pope-sad-christian-faces-are-like-pickled-peppers).