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A litany of feasts

30 November, 1999

Paul Andrews SJ writes about parties and feasts as means of humanly relating. No wonder, he says, Jesus chose this as his way of showing what he was about both in his own life and now in the sacrament of the Eucharist.

The thing I admired most about Margaret was her delight in food. She became my relation through marriage when I was in my hungry teens – and those who were adolescents in the years of ‘the Emergency’ will remember just how hungry you could be.

Margaret managed to feed a hard-working husband and eight children; but if you called in to her house, she would always welcome you with something to eat, and sit down with you while you enjoyed it. She lived to her mid-nineties, and relished her meals right up to her death-bed. Perhaps it was that appetite and zest for nourishment that was the secret of her long life.

She had an extraordinary memory for meals, and loved to recall them, course by course, with a commentary that had you tasting as she had tasted. If you were writing her memoirs, you could shape them round the tables she had enjoyed. And, to some extent, that is what the gospels do with Jesus.

Theme of parties
You could eat your way through the gospels. The theme of parties runs all the way from the marriage feast of Cana, where Jesus sup­plied the wine, to the Last Supper, which he prepared carefully; and even after the Resurrection to the breakfast beside the lake which he cooked for his disciples after their night of fishing. Story after story revolves round a meal, both the stories of Jesus’ own life, and the stories which he told to explain his teaching.

This is not an accident. Eating together is one of the richest and most human of activities. The Greeks and Romans recognized this before Jesus. One of Plato’s greatest works is the Symposium, which means ‘drinking together while you talk’, or ‘talking while you drink together’. Later on, Cicero used a bit of Roman one-­up-manship on Plato. He wrote, ‘The Greek word for a meal is syndeipnon (which means eating together), or symposium. Our word is convivium (which means living together), because it is above all when we sit down together for a meal that our lives come closest to one another’.

Important gesture
This does not mean that all mealtimes are warm encounters of peace and goodwill. All human life is there. In the parable of the marriage feast, you sense how important it is to respond to an invitation: Jesus is talking about God’s invitation to the people of Israel. The friends who refuse the invitation and make excuses, are saying, ‘You do not count for much in my life’. In another parable, the man who would not dress properly to go to a wedding is also giving a message: ‘I couldn’t care less’.

The story of the prodigal son ends with a party to celebrate the boy’s return. The father is brimming over with joy, but the older brother burns with resent­ment and will not go in to join the party; he excommunicates himself. There is another instance of self-excommunication at the beginning of the Last Supper, when Judas walks out into the night.

Taking your place at a table is much more than just sitting down. It means that you want to be with these people, and feel at home there. Judas knew he had either to abandon his betrayal of Christ or abandon the party; so he left. 

It is striking that Jesus speaks both of the experience of those who throw a party and of those who are invited. Throwing a party can be a calculating, selfish business, a matter of inviting those who will invite you back or to whom you owe a debt. Or it can be a generous act, a case of goodness spreading itself, reach­ing out to those who may not be able to return the kindness.

Heartfelt hospitality
Those who invite guests can be warm and welcoming, or they can be correct and critical. For the Pharisees, washing before dinner was a ritual: the water was kept in a special jar, and each washing must use enough water to fill one and a half eggshells. It was poured over the hands, first from finger-tip to wrist, then in the reverse order. And so on. A custom that had started as hygienic had become a matter of regulation and sin. The Pharisees blamed Jesus for not going through this elaborate washing, and he recalled them to the real preparation for a party, which is that of the heart.

So the important preparation is not always in the kitchen. The best hostesses are not the fussiest, but the ones who are in touch with the feelings and needs of their guests. When Jesus was going up to Jerusalem, full of foreboding about the suffering that awaited him, he called in on his friends Martha and Mary. Martha fussed, anxious to do her best for her guest. Mary listened, realizing that Jesus needed com­pany more than food; and he blessed her thoughtfulness when Martha wanted to blame her.

Of course, throwing a party is also a form of service. Peter and the apostles would never forget the moment at the Last Supper when Jesus their host rose from the table, girded himself with a towel, and went round washing their smelly feet, reaching between the toes to clean out the dirt and unsightlinesses that we cover up with footwear. It was deliberately the gesture of a slave, one whose job it is to serve. Peter protested, and Jesus insisted: ‘If I do this for you, it is up to you to do it for one another’.

Jesus loved the closeness that comes from eating and drinking together. He fed multitudes in the desert, threw a party on the lakeshore for his friends, and was criticized for eating and drinking with sinners.

So it is not surprising that his most precious legacy was a sacrament in the form of a party, what the Church calls a sacrum convivium, a blessed banquet, namely the Eucharist. There is the ultimate fusing of Jesus’ life with ours. It has many overtones from the life of Jesus. Just as we could construct our own memoirs round the tables we have shared and the friends we have supped with, so we could learn much about the heart of Jesus by watching him at parties with his friends.

This article first appeared in The Messenger (November 2006), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.