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Eating together can be a holy event. Sharing a meal can nurture body and soul alike. Hearts are healed. Fractured relationships are mended. Bonds of affection are created. The diners come to belong to something greater than themselves: to each other.

That’s one of the things I suspect that Norman Rockwell was getting at with his classic Saturday Evening Post illustration called “Freedom from Want.” (March 6, 1943) It’s sometimes called “The Thanksgiving Picture” or “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”

A large, multi-generation family leans forward over a tastefully set formal dinner table. The kindly, aproned matriarch is placing an enormous, sumptuously browned turkey in front of a beaming patriarch. Everyone is smiling and turning to each other in uncontainable delight in each others’ company.

Everybody belongs. Everybody is glad to see everybody else.

Some family gatherings probably feel like that. But I suspect that even Rockwell knew that he was reaching for a visual depiction of an ideal.

Plenty of dinners, especially big family gatherings at the holidays, don’t resemble Rockwell’s vision. An honest portrait would show us something like this.

There’s a squirming toddler slinging yellow-green mush on the table cloth. A sullen teenager wordlessly conveys her contempt for everybody in the room. The cook conceals neither her exhaustion from hours of work nor her frustration that she has prepared this feast without help yet again.

Adult siblings express old resentments with jabs thinly disguised as jokes. Every face is tight with the strain of avoiding off-limits topics. The one person newly in therapy keeps sharing her observations about the family’s dysfunction.

And Uncle Joe has passed out in his mashed potatoes. Just like last year.

feasting-peasants-in-a-tavern.jpg!Large

Adriaen van Ostade’s “Feasting Peasants in a Tavern”

Jesus is a big fan of dinner parties. And if I had to guess, I would say that his parties looked a lot more like the family scene I described than Rockwell’s glowing depiction of family harmony.

Jesus throws dinner parties all the time. And he invites all sorts of people. Street walkers and tax collectors, Wall Street wizards and sanitation workers, addicts and tee-totalers show up. They arrive in ragged castoffs, yoga pants, and designer nightgowns. Some know what fork to use. Others grab the nearest spoon or just eat with their fingers.

When Jesus is the host, every supper is a holy meal.

In Luke’s Gospel, we hear about a dinner party at which Jesus was the guest. Not the host. And Jesus is quick to point out how far from holy this kind of gathering is. (Luke 14:1, 7-14)

A chief Pharisee has issued Jesus an invitation. A few more Pharisees and a bunch of lawyers fill out the guest list. None of them like Jesus. In fact, the host has designed the gathering as a trap for him.

Jesus realizes that the Pharisees and the lawyers consider themselves holy. And from the perspective of what they call holy, they probably are. They are scrupulously moral and rigidly observant in their worship. Holiness is, in their view, an accomplishment. They’ve achieved status with God and in the religious establishment.

The problem is that holiness is not about how consistently we follow the moral rules, how regularly we attend worship services, or how fervently we say our personal prayers. We can’t make ourselves holy. God makes us holy by showing up in our lives. God’s presence sort of rubs off on us or shines through us.

And God shows up in messy, disreputable, unlikely places. As Rebecca Wells’ title suggests, if we marked every place that God showed up there would be little altars everywhere.

That’s why Jesus tells them that all who exalt themselves will be humbled and that the humble will be exalted. You’re in for a big letdown if you think you can make God owe you one.

But there’s something else. Once you start thinking of holiness as an achievement, you can start thinking of yourself as better than somebody else. If my moral rectitude gives me status with God, then somebody else must be on the outs with God. When holiness gives me status, somebody’s going to be an outcast.

Jesus doesn’t make outcasts. Of anybody. Ever. Ditch the invitation lists. Everybody’s invited. Nobody’s invited because they’re especially holy. Nobody’s excluded because they’re not holy enough. Everybody is invited precisely because Jesus is holy. Holy enough to sanctify every dinner and every guest.

Every meal that Jesus shared—even that wretched dinner with people who despised him—pointed ahead to the Last Supper and ultimately the Eucharist.

Look up and down the altar rail as you receive communion. Let it sink in that each and every person there has come at Jesus’ invitation. He wants them there. The big and the small. The conservative and the progressive. The black and the white. The gay and the straight. The rich and the poor.

The wonder and the mystery of the Holy Eucharist is that Jesus forms all who gather—in their awkward differences and painful wariness—into one community. One Body. The Body of Christ.

The Holy Eucharist is the meal that makes us who we truly are. Eating this meal together is a holy event.

Sharing the Eucharist nurtures body and soul alike. Hearts are healed. Fractured relationships are mended. Bonds of affection are created. The diners come to belong to something greater than themselves: to each other in and through the Holy One.

Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Western Louisiana, husband, dad, and movie-goer

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