6 min read

The meaning of meals

Matthew is the author of five books including the New York Times bestseller Life Worth Living: A Guide to What Matters Most (with Miroslav Volf and Ryan McAnnally-Linz). He is an Associate Research Scholar and the Director of the Life Worth Living program at the Yale Center for Faith & Culture.

Food is the nexus of relationships. Matthew Croasmun notes that food, and all created things, are most themselves when they are more than merely themselves.
Around a table, against a backdrop of fret-cut wood, three people talk and listen to each other with great interest.
Inside Lina Ghotmeh's À table pavilion at the Serpentine Gallery.
Serpentine Gallery.

This summer’s Serpentine Pavilion in Hyde Park, À table, designed by Lebanese architect Lina Ghotmeh, invites us “to the table.” The extraordinary, long tables ringing the pavilion invite us to a meal and to conversation. To connect with one another and with the Earth that sustains our lives.  

Ghotmeh’s invitation is an important one, if we have ears to hear. Through seeing what meals are, what they ought to be, and what they invite us to imagine, we discover what we are and what we ought to hope for.  

Meals help us understand what we are. We can sometimes rush past questions about our materiality. Attending to meals won’t allow us to do that. Food, after all, is fundamental to life. We are what we eat and drink.  

Early in the biblical stories of the life of Jesus, Jesus is confronted with this fact of human life. Hungry after forty days of fasting in the desert, Satan suggests Jesus miraculously produce some food for himself out of the rocks at hand. His response, a quotation from Hebrew scripture, “the human does not live by bread alone,” might at first seem like a hyper-spiritual attempt to deny our bodily dependence on food.  But I take it that Jesus isn’t proposing that the human live without bread. He’s asking us to take a closer look at bread to see that it is more than merely bread. What he invites us to see will yet affirm that we are profoundly interdependent within the natural world of which we are a part. Our hunger and the food that satisfies it is one of the most visceral reminders of just this fact. 

To desire a good meal is to seek to attend to the many relationships at our tables and to pursue nourishing mutuality.

Food, however, is more than merely food. Food is a nexus of relationship. The rest of the verse Jesus cites goes on to insist that food comes by the “word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.” Even as we live by bread, we live by Divine words, because the bread we eat—the bread we are—comes to us as a Divine gift. In the biblical imagination, everything comes from God. In the beginning, God spoke and there was. That’s true of the wheat and rye and barley or whatever else we use to make our bread, and it is true also of the human cultures and traditions through which these natural goods come to be bread.  

Bread is more than merely bread; it is a Divine gift. In fact, it turns out, that every good thing is like bread in this way: created things are most themselves when they are more than merely themselves. This is just the sort of thing the creation is. It is an interrelated, connected whole, marked by relationship within and without. Created things are most themselves in right relationship to one another and to the God who created them. As a created good, food is more than just food. 

And, of course, meals are more than just food. Meals are sites of relationship. Particularly in our globalized world, our simple tables often conspire to hide fantastically complex networks of relationship implicated upon them. These networks interweave relationships among people and places—seen and unseen.  

The people implicated at our table include those around the table; those who foraged for, grew, transported, and prepared the food; those whose cultures for generations cultivated the plants, animals, fungi, dairy products and all the rest that find their places on our table; those whose histories and cultures gave rise—through creativity, necessity, or both—to the cuisines that weave together these natural and cultivated elements; and those absent from our tables who yet hunger for food. The places implicated include the fields and wilds and rivers and seas whence the food itself comes; the lands whence the cuisines and cultures hail; and the places we occupy as we share the table.  

So, meals are more than just food. But then, meals most worthy of the name are more than just meals. Meals are not just sites of any old relationship. At their best, they are sites of nourishing mutual encounter between people, places, and the God who created them all. To desire a good meal is to seek to attend to the many relationships at our tables and to pursue nourishing mutuality. To seek the good of the wilds and streams from which our food has come—to seek a way of relating to these places such that those relationships are mutually nourishing. To seek the good of the people seen and unseen but nevertheless “present” inasmuch as they are implicated at our tables.  

In days like ours, our tables are sites of mutual encounter, but the encounter is not nourishing to all involved.

At times, a good meal in this broken world will take the form of fasting in solidarity with or materially for the sake of those who hunger for what we so readily waste. In attending to our interrelatedness with the people and the places God has created, we begin to understand what it is also to attend to our relatedness to God at the table. Each of us—human, plant, animal, field, river, sea—we become most what we are when we become more than just ourselves. We become most ourselves when we attend to our relatedness to one another, when we attend to the God who created us for mutual flourishing.  

It is in these complex webs of interrelationship that what we are begins to suggest to us who we are: we are sharers of God’s home, members of God’s family, citizens, as Jesus put it, of God’s kingdom. The Kingdom of God is just this: all things flourishing in right relationship with one another and with God their creator. One of Jesus’s favorite metaphors for the Kingdom was that of a heavenly banquet. Seated at God’s table, our citizenship, our kinship, our mutual interdependence is plain. 

And yet we are not all flourishing. When I visited last year’s Serpentine Pavilion, Hyde Park was bleached from drought and heat. The would-be lawns felt like deserted wastelands; it was disorienting. Such sights testify to our profound interrelatedness, though against our flourishing. On the Black Sea, wheat that may never become bread, because it is trapped by war offers an analogous testimony. Our lives are deeply intertwined; just so, we are not flourishing. In days like ours, our tables are sites of mutual encounter, but the encounter is not nourishing to all involved. 

If all Jesus offered were a vision of the table as it could be—as it should be—our reflection would have to end here. “Look at what our meals might be,” we might say. “Let us make them so! Let us build the Kingdom of God.” War and climate catastrophe, beware! 

But Jesus never instructed his followers to build the Kingdom. Rather, he invited them to receive it, and in so doing, participate in its coming. 

One of Jesus’ most common ways of inviting people to receive the Kingdom was by inviting them to a meal. These were meals in all our ordinary senses. They were sites of relationship. Particularly as Luke, one of the four gospel writers, tells it, Jesus was constantly offering advice about who to invite to the table. He warned about which absences revealed life-denying alienation. He convened and commended gatherings of rich and poor, religious and irreligious, nevertheless gathered for nourishing mutual encounter.  

These meals are not only revolutionary social projects (though they were and can still be exactly that). In the ministry of Jesus, meals become announcements and enactments of the Kingdom of God. Meals become invitations to and demonstrations of the ultimate Home that God is making for God and God’s creation to flourish together. It is this Home that Jesus invites us to inhabit with him. When we share meals that are more than mere meals, when we allow God to transform our relationships with one another and within the natural world, our meals, too, can become sites of God’s transforming presence—the Home of God coming to be among mortals.  

So, when we come to the table—whether Ghotmeh’s table or the table in our homes—let’s be aware of the opportunity presented to us. At the table, we are invited to know bread that is more than mere bread, even as we are more than merely ourselves. At the table, we are invited into mutually nourishing encounter with one another, within the natural world, and with the God who created it all. At the table, we are invited to be at home with one another in the presence of God in whom all things are finding their Home. 

7 min read

Red radical: the tales behind the Santa we see today

Graham is the Director of the Centre for Cultural Witness and a former Bishop of Kensington.

A determined, fiery, culture warrior lies behind the iconic image of Santa. Graham Tomlin unwraps a tale or two and find some serious theology.
A Lego Stanta figure strolls across a table holding a wrench
Artem Maltsev on Unsplash.

There is one figure in our cultural memory who pops up at this time of year without fail. It is the unmistakable figure of Santa. 

Santa Claus, AKA Father Christmas, Sinterklaas in Holland or Kris Kringle in the USA conjures up a definite image in the mind’s eye. The Santa of popular imagination with elves, red suit, bushy white beard flying in a sleigh towed by reindeer was shaped more by the famous Coca Cola adverts of the 1930s than anything else, and may seem to have very little connection with the birth of Christ. There are, however, strong connections between Santa and the Christian celebration of Christmas.  

Santa Claus is a linguistic development of St Nicholas, who was a real, fiery, determined Christian bishop of the early 4th century. Many of the stories about him date from later centuries, and some, no doubt, are legends developed to enhance his reputation. Yet he clearly made a deep impact on those who encountered him. On the principle that there's no smoke without fire, while some of it may be fiction, these stories may also contain a grain of truth.  

A group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home. 

Nicholas was born around 260 AD. His parents, or so the story goes, died of the plague while he was young, leaving him a reasonable fortune. The other thing we know about his youth was his profound and strong Christian faith. This shaped his mind from early years, and led him, like many young Christians at the time, to enter the demanding spiritual boot camp of the monastic life, and then in time to becoming the Bishop of Myra, a city in southern Turkey known today as Demre.  

Christianity at the time was deemed a dangerous religion, subversive of the unity of the Roman Empire and in 303 AD he was one of many Christian leaders imprisoned under the wave of persecution initiated by the emperor Diocletian. Not only did he survive the rigours of a brutal Roman jail, but he encouraged other Christian prisoners to stand firm, who, like him, emerged more determined than ever. He died around 335 AD and within a few hundred years had become one of the most celebrated saints of the mediaeval era, with numerous accounts of his life spreading around Europe.   

In the 10th century the Russian emperor Vladimir visited Turkey and was so impressed with the stories of St. Nicholas that he pronounced him the patron saint of Russia and he remains a hugely venerated figure in Russian Orthodoxy to this day. In 1087, when Myra had come under Islamic rule, a group of enterprising Italian sailors from Bari in southern Italy made a daring raid on the city, scooped up most of St Nicholas’ skeleton and carried it off home, where with great fanfare, a large basilica was erected around the resting place of the bones of St Nicholas – an attraction which enhanced the status of the city no end. It became a pilgrimage destination for numerous medieval Christians (which was what the sailors had in mind) and the edifice still stands on the very spot to this day.

He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. 

There are two stories of St Nicholas that get us closer to understanding why he became such a key figure in our Christmas celebrations.  

While he was still a young man, so we are told, he heard of a local family who were falling into poverty. A father who was badly in debt desperately needed money to pay off loan sharks, otherwise his only option (as happened in many families at the time) was sell his three daughters into slavery, or in some versions of the story, into prostitution. St Nicholas, aware of the teaching of Jesus that good deeds should be done in secret, resolved to do what he could to help. He wrapped up a bag of gold coins and secretly dropped them into the window of the house to the relief and delight of the poverty-stricken family. Nicholas performed this act of generosity three times for each of the three daughters, and on the third occasion threw the bag of gold coins so far into the room that it fell into a sock hanging over the fire to dry - hence stockings on Christmas Eve. On that occasion the father caught Nicholas as he tried to slip away, and thanked him profusely. Nicholas insisted he tell no one, which the man assured him he would not. Obviously, he didn't keep his promise. 

It is this kind of story that gives rise to the idea that Nicholas was a picture of radical generosity. Ever since then, depictions of St Nicholas are recognisable by his carrying three gold balls, representing the three bags of gold coins – and the same symbol found its way to hang outside many a pawnbrokers’ shop, after St Nicholas was adopted as their patron saint.  

The other story relates to the famous Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Although historians debate the question, there is some evidence Nicholas might have been present at this Council at which the Nicene Creed was written, the Creed that describes the heart of Christian faith for most Christian churches to this day. The Council centred around the controversial teaching of Arius, a priest from Alexandria who had taught that Jesus, although the best person who ever lived, the pinnacle of creation, was not in any significant sense divine, as the Council eventually discerned he was. The story goes that Nicholas was so incensed by the teaching of Arius that at one point he strode across the room in which the Council was taking place and struck him on the face. He was promptly sent home for stepping out of line, but it did his reputation as a hero of orthodoxy no harm at all. A heretic being punched by Santa Claus is an image to conjure with.  

The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous. 

So why did St Nicholas become a person of such radical generosity? Were these two stories, however apocryphal some of the details may be, strangely linked? 

At stake in the debates at Nicaea was the question of whether Jesus Christ was just an illustration, a good example of what human life can achieve, or whether his radical love and self-sacrifice was in fact an expression of the heart of God, the very heart of reality itself. That is the core insight at the heart of the Nicene Creed – that when we see Jesus, we see God. The compassion, courage, grace, generosity, the anger at evil of the world, the deep compassion for those who struggle with life that flows out of him at every moment – all this is not a brief moment of light in an essentially dark world, but is the very nature of reality itself. In other words, Jesus Christ represents God giving to the world, not just a gift, but giving Himself.  

That kind of belief seems to have animated the soul and the mind of Nicholas, and if you believe that generosity is what lies at the very heart of things, its not surprising if it starts to seep out into a life full of generosity. Alongside the gifts to the struggling family, Nicholas is said to have argued the emperor into a tax cut for the people of Myra, and secured extra shipping of grain for his people during famine. The stories of St Nicholas give us the impression of someone who does not just do generous acts, but who has become generous – it’s the difference between the lucky tennis player who plays a good shot every now and again, and the pro who plays that shot nine times out of ten. That is virtue – where a person is generous almost without thinking about it, because it has become second nature.  

There are, of course, differences between the Santa of popular memory and St Nicholas. It’s hard to imagine Santa punching anyone, whereas St Nicholas had the fierce, determined faith of the early church, a faith so compelling that it took over the entire Roman empire. Then again, Santa gives gifts to children who are good but not to those who have been bad. He is a moral arbiter who rewards those whose good deeds outweigh their bad ones. That is about as far removed from a Christian understanding of grace, as depicted in the stories of St Nicholas as possible. In Christianity, divine generosity is not a reward for goodness, but is the wellspring of it. The God that Nicholas learnt about from his earliest days gives first and asks questions later. Generosity inspires gratitude and generosity as a response. 

St Nicholas became associated with Christmas partly because his feast day, December 6th, was near to the annual feast, but also because of this theme of radical generosity. Christmas is the time when Christians recall God’s greatest gift – the gift of Christ given to people of dubious moral standing like us. Not because we deserved it but despite the fact that we didn’t. It’s why we give gifts at Christmas, not to win favours from others, but for the sheer joy of it. We give as an act of gratitude for we have been given, before we even asked for it – just like three helpless young women, and their desperate father, in need of help.  

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