By Manuel Luz

One of the things I look forward to every year is our family holiday meals: Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter.

Turkey, gravy, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce—all I have to do is think about it and close my eyes, and I smell my mother-in-law’s gravy.

What makes the family holiday meal so special? More than just food. There are a number of elements that we literally bring to the table. We gather as a family—immediate and extended, young and old, rich and poor, normal and not-so-normal—and in our diversity we share invisible bonds of fellowship. We’re related by blood, so no one is left out.

We acknowledge the artistry of the event—the beautiful table setting, the delicious aromas wafting from the kitchen, the festive decorations, and the Christmas music playing in the background. In this atmosphere, there’s an anticipation that something very special and meaningful is happening.

As we sit around, we share family stories, good and bad, funny and poignant: that hilarious incident that happened to Uncle Joe, the time Aunt Jane burned the turkey, the year Brother Ron was serving overseas and couldn’t make it, the births and graduations and other milestones of the clan. Some of these stories are told and retold every Thanksgiving and Christmas and Easter, but no one minds, because we love hearing them. They are the story of us.

When the turkey is presented, we ooh and ahh at the amazing culinary miracle that Mom pulls off every year. Cooking is one of Mom’s love languages. And the bigger the turkey, the more the love.

As we share in the meal, partake of the good company, take turns doing the dishes or clearing the table, maybe even watch the holiday football game, there’s an overarching knowing that this day is one of many that have come before and one of many that will come after. We’re fully immersed in the traditions that give our family meaning and significance.

One thing we don’t do is complain about the meal. We realize that we’re not at a restaurant; we’re not there to be waited on; we’re not there to critique the food. In fact, it’s the opposite. Everyone chips in, serving one another with glad hearts. We’re grateful to be a part of this joyous gathering with people we love and who love us. So we form a circle, look one another in the eyes, hold hands, give thanks, and remember our good and great God.

It’s my opinion that the holiday meal is a great metaphor for what we should endeavor to accomplish in our worship services each Sunday morning. Through our gathering, our stories, our shared traditions, our artistry, and our love for one another, we embody what it is to be the church in worship. These necessary elements actually have a deeper theology of worship that determines their importance, and an understanding of this theology will enrich our worship experience. While no metaphor is perfect, I think the holiday meal helps us paint a picture of what worship can be.

Worship is intended to be something we bring ourselves to and participate in, not something done to us or for us. We bring ourselves into the presence of God. We bring our stories of redemption and enfold them into the larger story of God. We bring ourselves into imperfect and wonderful relationships with the people of God. We enter into the eternal dialogue. And the church demands more than just attendance. The church is, in the best way possible, an opportunity to lose ourselves in the greater identity of the bride communing with the groom.

Liturgies are all around us, and they shape us in good and bad ways. Just as there is a type of liturgy to the family traditions that make up our holiday meals, so there is a liturgy to the worship service, and this forms our souls. When the church gathers, there is more going on than we know.

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