By Kendall Vanderslice
We are heading into a strange holiday season. For many people, the stretch of time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s consists of a wild rush of church events, extended family dinners, and holiday parties. Though busy and commercialized, this season is nevertheless a beneficial means by which we mark the rhythms of the calendar. The songs, movies, and decorations take on particular heft this year, offering hope in a time so marred by despair.
The events of 2020 have unveiled many needs within the Church and broader culture. This year has unveiled the need for slowing down our daily rhythms, for valuing the common good, for practicing lament and advocating for justice, and for contending with death and with unknown futures in nuanced ways. Perhaps most importantly, it has unveiled the human need to exist in community, and it has unveiled the grief that ensues when we cannot be together in body with those we love. It has been an apocalyptic year, which is to say, a year of unveiling truths about the world—both its need for God’s intervention and the reality of God’s activity within creation.
Each year the global Church commits four weeks in November and December to meditating on the strangeness of time, of what is already and what is not yet—celebrating that Christ has already come and looking ahead to Christ’s return. This season of Advent and celebration of Christmas brings into focus the tensions of an apocalyptic understanding of the world. As we consider the shifts in health and habits this winter will bring, we need a creative approach to mark this time.
Although overwhelming, the peculiarity of this year offers an opportunity to participate in “traditioned” innovation. With the hunger for community and a taste of normalcy felt among us all, perhaps our creativity ought to begin at the table.
It’s easy to romanticize the dinner table as a space where relationships are deepened, enemies become friends, and tensions cease in the presence of food. However, I’ve yet to meet the family whose Thanksgiving looks anything like the Norman Rockwell depiction. As a single adult living 700 miles away from my closest family member, my Thanksgivings typically include a mix of fellow singles, pastors, and international students—folks brought together by our inability to travel and celebrate with kin. Table conversation is typically awkward and the food an amalgamation of many different traditions. On the occasion I do spend the holiday with my immediate family, our laughter is interspersed with heated discussions of opposing political and theological views.
Although these meals may not create as idyllic a scene as Rockwell’s, they demonstrate the more honest nature of the table. In the intimacy of shared dishes, the awkwardness of new relationships, and the tension of disagreement, we experience both the messiness and the joy of community.
Jesus understood this reality throughout his ministry on earth: Dining with the most marginalized members of society. Turning water into fine wine even when partygoers couldn’t taste the difference anymore. Extending forgiveness to Peter in an offering of fish. Revealing himself on the path to Emmaus in the breaking of bread. Serving the very man he knew would turn from the table to betray him. Jesus shirked the social expectations of an ideal meal in favor of a table that builds unexpected relationships, nuancing definitions of familial love.
From the writings of the theologian Tertullian, as well as the book of Acts, we know that the early church met primarily in homes and around tables. Eating together was central to their gatherings in response to Christ’s command to eat and drink in his memory. In turn, this method of gathering challenged social norms—class divisions were upended and Christians cared for one another as family. Their very method of worship addressed communal needs, shaping the Church into a glimpse of the coming kingdom of God.
This method of gathering fell out of favor as the Church grew. The rapid spread of Christianity brought with it a need for formalized liturgy and theology, but this led to a loss of intimacy, too. While eating has long been a habit of church life, most Christians overlook the connection between these times of community formation and the sharing of Communion. This division between worship and community weakens our understanding of Jesus’ reliance on meals and limits our creativity in moments that necessitate innovation.
When celebrated regularly, the Eucharist is an ongoing reminder to the church of Advental realities: that creation is not as it’s meant to be and yet God is at work making all things new. This meal offers a tangible foretaste of the new creation, filling our spiritual hunger while teaching us to hunger for something more.
In this time of social distancing and political upheaval, we sense our hunger for both Communion and community formation in a unique way. For some, this time has entailed a fast from the sacrament. For others, the peculiarity of worship has heightened community awareness that creation is not as it’s meant to be. In our hunger for God’s fulfillment of the promise to make all things new, it’s time we turn once again to the wisdom of the early church—eating together in unexpected ways as a method of worship.
Rethinking the Community of God
In the early days of quarantine, I enjoyed the rhythms of working from home. For the first time in my adult life, I had a companion for every meal. In order to strategize our limited outings, my housemate and I created meal plans, took turns cooking, and sat down each lunch and dinner to eat. But like so many others, whether living with family or friends, the strain of social isolation soon took its toll. We were created for community, to worship with the full family of God, and yet we could not dine with anyone but each other. These months revealed, both in our house and to families across the globe, that our vision of community must extend beyond the walls of any individual home.
As we enter the coming liturgical season, when colder weather will require many of us to limit social interactions and remain indoors, we must stretch our imagination of how to cultivate the community of God. By remembering Jesus’ regular reliance on meals, and clinging to the Advental promises woven into Eucharist, our innovation ought to begin at the table.
When we consider who is missing at the physical or virtual tables at which we dine, we learn to live in care for the greater family of which we are a part. Perhaps, for some, this will look like committing to isolation with a small pod of households—families, singles, international students unable to travel home. This practice might require sacrifice in order to ensure the safety of all involved, as well as corporate assurance that all are cared for and loved.
For others, it might mean gathering as a church body to feast over Zoom, sharing in a virtual rendition of the Agape meal. Eating dinner in front of a camera is vulnerable and strange, but shirking expectations of an ideal meal just might be the best means for meeting communal needs.
In these ways, our very methods of eating shape us a bit more fully into a glimpse of the kingdom of God.
These holidays will undoubtedly be strange. In some ways, the events of 2020 prime us for a faithful and somber Advent: we are so aware of the need for Christ to come again. While we will miss the traditions that prepare us to celebrate the incarnation, we can glean from the realities this season will unveil.
Perhaps, if we commit ourselves to strange methods of innovation, this apocalyptic season will help us reimagine the flourishing of our communities on the other side.