"I must have gained 15 pounds at church holiday parties last year. Why does almost every church event revolve around food?"
I can relate to our writer's comments about the holiday festivities and the sheer amounts of food involved with church events. And it is true, it seems nearly everything the Church does includes food: fellowship suppers, potlucks/covered dishes, fund-raisers, and even worship. Worship? In many churches, including my own, communion is served at every worship service, and some churches are serving refreshments before, after, and even during worship.
So, why the emphasis on food? To understand the apparent preoccupation with meals we have to turn our thoughts back to the ancient Hebrew customs of hospitality.
Hospitality was critical to the people of ancient Israel because it was a matter of survival. In the early days, when Israel was little more than a wandering band, traveling was done only on an as-needed basis. Because there were no hotels, motels, restaurants, or inns, travelers had to count on the hospitality of fellow Israelites for lodging and board. When a guest "dropped in" it was expected that the host would provide lodging, protection, food and drink for the visitor and his family, servants, and animals. Scriptural examples abound that demonstrate this hospitality, with Abraham as the model-host in Genesis 18. Indeed, the expectation of hospitality became such a traditional response that in the New Testament Jesus said, "If anyone will not welcome you or listen to your words, shake the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town. Truly I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah on the day of judgment than for that town" (Matthew 10.14-15).
The expectation of hospitality, however, was determined largely by one's social class. Socially, gracious hospitality was accorded to those who had some measure of parity with the host. Thus, the rich stayed with the rich, while travelling beggars were afforded only the barest of accommodations if they sought hospitality from the wealthy. On the other hand, a poor traveler who stopped at another poor person's home could expect the best that could be offered.
Jesus, however, turned all that on its head. Although he was not from a wealthy home, his family seems to have been from the artisan's class which was at least a step up from the working poor. However, perhaps because of his intellectual prowess, because he studied the scriptures diligently, or both, Jesus was elevated to rabbi status and his words drew a number of students-called disciples. As a rabbi, Jesus was able to hobnob with the upper class and he shared any number of meals with them. By Jesus' day, the sharing of a meal was not only a sign of hospitality, but a mark of acceptance and parity by the host. So when Jesus choose to eat with such riff-raff as tax collectors (considered national traitors), the poor, sinners (those who didn't keep the letter of the religious laws), and in the company of women, he signified there was a measure of equality across the classes. Indeed, it demonstrated for all to see that Jesus was willing not only to extend hospitality to all, but that he extended acceptance, equality, and friendship across the wide spectrum of classes and peoples.
The significance of sharing a meal with others is still a key to understanding Middle Eastern events today. Though the media has shown the Prime Minister of Israel and the leader of Palestine shaking hands, signs of friendship and acceptance in the Western world, notice the two haven't sat down to break bread together. Clearly parity and acceptance hasn't been extended between the two individuals and their nations as yet.
And so, it is precisely because meals have been the primary symbol of hospitality and acceptance that the Church has incorporated them into nearly all it does. The sharing of meals and refreshments between each other symbolize and remind us that we are all equals in God's eyes. Indeed, it for this very reason that communion is so important to the Church. There, at the communion table, all are invited and everyone comes as a child of God, accepted and befriended by the one who ate with the wealthy, the poor, the outcast, and the sinner.