The first instalment of a new Advent series offering a biblical theology of food and eating

Come, everyone who thirsts, 

come to the waters;

and he who has no money, 

come, buy and eat,

Come, buy wine and milk 

without money and without price.

Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, 

and your labour for that which does not satisfy?

Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, 

and delight yourselves in rich food.

(Isaiah chapter 55, verses 1 and 3, The Bible)

Meals and the Christian Faith

The Bible begins and ends with meals. The first words of God to humans are an invitation to eat; the first conflict in the Bible is over a forbidden meal; the last act of Jesus before his death is to share a meaning-laden feast with his disciples; and the final vision of the new world is of a massive, joyful banquet.

No figure in the Bible is more associated with food that its central character, Jesus. His first miracle was in response to a catering crisis at a wedding. (The couple had run out of wine. Jesus’ response was to turn four hundred and fifty litres of water into the best wine the guests had ever tasted.)

The Bible begins and ends with meals … No figure in the Bible is more associated with food that its central character, Jesus.

Right through his life, Jesus seemed to spend a disproportionate amount of time at dinner parties—winning for him a bad reputation as a drunkard, glutton, and friend of the wrong sort of people. The first two charges were false (though Jesus seems not to have lost much sleep trying to, as we say, “take control of the narrative”). On the third accusation (friendship withthe wrong sort of people) he was guilty as charged. Gloriously, unapologetically, red-handedly guilty. He did it on purpose—the reasons for which will, I trust, be clear by the end of this series.

Advent and Feasts

Over the next four weeks, many of us will be eating more than usual. We’ll be attending parties. Going to functions. Gathering with families. And we’ll experience, perhaps more than at any other time in the year, the way in which feasts and food focus the full range of human experience: joy and fellowship, awkwardness and conflict, hope and longing, loneliness and sorrow, fullness and regret. We’ll have time to reflect on our complicated relationship with food. The joyful anticipation of food. The miracle of appetites that are never (contrary to parental instruction) “ruined”, but always return to draw us again to the table. Our delight in eating, and in eating with others. The reminder that food is contingent—on soil, farmers, the seasons, and the weather. We might experience of regret—guilt over how much we have consumed personally. We might feel anger at how access to food is so unevenly distributed around the world. And we might have a sense of alienation as we notice our (very modern) ignorance about how the food we consumed made its journey to our plates.

Food and eating raise fundamental questions of what it means to be human. Eating is an activity we so obviously share with other animals, and yet it is simultaneously the point at which we differentiate ourselves from them.

Consider our elaborate table manners and dining aesthetics, our etiquette and decorum; our desire to wait for one another and submit our animal instincts to the higher goods of conviviality, sociability and culture.[1] Consider our insults. We must never “wolf down” our food. We shouldn’t eat “like pigs”. We tell children not to be “like animals” at the table. At the very point where we do what animals do, we defensively assert how different we are from them.

Here is the mystery: Every shared meal is simultaneously an acknowledgement of our animal nature, and our quiet rebellion against it. Every feast is both earthly and angelic. Every dinner party is both creaturely and divine. All our feasting poses Halmet’s question again: “What a piece of work is a man, how noble in reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving how express and admirable, in action how like an angel, in apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world, the paragon of animals—and yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

Content … Culinary … Community

Over the next four articles, I think we can give a faithful and compelling account of the Bible’s message by exploring what the Bible says about food and feasting. We are going to eat our way through the Bible.

Now, the Christian faith has content, a message. It makes propositions one can affirm or deny, such as “God created the world” or “Jesus is rose from the dead”. Christianity is not just “the vibe”; it does not just vaguely gesticulate toward some woolly concepts. It has a definite content which can in good faith be explored, assessed, accepted, or rejected.

Occasionally people have come to the conclusion that Christianity is true, entirely on the basis of an encounter with its truth-claims, and quite aside from a Christian community or compelling personality. The prisoner listening to a Christian podcast, the business traveller reading a Gideon’s Bible in their hotel room, the curious teenager on a YouTube binge. It does happen.

But not often. If truth be told, most people who become Christians tell you about the person who first shared the message with them, the family whose nurture also nurtured their faith, or the community in which they first encountered it.

Occasionally people have come to the conclusion that Christianity entirely on the basis of its truth-claims … But not often. Most Christians can tell you about the person who first shared the message with them, the family that nurtured their faith, or the community in which they first encountered it.

And (to a surprising degree), people can often recall the shared meals that provided the context in which they came to faith. Christian families traditionally read Scripture and pray in the context of a meal. Critics of the early Christian movement puzzled over exactly what was going on in these Christians meals of “the body and blood of Christ”. St Augustine’s conversion to Christianity was caught up with guilt over stolen fruit. C. S. Lewis’s conversion from atheism to faith was hammered out over pints of ale and pork pies in the pubs of Oxford.

Perhaps this shouldn’t surprise us. Jesus did much of his teaching as a dinner party guest. On at least three occasions, he turned into host and caterer, providing miraculous quantities of wine, fish, and bread. After his resurrection, he cooked a breakfast of fish over hot coals for his disciples. At another post-resurrection incident, his friends only clicked as to who he was when he broke bread and shared it with them at table. And Jesus invited his followers to continue to eat a meal “in memory of him”. Christianity’s founder, it seems, believed in the power of shared meals.

Next article: The feast of forbidden fruit.

[1] We also share the digestive process with the animals, but our differentiation strategy here is opposite. Digestion processes are shrouded in privacy, secrecy, embarrassment, and euphemism. With eating, it’s the opposite: Sociability, sharing, celebration, and elaboration.