Throughout the past thirty-one years of Thanksgivings that my wife and I have celebrated together, many of them have included college students, co-workers, and church members – all with no family in the area. On one particular Thanksgiving we had a young woman from India over to eat with us. She was a Hindu from the highest caste in Indian society. She looked like a real live Indian Barbie doll and carried herself like royalty. She had never observed Thanksgiving and been with an American family to celebrate it. It is always our tradition to go around the table during the meal and describe one thing we are thankful for in the past year. I purposely made sure she was the last one to share, and let her know that she was not obligated to do so. But she wanted to speak and said this: “I never knew that there could be love like this amongst a family. You see, in my culture we are always concerned about how we are displeasing one of our many gods and what we can do to appease them and solicit their help. Love is not something we think much about. I do have a question, if I might ask: Why do you eat this food, and why so much?” Yeah, good question! Why do we do that? And why do we do what we do at Christmas? Why do we hold to certain traditions and do particular things in the holiday season?
I said something to her like this: “The food reminds us that the God we serve is a good God who provides us not only with what we need, but graciously gives us beyond what we even ask or deserve. This is what we call “grace.” And the fellowship we share around the table reinforces the story of God – how we were once spiritually hungry – and God sent his Son, Jesus, to give us what we could gain for ourselves. He satisfied us with the spiritual food of forgiveness and freedom to become the people we were intended to be from the beginning. The food is symbolic and the celebration is a ritual that reinforces God’s grace to us in Christ.” She left that day with many questions and lots to think about.
God uses symbols to reveal himself to us. For example, when he wanted to show us the ugliness of sin and the cost of forgiveness, he told his people, the Israelites, to kill an animal and sprinkle its blood on their clothing and on the altar. It sounds awful. But no worshiper ever walked away from that experience scratching his head and wondering what in the heck it was all about. That’s because he encountered and tasted the drama of sin and redemption. His senses saw it, felt it, smelled it, and tasted the meat from it.
Symbols have power. God wants us to know him, and we cannot know him with only our minds. We are not just brains on a stick. We need more – we need ordinary events, like shared meals, that include symbols and rituals. We need both words and sacraments. That’s why holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas involve both verbal expressions of gratitude and love, and particular actions of love in giving gifts and sharing food. Together, it all connects us to God, to one another, and to a history of God’s people. Jesus met his disciples in the Upper Room to celebrate Passover together. Jesus energized their time together by filling it with words and symbols of love and redemption. Jesus did not just tell them about his upcoming death. He spoke and acted symbolically. “Take and eat – this is my body…. Take this cup – this is my blood – drink from it, all of you.” The disciples did not sit around and analyze the bread and discuss the wine’s vintage. They ate and drank. They tasted real food and drink, but they also tasted real spiritual food. It is one thing to speak of God’s presence, and it is another to experience that presence through an ordinary shared ritual of bread and cup.
The taste of bread reminds us of: the life of Jesus who humbled himself and became a baby; the incarnation of Christ; Christ’s humiliation and death. The taste of drinking the cup reminds us of: the blood of Christ; the sacrifice of Christ; the drops of blood which Jesus sweated in Gethsemane; and, the beatings, floggings, nails, and crown of thorns that resulted in Christ’s bleeding. Tasting the bread and cup when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper reminds us that: our sins are forgiven; we are united to Christ; and, we are united together. We are encouraged through word and sacrament to proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ until he comes again. Respond to God’s wooing invitation through his church to eat and drink, to taste and see that the Lord is good through repentance and faith in Jesus.