At our house, we have struggled, as many families do, to sit down for a real family dinner. Various obligations make it hard to find time to cook, to set the table properly and to sit and talk without being pulled away to other obligations. But now, with our daily lives altered by the new coronavirus, all that has changed.
Within an hour of waking, the four children at our house are asking, “What’s for supper?” I write the menu on a board in the kitchen so that they can check for themselves. They come to the table eagerly, ready for a meal prepared with care and also for the interaction that the table offers.
In one of the unexpected gifts of this crisis, I have been reminded that cooking is something I really enjoy, a kind of therapy when I have time to do it at a relaxed pace. Even if grocery shopping has been a little complicated, I have been able to cook a variety of familiar meals and to try out some new recipes, as well. We light candles at every evening meal. We have begun to read a chapter of a Gospel together, in addition to saying our usual blessing.
In one of the unexpected gifts of this crisis, I have been reminded that cooking is something I really enjoy, a kind of therapy when I have time to do it at a relaxed pace.
All this feels especially important amid the coronavirus crisis, as this period of isolation lengthens and we move toward Holy Week. For many of us, it has already been powerfully disorienting to miss Sunday Mass. Who could have imagined that we would come to the Triduum and Easter itself with no public liturgies at all?
We do have a new tool in this modern plague: electronic forms of communication. We can watch Masses being broadcast, and we can pray together using videoconferencing technology, even if that does feel a little odd. Other, more venerable traditions also sit ready for us to pick up and dust off: the rosary, the Liturgy of the Hours, even acts of spiritual communion or, with God’s help, acts of perfect contrition.
But there is also something simpler and more basic than any of those, something that I am reminded of when we gather at our family table: the church’s practice of feasting. In recent generations of spiritual writing, many have called for a renewal of fasting, and that is no doubt a good thing. In our age of excess, especially in the United States, where many of us have more than we need, fasting can help to reorient us. Our habits of luxury and convenience, though, do not make us good at feasting. Sometimes, in fact, just the opposite is true.
What does it mean, after all, to feast? To eat our fill? Yes...but it is much more than that.
What does it mean, after all, to feast? To eat our fill? Yes, a feast usually involves generous amounts of food. But it is much more than that. Above all, we could say that it is to eat well. To feast is to prepare food with love and to eat it with gratitude. It is to bring out the costly ingredient we have been saving, to take time to make the well-loved dish and to eat slowly, with delight. To feast is to be fully present to this moment, to feed one another and to be fed.
And if we look carefully, the Christian feast is even more. A feast tells us our whole story again. A good God creates a good earth and fills it with food. Through generations, the Lord continues graciously to prepare a table. Jesus’ earthly ministry with his disciples concludes as he feasts with them. The most central Christian act of worship, our sacramental feast, recalls that shared meal. And our eschatological hope is described to us as a feast: the eschatological banquet.
Individual feast days allow us to remember the central realities of the faith: the Nativity, Epiphany, the Ascension, Pentecost and All Souls’ Day. The feast days of saints remind us of how that story continues to be lived in individual lives. When we declare someone to be a saint, what do we do? We promise to feast in his or her honor.
A feast is the moment at which we put aside all else: our work, our worries, our distractions.
A feast is the moment at which we put aside all else: our work, our worries, our distractions. In the goodness of the moment itself, a feast serves to ground us again in the deepest goods that shape our lives. In these dark days, especially, a renewed practice of feasting is a powerful way for us to do that.
We are in the season of Lent now, but Palm Sunday is almost here, and then Easter will arrive and the “great Lord’s Day” of Easter’s 50 days. It is clear that this Easter season will involve real challenges and real losses. There will be fear and upheaval. We may face illness. We may see our loved ones face illness. We find ourselves feasting with limited resources, with cranky children or at a table completely alone, separated from everyone with whom we would normally share such moments. We may find ourselves facing longer to-do lists than normal, as we try to balance concern for others and ourselves.
Even with these real troubles, though, we honor the tradition handed on to us and we nurture our own faith by eating well. To feast is not to fiddle while Rome burns. It is not an attempt to put a happy face on a tragedy. It is a return to the nourishment that lies at the heart of the Christian tradition.
Whatever circumstances the season brings, feasting is one way that we can celebrate this Easter well. Even if our tables look different than what we would prefer, we can prepare and eat our food with love. We can remember the tradition of deep goodness that sustains us. We can turn our hearts toward the most fundamental source of our hope: the resurrection and the coming kingdom. Even in the midst of our challenges, in the midst of all our worries, there is nothing more important than that.