Trouble at the table

Family dinners. When I was a kid, Dad worked, and Mom stayed at home. The dinner ritual was consistent and predictable. Mom did the cooking; Dad would come home and wash up; the kids would set the table. Then we would all sit down to eat together. Mostly, we listened to Dad tell stories about his day at work. Then the kids would clean up afterward, and everyone would disperse to their separate rooms.

Today, however, it seems that families are spending less and less time eating together. Some social scientists point to evidence that children who regularly eat with their families experience important benefits, such as better health habits, a lower incidence of depression, and so on. Others argue that it’s unclear how much such benefits are actually due to sharing meals, as opposed to something else about families who happen to eat together.

But none of this precludes the fact that mealtimes can be tense, less-than-joyous occasions. That’s part of family life, too.

cup+and+bread+on+blackI was reminded of this recently when reflecting on the ritual of the Lord’s Supper. Often, when the words of invocation are given, congregants are asked to meditate on the sacrifice of Jesus represented in the bread and cup. It’s a time for each of us to remember what the Lord has done on our behalf, and to be grateful for the gift of life through his death.

But I think too of the context in which the words of institution were given. It’s Jesus’ last meal with the Twelve. He knows what will happen later that evening, and though he’s tried to tell his disciples, they haven’t understood. Even in the context of the startling prediction that one of them would betray him, they fall to arguing about which of them will be the greatest.

The atmosphere is confused and tense, and it’s time for Jesus to say goodbye. Here: watch, listen. After I’m gone, I want you to do this in remembrance of me. They’re attentive. But they don’t get it.

When the apostle Paul recites the words of institution, he does so to chastise a fractured church for the way they’re making a mockery of the Supper. They’re dishonoring the Lord in whose memory the ritual was to be done. This is because the poorer members of the congregation are being slighted by the rich — and the habits of social class are so deeply ingrained that the rich may not even be aware that they’re doing it.

Problems, problems: anxiety, confusion, broken relationships. We eat together, not to forget the problems that surround us, but to remember Jesus in the midst of them.

And it’s not just about remembering that “Jesus died for me.” To celebrate the Lord’s Supper is an act of memory in the service of courage and hope. Where once there was death, now there is life.

We come to the Table as family. We carry the pain of our past, and may be troubled by the present and uncertain about the future. But we come to the Table to remember, and in remembering, to imagine — to imagine what form resurrection might take today, tomorrow, next year, or for all eternity.

Come. Remember. Imagine. And live.