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Friday, October 28, 2011

They Knew Him in the Breaking of the Bread: Meals and Miracles

The Gospel stories present frequent accounts of Jesus’ miracles. A significant portion of the Gospels is devoted to telling of His miraculous cures: healing the sick, casting out demons, raising the dead. It is no accident that the Gospels place such emphasis on miracles. Those who have experienced them know that “sickness, possession, and death are three examples of God’s absence” (Statnick 2008).  In illness, evil, and death, we are acutely aware of our perception that God is not there. In contrast to our perceptions, Jesus’ miraculous works make a bold proclamation of God’s presence. Like the miracle accounts, a significant part of the Gospels recount Jesus sitting down to eat with his disciples, friends, and various members of the community. And like the miracles, Jesus’ participation at meals also serves as a proclamation of God’s presence, of God’s reign extending into our reality. By miracles and meals, Jesus makes God’s reign manifest. 

Miracles are an insight into what God’s kingdom looks like. In God’s kingdom, the people who are cured are the poor, the lowly, and the outcasts. Jesus’ healing is directed to people on the fringes of society, those whose sickness has driven them to the margins: lepers, hemorrhagics, the blind, and the lame. These are the people whom the strong, the successful, have pushed aside as human refuse. When these dispossessed see Christ, when they see their opportunity for healing, they do not hold back. Like the blind man along the road who called out to Jesus, they know that this Jesus is their only hope for health. They cry out, unashamed of their need for healing. But these miracles do not merely heal infirmity and disease or cast out evil and darkness. With each miracle, people are restored to their rightful place (Statnick 2008). Justice reigns: the leper returns to society, the hemorrhaging woman is made clean, and the blind and the lame may enter the temple. The miracles are an announcement of God’s reign being at hand. The kingdom of God is a kingdom of healing, of turning to God in faith, of sin and darkness being cast out and light and healing being brought in.

The implications of the miracles for us are powerfully direct. We too are to be about the work of healing, of casting out evil, and even of raising the dead. We heal through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy, by feeding and clothing and counseling and all that we do out of love for each other. We cast out evil when we confront sin in ourselves, in our communities, and in our nation. We cast out evil when we resolve, day by day, to confront sin, to call it for what it is, and to consign it to return from whence it came. We raise the dead when we bring life where there was none, when we bring hope, faith, and love to those who live in despair.

In contrast to the miracles, the Gospel accounts of His sitting down to eat present a very human side of Jesus. Yet for Him, meals are never merely a source of nutrition. They are a call to transformation and conversion. Jesus sits down to eat with whores and thieves as well as the rich and powerful. Jesus never declined an invitation to sit down to eat with anyone, regardless of their motives. His radical hospitality extends to all, is open to all, regardless of who or what they are. In his example we truly see a new kingdom where “God and man at table are sat down.” (Stamp 1972). The meals, like the miracles, are insights into what God’s kingdom looks like. But make no mistake. By sitting down at table with whores and thieves, Jesus was not merely displaying a high-minded tolerance. He was not engaging in a show of condescension. Jesus did not go slumming. Likewise, by sitting down to eat with scribes and Pharisees, Jesus did not intend to legitimize these people or their rule. Rather, every meal with them ended in a confrontation and a call to repentance. That Jesus would sit down with us to eat is then at once a sign of hope and a call to conversion. We find our hope in His desire to be with us, despite our fallen state, and we find our conversion in knowing how far we have yet to go to be in God’s kingdom. This hope and conversion are how we come to recognize Christ Himself and Christ in each other:

“Meals are so important. The Disciples knew Christ in the breaking of the bread. We know Christ in each other in the breaking of the bread. It is the closest we can ever come to each other, sitting down and eating together. It is unbelievably, poignantly intimate.” (Day 2002)

In this intimate union with God, we find ourselves gathered around a table, eating, talking, arguing, and listening. In partaking in this intimate act with us, Jesus poses to us the question: is this how we live with each other? Is this how we reach out to each other, in our poverty and sinfulness? Do we welcome each other, the poor and the sinful, as desired guests at our tables and our lives? Are we living the kingdom?

The miracle and meal accounts in the Gospels are remarkable for what they do not tell us. After the miracles, we do not know what became of the healed. We do not know what was served at the meals or who supplied the food. We do not know what happened to many of the people who met Jesus. What we do know is a moment in time, captured, when God and man come face to face, together, not as Lord and slave, but as friends. Through the miracles and the meals, people come to deeper spiritual insight. The blind see themselves as they truly are, the hungry receive true bread for the soul, and the rich and powerful have their own famine exposed. What happens next is up to us.

Day, Dorothy. Dorothy Day: Writings from Commonweal. New York: Commonweal, 2002.

Hill, Brennan R. Jesus the Christ: Contemporary Perspectives. New London: Twenty-Third Publications, 2004.

Stamp, Robert J. God and Man at Table are Sat Down. 1972.

Statnick, Roger. "Lecture: Christology." Greensburg, September 10, 2008.

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