Food is central to so many of our rituals. The smells and tastes add another dimension to the experience and become part of our memories. I’m sure this is why so many biblical rituals involve food.?
There are many celebrations in the Bible that God commanded his people to observe, each of which comes with its own food. This is why they are known as feasts! Some of the food to be used in the feasts is specified in the Bible, such as the flat bread and bitter herbs for Passover, also known as the Feast of Flat Bread. However, much of the food used in biblical feasts today has been added as traditions built up over the centuries. Many writers have summarised Jewish feasts with these words: “They tried to kill us. We won. Let’s eat.”
Sometimes our rituals involve food we don’t eat at other times of year, such as Easter eggs, but often they involve a specific use of commonly eaten food. For example, for Rosh Hashana (Jewish New Year) we dip apples in honey to represent a sweet new year, and at Passover we dip bitter herbs (often parsley) in salty water to represent the tears of the Israelite slaves in Egypt. By doing this we give ordinary things a special spiritual meaning, so that each time we eat them during the year the smell and taste gently reminds us of this meaning.?
Of course, our central ritual as Christians is Communion. I grew up in a Baptist church with cubes of bread and tiny shot glasses of wine, so didn’t think of Communion as a feast, but of course it is the feast! This food-based ritual was set up by Jesus himself over a meal with his friends, during which he broke bread, drank wine and said: “Remember me whenever you do this.”?
I’ve often wondered what he meant by this. Did he mean whenever you celebrate Passover, which was the annual feast he was celebrating with his friends? Or did he mean whenever you eat bread and drink wine? Was this meant to be a special, separate ritual carried out when we gather as his followers, or did he mean for us to remember whenever we eat bread and drink wine in our homes or with our family and friends??
The latter explanation is the interpretation some parts of the Church have adopted, which means that they remember Jesus every time they eat and drink together. If you think of Communion like this – celebrating it as part of a meal – it definitely becomes more of a feast! However you interpret it, it’s certain that Jesus was following Jewish tradition when he applied a new symbolic and ritualistic meaning to the basics of the meal they were sharing to create a replicable, spiritual moment.
Food connects us to the meaning
We all have special foods we bring out specifically for celebrations such as Christmas, birthdays and Easter. And while making or buying and eating the food is a ritual on its own, I want to be a little more intentional about it. I want to have food that marks the day, but also symbolic food that reminds me of, and connects me to, the meaning of the festival.?
A few years ago my 4-year-old was trying out herbs in the garden, and when she got to parsley she said: “This is the Passover one.” I was delighted as it wasn’t anywhere near Passover, but for her the herb had become connected with that festival. This gave us a chance to reflect again on the meaning it has during that meal, but also to acknowledge that it is relevant at any time of year.?
Food helps us share our festivals?
We’ve invented some feasts in our house, such as Baptism Birthdays. Sometimes I make a cake, but usually I make meringues, mainly because I did this once when my girls were small so that they had a ‘cake’ to share with their nursery friends (which also gave me an excuse to share a little of the story that went with that celebration). And as you know, if you do something once with young children it can immediately become a tradition!?
Ritual foods can also do this. They give us a way to share our celebrations with people who might not otherwise celebrate them. For the last two years we have had a playdate with another family on Rosh Hashana, sharing our ritual of dipping apples in honey, singing our fun Rosh Hashana song and asking God to bless them with sweetness in the coming year. It’s surprisingly easy to share faith when it’s infused with food!
Food helps us listen to stories together
Most mornings I read the Bible with my children. I do this over a bowl of porridge or hot cakes (like Scotch pancakes, only much yummier – see my website for a recipe) and hot chocolate. The porridge and hot cakes are topped with chocolate sprinkles or mini marshmallows, making them decadent and delicious. The smells (and a little calling out of their names!) bring my children to the table, and the hot food and drinks keep them there while I read the Bible. This can also be done in the afternoon with a chocolate milkshake and a plate of fruit and warm biscuits. (I make a batch of dough and keep it in the fridge or freezer so it only takes a few minutes to pop them in the oven.)?
This is the model of Passover – eating a long meal while telling a long story – and it works almost every time. If you have never tried it, give it a go. Make something your family will like, set it out on the table and grab your Bible or storybook. Give them a call and see the magic unfold!
Food is a gift
Whether it’s collecting Easter eggs during a hunt or sneaking an early mince pie in November, food is inextricably linked with our celebrations. Sometimes at church, with our dry biscuits and bad coffee, we forget the gift that food is: what it does for us as human beings and the role it plays in our faith rituals. When we meet in each other’s homes, either for a church group meeting or a simple play date, sharing food is so easy and adds so much more to our connections.?
Have you ever counted the number of times Jesus ate food with people? Just by eating with them he was preaching without words. A rabbi who ate with tax collectors was a radical concept and spoke volumes about the grace of God. Let’s not miss out on this easy opportunity to feed our bodies and our souls.