Round numbers tend to be big in bad ways, and 2020 met every expectation. Looking back, it’s hard to recall a year more fraught with gut-churning distress. Mix a global pandemic killing close to 2 million with racial upheaval, a bizarro US presidential election season, and economic turbulence. Pour in never-ending conflicts in places like Afghanistan and Yemen. Stir and warm over a planet heating up year after year, and you have the makings for a grim apocalyptic stew.
No wonder many have wondered whether the end is nigh. The prophets predicted pestilence and plague, hubristic leaders, wars and famine, as well as cosmic disruption. Jesus cautioned against searching for signs, but he warned against complacency too (Mark 13:5–10). Should the Lord indeed return before Christmas, it could be construed as the best present ever, but given the delay, we’ve learned to wait wearily.
Nevertheless, Jesus said to “be on guard! Be alert!” (v. 33), to which some manuscripts add “and pray.”The late Eugene Peterson, in true Advent fashion, preached of prayer as a kind of expectant waiting, a “disciplined refusal to act before God acts.” Lent invites us to couple prayer with fasting as we penitently await God’s judgment. But at Advent and Christmas, we pray and feast in anticipation of Christ’s return and God’s justification.
Constrained as we are on this COVID Christmas, festival feasting is bereft of the family and friends customarily surrounding our tables. Resigned to a relative few (if that) to abate the viral surge, the temptation might be to prepare less when it comes to Christmas cooking and baking. We’ll eat, but more to alleviate boredom and stress than to celebrate Christ’s incarnation.
Yet from Leviticus to Revelation, Scripture insists God’s people feast as an act of worship, even if it means spreading a table, as with Moses, in the barren desert; as with Jesus in the upper room, on the eve of his crucifixion; as with Paul, in prison; or as with John, exiled on the island of Patmos envisioning the grand climax of history as a banquet.
Theologian and poet David Russell Mosley has written a delectable ode to holiday feasting, concluding that even if you are alone at your table this Christmas,
have some good wine and cheese or your favorite pizza. Remember your humanity—and remember that the church has called us to celebrate together what is sacred. Share, in whatever way you can, the spirit of Christian feasting with others. For Christ did not come into a rich family but a poor one, and like the Ghost of Christmas Present he tips his torch to our most humble offerings, uniting his divinity, his excess, to our humanity.
Years ago, as a pastor and avid home cook, I preached a sermon series on Food in the Bible and served up the sermon dishes for my congregation to eat. Following each Sunday’s exegetical foray into milk and honey, barley and olives, lamb and fish, or bread and wine, I stepped out of the pulpit and down to the Communion table on which I laid out my inspired ingredients and demonstrated ancient recipes, each symbolic of a deeper spiritual truth. After the benediction, folks queued up for a sample, eschewing the normal coffee and doughnuts for hummus and yogurt, lamb grilled with pomegranate, or mejadra (imagined to be the stew by which Jacob secured Esau’s birthright—it’s that good). In the end, all the dishes combined into a meal to share with friends, family, or church small-group gatherings with prayers and liturgies attached.
From the apple in Eden to the wedding supper of the Lamb, Scripture presents a menu of entrees to express incarnate reality. Jesus offers himself as the ultimate meal. Our Lord calls himself the bread of life and uses vineyards and fig trees, lavish banquets, and fatted calves to tell his best parables. Food also comprises his best miracles, whether it’s turning water to wine, stretching a single box lunch to feed 5,000 people, or grilling fish for his friends on the beach after rising from the dead. Jesus eats a lot of food too, so much so that he’s accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. He’d eat with anybody, including outcasts and sinners of every stripe, much to the consternation of religious authorities. Sharing a meal breaks down barriers of suspicion and hostility. To this day we can still make peace by making an enemy dinner.
As vaccines thankfully roll out this Christmas, debate over who goes first involves determining who’s most essential. Frontline health care workers and nursing home residents head the line, and then the chronically ill, but afterward come the packers and truckers and grocery store workers. These valiant souls, masked up and present, risk infection every day to provide produce, meat, and ingredients for our pots and stoves. Old Testament worship entailed sacrifice, and the risks priests endured and the death animals suffered served beyond the purpose of divine appeasement. Sacrifices were grilled to be eaten; the Lamb of God nourished as well as atoned.
For many of us, our Christmas confinement may hearken back to the Bethlehem story. There is death and fear in our world now, as then, with governments in flux and livelihoods in peril. Eyes gaze heavenward for salvation, but the Savior arrives at our doorstep wrapped as a small package, a vulnerable baby who proved mightier than any virus. Ultimate victory remained far off—and only then after much turmoil and death—but real hope had been born.
It’s hope we hold happily because it’s grounded in God in whom the future has already happened. Amid a pandemic that exacerbates economic disparities, racial inequities, and political consternation, a sure future made right by God makes joy accessible. We wait confidently and with glad hearts. As Mosley reminds, bread and other grain-based foods have long served as humanity’s staple.
Yet, as a species, we didn’t stop with bread. We made cake, something utterly superfluous. We do not need cake. It is the definition of gratuity. We make it because it tastes good, because it is beautiful. But we also make cake to celebrate. And … the ultimate reason humans celebrate, why we feast, is to worship.
Feasting is not just about eating but about preparation too. Good food takes time, and to make it and share it with others—around a table or left on a porch—is itself an act of love as well as worship. As famed Italian cook Marcella Hazan wrote,
To put a freshly made meal on the table, even if it is something very plain and simple as long as it tastes good and is not a ready-to-eat something bought at the store, is a sincere expression of affection, it is an act of binding intimacy directed at whoever has a welcome place in your heart. And while other passions in your life may at some point begin to bank their fires, the shared happiness of good homemade food can last as long as we do.
For me, Christmas is being marked, in part, by slow-braised short ribs with Swiss chard, mushrooms, and cipollini onions over mashed potatoes with fresh horseradish cream, and double-chocolate-cherry espresso drop cookies for dessert. This is an all-day affair, one demanding patience as you chop all the vegetables, sauté them, and then wait for the braise to tenderize the tough cut. But your patience will prove virtuous as you’ll enjoy a luscious aroma and, later, an unforgettable flavor. With everything canceled, you’ll likely have time. If you’re not a cook or don’t like to do it, you still have to eat. So why not eat well? You may find yourself all the more eager to give thanks and praise the Lord for it. As the psalmist sang, “Taste and see that the Lord is good” (34:8).
The late Robert Capon, author, priest, and food columnist, insisted,
Man invented cooking before he thought of nutrition. To be sure, food keeps us alive, but that is only its smallest and most temporary work. Its eternal purpose is to furnish our sensibilities against the day when we shall sit down at the heavenly banquet and see how gracious the Lord is. Nourishment is necessary only for a while; what we shall need forever is taste.
Daniel Harrell is editor in chief at Christianity Today.