Made Known in the Breaking of the Bread

I have always thought of the kitchen as the heart of a household. In some primordial half-remembered, half-imagined archetypal house, it is the hearth fire around which the members of a household gather. A house can shelter different, even disparate people. You can enter a household, live within its sheltering walls, and share its fellowship and rituals with your fellow inhabitants.

And what more visceral expression of a household’s unity than to share meals together regularly? We all need food to live and sharing food can be symbolic of shared life. And it is in the kitchen, the hearth and heart of a house, that the abundance of creation is chopped and julienned and boiled and sautéed and broiled and then taken and blessed and given and shared.

Perhaps you have had the experience in your family of everybody working together in the kitchen to produce a big meal. Thanksgiving, Christmas, birthdays, summer barbecues. And you talk while you cook, tell stories, laugh together. A large table is set (maybe with the little card table set out for the youngest) and the meal is shared by all with more talk, stories and laughter. In the observance of Passover, the ancient story of freedom told around the shared meal is formalized.

At Easter, many of us ponder the stories of Jesus’ appearance to his followers in the days following his brutal execution. Isn’t it interesting how many of these texts involve food? In fact, they all involve food. In some stories, Jesus cooks the disciples a breakfast of toast and fried fish. In another he eats with them (again, a fish) as if to demonstrate that he is not a ghost. And in these appearance stories, Jesus is at first unrecognized.

In Luke’s story, the two Jesus followers who walk with a stranger to Emmaus don’t recognize that it is Jesus who walks with them until—what? They break bread together.

And more than that. “Jesus would have gone on,” the text says, “but they begged him to stay the night with them.” They offer hospitality to the stranger. And then, when he is at the table with them, he takes a loaf of bread, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to them. And suddenly their eyes were opened.

Now this language is formulaic. It is a formula, a blueprint, a recipe. He takes bread, and after blessing it, breaks it and gives it to them. This is the formula of the Eucharist, of communion, the Lord’s Supper.

Remember, of course, that the gospels are the theological expressions of the early followers of Jesus and not biographies written by eyewitnesses. So the early followers of Jesus, the original Jesus movement, are telling us something very important about how they experienced the continuing presence of Jesus in the days following his crucifixion.

In the early decades of the Christian era, followers of Jesus met in one another’s homes. In the Greco-Roman world, the home, the household, was the domain of women, so often women would preside at the table, around which songs were sung, and scriptures and letters read, a meal was shared and food distributed to the hungry. And, around the table, the Eucharist was celebrated.

Reaching out to the stranger, the inclusion of the stranger in this godly household, the act of pulling up one more chair to the collective table, was essential. At this table there is always room for one more. The universe is extravagant in the goodness bestowed upon us and out of that abundance comes the grace with which we share with others.

The point of being a household of faith is not to lock the doors and draw the blinds and parcel out God’s scarce, limited resources among ourselves. The point of being such a household—of being the church—is to invite everybody to the banquet. This is a feast and everybody is invited.

And everybody sometimes meant random guests being invited from the highways and byways, thrown together in a generous act of hospitality. People of different social status rubbed elbows at such a table.

Jesus shared a table fellowship with his followers, students, and friends. It was a symbol of what his mission was about. Jesus’ table was a symbol of God’s abundance, of the possibilities of liberation and communion when people came together and shared what they had, often across lines  of difference.

And the stories that circulated among his friends were fantastic tales of fish and loaves multiplying, of water turning into wine. In his presence, these stories tell us, nobody goes hungry. At Jesus’ table, all are fed.

Anthropologists speak of commensality—a fancy word for sharing a table—and the insights into culture when observing who is invited to eat, who sits where at the table, who is served first. Open commensality is the practice of there being no restrictions or taboos at the meal table. Jesus’ practice of open commensality is remarked upon throughout the stories of him in the New Testament.

In the beloved community, social differences are elided in a banquet of sharing and hospitality and abundance and fellowship. The bodies we all share unite us in their need for nourishment and we are all given what we need.

When Jesus went up to Jerusalem to celebrate Passover, he knew that he was going to get in trouble. He might have even known he was going to die. For at the last meal he ate with his friends, he told them that every time they came together in his name, sharing food, sharing bread and cup, they would be living out the beloved community.

Do this and remember me, Jesus says. Daily acts of eating and drinking, do it for the remembrance of me. You know, the Greek word in the New Testament that is translated as remembrance also means reenactment.

Do this and re-enact my table fellowship. Do this and re-enact my mission.

The shared meal, symbolic of shared life, is the centre of a household’s life, a community’s life. For the earliest followers of Jesus, the reenactment of his mission of shared abundance was the way they experienced his ongoing presence among them—the worshipping, Eucharistic community, those gathered around the freely-given, justice-creating meals of Christian worship.

 

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You have just arrived in town.

The mid-morning sun is heating up the stone walkways of this Mediterranean port city. The sky is a dazzling cobalt, a blue that offsets the whitewashed houses and sandstone walls. It is the first century, and you are arriving in a seaside city along the coast of the Mediterranean in what is now Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, Greece, Italy.

You are a stranger here. You know nobody here and nobody knows you. Perhaps you are a migrant labourer, one of a growing number of destitute peasants looking for work. Perhaps you are a recently freed slave. A few things are certain. You have no money, you have no family, you live in the rough world of sailors, fishers, traders making up the underbelly of the Roman Empire.

And you are a Christian. You are a member of a secretive mystery cult based in the life and teachings of a Jew from Galilee, a spirit-filled miracle-worker and sage. He was executed by the Romans as a political criminal, but his earliest followers say that he lives on within and among his followers, wherever two or more are gathered in his name. And his name is Iesous, Iesous Christos. Jesus the Christ. Most of his followers that you know are not Jews, but Greeks, like you, and like you from the lower classes of the Empire.

There are networks of Christos followers, Christians, throughout the towns and villages of this region. You need to keep your cultic practices to yourself, as the religious leaders have disestablished followers of Christos, forbidding you from meeting in the Jewish meetinghouses of the diaspora.

As a newly established sect, your Greek neighbours and the Roman authorities alike are suspicious of this upstart religion. In another generation, Christians will be actively persecuted. Indeed, there are already stories circulating among the believers of court cases and accusations. The secrets of your religion must be kept.

You seek and find each other out, meeting before dawn on the first day of the week, before going to work. You meet to sing, mostly, sing and pray. And then share a meal together. A meal of fish and bread and wine. And then, at the close of worship, food from this feast is distributed.

That’s how you became a Christian. You heard that they would feed you, and so you sought out this new mystery cult. Because you were hungry, physically hungry and desperate to sustain yourself. And they helped you, these Christians. They fed you, gave you clothes, told you who in town was a Christian who you could find work with. And the network of believers exists throughout the Empire, clandestine and unseen.

Like other secret societies, yours has its version of code words and secret handshakes. It is said, for example, if you meet a stranger on the road and begin to talk about your religious practices, and you wanted to know if he or she was a Christian, you could scratch an arc into the dirt, and if without speaking, they drew a similar intersecting arch, you knew there was a brother or sister with you.

And so you arrive here, the mid-morning sun heating up the stone walkways as the cobalt blue sky above offsets the whitewashed houses and sandstone walls. You need to find work, you need to find a place to stay, you need some money, you need to eat. And although you don’t know where to look, you know there are believers here who will help you.

You begin to scan the walls, some of which are scratched with graffiti. Lovers names, political slogans, sexual innuendos, and—finally, you spot it—a fish. Two simple, intersecting arcs. The sign of the fish. It is pointing you to the right, and so you step along that alleyway, to another sign of the fish, pointing left. You continue left along the walkway, following these fish until you arrive at the household of the local Christian community, the household at which the local believers gather for pre-dawn worship on the first day of the week.

You will knock on this door. The door will be opened by somebody who will help you, somebody who will welcome you in to this city’s network of believers. You will be drawn in, welcomed into this circle, and fed. These are your people and they will not let you go hungry. These are your people, and they will take care of you.

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The sign of the fish is the earliest Christian symbol. As early as the first century, Christian grave markers displayed images of the fish and the dove. Long before the cross, it was the fish that symbolized Christianity, the Jesus movement.

As a secretive worshipping community, the fish was a kind of password, an acrostic. If you take the Greek words Iesous Christos Theou Yios Soter, which mean Jesus Christ God Son Saviour, and take the first letter of each of those words, you get IXTHYS, the Greek word for “fish.”

It is possible that this creedal formulation (Jesus Christ, the Son of God, Saviour) emerged in Alexandria, the major Hellenistic city of North Africa in the late first century as a reaction to the reign of Domitian, who proclaimed himself a son of God, and had coins pressed with his image and these words. The Christian counter-affirmation was that Jesus was the true ruler, that their first allegiance was to the Kingdom of God.

Mosaics, murals, and frescoes from the first three centuries of Christian worship spaces, including the catacombs of Italy, depict the Eucharistic gifts as a fish, a loaf of bread, and wine or grapes.

The fish is an ancient symbol of life, fertility, abundance. In the ancient world, the fish was a symbol associated with the Goddess. In the ancient Mediterranean,it was a symbol of fertility associated with various Goddesses, including Venus who is venerated on the sixth day of the week—Friday, dies Veneris. In Scandinavia, the Great Goddess was called Freya and fish were eaten in her honour, also on the day named after her: Friday. The Roman Catholic Church, until recent years, had its adherents abstain from eating meat on the day that Christ was crucified and to eat instead fish on Fridays.

The association of the fish with abundance and fertility and life is expressed in many of the gospel stories.  A symbol rich with meaning in the minds of the people, the fish came to represent the worshipping, Eucharistic community, those communities gathered for worship that was both devotion and social justice, both reverence toward God and the distribution of foodstuffs to the needy.

The cruciform symbol of Christ’s cross came long after these early symbols of the table, and I for one take that as significant. Jesus’ death was not as significant as his ongoing mysterious presence among them at the table, where they reenacted his mission.

For me, the symbol of the living Christ is not a codeword for Jesus the man, but rather a symbol of life’s creative, transforming power. I believe to understand the symbol of the Christ, the living Christ (or the “Cosmic Christ”), we need to understand how God’s creative transforming power is lived out in communities of people.

The only compelling and truly meaningful Christology I’ve encountered in all my years of study and reflection is that of the feminist theologian Rita Nakashima Brock. In her book Journeys By Heart: A Christology of Erotic Power, she speaks not of the Christ, but of Christa, the feminine form used in conjunction with Community. The living Christ is Christa/Community.

The power that gives and sustains life does not flow from a dead and resurrected savior to his followers. Rather, the community sustains life-giving power by its memory of its own broken-heartedness and of those who have suffered and gone before and by its members being courageously and redemptively present to all. In doing so, the community remains Christa/Community and participates in the life-giving flow of erotic power. No one person or group exclusively reveals it or incarnates it.

Jesus is like the whitecap on a wave. The whitecap is momentarily set off from the swell that is pushing it up, making us notice it. But the visibility of the whitecap, which draws our attention, rests on the enormous pushing power of the sea—of its power to push with life-giving labor, to buoy up all lives, and to unite diverse shores with its restless energy. That sea becomes monstrous and chaotically destructive when we try to control it, and its life-giving power is denied. Jesus’ power lies with the great swells of the ocean without which the white foam is not brought to visibility. To understand the fullness of erotic power we must look to the ocean which is the whole and compassionate being, including ourselves.

 

Brock argues that the very nature of the Christ insists on relationality: “What is truly christological, that is, truly revealing of divine incarnation and salvific power in human life, must reside in connectedness and not in single individuals… [Jesus] neither reveals nor embodies it, but he participates in its revelation and embodiment.”

In other words, the creative transforming power of God happens when people come together and act out the creativity and transformation of our own lives, as individuals and together in the intentional relationships we call communities. The living Christ exists where love, mercy, and compassion are enacted among human persons.

And this is not an abstract thing. We embody mercy and compassion in concrete acts of care and concern for those around us, particularly those in need, those who are most vulnerable. We embody that spirit—a meal delivered, a bandage applied, a hug, setting out food, a hospital bedside vigil—we make that spirit known in what we do with our bodies—feeding, visiting, clothing, touching.

I think those of us who gather in community can be the conduits of salvation (in that word’s sense of healing and wholeness). We, involved in the intentional relationships known as community, can be the places of saving grace and action. Within the matrix, the network, of who we are collectively moves the spirit that saves the world. Within the matrix, the network, the oceanic swell, of who we are cooperatively moves the spirit that saves the world.

At Easter time, my sense is that people celebrate a living spirit, a green springtime of the soul, a numinous presence of creative, regenerative, transforming power. This power is at work in the world, if only we would recognize it. Its alchemy transforms strangers into friends, disparate individuals into a community. It is the Life that makes all things new. For Christians, it is the living Christ.

When I was in seminary, I worked off campus. One of my co-workers was involved in something called Food Not Bombs. Once a week, these activists would collect discarded food from restaurants and supermarkets in downtown Toronto. Restaurants and supermarkets, you might know, throw away a lot of food. Things that spoil easily or are slightly bruised, food they cannot re-serve or that go off the menu the following day. The activist volunteers of Food Not Bombs collect the leftovers and the refuse of restaurants—who happily give their garbage over—and create huge, vegetarian feasts.

Once a week, Food Not Bombs sets up a table in a public park and invites all passersby to a free meal. The homeless population of the city makes good use of this free food, but it is meant for everybody. I used to love the meals of Food Not Bombs, probably because I shared many of the political aspirations of those involved, with our vision of a world of plenty, where human need comes before human greed.

It seemed to me that if the spirit of Jesus was alive anywhere, it was here. And I don’t mean in the individual face of a homeless person, and I don’t mean in the face of a young idealist. I mean the whole gesture of turning garbage into a feast, redeeming leftovers, of freely offering a table full of food to strangers, the Bay Street business man sharing a meal with a street-involved youth with a mental illness, the rough poor from the underbelly of another empire knowing where to go for food, people of disparate backgrounds rubbing elbows at a shared meal.

For me, the living Christ is not an individual, the living Christ is a feast, a table where mercies are spread, a community, a common wealth. The living Christ is a symbol of our common life shaping a world of mutuality and trust and love, a symbol of what sustains and nurtures life.

Pauses, Grace Notes and Gratitude

Growing up, my family only said grace at special occasions, meals that the whole family was there for. We might have said grace at other holidays, but it was consistently said every Thanksgiving. Because of the nature of the holiday, a meal eaten with thanks, it would have all seemed rather hollow had we not paused before the turkey was carved, the feast of vegetables and sweet potato and stuffing and cranberry sauce spread before us, and actually given thanks. This was usually a perfunctory, rote prayer uttered by one of us children.

In the years that followed, I’ve noticed a space at the front end of every meal, every social occasion that included sitting down together to eat. There would come a moment, as everybody was assembled and seated, before the food was served. Everybody settles in and a quiet, a hush, comes to rest upon the assembly, an expectant pause, a breath, a glance around the table. Often, somebody would cheerfully say, Bon appétit! Or lift their glass and say, Cheers! Something needed to be said in that silent, ceremonial moment. It was only as my social network began to include more churchgoers that somebody might suggest, Shall we give thanks before beginning?

Give thanks. Those are the words of the wordless pause, the voice of the silent moment before the meal. As you regard those gathered around the table with you, as you look at the food and drink, the bounty of labor and love, delight and delicacy, even if you don’t have the words, or are not in the habit of saying grace, there is that space that is filled with gratitude, a breath of satisfaction and contentment. I’m so grateful we could all be here. I am grateful for friends and family and food, that I have enough, that I have what I need. I am grateful for these necessities of life, for life itself.

I think of those moments as grace notes in the unending musical score that is life. In music, a grace note is ornamentation, an unneeded or unnecessary embellishment. It’s not essential to the melody or harmony. It’s a little addition that enhances the beauty of the unfolding sequence of events. The grace note sounds as glasses clink in a toast to life, as the host thanks you for being present, in the hushed recognition of the holy moment before you dig in. There are other decorative moments that come unbidden, times of wonder and a sense of peace, times of clarity, when the mind unwraps the vivid sense that all of life is a gift.

Pausing to give thanks in the face of our blessings is an essential religious act, an essential human act. When we realize how much we have been given, how much we have, we are thankful. When we recognize how much of our lives are gifts given to us from beyond ourselves, we are humbled and reverent and grateful. If only that recognition could be more frequent, more regular, how our lives would be filled with humility, reverence, gratitude and grace!

The word grace comes from the Latin gratia, which means favor or charm as well as thanks. In the Romance languages, the words for thank you echo this origin: gracias, in Spanish, gratzie in Italian. To say grace before a meal, then is to say thanks, affirming that our daily bread is a gift. Yet the word grace is resonant with meaning. The reverberations of its roots—gratia—are found throughout our lexicon. We are grateful for what we have, we are gratified by good news, congratulated when we have achieved something, a grace note, as we’ve already observed, is gratuitous, we leave a gratuity when a person’s service has pleased us. Something given with no expectation of repayment is gratis. We’re sometimes given a grace period on paying bills. A generous, accepting sort of person is gracious, an unthankful person an ingrate.

Echoing through this vocabulary of grace, those parts of our speech that ring with “gratia,” is an essential religious affirmation. Theologically, grace is the unmerited, freely given mercy and kindness of God, a gift of divine favor and love. It is universal and unconditional, given to all who are aware it is available. That love is so persistent, so generous, so overflowing that it offers forgiveness to all who ask. Wholeness, integrity, and peace are the gifts of being in right relation with God and one another and all we have to do is open ourselves up to it, acknowledge our shortcomings and brokenness and give ourselves over completely to the justice-making, relation-repairing power.

Have you ever experienced a kindness from somebody that came out of the blue? An act of generosity that you did not expect? When somebody did something for you that they did not have to do? Remember how that made you feel. Imagine how that might make you feel. Gosh—thanks! What a wonderful, wonder filled occasion! I feel blessed or fortunate or special.

Such acts may also stimulate an aspiration to go and do likewise. Such generosity gives us permission to do something similar for somebody else. We can add a gratuity to everyday acts—being friendly to strangers, sincerely thanking a cashier at the grocery store, a gratuitous kind word to a co-worker, making small talk to one who everybody passes by. Sending a handwritten note to somebody just because you were thinking of them with fondness. Listening patiently to one you find dull and usually interrupt. It doesn’t take much to produce this sort of grace among people. It doesn’t take much to add such ornamentation, such grace notes to our daily lives.

The thing about grace is that the more it is offered to us, the more we offer it to others. The more space we make in our lives for grace, the more gracious we become to others. When we realize how much we have been given, how much we have been offered and blessed with, then we become more generous. When we realize how far we fall short of our potential, and humbly understand how much we are loved and forgiven despite our shortcomings, when we comprehend how much we have been forgiven, then we become more forgiving, more charitable. The one who has been forgiven little loves little, Jesus says.

When we have experienced loving acceptance just as we are, when others are gracious with us, we are more likely to look kindly on our failures, less likely to beat ourselves up over them. When we can be at peace with our own inadequacies and limitations, holding them lightly, we can be more generous with the inadequacies and limitations of others. Recognizing that no one is perfect, of course, one wants to work at perfecting what we can. But we do so with a sense of ease, of compassion with ourselves, and we extend that compassion generously with others. It is in knowing how much we have been forgiven for our failures that we can forgive others.

It is possible to reflect on all that constitutes one’s life and think of what we have as unexpected gifts, and not necessarily from a divine source. No one is an island entire of itself, to paraphrase John Donne just a little. We are all connected. Much of what we have we received with somebody’s help. Recognizing how dependent upon others we are and how others depend on us, how our lives are sustained in a network of mutual relation, how our very lives are interrelated in a common life larger than our own individual, we receive and give such gifts thankfully.

Of course, it is entirely possible not to accept a gift. It is possible to choose to turn a blind eye to the blessings that surround us. We are endowed with freedom, including the freedom to reject what is so generously offered. It is possible to be ungrateful, to look around at all that we have and see only what is missing, to look at all that we have been given, and be unappreciative. It is possible to focus only on the wants, the unmet desires, and blot out everything else. Indeed, there are things in our lives that we’d just as soon not have. There are needs that go along with this gift of life. We may look to tomorrow and wonder how they all will be met. We may worry. We may be afraid. Gratitude for what we do have dispels fear. When we cultivate an awareness of what we are thankful for, we see what a treasure trove our lives actually are. Listing what we are grateful for is taking inventory of the treasure we do possess.

And in gratitude, we share that wealth with others. There are others who can benefit from your gifts, even if you would never think of yourself as “gifted.” When we can finally see that we possess something valuable—a specific skill, particular knowledge, money or time—we are free to offer it to others for whom it is useful. As we learn to share what we have, we begin to have enough. As we give, so we receive. The greater generosity of spirit we cultivate, the more we are fulfilled and gratified.

Awakening to the movement of grace in our lives might need some practice. Awakening to our daily life as a precious gift can take practice. Listing what one is grateful for is such a practice. Time can be taken at the end of each day to sit quietly and reflect and review the day. What good thing happened that day that you could not have accomplished on your own? What elements of your day can be savored—the fresh air, the beauty? Did somebody—anybody—show you compassion or hospitality or kindness? Did you to do so for others, maybe being patient and friendly with a slow cashier, even though you were in a rush, or a giving money or time to a charitable and just cause, or not raising your voice or getting angry with a family member. Were there times of serenity or joy or laughter or peace? Be thankful for those moments. Be thankful for the good things that happened that you did not create.

If you’re too busy to make lists or sit quietly, there’s always saying grace. It’s a spiritual practice that connects us with our families, sitting together for a meal once every day. If saying grace before that meal is awkward, simply holding hands around the table for a moment of thankful silence might work. Pausing before a meal whether one is alone or with others, whether silently or aloud, and being mindful of what we have to be thankful for is a form of grace. Remembering that the meal itself involves the work of many hands both within our household and beyond it, and that the Earth itself sustains us. We need to eat in order to live, so hopefully the thankful pause will happen daily.

Awakening to the holy in our daily lives, listening for those grace notes, produces in us the fruits of a gratified life. We become artists of grace, giving freely of ourselves to others and creatively standing in the way of anything that detracts from the blossoming of love and mutuality in the world. We become change agents for others, for the social order, helping to shape a more gracious world grounded in the values and practices of kindness and generosity. Hospitality toward those in need, reaching out to the hungry and lonely and marginalized—these are precisely the ways that grace is felt in our world. We do it not out of duty, but because we are participating in an endeavor to humanize our world.

We would be aware of our dependence on the Earth and on the sustaining presence of other human beings. When we recognize how much of our lives are gifts given to us from beyond ourselves, we are humbled and reverent and grateful. When we realize how much we have been given, how much we have, we are thankful. As we intentionally take time to recognize this, as we develop practices that bring us to recognize this, our lives are filled with humility, reverence, gratitude and grace. We are showered with sacred blessings that cause us to blossom and grow in thankful, expansive ways. We are bathed in grace and we in turn become gracious.

There are moments when we survey the banquet of our lives and are thankful. We have what we need. There are times in our lives when we are given exactly what we need. We cannot command them or produce them, but there are moments of pleasure and delight that grace our days unexpectedly. A sense of serenity, that all is well; the comforting silence between companions. The special quality of such moments is that we don’t bring them about by overachieving or being perfect. We don’t bring them about at all. They are given freely, gratuitously. In such moments of clarity, we understand that all of life is a gift.

It comes as simply as the quiet, sacred moment before a meal.

Becoming Multicultural: What’s Lost in Translation

When I was growing up, my family went to church every Sunday. Squeezed into the car, we played a game as we approached Saint George Greek Orthodox Church—who was first to spot the steeple as it came into view.  We were not Greek, but of the two Orthodox congregations in the city, this was closest to us culturally. The other one was Russian and had a gilded onion-shaped dome. As Orthodox Christians from the Middle East, we had more in common with the Byzantine than the Slavonic tradition.

We were reminded that we were not Greek. My mother’s contributions to the women’s auxiliary cookbook were not included in the final publication because they were “not Greek,” though it did include recipes for things like pizza. My brother got bumped from playing the little drummer boy in the Christmas pageant in favor of a little drummer boy who happened to be Greek-American.

Despite our presence, and the presence of second and third generation Greek-Americans, worship was entirely in Greek.

When my family moved to a city that had more than one congregation in the Antiochian archdiocese, whose primary bishop, or patriarch, was in Damascus, Syria, the experience changed.  Made up primarily of immigrants from Lebanon and Syria, we were no longer cultural outsiders. Worship was in English and Arabic.

Church was more than a congregation of the faithful. It was also a cultural ingathering of Arabic-speaking immigrants, many longing to recreate something of the old country on the cold and snowy shores of North America. One of the first institutions immigrants from Lebanon and Syria built on this continent when they began arriving at the end of the nineteenth century were churches, which aided new arrivals and provided solace for the homesick. Gathered together around shared language and culture, these churches were islands of the familiar in a strange new world.

Ethnic and religious traditions were inseparable in our home. In addition to our birthdays, we also celebrated our “feast” day, the day of the year dedicated to the saint we were named after, complete with cake and ice cream. On the feast of Saints Peter and Paul, in late June, we usually went to the beach to celebrate.

I used to think that we made special foods—a thick, sweet pudding of apricots, wheat, aniseed and other spices called bourbara—on the feast of Saint Barbara because my grandmother, the family’s matriarch, was named Barbara. I didn’t realize at the time it’s a major holiday for Arab Christians.

Saint Barbara’s day was followed by Saint Sabas the next night and Saint Nicholas the night after that. On each night, we left out a plate of sweets on the dining room table. The saint whose feast it was each night visited us. They left coins for us on the edges of the saucers. We were forbidden to touch the candy until the final night—Saint Nicholas Day—when we collected our money and ate the candy. At Christmas, we decorated an evergreen tree, and then sat around the illuminated tree in the dark singing carols in English and Arabic.

During Lent, there were meatless meals that seemed to always involve lentils. (For years Lent and lentils in my mind resonated together). Years later, as a university student with a limited income, I ate plate after plate of mjuddareh (lentils, rice, and onions) wondering when that particular Lent was ever going to end.

The fast of course culminates in Holy Week and Easter. On Palm Sunday, we brought home the palm leaves from the church service. I never could learn how to fold and tie them into the shape of the cross, but other family members could. They would be tucked behind the corners of the icons that decorated our home—images of Jesus, the saints, the Theotokos (the “God-bearer,” as Mary is known).

During Easter, everyone was greeted with the words: al-Masih qam! (Christ is risen!).  For Easter, we decorated Easter eggs and played a game of cracking them. You held your egg in your fist, and your challenger would tap their egg against the top of yours and the one whose egg cracked lost the game. And whoever cracked everybody else’s Easter egg was that year’s champion. Other foods we made (and by “we” I mean “Mom”) and ate at home included date-filled pastry (kaik) that, because it was shaped like a donut was said to symbolize the crown of thorns that Jesus was forced to wear, and another nut-filled pastry (ma’amoul) represented his scepter.

The foods, habits, and traditions of my ancestors were inseparable from the religion they practiced. Our identity as Arab-Americans was expressed in cultural practices of both home and church. Church was the only place, outside the home, that I heard Arabic being spoken. Church, the religion, was the container for a great deal of our ethno-linguistic identity, the repository and source for our culture.

The Orthodox Church in North America is usually thought of as an “ethnic church.” Most Orthodox Christians trace their roots to Eastern Europe or the eastern Mediterranean. Ethnicity, from the Greek church of my early childhood, to the Arab church of my later childhood and youth, was a central ingredient of who we were together as the church.

When I could no longer in good conscience practice the religion, I went about searching for a spiritual home. I landed upon my local Unitarian congregation because they promised to welcome all of who I was. Advocates for peace, social justice, inclusiveness and the dignity of gays and lesbians, Unitarian Universalists were my intellectual, political and spiritual kindred. I joined as soon as I was able.

What makes an “ethnic church” an ethnic church? Is it when most of the people there share an ethnic or cultural or linguistic identity? Most of the Unitarian Universalist congregations I have served and known are overwhelmingly white and Anglo Saxon. Why do we not imagine Unitarian Universalism to be an “ethnic church”?

The hegemonic culture experiences itself as universal. I am reminded of this when I frequent a supermarket full of food and then find the aisle labeled “ethnic foods.” Because Anglo Saxons don’t have an ethnicity, the way that heterosexuals don’t have a sexual orientation, and men don’t have a gender. At church, this can mean that Western European culture is simply “music” or “literature” or “hymns.” And not “European music” or “Anglo hymns.” But on some special Sundays, we’ll have Latino music or African-American hymns or South Asian literature.

The “universal” culture of Unitarian Universalism is Protestant and Anglo. This is an historical fact, not an accusation. There is nothing wrong or shameful about Anglo Saxon or Western European culture. Because I assumed this false universal, it took me a long time to even realize the translation that had taken place in my religious life, from a Mediterranean medium to an Anglo one. It just took me a while to recognize that I had in fact gone from one ethnic church to another. And that I had lost something in that translation.

It was only after I began to bump up against prejudice toward Arabs and Arab-Americans among Unitarian Universalists that I began to wonder about such things. UUs are not immune to the ignorance about (and even suspicion and hostility toward) Arabs and Arab culture that is ubiquitous on this continent.

(There’s no reason to rehearse all the hurtful and ignorant things UUs have done and said, but I want to mention my favorite. I’m often asked when my family converted to Christianity, which is particularly rich since we are from Palestine, with roots in Jerusalem that go back hundreds of years. Where do they think Jesus was from, anyway? Europe? I usually answer, “Oh about two thousand years ago!”)

I’ve loved every Unitarian Universalist church I’ve been in—even the ones that were hard to love. UUs are my people. And at the same time, UUs are not my people. My people are also ones who revere icons and put out saucers for the saints and eat lentils during Lent. My ethnos is made up of people who speak Arabic (and speak it loudly) and pepper their speech with references to God—God willing, God forbid, praise God.

Unitarian Universalists ask, “How can we become more multicultural? How can we attract more members of different cultural communities to our congregations?” These are good questions. Let’s also ask, “What do members of different cultural communities lose when they join a Unitarian Universalist congregation?” Because the losses can be significant and can include being cut off from a major source of ethnic pride, connection and identity—the “ethnic” churches from which we came.

At times I have felt at home among the Unitarian Universalists and at times I have felt exiled among the Unitarian Universalists. Following the dictates of my conscience and the leadings of the Spirit has simultaneously meant finding a community of faith and losing an important access point to the culture of my ancestors. I found a place that speaks my religious language but that only speaks it in English.

Of course, there are other ways of remaining connected to my ethnic community—none of them are woven as tightly or thoroughly into daily life the way religious traditions are.

Except for food! Have you noticed how much I mention food? The food I eat and make has become the carrier of cultural traditions. I don’t speak Arabic in my household, but I do often eat Arabic food—even when it’s called by non-Arabic names like pita or baklava or even Turkish coffee.

And I rest assured that should my Unitarian Universalist congregation ever put together a cookbook of parishioners’ recipes, my contributions will be welcomed and included.

Why Lent?

When I was growing up, Great Lent was a period of time that seemed to be primarily about eating. We “fasted” during Lent, which meant abstaining from meat, dairy and oil. Children were not expected to fast the entire forty days, but did so on Wednesdays and Fridays. This meant pouring orange juice on my breakfast cereal instead of milk, and eating various meatless, dairy-free Middle Eastern dishes.

My memories of Lent are not particularly unhappy, which is perhaps why, as an adult religious liberal I found it unproblematic to take up a forty-day spiritual discipline in the spring.

Indeed, I discovered Unitarian Universalism as a youth and signed the membership book as soon as I turned eighteen, as required by my congregation’s bylaws. And as the years went by, it seemed that seasons changed, the wheel of the year turned, and yet went unremarked in our worship life. There was Christmas and Easter. My home congregation celebrated communion twice a year, on the Sunday closest to All Souls Day and on Easter Sunday.

Aside from these occasions, and the eventual introduction of ingathering in September and a flower ceremony in June, there were no feasts, no seasons—not liturgically. It was the constant, unrelenting bright light of the rational, no shadows, no waxing or waning. We focused on ideas, principles and moral arguments, history and theology and ethics.

As exciting and as stimulating as this all was, a part of me left the table hungry. Something was missing. There was no enchantment, little poetry liturgically. What ritual gestures there were (this was, by the way, a very long time ago) were done awkwardly. I somehow needed to know that we were in sync with the rhythms of creation, that seasonal celebrations gave us insight into our place in the interrelated web of life.

For us rational Unitarian Universalists, as CS Lewis describes the Hundred Year Winter of the White Witch, it was always winter and never Christmas.

After several years as a UU, instinctively grasping toward something more Earth-centered and spiritual, I decided one year to observe Lent. There was something about this practice that spoke to my condition, wanting a spiritual discipline that connected me to a season.

It is interesting to me now, many years later, that this should be the case. Why Lent?

To be honest, I don’t know what I did that first year. I could have poured orange juice on my cereal for a month for all I know. But the point was that this season should have a different texture from other seasons, that time had different textures, that the movement of the Earth could be observed as meaningful.

The connection with healthful food was also a draw, of giving up something unwholesome. The memory of vegetarian and vegan eating drew me to my best intentions to eat in ways that were healthy for me and good for the planet.

There was something about my childhood experience that told me that this was a time of spiritual intensity, when one focused on what really mattered, on what was really real. What mattered during Lent was not the food that went into our mouths, we were told, but what came out of our mouths.

Fasting wasn’t the point. When Jesus was in the desert for forty days, fasting and being tested, the accuser tempted him to turn stones into bread to feed his hunger. To which he responded: It is written, One does not live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.

So we were to be attentive, awake, listening for every word coming from God. Which meant stripping away the distractions, the noise. The simplicity of our meals, the mindfulness with which we were to bring to all that we did and said, created an atmosphere of attention, wakefulness and presence.

It is toward this that I move in my Lenten practice. (Which, by the way, has historically been practiced by Unitarians and Universalists as well as contemporary UUs).

I carry my religious past lightly—both my upbringing in a sacramental tradition and my young adulthood in the church of “intellectual stimulation.” As I’ve learned to do so, practices like observing a forty-day “fast” have enriched the journey.

40 Days of Vegan: Giving it Up for Lent

Most world religions, it seems to me, have spiritual practices centered on food.

Often it is refraining from eating certain foods, or eating only foods raised, prepared or blessed a certain way—vegetarianism, hallal, and kashrut come quickly to mind. There are also ritualized meals, such as the Passover seder and its transmogrified stepchild, the Eucharist. Food and drink frequently follow worship in many traditions.

And, of course, there are fasts—abstaining from all food or certain foods for a set period of time—the Day of Atonement, the month of Ramadan, or the season of Lent.

Religious liberals are not without food practices. Many of us seek out locally grown or organic produce, refrain from eating food produced by corporations or food that is highly processed.

Religious liberals, of course, are free to keep a fast or not. Often, our food practices (like much of what we do) are what we choose for ourselves.

The discipline of fasting has a bad reputation among religious liberals, as overlayed as it is for many with uncomfortable memories of headaches and stomach gurglings during endless Yom Kippur services or the guilt and temptation of restrictive Lenten practices or dying for a sip of water during Ramadan. We were supposed to feel bad about ourselves somehow, something that goes against the grain of liberalism’s spirit.

There are some things that religious liberals don’t do well, and penance is one of them. Discipline is another. While preparing for a Sunday morning service on forgiveness, my congregation’s music director and I reflected on the dearth of materials about being sorry and confessing one’s wrongs in the Unitarian Universalist hymnal. There were readings and songs about forgiveness, of course, but none that explicitly ask for forgiveness for missteps. The music director said: “It’s as if UUs are always forgiven, but never sorry.”

Because fasting is associated with penance and forgiveness of sin in the Abrahamic faith traditions, many religious liberals reject it. We’re not big on including in our religious life admitting we made a mistake, got something wrong or did harm to others—and saying sorry. We’re not big on guilt, often because we confuse guilt with shame. Guilt is the sign that one’s moral conscience is alive and well, and is triggered when we realize we have caused harm; shame is the pervasive sense that one is worthless or unworthy.

Liberal Christians have reinterpreted Lent as a season of introspection and spiritual discipline. “You don’t have to give anything up,” they cheerfully say, “take something on instead, like daily prayer or meditation or Bible-reading.”

As a religious liberal myself, I also object to the mortification of the flesh implied in many forms of fasting. It is the body that must be disciplined, in this view, because it is the source of sin and wrongdoing. One must rise above the flesh to be more spiritual, more like God—dispassionate and bodiless. I disbelieve in this willed opposition of body and soul, earth and spirit.

So with all of this in mind, I have decided to give up meat and dairy for Lent. (Or, for the cheery positive thinker, I have decided to take up veganism). Well, vegan until dinner, as Mark Bittman advises. For personal reasons, I choose not to deem entire food groups forbidden and off limits, so I may eat limited amounts of meat and dairy at my evening meal.

Abstaining from meat and dairy has been the traditional practice during Lent, of course. Interesting that what we now call veganism has been embedded in the practice of many North Americans by another name for so long. I’ve been eating less and less animal products over the past several years, and have become more conscientious about eating locally produced and whole foods. Often, I have been enjoined to try going completely vegan for a limited time—forty days or a month is often suggested—and I kind of put two and two together: vegan for forty days during Lent.

Because food is so daily, cooking and eating so regular in my day, I like having a spiritual practice associated with it. It creates an atmosphere of mindfulness. The routine and mundane take on significance. There is a sense in which I am somehow participating more consciously in the rhythms of the earth. My daily choices have an effect on animals and farmers and climate change and natural resources. It reminds me that I am connected to something larger than myself, that I am a strand in a vast interconnected living web. Care of the body and care of the larger earthbody are simultaneous.

For those of you who observe Lent, however you mark it, may it indeed be a time of introspection and prayer, mindfulness and preparation for the coming banquet to which all are invited and nobody turned away hungry.

My Wish For Your Thanksgiving Meal

We need food to live. This is a basic fact of human existence. To eat is to live. When we share food, when we share a meal, we are in some essential way, sharing life. We offer and receive the very substance of life. And it is not just our own life that food nurtures, but our common, communal life, the life of families, communities, and cultures. When we want to connect with others, we seldom ask them to meet us in a quiet place where we can speak undisturbed, but rather say, “Let’s do lunch!” We connect with others around this basic need. When we want to share our lives with others, we eat together.

A shared meal is a doorway into our common life, as family and friends, as guests and hosts, as a community. We commune with one another and the forces of life that sustain us. The community-forming power of potlucks and collective kitchens, community gardens and farmer’s markets, Thanksgiving dinner and ordinary family suppers, all call us out of isolation and into communion. Food brings us together.

My prayer for our culture is for more of us to restore conviviality to our habits of cooking and eating. Convivial—a word that signifies shared life—does not describe rushed meals eaten alone between work and soccer and errands and school. Nor does it describe any meal that is delivered to you through your car window.  Convenience is huge in our hurried, overscheduled lives. In the name of convenience, food now has more to do with chemistry and mass production than community, relations or even pleasure. Americans have come to think of food only in its component parts—calories and carbohydrates, sodium and saturated fats. But food is not just for the body, a substance made up of nutrients that we ingest for the proper functioning of the mechanism of our body. Food is also for the mind and spirit and forming bonds with others. Convenience in preparing meals has trumped delight and pleasure in cooking and consuming food. In all of this, something has been lost. There is no soul, no enchantment, in such fare.

What has been lost can be restored when couples and families spend time in the kitchen cooking together. Having the children help plan, prepare, cook and serve, meals or parts of meals shows them they are valued, they are valued members of your household. Gardening together, shopping together at the farmers’ market, discovering what to do with all the produce in your CSA share, learning how to can and preserve, indeed, simply learning new culinary skills—all invite us in to a celebratory relationship with food, the laborers who grow and produce it, the Earth, and each other.

Some of us, including those of us without spouses or children, are even experimenting with leisurely meals. Savoring each bite with intention and mindfulness, enjoying the tastes and smells and the company, if there is company, can be a joyful way to eat a meal. The art of dining, eating with style and manners, can create an atmosphere of attention and contemplation to our meals.

With care and imagination, all of our meals can be sacred, convivial occasions. Whether we dine alone or with others, every meal can be an occasion to nurture the spirit. The way we set the table, what plates and napkins we use, lighting candles or placing a vase of fresh cut flowers on the table, all create an ambiance that allows the soul to know that its needs are being addressed along with those of the stomach. A pause, a moment before the meal is served, invites us to simply be mindful, thankful. Whether a grace or a blessing is said aloud, whether the pause is filled with words or expectant silence, recognition that life is being celebrated comes.

Even at the everyday table, where the regular plates and cutlery are used, are those not the times when members of the same household gather and tell the story of their day? Isn’t the common life of our families gathered around the kitchen table, the supper table, the everyday meals, that fills our hunger for belonging as well as filling the hunger of our bodies?  In my household growing up, attendance at dinner nightly was not optional. We had to be at the dinner table at six o’clock no matter what. Among other things, this practice instilled in me a sense of stability, belonging, relationship, and love.

I have often asked my mother for recipes, recipes of things she made when I was growing up that I needed as an adult to comfort me, to call up the memory of who I am.  With the recipes come memories of my origins, stories about the old country, family narratives. Mixed in with the techniques of how to cook these recipes are stories of my grandmothers, their lives and kitchens, their hardships and triumphs. Even when I made those recipes and ate them alone, my home fragrant with the culinary smells of my ancestors, I felt connected, in communion with my family and my ethnic heritage.

My wish for all of us this Thanksgiving and in the days ahead, is for conviviality to grace our meals, for all of our meals to become occasions for giving thanks, for mindful eating, for everyday feasts. May we slow down enough to make each meal an expression of the best of who we are, as individuals, as families and households. May our dining together and alone be a source of comfort, wholeness and peace for ourselves, for our communities, and for our planet. May each meal be a celebration, every mouthful a Eucharistic feast, every bite a taste of the world to come, a world in which hunger and want, injustice and injury are no more.