What's So Sacred About Meals?

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When I first converted to Christianity, one of the biggest changes in my daily life was saying a prayer before eating. I wasn't used to doing anything other than scooting my chair in and grabbing my napkin before I ate, so it took a while to get into the habit of pausing to address God before I dug into my food. Yet, oddly enough, it felt perfectly natural. Almost all major human celebrations involve food. Even our big secular holidays are associated with celebratory mealtimes (barbecue and pickles on the 4th of July, a feast with blackeyed peas on New Year's Day). It would seem that humans have a natural sense that there's something special about food, and it's no surprise that almost all major religions take special care to offer thanks to the divine for the privilege of eating.

But what is it that makes this particular act so special?

I always enjoy trying to articulate the answers to questions like this, but this one left me stumped. Yes, food is essential to life, but so is water and shelter, and it's not customary to say a prayer before entering your home or taking a sip of a drink. I posed this question to readers of my personal blog years ago, and ended up getting some fascinating replies that have helped me understand just what's so special about the act of gathering around the table. I hated to see such wisdom languishing in the archives, so, in honor of our big American feast day on Thursday, here are some great answers to the question, "What's so sacred about mealtime?"

The dead don't eat

John C. Wright said:

When I converted from Atheism to Christianity, this was one of the easiest of Christian habits for me to pick up. I say grace in restaurants before digging into my Happy Taco meat-flavored food substitute.

Of course, I converted from my sick bed. The Grim Reaper had been standing close by, so to speak, and so the gift of life, and the promise of eternal life, were very near and dear to my heart.

The symbolism appeals to me. The dead do not eat. That is the one thing Homer says about mortal men in his poems: mortals are called ‘men who eat bread’ (as opposed to gods who sup ambrosia and shades who eat nothing).

We remember our lives and give thanks for the source of life when we break bread, and we recall the Bread of Heaven, the manna, which is one of the figures of Christ.

Meals are a natural opportunity for gratitude

Steve G. said:

[The] fact that meals (even when alone) are somewhat regular in interval allows the tying of grace (thanks) to them to be our reminders to periodically say thank you. Just like we have regular morning and evening prayers, we try to build these regular touchstones of prayer into the fabric of our day to help us remember we are in God's presence.

I know that if I didn’t say thank you at grace, and instead just promised to say it ‘every so often’, it’s more likely than not that I’d say it far less often.

Sharing a meal makes us 'companions'

Melanie Bettinelli said:

[The] Eucharist is a meal. For some reason God chooses to come to us in the form of bread and wine.

My husband likes to think of it in this way: God could have created us to be like plants, taking all that we needed from the eath or the air or the sun. But He didn't. Instead he made us beings that need to eat.

Is it possible that He did so for the very reason that one day we might be able to receive Him in the Eucharist?

In many cultures eating a meal with someone has a special significance. In the ancient world often people would not eat with those who were not of their tribe. You see that in the Bible when the Jews refuse to eat with Gentiles. Jesus breaks that rule when He breaks bread with all sorts of undesirables.

I seem to recall hearing stories of cultures in which once you have shared a meal with someone you are bound not to kill them.

The word "companion" literally means someone you have bread with (com = with, pan = bread).

Food becomes part of us

Mike J said:

[It] relates to the Eucharist. In it we take Christ into us and He becomes part of us, as we are being made a part of Him as His Body. Likewise with other food, we take it in and it becomes part of us, and thus part of the body of Christ. Anything that is to become part of the body of Christ should be taken with reverence and should be blessed as it becomes part of Him.

I think of these words often. They helped me come to a fuller appreciation of my meals, especially those eaten in community with loved-ones, and have added a new depth to the words we say at mealtime prayer. I hope you find them equally inspiring. Happy Thanksgiving!