Cooking is a humanising activity. Yesterday I spent a couple of hours preparing food for other people. Buying the ingredients, gathering everything together, using a trusted recipe for a dish I already know they enjoy and anticipate, adds to the sense that, in cooking for other people, we offer a different kind of gift. The cost of the ingredients, the time and energy preparing and cooking, the setting of the table (or trays), and the clearing up and doing the dishes afterwards. A meal to the grateful recipient is like a package holiday. You arrive, enjoy, and there's no tidying up before you go.
I've always been moved and intrigued by the way Jesus handled food, welcomed guests, arranged meals and parties, and knew what to do with loaves and fishes and hungry folk. When he took bread and blessed it, poured wine and gave thanks, he was doing something deeply characteristic. That particular gesture of inclusion was enough to open the eyes of two disciples who couldn't see past their own sadness. But the Word who became flesh understood the wonder and fragility of human flesh. Through bread and wine He was respecting and caring for human bodies, serving and nourishing human beings, using food as a sacrament. Jesus shows his followers how to turn food into a means of grace, a tangible blessing which tells the other that they are welcome to this space, and to this food, and that the trouble gone to is a privilege, inconvenience being willingly enjoyed for the sake of blessing these others.
Celebration doesn't have to be tied to a special occasion; the coming of a guest is occasion enough. Not extravagance and anxiety to impress, but the simple offering of who we are and what we have, but with trouble taken to make the occasion happen as a memory in the making. And hand-made memories of food shared are later powerful evocations of gratitude which nourish the roots of friendship, making hospitality an essential activity in any community intentionally shaped around Jesus and his table.
So two hours of my time, making Italian meatballs in a home made tomato and olive sauce and served with spaghetti and garlic laden buttered bread is the spiritual equivalent of attending serial prayer meetings. The sacrament of hospitality, the grace of welcome, the joy of food, the companionship around a table, the gratitude of friends in conversation and laughter accompanied by the clink of cutlery and glass, these are experiences impossible to replicate in any other way. A meal cooked and shared and enjoyed fills the stomach, but in so doing it courses through us to those deep places where life obtains its equilibrium, and roots itself in substance and builds sources of hope. Food does that. It instils hope.
Conversely, hunger undermines hopefulness, and those who have no food are often also those who have no friends to cook, share and welcome. A proper Christian theology of cooking presupposes food is for sharing, and will insist that we incorporate and embody, companionship. Com panus - sharing bread with; and I wonder what the consequences might be if Christians in their neighbourhoods were known as companions of the community, people who make and buy and share and eat bread with others.
A favourite poem is a reminder that bread is sacred as well as staple, and that the One who taught us to pray for our daily bread, also teaches us reverence for food;
Be gentle when you handle bread.
Let it not lie uncared for,
taken for granted or unwanted.
There is such beauty in bread,
beauty of sun and soil,
beauty of patient toil.
Wind and rains caressed it.
Christ often blessed it.
Be gentle when you handle bread.