Below is an excerpt from an address given at last week's Theopolis Epiphany Feast. I am grateful to Erik van Versendaal for sending my a copy of his superb paper, "Reason for Being" (Communion, 2017), which inspired much of the following.
We must eat to live. That’s not a defect, nor a mere biological necessity. Eating unveils the truth of created existence. Our need for food is a mark of our dependence and receptivity, a sign we’re embedded in a world of bodies. But we receive only when another creature gives itself – the lettuce must be cut from its roots, the chicken butchered, the wheat harvested, milled, and baked, the grapes trampled. These die that we may live.
And we too are caught up in this cycle of giving and receiving, for one day we’ll be ploughed under to become dust that nourishes the grass that nourishes the cattle that nourishes our descendants. To be an eater – that is, to be a living soul – is to inhabit this web of exchange, this nexus of sacrifice, life for life. Food itself reveals that life is more than food. Our very hunger for self-preservation reveals that life reaches beyond self-preservation. Every meal discloses death and resurrection as the deep structure of created life.
Everything survives by receiving another’s self-gift. And everything reaches its perfection by giving itself outside itself. Consider the lily. The lily accepts gifts from brother sun, sister air, from the soil, from the swarming bees, butterflies, and hummingbirds. But the lily only becomes what it’s created to be when it blooms, sharing its Solomonic splendor and spiced fragrance. Each and every creature reaches fullness by receiving. Each and every creature reaches fullness by giving, for self-giving is its life. Survival and perfection both occur through a circulation of gifts and acts of communion.
For us as well: We’re created to love ourselves. We want to survive and want to be the best we can be. But “self-love is inherently ecstatic” (van Versendaal). We possess ourselves only by dispossession; we’re filled by the emptying of others and by our own self-emptying for others. For human beings, this harmony of giving and receiving takes the form of personal communion. We seek the face of a Thou, and aspire to the polyphony of a “We.” And there is no more fitting emblem of this personal communion than a common table. What you eat and drink is transformed into your body; food becomes you. At a banquet, the food and drink come from a host, who gives up his own bodily life, the food he could eat to sustain himself, to feed his guests. The host gives himself to his guests, so that, feasting together, host and guest are made one.
In all this, creation bears traces of the Creator. As Thomas succinctly puts it: “Goodness is in God, and the outpouring of goodness into other things. Hence, the creature approaches more perfectly to God’s likeness if it is not only good, but can also act for the good of other things.” God doesn’t need anything He’s made, and yet He affirms Himself by giving creatures the power to be and the capacity to respond in love to His love. God’s own perfection is shown in the self-denial that gives existence to creatures. His self-love overflows in rapture, for His love is so over-abundant that He sets His desire on us. Creation exists because God Himself enters, as both Giver and Receiver, into the cosmic feast of all with all.
Festivity isn’t some extraneous add-on to life. A feast is an effective sign of life, the site where life is lived, life in communion with God and one another, life as shared joy, a sharing of food and drink that is also a sharing of ourselves with one another. Food exists to be saturated with personal communion, “to carry in itself the communication of one person to another” (van Versendaal). And so we taste the goodness of one another through the goodness of creatures of food and drink.
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