Growing up and sharing supper with the family, I was often asked by my dad what I had learned in school that day. It inevitably became an opportunity to talk about the surprises and challenges of my young life. Suddenly one day, perhaps when I was in the third or fourth grade, I realized that I wasn’t the only one who was supposed to be learning; so, I began to initiate that conversation myself by quickly asking my dad what he had learned at work that day. They often proved to be great discussions and now have become wonderful memories.
Some years ago, I remember speaking with a professor in the theology program at Marquette University (now happily retired), who playfully described his insistence that his teenaged children always share supper with the family — no excuses or running off for some basketball game or hanging-out with friends. He admitted there was some grumbling on occasion, but he remained stubbornly convinced that the benefits of that casual exchange of personal complaints or daily successes bonded the family and was well worth the effort. Years later, he admitted with a grin that he was right, as his kids, then independent adults, continued to reminisce about the fond memories and lasting benefits of that practice.
Those tales from family life often come to mind whenever I ponder Gospel stories in preparing for Sunday homilies. For me, the thought-trigger is the realization that a unique element in the spirituality of the Pharisees of ancient Judaism was their conviction that the family table actually shared the sacredness of Temple sacrifice. As a devout member of that group, Jesus the Pharisee, in the Hillel tradition, was convinced that such conversations were often moments of grace and growth, certainly for his chosen Apostles and friends.
When some others in the Pharisaic movement complained at times that he ate with sinners (Luke 15:2), Jesus insisted that those discussions were occasions for a change in thinking and conversion among all gathered at table. In fact, Luke’s Gospel makes a point of recording (and highlighting) such exchanges. A casual and quick search indicates that Luke refers to those meal discussions at the invitation of Pharisee friends at least four times (Luke 5:29; 7:36; 11:37; 14:1). They culminated in his extraordinary Last Supper (Luke 22:8ff) and then again in the Upper room after the Resurrection, when he asked for something to eat as proof of his risen human existence (Luke 24:41) — and explained the risen reality they were witnessing.
The homily at every Catholic celebration of the Eucharist continues that tradition throughout the centuries — as the celebrant mines the Scriptures of the day and points out where God is still at work in the lives of those who had gathered for the Lord’s Supper that morning.
The teaching of Jesus, in his words, but also in his persistent actions, thus makes a point of seeing the Eucharist as a sacred meal — and all meals as somehow sacred, together with all the discussions which occurred at table.
Sitting down at lunch or supper with family and friends on so many occasions today may find us talking about a variety of topics, but somehow God is always at work in all those discussions.
In the Lutheran tradition, significant respect is often given to the casual conversation of Martin Luther at the table with friends. In fact, at least six volumes of “Table talk/Tischreden” have been preserved and published.
All of this comes to mind this time of the year as we prepare for another round of annual holidays and the gatherings of family and friends they include. Table talk, even our own, is much more sacred than we ever realize.