I’ve been thinking quite a bit lately about the common table. When we think about gathering around a table, most of us remember family meals. (If you don’t, then you probably at least have a mental image of the stereotypical idealized 1950s Leave It to Beaver sort of family dinnertime.) Perhaps another dominant association of the table, at least in Christian circles, is the Eucharist (a.ka. the Lord’s Supper, a.ka. Holy Communion). But regardless of specific functions, I think we can all agree the table is a gathering place, somewhere we go to be with other people, people whom we love.
What greater way of expressing community, solidarity, and love is there besides sharing a meal? Think about it. What do families do at holidays? They eat together. Brothers, sisters, aunts, uncles, relatives and kin who haven’t seen each other for years sit at the table and eat. And what is probably the single most common date? Dinner (sometimes with a movie to follow). There’s something about food and table that brings people together.
Part of it is simply the opportunity to slow down. Some of us rush meals, seeing them as an annoying necessity to keep us fueled until the next pit stop. We wolf down whatever we can get our hands on wherever we are, including the car, the sidewalk, and our desks. Such hurried, furtive mastications fall far short of being a true meal, regardless of calorie count or nutritional value. A true meal, eaten with other people, doesn’t have such time constraints. The stressors awaiting us after we push in our chairs disappear, if only for a few stolen moments. When we tuck in to the table, we slow down, savoring each moment — and each bite.
When we slow down like that, something amazing happens: we encounter other people. Really. Our focus shifts from the cares of the workaday world to those at the table with us. A common meal means common conversation. We check in with one another, asking questions about work, about relationships, about family, about hopes and dreams and fears and setbacks. People become real at the table, whether it’s a family feast at Thanksgiving or a private luncheon after a funeral. Friends go to lunch to discuss problems — or comic books. Couples are free to ignore the rest of the world and look into each other’s souls, daring just for a few minutes to be intimate and drop all pretenses. And none of this could happen without the table.
Apart from this, a table can also be a means of conveying status. The head of the family sits at the head of the table. A bigger table means bigger coffers, and those seated farthest from the host are all too cognizant of their perceived inferiority. King Arthur’s round table symbolized the equality and fraternity of his knights. Roundtable forums even today are meant to show the same egalitarianism, and they become places where every person and every opinion is considered equally valid.
None of these table-y insights are particularly new. We know from the Bible and other ancient authorities that the table has long been filling all of these roles. This is part of what makes the fact of Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors so scandalous. To sit with them at table was to mark them as equals. It was to say he loved them, considered them friends and family. To share a table was to tear down social boundaries and false senses of self-worth and self-importance. To eat with the Son of God was to recognize the playing field was level, and everyone had a chance at a relationship with the divine.
The best part? We receive the same invitation as those called by Christ in Scripture.
I’ve already mentioned the Eucharist being a common image of table fellowship in Christianity. I’ll even say it’s the dominant image of the table in Christianity. We even order our corporate in two parts: Service of the Word and Service of the Table. Different denominations — indeed, different congregations — celebrate the Table differently. Some require a formal liturgy led by a clergyperson to consecrate the bread and wine (or Welch’s), and some ask only a simple prayer offered by any believer. Some will allow only the baptized to the Table, and others open the Table to anyone who might come to faith by the grace offered in the Supper. One church might believe the elements to become true flesh and true blood; another might believe Christ is spiritually present in the bread and wine; and still another may say it’s all symbolic and no grace is conferred in the Communion.
Regardless of one’s eucharistic theology, we all share the same fundamental principle: Jesus calls us to the feast. He wants us to unite around the Table to unite around him. When we come to the Table, we recognize we are equals. We reach out to those around us and see, perhaps for the first time or perhaps for the millionth time, we are all friends, family. We see our worth in the eyes of God, and we see His grace and love towards us. And when we leave the table, we leave with a renewed sense of the divine, for surely we have spoken with our God.
It’s possible, I suppose, our own perceptions of the table and all its connotations and associations stem from the Eucharist Table. It’s also possible the reverse is true, and we love the Table because of our love of the table. No matter which way it works, however, we gather together, as the hymn says, to ask the Lord’s blessing at each of our tables. We have conversation, community, love, and grace in a unique way — a way impossible aside from the table.
Maybe that’s why Our Lord came in the form of a carpenter.
Next Up: What is this whole “public theology” thing, anyway?