As we drive along the San Francisco Bay, the sunlight fights the pressing fog. When the city diminishes in the rearview, the fog slowly disappears. Sunlight at last. We skirt Sacramento then travel through unpopulated fields with soaring windmills beating like a metronome. We always knew we were getting close to Auburn, my mother’s hometown, when we left the fields and entered the ravine passing under the Foresthill Bridge. It soars over 700 feet.
We make our way through town until we enter my grandma’s neighborhood. We crest the hill and below sits her small home situated comfortably in the right corner of the cul-da-sac. The two-hour drive feels like forever as a kid (now two hours seems like a short day trip), but all that mattered is that we arrived at grandma’s house.
We always loved to go there. In her front yard towered a maple tree with broad leaves. The tree reminds me of my grandmother who planted her family in Auburn and kept everyone together and rooted. She was a short but tough Hispanic immigrant who raised eight children in a small home and kept the family together when her husband died shortly after my birth in 1983. She provided everything the family needed. This was never more tangible than when she gathered her family around the table for a meal.
The Food Memory of a Family Meal
In her kitchen, she was in charge like a French chef in his Michelin starred restaurant. She loved you no doubt. You could feel it in the food. No one spends that much time preparing food that good if they don’t love you, but she wouldn’t hesitate to bark orders or snap if you were trying to sneak a quick bite: “Out! Out! Out! Get out of my kitchen. It’s not ready.”
Not ready? If you could successfully get a bite of whatever was cooking on the stove it was like finding gold in the ravine. The only exception to that rule for me was when she made tripe. It “perfumed” the entire house and kept me out of the kitchen.
Inevitably during our stay, the entire family was invited to grandma’s. Late afternoon around the end of the work day family slowly started to arrive—first her children and grandchildren who lived within walking distances then the family who drove. If she cooked it, they would come. The women helped her set the table with food and plates and the men would sit outside with a cold beer watching the kids play under the maple tree. If it was summer, there might be a pool out front under the tree. It was the best of times.
These meals were like a family Eucharist and my grandmother was the priest blessing the wine and breaking the bread. We all waited patiently for our portion, our blessing. These meals were her way of keeping the family together and also her way of loving us. It was a tangible sign that you were in the family and that you were loved. You would be cared for. You belonged.
My grandmother passed away when I was in junior high, but my mother continues to make the Hispanic comfort foods her mother made. Just the smell coming from the kitchen as grandma’s roasted chile sauce simmers on the oven makes me feel safe and loved. This is where I belong. This is family.
A Meal of Grace
In the Gospel of Matthew, the apostle reports in Matthew 26:26-29, “26 Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, 28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
When I was young so much was made of not eating unworthily (a serious admonition of Paul no doubt) that I ate the Lord’s Supper like you might eat something you suspected was poisoned. Or how a young child might eat broccoli—hesitantly, face gnarled, knuckles white. These negative experiences branded memory. Earlier I described one of the strongest food memories. Positive and negative experiences can have a strong and lasting impression.
When the Lord commands the original Passover, he does so to create this type of ingrained memory for his people. The Passover was a tangible assault on the senses of the church. It recalled how God led them out of Egypt. How he spoiled the Egyptians for them. How he parted the Red Sea. How he redeemed them from slavery. In his wisdom, he did this by sitting families down around a table where all their senses were engaged in what was around them. If they obeyed the Lord, they would experience this every year for the rest of their life. I bet just the smell of the lamb cooking would invoke strong feelings of hope and love and mercy.
Sadly, Israel didn’t obey and didn’t keep the Passover every year. This was to their harm. It made their families fragile and vulnerable to worshipping other gods. They didn’t know the story of redemption and so they didn’t know who they were or who their God was.
As Jesus arrives on the scene, he starts doing things that echo the stories of the Old Testament that tie into the story of redemption. He frees slaves from the bondage of sin. He heals the sick. He casts out demons. Jesus wilderness testing mirrors Israel’s own testing in the wilderness except where they failed he succeeds. How Jesus lives is intentional. He takes the threads of this old story of redemption and weaves his own life into the very fabric of the story. He shows everyone who watches that his life, death, resurrection, and ascension are a second Exodus, the greater story of redemption.
So is it any wonder that when our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ sets up his Passover that he does so around the table? He engages the senses. He pours out good wine and breaks fresh bread. Have you ever been in the kitchen when fresh bread comes right out of the oven? Have you ever cracked the crust and felt the warm air inside the bread hit your face? If you have, you won’t forget it. When Jesus calls us around his table, he calls us to remember while giving us something tangible and arresting that points us to a greater reality.
We must never forget that the Lord’s Supper is a place for sinners to receive something tangible. Are you harboring unrepentant sin in your heart? There’s no better place to repentant than the table. The table is one of grace and mercy and forgiveness. Are you suffering or in pain or depressed? There’s no better place to find healing than the table. Are seeking Jesus Christ? Put your faith in him, be baptized, and come eat freely at his table. Taste and see that the Lord is good. Enter his presence.
The Presence of God for Mission
My pastor Brian Habig made an interesting point about the Lord’s Supper in a sermon earlier this year. In the Old Testament, if you mishandled the ark of the covenant, the very presence of God among his people, you would be killed. As Matthew told us earlier, Jesus says the bread and wine are his body and blood. Paul later stresses the seriousness of eating unworthily with threat of death. When we partake of the Eucharist, we experience the very presence of God. The body of our Lord sits in heaven ruling but through our union with Christ and the Spirit we now meet in the presence of the Lord to sense his love for us. With every drink and bite we eat spiritually the body and blood of our Savior as John Calvin described it. This eating is a result of our faith and points to the true body and blood of Christ which was poured out for the many for the forgiveness of sins.
As we approach the table, our hearts should leap for joy as the eating and drinking itself creates in us an instinctual and tangible impression of the gospel for us. This joy is what I experienced every time my family gathered around my grandma’s table—I knew I belonged. The Eucharist should also remind us of Christ’s promise—“I will be with you always” (Matt. 28:20). We are re-fueled for mission in the very presence of God at his table. When the Lord commands the original Passover, he does so to create this type of ingrained memory for his people.