There’s just something appealing about eating outdoors. And people everywhere seem to recognize this.
So it’s no surprise that some of the most memorable scenes in the Bible involve meals outdoors. These stories provide us with images of people receiving nourishment together, and experiencing fellowship with one another. Yet, these significant occasions stand out because they center on encounters with God. Sitting down with others at a feast is a potent Scriptural image, which connects our life in this world to our life in the next. This is why Christians gather around a table every Sunday. For Jesus said, “I tell you, many will come from east and west and will eat with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven…” And so, both the Last Supper, and ordinary meals, prefigure God’s heavenly banquet. We gather for meal, which we then perceive to be a holy occasion ~ an occasion of fellowship with others in God’s presence. When we gather in this way, we see glimpses of God’s expansive Kingdom.
One of the most evocative of such occasions is found in Exodus 24, in a passage that is often overlooked. After the people of Israel cross the Red Sea, in their Passover escape from Egyptian slavery, Moses gathers them at the foot of Mt Sinai. There, he reads to them from the book of the Covenant. After reading, he sprinkles the blood of the Covenant upon the altar and upon the people. To quote from Exodus, then Moses “Aaron, Nadab, and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel went up (the mountain), and they saw the God of Israel… God did not lay his hand on the chief… people of Israel; [and so] they beheld God, and they ate and drank” in God’s presence, at the top of a mountain. A shared meal in God’s presence involves seeing the Lord.
Writing his Gospel over a thousand years later, John surely had this scene in mind. Drawn by the signs of healing Jesus was doing, a large crowd follows him into a ‘deserted place.’ (Recall how often God reveals self in ‘deserted places.’) With the Passover auspiciously near, Jesus goes up a mountain with his disciples, and sits near the top. In this scene, the bread of life, the bread of heaven, comes down into the midst of God’s people in two ways: in Jesus, and in what they eat. The gathered people eat and drink with one another in God’s presence. And they feast upon the unexpected abundance of divine gifts, for which Jesus has offered thanks. Stunned by the power of his new miraculous sign, the people say, “This is indeed the prophet who is to come into the world.”
This post is based on my homily for Sunday, July 29, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The image above is by James Tissot, and is titled, The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes. The meal outdoors story from John is found in chapter 6 of his Gospel. (Other Sunday homilies of mine can be accessed by clicking here.)