Our Advent traditions have become numerous: we cut down our tree at the Beck Family farm in the shadow of Mt. Hood, we give homemade cinnamon rolls to our neighbors, we go ice skating at the mall, I take the girls to see the Nutcracker, and we go on a hike through the snow and forest on Christmas morning. Between all of these moments, we experience the normal hustle and bustle of America: drinking hot chocolate, shopping, wrapping gifts, calling relatives, and, many times, traveling. The most revered and treasured tradition, however, is our Christmas Eve feast.
This family tradition pre-dates our marriage, when my wife and her mother would annually welcome in anyone without a family to be with and without a place to go. This meal was important to my late mother-in-law, because it depicted generosity, family, and the entire message of the gospel. Our Christmas Eve meal is not only one of the more special ways we remember my mother-in-law, it is the most spiritual and religious moment of our entire holiday season. My wife, Mirela, prepares great food from appetizers to dessert. It begins with an assortment of nuts, cheeses, and meats and ends with marvelous dessert. We buy the best beer, the best wine, and the best whisky. We decorate our home and we welcome in friend, stranger, and acquaintances.
I remember our first year in Portland saw us welcome a couple we met on the street searching for live music, our landlord, and friends from long ago. Each year we see a different collection; and yet each year is the same: we have a feast on the evening we celebrate God’s arrival. There’s hardly anything more appropriate in our worship. More than hymns, more than sermons, and even more than candles; we see God’s arrival to us at a table with other people.
Our Longing for the Feast
Food is significantly religious. It is through food that Adam and Eve rebel. The first biblical meal is the perversion, pollution, and de-creation of all God had made. Adam’s feast ushers the world into chaos. Through food humanity enters a groaning and waiting for wholeness, restoration, and peace. Sin—everything that is unkind, unmerciful, destructive, wicked, lonely, murderous, and mortal—has its birth in that first meal. Through Advent we weep over the consequences of Adam and Eve’s meal in which they doubted God’s goodness and believed God to be withholding. The hopelessness, war, doubt, and selfishness of our worlds are directly correlated to our participation in that meal. That meal made Advent necessary. God arrives to remove the separation caused by sin, to resurrect the death consumed, and to destroy the evil digested.
Advent is the season we observe the agony of war and hope for peace. We aspire to hope while we acknowledge our own despair. We long for love while confronting our inability to receive love from another or muster the courage to love another. The world watches for God’s light, peace, joy, salvation, and love to break into our world. We wait for the abundance, blessing, and eternal life of God that overpowers our sin and cleanses us. It was through a meal creation fell apart, and its through a meal that God is restoring all things, including us.
The Arrival of the Gospel Feast
You’ve likely never heard an Advent or Christmas sermon on Isaiah 25, but it is a deep song of arriving hope and peace to the world.
On this mountain the Lord of hosts will make for all peoples
a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wine,
of rich food full of marrow, of aged wine well refined.
And he will swallow up on this mountain
the covering that is cast over all peoples,
the veil that is spread over all nations.
He will swallow up death forever;
and the Lord God will wipe away tears from all faces,
and the reproach of his people he will take away from all the earth,
for the Lord has spoken.
It will be said on that day,
“Behold, this is our God; we have waited for him, that he might save us.
This is the Lord; we have waited for him;
let us be glad and rejoice in his salvation.
Isaiah points us to a moment when the waiting will be over. When God will gather all people for a rich feast an incredible celebration. It’s in that gathering in that shared feast that we will see the swallowing up of death, the removal of mourning, the extinguishing of condemnation, and the tearing of the separation between God and humanity. This is the powerful moment of hope’s arrival. Symbolically and powerfully it happens over a feast. The moment is a communal meal. God gathers a diverse and multitude of people at the meal. We wait for the arrival of God to us. We celebrate his coming to us.
Waiting for Communal Advent
Our waiting is also for his binding together his people. Far too often we view our holiday seasons and Advent meditation as individuals. It is exclusively for our families and for ourselves. Nothing breaks this isolation and ushers a communal response to advent like a meal. At the table, we share our stories, we listen to one another, and we experience grace. The New Testament describes this act as “breaking bread” and invokes a giving and receiving of relationship in the most simple and unspoken of ways. The communal meal is a spiritual discipline.
Every shared feast begins through arrival. Individual responsibilities, schedules, and to-do lists collide into a shared agenda of celebrating God. The worries, struggles, fears, and happy news of each member comes rushing through the door. Your lives are hurried until this point. Your lives are physically separate until this moment and yet God gathers you together. Communities are physically united by the table you gather around, the meal everyone consumes, and under our common prayer recognizing God’s grace.
Christmas Communion: Christ is the One We’ve Waited For
Jesus holds up bread and wine during his last meal with his disciples and says it is his body and blood. Food and drink become the taste of the gospel. While bread has an association with abundant life that surpass biblical imagery, in Christ it becomes the sufficient sacrifice. Wine too, outside Christianity, is seen as a sign of blessing, goodness, and often associated with blood. However in Christ, wine becomes the image of blessing, goodness, justification, and cleansing that comes through Jesus’ suffering on our behalf.
What cannot be missed is Jesus choice for a meal to be our remembrance of the gospel. If the gospel forms community, sharing this gospel feast ought to be done as often as we get together. Jesus called us to know him and his sacrifice through a meal. When we eat the bread and wine, we commune around this truth.
Charles Wesley penned some important words for this gathering and eating in worship. In this hymn, Wesley reminds us we are called to remember the first arrival of God and open doors of welcome God’s coming is.
“Come, sinners, to the gospel feast;
let every soul be Jesus’ guest.
Ye need not one be left behind,
for God hath bid all humankind.”
We regularly sing this hymn at Bread&Wine and not only do we remember the feast, we sing this truth out as an invitation to all humanity to come and be the guest of God. This is an anthem for us and the church we aspire to be: a church that welcomes every soul as Jesus’ guest into the most meaningful of tables. Our invitation to those in our city is not simply to dinner parties but into the family of God, into union with Christ. As we welcome the poor and powerless into our community meals and as we share the crucial nature of the elements of communion, we realize we are the sinners coming. We are the ones in need of his body and his blood. In communion we hold up bread and wine to one another and say: “Jesus is the one we’ve been waiting for. This is our God who swallows up death. Let us rejoice in this salvation that has come to us.”
Sing hymns, read devotionals, pray prayers, and light candles this Advent season. All are good and right responses to what we have hoped for and what God has certainly accomplished. Do not neglect the table where all can come and be Jesus’ guest. Do not neglect a communal celebration that reflects the magnitude of God’s arrival. After all, as Tim Chester writes, “Jesus didn’t run projects, establish ministries, create programs, or put on events. He ate meals.” How will you see Christ at your table this season?