By Mark Thomas
As a Baptist who is currently serving in an interim capacity in a Disciples of Christ congregation, I have been thinking a lot lately about the religious boundaries that we draw as Christians. And as an American citizen, I have also been thinking about national boundaries, about immigrants, refugees, and travelers, and our call to hospitality as people of faith. How deeply disturbing it is to see images of American border protection agents firing tear gas at migrants—including children!
With Thanksgiving just past and Christmas around the corner, I have also been reflecting on the significance of eating together, of ritual meals, in our traditions, both religious and cultural. One of our most common Christian practices focuses on the sharing of communion, which in the early Church was part of an actual meal where the faithful sat down around the table together. The sacred sharing of bread and wine was a part of earlier Jewish tradition as well, perhaps even predating Judaism.
One of the earliest examples of the holy use of grain and grape together is centered on the startling, enigmatic figure of Melchizedek (Genesis 14: 18-20). As Abraham is returning from battle, the priest, Melchizedek, abruptly appears with bread and wine and a blessing for Abraham. Aside from one other brief reference in a Psalm, Melchizedek is not mentioned again in the Hebrew Scriptures, though he is discussed in the New Testament book of Hebrews, where Jesus is compared with him as our Great High Priest.
Another parallel can be drawn as well. Like Melchizedek, so too does a messenger of God mysteriously and unexpectedly appear to a young Jewish woman in Nazareth, blessing her, and telling her of a child to come. Mary’s moving, poetic response, traditionally called the “Magnificat,” in part refers to how the Lord has “…filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” (Luke 1:53)
A number of other religious traditions also emphasize the ritualistic sharing of food in a sacred space. For example, in Hindu temples, prasada is food that has been offered to the deity, and, thus sanctified, is then given by the deity back to the followers—and even to non-Hindu visitors to the temple. Quite a few years ago, when my wife and I were living in Singapore, we went one day to the Chettiars’ Temple to observe a particular festival. We were standing just outside the temple, cautiously observing the processional from a distance, when, suddenly, a Hindu man appeared in front of us, greeted us, and said, “You can come share the blessed food with us.” We were even further startled when he escorted us through a side gate into the temple courtyard, which led us all to cut right into the front of the line, whereupon he helped us fill our plates with food.
Back outside, as we sat down and ate together, we learned that this man and his family were from Sri Lanka. When he mentioned the violence there, we realized that they must be refugees, and that they had journeyed to Singapore to escape the bloody civil war in their homeland. He was very interested in the fact that we were American. We gave him our address, and I wondered if he might ask us to help them in some way to seek asylum. However, we never heard from them again. I have long since forgotten their names, though I still wonder why he singled us out and showed us such tremendous hospitality. Far from any church, it was a communion moment for us like no other.
As we enter a season focused on one who was himself a refugee of political violence, fleeing with family to Egypt, I wonder what surprising, even startling, shared meals of hospitality might be possible this Advent.
Mark L. Thomas is a member of CBF congregation Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky. After a career teaching philosophy in college, he is currently a 2nd-year M.Div. student at the Baptist Seminary of Kentucky and serves as Interim Pastor at Newtown Christian Church (D.O.C.) in Georgetown, Ky.