I’m a bit of a nerd. For instance, when I was younger, I, like many youngsters, memorized the alphabet. But that wasn’t enough for my young mind. I memorized not only the individual letters of the alphabet, but their corresponding numbers. So, A’s corresponding number is 1, B’s is 2, C’s is 3, and so on. This might sound simple enough, but wait, there’s more. I took it upon myself to memorize the sums and products of adding and multiplying letters by their corresponding numbers. With very little hesitation I could come up with the letters, numbers, and mathematical results when asked. Surprisingly, not too many people were looking for this information.
Fast forward to present day and I am still rather nerdy. (Thankfully, my wife has a soft spot for nerds.) I love words and their origins. Etymology is a hobby of mine that is – in my mind – worth its weight in gold. Mining the ins and outs of a word opens up meaning and interpretation. Like a flower in bloom, examining word origins, contexts, and histories allows for vibrant colors and nuanced designs previously hidden from view to emerge.
A few years ago, I was purchasing some bread from a grocery store for a shared meal. It was thinly sliced and aromatic. Perfectly baked crust protected the soft innards waiting for us to pluck apart. It was the kind of bread you should probably buy two loaves: one for the car ride home and one for the meal. Yet, what struck me on this particular occasion was the name of the bread. It wasn’t entitled “Italian Bread” although it was. Rather than translating the Italian, they had aptly and simply left it as, Pane.
And this triggered my etymological impulses.
Pane is a word derived from Latin meaning “bread.” It has a long and variegated history as it has been paired with a multitude of other terms. Nearly all of them center on bread of some sort.
The interesting thing is that the prefix com- means “with” stemming from the original Latin cum. When cum is used, it indicates a conjoining of two things. Pairings, groups, usage of items are all placed in relationship with the term cum.
Together cum + pane give us companion. Thus, your companions are the ones whom you are together “with bread.” Literally. Again, the etymology of companion opens our eyes to its history in that its Latin ancestor used to mean “messmate.” For the Latin speaking world and its cognates, companion wasn’t a general term. Your companions were the ones you ate with, the ones your broke bread with, the ones you shared a common table.
Companion points beyond itself to indicate the kinds of relationships eating together produces. Strangers and acquaintances become companions through eating together. Families flourish as they sit face-to-face sharing what is provided. Meals have been – and still are – the primary means of breaking down relational walls between folks. They are often the glue within communities due to their inherent hospitable nature.The question then becomes, “With whom do we regularly share meals?” For those of us who claim to be Jesus-followers, this is a question central to our faith and discipleship. All too often, however, it has been relegated to a peripheral position in the life of faith. For many it has fallen too far down the list of Jesus-priorities, so much so, that it has become invisible for many. In my opinion, if there is one central practice we must reinvigorate and reincorporate into the life of the Church it is eating together. And, it seems, etymologically speaking, if we are to do this as companions, we must be true to the word by breaking bread together.For one, eating with others was a foundational practice of Jesus. His class-defying, status-shattering meals were shared with the marginalized and high-esteemed alike. Boundaries were crossed as Jesus established a new paradigm – a kingdom of God paradigm – for what it looked like to share a table with others. This was no small task, but rather was a reinterpretation of the redemptive family of God. As N.T. Wright elaborates:
This new family was of course characterized and marked out by one of the best-known features of Jesus’ work: his open table-fellowship with anyone who shared his agenda, who wanted to be allied with his kingdom-movement…Jesus was, as it were, celebrating the messianic banquet, and doing so with all the wrong people. (Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, p. 431)
Jesus knew the importance and dynamics of meals on all its levels.
The Church followed in his companionship footsteps for much of her history. Christine Pohl in her modern classic Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition states:
In almost every case, hospitality involved shared meals; historically, table fellowship was an important way of recognizing the equal value and dignity of persons.
In her questioning of how this distinctive of the historical church seemingly vanished, she concludes:
The answers are multiple, fascinating, and often ironic. Concerns about hospitality [including meals] to needy strangers gave rise to the development of hospitals, hospices, and hostels, and eventually these more anonymous and distanced ways of responding to strangers became the norm. Hospitality as personal, face-to-face, gracious welcome became primarily associated with attempts to gain power and influence, especially in the Middle Ages where it was increasingly detached from connections with needy persons and was reserved for those of equal or higher rank. The nature of the household itself changed over the centuries, from a setting which included extended family, work, and religious practices to the highly insulated, individualized, small household of today. The structure of the church and its relations to the state and to social welfare also changed over the centuries. Each of these major institutional shifts had an impact on hospitality, on its practice and its meanings. By the eighteenth century, hospitality was viewed by many as an antiquated practice, out of step with busy commercial society, a relic from an earlier time. (Pohl, Making Room, p. 7)
It is difficult to make companions when eating together is seen as a “an antiquated practice.”
Eating together didn’t disappear without leaving a hole. The longer I have been pondering and participating in regularly occurring communal meals, the more I have seen the necessary postures and tangible results of eating together wane as well. These are not separated realities; they are intertwined in that they precede each other as essentials and are the fruit of each other. They are needed for the practice and are then perpetuated by them. Here are just a few of these learned things:
Presence. Perhaps the most formative and inherently necessary ingredient in eating with others is presence. It sounds simple, but it is really isn’t. Like most things in our society, we can be physically present, but our attention is elsewhere. Attention is at the center of presence and at the center of attention is listening. That which we give our attention to is what/whom we listen to and therefore what/whom will be present before. Merely sitting at a table with others is not eating with them. You must be intentional about giving your attention to those across from and next to you. The more you allow yourself to take the posture of being present, the more you will find yourself being attentive.
Vulnerability. A posture of vulnerability precedes eating with each other and is also a result of doing so. Bringing food to be shared and eaten with others is inherently vulnerable. You are offering something of yourself to others. It could be accepted or rejected. It could be incorporated into the community or left outside. This is especially true when it is something you made yourself.
Moreover, for many of us, eating is a practice taking place in the security of our own home. Certainly, many of us frequent restaurants where eating takes place publicly. But, for the most part, these settings are set up for anonymity; we don’t notice too much of what is happening outside our own table. Thus, eating with others opens up private activities where security is released. How we eat, what we eat, and why we eat are opened up to public scrutiny. For many, there is nothing more vulnerable as our eating directly exposes many of our values, whether we be cognizant of them or not.
Mutuality. Eating together puts us on equal footing in a unique way. Because presence and vulnerability are inherent to shared meals, the statuses we claim and clamor for are set aside. At the table, we all meet eye to eye and can easier engage in being vulnerably present to the other. Space for dialogue naturally happens and can ensue as we take this posture. Mutuality is the currency of shared meals.
I have found within Christian circles that eating together is often the only setting where pastor(s) can be fully engaged by the larger community. If there is ever a time where Christian leaders need to be found living among their community and not just in front of them, it is now. Eating together is a practice where we can shift our tendency to primarily teach the faith behind a lectern to one where it can be caught behind a plate. Belief comes to life as we mutually embody hospitality in our dialogue, not merely paying attention to one-sided monologues. Everyone is able to become both server and served, guest and host, teacher and student.
Creation care. One of the most eye-opening and kingdom of God aspects to shared meals is the space it gives us to be workers of the land. Piggybacking on vulnerability, eating with others gives the opportunity to see where we have fallen short in understanding our roles with and in creation.
As we bring our food to the table, we bring it as image bearers of God. We read in Genesis – and found throughout the story of God – that this image was set within the created order and told to cultivate and keep it. Large swaths of the Christian church have amnesia when it comes to this area within the kingdom of God. Graciously, God wants to redeem this.
I’d venture to say that your most direct way of examining your view on creation is to look at your dinner plate. It is there that your beliefs become realities in whether or not Jesus-like activities can be found surrounding your food. Land and animal factors coalesce here in this mundane, everyday activity. Furthermore, it is here that we take the elements of creation to the table after we have put our creative work into them. We don’t bring wheat, we bring bread. We don’t bring lettuce and vegetables, we bring delicious salads. Our meals display the creativity given to us from the Creator.
So: Do you know what you’re eating? Do you know where it came from? Were the animals you’re eating treated humanely? Were the vegetables grown in healthy soil? How does the company you’re buying food from – and thus support – interact with creation?
Thankfully, these questions (and many more) began to be posed to me in the context of shared meals. The answers to them not only exposed my relationship to land and animals, but also to my friends and myself. The things I was willing to offer them spoke volumes of what I valued.
Shared meals are integral to the Jesus-life because they are a nexus of presence, vulnerability, creation care and, ultimately, tangible love. As companionship – in its original meaning – subsided, so did these vital aspects of relationships. We must begin to wonder anew how these characteristics have been effected due to our anemic habits. As we do so, we will find ourselves surrounded by family – the family of God. The more we practice the future, the more it will be realized in the present.
Who are your companions?