Bless Us, Oh Lord, for These Thy Gifts: The Holiness of Mealtimes

Family sitting at a table sharing a meal together.
Photo by Cottonbro Studio on Pexels.

A few years ago, I was asked to sit on an alumnae panel at my high school to talk about life in college and beyond. At the end of the discussion, the panelists took turns giving the seniors advice about college life.

Mine? “Don’t study while you eat.”

For me, the point of a meal is to be fully present with the person you’re sharing it with. (And if you are eating alone, the meal can be a time to mindfully reflect or pray.)

There is a sanctity in literally breaking bread with others — whether it be for a special occasion or as part of an everyday routine. Regardless, being distraction-free and fully focused on the present moment — and God’s presence in our company — makes each meal full of grace.

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Gathering together

During the Last Supper, a Passover Seder, Jesus gathered with his 12 disciples in the Upper Room to celebrate the Jewish feast. Together, they reclined at the table to symbolize that they are a free people. They feasted on food such as eggs (beitzah), bitter herbs (maror), lettuce (chazeret), parsley (karpas), a spiced apples and nut mixture (charoset), unleavened bread (matzah), and chicken or fish. They enjoyed the traditional four cups of wine throughout the meal. 

Mealtimes emphasize the beauty of a community. Everyone takes time out of their busy lives to come together as one. It’s no wonder that Jesus chose a meal to establish the first Mass, the holiest of meals. In fact, every Mass is a meal. We gather together to listen to God’s word and eat and drink his body and blood in the form of bread and wine.

That’s probably why I love hosting family and friends for a home-cooked meal. My husband and I have some favorite dishes we cook for guests: Jamaican-style oxtail, lasagna with homemade pasta, slow-cooked honey-soy ribs, and French onion soup, to name a few. But even daily meals where it’s just Arthur and me (and our dog on the lookout for scraps) feel special because it’s a time when we can simply be together and enjoy a moment of stillness in our lives.

LISTEN: Heather King Talks Food and Faith

Making announcements

As Jesus literally broke bread, he told his disciples: “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:19). He did it again as he passed around the cup of wine: “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20). This was one of the most singularly important announcements in the world: that Jesus is fully present in the bread and wine that is shared in Mass, all around the world, from that very first seder meal to today.

In our own lives, mealtimes are moments for making announcements. I remember, for instance, the night my sister announced that she was pregnant. It was also over a meal that my husband and I announced we were engaged. Mealtime makes perfect sense to share announcements such as these, as well as job promotions, new ventures, travel plans, and so forth, because we are sharing time and food with our loved ones.

Coming to terms

Because we are gathered with loved ones, mealtimes can also be a place to process bad news. I remember the meal I shared with my family the day of my grandmother’s wake: a pork cutlet with mashed potatoes and cucumber salad—the typical hearty Polish fare that is my total comfort food. The meal not only gave me the physical strength to bear the painful events to come but also gave me courage, knowing I was in solidarity with my grieving family.

Jesus himself shared a dramatic pronouncement at the Last Supper: “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me” (John 13:21). This, I’m sure, caused quite a stir in the Upper Room. And, while his disciples were shocked that there could be a traitor among such a close-knit group, Jesus planted the seed to allow them to begin to process all the terrible things that were to come on his road to Calvary.

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Imparting wisdom

During a seder, it is traditional to wash hands as part of ritual and spiritual cleansing. But Jesus also washed his disciples’ feet, saying: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15). We, too, can gain wisdom from the loved ones gathered with us. I remember my parents telling their stories of living in Communist-occupied Poland. Due to mismanagement and poor economic policies, the Communist regime rationed food and other everyday supplies so that store shelves were frequently empty. People stood with government-issued ration cards in long lines (“kolejki”), some of which took days, to receive their portions of sugar, meat, flour, chocolate, etc. Stories such as these gave me the prudence to always be grateful for life’s blessings—like mealtimes.

Jesus teaches us to keep mealtimes sacred. There’s a game that some people play when they go out to a restaurant. Everyone places their cell phones in a pile in the middle of the table. The first person to touch their phone pays for the entire check.

Perhaps this is a little cruel for the first poor soul to succumb to temptation, but the message is a simple one: When you’re sharing a meal with your loved ones, be fully there for them. Be present. Make it holy. Jesus did when he instituted the Mass. We can, too—and not just on Sundays, but every day of the week.