I’m often curious to know how customs that we take for granted actually got started. The handshake, for example – who first decided that grasping somebody’s hand and shaking it up and down a few times – hopefully without one of those vice-like grips that leaves its victim feeling pulverised – is a way of communicating friendship? As a priest, I’m called on from time to time – and today in particular – to marry people, and I like to think I know a little bit about it, but of course everything I really know I have learned from brides, generally during last-minute rehearsals – ‘actually, Father, that’s not the right way of doing it .... the flower girl’s supposed to do that ...’. I mean, how do brides know these things? I remember a while ago being at a registry office wedding – that’s the competition, of course - and feeling a bit superior to find that the public servant marrying the blissful young couple was actually stealing his best lines from the Prayer Book. But of course marriage has been around a whole lot longer than the Church, and later on I discovered that some of the Church’s oldest customs about marriage were originally stolen from the pagan traditions of Roman society.
The wedding breakfast, for example, which is what the reception always used to be called, even when it took place in the evening. As a boy, I used to think it was called a breakfast because there was always a toast. But if you go back far enough – in fact if you go back to the second century, the Church historian Tertullian tells us after the joining of hands, and the exchange of rings, and the kiss – all essential elements of the ancient Roman marriage rites – the newly married couple take as their first meal together the bread and wine of Holy Communion. So Pui and Phil’s wedding this morning follows the most ancient customs of the Church, though as you might suspect an even earlier form of the wedding breakfast was a slightly more riotous celebration.
But I wanted to talk about this meal, the feast that is central to both ancient and modern wedding customs and that is grounded in the Eucharistic meal of the Church. In fact we have been especially invited to think about food this morning, and to pray about food, as we begin to follow the Sustainable September reflections offered this year by Anglican EcoCare. Food, of course, is one of the most basic human requirements, and one of the fundamental connections between our human lives and the ecology of the Earth. Food is at the heart of Jesus’ own teaching, and in reflecting on food we are led to think about how we live as individuals and as a community, the miracle of God’s provision for us and the mutual responsibility and care we have for one another and for the whole living environment. Food, or the lack of it, challenges every aspect of our existence – we suffer, at least here in our wealthy country, when we get too much of a good thing, while elsewhere men and women and children die for the lack it. Our earliest relationships are formed around food, through what we take for ourselves and what we offer to others we learn about self-care and generosity, through our choices about what to eat we learn the virtues of restraint and self-limitation. No wonder Jesus taught his friends through stories and object lessons about the growing and sharing of food.
The first reading today from the Book of Exodus is the ground zero moment in the understanding of the people of Israel in what it meant for them to be God’s people, and indeed in what it meant for them to be a people joined together through relationships of mutual responsibility. It’s a strange meal, a lamb roasted whole and consumed in a single sitting. Nothing is allowed to be left over, and nobody is allowed to miss out. It’s also an extravagant meal – for ancient peoples, even nomadic herders, the diet was mostly vegetarian because animals and their by-products were simply too precious for everyday consumption. The Old Testament stories of slaughtering fatted calves and yearling sheep invariably reflect occasions of over the top hospitality or celebration. But this is a meal for the journey, a meal that is also a sacrifice of the first-fruits - the best and most valuable, eaten in a hurry, symbolising the burning of bridges and commitment to the way ahead, the flight from slavery into freedom, the uncertainty and hardship of the desert where only God can provide for them.
So the Passover meal, which remains to this day central to the identity and self-understanding of Jewish people, is a meal for people who know they haven’t got a Plan B. As a meal, it says two things: firstly, it says, ‘we belong together’. The people who eat the Passover together, remember their shared history and commit themselves to travelling together, to living together in hope towards what has been promised. The modern Seder, the Passover meal of Judaism, reflects on the meaning of the foods as it remembers the history of God’s faithfulness and the journey that has taken God’s people through suffering and through joy – together. The second thing this meal says, as the community sacrifices its precious firstborn yearlings that in other times would be the guarantee of food security and economic prosperity, sharing everything they have and keeping nothing back, is that who we are is grounded in God’s faithfulness and God’s promises. It is a radical commitment to the future, to looking beyond the uncertainty of the here and now and trusting in the one who is the ground and source of all human faithfulness.
This is the meal which, according to three of the four Gospels, Jesus eats with his disciples on the night before he dies, and which he reinterprets for them in identifying the broken bread as his own body, the wine they share as his own life poured out in solidarity. As the central experience of our Christian faith, the never-ending meal of the Eucharist re-enacts for us the mystery and paradox that in the broken-ness and dying of Jesus we are healed and offered new life. This also is a meal that must be consumed at a single sitting, and that excludes no-one – a meal of fragments and crumbs that reverses our own history of self-fragmentation, that unites us as one people and joins us to God’s own life. It, also, is a meal for people who have no Plan B because Jesus, as always, is not content to impress us with his other-worldliness, but by sharing our humanity invites us to share in the mystery.
As St Augustine puts it, this is the meal that consumes us, because as we share it, little by little, the paradox rubs off on us. We gradually come to understand ourselves as people of radical hospitality and wasteful generosity, as people who become most alive when we live for those around us, who find the greatest fulfilment in giving of ourselves – in other words, as people whose DNA has been transformed through the logic of resurrection which is the logic of self-giving, of dying to self, the logic of forgiving love which is the only way to believe in the possibility of a future set free from bondage to past failure or injustice or regret.
It is of course the best possible wedding breakfast, because it sets the pattern for Phil and Pui’s lives together, a pattern of hospitality and self-giving love, a pattern of believing in the future and of believing in the goodness of one another that makes it possible for each of you to be the best you can be. This is a wedding breakfast for lovers who have no Plan B, for lovers who plan on burning their bridges and trusting in one another, trusting in the goodness and the faithfulness of God, committing themselves wholeheartedly to living together into the fulfilment of God’s promises for their lives.
It is of course a symbolic meal – very symbolic, when you consider the meagreness of the wafer and the sip of wine – yet what it symbolises is God’s generosity and the promise of our own. [9.30am And so we pray for Pui and Phil a marriage characterised by generosity and hospitality, a kitchen table that always has room for one more, a home that is open enough to let in sunshine and optimism and friendship, a marriage built of meals and laughter and memories, and faithfulness and trust sufficient to get across life’s deserts.]
The meal that heals our brokenness and fills our emptiness transforms us into people who care about the brokenness and emptiness of others, people who care about the literal hunger of others. The meal that forms us as Jesus’ disciples transforms us into men and women who are affected by the paradoxes of human wastefulness and greed that cause others to go hungry, by the threat of climate change that most affects the poorest communities of our world. The meal transforms us into people who recognise God’s providence, and who long that all may be satisfied.