In the Gospels, Jesus makes clear the link between body and spirit in his words and deeds. When Christ healed the sick and cured those with afflictions, it’s as part of his ministry; he hoped that those who witnessed him would realize that — in the same way he could heal the physical aspects of our corporeal forms — he offered the same gift to our spiritual selves . . . our souls. Those who witnessed him couldn’t tangibly see the gift of healing, reconciliation, and eternal life he promised to those who believe, but hopefully folks could see the miracles he could do for broken bodies and make the connection of how he could help restore our broken lives with God.
Today’s Gospel selection from Matthew adds another wrinkle to this relationship, by establishing a link between healing, Christ’s message, and food. The selection opens with an accounting of how Jesus healed many people, then goes on to the miracle of the loaves and fishes.
Think about that latter miracle. Christ was concerned the people would go hungry, after three days without food. He was clearly powerful enough to just go, “POOF! You all are sated,” or to make it so that those who were there didn’t need food. There are other instances of miracles that just happened, without prelude, visible action, or tangible preparation (like the healing of the 10 lepers from a few weeks ago). Doing so would still have been plenty miraculous! And we have evidence of Jesus doing without food and water for 40 days in the desert (Matthew 4:1-11), so that would certainly be in the same ballpark.
Instead, he clearly felt the tangible act of eating was important. Think about what that entails: Breaking bread. Sharing food with others. No doubt conversing: “Did you have enough?” “Oh, yes, thanks. Please, feel free to pass the basket down the line. What was the most amazing thing you heard Jesus say?”
In addition, the act of eating involves the physical transformation of an intangible experience (hunger) into something else (satisfaction). It’s echoed tangibly and spiritually when we participate in Holy Communion; we fast for at least an hour before Communion, we take in the body and blood of Christ, and we are given the grace of participating in the Sacrament.
During this preparatory season of Advent, my challenge to you today is to reflect on the role of food in your life, and its connection to your spiritual path. Some ideas:
Consider saying a prayer before and after meals (if you don’t already). The fact that you have food in front of you is a wonderful blessing that many throughout the world don’t share. A moment’s pause before diving in can help put you in the right frame of mind for appreciating what you have to eat.
Consider some kind of sacrifice on Friday. The abstinence we have from meat on Fridays during Lent is a quick-and-easy idea year round; it’s something we’ve done in our household for years. That reflective moment to reconfigure your menu, that consideration about where to go to eat with friends, that moment where you can’t take the offered slice of pepperoni pizza from the break room . . . all of it pushes Christ to your mind, as you realize why you’re denying yourself and how his Friday sacrifice is reflected in your own. Alternatively, on Fridays you could abstain from coffee, chocolate, or something else you love. Again, like today’s Gospel selection, it’s a simple way to connect the tangible act of eating with the spiritual lessons Christ wants to impart.
Eat meals with your families. For many, busy lifestyles mean split dining schedules, where everyone grabs a bite to eat when they can. In an ideal world, you’re having a meal together every day, just like the hundreds who dined together with Jesus in today’s Gospel. If that’s not possible, then try to carve out an ironclad time once or twice a week where that happens. This doesn’t mean you need to discuss all things faith-related during these meals, but the spiritual impact in the act of communal eating is reflected many times in Sacred Scripture, and it’s a great tradition to bring to your own household. (And if dinners aren’t an option because of schedules, perhaps breakfast is!)
Reflect on your own eating habits. Gluttony is a sin. So is neglecting your household or community by prioritizing earthly pleasures over spiritual pursuits. If your household finances suffer because you eat out too much, or your interpersonal relationships are imperiled because of excess alcohol, please consider trying to curb or eliminate your adverse habits. (Seek professional help if you need to!)
Consider where your food comes from. Reflect on the path that food takes to get to you. Everything we eat has a genealogy that stretches back directly to the Garden of Eden. From there, it exists in a natural state, where it may pass through farmers, butchers, shippers, buyers, preparers, and more, before it reaches your table. Understanding the interconnectedness of all of us on Earth was part of Christ’s message, and visualizing that “food chain” is a simple way to bring the point home. (And if someone in your household does most of the food preparation, it’s definitely Christian to express appreciation to them!)
We are not animals or pets. We do not scarf down from our food dish the moment the bowl is put in front of us. We owe it to our spiritual selves to keep Christ on our minds and hearts as often as we can, and to recognize that we need God as much as — or more than! — the food that we rely on to live. It was important to Jesus for everyone to share a meal together after hearing his words, and that connection between the life that food ensures and the life that Christ promises can be cemented just as strongly in our own routines. Let this Advent season guide you and your family to a new appreciation of both.