Holy Thursday, the Lord’s Supper, reminds us of table fellowship, denied to the millions starving today in Brazil and in the world, as a consequence of the Covid-19 intrusion. Unfortunately, it is evident that there is a painful absence of solidarity in the face of the hungry masses, which prevents us from eating together (commensality).
One of the merits of MST (Movement of Landless People) is that it has organized itself in all its settlements according to the ethics of solidarity among its members and even with those outside its settlements also. They are exemplary in sharing the ecologically grown food they have with many food parcels distributed to thousands of families on the peripheries of our cities. They practice one of humanity’s most ancient dreams: commensality, that is, everyone can eat sufficiently and eat together, sitting around a table and enjoying companionship and the fruits of the generous Mother Earth.
Food is more than a material object. It is a sacrament and symbol of the generosity of Mother Earth, which together with human labour, provides us with everything we need. It is not about nutrition but communion with nature and with others with whom we share bread. In the context of the common table, food is appreciated and spoken about. The greatest joy of the cooks who prepare the food is to perceive the satisfaction of those who eat and enjoy it. An important gesture at the table is to serve or pass the food on to the other. Civilized behaviour facilitates everyone helping himself or herself, ensuring that there is enough food for everyone.
Contemporary culture has so modified the logic of daily routines, turning them into functions of work and productivity that it has weakened the symbolic reference of the table. It was reserved for Sundays or for special moments of celebration or birthdays when family members met and sat down together. But, as a rule, it is no longer the point of permanent convergence of the family.
The family table has been replaced by other tables, absolutely desecrated: the negotiation table, the games table, discussion and debate tables, a currency exchange table and a table for the conciliation of interests, among others. Even though they are desecrated, these various tables have an undeniable reference: they are a meeting place for people, no matter what interests lead them to sit at that table. They sit at the table for exchange, negotiation, consultation and compose solutions that please the involved parties. But leaving the table can also mean the failure of the negotiation and the recognition of the conflict of interests.
Despite this difficult dialectic, it is important to reserve time for the table in its full sense of coexistence and the satisfaction of being able to eat together. It is one of the perennial sources of reconstructing our essence as relational beings. How this is denied today to the poor and hungry!
Let us recover a little the memory of table fellowship present in all cultures and practiced by Jesus at the Last Supper with his apostles.
Let us start with the Judeo-Christian culture because it is more familiar to us. There is a central theme – the Kingdom of God, the principle content of Jesus’ message – which is represented by a banquet to which everyone is invited.
Everyone, regardless of their moral situation, sits at the table and is welcomed. The Master says: “The Kingdom of Heaven is like a king who prepared a banquet for his son’s wedding. He sent his servants to call the guests and said to them “go to the crossroads and invite everyone you meet to the party. The servants went out along the pathways and gathered all they found, bad and good, and the room was full of guests ”(Mt 22,2-3; 9-10).
Another memory comes to us from the East. In it, eating together, in solidarity with one another, represents the supreme human fulfillment, called heaven. The reverse, the desire to eat, but selfishly, each one for himself, demonstrates the supreme human frustration, called hell.
There is a legend that says “A disciple asked the Seer:
-Master, what is the difference between Heaven, with its fellowship between everyone and its opposite?
The Seer replied:
– “The difference is very small but has serious consequences.
-“I saw diners sitting at the table where there was a very large bowl of rice. Everyone was hungry, almost starving. Everyone tried, but could not get close to the rice. Attached to their hands they had long forks of more than a meter in length, they tried to bring the rice to their own mouths, individually. As much as they tried, they did not succeed because the forks were too long. And so hungry and lonely they remained malnourished because of an insatiable and endless hunger. This was hell, the denial of all table fellowship.
-“I saw another wonderful scenario,” said the Seer. People sitting at the table around a large bowl of steaming rice. Everyone was hungry. But a wonderful thing happened! Each took the rice and lifted it up to the other’s mouth. They served each other in immense cordiality. Together and in solidarity. Everyone fed each other. They felt like brothers and sisters at the big table as it says in the Tao.
And that was heaven, the full table fellowship of the sons and daughters of the Earth.
This parable needs no comment. Unfortunately today, in the time of Covid-19, a large part of humanity is hungry and desperate because there are very few people who extend their forks to satisfy each other with the abundant food on the Earth´s table. The wealthy privately own this food and eat alone without looking at who is excluded. There is a criminal lack of fellowship among humans. That is why we are so lacking in humanity. But social isolation creates the opportunity for us to review our individualistic practices and discover fraternity without borders and table fellowship: everyone can eat and eat together.
* Leonardo Boff is a theologian and philosopher. Author, among other books, of Commensality: Eating and drinking together and living in peace (Vozes).