Culture begins at the banquet table.

Culture begins at the banquet table.

From the Introduction to Work, Play, Love: How the Mass Changed the Life of the First Christians by Mike Aquilina

Culture begins at the banquet table. In every religion, at every time in human history, shared feasts have formed—or deformed—the culture.

Sharing a meal is the most basic and most binding form of social interaction. Who can eat with whom and when? The question is almost an obsession for many cultures, because eating together means communion. If we eat together, it means that we are part of the same community.

And if we eat together with God, it means God is also part of our community.

A religious feast brings us together as people of one faith. It’s the most important thing that happens to us. It takes us out of our ordinary daily routine of trying to survive and makes us part of something bigger and more important.

In fact, the British historian Christopher Dawson believed that culture must invariably have its roots in religion. He said, “From the beginning the social way of life which is culture has been deliberately ordered and directed in accordance with the higher laws of life which are religion.” And again, “Throughout the greater part of mankind’s history, in all ages and states of society, religion has been the great central unifying force in culture.” To sum up, he made a bold statement: “Religion is the key of history.”

Dawson’s position is usually summed up in one catchy phrase: Culture arises from cult. Our customs and habits proceed from our acts of worship.

Think of the Passover feast in Israel. Everyone in the entire community was participating in the same feast at once. And the feast was a reminder of what they had been through as a community—what had made them a community.

You shall eat no leavened bread with it; seven days you
shall eat it with unleavened bread, the bread of affliction—
for you came out of the land of Egypt in hurried
flight—that all the days of your life you may remember
the day when you came out of the land of Egypt.
(Deuteronomy 16:3)

All it meant to be an Israelite was bound up in that feast. It was a reminder that the people had been oppressed, but God sent Moses to lead them out of oppression. It was a reminder that Moses had left them God’s law, a law that set them apart from all the other nations of the earth. In the Passover, Israel lived through its birth again. The Mishnah, the collection of the oral traditions from the Second Temple period, makes it explicit. “In each and every generation one is obligated to see himself as if he went out of Egypt,” the tradition says. When you celebrated the Passover, you were going through the Exodus with your ancestors.

 

The Passover formed Israel. It made Israelites out of twelve ragged tribes of nomads. Israel was Israel because the people celebrated the Passover.

And we could say the same of the pagan feasts. It was those shared meals that made pagan society what it was. It was very different from Jewish society, of course—and that was because the meals were very different.
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