Watermelons and Ice: The Fruits of Love and Fellowship at the Family Table
I recently discovered a family meal tradition. I found this tradition while visiting my elderly great aunt, the oldest of three lively sisters. The middle sister, my grandmother, is a constant presence of mirth and wisdom. The youngest possesses a sharp, fiery wit. The eldest, with a faint western drawl, tells captivating tales of bygone days. Days when men rode on horseback through east Texas plantations, and women like my great-great-grandmother Lanie protected her newborn infant Bert with a 12-gauge and the family dog. Our collective mind often considers these times simpler but much tougher. Lanie raised 10 children without running water or household electricity. Her oldest, Bert, settled with the rest of the family in West Texas before eventually putting down roots in California—most likely the cause of my equal affection for Santa Maria Tri-Tip and West Texas Brisket.
The tradition I discovered seems quaint and perhaps unremarkable. I asked my great aunt if she had any memories of her father Bert’s barbecue. She replied “No,” but offered me consolation in sharing another distant memory. She humorously recalled her father wrangling a 40-pound watermelon into a bathtub filled with ice. Lanie and the rest of Bert’s family soon arrived. Sunday dinner in an oil-hand’s Great Depression home bustled with energy and fellowship. My aunt’s eyes sparkled with fondness as she recounted fried chicken and ice-kissed watermelon on a hot summer eve.
We’ve heard it in countless homilies, New Year’s resolutions, and warm recollections of better times: make time to eat together as a family! Families from diverse religious, ethnic, and economic backgrounds tend to agree, communal meal time nurtures a healthy family tree. Have we, however, considered the spiritual foundation that underlies this practice? God reveals the power of communal meals through many Old and New Testament stories. Before reviewing some of these powerful accounts, we should first expose a critical human desire.
Human beings crave intimacy and fellowship with other souls. This is an important truth, rooted in the nature of God. “God is one, but not solitary” (CCC 254). God’s very nature is communal, for the Holy Trinity is God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, one God in three Persons (CCC 253). We are made in the image of God, and therefore we are also communal and crave intimacy and fellowship. “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1: 27). Additionally our soul desires perfect union with the Holy Trinity (CCC 260). This human desire for unity and communion also extends to other souls, as the Lord God asserted, “It is not good for man to be alone” (Genesis 3:18). Isolation is anathema to our nature, a grave torment to our souls both in this life and eternity.
One way to honor both God’s communal nature and ours is to partake in a family meal. By sharing a family meal we have an opportunity to simultaneously give and receive love. Saint John Paul II asserted that “love is a sincere gift of self,” the best example of “gift of self” being the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. The beauty of a shared family meal is its simple form of sacrifice. My wife must spend both treasure and time to craft a meal for our family. My great-grandfather Bert gave the same during the Great Depression, sacrificing to procure both ice and a 40-pound watermelon. Our family, if eating that meal together in Christian fellowship, must also sacrifice selfish inclinations to share our time, but the love we give will gain us both fellowship and spiritual gifts. What takes place in a simple meal is in fact a multiplication of sacrifice and an amplification of true love.
God encourages this simple sacrifice in six beautiful accounts of biblical meals with the Divine. First, God and Abraham shared an intimate meal of rolls, soft cheese, tender steer, and milk. During that meal, God announced that Abraham’s wife Sarah would bear a son (Genesis 18:4-10). In the book of Exodus, God revealed the greatest Old Testament meal tradition, the Passover. The Israelites engaged in a communal sacrifice of a year-old male lamb. After the Israelites applied sacrificial blood to the doorpost and lintel of each home, they ate the roasted lamb with bitter herbs and unleavened bread (Exodus 12: 6-10). That very night the Lord God passed over every Israelite home marked with the blood of that sacrifice, sparing the firstborn certain death (Exodus 12:13). In the New Testament, God the Son began his ministry at a wedding feast in Cana. At the urging of his mother Mary, Jesus turned water into fine wine, revealing his divine glory and bolstering his disciple’s faith (John 2:3-11). The night prior to his crucifixion, Jesus and his Apostles celebrated Passover. It was during his last supper that Jesus gave us the perfect gift of unity through the Eucharist, a gift we celebrate today in the Catholic Mass (Luke 22:14-20). Following his death and resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples on the road to Emmaus. During this visitation, Jesus broke bread with his disciples at a roadside inn, reaffirming both his divinity and the gift of the Eucharist (Luke 24:28-32). Lastly, in a final account of Jesus and his apostles, St. John wrote of a beachside breakfast crafted with charcoal-fired bread and fish. This intimate account highlighted both Peter’s reconciliation and reaffirmed his role as supreme shepherd (John 21:7-19). These six biblical accounts spanning both Old and New Testament form a divinely inspired arc. They all share the common ingredient of sacrifice and the fruits of spiritual gifts and fellowship.
Family meals are a beautiful way in which we can build a spiritual bridge between our modern world and that of the Bible. Through this bridge we can connect with our early Christian ancestors. A simple gift of time and treasure allows us to glimpse at the eventual goal of perfect unity with the Holy Trinity. From the communal sacrifice of a family meal, fellowship and spiritual gifts will flow first through our family, and then spill out of our home to the community around us, glorifying God and evangelizing our world. Next time you feel caught up in the grind of our modern world, worn from daily spiritual battles, draw strength from the example God gave us and share a meal with your family; don’t forget the ice, and clean out the bathtub.