The Table an Altar

For several months we have been treated to a slew of statistics about the rates of obesity in the U.K.  We are all getting fatter, some of us dangerously so. The Guardian’s Comment is Free section has made this subject its own. Thus, in August, Catherine Hughes argued that there was an ingrained institutional prejudice against the obese. In October Jamie Oliver waxed angry about the government’s anti-obesity strategy. In November Sarah Warwick made a case for exercise being as important as restricting food intake, while earlier this week Zoe Williams maintained that obesity is a consequence of poverty, not lack of moral fibre. Not surprisingly, all the articles have generated a lot of comment about what we eat and how.

Now, what do I find interesting about this? Time was when we weren’t obese, we were merely fat, and that was bad enough. The whiplash-thin adults of my childhood and youth had all experienced the hunger of the War years. Anyone who wasn’t slim was suspected of Billy Bunter tendencies with cream buns: a figure of fun rather than moral condemnation. Since then we have moved through the era of the celebrity chef, T.V. programmes and magazines devoted entirely to cooking, and a vast proliferation of the foods available on supermarket shelves. Gone are the days when olive oil came from the chemist, with a B.P. standard assurance on the label, and garlic and lemons were hunted down with difficulty. We live in the midst of abundance, but it is not an abundance equally available to all, and though we can work wonders in the kitchen we do not see the link with worship. Food is no longer sacred, no longer a gift of God to be celebrated as well as enjoyed.

Drawing on Jewish tradition, Martin Buber had some fine things to say about eating in holiness, making an altar of the table. I wonder how many people do that today? Is eating merely a way of fuelling our bodies? In the monastery, meals are ritualised because the refectory is seen as an extension of the choir. The rhythm of fast and feast is built into the liturgical year and most communities have supplemented this with local customs. For example, we eat scones when the Elijah cycle is being read and cherries when we celebrate the feast of St Etheldreda. We are approaching the great midwinter feast of Christmas. Most of us will be celebrating with family or friends and eating and drinking with great cheerfulness. Maybe we should give a little thought to making our feasting into an act of worship. It isn’t obesity we need to fear so much as forgetfulness. Jesus our Saviour was born in Bethlehem, the House of Bread, and gives himself to us today under the form of Bread and Wine. Every meal is a reminder of that.

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7 thoughts on “The Table an Altar”

  1. I would argue that the poorer you are, the more obese you might be, through eating the poorer foods available to you.

    If you only get carb’s, than it’s likely that you will be fat. A balanced diet can only be an aspiration for the poorest.

    My own childhood was pretty much like that, consequently, as we couldn’t afford to buy the good stuff.

    I wasn’t until I left home and joined the army that I got a balanced diet, and combined with heavy duty exercise, lost 2 stone in two months. The weight never came back.

    Diet combined with exercise is definitely the key, but for some to patronise those who can’t afford to eat properly is sad and cruel.

  2. From my childhood days I have always seen the dining table as the last supper table. After grace I would decide where Jesus would sit , if He came. I still see the table that way but I now know that Jesus was there all along.

  3. Sister,

    Would you have any objections to me using some of this posting for a sermon I have to preach on Sunday?
    I really like and affiliate with the connections you have made between poverty, obesity and the Eucharist.
    Thank you so much for giving us this today.

    Prayers and blessings for a holy Christmas to you and your community.

  4. When I sit down for a meal with fellow Christians, I usually remember to give thanks, albeit sometimes silently. Yet, when I eat alone or with non Christians or non-practicing Christians I often forget, no matter how often I remind myself at other times.

    Thank you for the timely reminder.

    As regards the language of obesity, we seem to be afraid to use it properly, which just might help the problem a bit. My dictionary says for Fat: “Plump, Thick, Solid” and for Obese it says: “Very Fat, Corpulent”. That dictionary was last reprinted in 1968, so perhaps those terms are not ‘politically correct’ any more.

  5. Thirty years ago when I worked as a nutritionist, it would have been a fair observation that the poor were more likely than middle class or higher class members to be obese. I don’t think that is the case any longer. Obesity is everywhere, at least in America. Perhaps that is because poverty, or the fear of poverty is everywhere; a fear that we must eat today because tomorrow may be worse. Remembering the holy dimensions of feast, and famine alike is an inspiring idea. Thank you

  6. Thank you for sharing your different perspectives and experiences: it’s very enriching. I’m always fascinated to see which points readers will pick up on and which not.

    Anyone is free to quote from the blog (I’m told some clergy sometimes make use of it when desperate for sermon material, so you’re not alone, Fr Andrew) and, yes, Margaret, Bethlehem is literally House (= beth) of Bread (= lechem), which makes one think, doesn’t it?

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