GOD SETS BEFORE US "A TABLE OF ABUNDANCE"
by Joanna Manning
Meditating on the readings for Advent and Christmas this year, I am struck by the gentleness of God. Perhaps because there is so much enmity and strife in the political, economic and ecclesial worlds, I am drawn to the antidote that the Divine Word of compassion incarnate provides. Perhaps because ugly voices of self-righteousness and violence purporting to speak on behalf of religion have been heard in so many quarters lately, I am more drawn than ever to the irenic and inclusive Good News announced in the Advent readings and the Christmas story.
The coming of God announced by the readings from prophets Isaiah and Zechariah –and the Gospel passages that form the focus of the mystery unfolding in Advent– is characterized by comfort and tenderness. God is like a great eagle who carries her young on her back. God is busy preparing a rich feast full of good food and well-aged wines. God rescues, comforts, encourages faint hearts and binds up wounds. God runs off into the wilderness searching for one lost sheep. And this God is to be born in Bethlehem, the house of bread, and cushioned in a feeding trough made for animals. "God enters human history," wrote Gustavo Gutierrez, "smelling of the stable."
This God who is born in the manger will make inclusive meals, with bread shared and wine liberally poured as the central symbol of God’s love, and the focus of Jesus’ new community. Jesus’ practice of inclusive ministry is centered at a table where all are welcome.
Every week, I join a group of teachers and students serving breakfast to street people in a downtown Anglican Church. On many occasions it is the poor whom we teachers serve that end up teaching us the real lessons of the Gospel. I recall one occasion when the hall was overcrowded and the guests had spilled over into the church space. I saw that two men had put their plates on the altar and were standing there eating. My instant reaction was one of shock: they had invaded a sacred space and transgressed a significant boundary that should divide the sacred from the profane. I wondered if perhaps I should tell them to find a more appropriate place where they would not risk despoiling the altar cloths with ketchup.
But on the heels of my mental quibbling about appropriating so-called sacred spaces, I was tapped on my metaphorical shoulder by some quiet question lobbed into my mind by the Holy Spirit. "But isn’t the altar a feeding trough?" she said. "Shouldn’t it smell of the street, the stable, the stale sweat of those who cannot shower regularly?" Then I realized that in God’s eyes, the bread that goes into the mouths of the poor is as holy as the consecrated communion bread. Indeed, it is only by feeding the poor at the altar that we give meaning to the sacrament that celebrates the continuing presence of God in the world.
When the Religious Right of Jesus’ day scolded him for scandalizing the people by picking ears of wheat on the Sabbath and eating them, he responded with an earlier story of David on campaign with a band of soldiers. David’s group was hungry, so they went into a nearby sanctuary and ate the consecrated bread set-aside for God and reserved for the hands of priests alone. So the boundary between sanctuary and street is not one set up by God. Indeed, an equivalent story told by Jesus today might see a hungry street person enter a church, break into the tabernacle and eat the consecrated hosts.
The God who enters history smelling of the stable gave us the bread and wine of blessing to share with all, most of all the needy in body and spirit. There were gays and lesbians, divorced and remarried amongst the motley crew who sat down to eat and drink with God incarnate. No communion rails divided the so-called sacred from the profane. The One who carried deep memories of the sounds of animals munching on his bedding in the manger would surely heap scorn on petty liturgical rules that now prevent lay people washing communion vessels, or priests leaving the sanctuary to shake hands with the great unconsecrated body of people in the body of the church.
Jesus’ miracles of healing and restoration to wholeness transgress all the boundaries of puritanical purity and his Eucharists were not motivated by a mean-spirited morality. The deaf hear, the blind see and tyrants and scoffers skulk away empty handed. The Bethlehem birth opens the curtain on a God who sets before us an abundance of non-judgmental love. Advent and Christmas call us to remember the God who sets before us a table of abundance and not scarcity. It is up to us to learn to share our spaces and make room in our fearful hearts. We might even end up with ketchup stains on the altar.
Joanna Manning’s most recent book is Take Back the Truth: Confronting Papal Power and the Religious Right published by Crossroad in July. She has been a teacher in high school and university for 30 years. In 1995, Manning received the Ontario English Catholic Teachers Association’s Marion Tyrell Award for outstanding contribution to Catholic Education. She also runs a weekly breakfast for homeless and poor people in Toronto.