Message of Dr. Lester Edwin J. Ruiz at the Christmas Alumni/ae gathering hosted by CPUAA of the Northeast, Calvary Baptist Church, Clifton, New Jersey, December 6, 2014
Banquets are critical part of culture and the building of community
For many, if not most, of the cultures and peoples of the world, eating together—sharing meals—having banquets, are an important part of the creation and nurture of community, of “life-together.”
In the Philippine context, there are at least three practices that are a crucial part of “life together:” eating, singing, and storytelling; and, maybe dancing and praying—these activities are what make up Filipino “fiestas.” To my mind, your regular gatherings in this place are part of what “fiestas” are about.
So let me invite all of us to reflect briefly together about banquets and fiestas; and perhaps, afterwards we can talk about what banquets have to do with us Centralians and life together, especially of living together well, finally.
Images of Banquets in the Bible
There are many images of banquets or shared meals in the Bible. Today I would like to draw our attention to at least four.
The Banquet of King Xerxes
First, there is the banquet of King Xerxes (Ahasuerus) recorded in the Book of Esther. In that powerful, moving text, the author describes in the greatest of detail what kind of banquet King Xerxes held. While everyone was invited, it is very clear that this banquet was only for the important men of the empire.
The King even wanted the Queen to offer herself for the pleasure of these important men. And when she refused, he divorced her.
I suspect this story is strangely familiar to us. So familiar, that it deserves no further elaboration, except to say, How many times have we felt that only the most powerful, the most important, the most “beautiful people” deserve to sit at the “head table” of our banquets?
Or worst, how many of us are convinced, in our hearts, at least, that power and privilege—whether it comes from tradition, or wealth, or knowledge—are the primary criteria for honor and respect, instead, perhaps, of the simple reality that we are all human beings loved by God—this creator and ruler of the universe, who arrives among us in a dirty, stinky stable, of an unwed teenage girl, and whose first visitors were probably uneducated sheep herders?
The Banquet of Queen Vashti
Second, there is the banquet given by Queen Vashti. In contrast to the way King Xerxes’ banquet was described, the author of the Book of Esther has only one line for Queen Vashti’s banquet: “Meanwhile, Queen Vashti gave a drinking party for the women in the palace where King Artaxerxes was…”
I have often wondered why the storyteller had only one line for Queen Vashti’s banquet, while he had at least 25 lines for King Xerxes’ banquet. One interpretation with which I am familiar suggests that Queen Vashti invited all the women who were not invited to the party of King Xerxes—in other words, all the women who were excluded from the centers of the power and privilege of the military leaders of Persia and Media, the princes, and the nobles of the provinces.
I have to tell this story. I am told that my mother and father had a “grand wedding;” that her veil trailed behind her at least thirty feet; and that at their reception, all the honored guests, many of whom were dressed in their Sunday best, including for the men, those black and white wing-tip patent leather shoes, were served on the lawn in front of my grandfather’s house—but, that all of my grandmother’s family and friends, many naka tsinelas lang, the men wearing T-shirts, the women naga mamâ, were gathered at the back of the house close to what today would be called a “dirty kitchen” and were practically invisible to the guests at the front.
Mea culpa. Mea culpa.
The story in the Book of Esther also has a very contemporary “ring” to it. How often does the work of wives, daughters, and sisters, gotten only a small acknowledgement, if at all, even though, we know that it was because of their work that made an event successful, for example, a church dinner, or an alumni/ae “potluck,” or, even, keeping the house clean, the meals cooked, the clothes ironed—in addition to taking care of the children… and taking care of the men in the public square? Some of my friends have called this the invisibility of the women of our time.
The Banquet on the Mountainside
Third, there is the banquet of the “feeding of the five thousand.” The story, with which we are all familiar that it does not need re-telling, is profound in its simplicity. In a world of scarcity, a world of selfishness, one boy, with a simple baon—not at all a banquet by most standards—in his willingness to share what he had, through the power of Jesus, was not only able to feed five thousand, but had plenty left over.
What is interesting to me is that nowhere in the story are we told that if we share, we should be rewarded with God’s blessing. No prosperity gospel here. The boy gave, without the expectation of any future reward. He gave because it was in his heart to share. Judging from what he had, he probably was not a boy from a wealthy family—but he opened his heart and his hands—and the world was blessed.
The Eucharistic Meal
Finally, there is the banquet we call the Lord’s Supper. And even though this is familiar to most of us, this one deserves re-telling. The author of the Gospel of John tells this story:
“… Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean…”
And the author of the Gospel of Matthew continues…
“…While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.” When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives…”
Three things touch my heart in this story.
First, Jesus knew beforehand that someone in his inner circle would betray him. Yet, that betrayal was not enough to exclude Judas from being invited to the table of the Lord. Jesus also knew that Peter would deny him; and yet, that denial was not enough to exclude him from being invited to the table of the Lord.
Second, the Eucharist was a simple meal of remembrance. The disciples gathered for the traditional Jewish Passover meal, which Jesus turned into a time of remembrance, not only of his life, death, and resurrection—his sacrifice—but also, of what God was going to do in the world.
And, third, and for me, the most moving, the meal was preceded by Jesus washing the feet of his disciples… an act of humility and service; a reminder for us of what true leadership and greatness involve.
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PHOTO CREDIT: Dondon Gonzaga Faldas