by Parnell Donahue, MD.
Some years ago, at our family reunion — called our family ‘Symposium’ because each member presents a short paper — our daughter Maura was awarded our ‘traveling trophy’ for her presentation on why family dinners are so very important.
We were all gathered around our family table, in our many generations. Here’s what she told us that day:
“When we were kids, almost all of our meals were eaten together, as a family, at this table. I have come now to realize, as I sit with my own children around my family’s table, that meals aren’t really about food; they are about the people who come to break bread together.
“When I was a child our everyday meals were where we learned about each other and from each other. We discussed not just the events of each person’s day, but also the social and political issues relevant to the times. We learned how to think, how to feel, and how to love.
“Now I can see that family meals help to build community. Each member makes time for the meal, sacrificing other duties, other work that could be done, to make time for each other. We bless each other; we reverence God in each other and honor each other through this sacrifice. Most times we do so willingly since we feel responsible to each other as members of a family community.
“I have come now to realize, as I sit with my own children around my family’s table, that meals aren’t really about food; they are about the people who come to break bread together.”
“Pope John Paul II, in his 1981 exhortation ‘Familiaris Consortio’ referred to the family as a “domestic church.” Julie Rubio, in her book “A Christian Theology of Marriage and the Family” takes this analogy a step further and considers a family meal to be ‘eucharistic’ in nature. During the meal, members of the family community make room for conversation, celebrate each other, and further refine the family’s mission, clarifying goals, as well as rules.
“When we were growing up, we sat around this table and shared stories; we even argued about politics. But each meal brought us closer together. We became a part of each other’s lives.”
“When we were growing up, we sat around this table and shared stories; we even argued about politics. But each meal brought us closer together. We became a part of each other’s lives. As adults and as children, in our meals, as in the Eucharist, we gain spiritual health and strength for our journey through life. In the family meal we make time for each other, and we show respect, love, and affection. We express gratitude.
“Eucharist means literally ‘act of Thanksgiving.’ To celebrate the Eucharist and to live a Eucharistic life has everything to do with gratitude. If we can ‘live Eucharistically,’ then we view all of our lives as gifts; this gratitude influences how we treat each other, both inside and outside of our families.
“If we can ‘live Eucharistically,’ then we view all of our lives as gifts; this gratitude influences how we treat each other.”
“Today, we come to this table to celebrate our symposium meal. We look at the beautiful feast set on the table before us; Mom and Dad have said, ‘Eat and drink, we made this for you.’ The food is here for us to enjoy, to strengthen us, and to let us know how much they love us.
“Yet, this family meal is about more than just our family, for it is within the family structure that children learn that love and justice are connected. The love shared between parents and the love they have for their children must flow outward from the family into social, civic, and political commitments. Families must first gather as communities of love in their own homes before they can be communities of love for the world…. That is the mission of family as domestic church. It is our calling as a family.”
What does this mean for you? I invite you to think about your family as your domestic church for a minute.
That is what Christmas family dinner is all about.
Enjoy yours, and may you have many, many, more.