Finding Hope at the Dinner Table

A picture is worth a thousand words? That it is, however a lackluster literary cliche is worth a thousand face-palms. Somewhere, Mrs. Huerkamp, my 8th grade English teacher, in her middle school teacher omniscience has probably developed a sizable swelling on her forehead. At the end of the day though, in all of our postmodern originality, sometimes we need a cliche to keep really let the rubber hit the road in a blog post.

One picture that really is worth a thousand words (though, fear not, I’m keeping this to 575 don’t worry…plus 1000…) is a 1602 painting by Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio entitled Supper at Emmaus. This painting depicts a climactic scene from Luke 24 where Jesus has sat down at the dinner table with two travelers. 

Before they sat down at the table, the two travelers were walking from Jerusalem to a little village a few miles away called Emmaus — on the same Sunday, mind you, that Jesus was resurrected. Luke tells us that Jesus joined the travelers on the road while they were talking about the eventful, albeit depressing and confusing, past three days in Jerusalem…but in this story, they didn’t recognize Jesus until they sat down at the dinner table later that night.

We Had Hoped…

How many mornings have you had where you woke up and had high aspirations for the day? “I’m going to go to the bank, I’m going to finally make it on time to soccer practice, I’m going to finish my reports, I’m going to do this…” Only to have the day played out and you didn’t get to the bank, your kid missed warmups, and your boss dumped 20 more inches of file folders on your desk. 

Or how about this — you lay down at night just before going to bed and you say to yourself, “I’m going to wake up, I’m going to read my Bible, I’m going to work out…” and after three snooze button pushes, the day has started without you leaving you with a five yard penalty before even brushing your teeth. We have such high hopes for where we are going or where we feel we should be, only to be often faced with the evening's sobering reality that the day we had hoped for didn't happen the way we planned.

"We have such high hopes for where we are going or where we feel we should be, only to be often faced with the evening's sobering reality that the day we had hoped for didn't happen the way we planned."

And its not just a good and productive day we hope for: we had hoped for that promotion, we had hoped our kids wouldn’t be bullied, we had hoped our parents wouldn’t go downhill so fast, we had hoped this presidential election wouldn’t turn into a circus.

The travelers on the road to Emmaus had a similar conversation and it was every bit as personal and geopolitical as your daily thoughts. They were hoping for better outcomes from the past three days.

When Jesus (seen as a Fellow Traveler) approached the two travelers, they were talking about this man named Jesus who they had seen do amazing and powerful things — a man who they thought was from God and could be their game-changing personification of hope…but three days before he was abruptly killed. They had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem their country from its oppressors and right everything that was wrong…but they saw him die. (Luke 24:21).

But then the travelers started telling their Fellow Traveler about rumors that the tomb where Jesus was buried was empty and some were even saying that he was alive. Jesus, the Fellow Traveler, listens to their conversation and then transitions into an Old Testament history lesson about Himself, though they still were not aware it was Him! This went on for awhile until they finally reached Emmaus where the travelers asked their Fellow Traveler to stay with them. And then they sat down for a meal….

Surprised by Jesus at the Dinner Table

Interestingly, the travelers only recognize Jesus after he “took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” (Luke 21:33) They didn’t recognize Jesus on the road when was giving them the Old Testament Messianic rundown.

Looking at the The Emmaus Supper painting, Caravaggio symbolizes Jesus incognito by painting him beardless, representing the travelers failure to initially recognize him. But in typical Baroque fashion with those deep colors contrasting a dark backdrop, Caravaggio captures the dramatic moment when they recognized who he was. And notably, it was at the dinner table.

What was it about the table that made them see Jesus? I can speculate two possibilities…

1. The travelers had seen this before.

Meals are powerful sensory reminders of good past experiences.  Part of the strength of having consistent family meals together is the ritualistic aspect of them. In her book The Surprising Power of Family Meals, Miriam Weinstein says it like this: “Ritual sets ordinary gestures and events into bold relief. Those simple actions that get repeated night after night become the road map of our lives. They point us toward home, the footprints in the snow. Setting our feet in those preformed places is so much easier than breaking new trail.” Did you catch what she was saying? Whether your family folds their napkins in their laps or joins hands in prayer before a meal, the ritual your family follows during meal times is comforting and reminds us of goodness.

These travelers had been with Jesus on earth and they had most likely seen Jesus feed five thousand people (Luke 9:16) or been a part of the Last Supper (Luke 22:19) where Jesus “took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them.” They saw that same ritual before and would have reminded them of the miraculous awe and comfort they felt when their Teacher dined had dined with them.

2. And speaking of ritual, they blessed the food.

Some people have a script for pre-meal prayers: “God is great, God is good”, “Bless us oh Lord and these your gifts”, “Bless this food to our bodies and us to your service. Amen.” Some people just shoot from the hip. There is a preschooler in our church who prays for all the horses, dogs, cats, and brothers in the world in addition to the food before dinner!

"We need to rediscover the act of “saying grace” before meals because, like the travelers going to Emmaus, that is the moment when we meet Jesus at the table and our hope is restored."

Different cultures and different heritages have different ways of blessing food before a meal, but the concept is the same: we are recognizing Who the food came from and being grateful to eat it. We need to rediscover the act of “saying grace” before meals because, like the travelers going to Emmaus, that is the moment when we meet Jesus at the table and our hope is restored. Some of us need to discover this for the first time while others may need to restore what has become a stale habit. What do we do when we bless our food before a meal? Tim Chester, in his book, A Meal with Jesus, offers these 5 things:

  1. Our daily dependence on God as creatures and sinners
  2. Our dependence on others as we give thanks for those who grew, processed, bought, and cooked our food
  3. The goodness of food, thereby transforming our food from fuel to a gift to be relished
  4. Our gratitude to God, thereby reorienting ourselves away from self and back to God
  5. Our gratitude for community as we ask God’s blessings our fellowship over the meal

Returning to the painting, look at the picture -- a thousand words indeed! There is the obvious surprised expression of the travelers as they recognize that this is the Risen Lord Jesus! One man is in the act of pushing his chair away in astonishment. One man has both arms stretched out in a “What is happening” sense that would assuredly have been a High Renaissance counter-gif internet sensation were it today.  Also, look at the extended hand of the traveler on the right — It looks almost as if he is touching the canvas itself!

Caravaggio challenged the notion of a divide in the painted world and the real world. But look also at the bowl of fruit and the shadow underneath it. It is almost as if the fruit is about to topple over as it teeters on the edge of the table, demanding we as the spectator jump forward and catch it before if falls to the floor!

But what floor? There is no floor in the painting — the floor in the painting is the floor that we are standing on as the spectators! Caravaggio is telling us through his angles and use of expression that this scene is not to be looked at, but to become a part of. It is not something that happened, but is happening!

finding Hope at the Table

When you are eating at the dinner table tonight or any night, like the travelers at Emmaus, when you engage in your meal time rituals and you pray to bless the food, that is a way to see Jesus at your table and realize and restore the hope you might have have lost during the day. The irony of the dinner at Emmaus was that despite the travelers perception of hope shattered, Jesus had actually risen from the dead and brought about the eternal hope they were longing for already. It took a meal time ritual and blessing for them to recognize. Hope we have through Jesus is always present, but the amazing thing about the dinner table is that it is a place to remember and experience the hope we have.

The Emmaus Road travelers had hoped for many things just like we had hoped for many things throughout our day. At the end of the day however, at the dinner table, our great Hope is alive, there with us sharing a meal, telling us it will all be OK, and perhaps even surprising us with His presence. Caravaggio has invited you into a meal with Jesus and for that matter, we are too with Meals@Home!

David Barrett