Thursday, March 8, 2012

As a way of introduction....

let me describe the picture that you see: It is a Slovak Christmas table. This table was set by my mother and I on the Christmas Eve, as it is on the eve of Jesus Christ's birth that families in Slovakia begin to celebrate Christmas--by attending an evening service in various Protestant churches or a mid-night mass in the Roman-Catholic church, by opening the presents and having a dinner together. (The Orthodox Christians also have festivities, although for them Christmas begins on the Three Kings holiday.) This evening is also called Stedry Vecer or in translation The Generous Evening.
What is it generous in? For Christian families generosity is foremost celebrated in the gift of Christ's birth. But Christmas table itself offers its tangibles and symbols of generosity.  In each corner of the table there are coins hidden under the table-cloth to symbolize an abundant and prosperous year to come.  The walnuts and apples, lying loosely on the table, symbolize the abundance of health, especially as we open them and their insides are strong and healthy. Honey wine comes with a bee-keeping tradition of Slovakia, and its benefit is to keep a person warm during harsh winter temperatures. The wafers in the corner are given to each person at the table to further invoke strength and health. My mother usually makes a cross with honey on our foreheads as we eat a wafer to remind us of Christ's body--the gift of divine generosity enfleshed in the body of a babe.  The sauerkraft soup in the forefront of the picture is made of cabbage, sausages, dried plums and mushrooms--all food items generously grown in the Slovak region, and providing a solid diet for the generations of the Slovak people.
This table, with specific Christmas food on it, provides me with the sense of identity and story: It reveals my roots, my belonging, and the story of my family (and my nation to some degree) through food items, customs, and family eating practices. Trying to understand the basis for spiritual formation, in my case, Christian formation, begins with the understanding of my identity and story. Who am I? Whom do I belong? What defines me?  Existential questions in their search for answers can start in the fabric of every-day life. Table images and food items can appear to be banally simple to hold the answers of cosmic significance. Yet, the beginning of human quest for understanding can be grand in the ways it opens. Entry point into spiritual formation does not need to be a walk through the gates of theological and philosophical doctrines. Spiritual teaching and forming can begin by staying in touch with the earthiness of our every-day existence, such as meal and table fellowship, and by our ability to use these earthly things as tools to invoke curiosity about the bigger questions.
What does your family table reveal about your roots and your identity? 

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