Appreciating The Meaning Of The Celebratory Meal

Above is a picture of an ancient Roman painting (ca 200 CE) of a celebratory meal of some sort on one of the walls of the Catacombs of Priscilla. Though this painting incorporates Christian motifs (it is termed a Fractio Panis (“breaking of the bread”) in some scholarly literature), the custom of having a meal (e.g. a silicernium) in and around cemeteries is attested in Italy well before the Christian era. The third figure from the left is unquestionably a woman; opinion is divided on the gender of the others. For more context visit this website maintained by Catacombe di Priscilla. For Roman burial practices generally see J.M.C. Toynbee, Death and Burial In The Roman World.


There is a long tradition of interpreting the meaning of the preparation, cooking and eating of what has come to be called in recent philosophy the ‘celebratory meal.’ An appreciation of the significance of this tradition, however, has been impeded by the fact that at an early point in the Christian tradition the focus narrowed considerably from what can be understood to be the metaphysical meaning a celebratory meal had in the ancient Hellenized culture that contributed much to how early Christians understood and practiced their faith. Metaphysics — the primary name given to what philosophers and theologians focused upon generally — came to be defined almost exclusively as a fusion of Aristotelian and Platonic philosophy or theology (both terms were originally synonyms). As so defined, Metaphysics did not merely marginalize the physical world, but purported to validate ignoring it and hence any activity that celebrated the enjoyment of it. Women in particular, as those responsible for giving birth and nurturing (in this regard nursing is the original ‘celebratory meal’), were viewed from such a metaphysical perspective as effectively being a subaltern species of humanity.

The Christian Perspective

From the Christian perspective, however, especially if one takes the role of Mary seriously as the one who gave birth to and nurtured Christ — as many Christians do (and not just Catholics, e.g. Karl Barth) — it would be difficult to imagine a system of thought as hostile to everything Christian as Metaphysics. Nevertheless, for reasons that seem to have more to do with political power and willful ignorance than anything like logic, the men who adopted Christianity as their creed managed to graft onto it a considerable amount of Metaphysics. This led to the exclusion of women from any position of authority within any major Christian organization until the last two centuries. It also seems to have contributed to interpreting the Eucharist as the quintessential celebratory meal, but one which was restricted to one type or another of ‘bread’ and ‘wine’ and one which was prepared and served only by male priests. This has contributed to the use of unnecessarily arcane and inconsistent terminology even to refer to the Eucharist (as discussed below ‘communion’ is a derivative of an equivalent Latin term).

The extent to which this represents a deviation from how Christianity was initially received can be detected both by the location of the painting of the celebratory meal shown above as well as what it depicts. It was found in what is known as the “Catacombs of Priscilla” a large network of catacombs funded directly or indirectly by a wealthy Roman woman. Such sponsorship of Christianity by a woman is consistent with a substantial amount of evidence (specifically with respect to ancient Rome) regarding the authoritative role women had in the preservation and spread of Christianity. Also note that as depicted, the celebratory meal seems to have been understood as if it was itself a Eucharist being served and enjoyed by men and women alike (as noted I have noted in the caption to the picture opinion is divided on how many are women (some believe they all are) but the third figure from the left unquestionably is a woman). Not surprisingly, a Vatican official, continuing a long tradition of the Catholic Church absurdly arguing against otherwise incontrovertible empirical evidence, claims the painting has nothing whatsoever to do with the Eucharist or the vital role of women in early Christianity (as quoted in this article).

Given this context, it is perhaps not surprising that many Christians effectively ignore Metaphysics in how they think about and practice their faith. To say ‘Grace’ before a meal, for example, would seem to convert that meal into a type of Eucharist even if it is not formally acknowledged to do so. Furthermore, the fact that over the past two millennia Christianity has come to be associated with holidays where the preparation, enjoyment and sharing of food and drink can be taken as evidence that Metaphysics is all but irrelevant to what defines Christianity as practiced by most people. Ironically, instead of this leading to a reconsideration of how Metaphysics might be defined so as to be relevant to Christianity, quite the opposite has happened: such holidays are deemed to be not even necessarily Christian. A notable example in the US is Thanksgiving: unquestionably the original motivation for this holiday relates to Christian charity, but to a great extent no one thinks of it as a Christian holiday. Such secularization of what otherwise should be deemed sacred is related to the perception that Christianity is at best a dying religion. An appreciation of the meaning of celebratory meals — whether or not in the context of formal church services — suggests otherwise.

So What Is A Celebratory Meal?

Since Metaphysics has so little relevance to what most people think of as a celebratory meal it seems best as a threshold matter to ignore how it might be defined so as to make it relevant, and instead to focus on how to define ‘celebratory meal.’ That phrase derives from philosophical scholarship on an influential lecture given by Martin Heidegger. That context is useful to cite simply because of such influence, but it hardly means that a definition of ‘celebratory meal’ should be confined to what Heidegger had in mind. There was much in his mind no one would want to have anything to do with if they are of a ‘right’ mind.

A celebratory meal can be defined to be any meal that a may person have — alone or with others — in such a manner that in addition to merely satisfying the hunger or thirst of such person it is enjoyed simply for the experience of eating and drinking. As such it would not necessarily involve particular foods (e.g., food with or without meat or drinks containing or free from alcohol). Such an open ended definition of celebratory meal is analogous to how the phrase ‘family meal’ has been adopted by many people within the restaurant industry to refer to the meal that a restaurant staff is allowed to prepare for itself during off hours. Though many restaurants are run by families, the phrase is widely used regardless of whether a particular staff consists of any people who are related to one another. How the phrase ‘family meal’ is thus used is analogous to how I am using ‘celebratory meal’: to refer to an ideal that any one such such meal only approximates.

The Celebratory Meal & The Sense Of Communion

The word ‘communion’ derives from a Latin word with many applications, but with a core meaning of sharing (the root com- means ‘with,’ ‘together,’ etc. and -mun comes from a verb meaning ‘to bind’). Based on this core meaning it is fair to conclude that practically any meal, but especially a celebratory meal, would be associated with a sense of communion. The specialized meaning this word has come to have among modern Christians (that comes from its use as the Latin equivalent of the ancient Greek word Eucharist) is relevant to appreciating the depth of meaning that can be associated with a sense of communion, but it should not restrict how communion is to be understood generally, especially to the extent the influence of Metaphysics might seem to justify such a restriction.

Indeed, a consideration of the core meaning of ‘communion’ leads to the recognition of direct cognates in a wide variety of English words (communicate, commons, etc.) and indirect cognates in places you would not expect (the -mun root contributes to such terms as ‘municipality’). The most obvious sense of communion relates to the fact that many meals are consumed in a social setting of one type or another. Even when a meal is consumed alone, however, there is often an implied or imagined connection of it with, for example, a family member or someone else who may have helped prepare it.

That is not all. Unless you wolf down food without any thought whatsoever, there is some degree of consciousness in eating and drinking of the origin of the food and drink. The presence of such a consciousness is manifested whether or not it relates to insisting upon local produce for its freshness, or seeking imported or region-specific food and drink for its authenticity. To be sure, taste alone is a motivating factor, but the very complexity of the sense of taste suggests that one component of it is a sense of communion with the very food or drink itself, as the case may be, that is relatively independent of what is normally considered to be what is tasted. Arguably the most dramatic example of this relates to drinks that have specific psychological effects, such as with alcoholic or caffeinated beverages or herbal teas.

This sense of communion both with those you have a meal with (e.g., family and/or friends) as well as with what you eat or drink at any given time, can be characterized in spatial terms as a type of crossing over of any number of borders. As I have discussed elsewhere, this likely relates to the interdependent and hence roughly contemporaneous emergence of communicating with language and cooking in human evolution and the fact that communication and communion — as their common etymological heritage suggests — are functionally analogous to each other. For when you communicate with someone — whether or not at a meal and whether or not you do so by talking with or writing to someone — you also are crossing over a border: allowing what you think ‘inside’ to be understood by someone else on the ‘outside.’ In an analogous way, when you eat something, what had been an object outside of you becomes a part of you as a subject (cf. the saying attributed to Hippocrates, ‘you are what you eat’ (likely this was just a folk saying — nothing attributed to Hippocrates can be trusted as actually originating with him)).

The Sense Of Communion & The ‘Historical Time’ Of The Celebratory Meal

In addition to the spatial dimension (from outside to inside) that can be associated with the sense of communion with those around you or the food and drink that is in front of you, there is a temporal dimension. On one level this relates to the time it takes to prepare, cook and consume a meal (and to clean up thereafter). On another level though, with any given food or drink you are mindful of how long it has been since it was harvested, for example, in the case of fruits and vegetables, or made, for instance with respect to wine or beer. Whereas often the focus is on minimizing the time between harvesting and/or making and consuming the relevant food or drink, both with certain foods, such as cheeses, as well as drinks, such as wine, various periods of aging are considered ideal.

While aging ostensibly affects only taste, it also deepens the temporal dimension of the sense of communion in a way that is independent of taste. For example, knowing a wine was made perhaps a few years ago triggers the remembrance of other events associated with when it was made. Such a temporal association can, if you allow it to do so, lead to other associations with your past experiences or even with your knowledge of family and/or cultural history. Most people who drink wine with a meal are generally aware that in doing so they are carrying on a tradition that is not just centuries but millennia old.

It is in thus triggering a present awareness of a past experience or historical event(s) that a meal can best be characterized as having a ‘metaphysical’ meaning. Used in this way ‘metaphysical’ has nothing to do with Metaphysics and the legacy of its interpretation, but rather draws upon the meaning with which the cognate of the term ‘metaphysical’ is first attested to have been used (by the Sicilian Greek Empedocles). This sense is closely analogous to the meaning of the Greek derived English word ‘metaphor.’ It signifies that what at one time had a physical form of one type at some later time changes (the primary meaning of meta-) in some way and now exists, albeit in a very different respect than it once did, as the food or drink that is consumed with a given meal (a ‘metaphor’ can be understood as a linguistic ‘echo’ of this in that it allows for a word that otherwise has only one meaning in one context to ‘change’ its meaning so as to be understood to have analogous meanings depending on other contexts in which it is used).

The Sense Of Communion & The Future Anticipated By The Celebratory Meal

The foregoing analysis shows that a meal at least provides an opportunity not merely to reflect upon, but to experience a sense of communion with personal, past experiences as well as what is known of cultural history that the very food and drink of which any meal consists constitutes tangible (tasteable) evidence of its having once existed. This very experience of a sense of communion with the past in addition establishes a basis for appreciating the meal as anticipating a future that has yet to be. If what once was can in some sense be again in the form of a meal then what is now a meal is a seed for what will come to be in the more or less — near or distant — future. As with the sense of communion generally, the appreciation of the future anticipated by a meal does not necessarily occur to each person eating every meal, but to the extent there is such an appreciation, and especially where there is some clarity about the future to which a meal relates, such as at a wedding, then it can be taken to be effectively the essence of a celebratory meal.

It would be difficult (and perhaps it is not even possible) to prove that the establishment, survival and spread of Christianity depended upon the degree to which a celebratory meal was appreciated specifically by how it related to the two most significant events not only of the life of Christ but every life. Nevertheless, it is relatively easy to accept that a celebratory meal, both by manifesting, as well as eliciting, a sense of communion with every person and thing present at it as well as with the past and future contained, so to speak, within such a meal, implies a belief that is consistent with what is generally considered to be the basis of Christian faith.

There is an anecdote Augustine tells about a Roman Christian who lived only a few decades before him that suggests that the vital importance of such a sense of communion was understood to be essential to Christian identity. Marius Victorinus, who though he considered himself to be a Christian, had at one point in his life yet to go to a church and openly profess his belief. Though he eventually did so, he questioned whether it was necessary, saying “do walls make Christians?” (Ergo parietes faciunt Christianos?)(see Augustine, Confessions, VIII, ii, 4). His sarcasm can be interpreted to betray his appreciation that what defines Christianity, as experienced in a celebratory meal, is to go beyond any number of actual or figurative walls, in space and in time: not merely to believe in, but to experience, a sense of communion.

To be sure, as a series of actions and associated experiences a celebratory meal implies any number of narratives. This is one reason that so much of what was once pagan nonetheless came to be adopted by Christians. Yet, it is also why Christianity has often been welcomed in regions of the world such as Korea where it might otherwise seem not to belong.

The Substance Of A Celebratory Meal: The Metaphysical Meaning Of Food Pairings (Bread/Cheese & Wine)

In Rome at the time of Christ it was common to refer to basic foods such as bread and cheese or drinks (such as wine) either by nouns equivalent to those used in modern English for them but also, alternatively depending on the context, by the name of the god or goddess of which such foods and drinks were understood not simply as representing but actualizing. Keeping in mind that any number of narratives are implied in a celebratory meal, it is not appropriate to dismiss such usage as an artifact of mythological consciousness that was superseded by rational thinking. Rather, it is possible to interpret such usage as the legacy of an ancient form of poetic expression that though legitimate as poetry, was misunderstood or deliberately distorted by those who subscribed to the marginalization of all things physical endorsed by Metaphysics. After all, the primary vehicle for the expression of Metaphysics was prose, not poetry.

It is not difficult to spot what would have been a powerful motivating factor in the suppression of the true ‘metaphysical’ meaning that ancient Greek and Latin poetry associates with food and drink, for consistent with what ‘metaphysical’ originally meant, food and drink were at once spiritual and yet quite sensual, indeed sexual. Though depending on the language the grammatical gender is not always a reliable guide, it is nonetheless easily confirmed that wine = male god and bread/cheese = goddess. This can be taken to give new meaning to the sense of wine & cheese ‘pairings,’ which should perhaps be termed ‘couplings.’

It would be a shame to turn this into something crude even if it is rich in comedic potential. Rather, in addition to, and far more important than, the symbol of physical union (sexual intercourse) that the pairing of wine and cheese can be interpreted as being, is the fact that the tasting of wine and cheese itself can be experienced as the union of the physical with the metaphysical in vertitably myriad ways. Nevertheless, it is apparent that in Western culture such an experience has for the past two millennia been largely ignored, marginalized or ‘compartmentalized’ as it is in how the Eucharist is typically interpreted and practiced.

There have been some notable exceptions to such ignorance or marginalization. The practice of having philosophical discussions in connection with meals dates back at least to the dinner party portrayed by Plato in his Symposium. This seems to have been the inspiration for gatherings of German thinkers and writers at meals that the future wife of Friedrich Schelling — Caroline — helped plan and prepare during a period of time in the very late 18th and early 19th century when Schelling as well as Hegel and others were on friendly terms, in part because they had yet fully to formulate what came to be the ideas with which they have since become identified. Evidence of the significance of these meals for Schelling at least, no doubt intensified by his memory of Caroline’s role in providing them, is to be found in a lecture he gave decades afterwards where he insists that the “feeling for good food and drink” is effectively what is “mystical above all.”

The Consequences Of Failing To Appreciate The Meaning Of The Celebratory Meal

Before elaborating further upon the meaning of the pairing of wine and cheese as an example of the celebratory meal, it is necessary to address the consequences of failing to appreciate that there is any such meaning in it at all. The very nature of the interrelationship of the physical and metaphysical that such a meal constitutes is such that it is a daunting task fully to fathom all that is implicated and to explain and defend the legitimacy of such implications. There has been and still is, however, what is at once a logical and experiential vicious circle in belief and practice with respect even to beginning to appreciate them. Western culture has been dominated for over two millennia by Metaphysics, which denies even the possibility of the interrelationship of the physical and metaphysical — something that can rightly be characterized as ‘tastelessness.’

To overcome tastelessness it is necessary to taste tastelessness itself — as paradoxical as that may seem to be. As I have discussed in prior posts, because of how this relates to the suppression of women this can be confused with what has come to be known as the ‘feminist critique of modernity.’ Yet, the recent neuroscientific research showing that women have greater sensitivity than men is hardly ‘feminist’: it is an objectively verifiable fact. Furthermore, far from legitimizing the sort of simplistic egalitarianism that many modern feminists argue for, i.e. measuring egalitarianism purely quantitatively (e.g. equal ‘pay’ or equal numbers of men and women in any given organizational unit (cf. military)), this research suggests that such egalitarianism is itself a symptom of tastelessness: the failure to appreciate the differentiation of male and female, as if wine and cheese had been blended into a mush. Even worse, some would deny the opportunity to taste either and replace both instead with a processed ‘nutrient’ food or drink.


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