Attached to our house in Oxford is a hostel for 23 university students. They are a diverse bunch, spanning all continents, several faiths and belief systems, both genders and a wide variety of academic disciplines, hobbies and backgrounds. They live here in order to create a loose-knit community, based on shared values and mutual support.
They have a large kitchen, down the middle of which is a long table, with chairs. This is very much the hub of the house, the place where community is most apparent, and most vibrant. Here, around this table, friendships have grown and romances blossomed; theses have been agonised over and proof-read, successes celebrated and sick or stressed students nourished by others. Here, outgoing residents are sent off with a traditional dessert night; while newcomers wanting to meet people are well advised to simply hang around, cooking something which smells delicious.
There are no set meal times, no rules about eating together; it just happens through preference. And whenever we ask the students to evaluate their experience of living here, the kitchen crops up most frequently as a source of much more than simply food. And yet food is at the heart of it. As one student memorably wrote a couple of years ago:
It is really a wonder that we all get on so well, but somehow we do, and I think food is the key. You can't be strangers long with someone who offers you baklava, or the most heavenly dhal, and eats your pasta with such obvious gusto. Through the magic of commensality we share something of our lives with each other, and learn to rub along together and relish our differences as much as our culinary exchanges - that seems to be the theory and most of the time it works amazingly well...
The origins of certain words teach us that food is the fuel of relationships. The word “companion” - from the Latin com “with” and panis “bread” - reminds us that food feeds more than the physical body; it also nourishes generosity and friendship. To eat with someone implies a level of comfort and security with that person, something Jesus would have naturally understood. So yes, it's true: you can't remain strangers with someone who offers you food, especially if it's heavenly dhal... and when that Someone is Jesus, offering you heavenly food, his very Self... well, you can't easily remain on distant nodding terms for long!
Today's feast of Corpus Christi centres on a self-giving God who constantly holds out the hand of loving friendship, a God who does not maintain an aloof distance, but instead offers us far more enriching food than even the most delicious dhal, and desires a companionship that is truly loving and intimate.
Our foundress, Madeleine Sophie Barat, once wrote: The nature of Love is to change the lover into the Beloved. What a wonderful one-ing of God and creation, which makes us able to say, "I live, now not I, but Christ lives in me." That, surely, is what lies at the heart of the Eucharist, and today's feast...