From virgin nurse the Boy God feeds;
On holy milk
On holy milk
This miracle all else exceeds.
The One to whom all owe their lives
On food from someone else survives.
O peerless wonder! See him thrive
On fleshly food who keeps alive
the flesh.(From a poem featured in the Magnificat on January 1, celebrating Mary the Mother of God.)
Over the past months, and years, really, I have been trying to get to the root of why food is not incidental to those who live a life of faith. Food isn’t just a neutral factor in our lives, something just to be consumed without thought, a topic that hovers on the margins of the life of faith but never really enters in. Why? So many reasons come to mind. I’ll just get started with one. The One to whom all owe their lives/ On food from someone else survives. These simple lines reveal two simple truths:
1) Christ ate.
He who shares all in common with us (except for sin, of course) ate, and in so doing, he incorporated the act of eating into the eternal Trinity. Kind of blows you away, doesn’t? God not only made the world, but entered into it, and entered into it all the way, made it a part of himself in the most basic way possible.
2) Food comes from.
Even the completely self-sufficient farmer (and perhaps the self-sufficient farmer is more greatly aware of this) exists in a relationship of reception. For him, food comes from the earth, from his animals, from the good graces of a Creator who has set the world up to be responsive to his labor. For most of the rest of us non-farmer types, food “comes from” in an even more radical way. Food comes from the farmer, from the field laborer, from the trucker, from the butcher, from the supermarket shelf-stocker, and finally, from whomever it is who prepares it for us. What does all this mean? It means that food comes from someone. Thus, food establishes relationships. This basic fact is beautifully illustrated by the infant who must be fed; the entire survival of the infant is completely dependent upon being in relationship with someone who will feed, someone from whom food will come.
These days it is easy to forget that food comes from. We could potentially enter a supermarket, purchase some shrink-wrapped, pre-made frozen food, swipe through a self-checkout aisle, and breeze out of the store, without a word to another human being. No one to thank, no one to even acknowledge.
Looking at these two points together, we see that in eating, Christ entered into relationships. The first and most basic we see in the poem–nursing put him in relationship with his mother Mary (and through her, with all of created humanity). We can only guess at the web of relationships that the Holy Family entered into in order to obtain their food, but I would guess that they were probably not self-sufficient farmers if Joseph and Jesus worked as carpenters. They probably raised part of their own food and traded for part of it. In any case, I doubt that Christ or the Holy Family entered into exploitative relationships in order to obtain the food they ate. Granted, it was a very different time in history, but I am certain there were those who were exploited by the commercial system of the day. All this has convinced me that I need to think hard about the relationships that are established by the food that my family purchases. Am I doing my best to make sure that I am not exploiting others just to get a lot of something cheap, when I could pay more or go to some small amount of trouble to be more respectful of those who are bringing my food to me?
I know there is so much suffering that is invisible to me, suffering that I take for granted on a daily basis, but the suffering of agricultural workers is something that will probably always be present to me. I was blessed by the opportunity to meet and work with a handful of the Mexican migrant workers who pick the apples for our Virginia applesauce and the grapes for our classy Virginia wines. I see their faces when I pay more for the organic produce I purchase, when I chose to get our summer produce from Amish family farms by joining a summer CSA. Most vividly, I see Lupita’s face–she was young, she was my best student, and she and her husband worked in a vineyard. They had constant rashes from the sprays that irritated their arms as they picked the grapes, and although they wished for children, were having a lot of trouble conceiving and wondered why. Although I will never know for sure, I often wondered if the level of chemicals Lupita was exposed to had something to do with their fertility issues.
Our “traditional table” has a lot more to it than just the conventional/organic issue, and certainly, there are nutritional and health benefits to organic foods as well, but honestly, for me, those have always been the icing on the cake, as it were. To me, it is more about the people, more about the social and commercial structures that I am supporting with my food dollar, although it’s nice to know that there’s less toxic chemicals building up in my family’s bodies as well.