Bringing the Gospels to life through food

Sr. Mary Ann Figlino, CSJ, points to the yarn intersecting the room, asking an attendee if she’d have dared cross that line during Jesus’ lifetime. She said, “No!” ( Marty Denzer/Key photos)

By Marty Denzer
Catholic Key Associate Editor

KANSAS CITY — While reading the Bible, you’ve probably noticed the numerous references in both the Old and the New Testaments to meals. In the Old Testament, there are numerous references to foods including manna in the desert, oil and flour, honey, unleavened bread, lamb and fish. In the New Testament, we read about the Loaves and the Fishes, the Wedding Feast at Cana, The Last Supper, the story of Zacchaeus and other Gospel readings recounting Jesus eating a meal with family, friends, even strangers. His parables also often refer to food, such as in the Prodigal Son, whose father orders the fatted calf killed for a feast when the son returns home starving.

At Avila University on Oct. 26, Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet Mary Ann Figlino gave a presentation, “Eating through the Gospels,” which prompted a different way of viewing and perceiving the Word of God. For one thing, in picturing Jesus reclining on the floor around a low table, dipping a piece of bread into a bowl and eating it, his humanity becomes more real and as relevant as his divinity to us 2,000 years later.

Sr. Mary Ann said the inspiration for the presentation was her work with the Empowerment Program with women inmates at a Denver area prison, helping them record their voices reading a bedtime story to their child. Project Bedtime Story was a big hit with the inmates, she said. And it showed the unending love of a mother for her child, even though separated.

“While I was hanging out with those women, those marginalized ones,” Sr. Mary Ann recalled, “it struck me that they were the women (or men) that Jesus would have hung out with, shared a meal with taught, strengthened and forgiven.”

She became very interested in researching the Bible for references to meals and social customs, especially in the 1st century. The presentation and discussion, part of the Sisters’ program, Linger Over Breakfast, highlighted the social mores, politics, traditions and the Law of the Jewish people during Jesus’ lifetime.

Sr. Mary Ann, a former grade school teacher, skillfully made her audience imagine themselves in the locale of her narrative, Jerusalem, Nazareth, Galilee, in the years 1 -33.

In the first century, the host of a dinner party would have been careful to invite the local wealthy and well connected, who would of course invite him back; no one beneath the host socially would have been invited.

Guests, mostly men, would have reclined on pillows or mats on the floor around low tables, usually U-shaped to enable servers to serve without disturbing the guests. Entertainment was provided by drums and/or flute-playing and dancers. Women normally would not have been in the same room or, if they were, would have been dancers or musicians. Remember the wedding in Fiddler on the Roof, where the men were in one area and danced with the men and the women were in a separate space dancing with women?

Guests would have shared bowls and cups. While knives and spoons were in use in Europe as far back as 10,000 years ago, in first century Galilee bread was used as spoon, napkin as well as food. (The wealthy might have carried knives to cut their food with, while the poor would have used their fingers and teeth.) Think The Last Supper, when Jesus said his betrayer would be “’the one to whom I hand the morsel after I have dipped it.’ So he dipped the morsel and handed it to Judas…” (John 13:26)

A plate of dates, nuts, bread and pomegranate seeds — a simple meal of 2,000 years ago.

Picture yourself at the Wedding Feast at Cana (John 2:1-12) and remember, weddings in those days often lasted 5 -7 days. This particular feast took place on the third day of the week. John recounts that ‘the mother of Jesus was there’ and ‘Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding.’ Mary most likely came to the wedding with the disciples and Jesus because women never attended a public event unaccompanied, Sr. Mary Ann said. The wine ran short and Mary heard the panic stricken servers wondering what they should do.

Tossing a ball of red yarn toward an attendee near the back of the room and handing the other end to an attendee at the front, Sr. Mary Ann said, “Then Mary stepped over the line,” the line of demarcation between the men and the women, which was not to be crossed. Sr. Mary Ann touched the yarn line, pulling it down a bit, explaining, “She risked everything in stepping over the line to speak with her son, because she KNEW he would be able to fix the problem. “She said to him, ‘They have no wine.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.’”

Sr. Mary Ann continued, “In approaching Jesus on the men’s’ side of the room, Mary crossed the line, socially and culturally. She realized the need was greater than keeping the Law. Jesus called her Woman, a term of respect remember when from the Cross he spoke to his mother standing with the apostle John, saying, ‘Woman, behold your son, Son, behold your mother.’”

John wrote that Mary turned to the servers and told them, “’Do whatever he tells you.’ Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings, each holding 20 to 30 gallons.” (About the size of a small water heater, Sr. Mary Ann interjected, adding the Jews ritually washed their hands before, during and after meals) Jesus told them, ‘Fill the jars with water.’ So they filled them to the brim. Then he told them, draw some out and take it to the headwaiter. So they took it. And when the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine, without knowing where it came from (although the servers who had drawn the water knew), the headwaiter (Sr. Mary Ann: he was likely a well-connected relative or friend of the groom) called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves good wine first and then, when people have drunk freely, an inferior one, but you have kept the good wine until now.’”

John then said, “Jesus did this at the beginning of his signs in Cana in Galilee and so revealed his glory, and his disciples began to believe in him.” Sr. Mary Ann explained that John never referred to Jesus’ miracles, they were always “signs,” signs that revealed his glory as the Son of God. And she said, the servers were the first witnesses to the “sign,” the miracle.

There were other “signs” when Jesus fed the 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish (John 6:1 – 15); the unplanned stop in Jericho when Zacchaeus the diminutive tax collector climbed a sycamore tree to be able to see Jesus and Jesus called to him to climb down “quickly for today I must stay at your house.” (Luke 19:1 – 10) When Zacchaeus, considered a sinner by the citizens of Jericho, stood before Jesus and said he would give half his possessions to the poor and if he had extorted anyone, he would repay it four times over, Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house because this man too is a descendant of Abraham. For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what is lost.”

The Pardon of the Sinful Woman, (Luke 7:36 – 50,) tells of Jesus dining with Simon the Pharisee and while they were reclining at table, a sinful woman who had heard Jesus was there, entered the room, and “bringing an alabaster flask of ointment, she stood behind him at his feet weeping and began to bathe his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and anointed them with the ointment.” Hearing the Pharisee muttering about Jesus, if he was indeed a prophet, he would know the woman was a sinner, Jesus addressed the man and told him a short parable about two debtors who could not repay the creditor they owed, and so he forgave them both, “Which of them will love him more?”

The Pharisee replied, “The one, I suppose, whose larger debt was forgiven.” After Jesus said he was correct, he continued, “Do you see this woman? When I entered your house, you did not give me water for my feet, but she has bathed them with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but she has not ceased kissing my feet since the time I entered. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. So I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; hence she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.” He then said to the woman, “… go in peace.”

Consider this: Jesus was indeed a prophet, not only because he had foresight but because he had insight. Remember your mother nagging you to don a warm coat and boots on a snowy day or risk catching a cold. She was in a sense, prophesying the cold, because of insight into your habits and personality.

The Eucharist Celebration occurs daily at Mass, but have you ever thought when eating a meal with family or friends, you are sharing a sort of sacrament, a “small s eucharist?” Sr. Mary Ann reminded her audience that the first Eucharist was celebrated around a dinner table, and again on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24: 13 -35), when he broke bread and blessed it with the two disciples who hadn’t recognized him earlier, before disappearing. If a meal/eucharist is a “small s sacrament,” what are other small s sacraments that can be celebrated as we go about our daily lives? asked Sr. Mary Ann. “What about forgiveness, baptism, and marriage? Do you have holy memories of breaking bread or sharing wine with friends or family?”

Jesus turned the lives, social mores and beliefs of the Jews upside down. The sinful woman was more important than the rules, the wedding and its guests were more important than Mary crossing the line over into the men’s’ side of the room, again the rules.

Next time you read or listen to a Bible reading, imagine sharing a meal, walking, talking, and being with the people of the times and places. It could offer new insights and light into the familiar verses.


  1. November 28, 2019 at 6:16 pm #

    I attended this presentation, which was both informing, interesting and fun as the talk progressed.
    But, most of all, it was spiritually uplifting. Thinking about culture and about meals in relation to
    the gospels was unique…an area to think and to meditate upon. It was great!

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November 29, 2020
The Diocese of Kansas City ~ St. Joseph