The two disciples whom Jesus joined on the road to Emmaus recognized him in the breaking of the bread.   What is a more common, ordinary gesture than breaking bread?  It may be the most human of all human gestures:  a gesture of hospitality, friendship, care, and the desire to be together.  Taking a loaf of bread, blessing it, breaking it, and giving it to those seated around the table signifies unity, community, and peace.   When Jesus does this he does the most ordinary as well as the most extraordinary.  It is the most human as well as the most divine gesture.  The great mystery is that this daily and most human gesture is the way we recognize the presence of Christ among us.  God becomes most present when we are most human.

     Henri Nouwen

The greatest teacher the world has ever known understood something vital.  So many of the stories about him center on people around a table, eating, sharing meals, being together.  With no agendas.  No concrete expectations other than to satisfy a physical hunger and a need for human connection.

We sat at a table with each of them, on different days of the week, each at a different place.  We listened to their stories.  Sitting at those tables together with them, we satisfied our physical hungers and a need for human connection.  But we found other hungers being satisfied too.

At a restaurant with an older man, he talked about his father who had long since passed away.  He spoke of how, even now in his 70’s, he still feels the effects of the affirmation his father wasn’t able to give him when he was growing up.  He wishes his father could have been more encouraging, more verbally demonstrative.  He is wistful about what could have been, about what opportunities were missed between them.  He reflects on how much his father’s approval and appreciation meant to him.  Yet, he’s forgiven the things his father couldn’t provide, couldn’t say.  He tries his best to say them now to his own children and their children too.

She set the table with care and proudly served the lunch she had prepared for us that day.  She loves to cook and was up hours earlier that morning just to make certain it was perfect for her guests.  She rarely has guests at her table.  She has no one at home and no extended family to cook for.  So, to have us at her table was a complete joy.  Around the dining room table that day she spoke of her longing for companionship, for love.  She misses sharing her life with someone, the everyday routines that two people can share together.  She longs to be important in someone else’s life, to be the one who hears the cries of another’s heart, who is the first to hear another’s joy.

She told us the soup tasted just as she dreamed it would, as we sat across from her at the diner that day.  But she also dreams about her loneliness, that it would go away.  It hurts so much.  The disconnection she has with her family is devastating.   Her fears keep her awake at night. They cause her to be constantly looking over her shoulder every day.  The pain of her alienation is numbing.  But in being able to talk with us she shares that finally she has something to look forward to.  Sometimes the silence in her life is so deafening, she tells us, it makes her feel crazy.  It amplifies and compounds her fears.   If only her life could be as good as the soup is.  If only her family would seem to care abut her.  At the table she pours out her pain.

A year later it still hurts, terribly so.  Her beloved husband of over 40 years is gone and nothing can bring him back.  The memories people tell her to savor are good, indeed.  But they are not him.  They are not his tender embrace, his playful sense of humor, his presence right beside her.  It’s hardest most each night at dinner, when she sits at the table alone, without him.  The nights get so lonely and long.  She dreads them each day.  So we had dinner with her; she chose a Chinese buffet.  She came alive at the table; she wasn’t having dinner alone.  She treated us.  It felt so good just to have someone to share it with.

At the table with each of them something transcendent occurred.

At the table, in the sharing, through the conversations, in the connections, each of them became fully human, expressing what they struggled with most, where they felt weakest, and what brought pain into their lives.

At the table, as we all shared in our most basic human need — the need to eat.

But even more, at the table, they allowed us into their very human souls and we allowed them into ours.   And each time, it reminded them as well as us, that even though we may not always feel it, we are all connected much more closely and deeply and commonly in our human need.

At the table, sometimes we are surrounded by clattering plates and the competition of others’ voices, sometimes by the deafening sounds of silence.  But at the table when we connect in a these very human ways, opening up to the need to satisfy our hungry souls, sharing our common humanity, we are filled beyond measure with a power that blessedly transcends our longings and our pain.