A good meal with friends creates a human space in one’s life that not only nourishes the body but also the soul and spirit of a person. This is why feasts are so important. For a special feast we set aside time from the rush of life, we give attention to decoration and setting, we invite those we love and care about and together we sit down for a fine meal and for valuable and rare time to be present to one another. In the utilitarian rush of our world a feast can even be a subversive action where we conspire in love to say that there is so much more to life than what can be measured and commodified.
For thirty years now the Community of Sant’Egidio has been holding such a feast (the Pranzo) every Christmas day. Thirty years ago the Community hosted around fifty friends made up of the poor, the elderly and the physically and mentally handicapped for the first Pranzo. This year it has been determined that the Community hosted over one hundred and fifty thousand people around the world for the Pranzo. At the Basilica of Santa Maria in Trastevere the pews inside the church were set aside and tables and chairs set up and friends gathered together for the meal. In New York City a few Christmas dinners took place for the elderly in nursing homes and for the easily forgotten homeless. In parts of Africa whole villages gathered together for the feast. In Johnson City, TN the John Sevier Center (a low income housing center) provided the location for the Christmas Pranzo where fifty-five persons were served.
It is more than just a meal. The Pranzo is a time to be human and to know that one is valued and loved and this applies both to those who are served the meal and to those who serve. The Pranzo is a gathering of friends; friends who have been gathered together by the love of the incarnate Word who came to break down all barriers, to overcome all sad divisions and to gather all peoples into the love of the Father’s Kingdom. As one homeless man noted while leaving Santa Maria in Trastevere after the feast, “When I think of the Kingdom of God I think of something like this!”
The Pranzo connects Christians once again with the ancient tradition within our Church of feeding the poor specifically on Christmas Day and the Pranzo flows directly from our celebration of the Eucharist. We all are familiar with the image of the newborn Christ wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger (the place where animals are fed). Christ is indeed the Bread of Life and as we are nourished by this Bread that is Christ himself then we, in turn, are to help in nourishing our world. This nourishing is more than just the physical, it is also a spiritual nourishing that we are to assist by actions that remind us that yes, we are human, we have dignity and we are meant for more than an isolated existence. In fact we are meant for relationship and friendship with one another and even with God! Christ came, we are told, that we might have life and life to the full! In many ways the Pranzo is a crèche for our modern and distracted world. It is a continuation of the dream of St. Francis.
This year I was able to participate in the Pranzo at Primavalle on the periphery of Rome. (In Rome alone this year there were over one hundred Christmas meals in churches and other locations.) Primavalle is close to what we in America would term a “senior citizen center”. The Community of Sant’Egidio runs various activities and prayer at Primavalle which touches and nourishes the lives of the elderly, the handicapped and the poor in the area. For weeks the community worked and planned the Pranzo. Gifts were purchased and wrapped, invitations were sent out, decorations were acquired and the multi-coursed meal was prepared. On Christmas day following the Mass tables and chairs were set up and decorated and over one hundred people gathered together in friendship to celebrate the feast! At one side of the room sat the image of the infant Christ in the manger; in many ways presiding over the feast!
At the end of the meal each of the invited friends received an individual gift. Afterwards the building was cleaned by many people and all involved were tired but I could not help but be struck by one person who was joyfully and unself-consciously whistling to himself while helping to clean.
Joy, we are told, is the surest indicator of the presence of God.