Intimate dining with your family — and Jesus

This 19th century painting of the Last Supper by James Tissot captures the manner of eating by Jesus and his apostles "reclining at table."

Torn between ambition and apathy some 20 years ago, I found myself in the kitchen wondering if I should roast Cornish game hens for dinner, or wind up making some quick BLTs. I decided to put the question to my then 12-year-old son, DeForeest, laboring over homework at his desk.

He looked up with a thoughtful expression. “You know, Pop, we haven’t had a Roman feast for a long while.” Aha! Great idea! A Roman feast! Just the thing for a warm spring evening.

Fortunately, I’d picked up some feta cheese bread the day before. Back in the kitchen, I tore the small loaf into pieces. They would go marvelously with black and green olives, mushrooms, cucumber slices in lightly salted water, pepperoni, smoked oysters, mozzarella cheese, sun-dried tomatoes and flowerets of cauliflower.

Making up a platter of all this goodness, I served it with a sprinkle of oregano and sweet basil. It was accompanied by bowls of olive oil and balsamic vinegar in which to dip these tasty morsels, along with a sip of a tolerable Burgundy.

As I sliced and peeled and can-opened, DeForeest reached into the hall closet and brought out the big pine board I’d used years before for my college art classes. He set it on my queen-sized bed, found a colorful tablecloth and a couple of cloth napkins. Fingers would serve for utensils, atque Romanæ.

Kelly, my former wife, has a wide knowledge of Roman history, art and cuisine. She invented our Roman feasts when DeForeest was six. He was so taken with ancient Rome after watching episodes of I, Claudius that Kelly was inspired to create the meal as a fun and educational follow-up.

It worked. By the age of 8, DeForeest was reading Penguin paperback editions of the histories of Tacitus and Suetonius. Within a few months he knew more about the first five Roman emperors than most Americans know about the first five U.S. presidents. Friends were fascinated as he enthusiastically discussed incidents occurring during the reigns of Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero.

Back at home, DeForeest placed two big pillows on either side of the bed for bolsters with the board in between thus suggesting a triclinium, the divan on which Romans reclined for their meals. Leaning on our left arms facing each other, we said grace, talked about his schoolwork, my writing, the latest news and, well, the kind of conversation that blesses shared meals with a happy intimacy. We discovered that:

Reclining at table is civilized, inducing diners to savor, not gobble, their food.

Reclining at table is a touchstone with our forebears, it being the usual way in which Romans, Jews, Greeks, North Africans and just about everybody of consequence ate their main meal 2,000 years ago.

Reclining at table is relaxing. While their masters lolled about on their triclinia, servants in the pantry or kitchen ate off a tall table while standing, not even sitting, so as to be ready to answer their masters’ beck and call.

Reclining at table is, therefore, a distinguishing mark of freedom. For this reason, alone, people in all the lands surrounding the Mediterranean borrowed the custom from the otherwise detested Roman conquerors.

DaVinci’s famed fresco to the contrary, Jesus and His apostles celebrated their final Passover Seder all together while reclining, so close to each other that St. John describes himself as leaning against the Lord.

There, reclining at table, Jesus explained Scripture, sang, prayed and ate with the Twelve. “Jesus knew that the hour had come for Him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (John 13:1). In this manner, as bread and wine become His true body and blood, Jesus first imparted Himself, the foretold Paschal Lamb, to His friends. For, as He told them, “No longer do I call you servants, because the servant does not know what his master does. But I have called you friends, because all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you” (Ibid 15:15).

With their followers in the faith the apostles continued the intimacy of friendship they had known at table with Jesus, announcing His Gospel, sharing their memories of Him, and proclaiming whatever Scriptures were at hand. They eventually offered a prayer of consecration and thanksgiving in remembrance of what had occurred at that final meal with Jesus before He died.

In the breaking of the Bread and sharing of the Cup, the same, long-awaited Lamb of God came into their midst — body, blood, soul and divinity. Paintings in the catacombs show how this arrangement, reclining at the Eucharistic meal, continued centuries after.

To honor that most glorious Gift, Pope Urban IV established the feast of Corpus Christi in 1264, commissioning the great Dominican theologian, St. Thomas Aquinas, to write prayers and changed hymns for the Mass and Office. Not so well known is the fact that Urban hedged his bet by commissioning another notable theologian, the Franciscan friar, St. Bonaventure, to do the same.

Some time later, taking his completed manuscript across town to Thomas’ priory, Bonaventure discovered Thomas nearing completion of the same task. Bonaventure, so the story goes, having read a few parchment sheets on which Aquinas had written his Mass, tossed his own completed manuscript into the nearby fireplace saying, “Thomas, I would not want it on my conscience that I stood between the world and what you have written.”

In your parish’s celebration of the Mass for what is now called the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of the Lord, I hope the lector or cantor will not speed past or ignore the entire, now optional, so you can exult in the joyful Sequence, Lauda Sion which begins:

Zion, lift up thy voice and sing:
Praise thy Savior and thy King,
Praise with hymns thy Shepherd true!
See today before us laid

The living and life-giving Bread!
Theme for praise and joy profound.
The same which at the Sacred Board
Was, by our Incarnate Lord,

Given to His Apostles round …
His own act, at supper seated
Christ ordained to be repeated
In His memory divine

Wherefore now, with adoration,
We, the Host of our salvation,
Consecrate from bread and wine ....
Hear, what Holy Church maintaineth,

That the bread its substance changeth
Into Flesh, the wine to Blood ...

In this sublime poem, a masterfully lyrical prayer describing the origin of the Blessed Sacrament at the Last Supper, St. Thomas captures that original intimacy shared by Jesus with His apostles.

Even if it is not recited or sung, grab a missalette after Mass and read it to yourself as your personal thanksgiving. Climb aboard your own spiritual triclinium and recline at the table of the Lord. In this manner, and with the same loving familiarity known to St. John, you, too, can rest your head against the Sacred Heart.

With his friend, the late John Farrell, Sean M. Wright wrote "The Sherlock Holmes Cookbook" (Drake, 1976; Bramhall House, 1977). He is also an Emmy-nominated television writer and one of the teachers for the RCIA team at Our Lady of Perpetual Help parish in Santa Clarita, Calif.