Jesus and the Sukkah

"Repas de Notre-Seigneur et des apôtres" by James Tissot, c. 1886-1894. Brooklyn Museum.

In the days before supermarkets, to celebrate a harvest was to rejoice in the fact of having enough food to go on living. But for generations of Jews, the harvest festival has also been a time to call to mind fragility and impermanence—by celebrating in a sukkah. Flimsy and exposed to the elements, the sukkot are huts that shelter observant Jews during a week of thanksgiving each fall. Families leave their homes to share meals under thatched roofs, open to the rain and stars. Weather permitting, some even sleep there. These sukkot, so easy to break down and pack up, are said to be a memorial of the huts that shaded the Exodus Jews from the desert sun. Though a lifelong Jew, I didn’t give much thought to an even larger meaning of these sacred meals—in places that are temporary and out in the open—until I found a similar one in the New Testament.

As his final earthly act at the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus hosts a cookout. He’s seen at first from a fishing boat, waving from the shore in the gathering dawn, alive after all, yelling for Peter and his crewmates to haul in their nets and come ashore. Once on land—Peter dripping wet after swimming all the way, and the rest dragging the boat—they see that Jesus has already started a little charcoal fire on the ground, grilling fish with bread. Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” This simple outdoor meal among friends, a breakfast to undo the Last Supper, completes the story.

On the last day of a trip to Israel not long ago, I was there. Almost. Our guide said this was not the place itself; the Sea of Galilee—really more of a lake, I thought—had receded over the years. A little church, ten or twenty yards from the waterline, held what was said to be Christ’s Table. Inside the whitewashed building, standing in place of an altar with the brick floor built around it, smooth to the touch, was the rock where the cooking fire burned, labeled with the sign of a cross and the words “Mensa Christi.”

The church dates from the 1930s, and it rests on foundations much more ancient: a shrine was first built there in the fourth century. What has stood longer than any particular building, however, is the conviction that Christ’s Table deserves to be indoors, walled up, and roofed over in the first place.

To my mind, the story the church commemorates is powerful exactly because it is unsheltered. Most remarkable about it are the details that would have been lost had the reunited friends chosen to eat inside rather than on the beach: a silhouette on shore at first light “about a hundred yards off,” Peter sopping wet from his scramble through the water, fresh fish and rocks for their table. If there’s spontaneous joy in the story, it’s not in any dialogue, but in the choice to break bread right then and there, before even drying off. If there’s unconditional friendship in the story, it’s somehow reflected in this simple, even primitive, shared meal.

The outdoor details are still on the page, but they’re not in the church. The church and its labeled table is a defined space for ritual, an enclosure: a sharp contrast to the story it was built to remember. Other uncovered scenes in the Jesus story are now covered over as well: the Garden of Gethsemane, the place of a desperate prayer in the cold midnight, is now indoors and fenced around, and you can climb a staircase to the hill of the crucifixion. It’s indoors, too.

There’s nothing uniquely Christian about the idea of enclosing sacred sites. Aside from the obvious need to keep congregations warm and dry, there’s something else at work in the value every faith places on its proud buildings. We draw a line around a space, we adorn it with architecture and art, and its very beauty acts as a label: “God happens here.” Those lines and that beauty are how the sacred is permanently demarcated from the ordinary; how religion strives to make itself accessible to all of us who try to live through its stories second hand; how religion is domesticated, with special places and times set aside for its indulgence. They tell us to go to a certain place if we’re looking for God, just as we go to the supermarket if we’re looking for fish. But the stories we read in those very places tell us of times when the sacred and profane were not so easily segregated: the men in John’s story were looking for fish and instead came to believe they found their God.

What I see in the church of Christ’s Table is a craving to make the unpredictability of religious experience predictable—to make it just sit still. The great student of religious experience, William James, left an eloquent record of that craving for fixity in the notes he wrote under the influence of nitrous oxide. High on laughing gas, he could barely commit the sensation to words:

Reconciliation of opposites; sober, drunk, all the same!
Good and evil reconciled in a laugh!
It escapes, it escapes!
What escapes, WHAT escapes?

What escapes? No sooner revealed than gone; no sooner gone than irrecoverable. With editing and guesswork, he might have stretched the insights so imperfectly recorded on that paper into one of his philosophical arguments—but only one bearing as little similarity to the original as the enclosed and inert slab marked “Mensa Christi.”

I would look, instead, to the meal in the sukkah and the meal on the shore: both sanctify a space, but only temporarily. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that so many founding religious stories are set in places uncovered, unsheltered, and unlabeled—because religious experience is arbitrary like that. Religious experience, unlike religious observance, does not have its set times and places. And it’s a fitting testimony that the Gospels’ story closes not with a ritual or a blinding-white ascension, but simply with a breakfast—a meal as fleeting as a meal in the sukkah.

Rob Goodman is a speechwriter in Washington, DC. He's written on sports for The Atlantic's website and on cognition-enhancing drugs for the Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal. He is co-writing a book on Cato the Younger and the Roman Republic, which is expected in 2011.