Advent: Setting an Expectant Table

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Company was coming on Saturday night. On Friday afternoon a young neighbor girl and I set the table for six, bringing out the “good dishes,” to use my mother’s phrase, and silverware that’s usually closeted in a wooden chest. Forks on the left, with cloth napkins slipped tightly into napkin rings. Knives on the right, with water glasses at their tips. “Good job,” I complimented when we stood back to assess the scene.

I sent her home, knowing she would return in the morning for our normal Saturday routine: breakfast omelets and toast. I wanted to fill our plates at the stove, grab forks, and eat at a crowded table corner. No. She insisted that we sit at the prepared place settings—not an element of her home routine.

I start to lament a cultural reality: that fewer people these days anticipate a daily or even weekly meal by laying out even basic table settings. And then I wince—you hypocrite—that even I have let the practice slide. Unless I’m expecting a guest, I fill a plate, grab a fork, and make no attempt to stage my meals. I don’t grace myself with a dedicated space and presentation.

My mother, on the other hand, always maintained her age-old habit, setting a table, maybe with Melmac. On weeknights, just family, setting out the tableware was a thankless, necessary chore. But on holidays she selected carefully from the china cabinet. And then periodically she prepared the church’s communion table: one-gulp glasses filled with grape juice nestled in circular tiers, small cubes of Wonder bread spread on a chrome tray—all covered with a broad white cloth. On Sunday the congregation recognized the visual clues. They awaited the unveiling and the symbolic welcome of the furnished table.

By preparing a table, we’re acknowledging that we expect someone’s—even our own—presence and active, attentive participation. Come. Sit. Eat. Let this food sustain you until your next meal. Enjoy it if you can.

Proverbs 9:1-6 describes Wisdom as a householder who not only prepares a repast, but also sets a table, anticipating the arrival of guests who are hungry and otherwise overwhelmed. Wisdom— to some a type of the Holy Spirit, to some a type of Christ—is hailing the simple and senseless.

It’s Advent, and the season’s songs and readings remind me that I’m waiting for God to show up. But there is a flip side to the story. Wisdom has set a dinner table and is expecting us to come.

Wisdom has built her house . . .
She has slaughtered her beasts; she has mixed her wine;
she has also set her table . . .
“Whoever is simple, let him turn in here!”
To him who lacks sense she says,
“Come, eat of my bread
and drink of the wine I have mixed.
Leave your simple ways, and live.”
Proverbs 9:1–2; 4–5 (ESV)

Image attribution: DAJ / Thinkstock

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Evelyn Bence is author of Room at My Table: Preparing Heart and Home for Christian Hospitality. She grew up in a Wesleyan parsonage known for its hospitable Sunday dinners.

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