Sacred meals, Baptist and Orthodox

It's hard to hold a proper Southern Baptist dinner on the grounds without someone bringing a lemon pound cake.

The recipe John David Finley grew up with was as down to earth as cooking can get, with one cup of butter, four eggs, the grated peel of half a lemon and the right amounts of flour, sugar, baking powder, vanilla, salt and nutmeg.

But somewhere between the lines is the joy of his paternal grandmother, Lula Mae Finley. And those black-eyed peas -- you'll need a ham bone -- are just black-eyed peas, unless you have the chopped bell pepper and jalapenos in there. Then you're talking about New Year's dinner with Owen Jefferson "Popo" Finley, Sr. That homemade vanilla ice cream? That's part of the legacy of the Rev. Owen Jefferson Finley, Jr., who survived the hell of Omaha Beach on D-Day before spending 38 years as pastor of the Trinity Baptist Church in McAlester, Okla. The list goes on and on.

People used to teach old recipes to their children back in the days before interstate highways, fast-food empires and televisions ate the family dinner hour, said Father John David Finley, author of "Sacred Meals: From Our Family Table." It's a book about cooking, of course, but it's also a memoir about the ties that bind his past as a Southern Baptist preacher's kid to his adult life as an Eastern Orthodox priest, composer and evangelist in Southern California.

"One of the most important things I've learned in life is that food isn't just food," he said. "At some point, I realized that I was preparing and serving certain foods at certain times of the year not just to honor or remember my grandparents and my parents, but to enter into a kind of communion with them. ...

"Suddenly I saw the Communion of the Saints in a whole different way. I realized why food has been so important to the church's theology since the very beginning."

At the deepest level, there is the bread and wine consecrated in the altar rites of the Divine Liturgy. But the ordinary foods of life play key roles in the Eastern fasting traditions of Great Lent, the six-week season in which observant Orthodox believers strive not to eat meat and dairy products. The fasting traditions of Great Lent lead to Holy Week and the great feast of Pascha, or Easter. The Orthodox feast this year is on April 23, using the ancient Julian calendar.

Father Finley said the goal, through the church's feasts and fasts, is for families to realize that the meals they share together are also sacred. Thus, the altar table and the family table are linked. Both are "manifestations of the ways that God feeds us throughout our lives," he said.

It's hard to grasp this in an age in which food is surrounded by golden arches and plastic toys more often than golden vestments, incense and icons.

"There's no room for fellowship in a McDonald's culture," he said. "Every now and then people realize this. They feel isolated and rushed and cheated. They know something is wrong."

"Sacred Meals" features commentary on this subject from an Eastern Orthodox pioneer in North America, the late theologian Father Alexander Schmemann.

"Centuries of secularism have failed to transform eating into something strictly utilitarian," he wrote. "A meal is still a rite -- the last 'natural sacrament' of family and friendship, of life that is more than 'eating' and 'drinking.' To eat is still something more than to maintain bodily functions. People may not understand what that 'something more' is, but they nevertheless desire to celebrate it."

This is precisely what Finley and his family will celebrate Sunday when the midnight rites of Holy Pascha give way to a communal feast -- rich in meats, cheeses, eggs and non-Lenten treats -- that will last into the hours just before dawn.

"Our basket will have to include ham, because I can't imagine a Finley feast without ham," said the priest. "Then there is that great Pascha cheese that the Russians make. It's almost like cheesecake that you spread with a knife. They eat it with that wonderful bread called 'Kulich.'

"I have to make that for the children. You know a food has become a family tradition when the children yell at you if you don't make it."