When we first started celebrating the arrival of the Sabbath with a feast, our daughter Bekah was engaged to Ben Merkle. We had a new house, a new table, and Ben made our numbers swell to six. But soon we had a couple of college girls living with us, and that made eight, and Knox was born, but he didnâ€™t take up much room. So for the ten years that Ben and Bekah have been married, they have been coming to our house every Saturday night for the festivities, and Knox now has four younger siblings and six cousins joining him around our table.
This past fall the Merkles moved to Oxford for Ben to pursue graduate studies. They have a great little place to stay that has been both a blessing and a challenge for continuing the Sabbath tradition. Their cottage has a small kitchen, no separate dining room, a living room that is smaller than my bedroom, but a very expansive yard for the kids to run in when the weather is nice. Since they had so much on their plate adjusting to new quarters, a new country, and home schooling the kids for the first time (since Logos is too far away for a commute), I encouraged Bekah not to feel like she had to keep up the same Sabbath traditions that we had. The last thing she needed was pressure from Mom in the form of, “So what did you do for Sabbath dinner this week?” But it wasnâ€™t but a few weeks before she had tackled it anyway. Once youâ€™ve gotten into the rhythm of Sabbath celebration, it leaves a strange void to stop.
So she bought herself some British cookbooks so she could navigate the grocery store and work with foreign ingredients. She mastered the tiny gas oven that registers in Celsius, not Fahrenheit, she bought some wineglasses and other necessaries at the grocery store, and she proceeded to knock out some spectacular dinners. Doug and I got to visit in March, so we sat down at the Merkle table and were mighty blessed.
Each of the five kids has a job and they delight in the project. Bekah kicks the volume up on the ipod (which sits on top of the fridge), and they get to work. Sometimes they take a break and bust out dancing. After dinner is ready, they pull the little drop-leaf table out into the middle of the kitchen and start bringing in chairs from other parts of the house. Once they are ready, Ben has to get in first because his chair is down in front of the window. Next the kids squash in around the sides. The table takes up the whole space in the kitchen, with the chairs bumping up to the counters on both sides. Doug and I sat at the other end.
Bekah lights as many candles as she possibly can and sets them around on the counters and down the table, and then they turn off the lights (so they canâ€™t see all the pots and pans!) and then the kids wait eagerly for Ben to begin the liturgy. He has a toast in Hebrew (Peace to you) and the children respond in Hebrew as well (And peace to you). Then he asks the children some questions. Next he has a blessing for his daughters: “May you become the mothers of ten thousands, and may your descendents possess the gates of those who hate them.” He will pause occasionally and the girls fill in the missing words.
Next is the blessing for his sons: “May the Lord arm you with strength, make your ways perfect, make your feet like the feet of deer, and set you up on high places.” The boys jump in and help him finish the blessing, just as the girls did for their blessing.
All the children join in when he blesses his wife: “Who is this who looks forth as the morning? Fair as the moon, clear as the sun, awesome as an army with banners. Many daughters have done well, but you excel them all.” (I have to confess that by the time he got through the blessings, I was looking for the Kleenex. I cannot describe the joy of seeing my children walk is such faithfulness.)
Finally is the blessing for everyone: “Give and it will be given back to you, good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over will be put into your bosom. For the same meausre that you use it will be measured back to you.”
Then he reads a psalm, usually from Sir Phillip Sidneyâ€™s translation, prays, they sing together, and then the food is passed around amidst much laughter and noise.
And as though this isnâ€™t enough of a Herculean effort to pull off a lovely Sabbath dinner just for the seven of them, they often invite guests to join them. For Thanksgiving this past year, they invited a family of eight, cleared out the living room, arranged a table complete with beautiful centerpieces and place cards made as masts in little ships. While we were visiting, they had this same lovely family over so we could meet them. Bekah served up the children (I think there were a dozen or so in all), on the kitchen floor with each childâ€™s meal packed up separately, while the adults (there were seven of us) ate in the living room.
Theyâ€™ve had many guests to their table, English, Dutch, Australian, and American. Iâ€™m so pleased we were among them! Some days Bekah is in the kitchen preparing the meal at nine in the morning, and when I call late in the evening, Ben is in the kitchen washing the stacks of the dishes while Bekah is visiting with me on the phone. The whole thing is a family effort, and as the children get older (Knox will be nine this month), they are more and more help.
Iâ€™ve said before that this is potent work. It blesses our families with a sense of godly tradition, it teaches us all how to celebrate before the Lord, it prepares us for worship, and it strengthens us in profound and mysterious ways. The fact that we are exhausted afterwards is a good sign, not a reason to quit. It is a good work.