As we begin a new year, we become conscious and intentional in filling it with old, cherished traditions. In this guest post for RAFI’s Come to the Table project, Willona Stallings of the NC Council of Churches reminds us why the food we eat–and how we eat it–matters as we nourish our souls and bodies. Eat as an Act of Worship by Willona Stallings This is a special time of year. For Christians, December is a time of Advent or expectant waiting for our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. This period of anticipation culminates on Christmas Day, when many Western churches celebrate Jesus’ birth. And these celebrations can take on many different forms. Some Christians choose to simply reflect on the significance of Jesus’ birth during this time, while others attend worship services, give back to the community, or celebrate the gift of family and friends through the exchanging of gifts and spending quality time together. One essential part of most holiday gatherings, Christian or otherwise, is food. In fact, some of us wait until the holidays to whip out our most decadent recipes in hopes of impressing guests and having our dish branded the best of the night. I guess it wouldn’t be so bad if we only had access to these rich, decadent foods during the holidays (as I’ve been told was once the case), but we’re now able to walk into any grocery store or restaurant and purchase the same types of food or ingredients year-round. And even worse, we’re not as active as our grandparents were who had limited access to festive, and oftentimes unhealthy, fare. How many of us have heard stories about the backbreaking labor of farm life, how our grandparents and parents had to work from sun up to sun down just to survive? That seems so antiquated to those of us now who work regular 9-to-5’s and spend little time outdoors unless, of course, we’re intentional about it – for example, by taking short walks during lunch. Of course I can’t compare walking for exercise to grueling farm labor, but at least it unplugs us from our computers just long enough to get us outside and our bodies moving. Numerous reports have indicated that sitting for long periods of time can be hazardous to our health. So hazardous, in fact, that it can lead to premature death. A 14-year study conducted by the American Cancer Society found that women who sat for more than six hours a day were about 40% more likely to die sooner than those who sat for less than three hours a day. Men were about 20% more likely to die, the study found. There’s just no denying that our bodies were designed to move and to consume a healthy diet of fruits and vegetables. Through my work at the NC Council of Churches, I have a unique opportunity to share with people of faith the importance of leading a healthy lifestyle, not simply as an expression of one’s health awareness, but as an expression of our faith. According to scripture, “God said, ‘See, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food’” (Genesis 1:29, NSRV). The Bible also teaches that our bodies are God’s temple and that his spirit dwells within us (I Corinthians 3:16). Therefore, we should take care of our bodies, God’s temple, by getting regular exercise and eating healthy, well-balanced meals. Jews and Muslims also acknowledge the spiritual relevance of what we eat. I recently attended an interfaith event in Winston-Salem where respected leaders from each of the three Abrahamic faiths – Islam, Judaism and Christianity – addressed issues of hunger and food justice. An Imam shared that his faith tradition teaches him to eat what comes from the earth, what is clean and pure. He even explained how one should eat, according to Islam. For example, when a person finishes a meal, 1/3 of the stomach should contain food, 1/3 water and the remaining 1/3 should be left empty. And it is this sense of emptiness that holds a much greater social meaning: How can I go to bed full when my neighbor is hungry? A Rabbi talked about how food is the way we welcome the stranger, as illustrated by the story of Abraham and Sarah preparing a meal for the three messengers (Genesis 18:1-8). He also described an interesting ritual in the Jewish faith where a person who is dying is served something round, like lentils, to represent the circle of life. How fascinating! The world’s most sacred texts illustrate how important food is to our very existence, not simply as it relates to our physical nourishment, but the preservation of our communities. So when we gather at our dinner tables, may we remember the deeper meaning of the food which is set before us–how it impacts both our spiritual and physical health; our neighbors, including the people who grow our food and those who don’t have enough of it to eat; and the environment. To learn more about the food we eat and why it matters, please check out the NC Council of Churches’ intergenerational study curriculum, “Eating Well: For Ourselves, For Our Neighbors, For Our Planet”. Willona Stallings is Program Coordinator of the NC Council of Churches’ faith-based health initiative, Partners in Health and Wholeness (PHW). The mission of PHW is to promote health as a practice of our faith and to improve the health of clergy and congregants through increased physical activity, healthy eating and tobacco use prevention and cessation.