I got in an argument earlier today about season 3 of the Netflix series Orange is the New Black. Our esteemed parish administrator says it is the weakest season in the series to date, but I must confess I rather liked it. I appreciated how the writers realized the only thing more demoralizing to inmates than a state-run prison would be a corporate owned and operated for-profit model. At least the state bureaucracy sought to help women in the prison system, albeit ineffectively. I was also struck by how much the season focused on issues of faith — most notably through the character of Norma and the inmates who flock to her seeking some meaning in their incarcerated lives. But the season found other ways to explore themes of spirituality — one of them in connection with Red’s relationship with food.
Red (or Galina Reznikov) is one of my favourite characters — a feisty, middle-aged woman in prison for her involvement with the Russian mafia. Suffice it to say Red is one of the dominating forces of the prison social order, a dominance achieved by running the prison kitchen. Red controls how and what everyone else eats. But preparing meals for her fellow inmates is about more than just wielding power over them. Culinary creativity affords Red the only meaning she can construct for herself in an institution that seeks to rob her of her purpose and personhood. Food is her offering
Until this latest season. When suddenly all the new corporate owners of the prison determine that the food will be supplied by huge industrial bags of heat and serve ready–made meals. While this is a point of frustration for the rest of the prison population who are forced to eat bland, tasteless slop. For Red, however, the shift in meal preparation basically destroys her sense of identity.
Red’s salvation comes in the form of a small garden that yields just enough for her to host small dinners, with guest selected by lottery. Red’s meagre feasts offer something far more than the nutritionally sufficient but spiritually empty boil-in-bag sustenance. There is nothing utilitarian about Red’s meals. They are not enough to provide for the whole population of the prison, but the meals offer something far more to the community than food with flavour. She restores to her fellow inmates the act of eating as a moment grace, fellowship, COMMUNION. In stark contrast to those who see the inmates as financial units who just need a correct number of calories to survive, Red restores eating as a sacramental moment for the prison population.
I cannot help but see a parallel in our lectionary reading for this coming Sunday: John’s account of Jesus’s miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fish. It is very easy for us to see this familiar miracle story as simply a sign of Jesus’s compassion in meeting the physical needs of those who have gathered to see and hear him.
Jesus is not offering that crowd the spiritual equivalent of a boil-in-bag ready-made meal. Jesus is offering them something so much more. The true abundance multiplied in this story is the presence of our creator who is able to enter into and transform the whole of creation.
Like Red, I think we know instinctively that food has the capacity to mean so much more to us than mere physical survival. We know that sharing a meal together is a source of profound community and fellowship, as we share together in the goodness and bounty of God’s creation. The miracle of the loaves and fishes pushes us to see such spiritual abundance throughout the world that God has made for us. To recognize that we receive from God so much more than we can ever ask or imagine. It might just come in ways we do not expect.