You guys! Have I got a treat for you today. My esteemed colleague, Ray Hollenbach, has written an insightful, intensely historical, appropriately contemporary piece for the Rituals series. Ray is one of my favorite writers and thinkers (he’ll demur, but as I say, he’s not the boss of me). His posts always push me, inspire me and challenge me to think of Jesus in new and whole ways. Please welcome Ray. He’ll be around to talk about your comments.
I lived in Washington, D.C. for five years. Commuting to work had a dreary sameness about it. The same schedules, the same faces on the Metro, even the same homeless guy at the top of the steps each day. I put a dollar in his cup as I walked by. Eventually it became a ritual. I never broke my stride, he never looked up: a dollar a day. I went away on vacation for two weeks, and then returned to grind. Back at the Metro, I put a dollar in the guy’s cup.
He raised his voice, “Hey! you owe me 14 dollars!”
Rituals were made not to be broken. Rituals were made to be repeated, because anything worth doing is worth doing again. And again.
Five years in a big city is nothing. Try being God’s chosen people for millennia: a nomad god named Yahweh remembered his promise to the grandchildren of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and visited them in their Egyptian slavery. It was more than a visit. Before he was through, Yahweh rescued more than 600,000 oppressed people and in the process gave them a ritual dinner that has lasted for three thousand years.
Year after year the people named Israel gather around a table with a sacrificed lamb and remember when God came to town. They called it Passover because a death-wielding angel passed over their houses. I’m with them. It’s a stylized meal, where every course, every cracker, and every chair has meaning. The whole point is to repeat it over and over, for at least a thousand years.
Yet eventually, in the repeating comes the change. Believe me: when you change something after several hundred years of sameness, people notice. In the change comes the meaning precisely because we’ve been doing it the same way for a long time. One change: somebody added an extra chair at the meal for a guy named Elijah, because apparently he left in a hurry and he might come back.
There was also this itinerant rabbi who changed the meal by declaring he was the meal. He was the bread, he was the wine. To a group of thorough-going religious people the suggestion of cannibalism is a pretty dramatic change. That’s a little bigger than an extra chair. Jesus of Nazareth knew what he was doing when he said, “this bread really is my body. And the wine? Yeah, that’s my blood.”
But the biggest change is that instead of the angel of death crushing the enemies of God, Jesus subjected himself to the angel of death on behalf of his enemies. Jesus is the one who said, “Love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you.” But the words wouldn’t have been much more than one tweet among a million unless he decided to live them out.
Ritual is at the heart of the sacrifice. For a thousand years the lambs had died, times a hundred thousand families, repeated year after year. Children became parents, then the parents became grandparents, and finally they all became spirits hovering over the table, and still the meal went on. What if we actually need a thousand years to learn some lessons? Not every answer needs to come before the Jeopardy buzzer counts you out. What if we can’t understand some questions until we join the long parade of generations gone before us?
I suggest this because our day and age is characterized by impatience. Cooking a meal takes too damn long; that’s why there are microwaves. But you can’t microwave the solution to the human condition. It might take a lifetime simply to understand the question. I remind myself of that every time I’m tempted to look for the next big thing in Christian worship. Novelty is not the same thing as insight. Wouldn’t we look the fools if we thought every answer lies in the future, only to discover that the biggest answer is speaking from the past, week after week, right in front of us?