Thursday, March 28, 2013

Messing with the Menu

   Evening Mass of the Lord's Supper   

The Seder meal— 
the ritual supper which is at the very heart
of the Jewish celebration of Passover—
was already a fixed tradition more than a thousand
(maybe even twenty five hundred) years old
when Jesus reclined at table
to share his Last Supper with his disciples.
We heard the menu—still careful followed today—
prescribed by God to Moses in the Book of Exodus:
unleavened bread, because the Israelites left Egypt in such haste
there was no time for the dough to rise;
bitter herbs, recalling the harsh and bitter cruelty
of the slavery they had endured;
and roasted lamb, recalling the sacrifice
whose blood was applied to the doorframe of the house,
that the angel of death might pass over God’s chosen ones.

Customs that ancient and that venerable
are not ones you tinker with lightly.
So it should make us sit up and pay attention
when just this year a group of American rabbis
They’ve suggested adding…a tomato.

You see, Passover was never intended
to simply commemorate 
an event from long ago.
It’s about liberation—
about the freedom the Lord desires 
for his people,
both way back then and still even now.
The supper isn’t mean to just recall 
what happened in history;
it’s meant to set people free in each new generation.
And these American rabbis have looked around
and realized that not all slavery was left behind in Egypt.
They’ve looked at the migrant workers—
tomato-pickers, in particular—
whose hidden labor provides us with so much of our food,
and seen a people often underpaid and overworked,
sometimes even beaten.
“The truth is,” one of the rabbis said,
“there are people in our own country
who don’t have to imagine what it is like to be a slave.”

These socially-conscious rabbis, of course,
are not the first to tinker with the Passover supper.
Jesus did the same thing nearly twenty centuries ago.
And it would have surely been quite attention-grabbing to the Apostles
when their Master and Teacher began to deviate from the script
as they shared the Seder in that upper room.

First, Jesus knelt down to wash feet.
It was customary to have a household servant
make the rounds early in the proceedings,
ceremonially washing the hands of all the guests.
It was unheard of, however, that the head of the household
should take such a lowly task upon himself—
and bathing not hands already scrubbed clean,
but dusty, stinky, calloused feet.
Do for one another, he commands, as I have done for you.
When it comes to charity among those
who dare speak and act in his name,
there can be no task too humble.

And after returning to the table, Jesus shakes things up again.
Instead of blessing the God of all creation
for providing us with bread from the earth
and the sweet fruit of the vine,
he says, Take, eat, and drink. 
This is my Body.  This is my Blood.
Flesh and blood were repeatedly mentioned during the Seder meal,
but they were the flesh and blood of the Passover lamb,
not of the supper’s host.
And so Jesus reveals himself to be the Lamb of God,
instituting a Sacrament—the Holy Eucharist—
that he might remain present always
among those who believe in him—
food to sustain us on life’s pilgrimage
as we wait for the Lord to come.

But Jesus didn’t stop there, either.
This Body is to be given up,
and this Blood is to be poured out.
That is the language of sacrifice,
and sacrifice is uniquely the work of a priest.
Now, Jesus did not come from a priestly family—
his lineage from the tribe of Judah, not Levi.
And yet he speaks of making an offering to God—
offering not animals on an altar of stone,
but making a total gift of himself on the wood of the Cross.
Who better, really, to be our High Priest,
the mediator—the bridge—between heaven and earth,
than he who is both true God and true man?
And in his most daring move of all,
that his one, perfect sacrifice might be renewed in every age—
that God might continually touch the lives of his people
and that his people might continually
be able to reach out and touch their God—
Jesus shares his priesthood with those men he has chosen
and called to his side.
Do this in memory of me.

No, Jesus didn’t add any tomatoes to the Passover menu;
tomatoes, in fact, wouldn’t be introduced in the Middle East
for another eighteen hundred years.
But the startling changes he did make
were for much the same purpose:
he had come into this world to set slaves free.
When God created man and woman,
he placed them in Paradise—in a playground, a pleasure garden.
(And is it not walking again in a garden
that we’ll find our Lord at the end of this sacred Triduum?)
We were made, you see, for freedom,
not to ceaselessly toil and till the ground.
But sin and—with it—death
have made the human experience one tainted by suffering.
The Son of God has taken this suffering upon himself
and—like the Sedar ritual—turned it completely on its head.
What once bespoke destruction
has become in him the source of everlasting life.
To ransom us slaves, God gave away his Son.

As a French poet once insightfully put it,
“Christ did not come to do away with suffering;
he did not come to explain it;
he came to fill it with his presence.”  (Paul Claudel)
And so Jesus remains present with us
wherever charity and love prevail.
Jesus remains present with us
wherever we break the Bread of Life.
Jesus remains present with us
wherever his holy priesthood is exercised.
He remains present
because he radically altered and fulfilled the Passover.
He remains present that he might set us free forever
and renew the face of the earth.

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