Holey Heart

It’s Only Weird If It Doesn’t Work

This past weekend’s Gospel reading in which John the Baptist called Jesus “the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” had me thinking about some of my family’s superstitious traditions. For example, on New Year’s Eve, we put a quarter under the doormat before midnight, to ensure financial prosperity in the coming year. We also abstain from eating poultry on New Year’s Day, for fear of “scratching all year.”

I was a little girl when I learned of these traditions, and at the time I thought they were pretty silly. But when I became an “adult” and I lived at my first apartment, I had to buy a doormat on New Year’s Eve just so that I would have somewhere to put the quarter!

Since then, there have been years I remember the quarter, and years I forget. Some years I accidentally eat chicken. Miraculously my material needs are met, regardless of what I do. It’s just superstition. But I keep up the superstition because it’s a part of my family identity.

We also have a family toast. It’s from the Irish side if the family. My Lithuanian-descended father rolls his eyes at it every time, but I think secretly he would miss it if we stopped saying, “May The Lord up high who rules the sky look down on this poor lodger/and send some meat upon me plate, and drive away the corn dodger.”

A few years ago (before smart phones) we all sat around the holiday dinner table wondering what exactly a corn dodger was. I looked it up in the dictionary. (Remember those? I feel old.) A corn dodger is like Irish cornbread. It’s what the Irish ate when they ran out of potatoes during the famine.

I did a little family research several years ago, and it turns out the town from which my Irish relatives emigrated was severely hit by the famine. According to the records, family members died untimely deaths. No wonder they prayed for deliverance from cornbread!

We have yet another family tradition practiced at all holiday meals. It, too, receives eye-rolling from the paternal leader of our clan. Never put the gravy boat at the head of the table. I’m sure that could be the subject of another reflection.

It’s kind of like this Bud Light commercial (There’s a whole bunch of them. Go ahead, waste time. If you’re on the East Coast it’s a snow day.):

It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.

Why on earth would this weekend’s Gospel reading remind me of beer commercials and family superstitions?

It’s because John the Baptist made an allusion to a longstanding religious tradition, and dare I say, superstition. Animal sacrifice.

To my 21st century Christian sensibilities, there is nothing more superstitious and unnecessary than animal sacrifice. But that’s not how Jesus’ friends and neighbors felt. To them, sacrificial lambs were part of the daily fabric of life.

So when John made his proclamation about Jesus, it had a deep meaning that we can’t fully appreciate. Like wondering about the meaning of the corn dodger. Like the fear of eating chicken on January 1, or the quarters under my doormat that baffle my kids, ignorant of the poverty of those who started these family traditions. (My kids do know the story of the gravy boat the way Jewish kids know the story of Passover.)

Though I poke fun at my family superstitions, the cultural implications of the “lamb of God” are anything but humorous.

It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.

As far as the Jews of Jesus’ time were concerned, it did work. They had numerous types of blood and non-blood sacrifices to express their relationship with God and with each other. The practices stopped when the Temple was destroyed by the Romans shortly after Jesus’s death, resurrection and ascension. The location of the sacrifices was as important to the rituals as the offerings themselves.

There’s the Passover lamb and annual Seder meal, commemorating the Hebrew people’s being led out of slavery in Egypt. At the first Passover, the Hebrews painted the doorways of their homes with the blood of an unblemished male lamb so that the Angel of Death would “pass over” their homes and spare the first born sons of the Jewish households. When all of Egypt, including Pharaoh, was in mourning over the loss, the Israelites made their flight led by Moses.

It’s easy to see the similarities. Jesus was a male. He was the firstborn, He was unblemished by sin. He was sacrificed to protect the people from death. He represents freedom from slavery to sin.

This comparison is so deeply rooted in Catholic tradition that it is celebrated in our highest of liturgies, the Easter Vigil Mass. The readings that night recount the highlights of salvation history, with special emphasis on the Passover story. In fact, much of the Catholic Mass “borrows” its language directly from the Passover texts. It’s embedded into the very fabric of traditional Christian liturgy.

It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.

John may have been referring to the Passover lamb when he saw Jesus, but there was another sacrifice to which he may have been alluding; one which I did not know about until I did a little researching before I sat down to write.

It was called the tamid. It was a daily blood sacrifice of an unblemished lamb, every single morning in the Temple of Jerusalem. Some scholars refer to it as the ” perpetual sacrifice” while others translate both the word and the meaning to be the “unfailingly regular sacrifice.” I find it especially interesting that the Church chooses this reading in which Jesus is referred to as the Lamb of God to usher in the liturgical season known as “Ordinary Time.” It was the ordinary, everyday blood offering that the priests would make as their religious law demanded.

There’s a fantastic description of the tamid or perpetual sacrifice found in this article, definitely worth the read for anyone who likes to put scripture in context: http://www.thesacredpage.com/2010/04/jewish-roots-of-jesus-passion-and-death.html?m=1

It’s only weird if it doesn’t work.

The bottom line is, these sacrifices didn’t really work. We tend to think of sacrifice, even Jewish sacrifice, as being way outside the mainstream. We think of all those Old Testament rules in Leviticus and Deuteronomy as being burdensome, outdated, and above all, ridiculously barbaric. And that may be, from the perspective of the 21st century.

But when Moses and Joshua walked the earth, blood sacrifices were the norm for every culture. Even human sacrifice. These pagan rituals were practiced across all cultures, as a way for people to feel closer to their higher power or powers. Remember the Israelites making that idol of a golden calf? They wanted to be like their contemporaries.

It’s only weird if it doesn’t work, and God very clearly told his people that not only was it weird, it was wrong. But in His compassion for His chosen people who wanted to be like their pagan neighbors, he set strict limits on how they were to sacrifice their offerings.

To us, they seem like ridiculous burdens to be followed, but to the Hebrew people, they were actually boundaries keeping them from acting like their truly bloodthirsty pagan neighbors.

To put it into a more modern perspective, it’s like me giving my ten year old son an iPhone because so many of his friends have one. The one he has is old, has almost no storage space, and is not linked to a phone plan, so he can only use it when he’s connected to free wifi. It’s only weird if it doesn’t work, and in this case, the phone doesn’t work for it’s intended purpose, but it placates my son’s desire to be like his friends and pass the time with Minecraft and YouTube Annoying Orange videos. It also teaches him about responsibility.

At some point when he matures, I will replace the old iPhone with a new one complete with voice and data capabilities so that he can truly be connected to his family and his community.

It’s not unlike how the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross and in the perpetual, unfailingly regular sacrifice of the Eucharist replaced the barbaric practices of the ancient Hebrews. God gave us the real deal to connect us with Him and each other, not just some shell of a ritual that was merely a placating placebo.

Jesus came with the message that God’s mercy and love is what saves people from sin and separateness, not following rules and precepts that were weird and did not work. Traditions and superstitions may bring us comfort because of their familiarity, because of the history they transmit, and because of the symbolic meaning they impart. But at the end of the day, they are as powerless as quarters under the doormat and hand-me-down iPhones.

The Eucharist is not just another symbol, and it is not just another superstitious tradition with a lower case “t.” It is the real spiritual presence of Jesus Christ in the physical form of bread and wine. As a favorite priest reminded me today, Jesus physically touches my hands, my lips, my tongue. Do I allow that experience to change how I use my hands, lips and tongue?

It’s only weird if it doesn’t work – and there are countless witnesses to how it has worked. It is not a powerless sacrament. It truly does connect those who partake of it to God and to each other. Maybe not overnight. We are stubborn and have trouble seeing with anything but earthly eyes. That’s why we need John the Baptist and all the saints who followed him to remind us:

“Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.”

Happy are those who are called to the supper of the Lamb. Not just the Levite priests in the Temple. Every one of us is called. Will we accept the invitation? Or will we excuse ourselves and say it’s too “weird?”

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