Tag Archives: ritual

“Redemption” ?

Luke 2:22-40 What do you make of that story? Only Luke tells it – so is it less interesting, or less relevant? It starts as a bit of ritual. Jesus was brought up as a Jew, so circumcised a week after his birth, and then at 40 days old taken with his mother to the Temple. Mary presents him in the Temple, and makes a sacrifice – the 2 pigeon option allowed for the poor – in a ceremony required by the Old Testament.

So far, not very helpful you might think. But hold on. That ceremony came from the Exodus and the Passover. You remember how the slaves in Egypt escaped after a series of plagues, and the last and worst of the plagues was – the death of the firstborn. And Exodus 13 explains how all the firstborn of the Israelites belonged in a special way to God. There is more detail, but it makes sense – Jesus belonging specially to God; a small fee paid to ransom him and return him to his family . .

Then the excitement grows again. Simeon appears. How can he tell one baby from another? Somehow the Holy Spirit makes it possible. He has been promised (and, since God keeps his promises) now understands he is seeing the promised Messiah.

He speaks of a light for the Gentiles – all the world!

And of glory for God’s people

and he warns Mary of suffering, as Jesus will bring some people down, as well as raising others up.

If you feel excited (and perhaps you should), Mary and Joseph are amazed. They haven’t forgotten the earlier messages and promises, angels, shepherds – but how does Simeon know? This Holy Spirit has something.

To reinforce the importance and transforming power of the Holy Spirit, Anna arrives – and she is a prophet. Whether she accepts Simeon’s word, or knows by her own spiritual insight – she now also give thanks to God, and talks about Jesus to all who were still looking for God to do something.

It started with a bit of Jewish ritual. It gained significance as we found a connection with the Passover (don’t forget the Last Supper was a Passover meal, and the Christian eucharist depends on it). God’s people were set free at the Exodus, as they will be again more lastingly by Jesus and his death. The idea of Redemption is interesting.

Then there is the excitement of the Holy Spirit giving revelations and warnings – the same Spirit who will be active in Jesus ministry, the same Spirit who guides and empowers Christians today. It is beginning to happen, and it is good, and we know it hasn’t stopped. Where is the Spirit active today? Who are the Simeons and Annas, praying, understanding, talking about God?

Even at 40 days old, Jesus is exciting, making things happen.

Being part of one another.

What does Jesus mean when he says, “ I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If you eat this bread, you will live forever.” (the first verse of this week’s extract from John 6 – John 6:51-58).  It is obviously important (and, incidentally, one of the sayings that mean you can’t just take Jesus as a wise teacher. This is either a madman, or someone – really important!)

It doesn’t help that Christian tradition has divided into 2 very different ways. Some take this, admitting it has something to do with the eucharist / communion, as little more than a visual aid. Jesus tells us we ought to eat together, and this is a picture of fellowship and a reminder of the story of the Last Supper, which leads on to his sacrificial death.

On the other hand, others will give almost magical significance to the bread of communion, seeing it as the guarantee of Jesus’ presence in power, and the celebration of the eucharist as the answer to all problems, and the only real way to worship. And rather than just scratch our heads, we ought to go back to the text and see what Jesus is saying and John recording for us:

6:49 “Your ancestors ate manna in the desert, but they died.
6:50 But the bread that comes down from heaven is of such a kind that whoever eats it will not die.”

On the way out of Egypt, the Israelites learnt to rely on God, who gave them manna to eat. The crowd who enjoyed the feeding of the 5,000 know that story, but Jesus wants them to look beyond a free lunch. What else is available? Life – real, lasting, quality life. But how is it to be had? (Their big question, and ours!). The answer is not complicated, though some will not see it.

It is neither just a question of how you think and form your opinions. Nor is it a matter of doing the right rituals. It is – Jesus. He will be / has been the sacrifice. We will live if we feed on him. But how? Some of the crowd seem to suspect cannibalism, or at least a very un-Jewish drinking of blood. It is symbolism – but more, sacrament (“the outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace”).

We feed on Jesus as we hear, understand, and put into practice his teaching. We feed on Jesus as we come, perhaps tired, or preoccupied, or doubtful, and make ourselves a part of his people, his body. We feed on Jesus when we do what we think he wants, or directs us to.  It means we recognise our need of him, and asking for his help, become committed to learning and following.

We feed together in the service we call “eucharist” (thanksgiving), (or “Holy Communion”, “Lord’s Supper”, “Mass”, “Liturgy”, “Breaking of Bread”). Publicly gathering and admitting our need to be fed, strengthened, livened up. Tiny quantities of bread and wine; eaten, absorbed, becoming part of us. We are no longer independent, our own masters. It is not the physical act of eating that is vital – we remind those “nil by mouth”, the coeliacs and the alcoholics of this. Yet it helps to go and take, with empty hands, in company of others who need Jesus too.

This text is simple, and yet difficult. It makes clear that it is never enough to be impressed and influenced by Jesus. We must make a closer identification, so that he and I are linked, even mixed. On the other hand, the dependence is on God / on Jesus (yes, the two are very close here) – and not on having a priest available, or getting yourself ordained.

It is easy to see how tradition has sometimes distorted the meaning, because the challenge of letting Jesus in so that he becomes part of us, and we of his body, is always great.

EAT me?

As we continue to read John 6 (this week, John 6:35 and 6:41-51), we see the crowd arguing.  First comes the old complaint: He can’t be special, he comes from our neighbourhood, and we know him.  Some people still take offence at the idea, not just that Jesus is special, but that he is much more than “one of us”, and one who must be followed and obeyed.

Verses 44 and 45 gives us two sides of a puzzle.  God must draw people to Christ and belief, yet any who want to find truth can be sure of help.  Each side is helpful – we need to understand that some people will not hear, but also that none who want to learn are refused.

The “bread of life” is one of the important “I am” sayings.  It would be dangerous and wrong to make it a magical understanding of receiving Holy Communion, and equally wrong to ignore the connection to the service in which we give thanks (“eucharist”) above all for the sacrifice of Jesus death and the triumph of his resurrection – the central points of faith.  We do that with more than words, with action, and by eating.

Is it just eating? No. To gobble stolen consecrated bread would be of no advantage.  It is about feeding on Jesus – through his teaching, his life, understood, obeyed, absorbed by the power of the Holy Spirit into our life, transforming from within the person.  What is eaten becomes part of me, provides energy, rebuilds my body, alters my mood.  Eating together with other believers brings us together, as sharing a meal always does.  With them we worship, becoming more like what we hold worth praising, and give thanks (remembering how much there is to be thankful for), and by our prayers try to work with God and with one another.

Jesus gives everything for us.  We are invited to receive what he gives, to let it become part of us, to change us, to energise and direct us.  Never a mere ritual, an act of personal worship may assist and advance the process.