For the last several Sundays we have focused on Jesus as the Bread of Life, Jesus as our Eucharistic bread from the report by St. John.
Now to St. Mark and here in his gospel we shall catch glimpses of what a Eucharistic life in Christ looks like. Today it is ritual.
There is the story of a man who wanted to feel safe during the night and that is he why he bought a big lock and attached it to his front door. He closed the door every night and set the lock before he went to sleep.
But after some days, while he was in bed drifting between thought and sleep, he couldn’t remember if he had set the lock. Nothing would do but he came out of his bed to check. It was locked. Back to his bed, but again the worry, and again he got up to check; and one more time after that.
The next night, again drifting between thought and sleep, the worry came to him: “Did I really lock it?” Once again he got up to check. And again he repeated himself three times.
In a very short while he could not fall asleep before he had checked the lock three times. He was no longer concerned for his safety — all this had nothing to do with safety. He was absorbed in performing a rite, a very strange ritual.
My first college roommate had a “thing” about “clean.” Once a week he’d wash the little edge that sticks over the top of a door. Once a week he’d take everything out of his chest-of-drawers and wash down the insides. Once a week he’d turn his mattress (not that it made any difference: it was, after all, a dormitory mattress.) Once a week he’d Lysol the door knobs, the one inside as well as the one outside.
When I ran across the story of the man with a lock on his door, the habits of my first roommate slipped into place. He wasn’t interested in cleaning as much as he felt compelled to perform his strange duties.
I have described, of course, two instances of an obsessive-compulsive disorder. We are also told — should you be unnecessarily worried about a habit you may have — everyone needs a little OCD if we are to be happily adjusted people.
But like many good things, OCD can become limiting, even self-destructive. Too much of it and we lose our original focus, our original intent.
Jesus today speaks to people whose religious practices had edged, so it seems, to the obsessive-compulsive side of things. He spoke to the Pharisees.
The Pharisees had taken up the purity codes found in the Book of Leviticus and they had transformed the duties of temple priests for use at home and day-to-day life. There in Leviticus you will find very detailed instructions on washings, and purity, and ritual righteousness.
These codes were originally written for the temple priests, for the clergy. They were never intended for lay folk.
The Pharisees originally launched a reform movement within Judaism, a lay renewal movement for the spiritual restoration of Israel. Gradually, the Pharisees came to argue these rules were meant for all Jews. Now the reform movement itself needed reform.
These religious rituals required they wash their arms up to the elbows before they ate. Their rituals required them to sprinkle water over themselves before they began cooking. Their rituals required that a pot — already clean, mind you — had to be washed, swirling it around in the water precisely seven times to the right and precisely seven times to the left.
To omit any of these rituals was to violate the traditions of the elders. But they were far less the Holy Law of God and by now much more the holy law of humans.
Yet by some of their best religious thinking of the day, to skip these rites was to render themselves — and anyone else who omitted them — “defiled” and displeasing to God.
The rules the Pharisees intended to guide their own religious faith began to divide the world between clean and unclean.
Now, washing before meals and cooking with clean utensils is good hygiene. But it is very poor religion. And for these folks, the ritual had become the religion.
Many years ago I attended a prayer breakfast where I heard a college football kicker announce that before attempting a field goal, he would say a prayer and ask Jesus to guide his kick. If he ever forgot, he knew the kick wouldn’t be any good. That prayer for his kick was a ritual.
I don’t mean to pick just on athletes, but how many times have you witnessed a player at the free-throw line cross himself before taking his shot?
Goal posts and free-throw lines, this is a ritual. Me, I call this Lucky Charms theology. You know, “It’s magically religious.”
But these attitudes can grow in a person. Jesus asserted that the ritual of religion can sometimes hide the heart of religion.
As we’ve read through the Gospel of St. John in these past few weeks, we have heard Jesus calling us, calling us to him, inviting us to feast upon him as the Bread of Life. Feast on me, Jesus has said, and live.
The Letter of St. James today speaks of the “implanted Word,” the word we take into ourselves. We are told to “welcome it with meekness,” the Word that has the power to save our souls. (James 1:21)
The “implanted” Word of the Bread of Life summons us to a Eucharistic life in Christ.
That says nothing about religion. It says everything about how we live.
“Religion,” declared St. James, “that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress.”
We begin to learn here that the ritual around the Bread of Life on the altar is connected intimately with the bread of the world as we seek to care for those in distress. A church celebrating the Supper of Our Lord cannot remain aloof from a world that hungers.
The ritual itself won’t permit it. The ritual of the Eucharist demands we include a suffering world.
It’s like this: In this world we see rituals a-plenty around money, “self-actualization,” violence, hunger, in-groups vs. out-groups, and all the “stuff” of material and political and commercial success. We keep scorecards so we know who is ahead and who is behind. But those “rituals” can become the OCD of a culture.
But here, gathered here around the ritual of Bread, we know a different culture. Our business here makes us attentively interested in God’s world where justice, and equality, and human life, are respected and honored and treasured.
Today we practice an alternative “ritual” for the world, where everyone has a reserved place at the Table, and there is plenty for all to share.
That is the beginning ritual of a Eucharistic life.
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, author of The Pastor’s Page and Other Small Essays, and a featured author at First Things magazine web site.