The God of Bread and Wine

There’s this painting by Salvador Dali hanging somewhere in the National Gallery entitled “The Sacrament of the Last Supper.” Here, Dali is depicting what many other great artists before him have depicted – one of the most crucial, remembered, and celebrated meals in history. His rendering of this moment is transcendent. Christ, surrounded by his followers, is clean, pure, and translucent. The communion elements are laid out on the table before him in perfect symmetry. It’s a cleverly crafted and deeply thought-provoking work of art, an excellent demonstration of Dali’s genius and skill.

But it’s all wrong.

At the last supper, Jesus does indeed represent the clean and pure lamb of God – figuratively. But he had just spent the day hanging out in ancient Jerusalem, and, in an act of great humility, washed his disciples’ feet (with his hands, without gloves. Disgusting, and beautiful). His clothes were not clean and his hands were not pure. And he was there, physically, tangibly; not hovering above the table like a ghost or something. He was and is God, and he was and is man too. His body was at that table and with his friends, breaking bread and sharing wine.

And that bread and wine were not pre-packaged or store-bought, purchased hastily and thoughtlessly on the way to a friend’s house for dinner. Someone, possibly someone in that household or eating that Passover meal, made them from scratch in a very physical process.

Days before, that bread was grain, gathered from a nearby field and ground into flour. It was prepared quickly – unleavened – and taken out of the oven just hours before God himself took it and said, “this is my Body, broken for you.” The wine, on the other hand, would have required much more time. While unleavened bread is a helpful reminder of the Israelites‘ urgent flight from Egypt, wine reminds us of something else. Waiting and patience, perhaps. Those grapes were taken from a vine long ago, processed and left to ferment in a cool, dark place, for months, or possibly years. Jesus loves good wine, so I suspect that this was a particularly excellent batch, brought out just for this occasion. And he took it and said, “this is my Blood, shed for you.”

There’s a version of the Prayer of Thanksgiving that we say during ordinary time that really captures the holy physicality of this sacrament. Just before ordaining the elements, the minister prays, “And as this grain has been gathered from many fields into one loaf, and these grapes from many hills into one cup, grant, O Lord, that your whole Church may soon be gathered from the ends of the earth into your kingdom. Even so, come, Lord Jesus!”

When determining how his people would eternally remember him, I don’t think Jesus chose to use bread and wine on a whim. He didn’t have some sort of arrangement with Welch’s or Franzia, nor did he simply grab whatever was laying around the house. To be sure, it’s no coincidence that bread and wine are simple and common household items, but they are also delicious, skillfully prepared, and point to an Incarnate God, a bloody sacrifice, and a united Church.

The gifts of God, for the people of God.

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Exodus and God’s Love of the Tangible

the-israelites-are-eating-the-passover-lamb-1931-artist-Marc-Chagall

“The Israelites Are Eating the Passover Lamb,” by Marc Chagall (1931).

Exodus is pretty gritty. There are murders, plagues, and other controversial things (who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?). It’s a compelling story of freedom and faithfulness. And it’s a story we’ve all heard before. So rather than ramble on about how we are no longer slaves, or predestination (who hardened Pharaoh’s heart?), or something interesting like that, I’d like to use this post to talk about one of my favorite things:

How to properly cook meat.

God, the Infinite, who made everything and occupies all of space and time, takes great care to liberate His people from slavery. And while doing so, He also gives them a pretty precise recipe to follow for their new year’s dinner:

They shall eat the flesh that night, roasted on the fire; with unleavened bread and bitter herbs they shall eat it. Do not eat any of it raw or boiled in water, but roasted, its head with its legs and its inner parts.

 – Exodus 12:8-9

When I read these verses this time around, I kind of smirked and thought “Well, obviously. No one in their right mind would boil a perfect cut of meat.” After I got over my snobbery, it occurred to me that there might actually be something to this. God requires a lot of His people, and His laws are very precise. But God is not arbitrary, and all of His laws point to the Good.

So what is so ultimately Good about roasted lamb?

I did a little bit of Googling around to try to answer this question. Namely, I was interested in learning more about how roasting is distinct from other cooking techniques. The most basic distinction here is that when you roast a cut of meat, you typically don’t add any liquid. You also don’t need to prep it very much – you basically just stick it in a pan. God instructed His people to cook the entire lamb, which means that they had hardly any prep work. Even seasoning the meat is somewhat optional, since by cooking it in its own fat, the meat is naturally flavorful. I imagine that a lamb with all of its innards and all of its excess fat would have been pretty juicy. Finally, roasting often takes a bit longer than other cooking techniques. Roasting an entire lamb over a wood-burning fire is pretty much a day-long process, since a fire takes longer to pre-heat than an oven. It would have taken the Israelites even longer, since their lamb had to be well-done.

In short, the process of roasting a lamb is simple and slow.

Now I’m picturing a nation of slaves, who have recently survived a bunch of really bizarre natural disasters, eagerly awaiting the freedom that has been promised to them, pausing from the chaos to spend a day preparing this feast, hoping desperately that after that meal they will be free people. Their anticipation must have been overwhelming. Their faith here is astounding. And I bet their dinner was delicious.

But here’s the other, probably more spiritual and significant thing about that meal and the preparation thereof: it was carnal, it was bloody, and it points directly to the crucified Christ.

The Israelites didn’t go to their neighborhood butcher to pick up a leg of lamb, they went to their herd and found the most pristine year-old lamb or goat that they could find. On the morning of that first Passover, all of those lambs were alive, and they were perfect. They were slaughtered in their prime, and it was smelly and bloody and it probably wasn’t too fun for the critter.

The God who ordered this sacrificial dinner, and then, through Jesus, suffered it Himself, is not distant. He is deeply concerned with all that is tangible and worldly. He cares about people, and creation, and things.