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Posts Tagged ‘Egypt’

What’s For Easter Dinner?

Something that has plagued me since…well, I cannot remember really…has to do with the American traditional Easter meal.  Why do we serve ham?  Virtually everyone I know serves an “Easter Ham” for dinner on this special occasion.  I find it a curious practice and tradition, especially among Christians.

The Christian celebration of Easter coincides with the Jewish Passover.  It commemorates the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah.  It reflects the same salvation story that Jewish people to this day tell concerning their deliverance from Egypt into the Promised Land.  Before Jesus’ crucifixion, on the same night that he was betrayed, Jesus celebrated the Passover meal with his disciples.  It was also an eerie portent of what he was about to go through as the Paschal lamb of God for the sins of the world.

So, why ham?  Is it some kind of Gentile celebration set against the Jewish celebration?  Was it first established as a way for Gentiles to poke their thumb in the eye of Jews?  Think about it.  Of all the un-Jewish meats to serve near the Passover – ham?  Why ham?  Did it start out as a protest of sorts against a contrived Jewish conspiracy?  Was it meant as an overt insult to Jews and Muslims?  Does anyone else find this a fascinating query or is just me all alone out here?

The most often given explanation given to me when I’ve asked friends is that it is a tradition – pure and simple.  Suddenly, Gentiles sounds like Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof:  “Tradition!”  Well, how did that come about in the first place?  There is definitely no connections with the original celebration surrounding Easter and Passover.

A quick search of the history and origins of eating ham at Easter turns up some interesting suggestions that seem very plausible.  It seems that as Christianity developed and further divorced itself from its Jewish roots and heritage, it embraced the customs and traditions of the Gentile cultures it was introduced to in the middle ages.  This is true of most Christian holidays: Lent, Easter, Halloween, and Christmas.

Can you say, “syncretism”? A dictionary definition of “syncretism” is, “the combination of different forms of belief or practice” or “ the fusion of two or more originally different inflectional forms.”  Missiologist often use this word in reference to places and cultures where Christianity has adopted non-Christian beliefs, values, and practices.  Could this be applied to what we eat at Easter?  I will let the theologians and missiologists wrestle with that question.

Sea Anemone, Barnacles, and Muscles, June 2003

Sea Anemone, Barnacles, and Muscles, June 2003 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

In my search for answers, two basic ideas come out of the reason ham became the meat of choice at Easter.  One was a practical consideration.  Traditionally, animals were slaughtered in the fall and preserved for winter use by smoking or salting.  When Spring arrived, marked by the vernal equinox, a celebration ensued and the last of the winter meat was eaten.  In eastern and northern Europe, the meat of choice was pork since the pig had been domesticated early in human history.  It was also the easiest meat to preserve for long periods of time.

The other reason has pagan spiritual reasons.  In Europe, the pig was considered a “good luck” symbol.  Eating pork in the spring was a way of celebrating getting through the long winter and the anticipation of another good year of harvests and abundant new livestock, especially pigs. Maybe it was just good luck to have anything left over from winter to eat in the spring.  I do not really know, but it seems likely given the harsh living conditions of European humans in the middle ages.

Of course, the pagan roots of the Easter Bunny, Easter eggs, Egg hunts, and Easter candy have been argued for many, many years.  Its connection with the pagan goddess Oestre, Eastre, Ostara or Ishtar has already been pointed out. (Which is a reason I prefer to avoid calling the day “Easter Sunday” or “Easter” but “Resurrection Sunday” or “Resurrection Day”.)  However, I have never heard anyone mention any problem with the Easter Ham.  It is curious to me since it seems to be so forthrightly anti-Semitic.

It turns out, that most of the world celebrates Easter by eating lamb.  So, Americans and northern Europeans are in a minority.  Since America has heavy influential roots stemming back to northern Europe, this should not surprise us.  It seems we brought our pagan religious practices with us – properly syncretized to Christianity, of course.  So, how do you like your ham cooked?

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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The Easter celebration will soon be upon us.  I prefer to call it Resurrection Sunday or Resurrection Celebration.  Whatever you prefer to call it, it is a time to commemorate Passover.  This is the most important holiday for Christians and religious Jews.  What God instituted in these two events changed the course of history forever.

Passover remembers Israel’s physical redemption from slavery in Egypt.  The Passover meal is full of wonderful symbolism.  The house is purged of all leaven.  Leaven, which is natural born yeast, is a symbol of sin.  It is everywhere.  Therefore, a careful and thorough cleaning of the house takes place.  Then, special candles and dinnerware used only for Passover is set on a table.

Ceremonial food is used as sensory aids to tell the story of God delivering Israel from bondage and slavery in Egypt.  Egypt symbolizes humankind’s bondage and slavery to Satan’s work and sin.  Each prayer and song during the Passover celebration has a special message in the story.  It is a holy night.

God commanded that three main Passover symbols be used in the ceremony.  He called for a sacrificial lamb, bitter herbs, and unleavened bread.  Each has its own unique significance in retelling the story of God’s salvation of Israel from slavery.

Since there is no Temple to offer the sacrificial lamb, chicken is now used.  Because of this substitution, the Passover ceremony presently centers around the unleavened bread, called matzo.  It is usually displayed in three pieces in an ornate bag on the Passover table.

The middle matzo is taken out of the bag, broken in two, and then one of the broken pieces is put back in the bag and hidden, or buried, under a cushion.  It is brought out from being buried or hidden and distributed at the end of the meal.  Often this is accompanied by any children present looking for the hidden matzo piece; a practice that may have later led to the “Easter Egg Hunt.”

The matzo is a cracker-like wafer is about seven inches square and is made without yeast or salt.  It is also striped and perforated with tiny holes.

Why such a bland bread at such an important meal?  It is to remember when Israel fled Egypt so fast that they did not have time to bake regular bread.  Simple water and flour was used for bread in the dramatic escape from Egypt.  The matzo, then, serves as a powerful reminder of God’s delivering power to those in the Jewish faith.

Indian Heaven Wilderness Trail, Fall 2001

Indian Heaven Wilderness Trail, Fall 2001 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

The importance of the Passover matzo bread is even more meaningful to Christians.  At the Passover meal, Jesus the Messiah took the matzo, broke it, and then proclaimed, “This is my body which is broken for you.”  It is a powerful reminder to Christians of the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah’s foretelling of the coming Suffering Servant and Messiah.

The Passover bread is untainted by leaven, the biblical picture of sin.  The Messiah, too, had no sin in his life.  Matzo is also striped and pierced; a picture of the suffering Messiah who was striped with Roman lashes and pierced in his hands and feet by nails, and in his side by a spear.

During a similar Passover celebration, just like the one coming up soon, Jesus one time proclaimed, “I am the bread of life; the one that comes to me will never hunger” (John 6:35).  For the Christian, Jesus fulfills all the meaning of the Passover bread.  God through his son Jesus the Messiah, delivers us from bondage to sin.

For the Christian, the three wafers symbolize the three persons of the Triune Godhead – the Trinity.  Jesus, the middle person, was taken from his special place in heaven, revealed to us, broken for our deliverance, buried, raised to new life, and was taken up to heaven, returning to his rightful place, and he will one day return and reveal himself again to set up his kingdom.

Bread is the universal food of the world.  Jesus the Messiah is the bread, spiritual food, we need to have spiritual life.  He said, “It is my Father who gives you the true bread out of heaven.  For the bread of God is the one who comes down out of heaven and gives life to the world” (John 6:33).

This Passover and Resurrection Celebration let us break bread together.  Take time to purge your house and life through repentance and the forgiveness offered through the sacrifice of the Suffering Messiah and Servant of God, Jesus.  Remember the former life you once lived.  Give thanks to God for his deliverance through his son, Jesus.  And, with all your heart, seek the One who was dead but is now alive and sitting at the right hand of the Father in Heaven.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2010)

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Truck Stop Jesus

One would have expected a different plan to introduce an important person; even if that person was a baby.  Historically, after all, royal births were always accompanied by fanfare and celebration.  Every important dignitary in the world is notified and invited to the event.  When the savior of the world arrived little more than 2,000 years ago, maybe someone made a mistake and got the address wrong.  Not only that, but they forgot to get reservations.  The young couple was left out in the cold to give birth to their child among animals and all that accompanies animals posted in a barn.  These would not be the first sights and sounds that I would have wanted any of my children to have as their first experience in this world.  Jesus’ birth was so radically different than the antiseptic world we live in today.  It leaves the modern individual amazed he survived his first year.

The irony and mystery of Jesus’ birth is that it was planned ahead of time to take place just the way it unfolded.  Prophets hundreds of years before had already laid out how this baby boy was going to come into the world.  The details they left for others to figure out, who were some of the wisest people on earth by the way, did not include royal privilege, birth in a capital city or any of the other things that would normally accompany the birth of someone important.  There was no golden spoon privilege for this messianic figure.

Imagine a modern day set of new parents caught far away from any hospital, family or friends when the expectant baby decides to come into the world.  Not only that, but now the birthing plan, carefully prepared hospital bag for mother and baby and new born baby clothes are all forgotten.  The fact of the matter is that even for 1st century Joseph and Mary the conditions of the birth of their child were far less than desirable.  Any parent of any socio-economic class at any time in history would have hoped for better.

Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem of Judea.  Bethlehem, the city of ancient king David’s origin, was not an important city on the world map 2,000 years ago.  It still is not in today’s political or economic world.  It was more like a modern day truck stop on the way to a major city – Jerusalem.  Today it is a walled-up small city that survives on the arrival of tourists who come to ogle the supposed site of Jesus’ birth.  It is a battle-scarred town divided by deep religious factions that only seems to know peace once a year.  In Jesus’ day, Bethlehem was not prominent.  Its history was more storied than its present.

Bethlehem was a place that served the more impressive city of Jerusalem to the north.  Its trade in sheep, wool and grains provided for the needs of the much bigger and more important metropolis.  Bethlehem was a place one passed through on the way to Jerusalem.  It was rarely, if ever, a destination city.  On the trade route from Egypt, it served as a resting place for the traders.  The surrounding hills provided pasture for the sheep that were used in the temple sacrifices or kitchens of Jerusalem.  Bethlehem, “the house of bread”, also had rich fields surrounding it that provided the wheat and barley for Jerusalem’s bakeries and kitchens.

Like a modern day truck stop, then, traffic was always flowing in and out and through with goods on the way to the more important city of Jerusalem.  At the time of the census, when Joseph had to report to his ancestor’s hometown, Bethlehem, the already bustling city was packed.  The only space available was the equivalent of a small garage where some vehicles of transportation were parked.  Unfortunately, these eco-friendly vehicles would also leave their exhaust all over the floor of the place.

Cascades from Elk Pass Rest Area

Cascades from Elk Pass Rest Area ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Truck stops are never pretty places.  As much as I appreciate the Flying-J Travel Plazas, Pilot Travel Centers and TravelCenters of America, they are not places I ever intend to stay very long.   I am always just passing through.  On top of it, I would definitely not ever have dreamed of having a child at one of those places.  Perhaps it is for the purpose of avoiding having children at truck stops that doctors now discourage women from traveling during their final couple weeks of pregnancy.

Jerusalem was the capital city; the city of commerce and politics; the center of religion and learning.  Everything and anything important that happened took place in Jerusalem.  In the United States, it would be the equivalent of New York or Los Angeles.  In Europe, it would be the Paris or London.  In Asia, it would be the Tokyo or Beijing.  Anyone who wanted to be anybody made their way to Jerusalem, bought property, and hobnobbed with the rich and powerful.  Perhaps God did not get updated about conditions in Palestine during 1st century B.C./A.D.  I suspect, however, that he had a different plan and procedure than the one derived and practiced by humans since their arrival.

The birth of a messiah and savior would have been much more pronounced if I had been calling the shots.  Everyone on earth would have known that “God-in-the-flesh” had shown up on the scene to straighten out the crookedness of humankind’s ways.  It surely would not have been left up to a few foreign wisemen and local low-class shepherds to welcome the arrival of the most important figure in human history.  But then, I am not God.  This is not my creation.  It is not my story.  Plus, I suspect that God’s ways are directly counter intuitive to most of our human ways.

As it is, God might as well come in disguise. I mean, who among us would be apt to recognize his arrival today anymore than his contemporaries did then?  His economic class, education and means of arrival did not shout “God’s here!” in neon letters that is for sure.  Besides the angelic proclamation to lowly shepherds, no birth announcement cards were sent out.  Likewise, most scholars and religious leaders did not get the cryptic prophetic message left hundreds of years before by various writers of the Old Testament.  So, in a sense, when God sent a savior, he did it on the sly.

So, the most important birth of the most important human was scripted ahead of time to take place in obscurity – a couple of low socio-economic status and a shed on the back side of a truck stop served as the main characters and the setting.  As the story continues, things do not get any better.  Soon the couple was on the run from the law, spent a few years as illegal immigrants in a foreign country and only returned to their own home town years later.  The messiah grew up in obscurity and learned the family business.

This amazing story of truck stop Jesus violates our highest sensibilities of what we believe God is like.  We like to picture him in a Cathedral with mighty stone pillars and statutes, rich woods and tapestries, and lofty music.  I think, rather, that given Jesus’ birth record he would be just as out of place there as he would be at a Macy’s, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue or Bloomingdales.  After all, we like our deities to remain “high and lifted up” – far above the corruption of lower class humanity.  We would rather have the name of our deity pronounced in the more lofty open throated English “Gawd” than the too familiar buddy-buddy name of Jesus.  Somehow, a god who would prefer blue-grass music to Mozart and Beethoven just does not meet our criteria for divinity.

I suspect that if we were to have to look for Jesus’ arrival today that we would be better off looking for him at a truck stop.  His neighbors are more likely to be migrant workers and trailer park inhabitants than a gated suburban community.  I suspect that his address would more likely be under a bridge, overpass or homeless shelter than in a 2,000 square foot house.  He would be more acquainted with the living conditions of foreigners in our land than the economic well-to-do and socially established.  As a religious reformer, his audience would more likely be among the illiterate and poorly educated working class than among the highly respected theologians and seminarians of our day.  His calloused carpenter hands would shake more gnarled and calloused hands than manicured ones.

In short, most of us might have a hard time relating to this truck stop birth of Jesus.  I suspect, however, that it is all part of God’s redemption scheme.  For those of us who think we are better off than others, we will need to get down on Jesus’ level and humble ourselves to accept him and his mission to the least, the last and the lost of this world.  To those among this latter group, he raises their vision, empowers their future and invites them to participate in his redemption story.  So, the next time you have a chance to stop in your travels at a truck stop, just think to yourself, “Maybe Jesus is here.”

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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Rick Joyner, in his book There Were Two Trees In the Garden, gives us an example of Satan’s strategy to keep God’s people under his dominion:  DEPRESSION, leads to DISORIENTATION, then LOSS OF VISION, which leads to COMPROMISE, which finally brings DEFEAT to the purpose of God for His people.  Does that sound familiar to you?  Joyner uses some Biblical examples as illustrations of his point.

When tempted by Pharaoh to come to a compromise, Moses held his course.  So Pharaoh gave in a little – – “sacrifice . . . within the land”.  This seems to be a familiar strategy of our spiritual enemy.  When Satan sees that we are determined to serve the Lord, he will then try to make us think that we can serve God even though we remain under bondage to his ways.

How many times have we said or heard other people say, “I know it’s wrong, but I know God loves me anyway.”  Interestingly, God can still be God while we remain in spiritual bondage.  We can recognize him and worship him as God while still in spiritual oppression.  However, what he truly desires for us is to worship him in freedom.

God countered this tempting compromise with further demonstrations of his power.  Pharaoh countered with another strategy of compromise – – “go . . . only do not go far away”.  Sound familiar also?  Our spiritual enemy’s next strategy is to keep us in as much bondage as possible.  In this case, this was his attempt to get Israel to lose her vision of the Promised Land.  But God called Israel not to just leave Egypt, but to go all the way to the Promised Land.

How many times have we tried to compromise with an addiction by “tapering off”?  How many times have we tried to help someone who simply couldn’t let go of the past?  These are all ways in which the enemy of our souls try to convince us to “not go too far” with our spiritual zeal for the Lord.  Complete obedience is discouraged for some sort of lukewarm status quo.

Palouse Falls Drainage October 2009

Palouse Falls Drainage October 2009 ©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

Finally, Pharaoh offered – – “Go serve the Lord [notice no prerequisites!]; only let your flocks and herds be detained”.  Their spiritual oppressor wanted them to leave something in “Egypt” because he knew that where their treasure was so their hearts would be also.  As a result, he was attempting to guarantee their return to bondage.  The same temptation is worked against us today.  However, we too must declare as Moses did, “not a hoof will be left behind!”  In other words, we must be unrelenting in our determination to be utterly free of sin’s dominion over us or anything that is ours.  Compromise on any level with Satan, sin, or the world spells D-E-F-E-A-T for the people of God.

If you remember the rest of the story, Israel was only freed by the power of God.  We too must understand that we will never be set free by the permission of Satan, by our ability to compromise with our sinful desires, or even by our own steadfastness against temptation.  Instead, just like Israel, our freedom will come only by the power of God displayed in the true Passover sacrifice of the Lamb.

So, the question for every believer, just as it was for the children of Israel, is this: To what extent are you willing to obediently follow God to be truly free?  Remember, it was Israel who cried out to God to be free.  But it was also Israel who wrestled with God’s method to bring freedom to them.  How like us!  Like Israel, we will only realize our destiny to be free from spiritual bondage and oppression only by following the Lord obediently and without compromise.

©Weatherstone/Ron Almberg, Jr. (2009)

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