While we are firmly told it is not what we put in our mouths, but what comes out of it, most of us are answerable to God and our doctor. No [fill in the blank, and it can be a long list]. I was brought up on a lot of traditional British and European foods – whole milk, butter, honey, eggs, meat, real bread, cheeses, smoked fish, pickled everything. And salt, the Salt of the Earth, worth its weight in gold in the ancient world. Only water was more important to subsistence. Now, eliminate all those things we no longer “should” eat and I am left with water, boiled lentils and steamed veggies. Okay, that is a good traditional diet, mentioned a lot of times in Scripture. You see, for me food was a holy gift way before I got to the abundant Bread and Wine of the Table.
Holy fasts, and until modern times there were a lot of them and probably good for the health of everybody, were what we would now call a vegan diet (plus, maybe, a little fish). That is what Shrove Tuesday was all about. Use up the last of the good stores before the fast.
Feeding and healing are related. Fasting and feasting are related.
Let’s go back to the Daily Office Gospel reading for last Monday, March 5, and one of my favorites. Mark tells us two stories of healing. The first is the woman with the hemorrhage, which made her unclean in her society. She reaches out and touches Jesus’ hem, from behind because she is too afraid to be seen, and he feels the power go from him. He turns, comforts her, praises her faith, and she is healed. She is fed. And then he goes on to the home of a man usually identified as Jarius, whose daughter is dying. From what, we don’t know, but when fevers ran high and there were limited medical treatments, it was bad. When Jesus gets there, he is told she is dead. We aren’t going into the theological niceties of whether he resuscitated her, resurrected her, or just lifted her out of a coma. What counts is that he says to her in her language, Aramaic, “Get up.” And she does. And then he instructs the happily hysterical family to do something useful. “Get her something to eat.” Yes, the Bread of Life is saying stop hanging on me and get her a bowl of soup. Her body needs to be restored in the normal way. She is still weak from the illness. Matthew (9:22-25) does not say anything about feeding her, but Luke (8:49-55) does.
Last Wednesday we read the narrative of John the Baptizer’s beheading, at a banquet. More food, but not God’s abundant table. Death, not repentance and healing. Thursday, Loaves and Fishes, feeding the people. Saturday, Jesus overturns kosher laws. It isn’t what goes into the mouth, but what comes out. This is monumental in a Jewish society. Orthodox Jews still can’t eat milk and meat together. Two sets of dishes, pots. Four, if you count Passover.
On Sunday from John we read, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life,” and Jesus reveals himself as the Son of Man and Bread of Life. Good works won’t work. It all comes from God’s grace, and through Christ. Over and over, we are taught to feed the poor, clothe the needy, protect the weak, free prisoners from oppressors. But over and over we are reminded that the acts are good, and keep doing them, but they are lacking if you don’t go the extra mile and turn to God, Creator, Protector, whose love and mercy makes it all happen through and in Jesus the Christ. Lent is about food, about healing, about making our temple right for the Resurrection, for the Spirit at Pentecost, yet to come. About purifying inside and out. About gratitude for what we have. About fasting, trusting in God to provide.
More Gospel readings about healing, another kind of feeding.
In today’s Daily Office Gospel, Jesus has a difficult encounter with a Syrophoenician woman, a Gentile displaced in Judea. Heal my daughter. She has an unclean spirit. He responds, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and feed it do the dogs.” Dogs don’t have a good reputation in the Middle East, by and large. (Cats do better.) In Matthew (15:22-28) we hear a longer exchange. The disciples urge Jesus to ignore her. Jesus tells her he had come to gather the lost sheep of Israel. Here in Mark (7:25-30) the exchange is terser. As in Matthew, she argues back, saying even dogs get the crumbs under that table, and Jesus is moved by her faith and persistence and heals her daughter. We struggle with this one. Was Jesus moved? Was this another one of his convoluted teachings for the disciples with him in the house where he took refuge to be away from the crowds? Of course, the Gentile child will be healed, we tell ourselves. But the crumbs dogs lap up? Could our beloved Lord and God have been so unaware, or so tired, or so overwhelmed with the task his Father gave him? Yes, he could have been. He could have been recharged by her simple faith, one on one, not the hungry, thirsty, hurting mob jostling to see him, like some first century magical rock star. Yes, many had been fed, and in Tuesday’s reading from Mark, they would be fed again. For right now, it is a foreign woman in need. A woman who needs to be fed.
In the Resurrection narratives, the Bread of Life is known at the inn in Emmaus by the breaking of bread. In John, Jesus breaks fast with his disciples with roasted fish. His first injunction to Simon Peter is, “Feed my sheep.” It is all about food, spiritual and physical. About abundance. About needs met and shared. About Life. With Christ we will never hunger, never thirst.
Are we fed, healed?
For those who serve, it never ends. We train ourselves to take care of ourselves. To eat regularly, even lentils and boiled veggies with no salt. To take time off to rest, to pray, to be alone with God, maybe with one or two others, maybe, in my case, with my cats. Time out to heal before we can go forth and heal others. But God’s work never has a time out. Our service to others is never enough. And the only way to stay sane and keep working is to remember it is not our work. It is God’s. So keep doing good works for Lent. And fast, pray, read Scripture, as well as serve others. But remember, it is Jesus the Christ who feeds us even while walking to his death.
Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.