Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Priestly time…

Responding to the sudden discovery that Minnesota might finally experience Spring, gluttonous aromas wafted into my backyard last weekend. In other words, grilling season arrived! Backyard hamburgers were cooking, bratwursts roasting and bursting and spreading wondrous scents across the neighborhood. Hallelujah! Perhaps you got in on the action. My grill has, sadly, stayed dormant. Not for long, though. I fully intend to participate soon in this most ancient of civilized pursuits.

Recently, I finished a wonderful book, which I’m recommending heartily. It’s called “Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation” by foodie demigod Michael Pollan. Essentially, it describes his multiyear process of learning to cook. Which surprised me, since I assumed he already did this well, since he’s written several bestsellers about food. Apparently not. He’d only done basic stuff previously, but now wanted deeper knowledge, leading Pollan, among other pursuits, to learn the secrets of Barbeque.

And by Barbeque, I mean cooking much more involved than Hebrew Nationals on your Webber grill. Pollan studied under Southern masters who use that term exclusively for whole hogs. You read that right. Whole Hog Barbeque, slow-roasted overnight with fanatical attention. No charcoal employed. No sauce allowed. Real wood fires, vinegar, salt, time. I’ve roasted a whole hog once. It was good, but nowhere near the production he described. Still, in doing so, Pollan informs me, I paid homage to the earliest of religious practice.

Think back to Hebrew Bible times or Greek myths of pre-modern peoples pleasing the gods. Animal sacrifice, you’ll recall, was the go-to, trustworthy method. Some stories tell of whole herds of cattle butchered and burnt, entreating Yaweh to send rain. More typically, a family, village or tribe slaughtered and offered one or two beasts, believing that this sacrificing precious resources satisfied fickle deities.

Of course, a natural question to ask is, “What did they do with all that meat?” One obvious answer: people ate it. Sometimes, perhaps in earlier days, the flames would render all sacrifices into crispy char. But eventually, people proposed that “spiritual” gods don’t care about flesh. What mattered were those scrumptious smells billowing heavenward with delicious appeal. So the gods wouldn’t mind, this thinking goes, if we feasted on what remained. In fact, some temple or priestly authorities relied on this sacrifice economy to feed religious specialists, who’d utter and mumble, chant and excite on-looking common folk with elaborate rituals. All while attending spits of roasting hogs- or in Israel’s case, non-pork meats!- slowly transforming dead flesh into spectacular food for God and humanity.

Imagine that the next time you watch some guy hover over a grill with sacred intensity. He (and it’s usually men, right? Like religious professionals almost always were until recent decades, alas) is simply modernizing the ancient priestly vocation of intermediating between us and the divine realm, evoking ancestors who thought this open-flame performance art would enhance God’s pleasure and bless God’s people. The immediate proof of that desired blessing, of course, would be plates piled high with tasty glory. I’m unsure how often the “common” folk shared in this bounty during biblical times, but nowadays we frequently invite many to the outdoor table.

Which is as it should be. Good religious ritual ought inspire and create community. The bread and cup of Holy Communion, after all, are certainly not intended for solo consumption. At least in our church, they function to bring God’s people together. And we need that. For we live separate lives mostly, sometime argue, debate and quibble. Yet around the loaf of love and wine of resurrection, we’re reminded over and over that we’re always one. Bound together through grace, inspired with hope, nourished by sacramental transformation for faithful action. That’s the intention, goal and often the outcome of why we celebrate Christ’s sacrifice. Memorial Day cookouts, typically, don’t presume such lofty pretentions! But if undertaken with careful attention, quality foods and good company, they just may remind us that from eons past we’ve found holiness in feeding each other. Especially when we invite neighbors. By God, I’m suddenly hungry…

Grace and Peace,


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