Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Offertory, Old School Style

What makes God god? Or to put it another way, what makes a group of people cast their lot with a given god? Today we might answer that question in terms of a spiritual connection, a sense of personal or social communion of some kind. I'm a Buddhist or a Catholic or a Lutheran because that's where I find God present, or am nourished, or feel welcome.

In the ancient world, the answer would be this: we worship God X, they'd say, because he has done great things for us. To use the slang of today, he's not only promised to get our back, but in the thick of things, he's had our back. He's helped us out. What makes God god are his saving acts.

The Google maps shot of the Red Sea parting. Even then, Google was there.

And when a group committed to a god, that had certain responsibilities. They had to act in a way befitting their new status as vassals of this god. And hey, he's god right? That's like, way cooler than a human king. Better offer him the choicest of choice gifts, too.

So you have this tradition in so many different religions and cultures of sacrificing animals, objects, even people to the gods. Sometimes this was a way of appeasing what was interpreted to be an angry god. (How do we know he's angry? Things are not going the way we want.) That's when things get crazy -- normally we kill a hundred goats; this time, let's kill a thousand virgins! But usually this was just part of the system. He's the lord, you're the vassal. Everything you receive is really his. So when the harvest comes due or the trade deal succeeds, you make sure that the first thing you do is to give him the best parts. And in exchange, he's got your back. (And if you don't, well, make sure you've got a thousand virgins.)

(And make sure they don't have rifles.)

Personally, listening to the Old Testament stories where they're killing the fatted calf, I can never quite get past the part where they incinerate the meat. It's a significant gesture, to destroy that which is most valued or precious as a way of indicating your own vassal-ness. But it seems like such a waste, too! (Admittedly, I am a greedy foodie.)

Some passages suggest what pleases God is the smell -- and really, what God doesn't love the smell of roasted meat in the morning? Incense was likewise used in various cultures because people believed their gods liked it. (Apparently the eyes of gods do not water as easily as our own...)

It also seems likely that some believed that via incineration the food was in effect teleported into their god's hands. Yep, that's right, after a hearty sacrifice God's up there pounding the burgers, beef juice dribbling down his hands and the sides of his face. It seems to take the whole "God is king" idea a bit too literally, but at the same time, it shows a real appreciation for the sensory, God as a being that delights, that savors physically even more than we do. Maybe he or she even emits the occasional satisfied belch.

Even though it emerges out of this history, our own practice is in some ways quite different. But we'll leave that until tomorrow. Today's assignment: be like those old school gods and relish the taste of something you eat today. Let those juices run!

Mmmm.

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