~ Easter Pretzels ~
Many Christians, in their own personal or liturgical ways, journeyed the Lenten season with symbolic and actual acts of devotion, sacrifice and service, preparing for the joyous celebration of Christ's resurrection. Here are two stories, the first true, the second legendary, providing contrasting pilgrimages of the soul. (Source: Extreme Devotion, Voice of the Martyrs, 2001.)
Bob Fu, a professor in China, and his wife (name undisclosed), travel into remote settlements to provide clandestine biblical studies. He described what entailed travel to one such village: Twelve hours on a bus through rain that was blocked from blowing through a broken window by an assistant's body while Fu rested; a full night of travel on muddy roads in a van that got hopelessly stuck, transferring to an open tractor in the rain for hours until it became useless in the mud; walking the rest of the night through muddy fields. When they finally arrived at village in the early morning, people had begun assembling two hours early to pray together prior to the service. Some families had also walked all night or longer.
The meeting house was bare and worshippers stood or sat on wood planks and rocks. They were excited about the freedom to worship for a few days. It would take that long for the police to arrive.
"Enter through the narrow gate because the gate and road that lead to destruction are wide. Many enter through the wide gate. But the narrow gate and the road that lead to life are full of trouble. Only a few people find the narrow gate" (Matthew 7:13-14, GW).
"A person's steps are directed by the Lord, and the Lord delights in his way. When he falls, he will not be thrown down head first, because the Lord holds on to his hand" (Psalms 37:23-24, GW).
Gorun wanted to be a follower of Christ. He heard Jesus telling him to find a place in the desert wilderness and spend time in prayer and contemplation. Soon the desert rats had gnawed on his blanket so Gorun traveled to the village to beg for a blanket.
This happened frequently so Gorun was given a cat to take care of the rats. But Gorun was back for milk for the cat. Looking ahead at the situation, the villagers gave him a cow. Of course, Gorun then needed food for the cow.
The kind villagers provided Gorun with some fertile land, and later some help to work the land. Then Gorun needed supplies to build shelters for the workers and storehouses for the growing provisions.
Over the years Gorun grew wealthy and fat and quite content. He had little time for any prayer. Jesus stopped by for a visit. Gorun greeted Him courteously. "And what do you need to buy, sir?" Gorun no longer recognized His Master. It was just another day of business.
"The seed planted among the torn bushes is another person who hears the word [about the kingdom]. But the worries of life and the deceitful pleasures of riches choke the word so it doesn't produce anything" (Matthew 13:22, GW).
In today's world, Gorun is viewed as an example of great success whose story would be told to youth as an inspiration to follow. Here is a self-made entrepreneur, a story of rags to riches. Moreover, his road to material success begins with an ascetic time of prayer in the wilderness, ordered by Jesus Himself. Gorun would be a great choice in many churches to "give a testimony" about how much God blessed him with the unexpected after he followed Jesus' instructions. Unfortunately, some would be enticed to imitate Gorun to also receive those kind of "blessings." Tragically, Gorun no longer could recognize the face of Christ in the visiting stranger.
In the secular world view, Bob Fu and his team are crazy. Why was he needed in such a remote place in China? Why risk the arduous and dangerous journey and arrest by the police? Why would people walk 50 miles, day and night, to assemble with him and each other? Couldn't they all just worship at home? And the work in traveling back! A tractor and small van had to be freed from mud and engines possibly needed some work. But Bob Fu must wonder about the many North Americans and Europeans who skip gathering for worship because it's too cold and windy to walk to the car or too much of a hassle to get the kids ready on time.
Our persecuted Chinese brothers and sisters were excited because they could see the face of Christ in each other. Christ's love compelled them to gather as His Body and worship Him with one voice, "in spirit and truth." Their bodies were "living sacrifices." They were holding a several day long love feast at "whatever cost." As Bob Fu left, the remote village was still an image of profound earthly poverty, and also of resplendent spiritual wealth.
Of course, Jesus can be seen everywhere. He did say, however, the journey would be narrow and troublesome with a cross as a backpack. Bob Fu's journey was a living metaphor for our Lenten observances and his arrival at the village at dawn was his joyous Easter of breaking bread with the living Christ.
Easter eggs and rabbits were fertility symbols of the goddess whose name was corrupted into the word "Easter," much like Saint Nicolas became "Santa Claus." "Christianizing" pagan symbols has had some merit so long as their history is taught. The Christmas tree now represents the wood of the cross (recall the scriptural references to Jesus being "hung on a tree"). Originally, Christians would appropriately hang wafers of bread on Christmas trees symbolic of Christ on the cross. The powerful symbol of the cross itself, originally one of despicable shame and torturous death for the pagan Roman Empire, came only years later. The fish was the first universal symbol of Christian identification.
Let us consider introducing a new Easter symbol that many people love eating more than hard boiled eggs and that was a Christian symbol, now forgotten, right from the start.
In Italy during the seventh century, a monk made strips of bread dough and twisted them into shapes that represented children's arms folded in a posture of prayer. This was his "pretiola" ("little reward" in Latin) for children who learned their prayers. This practice soon took hold in Germany and Austria so the Latin pretiola became germanized into "pretzel."
This year consider placing bread pretzels (not chocolate ones) in your children's Easter baskets or as part of your Easter meal table. When you get questioning looks, sit your family and friends down for some reflective stories. Remind them of the bread that is Christ's body, to be broken and eaten in His name, and that this bread is a pretzel, or a gift, symbolizing our prayers of thanks. Tell them about people like Bob Fu, living martyrs (witnesses) of the spiritual pretzel bread, who risk much for the joy of gathering around the Bread of Life to share in it as one family. And tell them about Gorun who wanted to be a follower of that Bread of Life but became too fat and full of himself to ever recognize Jesus again. Smiling, Hold your pretzel out to another at your table and ask them to tear off a piece, invite others to do the same, and all enjoy eating the bread of prayer with one heart and communal joy.
John S. Hilkevich, Ph.D.
Spiritual Resource Services
Weekly Reflections © March 23, 2002
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