The Feast of the Passover was fast approaching; the holiday commemorating the Hebrew people’s hasty exodus from Egypt was just around the corner. Soon enough, Jews everywhere would be munching on matzah. They would be swearing off grainy good stuff and yeasty yumminess in all varieties, clearing the cupboards of it, and marking their great-great-great-grandmothers’ and fathers’ desperate flight from Pharaoh to freedom by eating the food their ancestors ate: unleavened bread, flat little loaves – reminders of the meager helpings Moses and the people hurriedly baked with the menacing powers-that-be breathing down their necks, reminders of the thrown-together provisions rushed out of the oven as the Hebrews raced out the door. The taste of that bread would lead Jews back in time, back and back to a taste of liberation. Their mouths would water for the deliverance of days gone by, when God had spirited their forebears out of slavery and all along the way then fed them manna from heaven. The Feast of the Passover was fast approaching, so John’s gospel says, and with smells of crisping unleavened crackers and cakes already in the air, Jesus took what bread he had and passed it around among the 5,000 or so sprawled out on the plain there. In a sight that could not but conjure visions of those earliest Jews, out in the desert, collecting manna that had come with the dew of the morning, they all ate. And Jesus said, ‘I am the Bread of Life.’
The Feast of Booths was just wrapping up. Jews from hither and yon had streamed to Jerusalem for the fall’s great harvest festival – a weeklong campout, the Woodstock of ancient Israel (only, churchier and family-friendly, of course!). Down the hillsides, in the streets, on rooftops, everywhere you looked, ritual tents, huts, and lean-tos had sprung up; the whole nation had descended upon the city to sleep out of doors. The crowds would wake early and throng their way to the temple where they would make offerings in thanksgiving for the season’s bounty, in celebration of the year’s yield of figs and dates and pomegranates and grapes and olives. It was all-hands-on-deck for the priests: every Harry, Nancy, John, and Anthony in Israel were on duty, working round the clock, tending to the swell of sacrifices. And when day was done, they would be tuckered out. They would be tired, but the priests and all the people would dance. They would dance. Stars would blaze forth above. In every campsite, bonfires would burn. Giant candelabra gleamed from the temple courts. Legions of musicians with lutes and drums and lyres would process and set the streets pulsing, while all around them lilting, leaping masses moved in rhythm, raising up torches to the night sky. The city on a hill was a lamp on a stand. The Feast of Booths was just wrapping up, so John’s gospel says, and with the city and the sky still lit up in everyone’s minds and memories, Jesus said, ‘I am the Light of the World.’
The Feast of Dedication was drawing near, Hanukkah, that span of eight days when all of Israel would be decked with menorahs, when all of Israel would be remembering the great revolt of yore, remembering the rebellion of the Jews of old against their overlords, remembering how the people had taken back their temple, how they had taken the foreign idols installed there and dashed them to pieces, how they had taken up once again the worship of their own God and in their God’s own house. In the days leading up to the holiday, all of Israel would be rallying in spirit, would be reading from a cycle of scriptures, the same scriptures every year (just as every year at Christmastime, we read about John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary). They would be reading scriptures which promised them that no matter what oppression they might suffer, God would yet restore their fortunes and put the world to rights. In the days leading up to the holiday, Israel would be reading from the prophet Ezekiel, reading: ‘Because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild animals, since there is no shepherd… I myself, I the Lord God will be the shepherd of my sheep… I will feed them with good pasture; they shall lie down in good grazing land. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the straying, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak… I will feed them with justice.’ The Feast of Dedication was drawing near, so John’s gospel says, and with those very words ringing in all of Israel’s ears, Jesus said, ‘I am the Good Shepherd.’
Over and over again, John’s gospel gives us these glimpses of Jesus, immersed in the customs and in the scriptures of the Jewish community. We see that the holy ritual and the holy writ of the Hebrews is the water Jesus swims in. It is oxygen; the life of the synagogue is the air in his lungs. His days and his destiny play out within the deep coursings of this great faith. He is swept along by its currents – the Feast of the Passover, then the Feast of Booths, then the Feast of Dedication, on and on and on. We see that Jesus is who he is in no small part because his religion has made him to be who he was meant to be: week by week by week, season by season, year by year, subtly, slowly, over time, so that no one, not even he, notices it happening, his religion fills him up, and by its constant, ceaseless flowing, carves out canyons and caverns within him, forms and fills a vast reservoir, a font of virtue and values within him that cannot but burst forth in creative acts of extraordinary conviction and courage and compassion. With those at the Feast of the Passover longing to taste of liberation, Jesus becomes the Bread of Life – he sets up a distribution line on the lawn! With those at the Feast of Booths, those revelers holding up torches to the starlit heavens, Jesus dances and worships with such joy and abandon that he shines like the sun, like the Light of the World. With those at the Feast of Dedication praying to be led from exploitation and inequity to greener pastures, Jesus is the Good Shepherd. John’s gospel shows us the old-time religion coming to life in new ways in Jesus, shows us the stories and assurances of the tradition Jesus has taken in by osmosis, now coursing out as he riffs on faithfulness in exciting, brave, unexpected forms.
That is what the rhythms of religion aim at, that is what church is about – sweeping us up into its mighty tides, drawing us, Sunday by Sunday by Sunday drawing us out of the shallows into greater and ever greater depths of trust and gratitude and selflessness. That is what the rhythms of religion aim at, that is what church is about – a force bigger than us, a force beyond us channeling through us, flowing through us, clearing the flotsam in us, ebbing away, bit by bit at the roughness in us, carving out canyons and caverns within us, forming and filling vast reservoirs, fonts of virtue and values within us that cannot but burst forth in creative acts of extraordinary conviction and courage and compassion. That is what the rhythms of religion aim at, that is what church is about – the steady-on, slow-like-molasses, unseen-to-the-naked-eye shaping of saints and hewing of heroes whose imaginations and spirits are so steeped in the customs and in the scriptures of the communion of great souls that when there comes an hour of consequence, when there comes a moment of grave decision, when there comes an opportunity, you say or you do something so surprisingly lovely and large-hearted, something so daringly generous and good, something so risky and recklessly faithful that you can barely believe that it is you who said it, that it is you who did it, that it is you who have become bread for the hungry, that it is you who have borne light into the darkness, that it is you who have sought and shepherded the lost, that it is you who have stood up and stepped up and spoken up. So jump in – the water is fine. Park that fanny in the pew, Sunday in and Sunday out; relax into the rhythms of religion and I promise you, someday, when the time is just right, church will come to life in and through you in a new way, and you will scarcely recognize the saint you have become.