Sunday, April 16, 2006

Clearing Out the Old Yeast

At Passover time, many traditional Jews celebrate not only with a seder meal of unleavened bread, but also by clearing from their homes any item used in leavening. Sodas, baking powders, yeasts: all these materials are cleared from the kitchen. In a practical sense, the tradition is an effective way of spring cleaning. Fresh products are then obtained after Passover, and in this way the pantry is "refreshed" and "renewed" - an apt symbol for Israel's deliverance into a promised land of milk and honey, fed along the way with the bread of angels.

This symbolism is chosen by Paul in his exhortation to the Corinthians, one of the options for this morning's second reading:
Clear out the old yeast,
so that you may become a fresh batch of dough,
inasmuch as you are unleavened.
For our paschal lamb, Christ, has been sacrificed.

Therefore, let us celebrate the feast,
not with the old yeast, the yeast of malice and wickedness,
but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
1 Corinthians 5
The spiritual benefit of our Lenten practice of self-denial is highlighted by this analogy. We have, in a sense, cleared out the pantry of our hearts to make room for the heavenly food of Christ's sacrifice. Our worldly desires and delights are like leavened bread: full of airy gaps which, consumed along with the substance, give merely an illusion of real satisfaction. The fullness is of air, and in a single hiccup dissipated.

By fasting, we see the ethereal and spurious quality of earthly goods. Those who gave up sweets might find the sugar of Easter candy painful to their teeth; the first sips of caffien might cause a bit of a headache. This is a keen irony. As it turns out, our body, all our life, has hungered for food of real substance and true sustinence. Somehow, we have mistakenly thought artificially leavened and sweetened things our natural desires, while imagining healthy and wholesome foods an "acquired taste." In fact, the opposite is true. It is in bondage and slavery to wordly wants and sin that we have been trained to hunger for the flesh-pots and onions of Egypt. It is a fluke of our fallen nature that we need to discipline ourselves in order to appreciate the sublime food given to us by God.

As with our diet, so with our actions. In this sense, we are truly what we eat. It might seem difficult to be kind to the annoying office-mate instead of simply avoding him or her; to spend extra time in prayer instead of watching our favorite shows; to give money to charity rather than spend it accross the poker table. Yet, these former activities, which we may have called for the past forty days "disciplines," are far more natural to us than the alternatives. The satisfaction we might get from telling off our coworkers or numbing our minds for an hour in front of the television is an illusory sort, inflated by the old yeast which Paul tells us to cast out. This is also why we find it easier to overindulge in such things. Only afterwards, when everything settles, do we feel the discomfort of our gaseous intake.

Easter is a time to celebrate. But hopefully we have learned from our Lenten fast that there are better and worse things on which to feast. The bread of sincerity and truth has corollaries in what we eat, drink, say, and do. As we have kept our fast, so let us keep our feast; as we have felt true hunger, let us now seek true nourishment. Open your mouth, says the Lord, and I will fill it. The food He gives is true and good. The pantry is clean. With what shall we replenish it?


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