We’ve been talking about the really cool lessons I’ve learned through the reading of a book called Jesus and the Jewish Roots of the Eucharist by Brant Pitre.* First I talked about the Daily Bread, and then last week about why the Passover was the perfect backdrop for Jesus’s New Covenant…which is to say, we looked at that original covenant.

Now I want to pause and address the idea of traditions. The ones instituted by God, yes, and also the ones that men “added to” Scripture.

As Christians today, we’re quite familiar with the ones Jesus called out, right? For instance, the practice of corban—when you would dedicate your wealth to God and therefore have an excuse not to use it to care for those to whom you were obligated, like your parents. Or when the Pharisees chide the disciples for plucking grains of wheat as they walked through a field and eating them on the Sabbath (not outlawed by the Law, but by added traditions) and Jesus argues with them.

But did you know that there are many manmade, added-on traditions that Jesus not only didn’t argue with, but which He kept, respected, and even fulfilled?

I think one of the first ones of these I learned about was one that surrounded His birth. There were very strict regulations—manmade ones, mind you—about where flocks could be kept in relation to cities and towns. The sheep and their waste had to be well outside the cities. Like, miles.

Bethlehem, however, was only five miles from Jerusalem. That put it well within range of “no livestock allowed.” Yet there were flocks with shepherds to whom the angels appeared. Who? How?

They were the temple flocks—because that was the one exception to the rule. Temple flocks were kept in the pastures between Jerusalem and Bethlehem at the time of Christ, and they were not tended by just any shepherds. They were tended by Levites—because none but priestly hands were ever to touch the lambs that would be offered for Passover (another manmade, added tradition, recorded in ancient Levitical texts in the years between the testaments).

These Levitical shepherds took their job very seriously. So seriously that they not only had sheepfolds, they built watch towers so that they could see the entire pastureland. These towers, as it happens, also then gave them the best view of the road leading to Jerusalem. Because of this, in those texts written by the priests, we see that they’d written poems and songs with their own prophecies, one of which was that they, from their watchtower, would be the first to see the Messiah when he came.

They were probably thinking he’d come by that road. A king.

I find it really, really cool to realize that they were the first to hear the good news of Christ’s birth—while they were watching their flocks by night.

God honored that extra, manmade, added-on tradition, held in the hearts of His priests. Those shepherds—the ones who tended the Passover lambs—were the first to hear that THE Lamb of God had been born.

Ever wonder how we know what songs the angels sang to them in the field that night? Because some of those priests, those shepherds, those Levites were among the first followers of Christ. They were part of the earliest Church. They preserved and shared that song of praise, and it has been sung in Christian liturgy ever since. I get to sing it every week—it’s called “The Gloria.” (Does that give you shivers?? That totally gives me shivers!!)

Another “extra” tradition is what we know today as Hanukkah. This festival commemorates the miraculous preservation of oil in the Temple during the days of the Maccabees, which kept a lamp—the sacred lamp kept in the Holy of Holies—burning during some of the darkest days of Israel. You won’t find this story in what we call Scripture. But it is Jewish history preserved in many other places and still celebrated today.

Jesus kept that festival—you’ll find that recorded in the Gospels using one of its other names, either the Festival of Lights or the Feast of Dedication (depending on your translation). He celebrated it. He didn’t call it out. Yet many Christians today feel they have “permission,” so to speak, to doubt that this miracle ever happened, because it’s not in “scripture.”

I say if it’s good enough for Jesus, it’s good enough for me. 😉

And there are so, so many traditions that sprang up surrounding the Passover, which Jesus not only didn’t correct, but which He fulfilled. That’s why I want to talk about it in this context, as part of my series.

First, let’s look at some beautiful and gob-smacking traditions surrounding the manna.

In the years between the original Exodus and the time of Christ, the Jews had mused a lot about this miraculous bread and what it really was. We have their thoughts preserved for us in writings like the Talmud and the Targum, as well as in Exodus, Joshua, the Psalms, and the Catholic Wisdom of Solomon (not part of the Protestant Bible).

In the Psalms, the manna was referred to as “the bread of the angels,” which led the Jews to believe that this bread existed in Heaven, and some mused that if was truly the supernatural bread that fed the angels, then it must have pre-dated the Fall.

Consider the implications of that for a moment. If you believe that theory, then it means that the strange bread that fell like dew was stored up in heaven, where it had been created in the first days of the universe, before Man had damaged the world with sin. It was food not affected by the fall—which couldn’t be said of anything we grow on earth, that we have to toil for, that is subject to blight and disease. Yes, the manna would rot after 24 hours…but only by the word of God, evidenced by the fact that it didn’t one day of week, when it would remain fresh for the Sabbath.

So if manna pre-existed the fall and (obviously) the Exodus, that meant that it was stored in heaven. And if the angels ate it then, they were still eating it now, which meant it still exists in heaven. By that theory, it is something kept in a heavenly storehouse—in a heavenly Tabernacle that our earthly ones were meant to imitate—which the angels ground like wheat, and which God literally poured out for His people during the forty years of the Exodus “like rain,” but which has not “run out.” It stopped because they didn’t need it anymore, not because God didn’t have enough to keep giving it.

Which led to another of these traditions, these expectations. Those looking for the new Moses, the new Messiah, who would lead them to a permanent Promised Land (heaven), expected that this new Moses would behave in some key ways like the original Moses. First and foremost: he would reintroduce manna.

Jesus was well acquainted with these expectations—all first century Jews knew of it, though whether they believed it or not was a big part of what determined which sect they belonged to. The Sadducees, who did not believe in a bodily resurrection or a physical heaven, had no reason to believe in an angelic bread on which those bodies could feast, nor to expect it to make a reappearance, because they didn’t expect any other messiah to ever come. The Pharisees, on the other hand, did.

And again, Jesus did not correct this expectation, this tradition—He fulfilled it. He in fact instructed His followers to pray for that “daily bread,” that miraculous manna, to be given to them every day. And then He instituted a tradition of His own that gave us what? Bread. Which is offered every day.

Jesus, my friends, gave us a new manna…just like these extra, man made, added-on traditions had said the Messiah would do.

I’ve already mentioned in a previous post that the Bread of Life sermon in John 6 is bookended with references to the manna (if you haven’t read that recently, take some time to do so!). Have you ever wondered why? This is why. Because these people to whom he was speaking in the synagogue at Capernaum, were looking for a new manna. And He was basically saying, “You want new manna? Well, I am that new manna. I am the bread of life. To partake of that heavenly life, you have to eat my flesh and drink my blood.” Their response? They left him. It was too hard. It was taboo. It was gross. And Jesus didn’t pull back. He pushed harder. He told them it was the only way to partake of eternal life. He mentioned that He—in the flesh, in the very flesh He would offer to them, in the very flesh that would become that new manna, that bread, that Passover lamb—would ascend back to heaven, where that manna was stored.

It’s a hard teaching. It was hard for the first-century Jews, and it’s proven a stumbling block for plenty of Christians throughout the ages too, who’d rather soften it, pull back, and call it nothing but a symbol.

But the manna wasn’t a symbol. That first manna, it didn’t represent bread. It was bread. It had nutritional value. It kept them alive for forty years. And when God said “put some in the Ark, in the Tabernacle, to be preserved forever as a testament,” it didn’t rot. It stayed fresh and able to be viewed for thousands of years.

We can’t mean to say that Jesus’s offering, His manna, was less than that, can we? That it is less of a miracle? Less “real”?

Jesus knew the expectations of the people around Him. He knew the traditions. Yes, He challenged some of them. He fulfilled others. Some He observed quietly, without any commentary that we still have. Others He called out. Many He clearly approved of, because He made a point of incorporating them into His great sacrifice. (Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that He inspired that unfolding understanding through the years because He already knew what He would do.)

I understand the pitfalls of traditions—that sometimes we can make the wrong ones. Sometimes they let us fall into a routine that doesn’t mean anything to us anymore. Sometimes we can use them as a crutch. But there’s a very real reason that God created traditions. And it’s also just part of humanity to build on the work of those who came before us, so that we reach a deeper understanding of things over time.

It’s true in science. It’s true in medicine. It’s true in literature. And it’s true in faith. We are standing on the shoulders of the theologians and believers and saints who have come before us, and that is a beautiful thing.

But if we dismiss everything “added,” we honestly don’t understand how we ended up where we are. A prime example of that is the Last Supper. Jesus was following during that meal, not just the tradition that God handed out word-for-word to Moses, but the tradition that had developed over the intervening centuries: the Passover Seder.

And that’s what we’re going to talk about next time.

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