A cross. A Star of David. A crucifix. A swastika. The stars and stripes.
A stop sign, a yield sign, a black X on a round yellow sign. A veil, a Mennonite woman’s cap, a yarmulke, a hijab, an orange robe. A lotus, a lily, a bodhi tree. Your wedding picture, the photos on your mantelpiece, the photos on your fridge. The bibelots and knickknacks on your window sill, your bedside table, your desk.
What you hang from your rearview mirror, what you hang around your neck, what you wear on your left ring finger and your right. The cherished gift you received from someone who loves you; the cherished gift you want to give to someone you love. The inheritance from your parents; the thing she gave you; that item he left. The tattoo, the initials carved on the desk, the tree, the concrete; what he said when he proposed; what you screamed when you left.
All these are symbols; objects, emblems, and representations of some longing, relationship, person or truth; allegories that communicate something but are not the substance of what they communicate.
People are often confused about symbols, mistaking them for the actual, the real thing, “the final thing,” as Joseph Campbell put it. This is why they will attack one another over symbolic substance and miss the spiritual reality of the symbol altogether; this is why people focused on Webster Cook’s irreverence rather than looking deeply into their own. Webster Cook became a caricature and a symbol that some called “blasphemer” and others called “dissident” or “hero,” but in fact Webster Cook is a person, someone’s son, someone’s friend, perhaps someone’s lover. He is my brother, if I look closely enough. But he can never be that if I make of him only a one-dimensional symbol of what I believe him to be. I will never get to his essence that way.
“The mass is ended,” says the deacon. “Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.”
As the congregation trickles out of the sanctuary through the western doors, the Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion make our way to the credenza behind the altar area, to the empty chalices and patens that have been purified by the priest and must now be washed.
We take them to the sacrarium, a special sink that drains directly into the ground. There’s a regular sink, too, that drains into the city sewer, but we never use the regular sink for washing the vessels. We wash the vessels and rinse every last remains of the wine and host into the sacrarium drain that drains directly into the earth.
“From dust you have come, to dust ye shall return.” I think about this whenever it’s my turn to wash these vessels. I treat them and any remains of the Eucharist with the utmost care, because I know that as I wash these vessels in that place and time, I am washing Christ and you and myself, too. I eat the body of Christ, and I absorb Him as He has absorbed me; together we commingle and eventually we return to the earth. Later, something will grow out of the earth watered with this very water, and I know once again that “all creation tells of the glory of God.”
Zen Buddhist master Thich Nhat Hanh has this to say about the Christian celebration of communion:
The body of Christ is the body of God, the body of ultimate reality, the ground of all existence. We do not have to look anywhere else for it. It resides deep in our own being. The Eucharistic rite encourages us to be fully aware so that we can touch the body of reality in us. Bread and wine are not symbols. They contain the reality, just as we do (Living Buddha, Living Christ. New York: Penguin, 1995. 31-32).
What is this reality that every person contains, whether she or he is aware of it or not?
In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote:
Wherever a hero has been born, has wrought, or has passed back into the void, the place is marked and sanctified. A temple is erected there to signify and inspire the miracle of perfect centeredness; for this is the place of the break-through into abundance. Someone at this point discovered eternity. The site can serve, therefore, as a support for fruitful meditation. Such temples are designed, as a rule, to simulate the four directions of the world horizon, the shrine or altar at the center being symbolical of the Inexhaustible Point. The one who enters the temple compound and proceeds to the sanctuary is imitating the deed of the original hero. His aim is to rehearse the universal pattern as a means of evoking within himself the recollection of the life-centering, life-renewing form. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1973, 43).
Our ancient rituals and symbols, whatever they are, and wherever we practice them reverently, have this life-renewing power. They have the potential to give us new birth, if only we will let them. They make it possible for us to discover who we are at the deepest level, if we will go there. If not, then we remain surface dwellers, able only to see one dimensionally and only as far as the horizon.
I love to read the scriptures, whether the Talmud or the Gospels, the Epistles or the Discourses of the Buddha. Even the driest passages hold truth and have meaning, if one will only search it out. That’s what the passage is there for, and if you find the bread it is anything but stale.
The ancient Israelites, too, had their ritual purifications of sacred vessels:
This is the work of the descendants of Kohath in the tent of meeting, concerning the most holy things. When the camp sets out, Aaron and his sons shall go in and they shall take down the veil of the screen and cover the ark of the testimony with it; and they shall lay a covering of porpoise skin on it, and shall spread over it a cloth of pure blue, and shall insert its poles. Over the table of the bread of the Presence they shall also spread a cloth of blue and put on it the dishes and the pans and the sacrificial bowls and the jars for the libation, and the continual bread shall be on it. And they shall spread over them a cloth of scarlet material, and cover the same with a covering of porpoise skin, and they shall insert its poles.
Then they shall take a blue cloth and cover the lamp stand for the light, along with its lamps and its snuffers, and its trays and all its oil vessels, by which they serve it; and they shall put it and all its utensils in a covering of porpoise skin, and shall put it on the carrying bars. And over the golden altar they shall spread a blue cloth and cover it with a covering of porpoise skin, and shall insert its poles; and they shall take all the utensils of service, with which they serve in the sanctuary, and put them in a blue cloth and cover them with a covering of porpoise skin, and put them on the carrying bars.
Then they shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth over it. They shall also put on it all its utensils by which they serve in connection with it: the firepans, the forks and shovels and the basins, all the utensils of the altar; and they shall spread a cover of porpoise skin over it and insert its poles. And when Aaron and his sons have finished covering the holy objects and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, when the camp is to set out, after that the sons of Kohath shall come to carry them, so that they may not touch the holy objects and die. These are the things in the tent of meeting which the sons of Kohath are to carry. And the responsibility of Eleazar the son of Aaron the priest is the oil for the light and the fragrant incense and the continual grain offering and the anointing oil– the responsibility of all the tabernacle and of all that is in it, with the sanctuary and its furnishings. (Numbers 4:4-16).
Kohath was one of the sons of Levi charged with caring for and purifying the vessels of the altar and sanctuary for the Hebrews. The grandfather of Moses, Aaron, and Miriam, Kohath’s name means “beginning of majesty and instruction.” I smiled when I learned this. Kohath, the keeper of the vessels, the one charged with the minutiae of religious service, means “beginning of majesty and instruction.”
Finding God in the minutiae seems so very Buddhist, or Jewish, or Christian to me. Buddhism teaches that the entire universe is in one flower; in Judaism one is told not to “despise the day of small things,” and Christianity teaches, “he who is faithful in a very little thing is faithful also in much.” The abundant tree in which the birds take refuge and build their nests grows out of the tiny mustard seed. So it is that majestic heights and deep wisdom may be gained by washing dishes.