I could not stuff all my reflections on the 23rd Psalm into my column recently. This week, therefore, I continue my spiritual stuffing about the greatest and most healing Psalm in the Bible we share with the God who wrote it.
Psalm 23:2: “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures; He leadeth me beside the still waters.”
Physically, we need to drink and eat in order to live. The psalmist in this, the second verse of the 23rd Psalm, is teaching us that what is true for sheep is also true for us. The green pasture is food for the flock and the still waters are their drink. Our souls also need to eat for God and our souls need to drink for God.
In one of my other favorite psalms, Psalm 34, verse 8 we read, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” We cannot merely think or pray or sing our way to God, we must also eat and drink our way to God. This may seem on its face to be hedonistic but it is deeply spiritual. It reminds us that our souls live in our bodies, and that a sick or abused body can starve our spirit, our faith and our love of God. Gandhi wrote, “For a hungry person, God is bread.” Faith is not just an abstract intellectual act. Faith is an embodied act of the soul.
We learn this truth by reflecting what it means to eat the greatest spiritual meals in Judaism and Christianity: the Eucharist, and the Passover Seder meal.
For Christians the Eucharist is their soul food and the wine is their soul drink. The transubstantiation of bread into the body of Christ and wine into the blood of Christ is not just a poetic metaphor for Christians. It is a spiritual reality made possible by faith in Jesus as God. Christianity would not be the same if the Eucharist did not exist as a sacrament. The faith in Jesus as Christ becomes embodied, and in consuming the bread and the wine, Christians are tasting and seeing that the Lord is good.
The Passover meal (Seder) is also a soaring example of an embodied faith. The Seder is filled with symbolic foods. The unleavened bread is a symbol of the hasty departure to freedom from Egyptian bondage. The salt water and the bitter herbs are symbols of the tears and bitterness of slavery. The haroset (a mixture of nuts, fruit, and wine) is a symbol of the mortar used to build Pharaoh’s palaces. The roasted lamb bone is a symbol of the Passover burnt offering at the Temple in Jerusalem, and the four cups of wine are symbols of God’s joyful promise in Exodus, chapter 6, that freedom is the legacy and destiny of all people. Like the Eucharist, Judaism would not be the same if it just possessed the ideas behind the Seder meal and not also the ideas embedded in the meal.
However, the Eucharist and the Passover meal are also deeply different in exactly the ways that Christianity and Judaism are different. The great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber perfectly explained the difference. He taught that the Eucharist is a meal eaten OF God while the Seder is a meal eaten FOR God. In the Seder the foods point beyond themselves to God. In the Eucharist the foods are God.
I believe that the lesson of the need for an embodied faith is buried deep in the seemingly innocuous pastoral image of green pastures and still waters. The second verse of the 23rd Psalm is not about grass and rivers. It is all about spiritual food. The lesson here, augmented by “taste and see that the Lord is good” from Psalm 34 is that our faith must be embodied, it must connect both our minds and our bodies to God. Food is the natural metaphor of this truth. However, in the East meditation and yoga serve the same purpose. They connect posture and breath and bodily consciousness to the abstract ideas that in both the East and the West people wrongly assume are the essence of faith.
We are saved not by needed ideas, but by needed water – still water near green pastures – on our way to a destination known only by the shepherd God.