October is birthday month at the Swan house. My parents have birthdays on the ninth and thirteenth, followed by Chelsea’s birthday on the 18th and then Maureen’s birthday on the 23rd. Each birthday comes complete with its own liturgy and meal. For my parents what was once a day for all the family to gather, now with us so far away, it has been simplified to a quiet dinner out for the two of them and then a series of lunches and evenings with family and friends who live nearby. For Chelsea and Maureen, the day includes gifts in the morning, dinner out at a restaurant of their choice, and birthday cake.
This week I learned of a different type of birthday tradition. It is something called birthday soup. It is part of the Little Bear stories by Elsie Holmelund Minarik. In this case, Little Bear’s birthday started off rather strangely. When he woke up that morning, Mother Bear was nowhere to be found and she had left no birthday cake for when his friends came to celebrate. So what was Little Bear to do? The solution he figured was simple, the water in the big black kettle had already been warmed by the fire. In the pantry there were carrots, turnips and other root vegetable just right for making, of all things, “Birthday Soup.” So as his friends Hen and Cat and others arrived, Little Bear offered them Birthday Soup, of which all were happy to partake. Then, just as they were about to eat their “Birthday Soup,” Mother Bear arrived, carrying a big, beautiful birthday cake.
“Oh, Mother Bear,” says Little Bear, “a big beautiful Birthday Cake! Birthday Soup is good to eat, but not as good as Birthday Cake. I am so happy you did not forget!” “Yes, Happy Birthday, Little Bear!” says Mother Bear. “This Birthday Cake is a surprise for you. I never did forget your birthday and I never will.”
Throughout life, a common mistake we make is we try to set the course of our relationship with God. So often this happens because we grow impatient, or believe we know better than God does as to what is best for us. When this happens, we become like Little Bear, we get anxious and begin assembling the ingredients of our lives and make “soup,” instead of trusting God will arrive with the cake we hope for, long for and truly want. When we do this, we miss out on the wonderful sweet goodness of the cake God can bring into our lives.
In this morning’s readings, we have three examples of people who at one time in their lives settled for their own spiritual soup because they did not think or believe God could offer them anything more satisfying or fulfilling.
The first is the Pharisee from today’s Gospel. The Pharisee was a man of great resources and intelligence. He knew and understood Torah inside and out. But his relationship with God was about do’s and don’ts and most especially about image. “Look at me,” he says, “I live an honest life, I do all the right things, I fast, I tithe, I keep all 600 plus laws of Torah. Basically God, I want to thank you for making me so wonderful.” It seems somewhere along the way he missed part of the message. Instead of making spiritual cake with God, he made a spiritual soup in his image.” This is not terribly hard to do as Michael Ruse reminded those who attended his lecture at LeMoyne College this week. When the creation story is read outside of its original context,one can glean a sense of progression that supports a very ego or anthropomorphic centered understanding of our relationship with God.
But alas, this makes but a very bland “spiritual soup,” and one we often settle for when blinded to the possibility of the far tastier “spiritual cake” God makes available to us at the Heavenly Banquet.
Our second person who settled for soup over cake is the tax-collector. A bright and industrious individual, I suspect he grew up a bit more modestly than the Pharisee. He was neither part of an aristocratic family, nor a Roman citizen, the tax-collector had to resort to less than palatable means to attain the lifestyle he felt he deserved. The job of the tax-collector was to collect the taxes owed the emperor. But if he wanted a more comfortable lifestyle than his wages afforded, it was easy. . .just increase the tax bill for each citizen and use the “surcharge” to increase one’s wealth.
Sadly, the spiritual soup he created with the ingredients of his life turned out bitter. The cost of his wealth was loneliness; the loneliness that resulted from being despised and hated by family and friends alike, the loneliness that comes when one sacrifices his or her integrity in order to get ahead in life. And so, he enters the Temple a broken and hopeless individual. He is open to a new and better taste experience, but he does not know how to ask for it. . . or even if God would consider giving him cake to eat.
The third person from today’s readings who settled for soup instead of cake is Paul. Or better yet Saul, as he was known prior to his conversion. For the most part, Saul could have been the person Jesus modeled his image of the Pharisee after. Saul was bright, well educated, driven and ambitious. He knew the Law, and he knew these followers of Jesus had somehow left the Law behind. They were blasphemers, and a threat to the peace of Rome. And, it was Saul’s plan to make a name for himself among the aristocracy by doing away with the “Christian problem.” Filled with anger and passion, he somehow forgot how the Laws of Moses forbade the taking of another’s life.
Then, on that fateful day on the road to Damascus, Saul was confronted by the Risen Christ, the Incarnate Word of God. He came to realize the god he was serving so passionately was not the God of Abraham, but the god of Saul’s ambition. Somehow, while blinded by the light of Christ, Saul was able to see and taste the cake that only God can offer, a cake filled with forgiveness, and frosted with unconditional love. With this, Saul experienced the words of the Psalmist, “How sweet are your words to my taste! They are sweeter than honey to my mouth.” (Ps. 119:103) Later, Paul wrote of what he gained that day to the Corinthians with these words, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” (1cor 13:1)
In Principle and Foundation, St. Ignatius writes, “Human beings are created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord. To attain this,” he continues, “it is necessary to make ourselves indifferent to all created things. . . .on our own part we ought not to seek health rather than sickness, wealth rather than poverty, honor rather than dishonor, a long life rather than a short one and so on in all matters.”
In today’s reading from Second Timothy, Paul understands what Ignatius is saying as he dictates his letter from a Roman prison as he awaited execution. His words contain no remorse, no regret. Through his relationship with Christ, he has found what Ignatius calls spiritual freedom, the freedom of detachment from all things on earth. This is the freedom that allows Paul; to be free, even when chained in a prison cell, the freedom to allow himself to be poured out like a libation, and the freedom to seek and only seek the victor’s crown that awaits him on the other side of death.
Like the Pharisee, the Tax-Collector and Saul, we spend much of our time on earth mixing together the ingredients of our lives in order to create a spiritual soup devoid of God. We do this because like Little Bear, we are impatient, and we don’t always trust that God will come through on time. And, while the spiritual soups we create for ourselves may taste good, they will always pale in comparison with the spiritual cake God has for us. For as Little Bear tells his mother, “Birthday Soup is good to eat, but not as good as Birthday Cake.”