When I was growing up in the American midwest, the main dish on Easter Sunday was a pretty well-established tradition: ham. Everyone gathered to celebrate with a smorgasbord of dishes and desserts, and the hefty piece of pig flesh took the central place. Spoonfuls of potatoes, bread, vegetables and other sides fell into orbit on each plate around the pinkish oval of sliced ham.
As a young adult, I dug deeper into study of my Christian faith, and came to the inevitable recognition that Jesus, during his life on earth, lived as a Jew in the land of Israel, and would have eaten according to Old Testament dietary laws. When he celebrated the passover with his disciples, he would have eaten from the passover lamb. There would not have been ham on the table, since it would have been in stark violation of Old Testament Law. More than once, I have either lampooned or laughed at the irony that most years of my life I have eaten ham on Resurrection Sunday to celebrate the greatest moment in the life of the greatest Jew that ever lived!
Two years ago, I found myself celebrating the same holiday in a setting where roasting a ham would have been unthinkable. Our Sunday celebration of the Lord’s resurrection included Muslim friends who had agreed, because of our friendship, to come and share in our holiday meal. Our house was filled with the aroma of leg of lamb roasting in the oven. I can truly say that it was a joy, not a sacrifice. I would choose lamb over ham any day, all things being equal!
But flavor aside, there’s a reason to appreciate the different menus for Christian holidays in different part of the world. The ham on the plates of many of us gentile believers is one more reminder of how Jesus is the Lord and Savior for all peoples everywhere. It’s a reminder of how the Lord values the diverse cultures humans have developed and validates many parts of them, allowing Christian faith to flourish with distinctive practices in a wide variety of places. (Even while working to redeem those living in diverse places in a way that transforms even the darkest aspects of their societies).
A reader of the New Testament will not have a hard time recognizing that we are free to make ham – or any other meat forbidden in Israelite law (Easter lobster, anyone?) – the center of our meals and celebrations based on Peter’s vision in Acts 10 and the principles of Paul’s teachings in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 & 9. In my opinion, it reflects the genius of the church on mission in the New Testament. The Holy Spirit guides the church to recognize that many specific Hebrew practices can be set aside in non-Jewish churches in order to focus on what’s most important: that people can be drawn into worship of Jesus Christ and become part of the people he is forming out of all nations of the world as members of his everlasting kingdom. Thus, in the early days of the church, Romans and Greeks (and in later days Germans, French, English…Americans, when our country finally came into existence) could celebrate in this beautiful, hilarious irony: an event that began with a Passover lamb for the people of Israel is now celebrated in many nations with an Easter ham! Some claim that even the name “Easter” comes from the name of a pagan holiday, though the historical evidence for this claim is debated. Even if this claim is true, though, I think that our response should not be to expunge the name from church usage, but to laugh out loud at the remarkable victory of God through the church that it represents. After all, hardly anyone thinks of the pagan god some claim was once worshipped on a day called “Easter.” Instead, millions in the English-speaking world ponder the magnificent victory of Christ in the resurrection!
But I will not resign myself to a lifetime of Easter ham just yet, because I have a biblical basis for eating the lamb I prefer – especially when living among Muslim neighbors, who follow similar food laws as Jews. For just after one of those passages in which Paul affirms the freedom to eat meat that has not been deemed pure by the law, he speaks of his readiness to adapt his eating and behavior for the sake of focusing on the gospel:
‘For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings. ‘ 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 https://www.bible.com/bible/59/1CO.9.19-23
Through the New Testament, then, I have made peace with both Easter ham and Easter lamb. In my home overseas, I will savor the taste of lamb and seek opportunity to invite my friends and neighbors into the story of the Lamb of God, the star of the story of Easter. I pray that the people groups living around me will understand the significance of what He did at Easter. I will do everything I can to make the body of Jesus, broken for us, the focus, not which type of animal flesh we are serving at mealtime. And when I’m treated to a non-Kosher, non-Halal menu in my North American home, it will call me back to the wonder of the Savior for all peoples, the Lamb who can bring glory to himself even through an Easter ham.