A memorable event: Friday, 2 October 1959: 08.16 CET.
My first croissant.
Looking back over the years from here in Etreuille, a small hamlet in deepest France, no big deal – but at the time it proved one of the defining moments of my life.
I think I need to give some context. My travel-loving father had taken me to the small Catalan fishing village of Tossa de Mar, my first excursion to a foreign shore, naturally by train. This was in the austerity days of the 1950’s, with rationing a recent memory. Breakfast was invariably a (small) bowl of cornflakes, Rice Krispies for the occasional treat.
So when the waiter brought a plate of two strange shapes of what appeared to be some kind of bread, not even sliced, I was naturally confused. And a large cup of what should have been tea but wasn’t. My father would have anticipated Star Trek had he said: “It’s breakfast, Ross, but not as we know it!”
And I can still recall the delight of tasting that first croissant, running with apricot jam. My taste buds were as delighted as they were surprised. I was never the same again. For this was my first exposure to a different way of life, the recognition that not everyone in the world was like us.
It was Rudyard Kipling who observed that “the first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.” He could have said “to taste it.” I guess we all have our own equivalent experience, not necessarily through foreign travel.
For we mature as we encounter other cultures, not necessarily a comfortable experience, particularly if this happens as a result of being conquered by an alien people. This was certainly the case for the Jewish people of Bible times. They had to fight hard and at some cost to preserve their way of life centred on their unique commitment to the Lord God of Israel.
But scripture bears witness to how their way of thinking was influenced over the centuries by different cultures, latterly by the Greek civilisation. Something we take for granted but the New Testament is written in estuary Greek, what for Jesus was a foreign language, hardly the tongue of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. And with the language, a whole new set of ideas and images.
You can see this in some of the ideas and metaphors used by Saul of Tarsus (aka St Paul) and never by Jesus of Nazareth. There is one in particular, one close to my own heart.
In contrast to the apostle Paul, Jesus never refers to the race or anything to do with athletics. He was Jewish and Jews had a deep suspicion of anything Greek. They simply didn’t get it, running around a track – a full stadia long – to return to the place where you started. Moreover they were wary of any activity, such as athletics, which involved male nudity. It was foreign to them, literally.
But for Paul this imagery suggested by athletics gave him greater scope to teach the Christian life, allowing him to develop key features of what it means to live for Jesus.
So he makes frequent use of atheltics as a metaphor in most of his epistles. He clearly was an athletics fan.
The need for single-mindedness:
“But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
The importance of discipline:
Similarly, anyone who competes as an athlete does not receive the victor’s crown except by competing according to the rules.
2 Timothy 2:5
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last, but we do it to get a crown that will last forever.
1 Corinthians 9:23-25
Above all towards the end of his life Paul is able to review his ministry in terms of a good finish. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. (2 Timothy 4:7)
All this the apostle does without apology. This cosmopolitan Roman citizen appears perfectly at home in Hellenism. He can see that the Gospel is for all peoples and for all tongues – even Greek. Like this man with a clear goal, we need not fear any unfamiliar culture for Jesus is Lord over all and he alone upholds all people, everywhere.
And now tastebuds stand by: time for my croissant(s)!