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Humbled, yet lifted up

Hush. 13 pairs of eyes were fixed on the movements of my hands. The kettle hissed, and water trickled from a bamboo ladle into the black Raku chawan (tea bowl) on the table in front of me.  

It was December 29. Our small community had welcomed friends and café guests to our worship service for a Christmas chakai (tea ceremony gathering). The humility and exaltation of Christ as expressed in Philippians 2 was the theme we chose for our Christmas celebrations. I was given the unique task of interpreting this theme using the symbolic language of tea ceremony.

In the weeks leading up to the event, I thought and prayed; I talked with my tea ceremony teacher and friends about my ideas. What poem or phrase would be displayed on the hanging scroll? Keith, my husband, suggested the Fourfold Name from Isaiah 9: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. What kind of flower would be appropriate? A single camellia bud, just starting to open, would express the hope found in the child born to be Savior and King.

What tea bowls would I use? I chose festive New Year shimadai chawan—a set of two Raku tea bowls which nest inside one another. The inside of the smaller top bowl is coated with gold leaf; the swirl on its pentagonal foot resembles a crane’s head. The larger bottom bowl is coated with silver leaf, and its foot is hexagonal, resembling a turtle’s shell. Turtles are long-living creatures; mythical cranes are said to live for a thousand years. The hint of their presence on these tea bowls represents the desire for a long and blessed life—an unspoken longing for eternity.

In addition to aesthetics and theological interpretation, I had a practical issue to solve: thirteen guests and only Keith to help. That many guests usually would mean one or two extra bowls of tea would be made in the kitchen and brought out to share, but Keith would be busy with other things. Therefore I decided to use three bowls instead of just two. The gold and silver bowls would be crowned with a black Raku bowl: modeled after simple peasant rice bowls, it represents the beauty and dignity to be found in the simple and the humble. It seemed fittingly Trinitarian to stack three bowls, despite its never being done in Japanese tea ceremony tradition. The black Raku bowl would take the role of Jesus, while gold and silver bowls would represent Father and Holy Spirit.

Humbled, yet honored

As I whisked the first bowl of thick, emerald green matcha in the black Raku bowl, Keith began to read two poems:

He humbled himself

by becoming obedient to the point of death,

even death on a cross.

Therefore God has highly exalted him.

(Philippians 2:8-9a, ESV)

Of course, I realized, the black Raku bowl, the most humble of bowls, had become the omojawan—the most honored bowl—lifted to the top of the stack.

Keith continued to read:

Man’s maker was made man,

that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast;

that the Bread might hunger,

the Fountain thirst,

the Light sleep,

the Way be tired on its journey;

that the Truth might be accused of false witness,

the Teacher be beaten with whips,

the Foundation be suspended on wood;

that Strength might grow weak;

that the Healer might be wounded;

that Life might die. (Augustine of Hippo, Sermons 191.1)

In that moment, my black Raku bowl came to represent Jesus to me—the one who humbled himself and was lifted up, who lived and died to dignify our mortal lives and restore his image in us.

No Waste

While whisking the second bowl of tea using the gold bowl, I started to see gold flecks glimmering on the surface of the tea. The gold and silver leaf coatings are fragile and temporary. Gradually the silver and gold flake off into the tea so that they are consumed by the guests. After only a few uses, these bowls must be sent to a shop in Kyoto where a master craftsman restores the gold and silver leaf. I knew this, but decided to use them anyway.

Uneasy, I set the gold bowl out for the guests to drink. When the tea was gone and I rinsed the bowl clean, I was shocked. What had been a flawless gold surface was now marred with scars inflicted by my tea whisk.

“What a waste,” I started to mutter under my breath, but caught myself. For those who walk the way of tea, there is no such thing as waste, but only continuous outpouring of love for one’s guests, even to the extent of giving them gold and silver to drink.

We too are welcomed to the feast at which God is our host, where there is no sense of waste, no scarcity, only abundance: Christ’s own body, broken and poured out for us. I pray that our guests that day caught a glimpse of God’s extravagant love for them.

By Celia, an OMF Missionary

Will you pray for Japan?  

  • Japanese tea ceremony is an unusual medium for Christian worship in Japan. Pray that missionaries and Japanese churches would be open to different ways of worshipping our creative God.
  • Pray that our minds would be open to seeing God in the midst of the ordinary.
  • Pray that we would trust the Lord that nothing goes to waste, to catch a glimpse of God’s extravagant love for us.

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