Mar
2024

The Womb and the Tomb

FOREWORD: Today I am reposting my very first Easter blog, posted on Holy Saturday, March 30, 2013, in thankfulness for God’s love and faithfulness through these years!  Christ is risen, friends–he is risen indeed!  Hallelujah!

 

It is Holy Saturday—a day of waiting and expectancy, poised between the anguish of Good Friday and the exultant, full-throated joy of Easter.  As part of my Lenten discipline, I have been learning to pray the Rosary.  On Friday, then, I was meditating on the Sorrowful Mysteries of Jesus’ suffering and death—a meditation driven home powerfully and poignantly by the readings and music of Good Friday worship.

The meditations set for Saturdays are the Joyful Mysteries—Gabriel announcing Jesus’ birth to Mary, her visit to Elizabeth, the birth of Jesus, his presentation at the temple as a baby, and Mary and Joseph finding Jesus, now a young boy, in the temple asking questions (see Luke 1:26—2:52).  As I was praying, it suddenly hit me: the womb and the tomb and Jesus coming forth, from each, to new life!

When you go to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, you discover that the spot traditionally recognized as Jesus’ birthplace is in a cave.

The limestone hills of the region are honeycombed with caves, which were used in Jesus’ day for storage, as stables, and as homes, so it may well be that this is indeed the spot.  Startling to think on that today, reflecting on the broken, abused body of Jesus, taken from the cross and laid in another cave: the rock-hewn tomb of Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50-56).

The womb and tomb connections were driven home particularly by a song that has been in my head since Wednesday.  In chapel that day, remembering Jesus’ tomb, we gathered around the baptismal font and heard, beautifully played and sung, this contemporary setting of an old hymn (I have given the original words below).  The line “Standing at this tomb of water” has stayed with me, and meditating on the waters of Mary’s womb has given them a new resonance.  Water of life, water of death; beginning and ending and beginning again.

The power of this image, its depth and richness, are that it is not just a story about long ago and far away.  Jesus defeated death, not just for himself, but for us all.  His triumph over sin, death, hell, and the grave is our triumph, too!  Remember this, friends, when this day of waiting is over, and Easter morning dawns.  Christ is risen!  He is risen indeed!  And so are we.

“Baptism Hymn”

Hast thou said, exalted Jesus,

Take thy cross and follow Me?

Shall the word with terror seize us?

Shall we from the burden flee?

Lord, I’ll take it, Lord, I’ll take it,

And rejoicing, follow Thee.

 

Sweet the sign that thus reminds me,

Savior, of Thy love to me;

Sweeter still the love that binds me

In its deathless bond to Thee.

Oh, what pleasure, oh, what pleasure,

Buried with my Lord to be!

 

While this liquid tomb surveying,

Can I run from mercy’s wave?

Shall I shun its brink, betraying

Feelings worthy of a slave?

No! I’ll enter, No! I’ll enter;

Jesus enter’d Jordan’s wave.

 

Should it rend some fond connection,

Should I suffer shame or loss,

Yet the fragrant, blest reflection:

I have been where Jesus was,

Will revive me, will revive me,

When I faint beneath the cross.

 

Then baptized in love and glory,

Lamb of God, Thy praise I’ll sing,

Loudly with the immortal story

All the harps of heaven shall ring.

Saints and seraphs, Saints and seraphs

Love and worship then will bring!

John Eustace Giles (1805-1875)

Mar
2024

“Crucified With Christ”

File:Jan Lievens, Painting of St Paul, ca. 1627-29. Oil on canvas. Nationalmuseum Sweden.jpg - Wikimedia CommonsThis week, as Christian pastors and laity alike turn in their devotions to reflection on Jesus’ betrayal, trial, torture, and death, it seems appropriate to turn to the witness of the apostle Paul, our first-century peer.

Like us, Paul never met the earthly Jesus–he was, after all, from Tarsus, in what we know today as Turkey, and not from Palestine.  Indeed, unlike the Evangelists Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Paul spends no time recounting the events of Jesus’ life, and even the words of Jesus appear only a few times in his letters (1 Thes 4:15, see Mark 13:26-27 [the second coming]; 1 Cor 7:10, see Matt 19:4-6 [divorce]; 1 Cor 9:14, see Matt 10:9 [wages for ministers]; 1 Cor 11:23-25, see Luke 22:17-20 [Eucharist]).  Paul can go so far as to say,

So then, from this point on we won’t recognize people by human standards [Greek kata sarka; mechanistically, “according to the flesh”]. Even though we used to know Christ by human standards, that isn’t how we know him now (2 Cor 5:16).

And yet–Paul everywhere insists on the title “apostle” (from the Greek apostello)–that is, one sent out by Jesus (23 times in his certainly authentic letters: for example, Rom 1:1; 1 Cor 1:1; 2 Cor 1:1; Gal 1:1; 1 Thess 2:7).  The opening of Galatians is particularly interesting:

From Paul, an apostle who is not sent from human authority or commissioned through human agency, but sent through Jesus Christ and God the Father who raised him from the dead.

The Road to Damascus (Acts 9:1-19)So–when and how did Jesus send him?  In 1 Corinthians 15:1-7, Paul rehearses the tradition regarding Jesus’ resurrection appearances, some of which we also find in our four gospels (appearances to Peter, who, as usual, Paul addresses as Cephas,  the Aramaic form of his name, and to the Twelve) and some otherwise unknown to us (a mass appearance to five hundred, and an appearance to Jesus’ brother James, leader of the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem).  Then, Paul says,

last of all he appeared to me, as if I were born at the wrong time. I’m the least important of the apostles. I don’t deserve to be called an apostle, because I harassed God’s church. I am what I am by God’s grace, and God’s grace hasn’t been for nothing. In fact, I have worked harder than all the others—that is, it wasn’t me but the grace of God that is with me (1 Cor 15:8-10).

Paul regards his encounter with Christ on the Damascus road (Acts 9:1-31; see Paul’s own brief account in Gal 1:11-24) as a resurrection appearance, and his experience as no less real than the experiences of those, like Cephas and James, who had known Jesus in Galilee.  Like them, Paul says, he is a witness to the resurrection:

Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Haven’t I seen Jesus our Lord? (1 Cor 9:1).

Yet the heart of Paul’s gospel is not the resurrection of Jesus, but his death.  Paul must speak, always and everywhere, of the cross.  As he tells the fractious congregation at Corinth,

When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I didn’t come preaching God’s secrets to you like I was an expert in speech or wisdom.  I had made up my mind not to think about anything while I was with you except Jesus Christ, and to preach him as crucified (1 Cor 2:1-2).

undefinedPaul freely acknowledges that this is absurd on its face:

Jews ask for signs, and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, which is a scandal to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. But to those who are called—both Jews and Greeks—Christ is God’s power and God’s wisdom. This is because the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength (1 Cor 1:22-25).

Rather than through the signs and demonstrations of power that Jewish messianism expected, or through the reasoned, careful arguments of Greek philosophy, God has shown Godself in Jesus on the cross: a crucified, naked, dying man.  The wisdom of God and the power of God alike are manifest, paradoxically, in the weakness and foolishness of the cross.  So the person of faith is neither convinced by argument nor swayed by signs, but instead experiences God’s salvation through participation in the death and resurrection of Jesus.

As church historian Diana Butler Bass observes, this same emphasis underlies the language of Christianity’s creeds.  After all, the Latin verb credo, from which we our word “creed” comes, means not (as it is usually translated) “I believe,” but rather “I set my heart upon.” That difference is “a shift from information about to experience of.” 

Therefore, Paul speaks of our being “in Christ,” as though Christ were a country (2 Cor 5:17), or being “clothed with Christ,” as though Christ were an overcoat (Gal 3:27)!  So too when Paul says that the church is the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:12-31), it is no mere word picture.  For Paul, we are quite literally joined to Christ, and so to one another.

 

This means that the death of Jesus on the cross is not just about Jesus (2 Cor 5:14).  As Paul describes his own experience of faith,

 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the life that I now live in my body, I live by faith, indeed, by the faithfulness of God’s Son, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal 2:20).

For Paul, the cross is not a doctrine, but an experience.  That identity with Christ is enacted through baptism:

[D]on’t you know that all who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death?  Therefore, we were buried together with him through baptism into his death, so that just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too can walk in newness of life.  If we were united together in a death like his, we will also be united together in a resurrection like his (Rom 6:3-5).

Good Friday, friends, is not a memorial.  It is an invitation to the death of our former selves, and rebirth as the people God created us to be.  Indeed, Paul says that the cross of Christ marks the end of an old world, and the beginning of a new one:

So then, if anyone is in Christ, that person is part of the new creation. The old things have gone away, and look, new things have arrived!  All of these new things are from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ (2 Cor 5:17-18).

As citizens of that new world, we have a responsibility to those who remain in bondage to the old one, for God has given us “the ministry of reconciliation”:

God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ, by not counting people’s sins against them. He has trusted us with this message of reconciliation (2 Cor 5:18-19).

May this Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday) mark, not only the celebration of Christ’s victory over death, but our own death and rebirth with him.  May we all be, like our brother Paul, “crucified with Christ.”

 

 

 

Mar
2024

Happy Pi Day!

Triple Berry Pi Day Pie In our American date format, today is 3/14, which is also, as it happens, pi to the first two digits–making March 14 Pi Day!  To refresh from high school geography, pi is the ratio between the circumference of a circle and its diameter–so, if you know the radius of a circle, you can use pi to calculate its circumference (2πr) or its area (πr squared: prompting the very bad pun, “No, pie are round; cornbread are square”).  That ratio is, approximately, 3.14159–although mathematicians have now calculated its value out 62.8 trillion places with no repetition (here are the first million digits), making pi an irrational number.  

No photo description available.

Mathematicians have used the Greek letter π to represent this value since 1706, when Welsh mathematician William Jones had the idea, although its use was popularized by the Swiss polymath Leonhard Euler.  However, ancient people already knew that this value was just a bit larger than three:

The ancient Babylonians calculated the area of a circle by taking 3 times the square of its radius, which gave a value of pi = 3. One Babylonian tablet (ca. 1900–1680 BC) indicates a value of 3.125 for π, which is a closer approximation.

The Rhind Papyrus (ca.1650 BC) gives us insight into the mathematics of ancient Egypt. The Egyptians calculated the area of a circle by a formula that gave the approximate value of 3.1605 for π.

The first calculation of π was done by Archimedes of Syracuse (287–212 BC), one of the greatest mathematicians of the ancient world. Archimedes approximated the area of a circle by using the Pythagorean Theorem to find the areas of two regular polygons: the polygon inscribed within the circle and the polygon within which the circle was circumscribed. Since the actual area of the circle lies between the areas of the inscribed and circumscribed polygons, the areas of the polygons gave upper and lower bounds for the area of the circle. Archimedes knew that he had not found the value of π but only an approximation within those limits. In this way, Archimedes showed that π is between 3 1/7 and 3 10/71.

So, why is the Bible Guy going on and on about pi?  As it happens, this ratio does pop up in the Bible–in the dimensions and volume given for the bronze sea. 

The sea (2 Chr 4:2-5//1 Kgs 7:23-26) was a huge bronze basin of fresh water, placed in the temple forecourt to the south of the altar (2 Chr 4:10). It was supported on the backs of twelve bronze oxen, arranged so that three faced in each direction–symbolizing, perhaps, the twelve tribes of Israel.  The NRSVue follows the KJV in calling this basin the “molten” sea (the Hebrew is mutsaq)– meaning that the sea was cast out of molten bronze, as opposed to being beaten with hammers out of a thin bronze sheet, which was the way bronze bowls and vessels were usually made (CEB has “a tank of cast metal”).  The sheer size of the sea makes it unlikely that it was cast in one piece, however.

Chronicles and Kings give the same figures for the height, diameter, and circumference of the bronze sea: fifteen feet across, seven and a half feet high, and forty-five feet around.  Given the dimensions of this circular vessel, the Israelites (like the Babylonians) put the value of pi at 3. However, the volume of the sea in Chronicles is three thousand baths, or 15,000 gallons: a thousand baths, or 5,000 gallons, more than that given in 1 Kings. While some scholars have proposed that the difference can be accounted for by different shapes imagined for the sea (a hemisphere in Kings, a cylinder in Chronicles), it is more likely either that Chronicles is exaggerating (as it is prone to doing!), or that the Chronicler’s standard measure of volume is different from that presumed by his source.

Certainly this was the case for the standard measure of length, the cubit.  In Chronicles, the dimensions of the temple are given “in cubits of the old standard” (2 Chr 3:3, NRSVue). Evidently, the length of the cubit in the Chronicler’s time was not the same as it had been in Solomon’s. A likely explanation is that the Persians had imposed a new standard, different from Israel’s traditional units of measurement (for another indication of a longer, Persian-period cubit, see Ezek 40:5 and 43:13). For his readers to visualize Solomon’s temple properly, the Chronicler needs to remind them that Solomon used the old cubit, not the new Persian standard.


Chronicles goes on to describe briefly the ten smaller basins which accompanied the monumental sea (2 Chr 4:6//1 Kgs 7:38-39; the detailed description of the wheeled stands for the basins in 1 Kgs 7:27-37 does not appear in Chronicles). The purpose of both the basins and the sea, we are told, is for ritual cleansing: the smaller basins are for washing the sacrifices, while the sea is for the ablutions of the priests. However, as the lip of the basin would have been around ten feet off the ground, that seems unlikely.  In the Talmud, the rabbis get around this problem by providing the sea with spigots, fashioned by the priestly craftsman Ben Kattin (see for example b. Yoma 25b)!  

the-spirit-of-god-hovers-over-the-face-of-the-waters.jpeg | Local News | clevelandjewishnews.com
The bronze sea was far too big for any practical use.  Much more likely is a symbolic function, indicated already by the name given to this huge bronze cauldron: the sea. In the ancient Near East, the sea was regarded as a symbol of the primordial chaos that ruled before the gods imposed order on the world. The authority of the creator god over the waters of chaos was emphasized in myth and poetry, and symbolized concretely by placing a large vessel of fresh water in the temple precincts. In Babylon, this vessel was called the apsu, or the waters of the abyss. As the waters of chaos beneath the earth were also considered the source of the earth’s fruitfulness, these temple vessels further symbolized the god’s control over fertility.

The LORD’s victory and supremacy over the waters of the sea is acclaimed throughout the Hebrew Bible, especially in the Psalms (see, for example, Psalms 24 and 46).  Most likely, then, the sea represented the LORD’s victory over the waters of chaos, and–because of that victory–the LORD’s control over the life-giving waters of fertility.

AFTERWORD:

I would be seriously remiss if I did not also mention that Sunday is St. Patrick’s Day.  For Patrick’s legend, I commend you to my blog post on the saint.  

St. Patrick’s Breastplate” is a classic expression of Celtic spirituality (perhaps best known from this familiar hymn), and a full-throated celebration of the Triune God.  Here is the prayer in full, translated into English verse by Cecil Frances Alexander in 1889:

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.

I arise today
Through the strength of Christ’s birth with His baptism,
Through the strength of His crucifixion with His burial,
Through the strength of His resurrection with His ascension,
Through the strength of His descent for the judgment of doom.

I arise today
Through the strength of the love of cherubim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the service of archangels,
In the hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
In the prayers of patriarchs,
In the predictions of prophets,
In the preaching of apostles,
In the faith of confessors,
In the innocence of holy virgins,
In the deeds of righteous men.

I arise today, through
The strength of heaven,
The light of the sun,
The radiance of the moon,
The splendor of fire,
The speed of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of the sea,
The stability of the earth,
The firmness of rock.

I arise today, through
God’s strength to pilot me,
God’s might to uphold me,
God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me,
God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me,
God’s hand to guard me,
God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to save me
From snares of devils,
From temptation of vices,
From everyone who shall wish me ill,
afar and near.

I summon today
All these powers between me and those evils,
Against every cruel and merciless power
that may oppose my body and soul,
Against incantations of false prophets,
Against black laws of pagandom,
Against false laws of heretics,
Against craft of idolatry,
Against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
Against every knowledge that corrupts man’s body and soul;
Christ to shield me today
Against poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against wounding,
So that there may come to me an abundance of reward.

Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today
Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
Through belief in the Threeness,
Through confession of the Oneness
of the Creator of creation.

Beannachtai Na Feile Padraig Oraibh, friends–May the blessing of St. Patrick’s Day be upon you!

Mar
2024

Proving Your Faith

Judge banging judge's gavel. Law Lord wearing gown using a hammer for attention and verdict, justice judgment at courts of law Stock Photo | Adobe Stock

When I was a young Christian, I remember covering my high school notebook with Jesus People slogans: “One Way,” “Jesus Saves,” “PTL” (Praise the Lord), “In case of Rapture, this notebook will be abandoned.”  One of those sayings has came back to me powerfully this week: “If you were put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”

For Iranian Christians seeking asylum in Europe, that has become a very real question.  A recent Religious News Service article describes what Christians in Iran face:

The Islamic Republic forbids anyone born Muslim from converting to another religion, with violations punishable by arrest and even death. There are about 1.25 million Christians in Iran and those born Christian are allowed to practice their beliefs in the shadows, but converts face increasing persecution, including mass arrests last summer. In addition to government pressure, converts are often exiled from families or forced into Islamic marriages, according to Open Doors International, a watchdog monitoring global Christian persecution.

But, in order to be given asylum, converts who have fled to Europe from Iran must first prove in court that they are indeed Christians.  According to a 2021 study published in the Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences, religious conversions to Christianity are the “most frequent reason for asylum claims by Iranians” in Germany and the United Kingdom:

The U.K.’s grant rate for Iranian asylum-seekers is 80%. In comparison, data from the German government shows that just 22.3% of Iranian asylum claims in 2019 were successful in first decisions, dropping to 19.9% on appeal. The study, based on 36 asylum appeal hearings in Germany, found that judges largely expect applicants to show church attendance is not motivated by a desire to form social bonds. As a result, joining an Iranian-only congregation with Farsi liturgy could be held against applicants — even though many do not know English. 

In the United Kingdom, the increasing number of asylum-seekers claiming to be Christian converts has generated a Conservative backlash.  After an Afghan refugee granted asylum as a Christian convert attacked 12 people with acid, right-wing provocateur Nigel Farage blamed the Church of England: “How many hundreds or thousands of people who come from Muslim countries, who now claim they are Christian and have been allowed to stay?  We must be mad.”

The Rev. Mark Wallace, the priest at St. Peter's Colchester Church. (RNS photo/Hanna Vioque)

So: how do you prove that you really are a Christian?  What evidence can be offered?  The Rev. Mark Wallace, a priest at St. Peter’s Colchester who has testified on behalf of Iranian Christians seeking asylum, observes,

“The things that one does to articulate a genuine Christian faith are very difficult objectively to prove. So much of the question of faith is about our relationship between us and God and that can’t be verified in one sense in court.” . . . There are, however, certain behaviors that strongly indicate authenticity, Wallace stresses. Commitment to regular worship, to serving others, to being kind and sacrificially generous is a “good demonstration of someone’s commitment.”  

Worship, service, kindness, generosity: according to Rev. Wallace, these are evidence of an authentic faith.  Jesus would agree, friends!  In the Sermon on the Mount, he urges,

You are the light of the world. A city on top of a hill can’t be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a basket. Instead, they put it on top of a lampstand, and it shines on all who are in the house.  In the same way, let your light shine before people, so they can see the good things you do and praise your Father who is in heaven (Matthew 5:14-16).

Faith not only can be, but must be, evidenced by “the good things you do”–by deeds of love and service.  Indeed, Jesus offers kindness as the guiding principle for our conduct: “Therefore, you should treat people in the same way that you want people to treat you; this is the Law and the Prophets” (Matthew 7:12).

This makes me wonder: confronted by the challenge Iranian converts now face in European courts, how would American Christians fare? Would our service, kindness, and generosity serve as a “good demonstration” of our faith?

Sadly, when most people think of the church in America today, kindness and service are not what come to mind: as a survey conducted by the Barna Group demonstrates:

Note that among non-Christians surveyed, 44% said that churches in their area were known, not for their confession of Christ, their kindness, or their generosity, but “for the things they are against.”  Little wonder that non-Christians characterized churches they knew as “Judgmental” (51%) and “Irrelevant to me” (59%).

Postcards From Babylon with Brian Zahnd — Can I Say This At Church PodcastEvangelical pastor and author Brian Zahnd is concerned that much of American Christianity today is characterized, not by service or kindness, but by fear and anger–even hatred.  Challenging his fellow pastors and leaders, Zahnd says,

You are forming your people in anger and hate. You are helping to intensify their capacity to hate other people. You are giving them permission to carry around this permanent rage (in Tim Alberta, The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2023), 293)

Nex Benedict death: Police video shows non-binary teen describe fight in high school bathroom | CNN

Sadly, a major target of that hatred has been people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender.  Nonbinary teen Nex Benedict of Owasso, Oklahoma died last week after being beaten by bullies in a high school bathroom.  Investigations (including one by the U.S. Department of Education) are ongoing, but many have expressed concern that actions by the Oklahoma legislature (prohibiting children from receiving gender-affirming medical care,  prohibiting the use of nonbinary gender markers on birth certificates, prohibiting transgender girls and women from playing on female sports teams, and preventing transgender children from using school bathrooms that correspond to their gender identity) contributed to the hostility and bullying Nex and other transgender youth have endured

In a Public Forum in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, State Senator Tom Woods was asked to respond to these concerns.  He said

We are a Republican state, a supermajority, in the House and Senate. I represent a constituency that doesn’t want that filth in Oklahoma. We are a religious state, and we are going to fight it to keep that filth out of the state of Oklahoma because we are a Christian state. We are a moral state.

Later, challenged by his peers (including Senate Pro Tem Greg Treat), Sen. Woods issued a statement (not an apology):

Firstly, I want to say that a child losing their life is horrible. They were a victim of bullying and that is never okay. It is always a tragedy when someone loses their life. I said that Friday and I mean that still today. I hope anyone struggling in a similar position gets the help they need as soon as possible.

I also want to say that I stand behind what I believe in. The groups and individuals who push gender reassignment on children in our schools, and anyone else who is trying to normalize behavior that shouldn’t be tolerated, is unacceptable in my mind.

If we were put on trial for following Jesus, would there be enough evidence to convict us?  Or would the evidence instead prove that our faith was a facade, a flimsy cover for our hatred, fear, and the quest for power over others?

Feb
2024

Hearts and Flowers and. . . Ashes?

No photo description available.Once again (it happened in 2018, too, remember!) Ash Wednesday falls on Valentines Day.  Certainly the contrast– the sweetest and most sentimental of secular holidays juxtaposed with the grimmest and most lugubrious of Christian fast days–is striking, and may prompt us to wonder why the church should be such a downer–so determined, it seems, to quash anything  fun.

The Old Testament reading for Ash Wednesday, Joel 2:1-2, 12-17, certainly seems to fit that killjoy perception:

Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! (Joel 2:1-2).

Then again, the relentless glee of what my colleague Andrew Purves scornfully termed “happy clappy worship” can be no less oppressive and unwelcoming!  I still remember a courageous sermon preached in the PTS chapel, observing that our community was a very hard place to be if you were sad. People who were hurting or depressed were likely either to be ignored, or worse, to be jollied: to be told to cheer up and trust in Jesus—as though sorrow and pain were somehow a denial of their faith.

As Donald Gowan ruefully observes,

Christian worship tends to be all triumph, all good news (even the confession of sin is not a very awesome experience because we know the assurance of pardon is coming; it’s printed in the bulletin). And what does that say to those who, at the moment, know nothing of triumph?” (Don Gowan, The Triumph of Faith in Habakkuk [Atlanta: John Knox, 1976], 38).

But true repentance leading to new life requires lament: not only our own authentic lament at the realization of our sin, but also providing space for, and attending to, the laments of others.

Walter Brueggemann writes that the loss of lament in worship means “the loss of genuine covenant interaction because the second party to the covenant (the petitioner) has become voiceless or has a voice that is permitted to speak only praise and doxology” (Walter Brueggemann, “The Costly Loss of Lament,” Journal for the Study of the Old Testament 36 [1986]: 60).

No wonder Joel urges the priests, “Gather the elders and all the inhabitants of the land to the house of the LORD your God, and cry out to the LORD” (Joel 1:14). By stifling lament, we shut off the genuine interaction that a living relationship with God presumes.

In his famous lament, the “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. told “my Christian and Jewish brothers”

I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate . . . who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice. . .  Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

Of  course we prefer the easy road that avoids confrontation, the “negative peace which is the absence of tension.”  But for Joel as for Dr. King, true peace doesn’t come so easily!

Yet even now, says the LORD, return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing (Joel 2:12-13).

Joel calls upon his community to demonstrate their whole-hearted desire to return to the Lord, and their deep sorrow at past wrong-doing, “with fasting, with weeping, with mourning.” This can be no superficial demonstration: “rend your heart,” the LORD demands, “and not your clothing.”

The setting for much of Joel’s remarkable book of prophecy is a locust plague, which has decimated Judah.  After the swarm has passed, when the locusts all are gone, reassurance is offered to the community, the “children of Zion” (Joel 2:23), who twice are promised, “my people shall never again be put to shame” (Joel 2:26, 27).

But the people also learn that they are part of a larger community than they had known.

After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone;
        your sons and your daughters will prophesy,
        your old men will dream dreams,
        and your young men will see visions.
In those days, I will also pour out my
    spirit on the male and female slaves.

I will give signs in the heavens and on the earth—blood and fire and columns of smoke (Joel 2:28-30).

In this passage—the most familiar passage from this book, quoted by Peter in his sermon at Pentecost (Acts 2:17-21)—the “children of Zion,” called “my people” by the Lord, include not just the adult men of the worshipping congregation, but women, children, the aged—even slaves.

Joel reminds us that we too belong to a larger community than we had known.  We may have forgotten that—I confess that often I have forgotten that.  We succumb to the temptation to define our community too narrowly, as including only those like us, whether ethnically or ideologically or theologically.

May this Valentines Day/Ash Wednesday, and the days of Lent that follow, reawaken us to our connections to one another.  May we give one another space to lament, to grieve, to disagree.  May we begin to listen to one another—not necessarily to agree, but to listen, to learn, and to understand. God’s promises of deliverance, of vindication, of freedom from shame cannot be experienced by us separately and severally. They are not offered to us in that way. We will find them together—all of us—or we will not find them at all.

Feb
2024

Credo

In this Black History Month, I am remembering and celebrating W. E. B. Du Bois (1868-1963), a pivotal figure in American history.  Du Bois was an educator (serving as a professor at Fisk University and Atlanta University), author (The Souls of Black Folk, Dusk of Dawnand his posthumously published Autobiography), and a tireless activist and advocate for racial equality (he was the founder of the Niagara Movement, a parent of  the NAACP).

I only recently learned of another important work of Du Bois: his prose poem “Credo,” published in the New York Independent 57 (Oct. 6, 1904): 787.

I learned of this piece through a concert at my home church, St. Paul’s UMC, by Archipelago, an extraordinary vocal ensemble conducted by Caron Daley of Duquesne University. The climax of the evening was a wonderful choral setting of DuBois’ “Credo” by African American composer Margaret Bonds (1913-1972).  Although she composed this piece in 1965, it was lost, and only recently rediscovered and published.

Several features of Du Bois’ “Credo” stand out to this Bible Guy and United Methodist minister.  First is Du Bois’ understanding, already in 1904, that God “made of one blood all the races that dwell on the earth.”

I had attributed this insight, that in light of Genesis all the people of the earth are one human family, to African American theologian George Kelsey (1910-1996), who was the Henry Anson Buttz Professor emeritus of Christian Ethics at Drew University, where he taught for 24 years, and who was a mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. at Morehouse College.

In his book Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man (New York: Scribner, 1965),  Kelsey wrote:

All men are equal because God has bestowed upon all the very same dignity. He has created them in His own image and herein lies their dignity. Human dignity is not an achievement, nor is it an intrinsic quality; it is a gift, a bestowal. Christian faith asserts that all men are equally human; all are creatures and all are potentially spiritual sons of God (Kelsey 1965, 87).

But already in 1904, Du Bois wrote that “all men are brothers, varying through Time and Opportunity, in form and gift and feature, but differing in no essential feature, and alike in soul.”  Further, Du Bois recognized that affirming our common humanity in no way meant settling for some bland homogeneity.  Du Bois fearlessly and joyously affirms “the Negro Race” and “pride of race and lineage and self. . . so deep as to scorn injustice to other selves.”

John Wesley (1703–1791), as an Old Man

Methodism’s founder John Wesley would applaud Du Bois’ statement that all humanity shares “in the possibility of infinite development,” although of course he would insist that it is through the grace of God and the working of the Spirit that this is so.  Further Wesley, who urged his preachers never to be “triflingly employed,” would agree fully with Du Bois’ statement that “Work is Heaven, Idleness is Hell”!

When I heard this piece performed, one part of Du Bois’ “Credo” deeply troubled me–and troubles me still:

I was reminded of a time in chapel at PTS, when an African American student addressed a goodly part of her prayer to Satan, binding him and rejecting his power and presence.  At the time, I objected to this: surely, our prayers should be addressed to God alone!  But reading Du Bois’ “Credo,” I wonder how much of my refusal to acknowledge the Enemy’s power and influence is a reflection of my own privilege?  How often have I been confronted with and threatened by the power of evil in the way that Du Bois describes, and that my Black sisters and brothers face each and every day?

In his City of God (XI, 9), Augustine wrote, “For evil has no positive nature; but the loss of good has received the name ‘evil.’”  But I am persuaded that Augustine’s notion that evil is merely the absence of good is far too weak: evil is real, a power and presence in our world.  So I acknowledge the importance and symbolic power of the idea of Satan.  But I am also persuaded that there is good reason that the historic creeds of the church, unlike Du Bois’ “Credo,” do not confess a “belief” in “the Devil and His Angels.”  We are not dualistic bi-theists, friends.  Jesus tells his followers,

“I saw Satan fall from heaven like lightning.  Look, I have given you authority to crush snakes and scorpions underfoot. I have given you authority over all the power of the enemy. Nothing will harm you.  Nevertheless, don’t rejoice because the spirits submit to you. Rejoice instead that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:18-20).

I am persuaded that one huge problem with American Christianity is the degree to which we have behaved as though the Enemy was as powerful in this world as the Lord, to the end that we have embraced a macho warrior “Christ” that bears little resemblance to the Jesus of the Gospels, and a militant “Christianity” likewise divorced from the biblical or historical Church.  Further, we are far too ready to project that dualism onto our political issues and adversaries, so that those with whom we disagree become, often quite literally, demonic.  In his book The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism (San Francisco: Harper, 2023), Tim Alberta describes the preaching of Greg Locke, leader of the Global Mission Bible Church in Mt. Joliet, Tennessee: “He called Democrats ‘God-denying demons’ and said, ‘You cannot be a Christian and vote Democrat in this nation'” (p. 227).

It is worth taking a little time to recognize the way that the Hebrew word satan and the proper name Satan are used in Scripture.  In the New Testament, “Satan” is used thirty-five times as the personal name of a personal devil and spiritual adversary.  In the Hebrew Bible, however, the Hebrew term satan often appears with reference to a human enemy (satan is translated “adversary” in the NRSV of 1 Sam 29:4; 2 Sam 19:22; 1 Kgs 5:4; 11:14, 23, 25; and as “accuser” in Ps 109:6).

Satan is definitely used to designate a heavenly being in three places. The first involves the angel of the LORD, who becomes for a time a satan (the NRSV reads “adversary”) to the prophet Balaam (Num 22:22, 32). In the other two cases, Job 1–2 and Zechariah 3:1-2, satan appears with the article, as a title: hassatan, or “the satan.” In both places, the NRSV (following the KJV) used the proper name “Satan;” however, the NRSVue has a much better rendering of the Hebrew: “the adversary.”  In each case, the satan is a member of the LORD’s heavenly court, and functions as a kind of celestial prosecuting attorney. So, in the book of Job, the satan accuses the righteous Job of serving the LORD out of self-interest, because God has always blessed him.  “But stretch out your hand now, and touch all that he has,” the satan claims, “and he will curse you to your face” (Job 1:11). Similarly, until rebuked by the Lord, the satan stands ready in Zechariah 3 to accuse the high priest Joshua.

This brings us to 1 Chronicles 21:1. Here, instead of hassatan (“the satan”) the Hebrew text reads simply “satan.” Most interpreters take this to mean that Satan here is a proper name–the first such occurrence in Scripture, and the only one in the Hebrew Bible.  However, it is also possible to translate the term as “an adversary” (so, for example, Sara Japhet, Chronicles, pp. 374-375; and Paul Redditt, 1&2 Chronicles, p. 147). In that case, some nameless, human advisor would be responsible for influencing David’s decision. Favoring this mundane reading is the absence of any other trace of a personal Satan in Chronicles.

On the other hand, the Greek Septuagint of 1 Chronicles 21:1 reads diabolos here, a Greek word generally translated as “devil” in the New Testament. This is not definitive, as the Septuagint uses diabolos three times with reference to a human enemy (the nameless accuser in Ps 109:6; Haman in Esther 7:1; 8:1; and Antiochus in 1 Macc 1:36). But elsewhere, diabolos is used in all the Hebrew references to a heavenly, supernatural satan, suggesting that the figure in 1 Chronicles was also understood by the Greek translators to be a supernatural adversary.  Other elements of the supernatural in 1 Chronicles 21 (David’s conversation with God through the prophet Gad in 1 Chr 21:8-13; the angel with a drawn sword and the fire from heaven in 1 Chr 21:18-27) further support the likelihood that Satan, too, is a supernatural being here.

A modern reader may find it odd that conducting a census should be regarded as an evil act. But David’s census of “men available for military service” (1 Chr 21:5) shows an unwillingness to trust God to defend and deliver Israel.  In Chronicles, David is enticed by Satan, yields to that temptation, and carries out an act he knows to be wrong–an act, furthermore, that his general Joab warned him against (1 Chr 21:3).

Satan’s temptation strikes at David’s desires and weaknesses: particularly, it seems, at his pride. Joab’s response to David’s command is a rebuke to such overweening pride: “May the Lord increase his people a hundred times! Sir, aren’t you the king, and aren’t they all your servants? Why do you want to do this? Why bring guilt on Israel?” (1 Chr 21:3). David’s need to count his people, like the compulsion of a miser to count his gold, speaks at once of possessive pride, and of neurotic insecurity. God has promised to preserve David’s kingdom. Why then should David worry about how many swords he can place in the field? In Chronicles, David in his righteousness was a model for the Chronicler’s community. So also, in his pride and rebellion, David stands as a warning. If even David could fall, and had to face the consequences of his failure, the Chronicler’s community needed to be all the more attentive and obedient to the will of the Lord.

When, as in De Bois’ “Credo” and in Chronicles, the Devil stands for the deadly and seductive power of evil, this biblical image is appropriate, indeed necessary.  But when we exalt Satan as a god to rival Christ, and when we demonize our earthly adversaries, denying their humanity, we fall guilty of idolatry, and forget the command of our Lord,

I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous (Matthew 5:44-45).

Jan
2024

Not Just Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day | MovieGeekBlog

FOREWORD:   I am reposting this (lightly edited) blog from two years ago.  My apologies for not posting yet in this new year–I contracted COVID at our Christmas Eve service, and am really only now getting my bearings!  Thankfully, in the Tuell household we are all vaccinated and boosted, and so none of us was ever in real danger–but make no mistake, friends.  The new COVID variant is even more virulent, and bodes to be just as deadly, as the last: here in Allegheny County, it is killing about a person a day.  If you are not yet vaccinated, or have not yet gotten the booster, please go to your doctor or drug store IMMEDIATELY: not just for yourself, but for your family and your community.

 

In the United States (and Canada, too), Friday February 2 is  Groundhog Day. We will wait with trepidation to see if a groundhog (in Pennsylvania, THE Groundhog, Punxsatawney Phil) sees his shadow–because if he does, then there will be six more weeks of winter.  Where in the world could this bizarre custom have come from?

February 2 marks the quarter-year: midwinter, as Hallowe’en is midautumn.  Celts called this day Imbolc,  and identified it as the time when ewes begin to give milk, in preparation for spring lambing.  According to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, shepherds in Roman times also celebrated a midwinter festival on February 2.

Protecting Your Fruit Trees from Frost Damage | Organic Gardening Blog – Grow OrganicThis day, in the dead of winter, is associated with hope for the return of warmer weather–but not too soon.  A “false spring” after all may be followed by a killing frost, wiping out trees that have budded too early, and threatening lambs born out of season.  Therefore, sunny weather on this midwinter day (so that a groundhog can see its shadow!) is held to be a bad omen of more bleak days ahead, while cold and cloudy weather appropriate to the season augurs the swift return of sunshine and greenery.

In addition to its ancient folk connections, this day also has a biblical warrant: by the Western Church’s reckoning, February 2 comes forty days after Christmas, the celebration of Jesus’ birth.  Leviticus 12:2-8 stipulates the rites of purification for cleansing from the ritual uncleanness caused by childbirth: for a baby boy, 7 days of impurity, followed by an additional 33 days during which the mother “must not touch anything holy or enter the sacred area” (Lev 12:4).

Luke 2:22-40 records that Joseph and Mary, as observant first-century Jews, made the pilgrimage to the Jerusalem temple with their son Jesus “[w]hen the time came for their ritual cleansing, in accordance with the Law from Moses” (Luke 2:22): that is, forty days after Jesus’ birth.  In Roman Catholicism prior to Vatican II, this day was accordingly called “the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin;” today it is known as “the Presentation of the Lord.”

Title: Presentation in the Temple [Click for larger image view]This tapestry depicting Luke’s scene is from the Abbey Church of St. Walpurga in Virginia Dale, Colorado.  The Order of St. Walpurga was established in the 11th century in Bavaria.  The nuns of that order fled to the United States in 1935 to escape the Nazis, and settled in the Colorado mountains. The walls of their church are lined with tapestries like this one of the Presentation of the Lord, all inspired by biblical texts.

Mary is in the center, followed by Joseph (in the slouch hat).  Joseph carries the two turtledoves that Leviticus 12:8 says a poor family may offer instead of a sheep as a sacrifice (see Luke 2:24).

Also pictured is Simeon, who had been promised “that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26).  Simeon holds baby Jesus, praises God for him, and prays a beautiful prayer, called (after its opening words in Latin) the Nunc dimittis:

Now, master, let your servant go in peace according to your word,
     because my eyes have seen your salvation.
 You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples.
 It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles
    and a glory for your people Israel (Luke 2:29-32).

The Latin inscription on the St. Walpurga abbey tapestry refers to this prayer: Lux ad revelationem Gentium means “a light for revelation to the Gentiles.”  Simeon’s prayer in turn alludes to several passages in Isaiah (see Isa 42:6; 49:6; 51:4; 60:3), but particularly to Isaiah 49:5-6, from the second Servant Song:

And now the Lord has decided—
    the one who formed me from the womb as his servant—
    to restore Jacob to God,
    so that Israel might return to him.
    Moreover, I’m honored in the Lord’s eyes;
    my God has become my strength.
He said: It is not enough, since you are my servant,
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to bring back the survivors of Israel.
    Hence, I will also appoint you as light to the nations
    so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.

The salvation offered through Jesus is for everyone.

After this prayer of thanksgiving, Simeon gives to Mary a much more somber word:

This boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed (Luke 2:34-35).

Michelangelo's Pieta | High Renaissance History and CharacteristicsAlthough Jesus has come for everyone, not everyone will receive him.  Simeon’s words prefigure Jesus’ coming rejection–his trial, condemnation, and crucifixion, and so Mary’s coming sorrow: “And a sword will pierce your innermost being too” (Luke 2:35).  In this season after Epiphany, we rightly remember that Jesus’ way leads us to God’s light–but that way must pass through the darkness of the cross.  Simeon offers no illusions that God’s salvation comes easily, without opposition or conflict.

The fifth person pictured on the St. Walpurga tapestry is Anna, an 84 year old widow who “never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day (Luke 2:37).  Luke does not quote her words, as he does Simeon’s.  But he does tell us that her words are directed, not just privately to the family, but publicly, to everyone in earshot:  “She approached at that very moment and began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).  In Luke’s gospel, from the very first, anyone with eyes to see and a heart to believe knows who Jesus is!

La Candlemas: history and curiosities

February 2 has one more traditional church connection–and one more name!  In the Western Christian calendar, this midwinter day is often called Candlemas, and was traditionally when the candles used in the coming year were blessed.  Friends, may we remember on this day of light and hope that Jesus leads us in the way of “[God’s] salvation . . . a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.”

AFTERWORD:

A prayer for this day, from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers copyright © 2002 Consultation on Common Texts admin. Augsburg Fortress.

God of love,
you refine silver and shelter the sparrow’s nest.
Accept the prayers we bring this day,
for you know all that tests and troubles us.
Embrace our needs in your blessing,
so that we may be sustained,
even in times of trial.
Strong and mighty God, Father of our Lord Jesus,
the presentation of your Son in the temple
was his first entrance into the place of sacrifice.
Grant that, trusting in his offering upon the cross
to forgive our sins and uphold us in the time of trial,
we may sing your praises
and live in the light of your salvation, Jesus Christ. Amen.

 

Dec
2023

Hark How All the Welkin Rings

Stained glass window featuring Charles Wesley from Grace United Methodist Church in Atlanta, part of the United Methodist Church Global Mission Center. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

In 1739, Charles Wesley’s “Hymn for Christmas-Day” was included in the first Methodist hymnal, “Hymns and Sacred Poems.”  It began, “‘Hark how all the welkin rings, ‘Glory to the King of kings.'”

I confess that I had to look up “welkin”!  The online resource Wiktionary  traces this twelfth century English word from the Middle English welken (“cloud; sky; weather (?); heavens; (astronomy) cosmic elementary, planetary, or celestial sphere; all the spheres beyond the elementary region, including the primum mobile”), Old English wolcn (cloud), Proto-West Germanic *wolkn (cloud), and ultimately, from Proto-Indo-European *welg- (damp; wet).  So–Charles had in mind a shout of praise that would make the heavens ring!

Learning to Preach from George Whitefield | Preaching Source

In 1753, evangelist George Whitfield proposed an alteration to the first line, which Charles’ brother John, who was editing the hymnal at the time, accepted.  Whitfield’s altered wording, and so the hymn’s new title, stuck.  The result was our familiar carol, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.”

The stirring, familiar tune of this carol is also not original.  It comes from “the second chorus of Felix Mendelssohn’s (PHH 279) Festgesang (Op. 68) for male voices and brass. . . first performed in 1840 at the Gutenberg Festival in Leipzig”–nearly a century after Charles wrote his carol!

Some other lines from Charles Wesley’s original hymn have been altered in the 1989 United Methodist Hymnal, where the words to Charles’ Christmas hymn are:

Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King:
peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations, rise,
join the triumph of the skies;
with th’angelic hosts proclaim,
“Christ is born in Bethlehem!”

Refrain:
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the newborn King”

Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
late in time behold him come,
offspring of the Virgin’s womb:
veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail th’incarnate Deity,
pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel. [Refrain]

Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
born that we no more may die,
born to raise us from the earth,
born to give us second birth. [Refrain]

As Ask The UMC, a ministry of United Methodist Communications, observes, Charles Wesley’s original first line “was more biblically accurate. The Bible nowhere records angels singing!” Sure enough, in Luke’s gospel, when the angelic army announces Christ’s birth to the shepherds, they do not sing at all:

Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.  The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said,“Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors” (Luke 2:8-14).

Mostly, the more recent alterations to Charles Wesley’s carol clarify that women as well as men are included.  So, in the second verse, Wesley’s “pleased as Man with Men to dwell” becomes “pleased with us in flesh to dwell”–less euphonious, perhaps, but theologically sound as well as satisfactorily and properly inclusive.

Just as Wesley’s first stanza alludes to Luke 2, his third stanza alludes to Malachi 4:1-3 (3:19-21 in the Hebrew), where the coming day of the LORD is described as a day of fiery judgment upon the wicked oppressors of God’s people.  But Malachi also declares that that day will be a time of renewal and blessing for God’s faithful, who will be rejuvenated and filled with exuberant joy:

But the sun of righteousness will rise on those revering my name;
        healing will be in its wings
            so that you will go forth and jump about like calves in the stall (Mal 4:2).

For Malachi, the LORD is “the sun of righteousness,” who rises with “healing. . . in its wings.” The Greek translation of Jewish Scripture, the Septuagint, as well as the Latin Vulgate, have “his wings” (see the KJV), but the Hebrew text and the Targum (the Aramaic version of this text used in early synagogues) have “her wings”–probably with reference to “righteousness,” which is a feminine noun in Hebrew.

For good (for example, Ps 84:11) or for ill (see Ezek 8:16), images of the LORD as the sun, and associations of the sunrise with God’s presence (the Jerusalem temple faced east) are fairly common in Scripture.  Indeed, mosaics of the solar chariot (associated in Greco-Roman religion with Apollo or with Sol Invictus) appear in early synagogues at Beth Alpha (shown above), Naaran, Hamath Tiberius, Yafa, and Isfiya.

In Malachi, depicting God’s coming as the sunrise represents a positive counter to the destructive image of the day of the LORD “burning like an oven” (4:1): the coming of the LORD may burn, but it also heals.

For Charles Wesley, Jesus is the “Sun of Righteousness”!   The third stanza of his carol originally read:

Hail the Heav’nly Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and Life to All he brings,
Ris’n with Healing in his Wings.

Mild he lays his Glory by,
Born—that Man no more may die,
Born—to raise the Sons of Earth,
Born—to give them Second Birth.

In the United Methodist Hymnal, the latter part of this verse becomes

Mild he lays his Glory by,
born that we no more may die,
born to raise us from the earth,
born to give us second birth.

While I am fully in favor of the use of inclusive language in the United Methodist Hymnal, our editors have erred theologically, I believe, in rendering the next-to-last line of this glorious hymn as “Born to raise us from the earth”–something like “born to raise we folk of earth” would have been far better.  Escape from the earth was not Charles Wesley’s intent here!  Instead,  because Jesus has come to us as one of us, we earthlings, we “sons of earth” in Charles Wesley’s admittedly sexist rendering, may be raised to new life (the “second birth”) right here.  Indeed, as Charles’ brother J0hn insisted, we may even attain holiness of heart and life here and now, in this world that Christ has come to save.  That is an important distinction, I believe.

Let us join together, friends, as God’s redeemed and reconciled people, in praise to our Lord Jesus!  Let us, as Malachi wrote, jubilantly “jump about like calves in the stall,” and may our shouts make the welkin ring!

AFTERWORD:

This Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Advent, is also Christmas Eve!  So let this fourth Advent blog also be my Christmas greeting to one and all!  Merry Christmas, friends–God bless us every one!

Dec
2023

Rejoice in the Lord Always!

Advent 3rd Sunday: Joy – Peacefully Harsh

In the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, the third Sunday in Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, after the first word in the Latin introit for this day, Gaudete in Domino semper (“Rejoice in the Lord always”).

The website “About Catholicism” explains why the Advent candle for this day is rose colored, rather than purple:

Like Lent, Advent is a penitential season, so the priest normally wears purple vestments. But on Gaudete Sunday, having passed the midpoint of Advent, the Church lightens the mood a little, and the priest may wear rose vestments.

Gaudete Sunday means that the time of waiting and preparation is nearly over–that Christmas, and more importantly, Christ, is on the way!

File:Jan Lievens, Painting of St Paul, ca. 1627-29. Oil on canvas. Nationalmuseum Sweden.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

The introit for Sunday comes from the Vulgate of Philippians 4:4.  Philippians is Paul’s most joyful letter–and quite possibly, his last.  Here, for the first time, Paul anticipates dying before the Lord’s return (Phil 1:20-26)!  In 1 Thessalonians, Paul’s first letter, he describes the dead in Christ as being raised to meet the Lord in the air at his second coming (1 Thes 4:15-18).  But here, faced with the likelihood that he will be among those awaiting resurrection, Paul considers what that period may be like, concluding simply that he will “be with Christ” (Phil 1:23)–whatever that may mean.

In Philippians 2:1-13, Paul urges the Philippians to practice Christlike humility: “Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus” (Phil 2:5).  He then quotes a hymn of the earliest church, describing Jesus’ birth, life, death, resurrection, and final victory:

Though he was in the form of God,
        he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
        by taking the form of a slave
        and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
         he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
        even death on a cross.
 Therefore, God highly honored him
        and gave him a name above all names,
    so that at the name of Jesus everyone
        in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
        and every tongue confess
            that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil 2:6-1 1).

In this hymn, Jesus is our representative.  Being at once God and Human, he overcomes in his own Person the gap between humanity and divinity.  But of course, being fully and truly human means being finite: like us, Jesus was born, lived, learned, grew, suffered, and died.

But the specific death Jesus died–that he indeed chose to die–placed him with the shamed and outcast; the scorned and unjustly persecuted. As Immanuel, God with us (Matt 1:22-23), Jesus proves God’s presence with us even in the midst of pain, abandonment, and death itself.

As is typical, Paul concludes this letter with some personal advice. He urges Euodia and Syntyche, two female leaders in the church (who Paul says “have struggled together with me in the ministry of the gospel,” Phil 4:2-3), to overcome their (apparently famous) differences, and get along–advice one presumes Paul himself had been given regarding his own famous differences with Peter  (Gal 2:6-14)!  He thanks the church for their generous gifts to him in his imprisonment, but tells them that all he really needs is the knowledge that they are well, and growing in Christ: “a profit that accumulates in your account” (Phil 4:17).

It is in this connection, as a bit of practical advice for living the faith, that the passage giving Gaudete Sunday its name occurs.  The Common English Bible for Philippians 4:4-5 reads,

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad!  Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near.

The Greek word used here, chairete, does mean “be glad.” Indeed, a translation note in the NRSVue, understands this passage as Paul’s goodbye to his beloved friends: “Farewell in the Lord. . . again I say, farewell.”  Still, the text of the NRSV, like the KJV, stays with the Vulgate here.  It is the King James of this passage that I hear in my head: “Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice.”  Praise and worship give shape to a Christian life.  Whatever our  circumstances, knowing that the Lord is near enables us to face what comes in the certain knowledge that we are never alone!

When I was a young Christian, I learned to sing the Philippians 4:4 passage that gives Gaudete Sunday its name as a round–I invite you to join me in singing it today. Perhaps uncertain times  like these teach us that we can indeed “Rejoice in the Lord always.”

 

Dec
2023

Chanukkah sameach !

What Is Hanukkah? Dates, Traditions, Story
Hanukkah begins on the 25th day of Kislev, the ninth month of the Jewish lunar calendar, and ends on the second day of Tevet, the tenth month.  This year, on our secular solar calendar, those dates correspond to Thursday-Friday, December 7-8 (note that, in Jewish reckoning, each day begins at sundown; see Genesis 1:5, 8, 13, 19, 23, 31), and Friday-Saturday, December 15-16.  Although Hanukkah is a minor festival in the Jewish religious year, its significance as a family holiday of feasting and gift-giving has grown in parallel to the Gentile world’s celebration of Christmas.  Beginning this Friday, on each of the eight nights of Hanukkah observant Jews will light another candle on their Hanukkah menorahs (these traditionally have nine branches, as one holds the light from which the others are lit).  The Hanukkah story is related in Talmud (b. Shabbat 21b) and in 1 Maccabees 4:36-61. Its setting is the second century BCE–although the roots of the story extend 200 years further back, to the conquests of a young Macedonian general named Alexander.

By 332 BCE, Alexander the Great had conquered most of the ancient Near East.  His kingdom stretched from north Africa to India. But Alexander died, suddenly and unexpectedly, scarcely ten years later, leaving behind no heir. So Alexander’s four leading generals divided the empire among them. Cassander, who claimed Macedonia, and Lysimachus, who claimed Thrace (that is, Greece and Asia Minor), play no role in Israel’s story. However, the heirs of Ptolemy, who ruled in Egypt, and Seleucus, who ruled in Syria, figure prominently.

Through the following generations, the descendants of these two Greek generals, called the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, squabbled for control of Palestine. As long as the Ptolemies of Egypt were in control, the Jews of Palestine were left alone. However, in 200 BCE Antiochus III, the reigning Seleucid, conquered Palestine. At first, little changed. But when Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to power in 175 BCE, he began to intervene drastically in Jewish life (1 Maccabees 1:20-64; compare Daniel 7:25; 11:29-39).

Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Beginning of the Rebellion | Reading Acts

Antiochus IV appointed a high priest of his own choosing (ominously named Jason–clearly not a Hebrew name!) in Jerusalem, and gave his support to those in the Jerusalem aristocracy who favored the new Greek ways. This may have been part of Antiochus’ campaign to unify his kingdom under Greek culture and religion.  Or, he may have sought to control the temple in order to get his hands on the Jerusalem temple treasury.  But when pious Jews resisted, he used cruder methods. In 167 BCE, an altar to Zeus, chief god of the Greeks, was set up in the Jerusalem temple. On this altar was sacrificed an animal sacred to Zeus: the pig.

Similar altars, and similar sacrifices, were ordered established throughout the land. It became illegal to circumcise male children, to observe the Sabbath or any of the other festivals, to teach or even to read the Law, and those who resisted were horrifically persecuted.

Hanukkah: History & Traditions | Live Science

The traditional Hanukkah song “Hayo Hayah” recalls the story:

 

Let us remember reign of terror, reign of terror
King who murdered, pain forever, pain forever
Who then? Antiochus, Antiochus.

The blood he spilled, Jerusalem, Jerusalem
So many killed, gone all of them, gone all of them
Who then? Antiochus, Antiochus.

Our hearts he broke, he burned the torah, burned the torah
Ash and smoke, the crushed menorah, crushed menorah
Who then? Antiochus, Antiochus.

Arise our hero, Judah save us, Judah save us
Prize so dear, the vict’ry gave us, freedom gave us
Who then? Maccabeus, Maccabeus.

Oh sing our songs and praise the torah, praise the torah
Right the wrongs and light menorah, light menorah
When then? Chanukah, Chanukah.

Jerusalem was liberated in 164 BCE by an army of Jewish guerrillas led by Judah Maccabee (likely, “Judah the Hammer”!), or Judas Maccabeus (1 Maccabees 4:36-61).  Following the liberation of Jerusalem, he summoned faithful priests to reconsecrate the temple and its altar, defiled by the idolatrous rites that had been performed there under Antiochus’ rule.  But, according to the tradition, they hit a snag.  Talmud says:

For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest,  but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel  and thanksgiving [b. Shabbat 21b].

How to Play Dreidel | My Jewish Learning

 

The dreidel game traditionally played during Hanukkah becomes another way of recalling the miracle of the lamps:

Each side of the dreidel bears a letter of the Hebrew alphabet: נ‎ (nun), ג‎ (gimel), ה‎ (hei), ש‎ (shin). These letters are translated in Yiddish to a mnemonic for the rules of a gambling game played with a dreidel: nun stands for the word נישט (nisht, “not”, meaning “nothing”), gimel for גאַנץ (gants, “entire, whole”), hei for האַלב (halb, “half”), and shin for שטעלן אַרײַן (shtel arayn, “put in”). However, according to folk etymology, they represent the Hebrew phrase נֵס גָּדוֹל הָיָה שָׁם‎ (nes gadól hayá sham, “a great miracle happened there”).

 

File:Michelangelo, profeti, Daniel 01.jpg - Wikimedia Commons

Much of this history is also related, if symbolically, in the book of Daniel–although with a decidedly different ending!  The conquests of Alexander, his death, and the division of his kingdom are recounted in Daniel 8.  That Greek empire appears to be the focus of the night vision of Daniel 7.   Four chimerical beasts representing conquering kingdoms rise out of the sea— an ancient symbol of chaos (see Isa 27:1; 51:9-10).  The first three at least resemble actual animals: a lion, a bear, a leopard. But the fourth is unlike anything on earth: “terrifying and hideous, with extraordinary power,” it has ten horns and iron teeth (Dan 7:7).

In Zechariah 1:18-21 (2:1-4 in Hebrew), four horns represent the four powers “that scattered Judah, Israel, and Jerusalem” (1:19 [2:2]; likely Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia).  So too in Daniel 7:1– 8, four is the number of Israel’s oppressors, although a different four: evidently Babylon, Media, Persia, with the fourth and last being Greece.  This reinterpretation of images is common in apocalypses like Daniel.

Frei Clemente Rojão: O Segundo Anticristo, o Falso Profeta

Readers in later contexts have reinterpreted this vision in other ways; indeed, the first- century CE Jewish apocalypse 4 Ezra reads, “The eagle [a common symbol of Rome] you saw rising from the sea is the fourth kingdom. It appeared in a vision to your brother Daniel,but it wasn’t interpreted for him as I now interpret it for you or have shown it to you” (2 Esd 12:11– 12).  4 Ezra and the book of Revelation (Rev 17:9) alike understood Daniel’s fourth beast to be, not Greece, but Rome!

Among the ten horns of this fourth beast, which in the original context likely represented the kings of Alexander’s Greek empire, is a little horn “that bragged and bragged” (Dan 7:8; the Aramaic is milallil rabrĕbān, or “talking big”)–Antiochus IV Epiphanes (see also Dan 8:9-14; 23– 25).  This one, Daniel is told, “shall speak words against the Most High, shall wear out the holy ones of the Most High, and shall attempt to change the ritual calendar and the law” (Dan 7:25 NRSVue)— all of which Antiochus did. But not much time remained to this arrogant ruler: only “a time, two times, and half a time,” or three and a half years (Dan 7:25;  also variously described in Dan 8:14; 9:27; 12:7, 11-12).

Setting aside the animal imagery of Daniel 7–8, Daniel 10:1–11:39  speaks more straightforwardly about Antiochus’ final days.  Antiochus’ terrible sacrilege–the sacrifice of an unclean animal to an alien god–is the “desolating monstrosity” of Daniel 11:31 (in the KJV, “the abomination that maketh desolate;” for later interpretations of this Danielic image, see Matt 24:15; Mark 13:14).  Daniel 11:40-43 predicts steadily greater victories for Antiochus–until suddenly “reports from the east and north will alarm him, and in a great rage he will set off to devastate and destroy many” (Dan 11:44). Then, preparing to return to Syria, Antiochus will camp in Palestine, where the archangel Michael will fall upon him with the heavenly armies and destroy him, ushering in the resurrection of the dead and the end of the world (Dan 12:1-3).

Antiochus actually died in the course of his campaign against Persia, in 164 BCE.  Daniel does not describe this, nor does it mention the Maccabean revolt: likely because the book was completed sometime between 167 (the date of the “desolating monstrosity”) and 164 BCE.  Although Antiochus’ oppressive rule ended in the mid-second century BCE, the world did not.  As we have seen, later Jewish and Christian readers identified Daniel’s fourth kingdom with Rome (2 Esdras 12:10-12; Rev 17:9): but the world did not end with the fall of Rome, either.

Indeed, the many predictions in the New Testament that the end of the world would come soon (for example, Mark 13:30; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Rev 22:12, 20) clearly were not realized.  Within the New Testament itself, this delay is seen as a sign of God’s grace.  The epistle reading for this Sunday, the second Sunday in Advent, declares “The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives” (2 Peter 3:9).

It is finally Jesus himself who puts to rest the pretense that, if we are only clever enough, we can read our future in the pages of Scripture: “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows” (Mark 13:32).  We are called, not to be clever, but to be ready!

Matthias Grünewald: John the Baptist

In all the generations since, the promise of God’s deliverance has been continually re-read, and applied to new situations, in the confidence that God’s faithfulness will prevail over every oppressor.  No matter how powerless we may feel, it is in that same confidence that we can read these passages today, sharing the confidence of John the Baptist:

“One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”(Mark 1:7-8)

Trusting in his wisdom and might, baptized with God’s spirit, we can face the trials of our time, and of any time!  Chanukkah sameach–a joyous Hanukkah and a blessed Advent to us all!