Feb
2022

Beatitudes

3 Tips for Reading the Bible with Your Child - CSBOne of my earliest church memories involves a bribe.  A Sunday School teacher offered a WHOLE QUARTER to any child who memorized the Beatitudes (Matt 5:3-12).  I don’t remember that teacher’s name, or face–indeed, I don’t remember if I actually learned the Beatitudes, or even if I could have done so (I don’t think I had learned to read, yet!).  But I remember that I wanted that quarter, and that I was very upset when my family moved (and changed churches!) before I could get it.

Of course, I didn’t know until much later that there was another version of Jesus’ Beatitudes in Luke 6:17-26 (Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, a different form of the sayings found in Matthew’s Sermon on the Mount).  And it would be later still that I learned from my teacher James Luther Mays about Psalm 1:

The Book of Psalms begins with a beatitude. Not a prayer or a hymn, but a statement about human existence (Psalms, Interpretation [Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1994], 40).

The first word in Psalm 1 is ‘ashre: traditionally rendered “blessed.”  In the Septuagint, the Greek version of Jewish Scripture, this is translated as the Greek makarios, the same word used in Matthew 5 and Luke 6, also traditionally rendered “blessed.”  But “blessed” is decidedly a stained-glass word: one we rarely use outside of church, and so a word whose actual meaning is likely cloudy.  A more natural translation would be (as in the NRSV and the CEB) “happy.”

The righteous are described in the opening verse of this psalm as happy, but Psalm 1 is not about how to be happy. The beatitude pronounced upon the righteous in Psalm 1 describes rather than defines them.  Similarly, Jesus’ beatitudes are descriptive rather than prescriptive.

This is all the more surprising, as those Jesus calls “happy” are not at all who we would think of as “happy”–especially in Luke’s version.  Where Matthew has “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Luke reads simply “the poor.” In Luke, it is not those hungry for righteousness, but simply the hungry who are called happy.  Still, in both versions, Jesus plainly regards blessedness, not as an accomplishment or a reward, but as a gift, given particularly to those most in need.  Indeed, unlike Matthew 5, Luke 6 also discusses those who are not happy.  Luke balances the blessings with woes, which again are surprising:

But how terrible for you who are rich,
    because you have already received your comfort.
How terrible for you who have plenty now,
    because you will be hungry (Luke 6:24-25).

The very folk we’d expect to be happy–the rich, the well-fed–are instead the objects of lament!

The Book of Joy by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Carlton Abrams: 9780399185045 | PenguinRandomHouse.com: Books

In my home church, St. Paul’s UMC, we have been reading together The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World, by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, with Douglas Abrams (New York: Penguin Random House, 2016).  The book is the record of a five-day conversation between these two great spiritual leaders about joy: a conversation all the more poignant when we realize that, as this conversation began, the cancer that would take Archbishop Tutu’s life had just recurred.

On the third day, as they were talking about joy and suffering, the Dalai Lama described his flight from the Chinese army and his exile, but also, as a result of that exile, the preservation of Tibetan language, religion, and culture:

“You see, if there are no difficulties and you are always relaxed, then you complain more,” the Dalai Lama said, now laughing at the irony that we could experience more joy in the face of great adversity than when life is seemingly easy and uneventful.

The Archbishop was laughing, too.  Joy, it seemed, was a strange alchemy of mind over matter.  The path to joy, like with sadness, did not lead away from suffering and adversity, but through it.  As the Archbishop had said, nothing beautiful comes without some suffering. . .  I saw the Archbishop gazing at the Dalai Lama with a sense of amazement.  

“I’m really actually very humbled listening to His Holiness,” the Archbishop said, “because I’ve frequently mentioned to people the fact of his serenity and his calm and joyfulness.  We would probably have said, ‘in spite of’ the adversity, but it seems like he’s saying ‘because of’ the adversity that this has evolved for him.”  The Archbishop was holding the Dalai Lama’s hand, patting and rubbing his palm affectionately (The Book of Joy, 150-51).

Like Luke 6, Psalm 1 also addresses those who are not blessed.  The Psalm contrasts the wicked (Hebrew resha’im) and the righteous (tsadiqim).  But the wicked are defined only in negative terms: by their opposition to the righteous, who do not follow their way, or sit in their councils (1:1), just as the wicked themselves “will have no standing in the court of justice—neither will sinners in the assembly of the righteous” (1:5).

Jewish Painting: Torah Reading - Alex Levin

The righteous, by contrast, are positively defined by their immersion in God’s torah: a word often translated as “law,” but better rendered (as in the CEB) “instruction”  Certainly, there is  no legalism in Psalm 1! Nothing is said here about obeying the law, or doing the right things.  Instead, the righteous “love (Hebrew chapets, “desire;” rendered “delight in” in the NRSV) the LORD’s Instruction” and “recite (the verb hagah actually means “murmur,” implying constant, repetitive study and recitation; the NRSV has “meditate on”) God’s Instruction day and night” (Ps 1:2).

The wicked have no substance.  They “are like chaff that the wind drives away” (1:4, NRSV): empty husks–dry, lifeless, fruitless, and rootless.

But the righteous?

They are like trees
    planted by streams of water,
which yield their fruit in its season,
    and their leaves do not wither.
In all that they do, they prosper (Psalm 1:3).

Please note that the righteous are not commanded to bear fruit, any more than a tree must be ordered to produce!   Fruit-bearing is simply what trees planted by the water do! Those who love God, who draw life from God and are immersed in God’s Word, love what God loves, and act accordingly.

The NRSV, like the old KJV, has “for the LORD watches over the way of the righteous” (Psalm 1:6). But the verb here is yada’, that is, “know.”  In Hebrew, “knowing” has to do not simply with intellectual grasp, but with relationship.  Those who desire to know God, who seek out and meditate upon God’s instruction, are in turn known by God: as the CEB has it, the LORD is “intimately acquainted” with them!

In the end, Psalm 1 isn’t really interested in the wicked at all—just as, in Luke, the woes are an afterthought. The righteous, the blessed, are the concern of these beatitudes. Those who know, and are known, by God enter into a relationship with the Divine; they become like trees, drawing life from God and bearing fruit for God. They, whatever the circumstances of their lives, are blessed.

AFTERWORD:

The colorized photograph above shows three homeless children sleeping on Mulberry Street in Manhattan, New York City. The original was taken in 1890 by Danish-American social reformer, “muckraking” journalist and social documentary photographer Jacob Riis, who contributed significantly to the cause of urban reform in America at the turn of the twentieth century. Credit: @retrograde_colour.  https://www.instagram.com/p/CZu9dmHNXXI/?utm_source=ig_web_button_share_sheet&fbclid=IwAR3SoB-aPoILIY0vVOacI56ujeQsdO_BNN61JI0LoMUFzeIEgA1SpAhhgIc

 

Jan
2022

Not Just Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day | MovieGeekBlog

In the United States (and Canada, too), next Wednesday, February 2, is known as 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.  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!

Music and traditions of Candlemas | OUPblog

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:

The order of the nuns of St. Walpurga was established in the 11th century in Bavaria.  They 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.

Jan
2022

Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Creative Extremist”

 

In most of the nation, today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day: a day rightly dedicated to celebrating the legacy of our greatest civil rights leader.  It is also right that a monument to Dr. King, dedicated on October 16, 2011, stands in Washington, D.C. among the memorials to other American heroes in that city of monuments.  But honoring the hero may mean losing the man. Perhaps it was inevitable that honor and recognition would mute King’s radical call to justice, particularly to racial justice; that as King’s national stature grew, his historical message would be blunted, even obscured.

The result, as journalist David Love observes, is that King’s name is invoked in support of policies that the man himself would certainly have opposed:

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a Republican, name-dropped King last month in announcing an anti-critical race theory bill called the Stop Woke Act. The legislation would allow private parties, such as students, parents, employees and businesses, to sue schools and workplaces that teach critical race theory. “You think about what MLK stood for,” DeSantis said. “He said he didn’t want people judged on the color of their skin but on the content of their character.”

Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp called King “a transformational leader” and “a true American hero” who recognized “great injustice in this world” and took “the necessary steps to right that wrong.” Yet Kemp sat under a painting of a slave plantation as he signed a voter suppression law making it a crime to give food and water to people waiting in line to vote.

In Texas — where the Legislature removed King from the state curriculum and ended the requirement to teach that the Ku Klux Klan was morally wrong — Sen. Ted Cruz praised King’s fight against racial inequality and injustice

It is clearly long past time for us to remember that Dr. King stood for, marched for, was jailed for, and died for, justice and equality. He was, by his own free admission, an extremist!  In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote:

I have tried to say that this normal and healthy discontent can be channeled into the creative outlet of nonviolent direct action. And now this approach is being termed extremist. But though I was initially disappointed at being categorized as an extremist, as I continued to think about the matter I gradually gained a measure of satisfaction from the label. Was not Jesus an extremist for love: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you.” Was not Amos an extremist for justice: “Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like an ever flowing stream.” Was not Paul an extremist for the Christian gospel: “I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.” Was not Martin Luther an extremist: “Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise, so help me God.” And John Bunyan: “I will stay in jail to the end of my days before I make a butchery of my conscience.” And Abraham Lincoln: “This nation cannot survive half slave and half free.” And Thomas Jefferson: “We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal . . .” So the question is not whether we will be extremists, but what kind of extremists we will be. Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice? In that dramatic scene on Calvary’s hill three men were crucified. We must never forget that all three were crucified for the same crime–the crime of extremism. Two were extremists for immorality, and thus fell below their environment. The other, Jesus Christ, was an extremist for love, truth and goodness, and thereby rose above his environment. Perhaps the South, the nation and the world are in dire need of creative extremists. 

Dr. King was in jail, in Birmingham, for leading sit-ins, marches, and protests of racial discrimination in that city.  While in jail, he learned of an open letter published in Birmingham area papers, called “A Call for Unity”—signed by eight prominent white Alabama clergymen (including, to my shame, two Methodist bishops).  The letter bemoans a “series of demonstrations by some of our Negro citizens, directed and led in part by outsiders,” and says, “We… strongly urge our own Negro community to withdraw support from these demonstrations, and to unite locally in working peacefully for a better Birmingham. When rights are consistently denied, a cause should be pressed in the courts and in negotiations among local leaders, and not in the streets.”

Dr.  King  wrote his famous letter in response to these white Christian leaders, who evidently preferred “a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.” Prophetically, King wrote of the church in his own day–and sadly, in ours:

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

A truly Christian view of racial justice must begin as Christian Scripture begins: with a radical affirmation of human unity, dignity, and equality.  As Dr. George D. Kelsey, mentor to Martin Luther King, Jr. at Morehouse College, understood (George D. Kelsey, Racism and the Christian Understanding of Man [New York: Scribner, 1965]), the biblical confession that we are all descended from Adam and Eve means that there is one single human family. Throughout his theology and ethics, Dr. Kelsey “pointed to the Genesis creation narrative and its assertion of a singular and common ancestry of all humanity” (Torin Alexander, “World/Creation in African American Theology,” in The Oxford Handbook of African American Theology, ed. Katie G. Cannon and Anthony B. Pinn [New York: Oxford University, 2014], 186.)

Close reading of Genesis 1 underlines that insight.   On Day Three, when God invites the earth to “put forth vegetation” (Genesis 1:11), the earth produces “plants yielding seed of every kind, and trees of every kind bearing fruit with the seed in it” (Genesis 1:12).  Similarly, on Day Five, God creates “every living creature that moves, of every kind, with which the waters swarm, and every winged bird of every kind” (Gen 1:21). On Day Six, God again invites the earth, “bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind” (Gen 1:24).  Every form of life God makes comes in kinds–except one.

When we arrive at the creation of humanity at the end of Day Six, nothing is said of there being any “kinds” of people (see Phyllis A. Bird, “‘Male and Female He Created Them’: Gen 1:27b in the Context of the Priestly Account of Creation,” Harvard Theological Review 74 [1981]: 146). This is certainly not because the ancient Israelites were ignorant of other races and cultures: Palestine was a crossroads of ancient civilizations. The Israelites were fully aware of Africans and Asians, people of varying ethnicities, speaking a host of languages, coming from a variety of cultures.  Yet Israel does not distinguish among these races and nations, as though some are more human than others.  Certainly, Genesis does not identify the Israelites as human, and their neighbors as something less. This is a remarkable confession, rejecting every form of racism and jingoistic nationalism–including our own.

As Scripture sadly but faithfully bears witness, Israel was not always faithful to this insight. But it is an insight that recurs again and again—and one that the church in our day must reclaim.  For while Genesis identifies no “kinds” of people, we have been swift to make up that lack, hastening to identify all sorts of folk as outsiders, strangers, aliens, who are not welcome in our communities. Especially on this day in honor of that “creative extremist,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., may God help us to see and repent of this sin, and to love all whom God loves, as we have ourselves been loved.

Jan
2022

We Three Kings?

For Western Christians, January 6 was the Feast of the Epiphany: a day associated particularly with the light of the star that guided the wise men (or, as the CEB and the NRSV Updated Edition more accurately read, the Magi) to the Christ Child (see Matthew 2:1-12).  Until February 27, we will be in the season after Epiphany, during which we will continue to remember and celebrate the light of God’s revelation, symbolized by the Bethlehem star.

Tradition says that there were three Magi, that they were kings from three continents and three races, and that they were named Caspar, Melchior, and Balthasar.  Of course, that is the way it is in our Christmas pageants and in our creches.  But none of this is in Matthew’s simple account:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the territory of Judea during the rule of King Herod, magi came from the east to Jerusalem. They asked, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We’ve seen his star in the east, and we’ve come to honor him” (Matt 2:1-2).

The Magi were a clan of priests and astrologers from Persia–our words “magic” and “magician” derive from “magi.”  Matthew does not tell us how many Magi came–the traditional number three comes from their three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh (Matt 2:11-12). The idea that they were kings from distant lands and races comes from Isaiah 60:1-6, traditionally read as fulfilled in the visit of the Magi:

Nations will come to your light
    and kings to your dawning radiance.

. . . the nations’ wealth will come to you.
 Countless camels will cover your land,
    young camels from Midian and Ephah.
They will all come from Sheba,
    carrying gold and incense,
    proclaiming the Lord’s praises.

 

Still, there is an appropriateness to the tradition’s reading of the Magi as representing the whole outside world.  After all, they come to the manger as the ultimate outsiders.  They come not only from outside of Judea, but from outside the Roman empire itself–from the land of the feared Parthians, an armed and unstable threat on the empire’s eastern frontier. They are not Jews, either ethnically or religiously; while nothing is said of their religious heritage by Matthew, they would have been Zoroastrians.  Remarkably, it is Matthew who tells their story. Matthew, the most Jewish of the gospel writers, is the one who records a visit to the Christ child from gentiles: foreigners and unbelievers!  Yet in this gospel these foreigners come, not as enemies to threaten the Child, but as pilgrims to honor him.

Herod’s religious experts also see the Magi’s star, and rightly interpret the Scriptures that witness to the coming king:

As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces,
        one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.
    His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.
 Therefore, he will give them up
        until the time when she who is in labor gives birth.
        The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel.
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
        in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
        They will dwell secure,
        because he will surely become great throughout the earth;
        he will become one of peace (Micah 5:2-5; see Matt 2:4-6)

But these faithful, patriotic citizens stay in the false security of Herod’s walled palace, and never see the miracle.  Instead, it is the foreign, Gentile Magi who become the first, faithful witnesses to the new thing God is doing–breaking into our world as one of us there in Bethlehem.

This season after Epiphany celebrates the light of God shining into the entire world with the birth of Christ, and indeed, the light of God’s revelation shining into all our lives yesterday, today–and one day, forever!  May we learn from the wise men to be “wise guys” ourselves: to be ready to receive God’s blessing from the hands, and to hear God’s word in the voice, of a stranger.  May we say to all hatred, racism, and fearmongering a firm and unequivocal “No.”

 

Dec
2021

O Great Mystery and Wonderful Sacrament!

Image result for nativity icon

On this winter solstice, as Christmas day draws near, I keep thinking of an ancient Latin Christmas prayer:

O magnum mysterium,

et admirabile sacramentum,

ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,

jacentem in praesepio!

Beata Virgo,

cujus viscera

meruerunt portare

Dominum Christum.

Alleluia.

I first sang those words in the Parkersburg South High madrigal troupe (thank you, Mr. Daniel B. Thomas!), to a setting by the 16th century Spanish composer Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548–1611).  But as gorgeous as that music is, the version I keep hearing in my head today is the haunting, heart-breakingly lovely setting by 20th century American composer Morten Johannes Lauridsen.

The English translation of the Latin at Wikipedia reads,

O great mystery,
and wonderful sacrament,
that animals should see the new-born Lord,
lying in a manger!
Blessed is the Virgin whose womb
was worthy to bear
Christ the Lord.
Alleluia!

Were Animals in the Manger on the First Christmas? - Outdoor Nativity StoreWhether because my attention was drawn to the music rather than the words, or because I let the beautiful Latin phrases wash over me without worrying about what they meant, I am ashamed to confess that I only recently realized that this hymn is based on Luke’s account of Jesus’ humble birth:

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn (Luke 2:7, KJV).

This prayer expresses the awe and wonder of God come down to us in human flesh and form–not a disguise or a pretense, but an unimaginable condescension.  The Eternal becomes temporal.  The omnipresent becomes localized–and in the tiniest, most humble of locations!  As John puts it,

The Word became flesh
    and made his home among us (John 1:14).

This astonishing, impossible miracle, Luke says, was met by rejection–unable to find a roof over their heads in a strange town, Mary and Joseph had to seek refuge where they could find it.  Jesus was born in a barn–his first cradle a feed trough, the only witnesses to his marvelous birth the animals that shared their space with this young, poor family.

On Christmas day, God comes to be with us, tangibly and physically and temporally and actually with us.  And by coming in this place, in this manner, God calls us too to a ministry of presence, among the least and the lost and the lonely.  No wonder our hymn calls Christmas a sacrament.

AFTERWORD:

Merry Christmas, one and all!  I am reposting this lightly edited Christmas blog from 2014, when our choir at St. Paul’s UMC sang the Lauridsen setting (thank you, Tom Taylor!)  To it, I would like to add this delightful poem for the day.  May the joy of this day fill your lives, and change your world.

“Sharon’s Christmas Prayer”
She was five,
sure of the facts,
and recited them
with slow solemnity
convinced every word
was revelation.
She said
they were so poor
they had only peanut butter and jelly
sandwiches to eat
and they went a long way from home
without getting lost. The lady rode
a donkey, the man walked, and the baby
was inside the lady.
They had to stay in a stable
with an ox and an ass (hee-hee)
but the Three Rich Men found them
because a star lited the roof
Shepherds came and you could
pet the sheep but not feed them.
Then the baby was borned.
And do you know who he was?
Her quarter eyes inflated
to silver dollars.
The baby was God.
And she jumped in the air
whirled round, dove into the sofa
and buried her head under the cushion
which is the only proper response
to the Good News of the Incarnation.
—John Shea, The Hour of the Unexpected (1977).
Dec
2021

You Can’t Always Get What You Want!

In the Hebrew Bible reading for this fourth Sunday of Advent, Micah 5:2-5, the prophet recalls the humble birth of David. Israel’s greatest king was from Bethlehem: a little Judean village not unlike Micah’s own village of Morasheth.  If Judah was to survive, it needed to return to those humble beginnings and values.  The last thing Judah needed was another Jerusalemite dandy, born to the purple and raised with the assumption of power and privilege!  Instead, speaking for the LORD, Micah says,
As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
    though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces,
        one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you.
    His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.
Therefore, he will give them up
        until the time when she who is in labor gives birth.
        The rest of his kin will return to the people of Israel.
He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord,
        in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God.
        They will dwell secure,
        because he will surely become great throughout the earth;
        he will become one of peace (Micah 5:2-5).
Such a leader would have been the last thing that Jerusalem’s elites wanted.  But Micah is convinced that this is precisely what Judah needs! 
The heading I’ve given to this blog post was shamelessly stolen from a Rolling Stones song–chances are, you’ve been playing it in the back of your head ever since you read the title!  Like Micah, Mick Jagger declares, “You can’t always get what you want.  But if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need!”

Micah prophesied in the middle of the eighth century, in a tiny village about 25 miles southwest of the big city of Jerusalem called Morasheth-Gath.  It was a long way from Jerusalem to Morasheth-gath: a distance not so much geographical as social.  As its name implies, Morasheth-gath was a border town, located in contested territory right on the edge of Jewish Judah and Philistine Gath.  Its people were a hard-scrabble lot: rural, not urban; poor, not rich; decidedly lower, not upper class.  Perhaps it was this distant perspective that enabled Micah to see so clearly through the arrogance of Jerusalem’s leaders:

who reject justice and make crooked all that is straight,

         who build Zion with bloodshed and Jerusalem with injustice!
 Her officials give justice for a bribe,
        and her priests teach for hire.
Her prophets offer divination for silver,
        yet they rely on the Lord, saying,
            “Isn’t the Lord in our midst?
                Evil won’t come upon us!” (Micah 3:9-11).

Such blithe, naive arrogance was dangerous, Micah knew, for the mid-eighth century was a dangerous time, when the cruel military power of Assyria was on the rise.  This crisis called for just, wise, decisive leadership–for, in short, another David!

Today’s Hebrew Bible reading is quoted in Matthew 2:5-6.  When the foreign sages come to Judah following a star, looking for a new-born king, they come to the big city of Jerusalem, and to Herod’s palace–because where else would you look for a king?  Herod consults the scribes, who then read to him, and to his guests from the east, Micah’s ancient prophecy.

Sure enough, Jesus, like David, would be born humbly, in the little village of Bethlehem–the child of a peasant girl and her itinerant laborer husband.  We need to hear just how unlikely this sounds!  Because sometimes, in this season, we Christians wonder how Jesus’ own people could’ve missed him–implying, of course, that we would have done a better job.  But an old African American spiritual, with far more wisdom, recognizes the truth:

Sweet little Jesus Boy, we made you be born in a manger.

Sweet little Holy Child, we didn’t know who You were.

Didn’t know you’d come to save us, Lord; to take our sins away.

Our eyes were blind, we couldn’t see, we didn’t know it was you.

Herod’s scribes, who gave the wise men their directions from Scripture, did not go with them to the manger—I wonder why?  Likely it was because they couldn’t believe that Micah really meant it! Surely Messiah would not actually come in such a way!

r/alternativeart - Mary and Joseph reimagined in modern times

Jesus was not recognized as the Messiah for the very good reason that he was born among the poor– not the wealthy, powerful, or influential.  As he grew, he surrounded himself with the least, the lost, and the outcast–not the best and the brightest.  No one ever expected that Messiah would come like this! No one looked for, dreamed of, or wanted such a Messiah! But as Micah, and Mick, remind us “You can’t always get what you want. . . You get what you need.”

Jesus is still an astonishment, friends. He still shows up in the most unlikely places, among the most unlikely people—the least, the lost, the lowly. So if we would find him, that is where we too must go. And when we are lonely, when we have lost our way, we need only turn our heads to find him right there, beside us.  Because that is who he is.  That is what he does.

Jesus is still not the King we thought that we wanted—but he is the one that we need: the one who “shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD”. . . the “one of peace.”

 

Dec
2021

An Iota’s Worth of Difference

May be an image of text that says 'What? Homoousios or Homoiusios? You're not the real St. Nicholas.'

Every year (despite the unfortunate typo: that should be homoiousias), I repost this chestnut from “Orthodox Christian Memes.”  And every year, someone doesn’t get it.  So, on this the feast day of St. Nicholas of Myra (in the Western Church; in Eastern Churches, it is December 19), what’s the joke–and why does it matter?

Image result for st nicholasAccording to the Catholic Encyclopedia, St. Nicholas was

Bishop of Myra in Lycia; died 6 December, 345 or 352. Though he is one of the most popular saints in the Greek as well as the Latin Church, there is scarcely anything historically certain about him except that he was Bishop of Myra in the fourth century.

Some of the main points in his legend are as follows: He was born at Parara, a city of Lycia in Asia Minor; in his youth he made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine; shortly after his return he became Bishop of Myra; cast into prison during the persecution of Diocletian [284 to 305 CE], he was released after the accession of Constantine [306 to 337 CE], and was present at the Council of Nicaea.

Image result for st nicholas

Legend also connects St. Nicholas to gift-giving at Christmas, and specifically to hanging stockings–hence, the association of Christmas and St. Nicholas, aka Santa Claus.  But, what about the meme with which we began?

Part of St. Nicholas’ legend is that, at the Council of Nicaea, he punched out Arius for denying the full divinity of Christ!  At issue were the Greek terms homoiousias and homoousias.  According to Arius and his followers, Jesus was a creation of God–the highest creature to be sure, indeed the first-born of all creation, but still distinct from the one God.  Jesus and God are therefore homoiousias: of like substance, or essence.  To be fair, this kind of language is used in Scripture. Colossians 1:15 describes Jesus as “the image of the invisible God, the one who is first [Greek prototokos, “firstborn“] over all creation.”  The Christ hymn in Philippians 2:6-11 says that

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 (Phil 2:6-7).

The Council, however, wound up affirming–with Nicholas, and against Arius–that Jesus and God were homoousias: that is, of the same substance, or of one substance.  The Nicene Creed accordingly confesses,

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
    the only Son of God,
    eternally begotten of the Father,
    God from God, Light from Light,
    true God from true God,
    begotten, not made,
    of one Being [Greek homoousion] with the Father.
    Through him all things were made.

As old friend, ministry colleague, and shameless punster Frank Norris observes, there is way more than an iota of difference between homoousias and homoiousias!   Jesus and God are one!

So, why did the Council at Nicaea make this confession?  Theologian George Lindbeck has argued that Trinitarian theology grows out of the struggle of early Christians to speak plainly about their experience of God. Early on, the first Christians needed to affirm, on the one hand, the continuity of their faith with the faith of ancient Israel: the God they loved and worshipped was Abraham’s God.  But at the same time, they needed to speak of Jesus in the most exalted language possible (what Lindbeck terms “Christological maximalism”), as they had come to know God, intimately and personally, through him. Hence, the New Testament calls Jesus God’s Son (The Nature of Doctrine [Nashville: Westminster John Knox, 1984], 94).

Trinity (Andrei Rublev) - Wikipedia

As St. Nicholas insisted, and as the Council at Nicaea affirmed, it is true that Jesus is divine; yet it is also true that God is one.  That may seem nonsensical–but the Trinity is not a logic problem for us to solve!  We come to the paradoxical language of Trinity because we are driven to it by the shape of our experience of God.  The doctrine of the Trinity emerges out of our struggle to talk meaningfully about who God is, and what God is up to in our world.

Full-blown Trinitarian language is wanting in the texts of Scripture, but the Gospel of John comes very close.  John 1:1 affirms,

In the beginning was the Word
    and the Word was with God
    and the Word was God.

Indeed, in John 10:30, Jesus proclaims, “I and the Father are one.”  In John 16:14-15, Jesus speaks of the Spirit who “will take what is mine and proclaim it to you” (16:14), yet also says “Everything that the Father has is mine” (16:15).  Jesus, the Spirit, and the Father are distinct, yet intimately related.

1 John 4:8 gives us another way to visualize the Divine life: “God is love.”  The greatest power in the universe is self-giving, sacrificial love!  God in Godself is at once the Lover, and the Beloved, and the Love that binds them as one.  God in Godself is relationship, and community!

The early Christians were not the first to realize this.  The sages of ancient Israel looked for a way of talking about God as, on the one hand, separate from the world and its objects, and on the other, as intimately involved and engaged with the world.  Particularly in Proverbs 8, they described divine Wisdom itself as a person: a woman, as the Hebrew word for Wisdom (khokmah) is feminine.

Best of Frenemies: Unexpected Role of Social Networks in Ecology | UC Davis

Lady Wisdom  says, “The LORD created me [Hebrew qanani; perhaps better “acquired me,” that is, as a wife] at the beginning of his way, before his deeds long in the past” (Proverbs 8:22).  Through Wisdom, God creates a world reflecting God’s own character and identity: a community, a web of interrelationships, every part working together and responding to every other part, on every level.

I was formed in ancient times,
    at the beginning, before the earth was.
When there were no watery depths, I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs flowing with water.
Before the mountains were settled,
    before the hills, I was brought forth;
    before God made the earth and the fields
    or the first of the dry land.
I was there when he established the heavens,
    when he marked out the horizon on the deep sea,
    when he thickened the clouds above,
    when he secured the fountains of the deep,
    when he set a limit for the sea,
        so the water couldn’t go beyond his command,
    when he marked out the earth’s foundations.
I was beside him as a master of crafts.
    I was having fun,
    smiling before him all the time,
    frolicking with his inhabited earth
    and delighting in the human race (Prov 8:23-31).

Christian readers will be reminded, again, of John 1:1-3:

In the beginning was the Word
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
The Word was with God in the beginning.
Everything came into being through the Word,
and without the Word
nothing came into being.

Here, Christ is the Word of God who is God, through whom the world was made. This is a Wisdom Christology: a way of talking about Christ drawn from the language of Proverbs 8!

The first chapter of John goes on to give us John’s version of the Christmas story:

The true light that shines on all people
    was coming into the world.
The light was in the world,
    and the world came into being through the light,
        but the world didn’t recognize the light.
The light came to his own people,
    and his own people didn’t welcome him.
But those who did welcome him,
        those who believed in his name,
    he authorized to become God’s children,
        born not from blood
        nor from human desire or passion,
        but born from God.
The Word became flesh
    and made his home among us.
We have seen his glory,
    glory like that of a father’s only son,
        full of grace and truth (John 1:9-14).

It is, granted, an unusual Christmas story—without a shepherd, wise man, or manger in sight! That is because, rather than telling a story about Christ’s birth, John considers the meaning of his birth: the mystery of the Incarnation.

Both Matthew and Luke begin their gospels by setting Jesus’ life and ministry in history: he was born in Palestine, in Bethlehem, in the reigns of Caesar Augustus and Herod.  But John’s gospel opens in eternity: En arche he logos—“In the beginning was the Word” (John 1:1). Any reader of Scripture will think immediately of the very first chapter of Scripture, where God speaks the universe into being, creating by means of God’s word: “Then God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light” (Gen 1:3; cf. 1:6, 9,11,14, 20, 24). But for John’s Greek-speaking audience, there would have been another resonance to this language. Logos of course means “word,” but Greek Stoic philosophers also used Logos as their name for the ordering principle behind all reality.

Astonishingly, John 1:14 asserts “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” In Greek, “flesh” is sarx: a satisfactorily ugly word for the stuff of which people are made. The logos, God’s creative Word, the very structure of the universe, has become sarx. That is, quite literally, what “incarnation” means. To understand the Latin root of the word, you don’t need to know Latin—you just need to be a fan of Mexican food. “Chili con carne” is, of course, chili with meat. The incarnation is the “in-meat-ment” of the Divine!

Madonna and Child (Icon with Panagia Glykofilousa): Virgin of Tenderness

What a bizarre thing to say! In fact, we Christians are the only ones who make such a claim about God. Many find it inconceivable, if not offensive, to imagine the unimaginable God in such a way—eternity somehow collapsed into time, omnipresence folded into such a small and scandalously specific place as a baby, in a manger, in Bethlehem. And they are right—it is offensive, inconceivable, a paradox, a mystery—but it is also the claim at the center of our Christian faith.

St. Nicholas was right, friends. Jesus IS God.  In him, God has shown us a human face, has spoken to us with a human voice, has touched us with human hands. In the person of Jesus, God has come to us as one of us.

 

Nov
2021

Hanukkah and the Bible

Hanukkah 2020 - Stories, Traditions & Origins - HISTORY

As I write this, both Advent and Hanukkah are about to begin: tomorrow (November 28) is the first Sunday of Advent, and at sundown that evening, the first day of Hanukkah begins.  On each Sunday of Advent, many Christians will light another candle on their Advent wreaths, counting down the four weeks until Christmas.  On each of the eight nights of Hanukkah (beginning Monday November 29), 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).  A minor festival in the Jewish religious year, the significance of Hanukkah as a family holiday of feasting and gift-giving has grown in parallel to its winter neighbor, the Gentile celebration of Christmas. 

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

The story back of Hanukkah is related in Talmud (b. Shabbat 21b) and in the Apocrypha, in 1 Maccabees 4:36-61.  Intriguingly, that story is also related in the Old Testament book of Daniel.  This may surprise us: the Maccabean revolt, after all, was in the second century BCE, while Daniel is set nearly 400 years earlier, in the time of the Babylonian exile.  However, most scholars agree that in its final form, Daniel must actually have been written down in the mid-second century: in fact, between 167 and 164 BCE.  For example, the writer of Daniel doesn’t know the name of the Judean king under whom the first exile took place–it was Jehoiachin (see 2 Kgs 24:8-17; Ezekiel 1:1-3), not Jehoiakim, as Daniel 1:1-4 claims–and says that the city of Babylon was conquered, not by Cyrus the Persian (see 2 Chron 36:22-23; Ezra 1:1-4; Isaiah 45:1-4), but by an otherwise unknown Darius the Mede (Daniel 5:30–6:3). These statements couldn’t have been made by an eyewitness to the events.

On the other hand, Daniel accurately describes the events of the Greek period, which also set the stage for the events recalled at Hanukkah. In 332 BCE, most of the then-known world was conquered by a young Macedonian called Alexander the Great. When Alexander died ten years later, leaving behind no heir, his generals divided the empire among them. For the Jews in Palestine, two of these rulers would prove especially significant.  To their south, Egypt was claimed by Ptolemy, while to their north, Seleucus ruled in Syria. 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; Daniel 7:25; 11:29-39): perhaps as part of a campaign to unify his kingdom under Greek culture and religion, perhaps in order to get his hands on the Jerusalem temple treasury–or perhaps as an act of anti-Semitic hatred.

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. 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. This 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). 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.

All of this is accurately (if symbolically) related in Daniel 10:1–11:39. But after this point, historical events and the course of the vision no longer coincide. 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.  Earlier that same year, Jerusalem was liberated by an army of Jewish guerrillas led by Judas Maccabeus (1 Maccabees 4:36-61).  The traditional Hanukkah song “Hayo Hayah” (here adapted and sung by Peter Yarrow, Noel Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers) retells the story.  Daniel does not describe these events, likely because the book was completed before they happened: sometime between 167 (the date of the “desolating monstrosity”) and 164 BCE.

Of course, while Antiochus’ oppressive rule ended in the mid-second century BCE, the world did not.  Later Jewish readers, as well as Christian readers such as the John of Revelation, 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.  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.

Hanukkah: History & Traditions | Live ScienceSo, why the eight nights of Hanukkah, with their eight lights?  Following the liberation of Jerusalem, Judas Maccabeus 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”).

 

Book Of Daniel Art | Fine Art America

While Hanukkah rightly celebrates the military victory of the Maccabees over their Greek oppressors, the book of Daniel models a different path, of passive, peaceful  resistance.  Perhaps the most famous story in this book is Daniel in the lions’ den (Dan 6:1-28), set in the reign of Darius–evidently the Persian Darius I (522-486 BCE).

In form, this story is reminiscent of the book of Esther, also set in the Persian period (in Esther 1:1, Ahasuerus [Xerxes I, 485-465 BCE] is said to rule “from India to Cush—one hundred twenty-seven provinces in all;” note that the Greek text of Daniel 6:1 also counts 127 satrapies). In Esther as in Daniel, a good and just councilor (Mordecai in Esther, Daniel here) is victimized by jealous enemies in the court (Haman in Esther; in Daniel, all the other councilors). In both books, the Persian king is tricked into signing an irrevocable edict: in Esther, ordering the deaths of all the Jewish people; in Daniel, directing that “for thirty days anyone who says prayers to any god or human being except you, Your Majesty, will be thrown into a pit of lions” (Est 3:9-15; Dan 6:8, 12, 15).  We should note that “the law of the Medes and Persians, which cannot be annulled” (Dan 6:8, 12) is a bit of folklore, rather than a genuine feature of Persian law.  But while in Esther Ahasuerus’ irrevocable command is matched by a new law arming the Jews and empowering them to resist (Est 8:8-13), in Daniel Darius is forced to carry out his edict. Daniel, who had continued his practice of daily prayer in defiance of the law, is hurled into the lions’ den.  The story records how, after a sleepless night, King Darius breathlessly ran to the lions’ den, to learn how his friend had fared:

At dawn, at the first sign of light, the king rose and rushed to the lions’ pit.  As he approached it, he called out to Daniel, worried: “Daniel, servant of the living God! Was your God—the one you serve so consistently—able to rescue you from the lions?”  Then Daniel answered the king: “Long live the king! My God sent his messenger, who shut the lions’ mouths. They haven’t touched me because I was judged innocent before my God. I haven’t done anything wrong to you either, Your Majesty.”  The king was thrilled. He commanded that Daniel be brought up out of the pit, and Daniel was lifted out. Not a scratch was found on him, because he trusted in his God (Dan 6:19-23).

Althouse: They've covered the popular "Lion Attacking a Dromedary” diorama at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh — do you see why?

In ancient times, Asiatic lions ranged across the Near East, and were understandably feared and respected–even regarded as symbols of royalty in Israel (for example, Gen 49:9; 1 Kgs 10:18-20//2 Chron 9:17-19; Ezek 19:1-9) and Mesopotamia. This diorama in Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum of Natural History contains the taxidermied remains of an Asiatic lion, but sadly, that species is now extinct; modern lions are restricted to a few African regions.  Yet for all the vividness of Daniel’s story, we have no evidence from the Persian period of lions as a mode of execution. Daniel Smith-Christopher (“The Book of Daniel: Introduction, Commentary, and Reflections,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. VII, ed. Leander Keck [Nashville: Abingdon, 1996], 91) proposes that the lions’ den serves as “a symbol of the exile itself,” and of God’s promise of deliverance to God’s people.

Mahatma Gandhi | Biography, Accomplishments, & Facts | Britannica

Mahatma Gandhi, who called Daniel “one of the greatest passive resisters that ever lived,” said specifically of the lion’s den story:

When Daniel disregarded the laws of the Medes and Persians which offended his conscience, and meekly suffered the punishment for his disobedience, he offered satyagraha [nonviolent resistance; a term coined by Gandhi] in its purest form.

The book of Daniel models and affirms the passive, nonviolent resistance practiced by its own faithful community: a different way than the path of violent revolution followed by the Maccabean rebels, but one to which, in our violent times, we ought particularly to attend.

Chanukkah sameach and a joyous Advent to you and yours, friends–God bless us every one!

Nov
2021

A Thanksgiving Prayer

30 Scripture Verses to Celebrate Thanksgiving with an Attitude of Grat - Clothed with Truth

FOREWORD: In Sunday’s worship service, my pastor (and former student!) Karen Slusser led us in this beautiful thanksgiving litany, from poet, theologian, and civil rights activist Howard Thurman.  I share it with you for your own meditation and devotion this festive week.  God bless you, friends–Happy Thanksgiving!

 

 

Howard Thurman’s Thanksgiving Prayer

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.
I begin with the simple things of my days:
Fresh air to breathe,
Cool water to drink,
The taste of food,
The protection of houses and clothes,
The comforts of home.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:
My mother’s arms,
The strength of my father
The playmates of my childhood,
The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives
Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies
And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;
The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;
The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the
Eye with its reminder that life is good.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day

I finger one by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:
The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;
The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I
Feared the step before me in darkness;
The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest
And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;
The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open
Page when my decision hung in the balance.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

If John Wesley Came to General Conference – Part 1 - United Methodist Insight

I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:
The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,
Without whom my own life would have no meaning;
The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;
The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp
And whose words would only find fulfillment
In the years which they would never see;
The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,
The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;
The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,
Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;
The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream
Could inspire and God could command.
For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment
To which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:
The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,
My desires, my gifts;
The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence
That I have never done my best, I have never dared
To reach for the highest;

The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind
Will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the
inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the
children of God as the waters cover the sea.

All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,
I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,
Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart.

Who Was Howard Thurman? | BU Today | Boston University

AFTERWORD:

Howard Thurman, 1899–1981 (from Rich Barlow, “Who Was Howard Thurman?”, Boston University Today, January 7, 2020)

“In 1944, Thurman cofounded San Francisco’s Church for the Fellowship of All Peoples, the first integrated interfaith religious congregation in the United States. In 1953, he became the dean of Marsh Chapel, the first black dean at a mostly white American university, mentoring, among many others, Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59) as he developed his philosophy of nonviolence.

Yet Thurman didn’t live the dramatic public activism of King or suffer a similar martyrdom. In fact, critics called him a backbencher in the Civil Rights Movement, more preoccupied with mystical meanderings than frontline protesting. Thurman countered that the first order of social change was changing one’s individual internal spirit. ‘He rather gently and powerfully moved through the world in a spirit of grace, dignity, and humility,’ says Walter Fluker (GRS’88), the School of Theology Martin Luther King, Jr., Professor of Ethical Leadership, who published Thurman’s papers, taught a seminar on the man last semester, and wrote his dissertation on Thurman and King.

Who exactly was Howard Thurman?

In an interview shortly before his death, Thurman said he caught the ‘contagion’ of religion from his grandmother, who cared for him after his father died when Thurman was seven and his mother became the family breadwinner. His grandmother recited for Howard the mantra of the black preacher she’d heard as a child on her owner’s plantation: ‘You are not slaves. You are not niggers. You’re God’s children!’ His grandmother’s charismatic rendition, Thurman told the interviewer, inspired in him the belief that ‘the creator of existence also created me.’

That belief took him to Morehouse College in Atlanta, then to seminary and a series of jobs as pastor and professor. His first pastorate after his 1925 ordination as a Baptist minister, in Ohio in the 1920s, led to study with Quaker pacifist Rufus Jones, which Thurman said changed his life. His thinking was honed by a 1935 trip to India with other African Americans to meet Mohandas Gandhi, who completed Thurman’s conversion to nonviolent social activism.

Thurman’s association with Martin Luther King, Jr., predated BU. Thurman and King’s father, an Atlanta minister, were friends when the young King was growing up. ‘Thurman was at the King home many times,’ says Vita Paladino (MET’79, SSW’93), former director of the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, which houses King’s donated papers. Their BU time overlapped for only a year, and King considered his father and Thurman a different, older generation, Paladino says. Nonetheless, King carried Jesus and the Disinherited, Thurman’s most important book, while leading the 1955–56 Montgomery bus boycott.

Published in 1949, the book argues that Jesus taught the oppressed a faith-based unconditional love that would enable them to endure their oppression. Thurman’s message moved not only King, but Jesse Jackson, who in 1982 penned an essay for a postmortem tribute to Thurman by BU. Jackson the activist wrote that he’d been drawn to Thurman the academic by his insistence that ‘if you ever developed a cultivated will with spiritual discipline, the flame of freedom would never perish.’”

Nov
2021

The Pierced King

What is truth? Christ and Pilate - Popxartist

This Sunday, the last Sunday after Pentecost, marks the end of the Christian year; next Sunday, with Advent, a new year will begin. The last Sunday of the Christian year is called the Reign of Christ, or the feast of Christ the King.  Appropriately, the Gospel for this Sunday, John 18:33-37, relates Jesus’ trial before Pilate on the charge of political insurrection:  has Jesus claimed to be a king, in opposition to Caesar?

Pilate went back into the palace. He summoned Jesus and asked, “Are you the king of the Jews?” 

Jesus answered, “Do you say this on your own or have others spoken to you about me?”

Pilate responded, “I’m not a Jew, am I? Your nation and its chief priests handed you over to me. What have you done?”

Jesus replied, “My kingdom doesn’t originate from this world. If it did, my guards would fight so that I wouldn’t have been arrested by the Jewish leaders. My kingdom isn’t from here.”

“So you are a king?” Pilate said.

Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. I was born and came into the world for this reason: to testify to the truth. Whoever accepts the truth listens to my voice.”

The epistle for this Sunday, Revelation 1:4-8, further clarifies what sort of kingdom Jesus rules, and what sort of king he is:

Grace and peace to you from the one who is and was and is coming, and from the seven spirits that are before God’s throne, and from Jesus Christ—the faithful witness, the firstborn from among the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth. To the one who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, who made us a kingdom, priests to his God and Father—to him be glory and power forever and always. Amen 

Look, he is coming with the clouds! Every eye will see him, including those who pierced him, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn because of him. This is so. Amen.

John’s reference to Jesus as the pierced one alludes to an enigmatic text from Zechariah:

And I will pour out a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that, when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn (Zech 12:10, NRSV).

As in Joel 2:28-29 (in Hebrew, 3:1-2), God pours out God’s spirit.  But here, rather than a spirit of prophecy poured out on all people, God pours out “a spirit of compassion and supplication on the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (12:10). This spirit sufficiently softens their hearts so that “when they look on the one whom they have pierced, they shall mourn for him, as one mourns for an only child, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps over a firstborn.”

But who is this pierced one?  Our Hebrew Bible reads ‘elay ‘eth ‘asher-daqaru: “to me whom they have pierced.”  The third person forms used later in the verse (“mourn for him . . . weep over him”) suggest that perhaps ‘elay should read ‘elaw (“to him”)—a common scribal error.  Accordingly, the NRSV has “the one whom they have pierced.”  The Greek text of John 19:37, which quotes this verse, reads hopsontai eis hon exekentesan, “they shall look at him whom they have pierced,” which seems to be the form of the saying assumed by most early Christian writers.

However, the Greek Septuagint keeps the first person reference in Zech 12:10, translating the phrase as epiblepsontai pros me anth’ on katorchesanto (“they shall look to me because they mocked”[?]; the Greek texts of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotian have exekentesan, “they pierced,” instead of katorchesanto, “they mocked”).  The early Christian teacher Theodoret of Cyrus accordingly read, “They will look on me, on the one they have pierced” (Commentary on the Twelve Prophets).  The Latin Vulgate also uses the first person (aspicient ad me quem confixerunt; “they shall look upon me whom they have pierced”), as does the old King James Version: “they shall look upon me whom they have pierced.”  The CEB has, “They will look to me concerning the one whom they pierced;” similarly, the Jewish Publication Society’s translation reads “they shall lament to me about those who are slain.” This is a possible, if awkward, reading.

But if the Hebrew text is correct here, as seems likely from the textual evidence, the simplest and best reading is, “when they look on me whom they have pierced.”  Incredible as it seems, this passage refers to an assault by Jerusalem’s leaders upon God.  The one “whom they have pierced” is the LORD.

There is precedent for this in Zechariah 2:8:

The Lord of heavenly forces proclaims (after his glory sent me)
        concerning the nations plundering you:
            Those who strike you strike the pupil of my eye.

Here, those who assault Judah are regarded as though they had poked God in the eye!  Cruelty to those whom God loves is an assault upon the Divine.  No wonder Zechariah 12:10 calls the people of Jerusalem and their leaders to mourn!

Crucifixion of Jesus - Wikipedia

The quotation of Zechariah 12:10 in the Fourth Gospel comes in John’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion:

It was the Preparation Day and the Jewish leaders didn’t want the bodies to remain on the cross on the Sabbath, especially since that Sabbath was an important day. So they asked Pilate to have the legs of those crucified broken and the bodies taken down.  Therefore, the soldiers came and broke the legs of the two men who were crucified with Jesus.  When they came to Jesus, they saw that he was already dead so they didn’t break his legs.  However, one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out.  The one who saw this has testified, and his testimony is true. He knows that he speaks the truth, and he has testified so that you also can believe. These things happened to fulfill the scripture, They won’t break any of his bonesAnd another scripture says, They will look at him whom they have pierced (John 19:31-37).

Breaking of the legs of the crucified was intended to speed their deaths.  If victims of crucifixion were unable to push up to relieve the pressure on their lungs and diaphragm, they would soon suffocate.  Otherwise, those crucified suffered for hours, even days, before dying.  The religious leaders do not ask a quicker death for Jesus and his fellow sufferers out of mercy or pity, however.  Unburied corpses defile the land (Deut 21:23, Paul’s prooftext for Jesus taking our curse on himself; see Gal 3:13).  Therefore, it is important for these leaders that the condemned men die before sundown, so that they do not die on the Sabbath–particularly this Sabbath of Passover.  When the executioners see (doubtless to their surprise) that Jesus is already dead, they stab him with a spear to make certain, fulfilling, in John’s mind, Zechariah’s prophecy (as well as Exodus 12:46 and Numbers 9:12, which direct that the bones of the Passover lamb are not to be broken, and Psalm 34:19-20).

Returning to Sunday’s epistle reading, Revelation 1:7 also alludes to Zechariah 12:12: “The land will mourn, each of the clans by itself.”  Here, John follows the Septuagint reading kai kopsetai he ge kata phulas (“the earth shall mourn by tribe”).  So John declares that every tribe on earth will see the exalted, returning Christ–and everyone will be brought by this revelation to mourning and repentance.

By contrast, the early Christian apologist Justin Martyr read this passage as referring specifically to the Jews, who looking on “him whom they have pierced      . . . shall say, ‘Why, O Lord, have you made us to err from your way? The glory which our fathers blessed has for us been turned into shame” (First Apology 52). Indeed, Hippolytus describes those who crucified Jesus, whom he identifies as “the people of the Hebrews,” wailing when they see “him whom they have pierced,” and repenting—but too late, as they have already been consigned to hell (On the End of the World 40).

No contemporary Christian can–or should–read those words without shame. Jesus was not killed by the Jews, as the Bible and history alike make utterly plain.  But while absolutely repudiating the anti-Semitism of these ancient Christian authors, we can still learn from them. By identifying the “pierced one” with Jesus, whom they certainly regarded as divine, these early Christian exegetes recognized that in Zech 12:10, God is the offended party.

But while Jerusalem and its leaders have by their injustice and faithlessness wounded the LORD, God’s response is not to seek vengeance, but to pour out God’s spirit, and so to bring them to sorrow and remorse.  The reference in Zechariah 12:10 to mourning “as one mourns for an only child” (Hebrew hayyakhid, “the only one”) recalls other texts depicting extreme grief (Jeremiah 6:26; Amos 8:10).  Just as the reference to the firstborn (habbekor) recalls the grim story of the tenth plague in Exodus 12:29-32, and the “terrible cry of agony” when the deaths of the firstborn were discovered, the reference to the only child recalls Genesis 22, where Abraham is commanded to give up “your son, your only son [yekhideka] Isaac, whom you love” (Gen 22:2) and the loss of Jephthah’s only daughter (Hebrew yekhidah) in Judges 11:34.  Christian readers are likely to think of John 3:16, which describes Jesus as God’s only child (Greek monogenes; the same word used in the Septuagint of Jdg 11:34 for Jephthah’s only daughter), given up for us.

What kind of king is Jesus?  He is not a cruel despot, like Pilate or Caesar–or indeed, like any of the kings of the earth over whom he reigns.  He is the pierced one, who knows our suffering from the inside, who by his blood has freed us from the power of our own sin.  He comes, not to avenge, but to bring us all to a full recognition of our own violence and hatred, and so to healing grief and repentance.