Mar
2018

Standing at this tomb of water. . .

FOREWORD: I am reposting this blog from 2013, in recognition of this Holy Saturday, and in eager anticipation of tomorrow’s Day of Resurrection!  God bless you, my friends–Christ is risen indeed!

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.

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,

Shall I shun its brink, betraying

Feelings worthy of a slave?

Can I run from mercy’s wave?

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
2018

Hosanna!

In “The Princess Bride,” one of my favorite films, a continuing shtick involves Wallace Shawn’s character, Vazzini, who uses the word  “Inconceivable!” over and over again.  Eventually, this prompts Vazzini’s henchman, Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin), to say, “You keep using that word.  I do not think that it means what you think it means.”

Sometimes, we use words without thinking what they mean, just because they seem to fit a context: think of how astonished we are when we say, “How are you?,” and someone actually starts to tell us!  We didn’t mean, really, “Tell me how you are.”  All we meant was, “I see you there, I recognize and acknowledge you, and now I am off to do something  else.”

Or consider the word “Hosanna.”   Hosanna is a church word, like “amen” and “Alleluia”—in fact, I would bet that you have never used or heard that word outside of a church.  Hosanna pops up in hymns, particularly the Palm Sunday standards, and in prayers–particularly in the Great Thanksgiving, every time we celebrate communion:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might,
      heaven and earth are full of your glory.
     Hosanna in the highest.
     Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.
     Hosanna in the highest.

 

In the gospel lesson for Palm Sunday this year, the shout seems to be taken up spontaneously by the crowd as a parade takes shape, and word spreads that the one on the donkey is David’s descendant, who has come to Jerusalem to claim a throne. They use Hosanna as a festival shout–the way we might cheer at a ball game:

Those in front of him and those following were shouting, “Hosanna! Blessings on the one who comes in the name of the Lord!  Blessings on the coming kingdom of our ancestor David! Hosanna in the highest!” (Mark 11:9-10).

But unlike “Yahoo!” or “Hurray!” in English, “Hosanna” is a real word in Hebrew.  It comes from Psalm 118—part of the Hallel (Pss 113—118). These psalms are sung in Jewish festivals, particularly at Pesach, or Passover: the feast that brought these crowds on pilgrimage from across the Roman world to Jerusalem.  The first two psalms in the Hallel are sung before the Passover meal, and the last four are sung after.

Just as around Christmastime, “Jingle Bells” is everywhere–in our ears and in the air!–the Hallel would have been in the air, for any Jewish community, surrounding Pesach.  Little wonder the words of the Hallel come so readily to the lips of the crowd.

To be more specific, “Hosanna” comes from Psalm 118:25, which in Hebrew reads

‘ana’ YHWH hoshi’ah na’

‘ana’ YHWH hatslikhah na’.  

Though the Hallel would have been learned, and sung, in Hebrew, most ordinary Judeans didn’t actually speak Hebrew: in Jesus’ day, the everyday language of Palestinian Jews would have been Aramaic.  So, while the crowds know the words to the song, they don’t necessarily know what they mean. So, while they shout “Hosannah!” as though it meant “Hurray!,” what it really means is “Save us, please!”  The CEB translates this verse,

Lord, please save us!
    Lord, please let us succeed!

Whether the crowd knows it or not, then, they are calling to Jesus for help.

Do they need help? Indeed, they do!  In Jesus’ time, Judea was under the heel of Roman military occupation.  Taxes were high, prices were high, and popular unrest was high—which is probably why the crowds were spoiling for a fight, just waiting for someone to lead them.  This ferment would explode into disastrous revolts against Rome that will result, first, in the destruction of the temple, and then, in the expulsion of Jews from Jerusalem itself for generations.

But that is not why Jesus has come to Jerusalem.  We know the story that unfolds in this next week very well.  Jesus has come, not to claim a throne, but to take a stand against the religious and political establishments that will result in his execution.  He has come to suffer, and to die.

 

From the first, Christians have confessed that somehow, all of our suffering and death is caught up in Jesus’ suffering and death.  Jesus will die for us—communicating at once the depth of human sin and depravity, and the extent of God’s love for us.

 

It is well, then, that we should shout “Hosanna,” friends–“Save us, please!”  For Jesus has come to save, not just those ignorant crowds at the gate, who were crying for help but didn’t know it, but you, and me, and all of us, for all of time.

Friend, whatever your need is this day, in this Holy Week, whatever your sorrow, whatever your pain, you are not alone!  Christ has come to be with you right where you are, in the center of your darkness– to bring you home.  We can join the Palm Sunday crowds, and call, not in ignorance but in earnest, “Hosanna”–“Save  us, Lord!”—knowing that Christ will answer.

Have a blessed Holy Week, and a joyfilled, triumphant Easter!

Mar
2018

Light of Sun, Radiance of Moon. . .

FOREWORD:  I am reposting this blog entry for St. Patrick’s Day.  Beannachtai Na Feile Padraig Oraibh–May the blessing of St. Patrick’s Day be upon you!

March 17 is the feast of Saint Pádraig–better known as Patrick, patron saint of Ireland.  The saint was likely born in the late fourth century; according to Saint Fiacc’s “Hymn of Saint Patrick,” he was the son of a Briton named Calpurnius.  Patrick was just sixteen when he was kidnapped from the family estate, along with many others, by Irish raiders.  He would be a slave in Ireland for six years.

Once he was free, Patrick studied for the priesthood under Saint Germanus of Auxerre, in the southern part of Gaul.  Saint Germanus took his pupil to Britain to save that country from Pelagianism: together they travelled through Britain convincing people to turn to God from heresy, and throwing out false priests (some say that this is the source of the legend that Patrick drove the “snakes” out of Ireland!).

Despite his experience of hardship and abuse as a slave, Patrick longed to return to Ireland.  He told his teacher that he had often heard the voice of the Irish children calling to him, “Come, Holy Patrick, and make us saved.” But Patrick had to wait until he was sixty years old before Pope Celestine at last consecrated him as Bishop to Ireland.  At the moment of Patrick’s consecration, legend says, the Pope also heard the voices of the Irish children!

That year, Easter coincided with the “feast of Tara,” or Beltane–still celebrated today by kindling bonfires. No fire was supposed to be lit that night until the Druid’s fire had been kindled.  But Saint Patrick lit the Easter fire first.  Laoghaire, high king of Ireland, warned that if that fire were not stamped out, it would never afterward be extinguished in Erin.

King Laoghaire invited the Bishop and his companions to his castle at Tara the next day–after posting soldiers along the road, to assassinate them!  But, according to The Tripartite Life, on his way from Slane to Tara that Easter Sunday, Patrick was reciting his Breastplate prayer (a masterpiece of Celtic spirituality, which has, not at all surprisingly, been set to music many, many times; the links in this blog will take you to a few of these).  As the saint prayed,

A cloak of darkness went over them so that not a man of them appeared. Howbeit, the enemy who were waiting to ambush them, saw eight deer going past them…. That was Saint Patrick with his eight…

Therefore, “St. Patrick’s Breastplate” is also called the “Deer’s Cry.”

As the legend of the Deer’s Cry demonstrates, Celtic spirituality is linked closely to nature.  St. Patrick’s teaching embraced God’s presence manifest in God’s creation.  Even the tradition that Patrick used the shamrock to teach the Trinity connects God’s revelation to the natural world.  This is particularly evident, however, in the Breastplate prayer:

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven:

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

Firmness of rock.

In the Book of the Twelve, God’s presence manifest through the natural world is presumed in the book of Haggai.  Haggai’s prophecy began “in the second year of King Darius, in the sixth month on the first day of the month” (Hag 1:1)–that is, August 29, 520 BC, about seventeen years after the fall of Babylon, and the end of the Babylonian exile.  Together with his fellow prophet Zechariah, Haggai called for the community in Jerusalem to rebuild the temple, which had been in ruins since the Babylonians destroyed the city in 587 BC.

 

Haggai 1:3-11  joins fertility and abundance to God’s presence, enshrined and celebrated in the right temple with the right liturgy.  Patrick celebrates this theme positively, through a joyful nature spirituality wherein a simple herb expresses the mystery of God’s nature, the vibrancy and constancy of wind and water and stone and tree witness to God’s presence and power, and the line between the human world and the animal world, between people and deer, can blur and vanish.

But in Haggai, this theme is expressed negatively. The failure of the community to rebuild God’s temple has meant disaster–not only for the human community, but also for the land itself.  Just as for Patrick the presence of God, honored and celebrated in true worship, brings life and blessing to the land, for Haggai the absence of God’s temple has brought death, infertility, and drought:

Therefore, the skies above you have withheld the dew,
        and the earth has withheld its produce because of you.
I have called for drought on the earth,
        on the mountains, on the grain,
        on the wine, on the olive oil,
        on that which comes forth from the fertile ground,
        on humanity, on beasts,
        and upon everything that handles produce (Hag 1:10-11).

Haggai challenges his community,

Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses
            while this house lies in ruins?
So now, this is what the Lord of heavenly forces says:
    Take your ways to heart.
    You have sown much, but it has brought little.
    You eat, but there’s not enough to satisfy.
    You drink, but not enough to get drunk.
    There is clothing, but not enough to keep warm.
    Anyone earning wages puts those wages into a bag with holes (Hag 1:4-6).

As Stephen Cook observes, Haggai makes a clear connection between the temple lying “in ruins” (1:4; Hebrew khareb) and the “drought [Hebrew khoreb] on the earth” (1:11; see Stephen Cook, “Haggai,” “Zechariah,” and “Malachi” in The New Interpreter’s Bible One-Volume Commentary  [ed. Beverly Roberts Gaventa and David Petersen; Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 2010], 529–539.).

For Haggai, since God’s presence in the temple was the source of life and fertility in all the land, the refusal of the people to rebuild the temple had resulted in God’s absence, and so in infertility and drought.  In the great baseball film “Field of Dreams,” a Voice prompts Ray Kinsella to carve a baseball field out of his Iowa cornfields, saying, “If you build it, he will come.”  Just so, Haggai urges his community to action:

Go up to the highlands and bring back wood.
    Rebuild the temple so that I may enjoy it
        and that I may be honored, says the LORD (Hag 1:8).

“If you build it,” Haggai assures his people, “he will come.”

We may see connections between Haggai’s temple theology and the modern “prosperity gospel,” which promises health, wealth, and success to those who believe the right things, and pray in the right way.  But this so-called “gospel” is actually an outrageous misappropriation of Haggai’s theology.  Haggai does not tell his community what they must do in order to prosper.  Indeed, he lays the blame for their currently unfulfilled lives on their pursuit of prosperity.  Haggai 1:4 asks, “Is it time for you to dwell in your own paneled houses while this house lies in ruins?”  The reference to paneling (Hebrew saphun) calls to mind the opulence of the royal palaces of Solomon (1 Kings 7:7) and Jehoiakim (Jeremiah 22:14).  Haggai’s community, with their “paneled houses,” had aspired to that former wealth and prosperity, and in so doing had placed themselves first, and God last.

But this way of living had not brought them the satisfaction and fulfillment they sought; in fact, it had desolated both them and their land.  Only by obeying God’s command through the prophet to rebuild the temple, and so placing God first, could Haggai’s community not only find the fulfillment that had eluded them, but also heal their land.

This St. Patrick’s Day, may we listen to the message of the saint–a message proclaimed long before him by prophets like Haggai.  May we seek God first, and so find fulfillment for ourselves and for God’s world.

Oh, and–Erin go bragh!

AFTERWORD

Here is the complete traditional text of the “Breastplate of St. Patrick.”

I arise today

Through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,

Through the 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 obedience of angels,

In the service of archangels,

In hope of resurrection to meet with reward,

In prayers of patriarchs,

In predictions of prophets,

In preaching of apostles,

In faith of confessors,

In innocence of holy virgins,

In deeds of righteous men.

I arise today

Through the strength of heaven:

Light of sun,

Radiance of moon,

Splendor of fire,

Speed of lightning,

Swiftness of wind,

Depth of sea,

Stability of earth,

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 way to lie before me,

God’s shield to protect me,

God’s host to save me

From snares of devils,

From temptations of vices,

From everyone who shall wish me ill,

Afar and anear,

Alone and in multitude.

I summon today all these powers between me and those evils,

Against every cruel 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 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.

 

Jan
2018

Candlemas

In Western Christianity, February 2 is the Feast of the Presentation of the Lord, commemorating Jesus’ presentation at the temple (see Luke 2:22-40).  This old icon expresses Luke’s account simply and beautifully.

Joseph (portrayed, as is traditional, as a very old man) carries the two turtledoves that Leviticus 12:8 says a poor woman may offer instead of a sheep for her cleansing from the ritual uncleanness caused by childbirth: a defiling act, for mother and child alike (see Leviticus 12:2-8; note that in Roman Catholicism prior to Vatican II, this day was called “the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin”).

In the priests’ world view, the life of any being was contained in the blood, meaning that blood belongs exclusively to God.  Childbirth, being a bloody process, rendered mother and child alike ritually unclean.

The period of uncleanness depended on the sex of the child: 7 days of impurity for a male child, 2 weeks of uncleanness if the baby was female.  This was followed by an additional 33 days for a male child, 66 days for a female, during which the mother “must not touch anything holy or enter the sacred area” (Lev 12:4).  Although in the icon, little Jesus looks more like a young boy than a baby scarcely over a month old, Luke says that Joseph and Mary, as observant Jews, made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem “When the time came for their ritual cleansing, in accordance with the Law from Moses” (Luke 2:22): that is, forty days after Jesus’ birth (which is why the Feast is celebrated in the Christian West on February 2, 40 days after December 25).

Also pictured are Simeon and Anna.  Simeon, who had been promised “that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26) 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).

Anna, an 84 year old widow who “never left the temple area but worshipped God with fasting and prayer night and day. . . began to praise God and to speak about Jesus to everyone who was looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:37-38).  In Luke’s gospel, then, from the very first, anyone with eyes to see and a heart to believe knows who Jesus is!  His presentation in the temple as a baby marks, in a sense, the beginning of his mission.

This celebration, coming in the dead of winter, is traditionally associated with hope for Spring’s return.  Good weather on this midwinter day is held to be a bad omen of more bleak days ahead, while bad weather augurs the swift return of sunshine and greenery–which is why, in America, February 2 is better known (heaven help us!) as Groundhog Day. We wait to see if a groundhog (in Pennsylvania, of course, THE Groundhog, Punxsatawney Phil) will see his shadow.

The association of February 2 with light and warmth leads to the other name for this feast day, Candlemas.  In the Revised Common Lectionary, the Old Testament reading for Candlemas every year is Malachi 3:1-4:

Look, I am sending my messenger who will clear the path before me;
        suddenly the Lord whom you are seeking will come to his temple.
        The messenger of the covenant in whom you take delight is coming,
says the Lord of heavenly forces.
 Who can endure the day of his coming?
        Who can withstand his appearance?
He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.
 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.
        He will purify the Levites
            and refine them like gold and silver.
            They will belong to the Lord,
                presenting a righteous offering.
 The offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord
        as in ancient days and in former years.

Malachi comes at the end of the Book of the Twelve, and in the Christian Bible, at the end of the Old Testament.   The book is set well after the end of the Babylonian exile, when Judah once more has a temple, a priesthood, and a functioning sacrificial liturgy. Yet, according to the prophet, the people are bland, cynical, and indifferent.  Far from being moved to repentance and change by Malachi’s call to reform, the people say, “Anyone doing evil is good in the Lord’s eyes,” or “He delights in those doing evil,” or “Where is the God of justice?”(Mal 2:17).  In other words, Malachi’s community believes that either God does not see what they do, or that God does not care.

Malachi gives assurance that these questions and doubts are about to be addressed, for “suddenly the LORD whom you are seeking will come to his temple” (Mal 3:1).  Those who piously claim to delight in God’s covenant will soon have the opportunity to express their gratitude personally!

Actually, Malachi proclaims not only the advent of the LORD, but also of the LORD’s messenger.  In Hebrew, “my messenger” is  mal’akhi–the same word that appears at the beginning of the book (Mal 1:1), where mal’akhi is the one through whom this message of judgment is communicated.  While we might expect a name like Malachiah (“the LORD’s messenger”), “my messenger” seems an unlikely name for any parent to give a child. Probably, then, the prophet is anonymous, called Mal’akhi  because of Malachi 3:1.

But already within the editing of Malachi, we see further reflections on the identity of this enigmatic figure.  In the conclusion to this book (see Mal 4:5 [3:23 in the Hebrew text]), the prophetic forerunner of the day of the LORD has become Elijah, who was taken alive into the heavens in a chariot of fire (2 Kgs 2:11) and so can be called upon for this task.

In Christian Scripture, Jesus is the one who comes to cleanse his people from their sins (Mal 3:2-3), and John the Baptist becomes the “messenger” sent to proclaim Jesus’ coming (see the quotes of Mal 3:1 at Matt 11:10; Mark 1:2; Luke 1:76; 7:27), and “Elijah who is to come” (Matt 11:14; cf. Matt 17:10-11; Mark 9:11-12; Luke 1:17).

Perhaps this is why Augustine on the one hand describes John the Baptist the “messenger” of Malachi 3:1 (Tra. Ev. Jo. 14.10.1), and on the other relates Malachi 3:1-2 both to Christ’s first coming (reading the Lord coming to “his temple” as a reference to the incarnation; see Matt 26:59-61; Mark 14:55-59; John 2:19-21, where the “temple” refers to Jesus’ body) and also to his second coming at the end of time (“Who can endure the day of his coming?,” Mal 3:2; cf. Civ. 18:35; 20:25).

Perhaps as you have been reading this blog, the musical setting of Malachi 3:1-3 from George Handel’s famous oratorio The Messiah has been playing in your head–as it has in mine.  Charles Jennens, who composed the libretto for this oratorio, doubtless picked this passage for inclusion because, like Augustine, he regarded it as a reference Christ’s first and second coming.

It is also little wonder that this text should be used for Candlemas, a day celebrating Jesus coming into the temple.  But, as the old name for this feast reminds us, the occasion for Jesus and Mary coming to the temple on this particular day is their cleansing, mother and child, from ritual impurity–an idea also expressed in Mal 4:2-3:

He is like the refiner’s fire or the cleaner’s soap.
 He will sit as a refiner and a purifier of silver.

In Malachi, it is the the priesthood (the “sons of Levi,” in Handel’s stirring oratorio) who, after being purified and cleansed by God in the coming trials, will at last present right offerings to the LORD, restoring Judah and Jerusalem to a right relationship with God (Mal 3:4).  A Christian reader may find the idea of ritual purity and uncleanness strange, even meaningless.  Indeed, regarding ritual purity and impurity laws relating to food, Jesus said:

Don’t you know that everything that goes into the mouth enters the stomach and goes out into the sewer?  But what goes out of the mouth comes from the heart. And that’s what contaminates a person in God’s sight. Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adultery, sexual sins, thefts, false testimonies, and insults.  These contaminate a person in God’s sight. But eating without washing hands doesn’t contaminate in God’s sight (Matt 15:16-20).

Although we may see no need for cleansing from ritual impurity, Jesus’ words surely ring true. We know that our own thoughts, words and actions–or the actions and words of others–can make us feel dirty.  Understanding our need for forgiveness of sin, and freedom from guilt, may we, with Malachi, affirm that God can cleanse us from the stain of our sin, today and in days to come.

Jan
2018

“. . .until justice rolls down like waters”

 

FORWARD:  While I am on sabbatical, I am reposting previous blogs.  This one for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day is from just a year ago, when Dean John Welch of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and I were honored to keynote an event honoring Dr. King at First UMC in Ellwood City, PA.  Thank you to former student and colleague in ministry Rev. Chad Bogdewic, who invited me to preach; to Rev. Angelique Bradford, pastor at Ellwood City First, for hosting this event; and to the Ellwood City Ministerium, for planning it.

The grim circumstances cited in the last paragraph of this blog have, if anything, heightened in this past year, when our own President offered support to those marching with white supremacists in Charlottesville, and most recently used a scatological epithet to demean Haiti and many African nations.  We have never needed to hear and heed Dr. King’s–and Amos’–call to action more than today.

Outside the headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama stands this monument to the martyrs of the civil rights movement, whose names are carved into the fountain at its center.  On the wall around this centerpiece is engraved, “. . .until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream. Martin Luther King, Jr.”

The attribution of the quote is correct: this exact wording comes from Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” speech, delivered on August  28, 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C., during the March on Washington: one of the most famous speeches of modern times:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

But Dr. King, a Baptist preacher, certainly knew that when he said those words, he was paraphrasing the words of the prophet Amos:

I hate, I reject your festivals;
    I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food
        I won’t be pleased;
    I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
Take away the noise of your songs;
        I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24)

This was not the first time that Dr. King cited this passage from Amos. Indeed, he cited this passage earlier that very year, in April, in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”:

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. From “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

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 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.”

In his book Why We Can’t WaitDr. King remembered writing his response to this open letter: “Begun on the margins of the newspaper in which the statement appeared while I was in jail, the letter was continued on scraps of writing paper supplied by a friendly black trusty, and concluded on a pad my attorneys were eventually permitted to leave me.”  The letter was published in June 1963 in three magazines, including Christian Century; but it was in the July issue of Atlantic Monthly that it reached its largest audience.  It has since been reprinted countless times–but it takes some looking to find “A Call for Unity”!

Those eight white Alabama clergymen who disapproved of Dr. King felt that civil disobedience is inappropriate for Christians. Evidently, Christians should express their faith in church, where it belongs.  Oddly, we still sometimes think of social justice and Spirit-filled worship as two different things–indeed, we may go so far as to describe these as the concerns of different churches.  But for Amos, there was no separating the two.

The passage from Amos cited by Dr. King powerfully expresses God’s passion for justice, and God’s rejection of any form of religion that does not issue forth in lives of justice.  Without right living, our prayers and hymns are just noise. And lest we think that this is just Amos’ view, or just the Old Testament’s view, the New Testament also proclaims this truth:

If anyone says, I love God, and hates a brother or sister, he is a liar, because the person who doesn’t love a brother or sister who can be seen can’t love God, who can’t be seen (1 John 4:20).

Without justice, right worship is impossible.  However, I am also persuaded that right living is impossible without right worship–or at least, very, very difficult!  If we seek to establish God’s justice on our own steam, we will burn out quickly. That’s why Jesus named two great commandments: love God, and love neighbor (Matthew 22:34-40Mark 12:28-34; and Luke 10:25-28). Just as love for the neighbor shows forth our love for God, so it is as we love God, and know ourselves loved by God in our worship, that we are empowered to love our neighbor.

While those eight prominent white Alabama clergymen may have disapproved of Dr. King, Amos would have heartily approved! Amos condemned the wealthy of his own day, declaring that God’s judgment would fall upon Israel for their callousness to the forgotten poor:

because they have sold the innocent for silver,
            and those in need for a pair of sandals.
They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
        and push the afflicted out of the way (Amos 2:6-7).

Amos confronted both the religious and the political leaders of his own day for their involvement in injustice.  Amaziah, high priest at Bethel, condemned Amos as an outside agitator (!) from the southern kingdom of Judah, and ordered him to go back home:

You who see things, go, run away to the land of Judah, eat your bread there, and prophesy there; but never again prophesy at Bethel, for it is the king’s holy place and his royal house (Amos 7:12-13).

Amos would have been delighted by Dr. King’s response to the charge that he too was an “outsider.”  In his “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” he wrote,

I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. 

Was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. a prophet, like Amos?  That is not an easy question for an Old Testament scholar to answer!  After all, the prophets of ancient Israel believed that the words that they bore were God’s words, not their own: that is why Amos, like other prophets in Israel, speaks in God’s name and with God’s voice, in the first person (“I hate, I reject your festivals. . . If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food I won’t be pleased”), as God’s spokesperson. Dr. King certainly never claimed such an exalted status for himself, or for his words.

But the prophets were also ministers of God’s justice, shaking Israel out of its complacency and calling their people to remember who they were, and live as God’s people. As a voice raised on behalf of the oppressed, as a tireless laborer in the cause of God’s justice, as an example of what one person devoted to God’s call can accomplish—Dr. King was a prophetic witness to his own time, and to ours.

Today, when the gap between rich and poor has become greater than at any time since the Gilded Age and the robber barons; today, when the Southern Poverty Law Center records 1,094 reports of harassment and intimidation in the month after our recent election, “more than the group would usually see over a six-month period; ” today, when the continually rising tide of deaths of young African American men by police violence makes Dr. King’s dream seem more and more remote, may we recommit ourselves to work for and pray for the day when “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Jan
2018

The Magi

For millions of Western Christians, today–January 6–is the Feast of the Epiphany: a day associated particularly with the light of the star that guided the Magi to the Christ Child (see Matthew 2:1-12).  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 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 us there in Bethlehem.

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.”

AFTERWORD

In the Christian East, the liturgical year follows the old Julian calendar. By their reckoning, this is Christmas Eve, and tomorrow is Christmas.  So, to all our Orthodox sisters and brothers–Merry Christmas!

Jan
2018

The Holy Name of Jesus

 

FORWARD:  Today is New Year’s Day, of course–a day for rededication and new beginnings.  But it is also the eighth day of Christmas, and so according to Luke 2:21, the day when Jesus was circumcized and named.  Therefore in many traditions, this day is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.  In recognition of that day, I am reposting these words from blogs on August 27 and September 5, 2013, about the names given to the Christ Child.  Merry Christmas, friends, and a joyous New Year 2018!

Matthew 1:18-24 provides the background for a Child ballad (no. 54) still sung in Appalachia, a Christmas carol called “The Cherry Tree.”   This strange little story never makes it into the Christmas pageants–probably because of its mature language and themes!

Mary, Joseph’s fiancee, is pregnant.  Joseph reaches the obvious, natural conclusion: Mary must have been unfaithful to him.  Certainly, the engagement was off, but in that culture, at that time, more could have–indeed many would have thought, should have–happened.  Mary’s actions had brought shame upon Joseph, as well as upon her own family.  At the least, she should have been exposed to public shame.  At the worst, with the evidence of her pregnancy to confirm her faithlessness, Mary could have been stoned to death (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:13-28, especially 20-21 and 23-27). In some parts of the world, such “honor killings” still occur today.

 

But Joseph wanted nothing to do with any of this:

Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly (Matt 1:19, CEB).

Before Joseph could act on his decision, however, an angel appeared in a dream, to assure him of Mary’s faithfulness.  Her pregnancy was a miracle; her child “was conceived by the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:20, CEB)!  Further, the angel gave Joseph instructions concerning this child: “you will call him Jesus” (Matt 1:21, CEB).

The name Jesus (Greek Iesous; Aramaic Yeshua) is a form of the name “Joshua,” derived like that name from the Semitic word for “salvation,” yeshuah.  He is to be named this because of his life’s work: “he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21, CEB).

A second name is also given to the child, however–not by Joseph, but by the writer of this gospel, for the eyes and ears of its readers and hearers (Matt 1:22-23, CEB):

Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:

Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
        And they will call him, Emmanuel.

(Emmanuel means “God with us.”) 

One characteristic feature of Matthew’s gospel is the quotation of Scriptures that foreshadow Jesus’ life and ministry.  Here, he is quoting from Isaiah 7:10-16.

In Matthew’s gospel, then, two names are applied to the Christ before he is even born: Jesus and Emmanuel.  Both names figure prominently in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension.  

With many students of Scripture, I believe that the best explanation of both the similarities and the differences among the first three gospels (commonly called the Synoptic Gospels due to their parallel structures) is that Mark was the earliest gospel, and was used as a source in both Matthew and Luke.  This makes the differences between Mark and Matthew’s versions particularly significant for understanding Matthew’s particular emphases.

In Matthew, as in Mark, Jesus eats a Passover meal with his disciples, breaking the bread and sharing the cup.  Matthew’s version follows Mark’s, with one important addition.  In Matthew as in Mark, Jesus blesses the bread, and breaking it shares it with his disciples, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body” (26:26).  He then takes the cup, gives thanks, and shares it with them:  “Drink from this, all of you.  This is my blood of the covenant, (just what Mark says) which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven” (26:27-28).  That last phrase, only Matthew has.  Remember that the angel had said, “you will call him Jesus [that is, Yeshua, or “Savior”], because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).  But, how?  Only now do we begin to see.  Somehow, in his death, Jesus takes upon himself the ugliness and horror of human life, human evil, human sin.

Now we come to the cross.  In Matthew, the death of Jesus is described in more detail than in Mark’s gospel.  In particular, Matthew has a sequence of three groups of people who mock Jesus as he is hanging on the cross.  Their words are important (look particularly at the words in italics).  First there were the passers-by (27:39-40), who said,  “So you were going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, were you? Save yourself!”  (Remember the name Yeshua, “the Savior”)  “If you are God’s Son, come down from the cross.”  (Remember the name Immanuel, “God with us”).

Next the religious leaders, the chief priests, the scribes, the elders   mock him, too:  “He saved others, but he can’t save himself. He’s the king of Israel, so let him come down from the cross now. Then we’ll believe in him. He trusts in God, so let God deliver him now if he wants to. He said, ‘I’m God’s Son’” (27:42-43).

Finally, the bandits crucified on either side of Jesus “insulted him in the same way” (27:44).  Of course, the powerful irony is  that he is on the cross because he is Yeshua.  He will not save himself because he is the savior,  enduring in full the ugliness of human evil and sin.  “Come down from the cross if you are the son of God?”  It is because he is the son of God that he remains on the cross.  That is why he, Immanuel, is here.  He is God with us–God with us even here, even at death’s door, even in the depths of human ugliness and depravity.

As in Mark, so in Matthew, Jesus cries out, “Eli, Eli lema sabachthani?” (27:46)–combined Hebrew and Aramaic for “My God! My God, why have you left me all alone?” (Psalm 22:1).  But the mocking crowd misunderstands him (Matt 27:47-49).  Someone says, “He’s calling Elijah;” someone else says  “Let’s see if Elijah will come and save him.”  But no one will save him, because he is determined to save everyone.  It is by his death that he brings salvation.

Matthew has one more scene to set before us. After his resurrection from the dead, Jesus addresses the disciples one last time:

I’ve received all authority in heaven and on earth.  Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,  teaching them to obey everything that I’ve commanded you. Look, I myself will be with you every day until the end of this present age  (Matt 28:18-20).

From the very beginning of his life, Jesus is the son of God, born of a virgin and given the name Immanuel:  God with us.  Jesus is the obedient son of his Father in all things.  In Matthew’s gospel, the cross is the ultimate act of Christ’s obedience.   At the cross, Jesus is still Immanuel, God with us, the obedient son of God.  Yet in Matthew, the cross is also the means of our salvation; at the cross, he is Yeshua, Jesus, Savior.  Somehow, his death and resurrection takes up our death and our disobedience, and does away with it.

The apostle Paul puts it this way:

If we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son while we were still enemies, now that we have been reconciled, how much more certain is it that we will be saved by his life? And not only that: we even take pride in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, the one through whom we now have a restored relationship with God (Romans 5:6-11).

In Christ’s death, the gap between humanity and divinity is bridged: we are reconciled (Greek katalasso) to God.  In Christ’s resurrection, we are given the hope and the promise of our own deliverance from death.  By entering into our life, and even into our death, Jesus draws God near to us, and us near to God.  He brings God’s divinity down to where we are, and lifts our humanity up to where God is.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus expressed this idea quite well: “That which was not assumed is not healed; but that which is united to God is saved” (to gar aproslepton, atherapeuton ho de henotai totheu, touto kai sozetai).  By his life, Christ as Immanuel brings God to us and us to God.  By his death, Christ as Yeshua enters our death and evil and abolishes its power forever.  By his resurrection and ascension, Christ completes the meaning of both his names.  He is Jesus, our Savior, who destroys our death.  He is Immanuel, God with us, who makes us fully “at one” with God.  He is our atonement.

AFTERWORD:

I owe the insight into the names in Matthew’s gospel that I have shared here to my colleague John Blumenstein, who completed his Ph. D. in New Testament while I was working on mine in Hebrew Bible.  The Blumensteins were our neighbors in campus housing, and our dear friends–in fact, it was John who prompted me to apply for my first teaching job, and started me down this trajectory that my ministry has followed for going on 30 years.  Wherever you are today, John, and whatever you are up to–thank you!

Dec
2017

Let Justice Roll Down!

My sons and I are going to see “Justice League” today–I am very psyched!  However, the themes of justice and injustice were already much on my mind today, as was the Bible’s premier proponent of justice, the prophet Amos.

First, the Senate has voted to approve a major tax overhaul that, through massive tax cuts for the wealthiest among us, will further exacerbate the gulf between the rich and the poor this prophet so roundly condemned.  Second, Michael Flynn has pled guilty to lying to the FBI about contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia; regarding his plea, he said, “I recognize that the actions I acknowledged in court today were wrong, and, through my faith in God, I am working to set things right.”  Third, Flynn was not the only one to cite God and faith in regard to this case: former FBI director James Comey tweeted this passage from Amos:

All in all, then, this seems a good time to revisit this post from November 17, 2014.

On August  28, 1963, during the March on Washington, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered  one of the most famous speeches of modern times at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington D.C.  One of many high points in this human rights milestone was Dr. King’s powerful rebuttal of his detractors:

There are those who are asking the devotees of civil rights, “When will you be satisfied?” We can never be satisfied as long as the Negro is the victim of the unspeakable horrors of police brutality. We can never be satisfied as long as our bodies, heavy with the fatigue of travel, cannot gain lodging in the motels of the highways and the hotels of the cities. We cannot be satisfied as long as the negro’s basic mobility is from a smaller ghetto to a larger one. We can never be satisfied as long as our children are stripped of their self-hood and robbed of their dignity by signs stating: “For Whites Only.” We cannot be satisfied as long as a Negro in Mississippi cannot vote and a Negro in New York believes he has nothing for which to vote. No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

The majestic words that conclude this paragraph, engraved into the wall at the Civil Rights Memorial outside the headquarters of the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, are sometimes attributed to Dr. King.  But of course, he knew that he was quoting from the prophet Amos:

I hate, I reject your festivals;
    I don’t enjoy your joyous assemblies.
If you bring me your entirely burned offerings and gifts of food—
        I won’t be pleased;
    I won’t even look at your offerings of well-fed animals.
Take away the noise of your songs;
        I won’t listen to the melody of your harps.
But let justice roll down like waters,
        and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24).

Amos powerfully expresses God’s passion for justice, and God’s rejection of any form of religion that does not issue forth in lives of justice.  Oddly, we often think of social justice and Spirit-filled worship as two different things–indeed, we may go so far as to describe these as the concerns of different churches.  But for Amos–and indeed, for Jesus–there is no separating the two.

Recently Arnold Abbott, who is 90 years old, was arrested together with Pastor Dwayne Black of The Sanctuary Church in Fort Lauderdale, and Mark Sims of St. Mary Magdalene Episcopal Church in Coral Springs, for feeding the homeless in defiance of a new ordinance in Fort Lauderdale.  Perhaps some feel that this act of civil disobedience was inappropriate: Christians should express their faith in church, where it belongs.  But Amos would celebrate this act of defiance.  Indeed, Amos condemned the wealthy of his own day for their callousness to the forgotten poor:

because they have sold the innocent for silver,
            and those in need for a pair of sandals.
     They crush the head of the poor into the dust of the earth,
        and push the afflicted out of the way (Amos 2:6-7)

Today, when the gap between rich and poor has become greater than at any time since the Gilded Age and the robber barons, Amos’ words have a renewed appropriateness.  Today, when the rising tide of deaths of young African American men by police violence makes Dr. King’s dream seem more and more remote, may we recommit ourselves to work for and pray for the day when “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

 

Oct
2017

Ghoulies and Ghosties

From ghoulies and ghosties
And long-leggedy beasties
And things that go bump in the night,
Good Lord, deliver us!

This (allegedly) traditional Scottish prayer, collected by folklorist D. L. Ashliman, reminds us of the grim folklore back of Hallowe’en.  The night before November 1 was once called Samhain, an old Celtic festival of the quarter-year (falling between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice). In Celtic culture, it was believed to be a night when the borders between this world and the next became particularly thin, so that the unquiet dead could cross over into this world and molest the living. Food offerings, lamps, and even the severed heads of enemies (grimly recalled, perhaps, by Jack o’lanterns) could be set out to appease or turn aside the ghosts.

 

We call this night not Samhain, but Halloween (that is, Hallow E’en), because October 31 is of course the night before November 1, All-Hallows Day–hence, All-Hallows Eve.  All-Hallows, or All-Saints, Day began in the days of Pope Boniface IV as a feast day for all martyrs, and was first celebrated on May 13, 609.  Pope Gregory III (731-741) shifted the focus from the martyrs to the celebration of all the saints who lack a feast of their own (and by extension, of all who have died in the Lord), and as such All-Saints was declared an official holy day of the church by Pope Gregory IV in 837.  The feast was shifted from May to November 1 in response to the European (specifically Celtic) holiday of Samhain (El Dia de Los Muertos in Spain).

When the Celts became Christians, this night was transformed by the realization that Jesus Christ had triumphed over death, hell, and the grave. Death, and the dead, no longer needed to be feared.  Those Celtic Christians now knew, as Ephesians 2:4-7 affirms,

God is rich in mercy. He brought us to life with Christ while we were dead as a result of those things that we did wrong. He did this because of the great love that he has for us. You are saved by God’s grace!  And God raised us up and seated us in the heavens with Christ Jesus.  God did this to show future generations the greatness of his grace by the goodness that God has shown us in Christ Jesus.

The association with All-Hallows Day made this a night of rejoicing! Hallowe’en is a celebration of life, and of Christ’s victory over death and the fear of death

Because of Samhain’s grim past, some Christians have argued that we should not celebrate Hallowe’en at all–that to do so is to flirt with the demonic, and to open the door to evil influences.  I disagree.  I think it is fitting that this night, which used to be a grim and grisly night of fear, has become a night of laughter and joy, when it is little children who come to our doors to receive our offerings of food–and surely, there is no better medicine against fear and despair than joy and laughter!  As the Reformer Martin Luther once observed, “The best way to drive out the devil, if he will not yield to texts of Scripture, is to jeer and flout him, for he cannot bear scorn.”

AFTERWORD:  I am reposting this portion of an earlier blog, to recognize and celebrate Hallowe’en and All-Saint’s Day.  Happy Hallowe’en, sisters and brothers–and praise God for all the saints!

 

Sep
2017

What Do You Do When the Worst Thing That Can Happen, Happens?

Like many of you, I have found myself returning in my mind today to the days following September 11, 2001.  On Thursday of that week, the little college town where we were living, Ashland, Virginia, held a memorial service on our town square.  I was among those asked to speak.  As I wrestled with what word to bring, indeed with how to speak a word of the Lord to this horrible event, I was led to Habakkuk 3.16-19.  Habakkuk saw his homeland destroyed by the Babylonians.  He knew what it was to suffer attack, to lose family and friends to a remorseless enemy.  The shock and horror we felt then, and may feel again in the wake of fresh tragedies, Habakkuk knew well.

I am reprinting below the sermon I preached then.  It is my prayer that Habakkuk’s ancient words, which spoke to me so powerfully then, will speak to you today, of honest grief, and hope, and healing.

 

            What do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  That question weighs most heavily this morning on the hearts of those who have themselves been injured, and those who grieve for loved ones, torn from them or suffering grievous harm in this attack.  But surely, it is asked by all of us here today.

            What do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  While this question was brought home to us powerfully and poignantly in the events of this past week, it is certainly not a new question.  The prophet Habakkuk saw his world destroyed.  He saw advancing Babylonian armies swallow up town after town, village after village.  He saw homes in flames.  He saw his friends and family slaughtered or taken away in chains to Babylon.  Habakkuk cried out, “Are you from of old, O LORD my God, my Holy One?  We shall not die.” (Hab. 1:12)  Surely, surely, you will not let us die.  “Your eyes are too pure and you cannot look on wrongdoing; why do you look on the treacherous, and are silent when the wicked swallow those more righteous than they?” (Hab 1:13)  Habakkuk is in shock.  He can’t accept what he sees and hears.  “I hear, and I tremble within.  My lips quiver at the sound.  Rottenness enters into my bones, my steps tremble beneath me.” (Hab 3:16)  We know how that feels, don’t we?  Seeing on the television screen, or reading the newspaper, or hearing on the radio the news of what happened Tuesday morning in Washington and New York and Pennsylvania—surely, we know how the prophet feels.  Who could believe it?  Who can believe it now?

From shock, Habakkuk moves to anger.  “I wait quietly for the day of calamity to come upon the people who attack us.” (Hab 3:17)  We know how that feels too, don’t we?  Our hearts cry out for vengeance against those who have brought this horror and devastation to our land.  We are dishonest to ourselves and dishonest to God if we do not own that anger.  But, Habakkuk didn’t stay with the anger, and neither can we.  If we stay with the anger, the desire for vengeance, then we will never heal.  We will never move on to wholeness and new life.

Sisters and brothers, God forbid that the horrific assault that our nation suffered on Tuesday should cause us to forget who we are!  We are a nation founded upon fundamental human rights and freedom for all people, affirming the essential dignity of every woman and man.  If this assault makes us forget that, then the terrorists will have won.  They will have destroyed, not just stone and mortar and steel and flesh, but the dream that makes us who we are.

A former student of mine is working as a missionary in Egypt, helping to settle Sudanese refugees.  He told me that Egyptians have been coming up to him since September 11, telling him how horrified they are by what happened and how deeply sorry they are that this has taken place.  Even the Sudanese refugees with whom he works, people who have lost everything, who have nothing, have been comforting him, telling him how sorry they are about all that has happened.  Friends, the people who committed this atrocity may have been Arabs, but the Arab people did not do this.  Those who brought this horror to us may have called themselves Muslims, but Islam did not do this.  In the difficult days ahead, should the call that justice be brought to the criminals who perpetrated this act transform itself into a cry of vengeance against a race or religion, we must recognize that prejudice for the evil that it is, repudiate it, and root it out of our midst.

So what do you do when the worst thing that can happen, happens?  Habakkuk says, “Though the fig tree does not blossom, and no fruit is on the vines; though the produce of the olive fails and the fields yield no food; though the flock is cut off from the fold and there is no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.”(Hab 3:17-18)  Oh God, this is as bad as it gets!  How can we get through this? Habakkuk says, Though I cannot see your face, Lord, though I cannot feel your hand, I know you are with me: “I will rejoice in the LORD; I will exult in the God of my salvation.” (Hab 3:18).

The attacks Tuesday morning robbed us of a sense of security, of safety, of invulnerability that many of us had come to accept as our birthright.  Such things happen over there, sure, in foreign places, but they can never happen here.  We were wrong.  But then, our security never was in the strength of our military, much as we respect and honor those who serve us all in that noble calling.  Our security lies this morning where it has ever lain, in the confidence that God’s peace enfolds us, and that nothing can wrest us from God’s hand.

The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Rome, “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)  That’s security, sisters and brothers–the only security we can have; the only security we truly need.

“GOD, the Lord, is my strength,” Habakkuk says; “He makes my feet like the feet of a deer, and makes me tread upon the heights.” (Hab 3:19)  A deer can make its way over seemingly impassible terrain.  It can mount up impossible precipices.  The prophet is saying, “Lord, I don’t see how I can get through this!  But I know that you have given me feet like the feet of a deer, to leap over the obstacles that lie before me, to mount up the precipices that rise to cover me.”  May that be our prayer today: that God will give us feet like a deer, to carry us through these times!  God can give us, and will give us in these coming days, the courage to meet whatever obstacles lie ahead, and the resolve to make our way through.

We’ve already begun well, by coming here to pray together, lifting ourselves and our nation up to the Lord.  We’ve already begun well, by involving ourselves in ministries of kindness and service.  God will show us, in coming days, ways that we may demonstrate God’s love and kindness to a hurting world.  But most of all, as we turn to the Lord, God will give us in these days to come the confident assurance that we are in God’s hands.  No one and nothing can take us from the hand of God—not even when the worst thing that can happen, happens.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.