Mar
2015

Light of Sun, Radiance of Moon. . .

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

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.

 

Feb
2015

Vengeance

Scarcely a day goes by without new reports of atrocities committed by the terrorists who call themselves (despite the protests of Muslims around the world) the Islamic State, ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria), or ISIL (the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant: that is, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Syria).  The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation reports that the number of hostages ISIS has taken from Christian villages in Syria may be as high as 150.  According to the AsiaNews service, “There are numerous unconfirmed reports that some hostages have been killed, some rapes committed, and ‘blood everywhere.’”  Churches destroyed in the conflict include “the church in Tel Hurmiz, one of the oldest churches in Syria, the Mar Bisho church in Tel Shamiran, the church in Qabr Shamiy and the church in Tel Baloua.”  The murder of 21 Coptic Christians in Libya by forces claiming allegiance to ISIS, as well as the numerous horrific videos of brutal executions carried out by this regime, make any reasonable person fearful for the fate of those Syrian and Iraqi Christians taken by this cruel regime.

So what are we to do?  Not surprisingly, many around the world are calling for vengeance.  Arkansas State Senator Jason Rapert wrote in a Facebook post:

Faced with such horrors, the desire to respond to violence with violence, to atrocity with atrocity, is understandable, even appealing.  Yet Bishop Georges Abou Khazen, of the Latin (what we would call Roman Catholic) diocese of Aleppo, told the AsiaNews service: “This will not be be solved with bombs.”  Instead, Bishop Khazen urges, “What we ask is for others to stop supporting these people, to stop selling them weapons. We have been saying this for some time but no one has been listening to us.”

The Bible often frankly addresses our desire for vengeance (see, for example, Jeremiah 11:20; Ps 3:7; 104:35; 137:8-9).  But perhaps nowhere in Scripture are such passions given as free and full an expression as in the book of Nahum, one of the Twelve.

No selections from this difficult and disturbing little book appear in the Common Lectionary–and no wonder.  Nahum gloats over the collapse of Nineveh, capital of the oppressive Assyrian empire, which fell in 612 BC. Poetically, Nahum is a masterpiece: even in English translation, its vivid imagery and striking use of language and rhythm come through:

Cracking whip and rumbling wheel,
        galloping horse and careening chariot!
Charging cavalry, flashing sword, and glittering spear;
        countless slain, masses of corpses,
            endless dead bodies—they stumble over their dead bodies! (Nah 3:2-3)

But appreciating the poetic artistry of Nahum is not unlike appreciating the cinematic breakthroughs and innovations achieved by D. W. Griffith in his horrifically racist film “The Birth of a Nation.”  Whatever the artistic value of the work, the purpose to which its artistry is directed remains repulsive.

Most disturbing of all, however, is the way that Nahum describes Nineveh’s fall.  He personifies the city as a woman, so that its siege becomes a mugging, and its fall a rape:

Look! I am against you, proclaims
    the Lord of heavenly forces.
        I will lift your skirts over your face;
        I will show nations your nakedness
            and kingdoms your dishonor.
I will throw disgusting things at you;
        I will treat you with contempt and make you a spectacle (Nah 3:5-6).

Of course, Griffith’s cinematography manifested the culture of the powerful, while Nahum represents the voice of the powerless. As John Goldingay observes, “Nahum is divinely-inspired resistance literature” (Minor Prophets II; NIBC 18 [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009], 18).  Viewing Nahum from a South African context, Wilhelm Wessels argues that the violent language of Nahum both “served as an outlet for suppressed or cropped-up emotions” of an oppressed people and also imaginatively created “a world free from the domination of the cruel Assyrians, stripped of their power”; it is not to be taken literally “as a call to violence or a legitimation of violence” (Wilhelm J. Wessels, “Nahum, An Uneasy Expression of Yahweh’s Power,” in Old Testament Essays 11 [1998]: 625).

But while knowledge of Nahum’s historical context may explain the book’s violent, hateful content, it surely does not excuse it–as Wessels indeed recognizes (pp. 615, 627).  In fact, the scribes responsible for preserving Nahum and incorporating it into the Book of the Twelve wrestled with these questions as well.  They have given Nahum’s oracles against Nineveh (Nah 2–3) a poetic preface that places Assyria’s fall in a theological context.  An opening psalm (Nah 1:2-11) affirms that God is not a capricious, violent deity, but a God of justice: “The LORD is very patient but great in power; the LORD punishes.” (Nah 1:3).

Next, this preface ascribes Judah’s oppression at Nineveh’s hands to God:

The Lord proclaims:
Though once they were a healthy and numerous force,
        they have been cut off and have disappeared.
I have afflicted you;
        I won’t afflict you further, Zion.
Now I will break off his yoke from you
        and tear off your chains (Nah 1:12-13).

The God of justice who now judges Assyria had formerly used that nation to punish Judah for its own faithlessness and injustice (as Amos, Hosea, and Micah had each also said).

Another way into Nahum as Christian Scripture comes through John Wesley’s  A Plain Account of Christian Perfection. Here, Wesley writes,

We ought quietly to suffer whatever befals us, to bear the defects of others and our own, to confess them to God in secret prayer, or with groans which cannot be uttered.

As United Methodist theologian Marjorie Suchocki observes, Wesley extraordinarily calls upon us to “confess the sins of others as though they are our own” (Albright-Deering Lectures, April 24, 2008, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary).  Particularly in this season of Lent, Nahum prompts us to confess the sins, and pray for the redemption, of a world still in bondage to violence and retribution.

Reading Nahum in these troubling times, we can recognize his zeal for vengeance in our world and in ourselves.  But by acknowledging our violent impulses before God in prayer, we can vent those dark passions and be freed to live our lives in joy, not anger; in love, not hatred.   Nahum may then lead us, not to jingoism and the pursuit of vengeance, but to earnest repentance and the pursuit of peace.

AFTERWORD:

As you pray for our sisters and brothers facing persecution, imprisonment and death at the hands of ISIS, remember too before God the names, and the families, of those 21 Coptic Christian martyrs:

Feb
2015

Joy

Today, in many churches around the world, people lined up to receive a cross of ash, on their forehead or the back of their hand.  Many heard, as this gritty black mark was traced onto their skin, the biblical injunction, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.”  With this ceremony, the season of Lent has begun–forty days of fasting and penitence leading up to the remembrance of the passion and death of Jesus.

Why, then, is this post titled, “Joy?”  What could possibly be joyful about this mournful, lugubrious season?  Wouldn’t, say, “penitence” be a better title, or perhaps “sorrow” or “mourning”?

One reason for this title has to do with the very meaning of the word “Lent.”  I began this blog two years ago with a Lenten reflection in which we considered where the word comes from:

[C]uriously, the term “Lent” has nothing to do with winter, or darkness, or fasting, or penitence.  Etymologically, “Lent” derives from the Middle English lenten and the Old English lencten, and is related to the Old High German lenzin, all of which mean “Spring”!

At its root, “Lent” is not about death at all, but life; not about endings, but beginnings.  While this season culminates with Holy Week, remembering Jesus’ suffering and death, it leads us into Easter joy–the celebration of Christ’s resurrection, and of ours.

Another reason for the curious title of this post relates to our ongoing project, meditating together on the so-called “Minor” Prophets–much better named, with the early church and synagogue alike, the Book of the Twelve.  Today, in honor of this Lenten season of preparation leading into celebration, we will turn to the book of Zephaniah.

To be sure, Zephaniah begins in a Lenten mood!  The opening verses of this book describe judgment upon Jerusalem in cosmic terms:

I will wipe out everything from the earth, says the Lord.
        I will destroy humanity and the beasts;
        I will destroy the birds in the sky and the fish in the sea.
        I will make the wicked into a heap of ruins;
        I will eliminate humanity from the earth, says the Lord.

I will stretch out my hand against Judah
        and against all the inhabitants of Jerusalem (Zeph 1:2-4).

Comparing this passage with the Genesis 1:20-27 reveals what the prophet is up to: the description of judgment moves backwards through the first Creation story: from humans, created at the end and climax of day six, through animals created earlier that day, through birds and fish, created on day five.  The coming judgment, Zephaniah says, will be a reversal of God’s ordering will and purpose: it will be uncreation!

But while the book of Zephaniah begins in wrath, it ends in joy:

Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel!
        Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem.
The LORD has removed your judgment;
        he has turned away your enemy.
The LORD, the king of Israel, is in your midst;
        you will no longer fear evil.
On that day, it will be said to Jerusalem:
        Don’t fear, Zion.
        Don’t let your hands fall.
The LORD your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory.
        He will create calm with his love;
        he will rejoice over you with singing.

        
        They have been a burden for her, a reproach.
Watch what I am about to do to all your oppressors at that time.
        I will deliver the lame;
        I will gather the outcast.
        I will change their shame into praise and fame throughout the earth.
At that time, I will bring all of you back,
        at the time when I gather you.
        I will give you fame and praise among all the neighboring peoples
            when I restore your possessions and you can see them—says the LORD (Zephaniah 3:14-20).

This passage was marked off as a unit by the scribes who preserved this book.  It is also designated in the Revised Common Lectionary as the Old Testament reading for the third Sunday of Advent, Year C, and every year as part of the Easter Vigil leading up to the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection.  Both of these settings in the Christian liturgical year connect the message of salvation and deliverance in this passage with the birth, resurrection, and future coming of Jesus Christ.

 

Indeed, while the early Christian theologian and commentator Theodoret of Cyrus (393-457) acknowledged that these verses relate in their context to the return of the exiles from Babylon and the restoration of Jerusalem, he still insists,

But you can find a more exact outcome after the Incarnation of our savior: then it was that he healed the oppressed in heart in the washing of regeneration, then it was that he renewed human nature, loving us so much as to give his life for us (Theodoret, Commentary on the Twelve).

 Our passage begins with a call to praise:

Rejoice, Daughter Zion! Shout, Israel!
        Rejoice and exult with all your heart, Daughter Jerusalem (Zeph 3:14).

While describing the city or the people as a woman, presumably wed to the LORD,  is often used negatively in Scripture, to describe the people’s unfaithfulness (see Hosea 1:2-3), here it is completely positive.  After the judgment pronounced earlier in the book, Daughter Zion here is assured of God’s forgiveness and deliverance:

The Lord has removed your judgment;
        he has turned away your enemy.
The Lord, the king of Israel, is in your midst;
        you will no longer fear evil (Zeph 3:15).

This tension with Zephaniah’s earlier message of universal destruction and devastation suggests that we have to do here with the final editing of this book for its place in Scripture, and in the Book of the Twelve.  This is particularly evident in Zephaniah 3:17:

The LORD your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory.
        He will create calm with his love;
        he will rejoice over you with singing.

God joins in Daughter Zion’s song–very different from Amos 5:23, where God rejects the songs of Israel!  Strictly speaking, however, God does not exactly sing  here.  In Hebrew, the word used is not shir (the usual term for singing), but rinnah.  This word may be onomatopoeic (like, for example, English words such as “thump” or “zing”), meant to represent the joyous, triumphant sound of ululation, still heard in the Middle East today at weddings, bar mitzvahs, and other celebrations.  God ululates–shouts with unrestrained joy–at Zion’s deliverance!

In her book The Grand Entrance, my PTS colleague Dr. Edith Humphrey observes, “[A]ll songs are inspired by that One. . . . he promised by the prophet Zephaniah (3:17) to utter his rinnah, his ululation or great cry of triumph, when we his people are renewed” (Grand Entrance : Worship on Earth as in Heaven  [Grand Rapids, MI : Brazos Press, 2011], 197).  So too Gregory of Nazianzus prayed, “All things breathe you a prayer, / A silent hymn of your own composing” (trans. W. Mitchell; cited by Humphrey 2011, 197).  All creation is caught up in God’s exultant song of joy.

Apart from Hosea (see Hos 3:1; 11:1 and 14:4) at the beginning of the Book of the Twelve, and Malachi (see Mal 1:2; 2:11) at its end, Zephaniah 3:17 is the only mention of God’s love in the Twelve (though in Zephaniah, the noun ‘ahabah is used, not the verb ‘ahab found in Hosea and Malachi).  In the final form of the Twelve, God’s love begins, ends, and centers the entire collection.

It is appropriate then that Zephaniah, which began in wrath, should end in joy and renewal:

At that time, I will bring all of you back,
        at the time when I gather you.
        I will give you fame and praise among all the neighboring peoples
            when I restore your possessions and you can see them—says the  LORD (Zeph 3:20).

May this Lenten season be for you a time of growth and renewal, grounded in the joyous realization that God loves you, and shouts with joy over you as you deepen in God’s love.

Feb
2015

Peace

This past week, the National Prayer Breakfast featured an Evangelical keynote from NASCAR Hall of Famer Darrell Waltrip  and the presence of the Dalai Lama.  Most of the attention focused on this faith gathering in this country, however, has involved remarks made by President Barak Obama:

So how do we, as people of faith, reconcile these realities — the profound good, the strength, the tenacity, the compassion and love that can flow from all of our faiths, operating alongside those who seek to hijack religious for their own murderous ends? Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history.  And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.  In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.  Michelle and I returned from India — an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity — but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs — acts of intolerance that would have shocked Gandhiji, the person who helped to liberate that nation. So this is not unique to one group or one religion. 

There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.  In today’s world, when hate groups have their own Twitter accounts and bigotry can fester in hidden places in cyberspace, it can be even harder to counteract such intolerance. But God compels us to try. 

These words have been construed by some as an attack on the Christian faith.  Frontpage wrote, “Obama Defends Islam, Attacks Christianity at Prayer Breakfast.”  An article in the Washington Post quoted former Virginia governor Jim Gilmore:

The president’s comments this morning at the prayer breakfast are the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make in my lifetime. He has offended every believing Christian in the United States. This goes further to the point that Mr. Obama does not believe in America or the values we all share.

Listen to those words closely.  According to these and many other critics, the President has attacked Christianity.

Not long ago, Newsweek magazine published a cover article titled, “The Bible: So Misunderstood It’s a Sin.”  The main point of this article was that many claims made about what the Bible says are in fact erroneous–a point that these blogs have also made, on many occasions. Dr. Albert Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, appeared on Fox News in response to this article,  calling it a “hit piece,” and yet another example of “incredible hostility” toward evangelical Christians.  The Fox News website report is headlined, “Hit Piece on the Bible?! Newsweek Slammed for ‘Open Attack’ on Christians.”

Do criticisms of Christian behavior and questions about biblical interpretation amount to assaults on faith and the faithful?  Are American Christians “under attack”?  Considering that there are indeed, as the President mentioned in his remarks, places in this world where Christians are under attack, suffering capture, torture, imprisonment and death for their faith–for example, parts of Nigeria threatened by Boko Haram, or areas in Syria and Iraq threatened by ISIS–I submit that we American Christians should be ashamed of ourselves for thinking that we are persecuted whenever anyone disagrees with us.

But I am particularly concerned that we choose to describe our context as a faith among other faiths in terms of warfare, in which we regard ourselves as under attack by those who think differently than we do.   Within the Book of the Twelve, the book of Zechariah calls this warfare metaphor into question, and encourages us to think differently.

The only reading from Zechariah in the Revised Common Lectionary is Zechariah 9:9-12.  But this passage is quoted in Matthew 21:5 and John 12:15, in their accounts of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, and may be assumed in Mark 11:1-11 and Luke 19:28-40 as well (both use the word polon, “colt,” found in the Septuagint Greek of Zech 9:9):

Rejoice greatly, Daughter Zion.
        Sing aloud, Daughter Jerusalem.
Look, your king will come to you.
        He is righteous and victorious.
        He is humble and riding on an ass,
            on a colt, the offspring of a donkey (Zech 9:9).

The Hebrew word translated “victorious” here is nosha’--literally, “one who is saved.”  Carol and Eric Meyers, in their commentary on this text, insist that it is God, not the king, who “is victorious over the enemies, with the result that the king is ‘saved,’ thereby enabled to assume power” (Meyers and Meyers 1993, 127).  This is a very different idea of kingship, grounded not in the king’s victories in battle, but in God’s own action (compare Zech 4:6).

The humble donkey in Zechariah 9:9 derives from a long tradition in the ancient Middle East of kingly processions where the king rode an ass (Meyers and Meyers 1993, 129).  But this passage catches the point of that tradition: by riding a donkey rather than a war horse or chariot, the king shows humility, and declares that he comes in peace.

Zechariah dreams of a new day, and of a king who truly is humble–who not only comes in peace, but actually comes to bring peace:

He will cut off the chariot from Ephraim
        and the warhorse from Jerusalem.
The bow used in battle will be cut off;
        he will speak peace to the nations.
His rule will stretch from sea to sea,
        and from the river to the ends of the earth (9:10).

Little wonder that Jesus’ first followers recognized his mission in these ancient words!

Another surprising passage from this “minor” prophet is Zechariah 14:13-19.  At first, this vision seems to be yet another depiction of the end of the world as a final battle.  In the last day, Zechariah declares, Jerusalem’s people will plunder those who had come to plunder them (a common biblical theme; see Exod 12:33-36; Ezek 39:9-10; 2 Chr 20:25).  So that the enemy will never again be able to mount an attack on Jerusalem, a plague will strike “the horses, mules, camels, donkeys, and any cattle in those camps” (Zech 14:15), destroying their military capability entirely.

Yet despite the sweeping devastation of plague and war, the enemies of Jerusalem are not destroyed, after all:

All those left from all the nations who attacked Jerusalem will go up annually to pay homage to the king, the Lord of heavenly forces, and to celebrate the Festival of Booths (Zech 14:16).

Similarly in the New Testament book of Revelation, even after the last judgment sees all the enemies of God’s people (including “Death and the Grave”) thrown into the lake of fire (Rev 20:11-15), John can still somehow say of the New Jerusalem,

The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it.  Its gates will never be shut by day, and there will be no night there.  They will bring the glory and honor of the nations into it (Rev 21:24-26).

God’s ultimate purpose is not destruction after all, but transformation and renewal.

Reflecting on the recent alleged “attacks” on the faith, and re-reading these ancient words of Zechariah, I find myself remembering what Abraham Lincoln said to a fiery old woman who urged her President to regard Southerners as enemies to be destroyed: “Why, madam, do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

Calling for humility from all people of faith, President Obama put it this way:

. . . Our job is not to ask that God respond to our notion of truth — our job is to be true to Him, His word, and His commandments.  And we should assume humbly that we’re confused and don’t always know what we’re doing and we’re staggering and stumbling towards Him, and have some humility in that process.  And that means we have to speak up against those who would misuse His name to justify oppression, or violence, or hatred with that fierce certainty.  No God condones terror.  No grievance justifies the taking of innocent lives, or the oppression of those who are weaker or fewer in number.

 Can we learn from Zechariah’s ancient words, sisters and brothers? What would happen if we listened to one another, and engaged in conversation, rather than debates and verbal assaults?  What might happen if we stopped spoiling for a fight, let our anger, fear, and anxiety go, and opened ourselves to become channels of God’s peace?

 

Jan
2015

Cleansing

In Western Christianity, Monday 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.  

AFTERWORD

February 2 will also be the day of a prayer breakfast, sponsored by Equality Pennsylvania, at St. Paul’s UMC in Allison Park, PA.  Hope that you can come!

Jan
2015

Grace

 In Western Christianity, January 6 is the Feast of the Epiphany–a celebration of the light of God shining into the world with the birth of Christ.  In particular, this day is associated with the light of the star that guided the wise men from the East to the Christ Child (see Matthew 2:1-12).

There is something particularly wonderful about this part of Matthew’s Christmas story.  Matthew is the most Jewish of the Gospels–and yet, in his account, the first visitors to the newborn Jesus are not only Gentiles, but foreigners: astrologers from distant Persia.  What better way to underline the grace of God: that the light of God would shine, not only upon me and mine, but particularly upon folks unlike me, from far away?

In the Book of the Twelve, that astonishing grace of God, particularly to foreigners, is the particular theme of the book of Jonah.  In this wonderful prophetic novella, Jonah is sent to deliver warning of God’s judgment to foreign Nineveh, capital city of the oppressive Assyrians.  When he instead flees for Tarshish, God sends a storm to halt the ship in which he is traveling.  In spite of Jonah’s poor example, the foreign sailors on the ship become faithful worshippers of the LORD (Jon 1:16).  Jonah, who had insisted that the sailors throw him overboard to avert God’s wrath,  is saved from drowning when he is swallowed by a giant fish (Jon 1:17)—not what we would normally call a rescue!   Then, when he eventually fulfills God’s command by declaring to the Ninevites, “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!” (Jon 3:4), the people of that wicked city repent, extravagantly:  not only does everyone in Nineveh from the king to the lowest beggar fast and mourn in sackcloth and ashes, but their animals fast and sit in sackcloth and ashes, too (Jon 3:7-9)!  As a result, “God stopped planning to destroy them, and he didn’t do it” (Jon 3:10).

Jonah, who wants God to act according to divine justice rather than divine grace, is furious–but not surprised.  This, he says, is why he had earlier tried to flee from God’s presence:

Come on, LORD! Wasn’t this precisely my point when I was back in my own land? This is why I fled to Tarshish earlier! I know that you are a merciful and compassionate God, very patient, full of faithful love, and willing not to destroy (Jon 4:2).

Jonah had not wanted to deliver the message of judgment against Nineveh he had been given because he knew that God was likely to back out, leaving Jonah with the stamp of the false prophet, whose predictions do not come true (see Deut 18:21-22)—which is, of course, what happened. No wonder Jonah is so angry!  The prophet quotes here from the divine self-declaration in Exodus 34:6-7,

 The LORD! The LORD!
    a God who is compassionate and merciful,
        very patient,
        full of great loyalty and faithfulness,
         showing great loyalty to a thousand generations,
        forgiving every kind of sin and rebellion,
        yet by no means clearing the guilty,
        punishing for their parents’ sins
        their children and their grandchildren,
        as well as the third and the fourth generation.

This passage is cited throughout Scripture, usually with a decided emphasis on God’s grace and forgiveness (for example, Pss 86:15; 103:8; 145:8; Neh 9:17; Joel 2:13).  But while Exodus 34:7 describes the LORD as “by no means clearing the guilty,” (Hebrew wenaqqeh lo’ yinaqqeh), Jonah describes God as “willing not to destroy”  (Hebrew wenikham ‘al-hara’ah)–using the Hebrew wenikham (“relent”) here to pun with wenaqqeh (“declare innocent; clear”) in Exodus, and so underlining and reemphasizing God’s gracious choice to preserve Nineveh.

In the New Testament, Matthew refers twice to  “Jonah’s sign” (Matt 12:39-41 and 16:4) as the only sign of the in-breaking kingdom his “evil and unfaithful generation” would receive (the first of these references is paralleled in Luke 11:29-32).  Jonah’s three days in the fish’s belly (Jon 1:17 [Hebrew 2:1]) become a sign of Jesus’ resurrection, paralleling his “three days and three nights . . . in the heart of the earth” (Matt 12:40).  Indeed, many early Christian interpreters read Jonah as a type for Christ.

Tertullian wrote that Jonah “would have been lost, were it not for the fact that what he endured was a type of the Lord’s suffering, by which pagan penitents also would be redeemed” (On Purity 10; cited in Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Old Testament XIV: The Twelve Prophets, ed. Albert Ferreiro [Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2003], 134).

Reformer John Calvin concluded, “Hence Jonah was not a type of Christ, because he was sent away unto the Gentiles, but because he returned to life again, after having for some time exercised his office as a Prophet among the people of Israel” (Commentary on Jonah, Lecture 72, in Commentaries on the Twelve Minor Prophets, trans. John Owen [Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 2005 {orig. Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society,1847})

Further, foreign Nineveh is lifted up in the Gospels as an example of sincere repentance:

The citizens of Nineveh will stand up at the judgment with this generation and condemn it as guilty, because they changed their hearts and lives in response to Jonah’s preaching. And look, someone greater than Jonah is here (Matt 12:41//Lk 11:32).

Although Jonah is not mentioned, there are also clear parallels between Jonah 1 and the Gospel story of Jesus calming the storm (Matt 8:18-27//Mark 4:35-41//Luke 8:22-25).  In each case, there is a “[great] storm.”  Jesus, like Jonah, is asleep in the boat.  In each account, the sailors are delivered, and there is a calm after the storm.  Indeed, the many parallels between these accounts intensify the contrast between the faithful foreign sailors in Jonah, who after their deliverance “worshipped the LORD with a profound reverence; they offered a sacrifice to the LORD and made solemn promises” (Jon 1:16), and the faithless disciples in the Gospels, who ask, “Who then is this?” (Mark 4:41; compare Matt 8:27; Luke 8:25).  In the Gospels, then, Jonah is remembered as a book about God’s gracious deliverance.

In this season after Epiphany, devoted to exploring the implications of God’s gracious revelation in Christ, we would do well to remember Jonah’s message of the hilarious extravagance of God’s grace, lavished upon us.  Particularly today, on the Feast of the Epiphany, may we recall God’s grace to the foreign sailors, to the foreigners of Nineveh, to the foreign wise men–and to outsiders like us, now brought near by the light and love of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

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!

Dec
2014

O Magnum Mysterium

 

As Christmas day draws near, I keep thinking of an ancient Latin Christmas hymn:

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–sung by the St. Paul’s UMC choir on the fourth Sunday of Advent (thank you, Tom Taylor!).

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!

Whether 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 ancient hymn 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.

Merry Christmas, one and all!  May the joy of this day fill your lives, and change your world.

Dec
2014

Hope

At our faculty meeting yesterday, my Orthodox colleague opened our meeting with a litany and prayer from the Eastern Christian tradition.  The Scripture reading was this passage, from the book 0f Joel:

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

I will give signs in the heavens and on the earth—blood and fire and columns of smoke. The sun will be turned to darkness, and the moon to blood before the great and dreadful day of the LORD comes.  But everyone who calls on the LORD’s name will be saved (Joel 2:28-32).

In contrast to many prophets–and particularly, to Amos and Micah–we know nothing at all about Joel apart from his name: no dates, no historical references, no places, no background.  Reference is made to an agricultural crisis, a locust plague, but we have no clues about which plague, when; further, as the book unfolds, the locusts become a metaphor for invading armies (see Joel 2:1-11), and finally for cosmic destruction (see the passage above).

Yet the book is not about impending doom.  In the face of tragedy, Joel calls upon the community to fast and pray, assuring them that God will respond to their repentance with deliverance.  They have not been abandoned to their fates: the prophet promises that “everyone who calls on the LORD’s name will be saved” (Joel 2:32).  Joel is the prophet of hope.

The passage from Joel with which we began was quoted by Peter (Acts 2:14-21), who found in Joel’s words a way to understand the outpouring of God’s Spirit he and his fellow Christ-followers had just experienced (see Acts 2:1-12).  God’s future had broken into the world in Jesus, but he had been taken from them: first crucified, then miraculously raised from the dead, but finally ascended into divine glory.  The outpouring of God’s Spirit made plain that Jesus was still at work, in and through his church, and that far from being abandoned, they were called, empowered, and sent forth in the confidence that God’s future was still breaking in.

Similarly, Jesus himself alluded to Joel’s vision of the day of the LORD:

In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark, and the moon won’t give its light.  The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken.  Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor.  Then he will send the angels and gather together his chosen people from the four corners of the earth, from the end of the earth to the end of heaven (Mark 13:24-27).

Jesus, like Joel, is no Pollyanna optimist.  Everything is not all right; indeed, times are hard, and will get harder.  But the end is in the hands of God, who will not abandon God’s own.  God’s angels will lead us all home, to share in Christ’s just and joyous reign.  We can therefore live our lives confidently, not in despair, but in hope.

Having grown up in a non-liturgical church (I don’t believe I knew about the seasons of the church year, apart from Easter and Christmas, until college), I always wondered why, in some traditions, the candle for the third Sunday of Advent is pink, not purple.  I assumed that it had something to do with the veneration of Mary–but, as happens far more often than I care to admit, I was wrong.

In the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, the third Sunday in Advent  is Gaudete Sunday, so called for the first word in the Latin introit for this day, “Gaudete in Domino semper“–from Philippians 4:4-5:  “Be glad (Greek chairete; the Latin gaudete actually means “rejoice,” which is the reading followed in the KJV and NRSV) in the Lord always.”

The website “About Catholicism” explains the rose-colored candle, and vestments, for this day:

Like Lent, Advent is a penitential season, so the priest normally wears purple vestments. But on Gaudete Sunday, having passed the midpoint of Advent, the Church lightens the mood a little, and the priest may wear rose vestments. The change in color provides us with encouragement to continue our spiritual preparation—especially prayer and fasting—for Christmas.

Gaudete Sunday means that the time of waiting and preparation is nearly over–that Christmas, and more importantly, Christ–is on the way!  The message of the rose-colored candle, then, like the message of Joel, is hope.  Hold on.

AFTERWORD:

I am very proud of the PTS students who have been standing in the cold and mist along Highland Avenue to call attention to racial injustice, in our nation and in our city.  They have heard the word of the prophets, and responded by standing with the wounded and oppressed.  God bless them.
Dec
2014

Humility

This past week the Senate at last released its long-awaited report on the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in secret prisons in the wake of 9/11.  The report was damning in its detail, spelling out these horrific practices that amount, to use a more honest and straightforward expression, to torture.

The Senate’s investigation revealed something that skilled interrogators, as well as unfortunate victims of torture such as Senator and Vietnam veteran John McCain have always known. As Senator McCain said in a speech on the Senate floor supporting the release of this report,

I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering. Most of all, I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored.

That is the point.  The argument over whether or not actionable intelligence was gained, or might be gained, through torture is fundamentally wrong-headed.  Torture degrades and debases us.  It is an evil, morally indefensible act.

Jesuit blogger Sam Sawyer  rightly recognizes the source of the impulse to torture: not only in shameful, fearful pursuit of the illusion of safety, but in the colossal arrogance and self-idolatry that makes us think our own ends to be justified whatever the cost to others.  He writes:

We have to reject not only the use of torture, but also the self-worship that led us to think our safety could be paid for with the blood and pain of our enemies. We have to answer for the violence and control that led us to keep torturing people, even when it was clear our security didn’t depend on it.

What is required of us, as a nation and as individuals, is humility.

The book of Micah is all about humility.   Micah was a rough contemporary of Hosea and Amos, prophesying in Judah to the south while they prophesied in Israel to the north.  But he proclaimed his message, not in the urban streets of Jerusalem, but in his own tiny village of Morasheth-Gath, located on the edge of contested Philistine territory–about as far from the big city as you could get.  Perhaps it is this distant perspective that enables the prophet to see 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).

Micah’s vision of right living and right worship cuts through the extravagance and self-aggrandizement of Jerusalem’s temple liturgy as it had come to be practiced:

With what should I approach the Lord
        and bow down before God on high?
Should I come before him with entirely burned offerings,
        with year-old calves?
Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams,
        with many torrents of oil?
Should I give my oldest child for my crime;
        the fruit of my body for the sin of my spirit?
He has told you, human one, what is good and
        what the Lord requires from you:
            to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God (Micah 6:6-8).

Micah’s answer to the question “What does the LORD want?” cuts through to the essence of the life of faith.  Indeed, Rabbi Simlai said that in Micah 6:8, the prophet pared the 613 commandments in Torah down to three (Talmud, b. Makkoth 23b-24a [pp. 100-103]): doing justice, embracing God’s committed, steadfast love, and living humbly before God.

Micah’s vision of kingship is also humble. Recalling David’s mean birth in a little Judean village not unlike Micah’s own, this prophet declares that if Judah is to survive the onslaught of Assyria, what will be needed is a return to those humble beginnings and values.  The last thing Judah needs, Micah asserts, is another Jerusalemite dandy, born to the purple and raised with the assumption of power and privilege!  Instead, he 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).

This passage, of course, is quoted in Matthew 2:5-6.  When the foreign sages come to Herod’s palace looking for a new-born king, Herod consults the scribes, who then read to him and to his guests from the east Micah’s ancient prophecy.  Jesus, like David, was born humbly, in the little village of Bethlehem–the child of a peasant girl and her itinerant laborer husband.

As the celebration of Christ’s birth draws near, we must not allow ourselves any delusions about who Jesus was, and is, or about what following Jesus means.  Jesus was born among the poor–he was not a man of wealth, power, or influence.  He surrounded himself with the least, the lost, and the outcast–not the best and the brightest.  And at the last, Jesus was tortured–he was not a torturer.  This Advent, we need to decide whose side we are on.

 

Dec
2014

Love

 

Love sculpture

Recently, my wife read me an anonymous post from the humor site Tickld that several people had shared on Facebook, labeled: “The Entire Bible Explained In One Facebook Post. This Guy Nails It.”

In case you haven’t seen this, it reads:

Holy Bible: the TL;DR version (too long; didnt read)

GENESIS

God: All right, you two, don’t do the one thing. Other than that, have fun.

Adam & Eve: Okay.

Satan: You should do the thing.

Adam & Eve: Okay.

God: What happened!?

Adam & Eve: We did the thing.

God: Guys

THE REST OF THE OLD TESTAMENT

God: You are my people, and you should not do the things.

People: We won’t do the things.

God: Good.

People: We did the things.

God: Guys

THE GOSPELS

Jesus: I am the Son of God, and even though you have done the things, the Father and I still love you and want you to live. Don’t do the things anymore.

Healed people: Okay! Thank you!

Other people: We’ve never seen him do the things, but he probably does the things when no one is looking.

Jesus: I have never done the things.

Other people: We’re going to put you on trial for doing the things.

Pilate: Did you do the things?

Jesus: No.

Pilate: He didn’t do the things.

Other people: Kill him anyway.

Pilate: Okay.

Jesus: Guys

PAUL’S LETTERS

People: We did the things.

Paul: Jesus still loves you, and because you love Him, you have to stop doing the things.

People: Okay.

PAUL’S LETTERS PART II

People: We did the things again.

Paul: Guys

REVELATION

John: When Jesus comes back, there will be no more people who do the things. In the meantime, stop doing the things.

I laughed, a lot, when I heard this–it is very clever.  But then I discovered that many folks sharing this post actually seem to think that it really is an apt, if humorous, summary of the Scriptures: for example, Right Wing News appreciatively and approvingly copied this post from Young Conservatives, saying “The Bible summed up in about 200 clever words? It has been done, in a hilarious but amazingly accurate description.”

Do we really believe that the Bible consists entirely–or even mostly–of rules?  Do we really believe that right relationship with God consists in following those rules: in “not doing the things,” whatever those things might be?  If so, then no wonder we find the actual Bible so bewildering. No wonder so many people want nothing to do with our churches or our Scriptures, if such a shallow view of life and of faith is all that we have to offer.

homer

By this reading, God must be either the exasperated sitcom Dad this humorous post portrays (“Guys!“)–and hence innocuous and irrelevant–or else a grim punisher of rule infractions, determined to impose the deserved penalty unless someone else takes the penalty for us (the only way that this reading can make sense of Jesus’ incarnation).

prison

Further, if righteousness is rule-following, then justice becomes retribution for rule-breaking.  Our societal obsession with retributive justice has resulted in one of the largest per capita rates of incarceration in the world.  This mass imprisonment, disproportionately aimed at the poorest and most vulnerable, bodes to become a crisis far outstripping any other threat to public health.

ferguson

As the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO and its aftermath tragically demonstrates, retributive justice sets police forces against the communities that they are sworn to protect.  When, as is all too often the case, the divide between police and community is also a racial divide, this hostility and suspicion is heightened all the more.  For example, in my own city of Pittsburgh, “25 percent of city residents are black, but only 12 percent of the police force is, according to a FiveThirtyEight analysis. The police force is 85 percent white, even though whites make up only 65 percent of the city’s population.”  No wonder the National Bar Association, America’s “oldest and largest national network of predominantly African-American attorneys and judges,” is calling for the U.S. Department of Justice to intervene following the failure of a Missouri grand jury to indict Officer  Darren Wilson.

hosea

Could it be that this is all that biblical faith has to offer: regulative righteousness and retributive justice?  I certainly don’t think so.   Within the Book of the Twelve, Hosea offers a very different perspective on God and on our relationship with God.  For this eighth-century Israelite prophet, the relationship between God and humanity is not imagined politically (king-subject) or economically (master-slave), but in homely, familial terms.  For Hosea, the primary metaphor is marriage.

marriage

God’s judgment and forgiveness are expressed through a symbolic act: the LORD commands Hosea to wed Gomer, a woman that Hosea knows will be unfaithful (Hosea 1:2-3; the Hebrew word zonah doesn’t necessarily mean “prostitute,” though it does designate a women unlikely to be bound by traditional sexual relationships). Their tortured marriage becomes a lived metaphor for God’s relationship to Israel. Just as Gomer is unfaithful to Hosea, so Israel has been unfaithful, turning from the Lord to worship other gods. Certainly, there are legitimate grounds for divorce. Yet God desires reconciliation.

desert

In a graphic, brutal depiction of judgment (Hosea 2:1-13), the LORD declares that because of Israel’s faithlessness,

I will make her like a desert,
        and turn her into a dry land,
        and make her die of thirst (Hosea 2:3).

But then, the message shifts. The image of the wilderness appears again—but this time, as the wilderness through which Israel wandered after the exodus from Egypt (Hosea 2:14-15). Hosea remembers the years in the wilderness as a honeymoon: a time when the love between Israel and the LORD was new, and Israel was totally devoted to God (compare Jer. 2:1-3).

From first to last, the language of intimacy permeates this passage. In Hosea 2:14, the Lord says of Israel,

Therefore, I will charm her,
        and bring her into the desert,
        and speak tenderly to her heart.

The declaration “you will call me, ‘My husband’ [Hebrew ishi], and no longer will you call me, ‘My lord’ [Hebrew ba’li]’” (Hosea 2:16) also speaks to the intimate character of the relationship that God desires.  Both ‘ishi and ba’li mean “my husband” in Hebrew. But the latter term refers to ownership and power, while the former “is the more intimate and personal term” (James Luther Mays, “Introduction and Footnotes to Hosea,” in The HarperCollins Study Bible, 1st edition; ed. Wayne Meeks [San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993], 1333).

baal

Baal, of course, was also the name of the Canaanite fertility god, so to say that the LORD is not Baal means rejecting idolatry. However, to say that the LORD is, rather, ishi (“my husband”) means discovering a new relationship with God, grounded not in fear, but in love.

At my Mom and Dad’s fiftieth anniversary, it was my great honor and joy to celebrate with them a worship service renewing their marriage vows.  Hosea 2:16-20 reminds me of that day. Like a couple repeating their vows, the LORD and Israel begin anew:

I will take you for my wife forever;
    I will take you for my wife in righteousness and in justice,
        in devoted love, and in mercy.

 I will take you for my wife in faithfulness;
        and you will know the LORD.

Just as, in the ancient world, a husband paid to the bride’s family a bride price, so the LORD brings to this renewed relationship a gift: not of gold, but of righteousness, justice, devoted love, mercy and faithfulness (Elizabeth Achtemeier, Minor Prophets I; New International Bible Commentary [Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1996], 28-29). Israel, transformed, empowered and enabled by this gift, can at last be the LORD’s steadfast and committed spouse.

There are very good reasons that the scribes of ancient Israel chose to begin the Book of the Twelve not with the zealous and angry Amos, though he was likely the first writing prophet, but with Hosea.  The two have a great deal in common.  Like Amos, Hosea delivers a message of unstinting condemnation and judgment: because of its faithlessness and immorality, the northern kingdom is doomed (compare Hosea 4:1-19 and Amos 2:6-16).  But unlike his near contemporary, Hosea looks beyond that inevitable destruction, to hope and restoration.   Justice in founded in love.

aDVENT

In this Advent season, it is good to be reminded why God came to us as one of us: not in angry retribution or puzzled exasperation, but in love:

God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him won’t perish but will have eternal life. God didn’t send his Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16-17).

God calls us into a relationship of love that sets our own hearts aflame with love for God and for one another.  That is what the Bible is about.