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.

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