Mar
2020

The Blessing of St. Patrick’s Day

FOREWORD:  Before launching into my promised series on the end-times in Scripture, I am meeting my obligations as the World’s Biggest Leprechaun by reposting this edited blog entry in celebration of St. Patrick’s Day.  Beannachtai Na Feile Padraig Oraibh, friends–May the blessing of St. Patrick’s Day be upon you!

Image may contain: Steven Tuell, standing

Today, 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.

Patrick embraces a joyful spirituality of nature, 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.

Image may contain: possible text that says 'DID YOU KNOW THAT SAYING THE LORD'S PRAYER TAKES EXACTLY AS LONG AS THE CDC RECOMMENDS YOU WASH YOUR HANDS? Love your nezghbon Love your god. Wash and Pray.'

This St. Patrick’s Day, when fear and the isolation forced on us by this pandemic may prompt us to turn selfishly inward, 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.

 

Mar
2020

Are We There Yet? Pandemic and the End-times

First of all–please know that there is no reason to downplay the seriousness of this outbreak.  The World Health Organization does not use the term “pandemic” lightly.  Already, as I write this, there are 155,423 cases world wide, and 5,802 people have died–including, to bring this closer to home, 37 in the US.  By the time you read this, those numbers will only have climbed.  The decision of my school, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, to cancel events at least through May and in-person classes for the remainder of the term, was a measured and responsible decision.  However, there is no need for panic or despair.  We need to keep praying, to keep trusting in the Lord, and to keep on ministering to one another–particularly to those most threatened.

One of my students asked that I consider a question in this blog:

Specifically, is this the end of days? I have heard a number of students joke and comment about this, and I think the jokes and comments about the apocalypse do indicate a small underlying fear. Between the wildfires in Australia, the tornados in the south, the locusts in Eastern Africa currently, and now this virus … I can definitely see where they are coming from!

After I received that email, I saw that this question was being considered by many on line.  Some sources reply to this question cautiously.  Dr. Michael Brown, with the Evangelical Christian Post, writes:

My own understanding is that there will be massive upheaval before the end of the world, in the midst of which there will also be a mighty spiritual outpouring.  But either way, what is clear to me is that we should not view the coronavirus as a prophesied, end-time plague.

But others are less cautious.  In The Trumpet, Gerald Flurry writes:

Where is this leading? We are already experiencing the preliminary stages of what the Bible terms “great tribulation,” in which one third of the populations in America and other Israelitish nations will die—before being directly attacked by foreign enemies!

These horsemen of Revelation and the horses of Zechariah 6 are going to stampede over the Earth! God is already beginning to send a number of globe-rattling events our way! The Wuhan coronavirus and the other diseases breaking out today are only the beginning. He is going to let the world see where its evil ways are leading.

There is nothing new about this.  When I was a young Christian in my teens, I never expected that I would ever grow up and marry, that I would ever have children, or a career.  I knew–I knew–that the world was going to end very soon.  I pored over the books of Revelation and Daniel,  guided by M. R. deHaan and Hal Lindsey.  However, it was Lindsey’s 1970 book The Late Great Planet Earth that most captured my young imagination.

Mr. Lindsey’s end-time vision was a twentieth century American application of premillennial Darbyite Dispensationalism–which is a mouthful!  To unpack that phrase step by step: “premillenial” refers to a particular interpretation of  Revelation 20:1-15, which speaks of a thousand-year reign of Christ on the earth. From early on, Christians read this in different ways.  Some, such as Tertullian, insisted that John referred to a literal future thousand-year reign of Jesus following his return to earth–hence, premillennial (Against Marcion, 3:25). Others, such as Origen, considered John’s visions a metaphor for Christ’s spiritual reign rather than a literal description of future history–hence, amillennial (De Principiis 2.11.2-7).  Augustine advocated a mediating position that for generations dominated Christian interpretation: he read the thousand years as depicting of the age of the church, after which God’s kingdom would be ushered in: that is, postmillenial (City of God 20.7).

In contemporary American Christianity, the  literalism of Tertullian’s premillennial reading dominates.  According to a 2010 study by the Pew Research Center, 41% of Americans surveyed expect Christ to return before 2050; among white Evangelicals, this number rises to 58%.

What about “Darbyite Dispensationalism”?  In the 1830s John Nelson Darby, an Irish preacher in the Plymouth Brethren church, resolved the Bible’s conflicts and contradictions by dividing history into distinct periods called “Dispensations.”  For example, the ritual laws and Sabbath laws of the Old Testament could be discounted as belonging to a previous dispensation, and hence no longer applying to Christians.  This chain of dispensations extended into the future as well, culminating in a period of wrathful divine judgment from which true Christians would be spared.  Long before Darby, in the late 17th century, the American Puritan leaders Increase and Cotton Mather had preached that the faithful would be delivered before the day of God’s wrath.  But Darby placed that deliverance into a detailed description of future history, and transformed it into a miraculous, supernatural escape plan he called the “secret Rapture.”  This idea was broadly disseminated by Cyrus Scofield through the detailed notes and charts in his extremely popular reference Bible, first published in 1909.

Image result for endtime chart scolfieldBut it was Hal Lindsey’s application of Darby’s ideas in the wake of Israel’s Six Day War that led to the cultural phenomenon described in the Pew study.  Lindsey gave premillennialism a distinctive, tantalizing twist.   With the re-establishment of the state of Israel, sealed by its “miraculous” victory in the Six-Day War, God’s “prophetic clock” had started ticking.  We are now, officially, in the last days.  The countdown to the Rapture has begun.

Hal Lindsey is still on the airwaves.  To my knowledge, he has not weighed in on the coronavirus, but I fear it is only a matter of time.  Strangely, neither Lindsey nor, to my knowledge, any of his followers have ever acknowledged that he was wrong about the end of the world, which he expected to come within a generation (say, 40 years) of the re-establishment of the state of Israel in 1948.  Even if we start the prophetic clock with the Six-Day War in 1967, we are well past the date Lindsey and his followers predicted.

Not that long ago, billboards like this one were sprouting all over the Midwest, after radio preacher Harold Camping announced that, based upon his interpretations of biblical prophecies contained particularly in Daniel and Revelation, judgment day would come on May 21, 2011, and the world would end that October.  Earlier, in 1994, Mr. Camping had announced that that was the year the world would end.  I remember this clearly, because Armageddon was scheduled for October 3, 1994–my birthday!

Mr. Flurry, Mr. Lindsey, and Mr. Camping are far from the first people to believe that they have “cracked the code” of biblical prophecy to unveil future history. They will certainly not be the last.  We have, it seems, an insatiable appetite for this particular way of reading Scripture.  Please note that, while Dr. Brown disagrees with Mr. Flurry about the end-time significance of COVID-19, they agree that Scripture does present a future history, which read correctly will enable us to know when and how the world will end.

Let me be very blunt, friends: I do not agree with this approach to the Bible.  Neither Mr. Camping’s precise predictions, nor Mr. Lindsey’s more vague, but no less wrong, predictions, were in error because their sums were off–so that, as Dr. Brown seems to suggest, while their dates were wrong, their reading of Scripture was still valid.  The problem, not only with these predictions, but with all of those who claim to read a future history in the Bible is that the Bible does not present a future history.  Period.

The difference between the prophets of the Bible and modern charlatans who confidently claim to see the future is a difference not of degree, but of kind.  The prophets of ancient Israel were not better fortune-tellers than Lindsey, or Camping, or (as time will doubtless prove) Flurry.  Rather, the prophets were not fortune-tellers at all, but obedient messengers of God, faithfully passing on to us what God had shown to them.

This may come as a surprise.  Ask nine out of ten people on the street what a prophet does, and they will say “predict the future.”  This seems to be the stance of some biblical texts as well.  Deuteronomy 18:22 certainly seems clear: “The prophet who speaks in the LORD’s name and the thing doesn’t happen or come about—that’s the word the LORD hasn’t spoken. That prophet spoke arrogantly. Don’t be afraid of him.”  Accurate prediction, it seems, is the sure test of the true prophet.

The prophets themselves, however, seem untroubled by this assessment.  It is not at all difficult to find unfulfilled prophecies in Scripture. For example, the prophet Huldah, the woman Josiah consulted to confirm that the scroll of the Law found in the temple was indeed God’s word (2 Kgs 22:11-17), also promised that because of Josiah’s righteousness and humility, God “will gather you to your ancestors, and you will go to your grave in peace. You won’t experience the disaster I am about to bring on this place and its citizens” (2 Chr 34:28//2 Kgs 22:20).  But Josiah did not go down to his grave in peace!  In fact, he died tragically, in battle against Pharaoh Necho (2 Kgs 23:29-30; 2 Chr 35:20-27)–a fact which the authors of Israel’s history surely knew, and yet they let Huldah’s “false” prophecy stand in the text.

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In Jonah 3:4, the prophet (after a fishy detour!) at last arrives at Nineveh to deliver the message the Lord has given him: “Just forty days more and Nineveh will be overthrown!”  But it does not happen. The people (and animals; Jonah 3:7) of Nineveh repent in sackcloth, and God changes God’s mind (Jonah 3:10).

This is deeply disturbing to Jonah, but not surprising.  To explain his earlier flight from God’s presence, which had resulted in his sojourn in the fish’s belly, the prophet declares:

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 (Jonah 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 show mercy,  leaving Jonah with the stamp of the false prophet, whose predictions had not come true (as, remember, Deut 18:22 declares) —which was, of course, exactly what had happened. No wonder Jonah is angry!

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Jeremiah spoke clearly, and it seems accurately, about Judah’s future: Jerusalem would fall to Babylon.  But he also delivered to his people God’s challenge:

No, if you truly reform your ways and your actions; if you treat each other justly;  if you stop taking advantage of the immigrant, orphan, or widow; if you don’t shed the blood of the innocent in this place, or go after other gods to your own ruin,  only then will I dwell with you in this place, in the land that I gave long ago to your ancestors for all time (Jer 7:5-7).

Although their present course would lead them into exile and destruction, the possibility of a different future lay before them, if they would only claim it (though Jeremiah doubted that they could or would do so; see Jer 13:23).  Rather than presenting an infallible vision of a fixed and unchangeable future, Jeremiah’s predictions were conditional, involving alternate futures, depending upon whether Jerusalem repented, or not.

We must consider as well the many predictions in the New Testament that the end of the world would come soon (for example, Mk 13:30; 1 Cor 7:29-31; Rev 22:12, 20), which, taking them at face value, clearly did not come true.  Within the New Testament itself, this delay is seen not as a problem, but as a sign of God’s grace: “The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives” (2 Peter 3:9).

Image result for christ pantocratorJesus himself puts to rest the pretense that, if we are only clever enough, we can read our future in the pages of Scripture: “But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows” (Mark 13:32).  If Jesus does not know, then certainly we do not, and cannot, know.  The Bible is not tomorrow’s newspaper.  It is word of God for the people of God, yesterday, today, and forever.

In my next few blogs, I will look at several texts in both testaments, typically read as predicting the destruction of God’s enemies and the end of the world, and suggest another way of reading them–more true, I would argue, to what the texts themselves actually say.  But for now, hear Jesus’ words:

Therefore, don’t worry and say, ‘What are we going to eat?’ or ‘What are we going to drink?’ or ‘What are we going to wear?’ Gentiles long for all these things. Your heavenly Father knows that you need them. Instead, desire first and foremost God’s kingdom and God’s righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore, stop worrying about tomorrow, because tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matthew 6:31-34).

We need not worry about the future, friends, not because we know what the future holds, but because we know who holds the future.

Feb
2020

What Color is Lent?

winter

FOREWORD: For Ash Wednesday, I am reposting my very first blog entry, from February 21, 2013.  Thank you to my church history colleague (now, my Dean) Heather Vacek, and to our social media guru Melissa Logan, for pushing me to try this new thing, and to David Middleton for setting it up for me–God bless you!   I hope these blogs have been half as fun for you all to read as they have been for me to write.  Certainly, I intend to continue posting as the Bible Guy well into the foreseeable future!

 

This has, thankfully, been a mild winter in Pittsburgh (the picture above comes from 2010). Still, this year as every year, Lent began while winter still held sway. Indeed, even now, with February at long last over and done (how strange that, according to the calendar, February is the shortest month of the year!), the official first day of spring, March 20, seems a long way off.

All of which may seem appropriate. Lent certainly seems a wintry season of the church year: dark, cold, grim, unforgiving. The liturgical color for Lent is purple—an appropriately dark and lugubrious shade. But we are likely to think of Lent even more in winter shades: the penitential black of clerical garb, the gray of Ash Wednesday’s daubs on hands or foreheads, the off-white of sackcloth.

Yet, curiously, 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”!

ground-tuell

Likely we will have difficulty wrapping our heads around this concept. Lent as springtime? Our springtime associations wrap about Easter (a name which, by the way, derives from the Saxon goddess of fertility and the dawn!)—the feast of Christ’s resurrection, acclaimed by John of Damascus (6th century) as “the Spring of souls.” Even in the secular world, Easter is celebrated with signs and symbols of newness and life: eggs, brightly dyed in the shades of spring flowers; bunnies (famous for their fecundity!); and new clothes.

By contrast, these forty days of preparation are appropriately penitential, marked by self-examination, prayer and fasting. Likely, we would prefer to skip the preparation and jump directly into the celebration! But the Lenten disciplines are not optional. Mark reminds us that, after Jesus’ baptism, “the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness” (Mark 1:12). Jesus could not avoid this time of trial, and neither can we. But this Lenten season need not be grim and colorless. Lent is a green season—a time of growth. Lent provides the opportunity for us to dig down deeper in our tradition, to break up the fallow ground of our cold hearts so that the Water of Life may seep down into the center of who are. Lent is the time for the Spirit to prune away our dead branches so that we may bear fruit. It is then a season of new life—a springtime for our souls!

God grant you, sisters and brothers, a green, growing, God-filled Lent!

Feb
2020

Transfigured!

Sometimes, I remember something I have said in a classroom or a pulpit, and I wince.  This week of Transfiguration Sunday, I can remember saying, at least once, that on that mountaintop Peter, James, and John saw Jesus “as he really was.”  Reading John 1:1-18 this week with my Creation class, I realized once again how very wrong that statement is!

The prologue to the Fourth Gospel affirms,

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

We Christians confess that Jesus was fully God AND fully human.  He was not God sometimes (say, on the Mount of Transfiguration) and human sometimes (say, in the manger–or on the cross).  Certainly, Jesus was not God pretending to be human–God in a people mask.  Nor was he a charlatan–a human pretending to be a god.  Jesus was, always and everywhere, himself.  So, yes: the Jesus they saw every day–laughing, crying, hungry, angry, dusty and weary from the road, Jesus in all his fleshiness–was indeed the real Jesus.

What happened on that mountain is related in the second half of that pivotal verse:

We have seen his glory,
    glory like that of a father’s only son,
        full of grace and truth (John 1:14b).

That blinding glory was not always apparent–thankfully, for Jesus’ family and friends!  Indeed, had it been, Jesus could scarcely have been fully human.  But just this once, the “fully God” side of the incarnation equation was fully evident.  As the tradition passed down from Peter proclaims,

We didn’t repeat crafty myths when we told you about the powerful coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. Quite the contrary, we witnessed his majesty with our own eyes.  He received honor and glory from God the Father when a voice came to him from the magnificent glory, saying, “This is my dearly loved Son, with whom I am well-pleased.”  We ourselves heard this voice from heaven while we were with him on the holy mountain (2 Peter 1:16-18).

So, what exactly happened “on the holy mountain”?  In the old King James Bible, Sunday’s gospel declares, “And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light” (Matthew 17:2).  The Greek word rendered “transfigured” here is metamorphoo, source of our English word “metamorphosis”–which certainly sounds as though what happened to Jesus on the mountain was a transformation, rather than a revelation.

Image result for butterfly with cocoon

The verb metamorphoo is not used in the Septuagint (the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture), and in our New Testament, it appears only four times.  Two of those are the accounts of Jesus’ transfiguration in Matthew and Mark (Matt 17:2; Mark 9:2).  The other two are in Paul’s letters.  In 2 Corinthians 3:7-18, Paul compares the glory of God’s revelation on Sinai (see Sunday’s lesson from the Hebrew Bible, Exod 24:12-18), which made Moses’ face shine (see Exod 34:29-35), with the glory of the freedom revealed in Christ (by the way, in Hebrew the word for the rays shining from Moses’ face is related to the word for horns, so Moses is sometimes depicted as horned!).

Image result for moses michelangelo

Paul says that the glory beaming from Moses’ face was after all only temporary–the result of the revelation he had received.   However, gazing upon Christ works a permanent transformation:

All of us are looking with unveiled faces at the glory of the Lord as if we were looking in a mirror. We are being transformed [metamorphoo] into that same image from one degree of glory to the next degree of glory. This comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit (2 Cor 3:18).

Therefore, in Romans 12:2, Paul famously challenges his readers:

Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed  [metamorphoo] by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.

The change Peter, James, and John witnessed on the mountain did not mean that Jesus had changed–only that they saw him more clearly.  On the other hand, gazing on Jesus, who is not only truly God but truly human, prompts us to change. Jesus shows us what being human–created in God’s image (Gen 1:27)–really means.  The International Theological Commission of the Vatican (2004) puts it very well:

Thus, what it means to be created in the imago Dei is only fully revealed to us in the imago Christi. In him, we find the total receptivity to the Father which should characterize our own existence, the openness to the other in an attitude of service which should characterize our relations with our brothers and sisters in Christ, and the mercy and love for others which Christ, as the image of the Father, displays for us (Communion and Stewardship, paragraph 53).

Image result for charlers Wesley

In his hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” Charles Wesley takes up Paul’s language from 2 Corinthians, and joyfully invites us into prayer for a transfiguration of our own:

Finish, then, thy new creation;
Pure and spotless let us be.
Let us see thy great salvation
Perfectly restored in thee;
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.

Sisters and brothers, friends and siblings in Christ, so may it be for us!

AFTERWORD:

This prayer for Transfiguration Sunday comes from Revised Common Lectionary Prayers, © 2002 Consultation on Common Texts (Augsburg Fortress):

Holy God, mighty and immortal,
you are beyond our knowing,
yet we see your glory in the face of Jesus Christ,
whose compassion illumines the world.
Transform us into the likeness of the love of Christ,
who renewed our humanity so that we may share in his divinity,
through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Jan
2020

Groundhog Day

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In the United States and Canada, February 2 is known as Groundhog Day. We wait to see if a groundhog (in Pennsylvania, of course, THE Groundhog, Punxsatawney Phil) will see his shadow.  It is, let’s face it, a very weird and silly holiday–but it has some very deep folk roots.  The Celts called this festival of the quarter-year (midwinter, as Hallowe’en is midautumn) Imbolc.  Imbolc was associated with ewes beginning to give milk, in preparation for spring lambing.  Indeed, according to Plutarch’s Parallel Lives, February 2 was a holiday for shepherds in Roman times as well

This day, in the dead of winter, is associated with hope for the return of warmer weather–but not too soon.  A “false spring” after all may be followed by a killing frost, wiping out trees that have budded too soon, and threatening lambs born out of season.  Therefore, sunny weather on this midwinter day is held to be a bad omen of more bleak days ahead, while cold and cloudy weather appropriate to the season augurs the swift return of sunshine and greenery.

In the Western Christian calendar, February 2 is often called Candlemas, as this was traditionally when the candles used in the coming year were blessed.  In addition to its association with ancient traditions, this day also has a biblical justification, coming forty days after the celebration of Jesus’ birth on December 25.

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In the world view of ancient Israel’s priests, the life of any being was contained in the blood.  Since life is given by God alone, so too blood belongs exclusively to God; contact with blood makes human  beings ritually unclean. Childbirth, being a bloody process, rendered mother and child alike ritually defiled.  Leviticus 12:2-8 stipulates the rites of purification for cleansing from the ritual uncleanness caused by childbirth.  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).

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

Title: Presentation in the Temple [Click for larger image view]

This tapestry depicting Luke’s scene is from the Abbey Church of St. Walpurga in Virginia Dale, Colorado.  The order of the nuns of St. Walpurga was established in the 11th century in Bavaria.  They fled to the United States in 1935 to escape the Nazis, and settled in the Colorado mountains. The walls of their church are lined with tapestries like this one, inspired by biblical texts.

Joseph (in the slouch hat) carries the two turtledoves that Leviticus 12:8 says a poor family may offer instead of a sheep as a sacrifice (see Luke 2:24).  Also pictured is Simeon, who had been promised “that he wouldn’t die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (Luke 2:26).  Simeon holds baby Jesus, praises God for him, and prays a beautiful prayer, called (after its opening words in Latin) the Nunc dimittis:

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

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

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

The salvation offered through Jesus is for everyone.

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

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

Although Jesus has come for everyone, not everyone will receive him: he will be “a sign that generates opposition.”  In Luke 12:51 , Jesus declares,“Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, I have come instead to bring division” (Greek diamerismon).  In Matthew’s more forceful parallel to this passage (Matt 10:34), Jesus says, “Don’t think that I’ve come to bring peace to the earth. I haven’t come to bring peace but a sword.”

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In both gospels, Jesus goes on to describe how families will be torn apart by his message, as some accept it and others vehemently reject it–as well as their own kin.  Luke’s interpretation seems correct, then: the sword in Matthew is a metaphor for the violence and opposition Jesus’ message will stir up, even within families.  For the sword of the Lord revealing “the inner thoughts of many,” see Hebrews 4:12:

God’s word is living, active, and sharper than any two-edged sword. It penetrates to the point that it separates the soul from the spirit and the joints from the marrow. It’s able to judge the heart’s thoughts and intentions.

Finally, Simeon’s words to Mary prefigure her days of sorrow to come: “And a sword will pierce your innermost being too” (Luke 2:35).  Jesus’ way leads to the light, but it passes through the darkness of the cross.  Simeon offers no illusions that God’s salvation comes easily, without opposition or conflict.

Title: Presentation in the Temple [Click for larger image view]

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

Many readers will find the idea of ritual purity and uncleanness back of Jesus’ presentation in the temple 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 affirm on this day of Candlemas and on every day that Jesus cleanses us from the stain of our sin, and leads us in the way of “[God’s] salvation . . . a light for revelation to the Gentiles and a glory for your people Israel.”

Jan
2020

Ugly Ducklings

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When our boys were small, a neighbor gave us a picture book, accompanied by a recording, of the story of the Ugly Duckling. The guys loved the present—so much so that over the succeeding weeks, through many, many listenings, I had the opportunity as never before to immerse myself in this old, familiar tale!

We all know the story: an odd, outsized egg in a mother duck’s nest hatches out an odd, outsized duckling, gray and ungainly. Because of his ugliness, the duckling is rejected by everyone in the farmyard. Only when he has grown does he discover the truth about himself: he is not a duck, but a beautiful, graceful swan! Indeed, he had always been a swan, with all that beauty and grace locked inside; but he did not know it, and no one else could see it.

Mister Rogers portrait in Pittsburgh

I don’t know that Fred Rogers ever told this story. But in a real sense, it was the point of every single story he every told. Every week, he sang to every child watching, “You are my friend, you are special. You are my friend, you are special to me. . . . There’s only one in this wonderful world. You are special.”

In the second Servant Song (Isa 49:1-7), the Servant of the LORD is born with a great destiny:

Listen to me, coastlands;
    pay attention, peoples far away.
The Lord called me before my birth,
    called my name when I was in my mother’s womb (Isa 49:1).

The language is strongly reminiscent of God’s words to the prophet Jeremiah:

Before I created you in the womb I knew you;
    before you were born I set you apart;
    I made you a prophet to the nations (Jer 1:5).

Later, the apostle Paul would express the confidence that he, too, had been called before he was born, appointed from the first to proclaim Jesus among the Gentiles (Gal 1:15-16). The Servant’s prophetic role, announced on a world stage, is shown as well in the power of his words: the LORD “made my mouth like a sharp sword” (Isa 49:2; compare Rev 1:16; 2:16; 19:15, 21, where this image is used for the word of the risen Christ).

But the Servant’s true destiny–like that of the ugly duckling–is hidden from the world. Having made the Servant’s mouth “like a sharp sword,” the LORD hid him away “in the shadow of [God’s] hand” (49:2). Though the LORD had fashioned him “like a sharpened arrow,” a beautiful, potent expression of God’s intent, the Servant found himself unused, apparently forgotten, hidden away like an arrow in God’s quiver (49:2).

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Indeed, not only was the Servant’s destiny hidden from the world, it seemed to be hidden even from the Servant himself! Despairing, the Servant cried, “I have wearied myself in vain. I have used up my strength for nothing” (49:4). Those words of despair and frustration call to mind the cry of Jesus from the cross, in the words of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you left me?” (Matt 27:46//Mk 15:34). The way of the Servant is hard—as it must be. How, otherwise, could the Servant truly understand the suffering of others, who feel themselves abandoned, forgotten, God-forsaken?

Yet, God declares, the Servant will become the means, not only of Israel’s redemption, but of the world’s transformation:

It is not enough, since you are my servant,
    to raise up the tribes of Jacob
    and to bring back the survivors of Israel.
    Hence, I will also appoint you as light to the nations
    so that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth (49:6).

The audience that first heard these words knew all too well what it was to feel abandoned and forgotten. Through fifty years of exile, they had struggled to preserve their identity in the midst of an alien culture. They were tired, unable to summon the energy to hope for deliverance (see 40:28-31; 43:22-24; 47:12-15; 49:4). No wonder this exilic prophecy begins with a word of encouragement: “Comfort, comfort my people” (40:1).

But the message of Second Isaiah is not Pollyanna optimism: all is not well. The pain of the people cuts deep. Their despair is real, and realistic: experience has taught them not to hope for too much. Yet, God declares, not only will Israel be restored, but in their restoration, the world will be made new. The way of the Servant leads through sorrow into joy, through darkness into light, through death into life.

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In 1 Corinthians, Paul invites his readers to look around: “By ordinary human standards not many were wise, not many were powerful, not many were from the upper class” (1 Cor 1:26). You are not the best and the brightest, not the most beautiful or the smartest or the strongest–you are just folks!  Yet, Paul says,

God chose what the world considers low-class and low-life—what is considered to be nothing—to reduce what is considered to be something to nothing.  So no human being can brag in God’s presence (1 Cor 1:28-29).

The message of the cross is that God has come to be present in the midst of suffering, hopelessness, and despair, to reveal the true glory of God’s love, life and goodness in the lives of plain, ordinary, desperate people–ugly ducklings, like you and me.

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We cannot know, and the world cannot see, what God dreams for us. We are like a grain of wheat, which contains hidden within it all the potential for the stalk of grain it can become (Jn 12:24). But every day, by God’s grace, ugly ducklings are transformed into beautiful, graceful swans!

AFTERWORD:

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Monday, January 20, is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.  The hatred and violence of our times may lead us–like the Servant!–to despair that the life and death of Dr. King, and of so many others, was in vain.  But no, friends.  The way of the Servant that Jesus walked, that Dr. King walked in his footsteps and that we too are called to follow, may go through dark places–but it leads into the light.  May the words of abolitionist Theodore Parker, quoted by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, speak for us as well:

I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways; I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. And from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice (Theodore Parker, “Of Justice and the Conscience,” in The Collected Works of Theodore Parker 2, 37-57 [London: Trubner, 1879], 48).

Jan
2020

The Magi

FOREWORD: I am reposting this from 2018.  Happy Epiphany, friends!

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 of 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
2020

The Holy Name

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Today, of course, is New Year’s Day–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 (see Lev 12:3) and named.  Therefore in many traditions, this day is the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus.

Before reflecting on what the name is, it is important first to note what the name is not.  “Christ” is not Jesus’ last name–he was not the son of Joseph and Mary Christ!  Rather, Christ is a titleand a rather odd one.  In Greek, christos means “smeared” (the Greek geographer Diodorus Siculus, for example, refers to newly plastered constructions as neochristos –that is, “freshly smeared”)!  However, in the Greek translation of Jewish Scripture called the Septuagint, christos is used 49 times to translate the Hebrew word meshiach, or messiah (for example, Lev 21:10, 12; 1 Sam 2:10; Ps 2:2; Isa 45:1).  This word also means “smeared”–smeared with oil, or anointed.  Anointing was used to designate people and objects set aside for a special purpose–but of course, in time, the term “Messiah” came to be used as a title for the King who was to come.  “Jesus Christ,” then, is not a name, but a confession: “Jesus IS the Christ,” the King who was to come.  But his name is “Jesus.”

Matthew 1:18-24, which tells the story of Jesus’ naming, also 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). Sadly, in much of the world–and even in America!–such “honor killings” still occur today.

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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).

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)!  Further, the angel gave Joseph instructions concerning this child: “you will call him Jesus” (Matt 1:21).

 

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).

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):

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.

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In both Matthew and Mark, Jesus eats a Passover meal with his disciples, breaking the bread and sharing the cup.  Mark 14:22-25 reads,

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, and they all drank from it.  He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.  I assure you that I won’t drink wine again until that day when I drink it in a new way in God’s kingdom.”

Matthew’s version follows Mark’s, but with one important addition.

He took a cup, gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, “Drink from this, all of you. This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many so that their sins may be forgiven(Matt 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.

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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 his name–Yeshua, “the Savior”)  “If you are God’s Son, come down from the cross.”  (Remember his 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.

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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.

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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.

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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, the Son as Immanuel brings God to us and us to God.  By his death, the Son as Yeshua enters our death and evil and abolishes its power forever.  By his resurrection and ascension, he completes the meaning of both his names.  He is Jesus, our Savior, who destroys our death.  He is Emmanuel, God with us, who makes us fully “at one” with God: which is what “atonement” means.

A Merry Eighth Day of Christmas, friends, and a joyous New Year 2020!

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 30 years.  Wherever you are today, John, and whatever you are up to–thank you!

 

Dec
2019

Thoughts About the Solstice.

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We have been taught–and rightly–that God creates the universe out of nothing.  Theologians and philosophers talk about creation in this way because of their high view of God. If God is indeed God, then God is not an object in the world of time and space: certainly, then, God must have called all that is into being. Therefore, Jewish, Christian, and Muslim theologians alike talk about Creatio ex nihilo: that is, God creating the world “out of nothing.”

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But that is not what Genesis 1 is about. The question posed by the beginning of the Bible is not, “Where did the world come from?” Ancient people really did not care how the world began.  What they wanted, and needed, to know was something more immediate and pressing: is there a meaningful order to reality? Can I plant my crops and know that the rain will fall, the sun will rise, the seed will sprout and germinate, and the harvest will come?

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Here in the northern hemisphere, December 21 is the winter solstice, the official beginning of winter.  Ancient people knew all about solstices and equinoxes. Though they did not understand how this happened, they were fully aware that every year, when the autumnal equinox rolls around, the day and the night are of equal length (hence, “equinox:” that is, “equal night”). But every night after that the nights get longer and longer, and every day after that the days get shorter and shorter, until finally we come to the winter solstice: the longest night and shortest day of the year.

Every human culture in the world recognizes the equinoxes and the solstices, and for a very important reason. After all, how can we know that this time around, the nights won’t just keep getting longer and longer and longer until everything is swallowed up in night? How can we know that this time around the air won’t just continue to get colder and colder and colder until everything is swallowed up in an endless winter of darkness and death?

 

Image result for 2012 ice ageCan we be certain that the wheel will turn and that the cycle will continue? In short: does the world make sense?

The opening verses of Genesis record, “When God began to create the heavens and the earth— the earth was without shape or form” (Hebrew tohu wabohu; Gen 1:1-2). This “formless void” (the NRSV rendering of the verse) is further described as “the deep sea” (Hebrew tehom) and “the waters” (Hebrew hammayim; Gen 1:2). In Genesis 1:1-2, then, the state of things when God began creating was chaos, without order or pattern, represented as tossing, shifting, formless water.

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Picture yourself floating in the ocean. There is no land in sight. It is night: the sky is overcast, so that there is no moon and no starlight. All you can see, all you can imagine, is the endless rise and fall of the water, the tossing of the waves, and the wind blowing over the deep. That is the way Israel’s ancient priests imagined the beginning of things.

It all begins with shapeless, formless water. But when God speaks God’s creative word–“God said, ‘Let there be light”–God imposes order on that chaos. The implicit question in Genesis 1, then, is not, how did the world begin, but rather, does the world make sense? God establishes order and meaning in place of disorder and meaninglessness.

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It makes eminent sense, then, that early Christians began celebrating Christ’s birth soon after the solstice: to recognize the truth that Christ’s light has shone into our darkness, to bring the promise of new life and hope.  The one who is the Word–the Logos, the Pattern of all reality–has come among us in the person of Jesus (John 1:1-5, 14), to remind us of the world’s meaning.  Merry Christmas, friends!

Dec
2019

What Sweeter Music Can We Bring?

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What sweeter music can we bring,
Than a carol, for to sing
The birth of this our heavenly King?
Awake the voice! Awake the string!

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Dark and dull night, fly hence away,
And give the honour to this day,
That sees December turn’d to May.

Why does the chilling winter’s morn
Smile like a field beset with corn?
Or smell like a meadow newly shorn,
Thus on the sudden?

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Come and see
The cause why things thus fragrant be:
‘Tis He is born whose quickening birth
Gives life and lustre public mirth
To heaven and the under-earth.

We see Him come, and know Him ours,
Who with His sunshine and His showers
Turns all the patient ground to flowers.

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The Darling of the world is come,
And fit it is we find a room
To welcome Him.

The nobler part
Of all the house here, is the heart.

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Which we will give him; and bequeath
This holly and this ivy wreath,
To do him honour who’s our King,
The Lord of all this revelling.

–“A Christmas Carol, Sung To The King In The Presence At Whitehall,” by Robert Herrick (1591-1674), 1648.

GOD BLESS US, EVERY ONE!  MERRY CHRISTMAS TO YOU AND YOURS!

AFTERWORD: Thanks to our beloved St. Paul’s UMC choirmaster Tom Taylor for selecting this lovely piece, set to music by John Rutter, for our choir.  Prayers for your speedy convalescence, Tom!  Thanks to the estimable Alaine Fink for stepping capably into the breach, and leading us into this celebration of Christ’s birth.