Mercy Sakes Alive

Looks like we got us one

JMJ

POPE BENEDICT XVI has this pedagogical trick, pardon the word, of pulling back from a Biblical pericope to look at the context in which the writer has placed the words of Jesus. It’s not a trick really, but so few people do it. It’s a logical and yet entirely different way to look at scripture based on the “higher” textual criticism methods of the 19th Century. It’s ok to recognize that the Gospels are not telling a literal, chronological bibliography. But the writers of the text are saying something in the very order and context they create in their books. So pulling back to look at the wider context (a few verses, even a couple of chapters) is right. The evangelist did not intend for their stories to be meditated on in tight focus. They should not be read at all as if each few verses were to be read, as it were, on a stand-alone recipe card. That would be a recipe for failure to understand the scripture. The writers are saying something – what?

Recently I was trying to render the Jesus prayer into Hebrew. There are so many ways to say “have mercy” that I thought to look at the scriptures. We’re often pointed towards the Publican and Pharisee story as one model for the Jesus prayer. That’s in Luke 18. So I was checking out that chapter in Hebrew from the website of a Messianic congregation. In 18:13 the publican says (translating from the Hebrew on that page) basically “forgive me my sins” which… after years in Orthodoxy, I knew must be some sort of Western, evangelical “legalistic” spin on the scriptures. Meh. OK, so that’s not the prayer I want, thank you. So I Googled another use of mercy and found it, “Son of David, Have mercy on me” in – of all places – also Luke 18, this time in Verse 38. And there the Hebrew is entirely different and says, essentially, “pour your grace on me”.

Wait. Why are there two different Hebrew phrases used for “mercy” in the same chapter of Luke? Time to pull out my (Pope) Benedictine Trickery!

First I went to the Greek text. In Luke 18:13 the publican uses the phrase ἱλάσθητί μοι ilastheti moi. That first word comes from ἱλάσκομαι hilaskomai and it literally means “make propitiation for my sins” and it can be read as “forgive me my sins”. So, literally it is a legal designation! No matter what you might want to hear in the story of the Publican and Pharisee, the text does say, “God, I’ve broken some rules, and I beg you please erase my legal errors…” That’s why, in the next verse, Jesus uses another legal term, saying the Publican went home justified or even acquitted. There is a literally a juridical process going on here. The Hebrew use of “forgive me” is correct.

To put “mercy” in the text here is, perhaps, a bit of a strain, because mercy here would mean “please don’t punish me” whereas Jesus says the man was acquitted – meaning as if he was never guilty in the first place – because of his humility. Something else has happened.

Now, look at Luke 18:38.

Here the Greek word used is ἐλέησόν eleison, from ἐλεέω eleeo. This is the familiar word from the Mass. Kyrie Eleison, Christe Eleison. It is related to the Greek word for olive oil and it literally implies comfort, soothe, one might even think of a massage! The blind man is calling out to Jesus, “Son of David, soothe me! Comfort me!” The Hebrew “be gracious to me” is 100% right here, as well.

Now, let’s pull back further and look at the convoy of stories between these two mercies. Yes, I think there’s a longer story being told here. I think it runs from 17:11 “On the way to Jerusalem…” to 19:28 “And when he had said this, he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.” Looking at this long passage we see:

  • The Ten Lepers (with only one giving thanks)
  • The Kingdom is Among You (many will say, there is there kingdom, here it is)
  • Where is the Parousia happening (look for the Eagles circling)
  • The Widow and the Judge (keep asking)
  • Publican and Pharisee
  • Blessing the Children
  • The Rich Young Man
  • Prophecy of Death
  • Jesus heals the Blind Beggar
  • Jesus arrives in Jerico where Israel entered the Promised Land
  • Zacchaeus Climbs a Tree
  • Parable of the Talents

I think there is a fruitful meditation in treating this as a chiasm. The text folds back on itself like this:

  • Ten Lepers / Ten Talents
  • Kingdom is Among You / Kingdom himself comes to Zacchaeus’ House for supper
  • Where is the Kingdom/Entering the Promised Land
  • Widow Keeps Asking the Judge / Beggar Keeps crying out to Jesus
  • Publican asks for Propitiation / Jesus Prophecies his death
  • Jesus Blesses the Children and says “be like a child” / A young man is too hung up on adult things.

And that makes the center of the chaismus out to be at 18:17-18: “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.’ And a ruler asked him, ‘Good Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?'”

The answer comes before the question.

Reading this way, there’s a reason for two different “types” of mercy: Jesus is the propitiation for our sins (as the Publican asks) but also Jesus is the mercy (grace) we’re all crying out for. Keep crying out!

But we cannot take the Mercy for Granted.

The same word for Mercy (Khesed, Eleison) gets used in the story of the Lebers as in the story of the Beggar. However only one of the lepers makes Eucharist. Reading as a chiasm and pairing the ten lepers with the ten talents, the story seems to say it’s what you do with the mercy that’s important. We know from other passages that Jesus is concerned with the fruit of his actions in our lives. It’s not enough to accept the grace he sends, it’s not enough to be blessed by God. We must pass it on, we must, then, make Eucharist with the manna from heaven. We must not only welcome the Kingdom of God into our house for supper, but, like Zacchaeus, we must turn around and have mercy on others. We must share the grace abroad, forgive as we have been forgiven, we must be the kingdom among those around us.

That’s mercy.

There may be more in this pattern, but let’s open it to more meditation. Jesus will be merciful to us!

By the way, the Jesus prayer in Hebrew (in a short form) is:

ישוע חנני

Yeshua khanani.

St Mary in the Sabbath

Inset from the icon, “Captive Daughter of Zion” by Robert Lentz, OFM,
in the author’s icon corner and available here.

JMJ

IN THE WESTERN DAILY OFFICE and Mass there is a tradition of commemorating the Blessed Virgin on Saturdays outside of Lent. There are propers for the office as well as for votive Masses offered on these days. In the older Western Rite, this commemoration began with Vespers on Friday night with a special hymn and prayer, it included readings in the Night Office, and then special hymnody and prayer at Lauds on Saturday morning. This tradition dates back to at least the Tenth Century, but it may be earlier. A form of this may be familiar to the reader as the First Saturdays Devotion. There are a number of ideas about why Marian Saturdays might have happened and also a number of ideas about “What it means”. You can read some of them here or here. This post is only a meditation on the fittingness of the idea: I’m not being a historian here but rather meditating on Mary and the Sabbath together. BY way of warning, I’m crossing the streams again: today it’s Byzantine and Western liturgy plus the Jewishness of Mary and Jesus. (I love the icon of the Captive Daughter of Zion that heads this post: the artist has created a visual map of this meditation.)

First, it’s important to see the Sabbath clearly: it’s not just a negative prohibition against work. God rested on the Sabbath Day. The invitation is not to “don’t do that” but rather to “be like God”. In fact, if you read the Genesis account carefully Man and Woman are created on the 6th Day, God says, “your job will be as gardeners” and then Day 1 of their job is the Sabbath! Your job starts today so take a break… In very real ways, the Sabbath is not “the Weekend” for man: rather it’s the beginning. (Yes, it’s Day Seven for God.)

Far from being prohibited to “do anything”, Adam and Eve are starting from a place of trust. Humanity’s assigned place at the pinnacle of Creation begins with a resting moment of contemplation which they share with God. God is Father who provides: man needs to trust in God, not in the labor of his own hands. Yes, we have work to do but in due time, not now. Sit. Breath. Trust.

In the Liturgical East, the Great Sabbath is the day before Pascha. This also comes from Judaism where the Great Sabbath (Hebrew: Shabbat HaGadol) is the Sabbath that occurs before Passover (Hebrew: Pesach). On this day is commemorated the descent of Jesus into Hell as Jesus’ body rests in the tomb of St Joseph. It’s this resting in the tomb that’s seen as a typological fulfilment of the Sabbath.

Using the same typological reading of Sabbath rest, let’s spin the clock backward: as God-Made-Man, Jesus must recapitulate all of humanity’s journey and so – as with Adam and Eve – Jesus begins his “job” as redeemer resting in the womb of Mary for nine months. Mary is – in her very self as Mother of God – a type of the Sabbath. To commemorate Mary on the Sabbath is to commemorate the Sabbath on Sabbath! As was mentioned at the top of the post, the devotion used to begin on Friday night at Vespers (that is, sunset). It makes each “Weekend” a beginning: for to start with the Divine Rest, and then to celebrate the Resurrection on the First Day was a real beginning. As my pastor says, “I can’t think of a better way to start the week…”

Shabbat Shalom!

Psalms 118 and 136

JMJ

POP QUIZ! What do these two psalms have in common? They have the same response line (below in Hebrew, Greek, and Latin):

ki l’olam khasdo כִּי לְעוֹלָם חַסְדּוֹ׃

ὅτι εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα τὸ ἔλεος αὐτοῦ (h)oti eis ton aiona to eleos autou

quoniam in saeculum misericordia ejus.

For Ps 136, especially, it’s an interesting line. It’s usually translated as “for his love endures for ever” or “for his mercy” or “steadfast love”. It’s an unusual choice. He gives food to everyone because his love is eternal is ok, but we’re stuck saying God’s love caused the Egyptians to die in the Red Sea or his mercy killed Og the King of Bashan. I find that confusing, just to be honest. One way to read it is that his love is for Israel and so he’s beating up on Gentiles. But that’s not so. We know from the later prophets that God calls all the Gentiles too. Jonah goes to Nineveh, there is prophecy directed at Babylon, Persia, Edom… God’s plan includes all these nations. And, as Christians, we say God’s plan includes everyone. So what do we hear when we say, “his love (mercy, whatever) endures forever”? What do we mean?

In the line ki l’olam khasdo there are two words of interest: ki and khasdo. Ki is a conjunction. It can be that as in “praise him that his love endures” or it can mean because. I’m intrigued that it can be used as an oath: I swear this (ki) this this thing is true. That would make all these verses a sort of credal statement: these things happened ki l’olam (which means eternal) khasdo which gets us to our second word.

It’s the possessive form (“o” is his) of chesed. God chooses the male pronoun here. Let’s be clear.

I’m fascinated by the use of chesed to mean “grace” in modern Israeli Hebrew. My Protestant past understands grace differently than the Orthodox and Catholic tradition. In Protestantism grace is something unearned, free, and – importantly – something that Jesus paid for. There is no such thing as a free lunch and my evangelical teachers taught me that grace means, “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense”. For traditional Christian theology, though, Grace is the divine life in which we participate – it’s the action of God moving us to himself. For Orthodox, it’s one of the “energies” of God but for a Catholic, believing in absolute divine simplicity, Grace is God himself. (CCC ¶52 God, who “dwells in unapproachable light”, wants to communicate his own divine life to the men he freely created, in order to adopt them as his sons in his only-begotten Son. By revealing himself God wishes to make them capable of responding to him, and of knowing him and of loving him far beyond their own natural capacity. ¶1997 Grace is a participation in the life of God and ¶2023 Sanctifying grace is the gratuitous gift of his life that God makes to us). All the words used for the translation, then – Divine Mercy, Divine Love, Divine Grace, Divine Steadfast Love, Faithfulness, etc. – are all the same: God is and his life in us is chesed.

While it’s tempting to say a Protestant idea of Grace caused Bible translators to used “mercy” and “love” here, that would not be correct. Jerome was already using misericordia in the Vulgate which contains root words for both “mercy” and “heart”. The Greek (LXX) is sticking with Mercy in that form related to “olive oil” and “soothing”. Only internet irony causes me to want to render it as “give me a massage, Lord”. Catholics, too, have problems here. We can tend to want “mercy” and “love” to mean only “just be nice to everyone”. Nice is not love. We need to learn that.

For both Orthodox and Catholic thought, grace is something (God) at work in the world to accomplish his will, which is the restoration of everyone to his presence. So we can see the great calamities mentioned in Ps 136 and well as the praises in Ps 118 as a celebration of God working out his will in the world through his grace.

What makes this important to me just now is the use of hesed to describe all the things it’s used for from stages of the Creation story to the Red Sea crossing, from the killing of the first born to the killing of Og. We’re used to thinking of “Grace” as something that was (nearly) invented in the writings of Paul. No matter how you think about it, Protestantly or Cathodoxly, if you read “grace” into Hesed, you have to accept that the Old Testament is telling the same story as the New. You can do a David Bently Hart/Marcionite Heresy and say the OT is violent but the NT is loving it’s grace all the way though. The God that sent us Jesus sent us the 10 Plagues and for exactly the same reason. That we have trouble seeing it is on us, not God. God is love. Full stop.

Grace, clearly, is not always something we might welcome or find enjoyable. In fact, it sometimes bites us in the backside. This should not surprise us: for full cooperation in the life of God leads Jesus to some interesting places. Yet the point of Grace is to draw us to God from the inside: it’s not a magnet, it’s a homing device.

Because his grace endures for ever.

Atone-over

JMJ

IN THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH’s Book of Common Prayer (1979), as the priest breaks the consecrated bread, is sung the Fraction Anthem. “Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast.” John the Baptist, of course, refers to Christ as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). And the New Testament is filled with references to Christ as an atoning sacrifice. (eg John 3:16, Romans 3:24, Hebrews 9:12-16, Revelation 5:9.)

But here’s where my meditations on this hit a snag: the Lamb offered every year at Passover was not offered as a sin offering. The main sin offering was, of course, Yom Kippur, and certainly Good Friday was in the Passover Season. Also the Yom Kippur offering is two goats. Not Lambs. The Passover offering does not fit the pattern of any of the other sacrifices of Leviticus. It was given by God to the people of Israel while they were still in Egypt, before the Temple or Tabernacle system was even discussed.

So it seems that there is a huge significance for this evident change in the Christian reading of the sacrificial system’s symbolism. This theological move forms the hinge by which we connect with the Jewish people. Why is our reading of Passover the way it is? Mind you these are only ruminations: I’m not really going anywhere and I have a lot more questions than answers.

As I noted this reading (of atonement as part of the Messiah’s mission) is present already in the earliest texts of Paul and the Gospels. So it’s not an aberration.

I’m not the historian that can delve into 2nd Temple Judaism. A cursory investigation on the internet shows a lot of Christian sources rather than Jewish ones. It seems the question of Why Passover and not Yom Kippur is a common one. There is a comment from Abraham ibn Ezra, writing in the 10th Century, understanding Passover as an atonement for those “in the house”. (Cited here.) That same page also has an extensive citation from Rashi which seems to hold that image as one of atonement, however I don’t think it jives totally? Both of these comments are in the 10th Century, though. Is there any earlier information? Shrug. This is a meditation, not a history paper.

Nu? Typology, maybe?

If Egypt is taken as a sign of “the world” or “sin” or as a synecdoche for all Gentiles, then Passover is a sign of leaving the worldly order (Mammon) for the Heavenly Kingdom.

If we understand sin as a bunch of rules we’ve broken, demerits, as it were, then we need a sin offering (like Yom Kippur) but if we understand sin as a breaking of the Marriage Covenant between God and his people then we need to redo the covenant, not just undo a few demerits. Passover is before the Sinai covenant and so it’s a good symbol to use for a do-over or a Mulligan.

Another clue about Egypt can be found if we loop back to the Fraction Anthem from the 1979 Prayerbook. It comes from a short passage in Paul:

Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”

1 Corinthians 5: 6-13 (RSVCE)

Paul makes a parallel with the Jewish tradition of “liturgical spring cleaning”. A Jewish family removes all leaven from their house before Passover, sweeping all the corners, wiping down all the shelves. Very pious folks – of a certain standing – even have an entirely different dishes to use, even entirely different kitchens! Paul uses the leaven to signify sin, lists a bunch of sins that he’d like to remove from the Corinthian congregation and warns them that even a little yeast will (eventually) cause the entire bread to rise – not just some of it, but all of it. Taking leavening as a symbol for evil (as it is in the OT), the Apostle urges Christians to leave behind them their lives of sin and to not even associate with those who won’t. (The word rendered “immorality” in the RSVCE refers to sexual immorality. It’s actually the Greek word pornos and it’s related to prostitution. See 1 Corinthians 5:11.) We’re leaving all this behind us in Egypt. We’re not going to let it contaminate our new loaf.

How is this at all an Atonement though? Queue up an offhanded comment from the most recent episode of Bible Project podcast. Look at Exodus:

For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will smite all the first-born in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord. The blood shall be a sign for you, upon the houses where you are; and when I see the blood, I will pass over you, and no plague shall fall upon you to destroy you, when I smite the land of Egypt.

Exodus 12:12-13 (RSVCE)

I will smite all the 1st born. So even an Israelite would have been included without the Blood. God was allowing the substitution of an innocent life (the lamb) for the life of the First Born. Even more, in the substitution, the whole family was eating the flesh of the First Born.

Typology indeed.

This is not the case in Yom Kippur where the two goats are used: one is sent out of the camp and the other is burned up on the altar and its blood is sprinkled around in the Holy of Holies. Jesus is not that offering: his offering is consumed not by God’s flames but by his family – that is us. His life is substituted for ours. Hebrews says that God did not desire sin offerings, but rather the Body of the Messiah. Through the Body and Blood of Jesus it says, we are able to enter the Holy of Holies. We could read Hebrews 10 to indicate the Yom Kippur sacrifice (where the goat’s blood is sprinkled everywhere) or we can read it as the Passover Sacrifice, where – because God now has flesh and blood – we can enter the Holy of Holies through the veil of his flesh.

The veil of the temple is torn, not because a new priest has entered the Holy Place and torn it, but because the real veil – Jesus’s Flesh – is pierced, revealing the wounded heart of God to all of us to enter into his love.

And Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us to move us out of the Egypt of our Sins to the waters of Baptism and then a lifelong journey to the Holy Land. We’ll stop at Sinai at Pentecost to have the Law Written on our Hearts, and as we wonder through the desert of this world we will (occasionally) wonder why we left Egypt at all. God will give us our Daily Bread.

And then we cross Jordan Dry-shod.

Into Glory.

Excursus: Yoke

JMJ

IN JESUS’ WORLD, righteousness is man’s answer to the Torah, acceptance of the whole of God’s will, the bearing of the ‘yoke of God’s kingdom,’ as one formulation had it.” (Jesus of Nazareth p 17) Jesus says “Take my yoke upon you” seemingly out of the blue. But it is part of a wider rabbinic conversation. Pope Benedict’s Jesus of Nazareth cites “yoke of the kingdom of heaven” without much context. Today’s 1st reading at Mass gives us another yoke reference: “Why, then, are you now putting God to the test by placing on the shoulders of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10)

The Jewish Virtual Library, citing the Jewish Encyclopedia, locates this Rabbinic conversation about “yoke” in the 1st and 2nd Centuries.

In rabbinic theology the yoke is a metaphor of great importance. It is the symbol of service and servitude, and in accordance with the principle that the Jew should be free from servitude to man in order to devote himself to the service of God, the “yoke of the kingdom of man” is contrasted with “the yoke of the kingdom of heaven.” The doctrine is fully enacted in the statement of Neḥunya b. ha-Kanah : “Whoever takes upon himself the yoke of the Torah, they remove from him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns, and whoever breaks off the yoke of the Torah, they place on him the yoke of government and the yoke of worldly concerns” (Avot 3:5). The “yoke of the Torah” here presumably refers to the duty of devoting oneself to study but “yoke” is used in a more specific and restricted sense. The proclamation of the unity of God by reading the *Shema is called “accepting upon oneself the yoke of the kingdom of heaven,” while the acceptance of the fulfillment of the Commandments as a whole, referred to in the second paragraph of the Shema. is called “accepting the yoke of the Commandments,” and it is this which determines the order of the paragraphs.

As B16 notes, Jesus is the kingdom in his person. Taking Jesus’ yoke is the same as taking the yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven. Rabbi Yeshua is here saying – again – that he is God, even in the calm urge to “take my yoke upon you”. No mere Rabbi would say this. The Yoke of the Torah or the Yoke of the Messiah – which would you pick? They are the same.

Jesus is not saying that Torah Rules are bad and his yoke is just love everyone. Jesus says that not one “jot or title” will pass away from the law. The moral code (no fornication, no adultery, no theft, no lies, no murder, no divorce) is still in effect. Indeed, the Apostles knew this: they did not say that the new converts could ignore the law. They said that coming to Jesus did not require the law BUT “Moses is still preached…” ie the new converts could learn the full moral code after the fact. It’s not “the law”. No one is saying that Gentiles should be circumcised or keep kosher. I’m amused that the NABRE advises Gentiles to avoid “unlawful marriage”. The Greek is πορνείας “porneias” which means sexual immorality of all types. Every other English translation gets it right.

This is the yoke of the Gospel. To say the creed is to take on this yoke. It is easy and light not because it has no rules, but because God’s Spirit lives in us and unites us to his grace.

Turn around and trust the good news.

7LW: Unneeded Substitution

JMJ

Today you will be with me in Paradise.

TODAY WAS A BIT of a rough one for me: it began at 4AM with the news that my mom was in the hospital (but somewhat ok as compared to last night). Getting to work I was alerted to the news that one of seven speakers I had arranged for Good Friday might not be there for their own family emergency and a parent in the hospital. So with two hours to go I locked myself in my office with a double espresso and composed a backup essay which, thankfully, I didn’t need to deliver. It follows:

In her writings, Saint Catherine of Siena teaches, “All the way to heaven is heaven because Jesus says I am the way.”

Jesus says to the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.”

The thief is on a cross… Jesus is on a cross. What can this mean in Paradise? Today.

My road to the fullness of the Catholic Faith is broken. I made choices early in my life to prioritize certain aspects of my experience over my religious faith and, as a result, my faith started to fall apart.

For a long time I doubted things like the Resurrection and the Virgin Birth, the sacraments, the Bible, the Church, but – at the same time – I struggled knowing I was making moral choices contrary to the historic teachings of the faith.

At the point (sometime in college) where I realized the only part of the Nicene Creed I could say was the first word – “I” – I left my Episcopal Congregation. Then I journeyed outside of the church denying the faith entirely.

After about ten years something was still missing from my “spiritual but not religious” life.

I returned to a liberal Mainline congregation – where I could still live by my choices. But something was still off and so I went first to Eastern Orthodoxy, finally to the Catholic Church. I walked into this building and this community five years ago.

Leaving liberal, progressive Christianity for the traditional faith, I knew I was making new choices that were contrary to my earlier life. There could be no compromise if my faith was to take priority. Something had to change: I would have to let go of those earlier choices.

This new struggle began, seeking healing from the wounds caused by those earlier choices. Wounds leave scars, tearing muscles, and making one week in certain areas. Moral choices, as Saint Paul says, can sear the conscience so that it becomes nearly impossible to make the right choice again in the future without God’s grace.

When Saint Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ” he means that this life, the choices we’ve made, the choices I’ve made become the cross upon which we nail ourselves; hanging there like the thief begging Christ to remember me in his kingdom.

When walking away from former choices toward Christ becomes our whole way of life he says “today you will be with me in Paradise”.

The former choices, these ways of life that were contrary to the faith, that were actually ways of death become the sacrifice made Thanksgiving.

Eventually, Jesus called me back. My Mom said, “No matter where you went, he never let go of your hand, did he?”

I discovered that she was right: all the time that I was walking – even when I was walking away in pride – I was actually walking towards Jesus.

My Sacrifice, once nailed to the cross, he takes and blesses.
All of the broken road turns it into my path to him.

Jesus is our Paradise hanging on the cross and when we hang on the cross with him we are in Paradise today.

All the way to heaven is heaven because Jesus says I am the way.

7LW: שמע

JMJ

Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit.

WITHIN THE JEWISH TRADITION the last prayer one says before dying is called the Shema (or Sh’ma) :

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יי אֱלֹהֵינוּ יי אֶחָֽד

Hear, Israel, the Lord our God: the Lord is one.

The recitation of this line of scripture, along with some other passages of scripture form the keystone in both the morning and evening prayer services of the Synagogue liturgy. Additionally, it is traditional to recite it just as one is going to bed and, as noted, as the last breath before death.

Before one says the Shema, one says a prayer called the Vidui. It’s a confession of sin and an acknowledgment that, before God, one is entirely without merit. It’s a prayer for mercy and grace in death. Although many of the modern versions include the verse “into thy hands…” it was not always so. In the 16th Century, the “Code of Jewish Law” (Shulchan Aruch) does not have this in the “official” Vidui. And, even in the modern versions that include that verse, it’s in the middle of the prayer – not at the end. And, again, the final thing said is the Shema.

All of that by way of saying that I find Our Lord’s choice of final words to be interesting in that it’s not the Shema. It’s something else.

As I mentioned in the last post in this series, we are meant to rest in the bosom of the Son as the Son rests in the Father. We are all called to this intimacy. The theological description of the Son resting in the Father and of the Holy Spirit proceeding is Perichoresis (from two Greek words meaning “around” and “to go, or come”) or Circumincession (from Latin). It’s often rendered as interpenetration. (Pardon me for ranting a bit: There is a modern etymology that incorrectly links the Greek root words with the word for dancing. This, however, is not valid and is more akin to the father in My Big Fat Greek Wedding finding Greek roots for english words or other such bad scholarship such as is found in certain branches of religious studies. End of Rant.) ANYWAY… Perichoresis. When Jesus prays that Christians should be one even as he and the Father are one (John 17:22), this is part of what he means. When he prays that we should be in him (and him in us) as he is in the Father (John 17:23) it’s also talking about perchoresis or circumincession. We move together, we move through and with each other and – my ranting aside – it is rather like dancing when you think about it.

This is what he means when he hands over his Spirit to the Father – this unity, this circumincession. And that brings us back to the beginning.

In saying “Father into thy hands…” instead of merely reciting the Shema, he did it.

7LW: What’s Finished?

JMJ

This essay is an edited version of last year’s post. I seem to be. on the same track this year.

It is finished.

Perelandra Is CS Lewis’ brilliant and engaging meditation on the Fall. It takes place on Venus in the 1940s where God is making a new race of persons and they are again being tempted to fall away from him. The action plays out through human mediation: God sends an earthman there to act for good since an earthly scientist is already going there in a spaceship, unwittingly to act as the agent of evil. I say “unwittingly” because the scientist believes in nothing: neither good nor evil. The good man sent, Dr Ransom, is a believer in Christianity but it’s not the Christian faith he’s sent to bring to Venus. Over the course of the novel, Ransom actually plays out more of the role of St Michael than of Christ, defending the Venusian Eve from the wickedness and snares of the devil (being mediated by the scientist). Thus, provided with a tempter and a defender, Eve, must undergo the trial and make her choices. No real spoilers here, but there are deep thoughts in the book about what humanity would have been like without The Fall or the need for redemption.

Man is created in God’s “image and likeness”. What does this mean? The Church Fathers have tossed the question back and forth, all the while acknowledging that we are fallen now so we cannot know for certain what it would have been like before. But there are some key signs: like our creator we have Free Will, meaning we can submit to God. Like our creator we, too, are creators. These hallmarks are damaged in the fall. There is a third, I think, and Lewis draws it out fully in Perelandra. As Children of one divine Father, we are meant to be in as intimate communication with him as God the Son is with his Father, offering back our love in the communion of the Holy Spirit and participating in the Divine life, even as we have our own, individual actions and lives here.

We are meant to rest in the bosom of the Son as the Son rests in the Father. We are all called to this intimacy. In the Fall our ability to do so is lost. We hear other communications, other voices – of our passions, from the world around us, from our fallen affections and sex drives, our desires, and temptations. Our communication skills are so damaged that many of us hear those other voices and assume they are god. Some hear those other voices and don’t think of them as divine but follow them anyway. Even the devout are torn: we cannot hear the will of God as easily as we can talk to a friend in Slack or Zoom.

We are lost. We don’t hear God (or we think we do when it’s only an “undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato”). Our creative skills turn inward to make golden idols, and our free will is damaged so that we usually pick the wrong things. Yet, God loves us. God dies for us.

It is finished.

This sometimes gets played up like it might mean the debt for our sins is paid by Jesus, or that our redemption is accomplished here – when it’s not: the resurrection and the ascension are both part of our salvation-in-process. Even the second coming is part of the working out of our salvation. Yes, the blood of Christ saves us, but not from some cosmic debt we cannot pay, so God paid himself by his own blood.

It is finished. What? Fr John Behr’s The Mystery of Christ: Life in Death offers an extended meditation on this question: What is finished? He follows the Patristic tradition as does CS Lewis’s work. The Greek word rendered as “finished” gives the clue: Τετέλεσται tetelestai, fulfilled – brought to its proper conclusion or use.

Adam and Eve were not yet adults in the Garden. All of human history was thrown off by, in essence, two teens letting their hormones get the best of them. Think Romeo & Juliet as not a romance but rather, “two teens disobey their parents, do what they shouldn’t do and a lot of people die”. The Garden is not about two adults making choices, it’s about two kids failing to grow up. And we have been only children ever since. You can’t pass on what you don’t have: all of world history has been written by adolescents unable to mature.

The Cross is God dragging us out of puberty into adulthood, bringing us to our Telos. We can freely decide to keep running around doing whatever we want but now we have the option to reconnect to God. To open our hearts to the same level of intimacy enjoyed by the Son with his Father, to have our creativity restored to its rightful use to glorify God, to have our passions put in right order, to have God as our Father, not just our creator. We have the option to grow up.

To be and to be in communion are the same thing: in Christ we have communion restored with each other and with God. We can run away, but we have, now, the option, to become fully human.

It is finished: we’ve been reconnected, rewired. We now have our freedom to respond. Time to grow up, to reach our telos which is only possible through the cross.

7LW: MOAR

JMJ

I thirst.

T HIS SIMPLE REQUEST of Jesus pulls many into theological arabesques. What is Jesus thristing for? For our faith! For our love! For souls to heal and bring to heaven! None of that is in the text, of course: they arise from meditation on the text as does this essay. Jesus, having hung on the cross for three hours, having been tortured and up all night gave voice to a simple need. It’s not far-fetched to imagine he’s slightly delirious. What is a bit of a surprise is that someone responded to his request. I know it’s a prophetic sign, but you’d be hard-pressed to prove that it’s a sign of anything important.

I thirst.

It’s a root complaint in our world. You can fast for a long while, but you need to drink often. It’s so ingrained that drinking a lot of water can help you fast from food! “You’re not really hungry,” you say to yourself. “Have some water.” Good tap water goes a long way, but something sour (like vinegar and gall) makes it taste much nicer, and makes it all that much more satisfying. There needn’t be anything mystical going on here. The Early Christians recorded this because it happened. Jesus actually said these lines. God said this while dying.

“I thirst,” said God as he was dying.

Having simple, human needs is one thing that God does. Dying is something that God does.

Have you seen how beautiful this world is? I mean really? Yes, there is beauty in a shot of San Francisco Bay from the side of Russian Hill, especially at dawn. But there is beauty in a decayed leaf, or a collapsing squash. Stars collapsing, maggots on corpses, and even ancient skeletons (and by extension, our own) all have their own beauty. A stary night, a rainy afternoon, a Haboob, or a tornado all reveal an intense beauty that – once experienced – leaves us wanting more.

Who among the readers of these pages have one delicacy that they imagine that they would love to eat forever? Fried fish, chocolate mousse, avocado toast, lattes, caviar, fritos with cheese sauce, biscuits and gravy, or caramel corn?

In moments of deepest intimacy or near-spiritual elation, who does not wish to remain there?

I Thirst.

Each beauty of our world, each joy, each taste, even each pain, calls from us a visceral response. We are called up and out of ourselves and yet – at that same moment – we are nailed deeply in our souls, rooted in ourselves. We are one with all things and yet isolated, alone, me. There is a moment there where I thirst becomes our own cry. We thirst for more of whatever it is and we are sorry when it has passed without slaking our thirst, our need.

These moments – even the ones that hurt – pull us towards the possibility that there is something more, something that we are craving constantly – even though we cannot name it. We can get caught in a constant round of trying to satisfy our thirst here, in this world. Every dawn over the Bay is beautiful and I have been fully blessed to see dawn here for 25 years. Dawn has happened for millenia continuously on this revolving world. But we want it again.

We thirst for more.

Jesus is that more. All of it poured out filling hearts. Jesus is the more for which we thirst. The greatest beauty, the highest joy, the deepest love is only a sip, a drop of moisture, a hint of the fullness that is Jesus.

We thirst

And in eternity we may find the slaking of that thirst.

7LW: Woman

JMJ

Woman, behold your son.Behold Your Mother.

WE HAD A GUEST show up at our homeless ministry. It was her first time. She seemed a little out of it. She seemed more than a little confused. We fed her. Then we closed our doors, as we do at a certain time, and folks left. Guests usually sit at our outdoor tables until Noon or so, so we don’t worry about it. It’s sunny and nearly 85 today. An hour later someone said there was a woman trying to go to the bathroom in our parking lot. So we go out and find her and say this can’t happen. And then we come inside and wonder why she didn’t ask for the restroom downstairs when we were serving folks.

Two hours later she was found still outside in our parking lot… and we walk out to see what was happening. In her slow shuffle, she got to the fence. And called to people outside on the sidewalk. They assumed she was asking for money, but it was something else. We softly directed her through the gate and she asked for help. It dawns on us that she was mostly blind, making her way but suddenly trapped in a strange new parking lot that was surrounded by fences, unable to feel her way out. She wasn’t out of it at all. She wasn’t confused: she wasn’t able to see.

Once we got her on the sidewalk, she practically ran: no shuffle. Back in the world she knew and heading home. I had to run to keep up with her!

Walking back to the office John and Mary came to mind. There is your mother. There is your son.