Sunday, January 30, 2011
all you who wait for the Lord! (Ps 30.24)
So he gave them leave. and the unclean spirits came out, and entered the swine; and the herd, numbering about two thousand, rushed down the steep bank in to the sea, and were drowned in the sea. (Mk 5.13)
Jephthah? My first thought at reading the first verse of the passage from Hebrews was utter disbelief. How does Jephthah make it to the litany of the faithful in Hebrews 11? The story told about him and his family in Judges 11 does record his victory in battle, but one wonders whether even Jephthah himself would have considered the victory worth what it cost him: his daughter, his only child. His tale is tragic, and his loss as mysterious as Job's. There is no doubt, reading Judges 11, that God allowed Jephthah to make the vow that won the battle and took his daughter from him. Why?
Mark's gospel offers no answers, only more--and different--questions. The demoniac is healed, but someone lost a herd of pigs in the bargain. One might argue that the life of the man is worth more, but I would still ask whether the demoniac could not have been healed without the loss of the pigs? (I know, the pigs weren't of particular concerns to the Israelites. But still.) Likewise, could not Jephthah's battle have been won without that vow? Or could the Lord not have arranged for a goat to be first to meet Jephthah on his return? Yet there he is, listed among some of the most remarkably faithful characters in the history of Israel: clearly we are not meant to forget his story, or to push him aside in our recollection of God's faithfulness to Israel, but to remember him for his faith.
It doesn't make sense. But then, there's quite a bit in the history of Israel and the Church, and in my own history, that just doesn't make sense. But would a reason really make it easier? Would Jephthah's loss be less tragic if there were a reason for his daughter's death?
And so, in the middle of it all, there's a psalm. It is a psalm that recounts the faithfulness of God and celebrates the steadfast love of the Lord. Somehow, in the midst of the suffering, even the most apparently senseless suffering, God's justice and mercy prevail. So the only response to the tragedies that shatter us, and fly in the face of the goodness of God, is to hear the psalmist's encouragement:
Be strong, and let your heart take courage,
all you who wait for the Lord.
Thursday, January 27, 2011
Through the blood of Jesus we have the right to enter the sanctuary, by a new way which he has opened for us, a living opening through the curtain, that is to say, his body. And we have the supreme high priest over all the house of God. So as we go in, let us be sincere in heart and filled with faith, our minds sprinkled and free from any trace of bad conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Let us keep firm in the hope we profess, because the one who made the promise is faithful. Let us be concerned for each other, to stir a response in love and good works. Do not stay away from the meetings of the community, as some do, but encourage each other to go; the more so as you see the Day drawing near.
(Heb 10.19-25; Jerusalem Bible)
Who may ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who may stand in his holy place?
He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
Who has not lifted up his soul to falsehood,
And has not sworn deceitfully.
(Ps 23.3-4; NASB)
Apparently I was not the first person to think this psalm fit together well with this section of the letter to the Hebrews. As I read the first reading, my first thought was, 'I should have waited; this is a much better fit with the psalm'.
I am left, however, in the same place: humbled by the testimony of Scripture to the faithful love of the God who saves. Through Christ we have been saved, and through the gift of Scripture we come to understand that salvation, and are moved to thanksgiving and praise.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son,
and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning,
is now and ever shall be,
world without end,
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
I hope I can be forgiven for having grown a bit weary of the same four verses about Melchizedek that seem to accompany many of the readings from the middle of the letter to the Hebrews. As I read the invitatory psalm for today (an alternate to the usual Ps 94 [LXX]), it seemed to fit well with the passage from Hebrews.
These few verses in particular always used to worry me: I despaired of ever being the one with clean hands and a pure heart, worthy to ascend the hill of the Lord. But eventually I came to realize that the one who has clean hands and a pure heart is Christ, the Lord, the priest who 'has offered one single sacrifice for sins' and, in so doing, 'has achieved the eternal perfection of of whom he is sanctifying'.
The psalm no longer worries me as it once did. Some days, I confess to feeling a bit complacent, though: Jesus has done it all, and my sins have been done away with by his sacrifice. And I am perhaps not as contrite as I should be. Other days--better days, I think--I am humbled by the knowledge and the comfort that this psalm brings me. Not only the big, dramatic sins of the world and its great ones (the Apostle Paul comes to mind here), but for my stupid, petulant, and self-serving sins, Christ has overcome by his life, death and resurrection. At least Paul, I surmise, thought he was doing the right thing, however wrong-headed his persecution of the church was. Often I stumble forward, not even trying very hard to determine what the right thing is: I am, rather, concerned about avoiding pain. I seek the pleasures, small and great, that make life enjoyable and give me something to look forward to after the chores are done.
To think that the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, stoops to take away my sins of ignorance and stubbornness, pettiness and weakness, is humbling indeed. In return, all I have to offer is what has been asked of God's people: a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit,
as it was in the beginning, is now and ever shall be,
world without end,
Sunday, January 23, 2011
was born near Annécy, in Savoy, studied the law, and was ordained to the priesthood despite the opposition of his father. His first mission was to re-evangelize the people of his home district (the Chablais), who had gone over to Calvinism. Always in danger of his life from hostile Calvinists, he preached with such effectiveness that after four years most of the people had returned to the Church. He was then appointed bishop of Geneva, and spent the rest of his life reforming and reorganising the diocese, and in caring for the souls of his people by preaching and spiritual guidance.
Friday, January 21, 2011
For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more shall the blook of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify your conscience from dead works to serve the living God. (Heb 9.13-14)
The interesting word here is conscience. What does it mean for Jesus' blood to 'purify your conscience from dead works'? At first, I wonder at that power: we may go to the Lord in confession and receive absolution. Our sins have been forgiven; but does absolution purify our conscience? It seems to me to be far more difficult to receive grace at that level. Looking again, I wonder whether the 'dead works' of conscience are not exactly that: carrying the burden of sins that God has forgiven.
Perhaps I have always been mistaken about what it means for a Christian to have a clean conscience. A clean conscience, I thought, meant knowing you had done no wrong. But the writer to the Hebrews says otherwise. A pure conscience gets that way by being purified. That, it seems to me, is another thing entirely. Christ's act of reconciling us to the Father overcomes our sin, making us new as if we had not sinned: 'If anyone is in Christ, she is a new creation...'
And I realize just how little I experience and live in that reality. I believe, Lord: help my unbelief.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
I have told the glad news of deliverance
in the great congregation;
lo, I have not restrained my lips,
as thou knowest, O Lord.
I have not hid thy saving help within my heart,
I have spoken of thy faithfulness and thy salvation;
I have not concealed thy steadfast love and thy faithfulness
from the great congregation. (Ps 39.9-10)
And he told his disciples to have a boat ready for him because of the crowd, lest they should crush him; for he had healed many, so that all who had diseases pressed upon him to touch him. (Mk 3.9-10)
There is a connection, I think, between 'the glad news of deliverance' and the healing that people quickly come to expect from Jesus (especially in Mark's gospel). People draw near to Jesus, because he is not just the bearer of God's salvation, he is that salvation.
It is difficult to read passages like this one from Mark without wishing that deliverance was so straightforward: diseases are healed, demons cast out. What's wrong is obvious, and salvation is immediate. People go their way, having been made well by the one in whom all things hold together (Col 1.17). And I wonder what he would say to me, if I appeared before him in Galilee? He would know immediately, in a way that I do not, what it is that ails me. But in what would my faith consist? I suppose all I have to offer is my presence before him, which is the only testimony to my belief that he has the power to make me whole again.
Monday, January 17, 2011
Sunday, January 16, 2011
Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek. (Hebrews 5.8-10)
Theologically, I find the passage from Hebrews puzzling and paradoxical. It is difficult to think about the Incarnate Word learning obedience or 'being made perfect'. In the unity of Father and Son there is a complete unity of will: what then does obedience mean without any opposition between the two wills? And how is the Incarnate Word, who is God, 'made perfect'? Obedience and perfection must mean something different when applied to the unique person who is fully divine and fully human.
But perfection and obedience are at the heart of a life like St Anthony's. St Athanasius writes:
Now it was not six months after the death of his parents, and going according tocustom into the Lord's House, he communed with himself and reflected as he walked how the Apostles left all and followed the Saviour; and how they in the Acts sold their possessions and brought and laid them at the Apostles' feet for distribution to the needy, and what and how great a hope was laid up for them in heaven. Pondering over these things he entered the church, and it happened the Gospel was being read, and he heard the Lord saying to the rich man, 'If you would be perfect, go and sell that you have and give to the poor; and come follow Me and you shall have treasure in heaven.' Antony, as though God had put him in mind of the Saints, and the passage had been read on his account, went out immediately from thechurch, and gave the possessions of his forefathers to the villagers— they were three hundred acres , productive and very fair— that they should be no more a clog upon himself and his sister. And all the rest that was movable he sold, and having got together much money he gave it to the poor, reserving a little however for his sister's sake.*
St Anthony's obedience to the Gospel and his desire for perfection led him out into the desert. He battled demons and wild animals, and refuted heretics and atheist philosophers. All this, St Athanasius tells us, Anthony does by the Holy Spirit: his spiritual strength and intellectual abilities come from God, and are not human achievements. Early Christian ascetics, many of whom followed in the footsteps of St Anthony, saw self-denial and humility as aids to the perfection of the soul. Following the Lord's example, St Anthony embraced suffering in order to be made perfect by grace.
In describing St Anthony's life, Athanasius writes:
the fact that his fame has been blazoned everywhere; that all regard him with wonder, and that those who have never seen him long for him, is clear proof of his virtue and God's love of his soul. For not from writings, nor from worldly wisdom, nor through any art, was Antony renowned, but solely from his piety towards God. That this was the gift of God no one will deny. For from whence into Spain and into Gaul, how into Rome and Africa, was the man heard of who abode hidden in a mountain, unless it was Godwho makes His own known everywhere, who also promised this to Antony at the beginning? For even if they work secretly, even if they wish to remain in obscurity, yet the Lord shows them as lamps to lighten all, that those who hear may thus know that theprecepts of God are able to make men prosper and thus be zealous in the path of virtue.**
Saturday, January 15, 2011
Friday, January 14, 2011
The word of God is living and effective,
sharper than any two-edged sword,
penetrating even between soul and spirit,
joints and marrow,
and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart.
No creature is concealed from him,
but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him
to whom we must render an account.
Since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens,
Jesus, the Son of God,
let us hold fast to our confession.
For we do not have a high priest
who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses,
but one who has similarly been tested in every way,
yet without sin.
So let us confidently approach the throne of grace
to receive mercy and to find grace for timely help. (Heb 4.12-16)
Some scribes who were Pharisees saw that Jesus was eating with sinners
and tax collectors and said to his disciples,
“Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
Jesus heard this and said to them,
“Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do.
I did not come to call the righteous but sinners.” (Mk 2.16-17)
. . .
Three observations and a question. First, I had never before noticed the personal pronoun used of the word of the Lord in Hebrews 4. I am used to hearing v 12 applied to the Bible, rather than the Word of God; the full passage indicates clearly that the active, living, penetrating and discerning Word is none other than the second person of the Trinity. Second, the Word is identified with the One who became flesh and dwelt among us, sharing our nature, 'sin apart' (Gregory Nazianzen). The precision with which the Word penetrates does not have pain or punishment as its object, but mercy. The Word is living and active; the Word became flesh and dwelt among us; the Word 'is able to sympathize with our weakness' and we can depend on obtaining 'mercy and grace' in from him in our time of need. Third, in case there was any doubt, the affirmation of Jesus himself shows again the purpose for which the Word is sent: to offer healing to those who are sick. The Word became flesh to call sin-sick souls not to the judgement seat, but to the throne of grace.
I wonder, though, what the relationship is between the word of God in Hebrews 4 and the decrees of God in Psalm 18: what can God decree apart from God's Word? Law, decree, ordinance, precept, command, and the fear of the Lord are not terms that naturally suggest mercy, yet that is precisely what the Word is. The law of the Lord is fulfilled in the incarnation of the Word; Love comes in human form to heal and to save....so shall my Word be that goes forth from my mouth;
That is good news, indeed.