Monthly Archives: May 2016

On the Visitation – 2016

Sassoferrato - Jungfrun i bön.jpg

The Virgin Mary in prayer – by Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato, “c. 1650.”

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Today – May 31 – is the feast day dedicated to the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary.  (As it’s formally known.)  See also Visitation (Christianity) – Wikipedia, which noted:

The Visitation is the visit of Mary with Elizabeth as recorded [in] Luke 1:39–56.  It is also the name of a Christian feast day[,] celebrated on 31 May…  Mary is pregnant with Jesus and Elizabeth is pregnant with John the Baptist.  Mary left Nazareth immediately after the Annunciation and went “into the hill country” [of Judah] to attend to her cousin.

The VisitationWikipedia added, “In the Gospel of Luke, the author’s accounts of the Annunciation and Visitation are constructed using eight points of literary parallelism to compare Mary to the Ark of the Covenant.”

Which I didn’t know…  (And a BTW:  An old-time interpretation of the event is shown at left.)  So anyway, the Blessed Virgin Mary article added that Elizabeth greeted Mary with the words, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”  Mary responded with what became known as Magnificat.  In turn:

John the Baptist, still unborn, leaped for joy in his mother’s womb. Thus we are shown, side by side, the two women, one seemingly too old to have a child, but destined to bear the last prophet of the Old Covenant … and the other woman, seemingly not ready to have a child, but destined to bear the One Who was Himself the beginning of the New Covenant, the age that would not pass away. (E.A.)

And speaking of Mary, see the post On St. Mary, Mother.  Among other things, it noted that “In Renaissance paintings especially, Mary is portrayed wearing blue, a tradition going back to the Byzantine Empire … where blue was ‘the color of an empress.’”

Another explanation comes from “Medieval and Renaissance Europe,” where…

…the blue pigment was derived from the rock lapis lazuli, a stone imported from Afghanistan of greater value than gold.  Beyond a painter’s retainer, patrons were expected to purchase any gold or lapis lazuli to be used in the painting.  Hence, it was an expression of devotion and glorification to swathe the Virgin in gowns of blue. (E.A.)

Which explains Mary being shown in blue in the painting at the top of the page.

That post also noted that the Magnificat “echoes” several Old Testament passages, including allusions to “the Song of Hannah,” in 1st Samuel 2:1-10.  (Not to mention “the Book of Odes, an ancient liturgical collection…”)

See also On the psalms up to December 21, which included the image at right.  (Of Mary, reciting the Magnificat.)  

That post included a note that Mary’s hymn of praise was “distilled from a collection of early Jewish-Christian canticles,” and patterned in turn on the “‘hymns of praise’ in Israel’s Psalter.”  In turn, “Mary symbolizes both ancient Israel and the Lucan faith-community.”  (That is, the particular “faith community” that Luke addressed in his Gospel.)  

And finally, some notes from Isaac Asimov.

Among other things, he noted the apparent ongoing competition between the two men – Jesus and John the Baptist – or at least between or among their followers. (See e.g. John 3:22-36 Competition in Ministry and Were Jesus and John the Baptist Competitors?)

Which may explain why Luke  – and he alone, in his Gospel – included the episode of Mary’s “visitation.”  His goal may have been to show that – even in the womb – John the Baptist “recognized Jesus’ priority and transcendant importance…  This would  be a strong point for the followers of Jesus and against the competing followers of John.”

Asimov too noted that Mary’s “hymn of praise” – starting at Luke 1:46 – was very much like that of Hannah, “on the occasion of her giving birth to Samuel, and is widely considered to be inspired by it.”  (See 1st Samuel 2, 1-10, which begins, ““My heart rejoices in the Lordin the Lord my horn is lifted high.  My mouth boasts over my enemies, for I delight in your deliverance.”)

Asimov also noted that Elizabeth and Hannah were more alike than Mary.  Mary was young and “unmarried,” while both Elizabeth and Hannah were old and had been married many years, “in a society that considered barrenness a punishment for sin.”  Thus they were “blessed by a pregnancy, in old age and after many years of marriage,” and thus were vindicated.

But we digress…

Getting back to Asimov, he found it significant that Luke chose to focus on Mary, unlike Matthew, whose birth narrative centered on Joseph, the earthly “father figure” of Jesus.

(As shown at left, with Jesus as a young boy…)

One big factor seemed to be Matthew’s preaching to pious Jews, who could understand his ongoing citations to the Old Testament in his Gospel.  But Luke had another audience in mind:

The Gentiles knew of goddesses, and their pagan religions often had a strong feminine cast.  If Luke were a Gentile, he would be drawn to the tales Mary.  Matthew, on the other hand, a product of the strongly patriarchal Jewish culture, would automatically deal with Joseph.

Or as Asimov put it, Matthew aimed his Gospel for those “learned in Old Testament lore.”  Luke on the other hand wrote his Gospel for Gentiles, translated alternately as “Goy,” non-Jews, or “outsiders.”  That is, he wrote for those outsiders who were “considering conversion” – to Christianity – “or perhaps are already converted and wish to know still more concerning the background of their new religion.”

In turn, Jesus Himself is “portrayed as far more sympathetic to Gentiles in Luke than in the other Synoptic Gospels.”  (And a good thing too, I might add.)

So today we celebrate this early meeting of Mary and cousin Elizabeth. “Their meeting sets the stage for all that will come later, and it is women who recognize it first.”

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The upper image is courtesy of the Marian perspectives link at Mary, mother of Jesus – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The caption:  The Virgin in Prayer, by Sassoferrato, c. 1650.”  (Or in the alternative:  “Jungfrun i bön (1640-1650). National Gallery, London.”)

The Isaac Asimov quotes-and-notes are from Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: Two Volumes in One, the Old and New Testaments, Avenel Books (1981), at pages 914 and 920-21, with emphases added.    

Asimov (1920-1992) was “an American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books.  Asimov was one of the most prolific writers of all time, having written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards.”  His list of books included those on “astronomy,mathematics, the Bible, William Shakespeare’s writing, and chemistry.”  He was a long-time member of Mensa, “albeit reluctantly;  he described some members of that organization as ‘brain-proud and aggressive about their IQs.’”  See Wikipedia

Asimov also noted the “legend” that Luke knew Mary personally, “and learned of the story of Jesus’ birth from her in her old age.”  He also noted the tradition – in his view, unsupported – that “Luke was an artist and painted a portrait of Mary that was later found in Jerusalem.”

The Joseph-and-Jesus painting is “St. Joseph the Carpenter, by Georges de La Tour, 1640s.”

On snake-handling “redux”

The snake handler on the right – “Stumpy?” – is arguably taking Mark 16:18 “out of context…”

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I just went back over some posts from last year around this time.  I found this post, still in draft form.  So for the past couple days I’ve been updating it to this final form. last year at this time I did WHY we’re getting “less Christian.”

Posted on May 23, it included the ironic image at right.  Then there was The wisdom of Virgil – and an “Angel,” posted on June 2, 2015.

So this post will review those two from last year, plus the original On snake-handling, Fundamentalism and suicide – Part I and Part II.

Part I noted that a small group of rural Christians practice “snake handling” as part of their religion. And that they do that based on a passage from Mark 16:16-18, part of Jesus’ “Great Commission:”

 And [Jesus] said to them, Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation…    And these signs will accompany those who believe:  in my name they will cast out demons;  they will speak in new tongues;  they will pick up serpents with their hands;  and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them;  they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” (E.A.)

On the other hand there was an article, Snake-Handling Pentecostal Pastor Dies From Snake Bite.  (Which arguably showed that “such a practice may not be such a good idea.”)

Then came the meat of the post, that the Bible is both “simple” and “deep:”

In other words, you could say that the Bible message is both simple enough for a child to understand, yet so full of subtle mysteries that a lifetime can be spent on its study, yet still leave myriads of lessons yet to be learned.  (See 1st Corinthians 4:1:  “This then is how you should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”)

Part II went on to discuss what many say is the proper way to read, study and interpret the Bible.  It also discussed both the topics of “Biblical inerrancy” and Fundamentalism.

I said the business of “requiring every word of the Bible to be inerrant” reminded me of what Jesus said in Matthew 23:4.  He was talking about the Pharisees of His time, and noted that they tended to “make strict rules that are hard for people to obey.  They try to force others to obey all their rules.  But they themselves will not try to follow any of those rules.

Which brings us to WHY we’re getting “less Christian.”  That post noted a study: Americans Less Religious Than Ever Before.  The gist of the article was that a then-recent poll found Christianity is on the decline, especially among the young.  And here are some of the reasons:

Among young non-Christians, nine out of the top 12 perceptions were negative.  Common negative perceptions include that present-day Christianity is judgmental (87%), hypocritical (85%), old-fashioned (78%), and too involved in politics (75%) – representing large proportions of young outsiders who attach these negative labels to Christians. (E.A.)

And finally, note The wisdom of Virgil – and an “Angel.”  That post led off with the fable of the Blind men and the elephant.

The moral of that story?  That each man ended up with a good idea of part of the elephant.  But each went on to “err greatly” – as Jesus might say – by mistakenly assuming that his view was the only accurate picture of the whole elephant.

(Or as Wikipedia said, “the parable implies that one’s subjective experience can be true, but that such experience is inherently limited by its failure to account for other truths or a totality of truth.”)

That in turn brought up Virgil, and his views.  That is, throughout history most people have seen religion “in terms of black or white:  ‘our attitude toward the possibility of divine control of things tends to be all or nothing.'”  But Virgil’s view seemed more practical.

His view was that – despite our best efforts – some of what happens to us may make some sense.  But then again “some of what happens seems to make pretty much no sense:”

There is, in other words, an overarching order at work in the world, a final coherence in the way that things work.  But it remains out of human reach, and despite our efforts, we can merely come to know it only in part

Which could be just another way of saying that when you become a Christian, God doesn’t become your personal servant, willing and able to cater to your every whim.  Or as one Christian mystic once said,It is to vigor rather than comfort that you are called.”

Or here’s another way to put it.  (In case I’m being too subtle.)  In plain words, God doesn’t owe you a thing.  (See Luke 17, verses 7-10.)  In still further words:

…way too many people think that getting good stuff from God – The Force that Created the Universe– is somehow easier than trying to shoot the head off a match stick…

Which means there are a some important lessons for our spiritual quest.  One is that we shouldn’t expect God to cater to our every whim, like some glorified butler.  (Maybe we should learn to say, “It’s hard as hell, but now and then I’ll do it just right…”)  And maybe we should start worshiping – not to get anything – but rather “asking nothing but to enjoy God’s presence.”

All of which could lead to a far more accurate picture of that “elephant as a whole…” 

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The parable of the “Blind men and the elephant…” 

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The upper image was featured in On snake-handling, Fundamentalism and suicide – Part I.

For some background on the “redux” part of the title, see On “Job the not patient” – REDUX.  It’s an allusion to the 1971 book by John Updike, Rabbit Redux.  That book-title in turn “led to a redux in popularity of the word redux.”  So much so that in a later book, Rabbit At Rest, Updike had his hero – Harry Angstrom – say he “hates that word, you see it everywhere, and he doesn’t know how to pronounce it.   Like arbitrageur and perestroika…”

Re: Draft form.  See also Writing Rough Draft of Research Paper – Duke of Definition.

Re: “vigor rather than comfort.”  The quote is an allusion to the book Practical Mysticism, by Evelyn Underhill, as discussed in On the Nativity of John the Baptist:

Hearing now and again the mysterious piping of the Shepherd, you realize your own perpetual forward movement . . . and so are able to handle life with a surer hand.  Do not suppose from this that your new career is to be perpetually supported by agreeable spiritual contacts, or occupy itself in the mild contemplation of the great world through which you move.  True, it is said of the Shepherd that he carries the lambs in his bosom; but the sheep are expected to walk, and to put up with the bunts and blunders of the flock.  It is to vigor rather than comfort that you are called.  (E.A.)

Ariel Press (1914), at page 177.  See also Evelyn Underhill – Wikipedia.

The lower image is courtesy of Wikipedia.  The caption:  “Blind monks examining an elephant, an ukiyo-e print byHanabusa Itchō (1652–1724).”  (See also Stay tuned, for future reference.) 

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Here’s I how I put in my new book, “On Mystic Christians.” On those snake handlers, and the need to be consistent in Bible study. For example, Bible Literalists interpret most of the Bible literally, but not – in one glaring example – “The Bible’s erotic love song.” (Aka Song of Solomon.)

Why don’t Bible Literalists interpret “Songs of Songs” literally? Why don’t they adhere to the “exact letter or the literal sense” for this book, like all the others in the Bible?

Some Fundamentalists become snake handlers based on a too-literal interpretation of Mark 16:18: “They will pick up snakes with their hands.” But I would say: “Be consistent. If you’re going to interpret Mark 16:18 that literally, you should do the same with Song of Solomon 7:1-3: ‘Your rounded thighs are like jewels… Your two breasts are like two fawns…’”

But here’s another answer, from Isaac Asimov: “Because of the erotic nature of the book, it has been customary to find allegorical values in it that would make it more than a description of bodily passion:”

Jews would have it speak of the love between Yahveh and Israel; Catholics of the love between Christ and the Church; Protestants of the love between God and man’s soul. However, if we simply accept the words as they stand, the book is a human love poem and a very beautiful one.

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On Trinity Sunday (2016) – and more!

Painting of Jefferson wearing fur collar by Rembrandt Peale, 1800

Even a smart guy like Jefferson couldn’t figure out The Trinity – celebrated next Sunday… 

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Next May 22 is Trinity Sunday.  That’s a rare feast day in the liturgical year that celebrates “a doctrine instead of an event.”  See also What is the Trinity:

The word “trinity” is a term used to denote the Christian doctrine that God exists as a unity of three distinct persons:  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Each of the persons is distinct from the other yet identical in essence.  In other words, each is fully divine in nature, but each is not the totality of the other persons of the Trinity.

Sound confusing?  It is, but before we get into it any deeper, a note about a recent Daily Office Reading.  I.e., the New Testament DOR for Monday, May 16, 2016:  1st John 3:18-4:6.

That reading included 1st John 3:22.  This passage is right after the one saying we can have confidence – or “boldness” – when dealing with God. (Assuming “our hearts don’t condemn us.”)  Then comes 1st John 3:22, which added this:  “And we will receive from [God] whatever we ask because we obey him and do the things that please him.”

And that’s a passage that can be misleading.  That is, some people seem to think that once they become a Christian, God becomes a sort of “magic genie,” who will cater to their every whim.  (As illustrated – sarcastically – in “O Lord won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz,” by Janis Joplin, above left.)

But – as a reasonable person might expect – the spiritual life isn’t that simple.

For starters, Matthew Henry’s Commentary noted Christians can indeed “ask what they would” of God.  But there’s this proviso:  “They would receive it, if good for them.”  And as all kids can say of their parents, what they want is usually way different than “what’s good for them.”

Then there’s the fact that quite often God has a different timetable than us.  See Readings for October 26, which noted that Moses finally did reach the Promised Land. However, it took over a thousand years after he died.  (In the Transfiguration of Jesus):

Moses’ faith had its ultimate reward and vindication centuries later.  In God’s economy, promises and fulfillment are not measured by our calendars.  Centuries run their course.  Yet some day in the future, the full meaning of our acts and life of faith will become evident.  That was true for Moses, and it will be true for us.

You can see another disclaimer – on the tendency to over-simplify 1st John 3:22 – at “Job the not patient” – REDUX.  That post discussed the ever-perplexing theme of “God’s justice in the face of human suffering – or simply, ‘Why do the righteous suffer?’”

Which is another way of saying that many times we don’t get what we ask for, from God.  (As opposed to getting what we need, or “what’s good for us.”)

Or see Wisdom of Virgil – and an “Angel,” which noted that getting good things from God should be as hard as shooting the head off a matchstick from 100 yards away.  (But usually isn’t.)

(And “Virgil” also noted one professor’s view:  That we mere human beings are no more prepared to fully comprehend God than “cats are prepared to study calculus.”)

But getting back to Trinity Sunday.  The point of all this is that – if you don’t fully understand the whole concept of The Trinity – don’t feel too bad.  Or alone, for that matter…

A leather-bound Bible

The thing is, as smart a guy as Thomas Jefferson couldn’t figure it out either.  (In fact, Jefferson wrote his own version of the Bible – shown at left – “by cutting and pasting with a razor and glue numerous sections from the New Testament as extractions of the doctrine of Jesus.”)

Or as it was put in The Solemnity of Trinity Sunday in the Catholic Church: “We can never fully understand the mystery of the Trinity.”  It is however “the most fundamental of Christian beliefs,” that God is “three Persons in one Nature.  The three Persons of God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – are all equally God, and They cannot be divided.”

Which is indeed food for thought.

You can see all the Sunday Bible readings at 1st Sunday after Pentecost (Trinity Sunday).  And Romans 5:3-4 continues the theme of what we want vswhat’s good for us:

[S]uffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.

Character Building(For a more “worldly” view on building character, see Calvin and Hobbes, with the image at right.)

But getting back to the readings at Trinity Sunday, they also include John 16:12-13.  There Jesus said, “There is so much more I want to tell you, but you can’t bear it now.  However, when the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth.”

Two points.  The first has to do with the part where Jesus said, “you can’t bear it now.”

Paul brought up that very issue in 1st Corinthians 3:2.  There he told the Christians in Corinth, “I had to feed you with milk” – metaphorically speaking – “not with solid food, because you weren’t ready for anything stronger.  And you still aren’t ready…”  Which is another way of saying that the people both Jesus and Paul were talking to were still boot-camp Christians.

(As noted below, these days they’re the Biblical literalists who never go “beyond the fundamentals.”)

And that’s just another way of saying – as Paul did – that the Bible is fully of “mysteries.”  For a list of some “mysteries” Paul listed, see the notes below, or St. Mark’s “Cinderella story.”

But because of all those “mysteries” in the Bible, it takes awhile to understand.  (A lifetime “and more,” in fact.)  And that’s just another way of saying, sometimes we just “can’t handle the truth!”

We need help.  And that brings up the second point, which has to do with the Spirit of truth, also called the Holy Spirit.  That’s the “third divine person of The Trinity,” and probably the least understood of the Three.

Put simply, assume God is the Ultimate Judge and Jesus is the Ultimate Public Defender.  In turn, the Holy Spirit is the “Ultimate Counselor.”  See John 14:26, interpreted in the Complete Jewish Bible.  There Jesus said, “the Counselor, the Ruach HaKodesh, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything;  that is, he will remind you of everything I have said to you.”

Note that as originally written, the term can be translated “the Comforter,” the “Spirit of Promise,” the “Spirit of Revelation,” or the “Spirit of Wisdom.”

But we’re getting close to the end here.  So in closing, for more information, see last year’s On Trinity Sunday, 2015.  That post included an image similar to the one below.   And it included some notes about parts of the Bible that are hard to understand:

That is, both the doctrine of the Trinity and the idea that Isaiah could have his lips “touched” with a hot coal without screaming like a banshee are difficult to comprehend.

The “banshee” part referred to Isaiah 6:6-7.  That was part of the Old Testament reading for Trinity Sunday 2015.  The full reading was about Isaiah being commissioned by God, during which “one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar.  With it he touched my mouth…”  

Which led to my comment about screaming like a banshee.

One point from last year’s post:  That Thomas Jefferson – like many of us – fell into a common error:  Thinking “he could ever really understand everything there is to know about God.”  But like many parts of the Bible, the Trinity – like Isaiah 6:6-7 – are simply beyond our ability to comprehend, fully.  “It’s a reality that we may only begin to grasp.”  Which seems to be why   so many Christians choose literalism.  “It’s ever so much easier.

However – if you don’t want to remain “a Bible buck private all your life” – enjoy your spiritual journey, with all its challenges.  Beginning with next Sunday’s celebration of the Trinity.

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The “Holy Trinity,” by Luca Rossetti da Orta (1738-39)

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The upper image is courtesy of Thomas Jefferson – Wikipedia.  The caption:  “Thomas Jefferson, Official White House Portrait, by Rembrandt Peale, 1805.”  That article also included the “Jefferson Bible” image in the text, to the left of the paragraph beginning, “And if you don’t understand all that, don’t feel bad.”

See also Trinity Sunday in the U.S., and On the readings for July 26.

Re: the Jefferson Bible. It is formally known as The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth.

The complete Daily Office Bible readings for Monday, May 16, 2016, are:  Psalms 1, 2, 3, 4 and 7; along with Proverbs 3:11-20; 1st John 3:18-4:6; and Matthew. 11:1-6.

Re: Romans 5:3-4. Note that the link is to the NIV translation. The block-quote is from “Satucket.”   

The full list of Paul’s “mysteries,” noted in St. Mark’s “Cinderella story:”

For example, see 1st Corinthians 2:7, where Paul spoke of “the word of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom.”  He spoke of the “knowledge in the mystery of Christ” in Ephesians 3:4, and of the “fellowship of the mystery” in Ephesians 3:9.  In Ephesians 5:32 he wrote, “This is a great [or “profound”] mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church.”  Paul told Christians to “make known the mystery of the gospel” in Ephesians 6:19, and to hold “the mystery of the faith” – or the “deep truths” – in a “pure conscience” in 1st Timothy 3:9.  He said that “great is the mystery of godliness” in 1st Timothy 3:16, and in 1 Corinthians 4:1, Paul said that Christians were to be faithful “stewards of the mysteries of God.”

Re: God as Ultimate Judge, Jesus as Ultimate Public Defender, and the Holy Spirit as the Ultimate Counselor.  See also The GIST (Part II).

The lower image is courtesy of Trinity Sunday – Wikipedia.  The caption:  “Holy Trinity, fresco by Luca Rossetti da Orta, 1738-9 (St. Gaudenzio Church at Ivrea, Torino).”

Ascension Day and Pentecost – 2016

 Before Jesus could Ascend into Heaven, He had to Descend into Hell…

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First a note.  Last Thursday – May 5 – was the Feast of the Ascension:

The Feast … commemorates the bodily Ascension of Jesus into heaven.  It is one of the ecumenical feasts (i.e., universally celebrated) … ranking with the feasts of the Passion, of Easter, and Pentecost.  Ascension Day is traditionally celebrated on a Thursday, the fortieth day of Easter

Obereschach Pfarrkirche Fresko Fugel Christi Himmelfahrt crop.jpgNote that the 40-day calculation is from Acts 1:3.  That passage – in the GWT – said, “After his death Jesus showed the apostles a lot of convincing evidence that he was alive.  For 40 days he appeared to them and talked with them about the kingdom of God.”

Then – 50 days after Easter – comes Pentecost.  (The name is from the Greek meaning “50th day.”)  So Pentecost is celebrated 50 days after Easter Sunday, “counting inclusively (including both the first and last days).”  In other words, seven weeks and a day later.

Which means this year Pentecost is next Sunday, May 15.

Pentecost is also called the “Birthday of the Church,” for reasons discussed in last year’s On Pentecost – “Happy Birthday, Church!”

But first things first.  You can see the full Bible readings for last Thursday’s feast day – May 5 – at Ascension Day.  Those Bible readings include two accounts of the Ascension, including Luke 24:51 and Acts 1:9.  (With both books written by the same Luke the Evangelist.)

I covered the subject two years ago, and again in Ascension Day 2015, which noted this:

So first Jesus got crucified, for us.  Then He “descended into Hell,” for us.  Then He reappeared on earth and stuck around 40 days, just to make sure His message got through.  Then He ascended to Heaven, to “sit at the right hand of God.”

Which brings up the top-image caption, that before Jesus could “Ascend into Heaven, He had to Descend into Hell.”  Which could be another way of saying “Into Each Life Some Rain Must Fall.”

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, photographed by Julia Margaret Cameron in 1868.jpgThat was the name of a 1944 song performed by The Ink Spots, and “featuring Bill Kenny, and Ella Fitzgerald.”  But in turn the name of the song came from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow‘s poem “The Rainy Day.”  (He is shown at right.)

And that could be another way of saying that – just like Jesus had to “descend into Hell” – we too face something similar.  Before we can hope to reach our own “Promised Land,” we’ll have to spend a lot of time Wandering in the Wilderness.

More to the point, Paul the Apostle touched on the subject in Ephesians 4:1-16.  (Which just happened to be the New Testament DOR for today, May 11.)  That is In Ephesians 4:9, Paul said of Jesus:  “What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions?”

Which sounds a bit like circular reasoning, but bear with me.  (And Paul.)  

For one thing, that seems to apply to all of us.  We all pretty much all have to descend before we can ascend.   Note also that the NIV has this passage set in parentheses, which are “used in writing to mark off an interjected explanatory or qualifying remark.”  (See also John 3:13, “No one has ascended into heaven except the One who descended from heaven – the Son of Man.”)

Which could also be interpreted like this:  For Jesus, descending into Hell – from here on Earth – might not have been all that different from descending “down to Earth,” from Heaven.  

(Not to mention having to go through the whole process of being born – and worse – being a teenager who did “know everything.”  See Jesus as a teenager – REDUX, including the image below left.)

James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause.jpgFor a more erudite explanation of what Paul may have meant, see Ephesians 4:9 Commentaries.  The initial commentary noted that Ephesians 4:9 was part of a “parenthesis, designed to bring out the pervading idea” of the Divine Humanity of Christ as “‘filling all in all’ and ‘gathering all things’ into Himself.”

A later commentary on Ephesians 4:9 said that in “descending into Hell,” Jesus had actually gone down, way down:

To the lowest state of humiliation.  This seems to be the fair meaning of the words.  Heaven stands opposed to earth.  One is above; the other is beneath.  From the one Christ descended to the other; and he came not only to the earth, but he stooped to the most humble condition of humanity here…

And all of which seems to have been necessary for Jesus to become – in a sense – your own personal Ultimate Court-appointed Defense Attorney.  (See The GIST, Parts I and II.)

See also 2014’s On Ascension Day, which noted the problem some people might have with the whole idea of the “bodily ascension of Jesus into heaven.”  (And indeed with the whole idea of life after death.  That post cited the First law of thermodynamics as “proof positive.”)

All of which leads – metaphorically or otherwise – to the Good News.  In this case, of next Sunday’s celebration of Pentecost as the “birthday of the Church.”

In The readings for Pentecost (6/8/14), I noted that the day is sometimes called “‘Tongue Sunday.”  That’s both because of the ‘tongues of fire'” routinely shown in paintings of the event, “and because of the phenomenon of ‘speaking in tongues.'”  (See Glossolalia.) 

The post noted that some witnesses thought those “tongue-speakers” were just babbling drunkenly.  On the other hand, there were enough people who understood what the “babblers” were saying to be convinced of Peter’s response.  That is, beginning at Acts 2:15 Peter responded to the charges of the witnesses who mocked the disciples as drunken babblers.  “These people are not drunk, as you suppose.  It’s only nine in the morning!”

pentecost copyAnd as a result of Peter’s response, “Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day – about 3,000 in all.”  See Acts 2:41.  And that’s why Pentecost is called the Birthday of the Church.  See also On Pentecost – “Happy Birthday, Church!”

That post included the full-length version of El Greco‘s interpretation of the event.  (Part of which is seen at right.)  It also included a note that Pentecost marks the beginning of “Ordinary Time.”

That is, in the liturgical calendar the season of “Ordinary Time” – as it’s known by Catholics – can take up over half the year.  In the Anglican liturgy this time is the Season of Pentecost.  That season begins on the Monday after Pentecost,  and goes on “through most of the summer and autumn.”  It may include up to 28 Sundays, “depending on the date of Easter.”

This year the Last Sunday after Pentecost doesn’t come until next November 20.  The Sunday after that is the First Sunday of Advent, the season that leads up to Christmas.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.  As noted in “Happy Birthday, Church:”

To sum up, the Pentecost described in Acts “was a momentous, watershed event.”  For the first time in history, God had empowered “all different sorts of people for ministry.  Whereas in the era of the Old Testament, the Spirit was poured out almost exclusively on prophets, priests, and kings,” on this Day of Pentecost the Holy Spirit had been given to “‘all people.’”

Which is a pretty good reason for all the celebrating – and barbecue – this Sunday…


An artist’s depiction of Pentecost – the “birthday of the Church…”

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The upper image, in black and white, is a woodcut, courtesy of Harrowing of Hell – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, with the full caption:  “Christ’s Descent into Limbo, woodcut by Albrecht Dürer, c. 1510.”  See also the Jesus in Hell post, which included: Other references of possible interest include: Paradise – Wikipedia, Zohar – Wikipedia, and/or Heaven – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

The complete Daily Office Readings for Wednesday, May 11, include: Psalms 101, 109:1-4 (5-19) 20-30, and 119:121-144, together with Isaiah 4:2-6; Ephesians 4:1-16, and Matthew 8:28-34.

Re: “parentheses.”  See also Bracket – Wikipedia, referring to the punctuation marks used “to set apart or interject other text.”  The article noted that chevrons “(< >) were the earliest type of bracket to appear in written English.  Desiderius Erasmus coined the term lunula to refer to the rounded parentheses (), recalling the shape of the crescent moon.

The full title of the “wandering in the wilderness” link is What We Can Learn from Wandering in the Wilderness.  Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman noted three valuable lessons we can learn, including: 

The truth is, we spend much more time wandering in the wilderness than living in the Promised Land.  In fact, that may be why the Torah was given in middle of the wilderness – to remind us that while the Promised Land is wonderful, we learn our greatest lessons on the journey along the way.

Re: “erudite.”  That term has come to mean “having or showing great knowledge or learning.”  But see Erudition – Wikipedia, which noted that – as originally used – a scholar was said to be “erudite” when his instruction “effaced all rudeness … that is to say smoothed away all raw, untrained incivility. Common usage has blurred the distinction from ‘learned’ but the two terms are quite different.” 

The “tongues of fire” image is courtesy of El Greco. Pentecost – Olga’s GallerySee also El Greco … the Spirit is saying.  The post “Happy Birthday, Church” includes explanatory notes about the painting.

Re: Pentecost and barbecue.  That seems to be a tradition, especially in Anglican/Episcopal churches. See Pentecost Praise and Barbecue –, and also Pentecost BBQ & Potluck | Christ the Good Shepherd.  Or just Google “barbecue pentecost.”

The lower image is courtesy of Pentecost – Wikipedia, with the caption: A Western depiction of the Pentecost, painted by Jean II Restout, 1732.” 

Daily Office update (and “scapegoating”)

An artist’s rendering of the original scapegoat  –  created by Moses in the Book of Leviticus…  

*   *   *   *

Today – May 2 – was a major Feast Day.  (See Philip and James – Saints…)  Meanwhile, it’s time for an update on some recent Daily Office Bible Readings.

Starting last Sunday – April 24 – the Old Testament readings have been from the Book of Leviticus.   That’s the third book of the Bible.  (I.e., third of the Greek Old Testament in the Christian canon, and third of five books of the Hebrew Pentateuch.)

The English name of the book derives from the Greek meaning “things pertaining to the Levites.”

The title refers to “the Levites, the tribe of Aaron, from whom the Kohanim (‘priests’) descended.”  The Book of Genesis – which Moses wrote during the 40 years of Wilderness Wandering – said that Levi – shown at right – was the third of 12 sons of Jacob.  In turn he was “the founder of the Israelite Tribe of Levi (the Levites.”)

Basically, Leviticus is one long book of rules.  (Having to do with ritual.)  Or as Wikipedia noted, “The instructions of Leviticus emphasize ritual, legal and moral practices rather than beliefs.”  And as Isaac Asimov noted, “It’s instructions are of primary interest to the priesthood.”

It’s also the most boring book in the Bible:  “virtually one long section … given over to ritualistic detail, so that it is easily the dullest book in the Bible to the casual reader.”  (Asimov.)

One result:  If you start reading the Bible as if it were a novel, Leviticus is where you’ll most likely get bogged down.  See for example “Bible basics” revisited:

Unfortunately, many people start reading the Bible as if it were a novel…  They start at the very beginning and move toward the end.  But they tend to bog down in Leviticus.  (If they get that far.)

In turn, “Bible basics” also talked about how Jesus solved the problem by boiling the whole Bible down to two simple shoulds.  (A kind of CliffsNotes summary, as detailed In Matthew 22:37-39.)

But even with that CliffsNote summary from Jesus, Leviticus is still a tough read.  Which reminds us that the key is not to try and read the Bible like a novel, from beginning to end.  

The better way is to read the Bible using the Daily Office.   That’s a cycle of four relatively short readings done “on a daily basis.”  That cycle will get you through virtually the entire Bible in two years.  (And the Psalms and Gospels three to four times.)

Which brings us back to some recent Daily Office Readings.  (Especially recent Old Testament readings from the Book of Leviticus.)  Take – for example – the reading for last Thursday, April 28:  Leviticus19:26-37.  It contained some gems, like Leviticus 19:32.

There are various translations, but the one I like says this:  “Honor the face of an old man.”  (And as a representative of that “discrete and Insular minority,” I appreciate the thought.)

And speaking of the immigration controversy, here’s what the Bible says in Leviticus 19:33–34:

When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien.  The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you;  you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God. (E.A.)

In other words, the Bible says we here in America should treat “aliens” – legal or otherwise – as “citizens among us.”  Whether conservatives – Christian or otherwise – agree with that thought is an entirely different matter.  I’m merely making the point that those are two of the thought-provoking gems that I found in the OT reading for April 28, as Leviticus19:26-37.

There’s a similar gem in the reading for the day before, Wednesday, April 27.  It held a similar thought on dealing with the poor and downtrodden:  “It is the same with your grape crop – do not strip every last bunch of grapes from the vines, and do not pick up the grapes that fall to the ground.  Leave them for the poor and the foreigners living among you.”  (You can see the same note in Deuteronomy 24:20 and Ruth 2:2, shown at right.)

Then there were the Old Testament readings for last Monday and Tuesday – April 25 and 26 – to wit:  Leviticus 16:1-19 and Leviticus 16:20-34.  Those readings brought up the idea of a “scapegoat.”  The earliest mention of such a scapegoat came in Leviticus 16:6-10:

“Aaron is to offer the bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household…  He is to cast lots for the two goats – one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat.  Aaron shall bring the goat whose lot falls to the Lord and sacrifice it for a sin offering.  But the goat chosen by lot as the scapegoat shall be presented alive before the Lord to be used for making atonement by sending it into the wilderness as a scapegoat. (E.A.)

I wrote about these passages in On scapegoating.  

That is, scapegoating – illustrated at left – is “the practice of singling out any party for unmerited negative treatment or blame as a scapegoat.”  (Which itself could allude back to the immigration controversy, noted above.)

For a thoroughly modern take on the phenomenon, see Scapegoating – An Insidious Family Pattern of Blame and Shame on One Family Member. That article was written up by Feeling Expert Lynne Namka:

Scapegoating is a serious family dysfunctional problem with one member of the family or a social group being blamed for small things, picked on and constantly put down.  In scapegoating, one of the authority figures has made a decision that somebody in the family has to be the bad guy.  The mother or father makes one child bad and then looks for things (sometimes real, but most often imagined) that are wrong.

She added,  “Scapegoating is a huge social problem contributing to the hate that exists in the world.”  (Which sounds about right, considering some current political discourse.  See for example Why I Hate the Politics of Hate.)  But was that the Bible’s original idea?

Getting back to Isaac Asimov :  He said that much of Leviticus “deals with the clean and unclean,” but that the “Biblical use of the term of involves religious ritual.”  (As opposed to the purely hygienic sense we use today.)  As Asimov further explained:

Something is clean if it may be offered as a sacrifice for God, or if it may stand in the presence of God.  Something that may not be offered as a sacrifice is unclean…  Perhaps the chief thing [in] the book of Leviticus was to work out a code of behavior that would serve to keep the Jews distinct and their religion intact from the attractions of surrounding cultures.

(156-57)  And incidentally, one of those “attractions of surrounding cultures” was child sacrifice.  I noted that prevailing practice – at the time of Abraham – in Readings for June 29 (2014).  That post included details on the episode where Abraham stood ready to sacrifice his son Isaac.  See also Binding of Isaac (illustrated at right):

[C]hild sacrifice was actually “rife among the Semitic peoples. . .  [I]n that age, it was astounding that Abraham’s God should have interposed to prevent the sacrifice, not that He should have asked for it.”  [The episode demonstrated] to the Jews that human sacrifice is abhorrent…  God wanted to change some “prevailing practices…”  In this case, God apparently felt a prevailing practice needed to be changed.

And  the point of all that could well be that God is not necessarily “conservative.”  See also On Jesus: Liberal or Fundamentalist?  Sometimes – like when there was rampant child sacrifice at the time of Abraham – God felt the need to step in and change things.

But of course that thought could open up a whole new can of worms.  The point I’m making here is that maybe it’s a good idea to see what Moses originally meant.

Asimov also noted, “the Hebrew word that is translated as ‘scapegoat’ in the King James Version is actually Azazel.” (158)  And you can see the difference in several “non-KJV” translations of Leviticus 16:8.  For example, the English Standard Version reads:  “And Aaron shall cast lots over the two goats, one lot for the LORD and the other lot for Azazel.”

The New Living Translation reads like this:  “He [Aaron] is to cast sacred lots to determine which goat will be reserved as an offering to the LORD and which will carry the sins of the people to the wilderness of Azazel.”  (Emphasis added.)

Azazel HCV.jpgYou can see more background on “Azazel” in On scapegoating.  But there was apparently both a “wilderness of Azazel” and a demon named Azazel, who could be “regarded simply as the personification of wickedness.”   And more than that, he – the demon Azazel – reappeared in 2003 as a “comic book supervillain.”  See Azazel (Marvel Comics) – Wikipedia.  (As shown at left.)  But finally, Asimov noted this:

Azazel is mentioned nowhere else in the Bible save for this one chapter, but it seems quite likely that it is the name of a demon thought of as dwelling in the wilderness.  It might be pictured as an evil spirit that is the source of sin.  In sending the second goat into the wilderness, the sins it carried could be viewed as returning to their source. (E.A.)

(158)  So the original intent of this Bible passage was apparently not to single out one innocent person to suffer for the sins of many.  (As so often happens these days.)

In turn, maybe-  just maybe – it’s high time to make some changes.  Maybe – just maybe – it’s time to stop scapegoating people, just like it was time to stop the prevailing child sacrifice in Abraham’s time.  Maybe – just maybe – it’s time to stop scapegoating any and every person “who, himself innocent, suffers vicariously for the deeds of others.”

But of course, some old habits DO die hard

*   *   *   *

The upper image is courtesy of Book of Leviticus – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.  The caption:  “The Scapegoat (1854 painting by William Holman Hunt).”

The image of Levi is courtesy of Wikipedia.  The caption:  “Levi, from the Twelve sons of Jacob, Holland c. 1590.”  The “circa 1590” explains the anachronistic style of Levi’s clothing.

Re: Leviticus.  The Isaac Asimov quotes on scapegoat and Leviticus – including that it’s “instructions are of primary interest to the priesthood” – are from Asimov’s Guide to the Bible: Two Volumes in One, the Old and New Testaments, Avenel Books (1981), at pages 156-59.  Asimov also noted that another term translated as “devils” literally meant – in the original Hebrew – “wild goats.”  

Asimov (1920-1992) was “an American author and professor of biochemistry at Boston University, best known for his works of science fiction and for his popular science books.  Asimov was one of the most prolific writers of all time, having written or edited more than 500 books and an estimated 90,000 letters and postcards.”  His list of books included those on “astronomy, mathematics, the Bible, William Shakespeare’s writing, and chemistry.”  He was a long-time member of Mensa, “albeit reluctantly;  he described some members of that organization as ‘brain-proud and aggressive about their IQs.’”  See Wikipedia

Also, for a post on the distinction between that book and Deuteronomy, see On the readings for December 7.  Essentially, in Deuteronomy the addresses of Moses – to the Hebrews as they neared the promised land – “recapitulate the events of the Exodus and restate key portions of the law as it was received from Sinai.”  That post concluded that “the Bible was written by people just like us,” to show that “we too can accomplish miracles just like Jesus and the rest of the Bible-writers did.  See John 14:12, Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.”  (Emphasis added.)

Re: “discrete and Insular minority.”  See also Suspect classification – Wikipedia.

Re:  “same note.”  See Deuteronomy 24:20:  “When you beat the olives from your trees, do not go over the branches a second time.  Leave what remains for the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow.”  Also Ruth 2:2:  “And Ruth the Moabite said to Naomi, ‘Let me go to the fields and pick up the leftover grain behind anyone in whose eyes I find favor.”  Naomi said to her, ‘Go ahead, my daughter.'”

The “Ruth” image is courtesy of Book of Ruth – Wikipedia.  The caption:  “Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld: ‘Ruth in Boaz’s Field,’ 1828.”

 The image to the left of the first scapegoating paragraph(s) is courtesy of Wikipedia.  The caption:  “Scapegoat, 2012, bronze sculpture.”  Although the Wikipedia article doesn’t include an attribution, the sculpture is apparently the work of Christine JONGEN (1949) –

See also the Wikipedia article on Dido:  “according to ancient Greek and Roman sources, the founder and first queen of Carthage (in modern-day Tunisia).”  The article included the image at left, with the caption:  “Christine Jongen, Dido, bronze sculpture, 2007-08.” 

I borrowed the lower image from the post, On scapegoating.  The attribution there is from “”