Monthly Archives: June 2024

John the Baptist, ’24 – and “Christian First Graders…”

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“Salome receives the Head of John the Baptist” – the man crying out in the Wilderness

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June 21, 2024 – “The Bible was designed to expand your mind.”

That’s the new theme for this blog. Or rather, it’s the new restatement of the theme. And by the way, that restatement can be said to the tune, “If It Doesn’t Fit, You Must Acquit.” (Which will be hilarious for “people of a certain age.”) Another restatement? The idea of “Christian first-graders.” As in, Christians who never go beyond first grade when it comes to reading, studying and interpreting the Bible. Which to me applies to those Literalists and Fundamentalists who both cheat themselves and drive away new recruits in droves – especially the young.

On the contrary, John 4:24 says “God is Spirit, so those who worship him must worship in spirit and in truth.” And 2d Corinthians 3:6 says that in and through Jesus, God “hath made us able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.” (That’s from the King James Bible, the one God uses.) And finally there’s Romans 2:29, where Paul distinguished people who conform outwardly but miss the point “in their innards.” Using an allegory from his former life – before the Damascus Road experience changed that life – Paul said, “Rather, a person is a Jew who is one inwardly, and real circumcision is a matter of the heart – it is spiritual and not literal.” (Emphasis added.)

Incidentally, I ran across that Romans 2:29 quote while reading the Daily Office the day I posted this. (Coincidence?) But back to the subject at hand. I’ll be writing more about Christian First Graders in the future, but this post is supposed to be about John the Baptist, who literally had his head handed to him on a plate. (As shown in the painting above.)

Specifically, today is the Feast Day for the Nativity of John the Baptist. It celebrates the birth of the one “who foretold the coming of the Messiah in the person of Jesus, whom he later baptised.” The Bible readings: Isaiah 40:1-11Psalm 85Acts 13:14b-26, and Luke 1:57-80. Luke tells of Elizabeth – cousin of Mary (mother of Jesus) – and how her husband got struck dumb.

The time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.  Her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown his great mercy to her, and they rejoiced…  [T]hey were going to name him Zechariah after his father.  But his mother said, “No; he is to be called John.”  They said to her, “None of your relatives has this name.”  Then they began motioning to his father to find out what name he wanted to give him.  He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John…”

The story of Zechariah getting struck dumb starts at Luke 1, verses 5-7. He was a member of the “priestly order of Abijah,” and he and Elizabeth were righteous before God but also old and childless. Then God sent an angel to tell Zechariah he was about to become a father. He got struck dumb because he doubted the message from God. (He should have accepted on faith what was, to him, counterintuitive. “A lesson for all you young kids out there!”)

That is, nine months earlier – as Zechariah was doing his priestly duties in the inner sanctuary – the angel Gabriel appeared and told him Elizabeth would bear a son. But he doubted:  “How will I know that this is so?  For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.“  And that was why he was struck dumb.  As Gabriel told him, “Since you didn’t believe what I said, you will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born.” Luke 1:20.

The result? Zechariah wrote out, “His name is John.” Then came Luke 1:64, saying right after he wrote his son’s name, “Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God.” Right after that came the Benedictus, Zechariah’s “song of thanksgiving … on the occasion of the birth of his son.” (And – no doubt – on being able to speak again):

The second part … is an address by Zechariah [to John], who was to take so important a part in the scheme of the Redemption; for he was to be a prophet, and to preach the remission of sins before the coming or the Dawn from on high. The prophecy that he was to “go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways” [Luke 1:76,] was an allusion to the well-known words of Isaiah 40:3 which John himself afterwards applied to his own mission (John 1:23).

Luke 1:80 then says the child “grew and became strong in spirit; and he lived in the wilderness until he appeared publicly to Israel.” In turn John was a “key figure in the preparation of the Messiah’s work.” Unfortunately, that advance work included a gruesome death by beheading, as told in Mark 6:14–29: “the king sent a soldier of the guard with orders to bring John’s head. He went and beheaded him in the prison, brought his head on a platter, and gave it to [Salome]… When his disciples heard about it, they came and took his body, and laid it in a tomb.”

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. On this June 24th we celebrate the birth of John the Baptist, who in his lifetime performed an invaluable service as forerunner and advance man for Jesus. May we too perform such “invaluable service,” as for example by bringing more people to Jesus. Especially those put off by Christian First Graders who ignore the message that the “the Bible was designed to expand your mind.” (It was not designed to lord political power over those who dare disagree with us.) Of course all this while keeping in mind that John’s life and especially his gruesome death serve as a reminder that, as one Christian mystic said:

It is to vigor rather than comfort that you are called.”

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Salome – who beguiled her dad (Herod II) into beheading John the Baptist…

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The upper “Salome” image is courtesy of “The subject is from the New Testament [Mark 6, verses 14-29]. Salome had danced so well for King Herod that he swore he would grant her any request. Her mother, Herodias, who sought revenge on John the Baptist, persuaded Salome to ask for his head.  The old woman behind Salome may be Herodias.”

The Book of Common Prayer reference: The “corporate-mystical” prayer is on page 339, the post-communion prayer for Holy Eucharist, Rite I.

“Feast days” are designated days on the liturgical (church) calendar “set aside to commemorate events, saints, or doctrines that are important in the life of the Church. These can range from Solemnities, which are the highest-ranking feast days like Easter and Christmas, to optional memorials that celebrate lesser-known saints.” Feast Days: Celebrating the Church’s Calendar.

For this post I borrowed from On the Nativity of John the Baptist – 2015, John the Baptist, Peter and Paul – 2016, On “John T. Baptist,” Peter and Paul – 2021, and On John “T. Baptist” – 2023 (et alia).

Re: “Innards.” The link points to the term as from the Old English inweard “inmost; sincere; internal, intrinsic; deep.” (Which I didn’t know before doing this.)

The “vigor-comfort” is from Practical Mysticism, with advice for the Christian First Graders:”

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.)

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

The lower image is courtesy of Salome – Wikipedia. The caption: “‘Salomé,’ by Henri Regnault (1870).” The article added that this Salome (III) was…

…a Jewish princess, the daughter of Herod II, who was the son of Herod the Great, with princess Herodias. She was granddaughter of Herod the Great, and stepdaughter of Herod Antipas. She is known from the New Testament, where she is not named, and from an account by Flavius Josephus. In the New Testament, the stepdaughter of Herod Antipas demands and receives the head of John the Baptist.

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June ’24, St. Barnabas and second chances…

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Can we still “grow” after death? Even not quite in heaven? Do we get a “second chance?”

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June 12, 2004 – As noted in the last post, we are now in what Catholics call Ordinary Time. Others – including myself – call it the Season of Pentecost. That long church season – it can take up half a year – starts on Pentecost Sunday (last May 19). It isn’t over until the First Sunday of Advent. (This year, December 1.) So in the Revised Common Lectionary (what I use) we are now in “Proper 5,” the week of the Sunday closest to June 8. And on June 11 of this week, we remember the Feast Day of Saint Barnabas, who we may call “Apostle of Second Chances.”

Which – when it comes to God’s final judgment – can offer some good hope. As does the idea of Purgatory, even though my – the – Episcopal church rejects that idea as a “Romish Doctrine.” But me? I’m all for it. I hope it’s true. “Hey, I’ll take all the help I can get!”

There’s more on Purgatory-as-second-chance below, but first, back to Barnabas.

The Bible first mentions him in Acts 4:36:  “Joseph, a Levite, born in Cyprus, whom the apostles called Barnabas (son of encouragement), sold a field he owned, brought the money, and turned it over to the apostles.” And the site Barnabas the Apostle – Justus added that even after Paul’s Damascus Road experience, most Christians in Jerusalem “wanted nothing to do with him. They had known him as a persecutor and an enemy of the Church. But Barnabas was willing to give him a second chance.” (Which is pretty much what Jesus is all about.)

In short, if it hadn’t been for Barnabas willing to give Paul a second chance – Paul, once the most zealous persecutor of the early Church – he might never have become that Church’s most important early convert, if not the “Founder of Christianity.” But then came an ironic twist, after Barnabas gave that new “Apostle Paul” his Second Chance:

Paul and Barnabas went on a missionary journey together, taking Mark with them. Part way, Mark turned back and went home. When Paul and Barnabas were about to set out on another such journey, Barnabas proposed to take Mark along, and Paul was against it, saying that Mark had shown himself undependable. Barnabas wanted to give Mark a second chance [again] and so he and Mark went off on one journey, while Paul took Silas and went on another. Apparently Mark responded well to the trust given him by the “son of encouragement,” since we find that Paul later speaks of him as a valuable assistant (2 Tim 4:11; see also Col 4:10 and Phil 24) .

So again, we might just call Barnabas “the Apostle of Second Chances.”

Which raises a question: If Barnabas – as God’s servant – was willing to give both Paul and Mark a second chance, why wouldn’t God do the same thing for us? Which brings up the idea of Purgatory. (Even though some refer to it a “Romish doctrine.”)

I did some new research on the subject (listed in the Notes), and from what I can glean the Episcopal opposition stems from two offshoots. First, the idea that purgatory necessarily involves a lot of pain, suffering and anguish. And second, that people in the Middle Ages could get their dear-departed relatives released from such pain, suffering and anguish – and on to the blessings of heaven – by paying substantial sums of money to the Catholic Church. (Indulgences, the abuse of which led to Martin Luther’s Ninety-five Theses.)

Which is why my two favorite – and comforting – Bible passages are John 6:37 and Romans 10:9. In the first Jesus promised that He would never turn away anyone who comes to Him. In the second Paul said, “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” No ifs, ands, or buts.

In the meantime that idea of Purgatory-as-second-chance is just one of many mysteries we can’t fully understand. (Yet.) Still, there are some Christians who hate that sense of uncertainty, of “having to totally rely on an Unseen Force” that is such a part of a real Christian’s life. Those “other Christians” choose to act as if they know all there is to know about the Bible. “The Bible says it, I believe it, and that settles it.” To them I would say, “Consider Thomas Jefferson.”

As smart as he was, Jefferson never could comprehend the Trinity [a]s God in three Persons. But it seems that he – 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 is simply beyond our ability to comprehend, fully. “It’s a reality we may only begin to grasp.” 

On that note, consider John’s Gospel, 21:25: “Jesus also did many other things. If they were all written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.” Or Psalm 40:5, in various translations, basically saying God’s wonderful deeds “are more than can be told.” Or Isaiah 55:8. In the NLT: “’My thoughts are nothing like your thoughts,’ says the LORD. ‘And my ways are far beyond anything you could imagine.’” Or as one professor put it, “in the final analysis, our human minds are just too limited to ever fully understand ‘God:’”

We are simply not up to the task, not wired for such an overload.  We are no more prepared to comprehend an answer than – to make use of a memorable example – cats are prepared to study calculus.  It’s just not in our nature.

In sum, the early Church benefited greatly because Barnabas gave both Paul and Mark a second chance, and if only for that we celebrate his life on June 11. Which leads to a reasonable guess that God is willing to give us some second chances – maybe even seventy times seven. (Though I wouldn’t want to bet my life on that.) And maybe even in the form of Purgatory as a halfway house to heaven. But in the meantime, all we can do is keep remembering men like Barnabas, and trying to understand God and His mercy, like a “cat studying calculus…”

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The upper image is courtesy of Spiritual Growth – Image Results. Morihei Ueshiba (1883-1969), was the Japanese martial artist who founded aikido. In his lifetime he had three transforming spiritual experiences. The second came in 1940 “when engaged in the ritual purification process of misogi.”

Around 2 a.m., I suddenly forgot all the martial techniques I had ever learned. The techniques of my teachers appeared completely new. Now they were vehicles for the cultivation of life, knowledge, and virtue, not devices to throw people with.

Wikipedia. See also ‘Be Clean’: Jesus and the World of Ritual Impurity and Ritual purification – Wikipedia. Also John 10:16, “I have other sheep that are not of this fold. I must bring them too.”

The Book of Common Prayer reference: The “corporate-mystical” prayer is on page 339, the post-communion prayer for Holy Eucharist, Rite I.

“Feast days” are designated days on the liturgical (church) calendar “set aside to commemorate events, saints, or doctrines that are important in the life of the Church. These can range from Solemnities, which are the highest-ranking feast days like Easter and Christmas, to optional memorials that celebrate lesser-known saints.” Feast Days: Celebrating the Church’s Calendar.

For this post I borrowed from On St. Barnabas (2014), On D-Day and St. Barnabas – 2021, and from 2022, Catching up from my “Big Apple” trip.

On purgatory as a “Romish doctrine.” See page 872 of the Book of Common Prayer:

The Romish Doctrine concerning Purgatory, Pardons, Worshipping and Adoration, as well of Images as of Relics, and also Invocation of Saints, is a fond thing, vainly invented, and grounded upon no warranty of Scripture, but rather repugnant to the Word of God.

That’s “XXII” of the Articles of Religion, established “on the twelfth day of September, in the Year of our Lord, 1801.” On the other hand, in doing this post I found the link In Search of the “Romish Doctrine” of Purgatory. The article indicated the rejection came because of “Romish” abuses like the selling of Indulgences and the idea that such a state necessarily involved suffering and punishment. (Which could be relieved by the living paying money to the church on behalf of the departed.) The “‘Romish doctrine concerning purgatory’ … is rejected by the Article, as are its consequent abuses… Yet, as mentioned in the previous commentary, a number of Anglican authors have acknowledged the possibility of spiritual growth among the faithful departed.” (Which I certainly look forward to.) In sum, “the Article can plausibly be unde[r]stood as excluding only ‘the Romish doctrine concerning purgatory,’ rather than any and all doctrines of spiritual purification among the faithful departed.”

All of which is one of those Rabbit Trails I so dearly love, writing and blogging. (On the negative side see How To Avoid Rabbit Trails – Laura Earnest. As if they were a bad thing?) See also Thanksgiving 2023 – and an “epileptic Rabbit Trail,” where I wrote about my tendency to follow them:

I do a lot of that in my writing. That’s why my family and others say my writing “goes all over the place.” Like, sometimes I go “off on a crazy tangent” or make crazy turns in writing. But I like rabbit trails, even as I try to follow that rule about Unity and Coherence in Writing

On Paul as founder of Christianity. See Who Is the Founder of Christianity – Beliefnet, or Google “paul as founder of Christianity.”

I mentioned the cats and calculus in The wisdom of Virgil – and an “Angel,” from Timothy Shutt‘s Lecture 11 in his course, Hebrews, Greeks and Romans:  Foundations of Western Civilization

The lower image is courtesy of Cat Studying Calculus … Image Results. Note that the cat is actually studying physics, not calculus. See also Your Cat Probably Understands Physics – Business Insider.

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On a related note, I’m researching an update on comparing Bible Literalists, Fundamentalists (etc.) to “Boot camp Christians,” as noted above. I’m thinking a more effective allegory would talk about Christians who choose – Biblically speaking – not to go beyond elementary school, or maybe even First grade. See Wikipedia, and The Guide to 1st Grade – Scholastic. “First grade is packed with important and exciting transitions as children leave behind much of the play of preschool and kindergarten, and begin to develop more academic skills.”

Your child will also go through a significant transition to more extensive learning. As your child adjusts, they may get tired at the end of the day or have trouble focusing as the day progresses — that’s normal… Most importantly, prime your child for success by continuing the learning process at home with enriching books and activities that support what they’re learning in class.

All of which seems pregnant with possibilities for further allegorical exploration. And by the way, that and the above reference refer to Galatians 4:24, “The women [Sarah and Hagar] represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar.” Which raises the question: “How do you literally interpret an allegory? Or for that matter a parable?”