The Apocrypha in Lent – 20 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

20 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 42-43

Most of chapter 42 and all of 43 are devoted to praising God for his creation, including specific references to the sun, moon, stars, rainbows, the wide variety of weather patterns, and the sea with its tides and monsters. These are all aspects of nature praised in the Psalms and other parts of the Jewish scriptures.  Perhaps they are picked out from the other aspects of creation because they are least easily understood – before modern astronomy, physics and submarines, who could explain how they work?

It is important to note that there is no hint here of worshipping these phenomena themselves.  Jewish and Christian thought is absolutely clear that there is only one god, the creator, and all these things are from him, having no spiritual life of their own.  The praise is directed to God in thanks for the wonder of the creation.  “To put it concisely, ‘he is all’” (43:27).  We are in fact encouraged to praise God as much as possible, for it can never be enough – “exert all your strength when you exalt him, do not grow tired – you will never come to the end” (43:30).

Such praise of God for the beauty of nature would have come more easily to people in former times than it does to us nowadays.  Shielded by artificial lights from seeing the night sky in its glory, having the mysteries of the climate explained by science, having “no time to stand and stare … beneath the boughs” as William Davies put it, we lose our childlike capacity for wonder.  Perhaps the rainbow is the one exception.  No matter that scientists can explain them in terms of refraction and diffraction,  rainbows lighting up with their glorious colours can still make a dull day fascinating and cheer the soul.  “See the rainbow and praise its maker, so superbly beautiful is its splendour. Across the sky it forms a glorious arc, drawn by the hand of the Most High” (43:11-12).

The Apocrypha in Lent – 13 March

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

13 March, Ecclesiasticus chapters 15-18

Yesterday I wrote about the instruction to “be good to yourself”, not to let modesty lead to being unnecessarily harsh on oneself.   Today I am picking up on the passage 17:1-14, which follows from an account of the creation of the universe, earth and animals.  In these subsequent verses, the focus  narrows down on humanity in particular.

Verses 1-2 are honest about our limitations: we are made from earth, will go back to it when we die, and have a finite life span.    But this is followed by an appreciation of just how special we area – made in God’s image, master of other animals (though there is much debate these days over how that mastery should properly be employed), able to taste and smell, see and hear, to think and to judge.  Our purpose is to praise God and “tell of his magnificent works”, even to see and hear God himself (13).

Much of this repeats elements of the creation stories in Genesis.  But there is something different here. Verse 7, “he filled them with knowledge and understanding, and revealed to them good and evil”, seems to make this discernment between good and evil part of God’s plan, rather than the root of all sin as the Genesis account puts it. Like the exhortation we looked at yesterday to be good to your own self, it is a much more positive worldview than that of “traditional religion”.  Here is a God whose aim is to “clothe [people] with strength like his own” (3), to “show them the magnificence of his works” (8).  Humanity is something splendid, even when we are aware of right and wrong.  Here there is no banishment from Eden for seeking knowledge that should not be ours, only a desire that we should understand as much of God’s creation as we can.  That fits in with the whole idea of “seeking Wisdom” which is the theme of the book.

That’s not to say mankind is shown as perfect.  Later in the same chapter there is encouragement to repent of sin and leave it behind, turning to God’s mercy (25-29).  But fellowship with God is the default state, and he is never far away.

 

The Bible in a Year – 27 November

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

27 November. Colossians and Philemon

The letter to Philemon is a personal one, whereas that to the Colossians is addressed to the whole church in the area, as several congregations (house churches) are mentioned. But these two books belong together, as Paul refers to several people in both of them – principally Onesimus the freed slave and Philemon his former owner, but also mentioned in passing in both letters are Timothy, Mark and Luke (well known New Testament figures) and also the lesser known Aristarchus, Archippus, Epaphras and Demas.  Clearly they all belonged to the same community.

In the first chapter of Colossians, Paul writes excitedly about Jesus, because without him there would be no Church.  He seems to be struggling to find enough words to describe the revelation that he himself had received from Jesus in a way that would draw his readers towards the same understanding.  For Paul, it was not enough to say that Jesus was the Son of God – that suggests merely a very holy man – or even ‘God taking on human flesh’ which sounds quite a temporary arrangement, since even the resurrected Jesus did not remain in visible form for more than a few weeks.  So he tries to describe Jesus from a universal, eternal viewpoint:

“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.” (Colossians 1:15-20)

Any attempt at re-phrasing or interpreting that passage risks losing its power.  Every time I re-read it I am reminded of how earthbound and immediate my understanding of Jesus tends to be.  Paul’s concept of time and space was, of course, different from ours. We now know the stars to be more than lights fixed in a dome some fixed distance beyond the earth, and have concepts such as relativity, gravitational waves and the Big Bang that he could not have begun to conceive – unless they were part of his revelation when he was “caught up to the seventh heaven”?

But I think Paul would have welcomed having the language of 21st century cosmology at his disposal.  The interplay between science and religion has never been as exciting as it is now.  Physicists acknowledge they have no idea what “dark matter” or “dark energy” might be – they are just ways of saying that the universe is still unknowable.  And while mathematical models may tell us that there are many more dimensions than the three of space and one of time that we are aware of, no-one has a concept of what they might represent in reality. From that point of view, Paul’s “seventh heaven” actually makes more sense than it did when he wrote it.  Even if, another century from now, those “mysteries” are solved, there will be more.  For God, by definition being beyond anything he/she/it created, is ultimately unknowable. The very fact that somehow the creator could briefly be contained in one very specific created being is at the heart of the Christian mystery that we explore each Advent and Christmas season.

The Bible in a Year – 16 July

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

16 July. Psalms 103-105

Going through the psalms we have seen how they cover a wide range of human experience, sometimes calling on God in desperation for his help, sometimes invoking his vengeance against enemies, and in between thanking him for his goodness.  But these three psalms are pure concentrated praise, a setting aside of all personal concerns to focus on the nature and acts of our Creator.

 

They are best read, I think, I the order 104-103-105, for this then mirrors the pattern of the days of creation in Genesis, and also the modern understanding of evolution and human history.

 

Psalm 104 considers the relationship God has with the creation as a whole: sun and moon, the earth as a whole, its mountains and oceans, its plants and animals, its weather patterns.  The harmony of the whole is portrayed here: each species has its natural habitat, they respond to the times and seasons, even “acts of God” such as earthquakes and lightning have their place in the natural order.  We forget at our peril that all this is God’s creation, and intended to work in harmony. It is not to be exploited by mankind beyond what we need for our food and shelter.

 

Psalm 103 celebrates God’s relationship with men and women as individuals.  We are exhorted not to forget all God’s “benefits”.  What are those?  Healing, forgiveness, redemption, love and mercy for a start (v.2-4).    If that were not enough, added to the list are vindication, justice, grace and compassion (v.6-13).  Why does God shower all these blessings on us?  The answer is in verse 14: “For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust”. The one who made us, and knows how weak we are, how short our life in the context of eternity, how small we are in the context of the universe, will give us every help he possibly can – even when we have messed things up “by our own deliberate fault” as the prayer book puts it.

 

Psalm 105 goes on to describe the way God works with human society.  It focuses, as so many books in the Hebrew bible, on God’s covenant with Abraham and subsequent Exodus from Egypt, that defining moment when God used every power at his disposal, from natural plagues and floods to miraculous provision of light, food and water, to rescue the Israelites (the forerunners of the Jews).   But the Jews were not the “chosen people” only for their own sake. They were the tribes to whom God had given the special responsibility for bearing the good news of his love from one generation to the next until all humankind could hear it.

 

So in these three songs of praise we have the fullness of God’s relationship with creation, with humanity in particular, and most of all with those sent to proclaim his love to his creation.  Bless the Lord, O my soul!

 

The Bible in a Year – 29 June

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this, and the introduction to the Psalms for this book of the Bible in particular.

29 June. Psalms 17-20

Reading these four psalms is a game of “spot the odd one out”. It is not difficult.  Numbers 17, 18 and 20 are all about God giving victory to one person or army against another – although there are differences, as they seem to be responses to quite different circumstances.

 

PS 17 is the cry of a man under pressure, who calls on God to be on his side because he is the underdog, he is the one trying to do what is right while all around him are unscrupulous people who will do anything to get the better of him.  Ps 18 is a song of relief, written from the safe place after being rescued by God, looking back on how he did in fact deliver the righteous person from their enemies. The imagery used to depict God’s saving power is that of storm and earthquake when the battles is at its height, and that of one soldier training another for victory.  Ps 20 is written from the sidelines of battle, or perhaps before approaching the enemy, quietly confident that God will give victory to one’s own side.

 

In between these is Ps 19, very different in character.  It celebrates how God is found in both the natural order and in the Law (that is, sacred writings).  Joseph Haydn famously set the first verse (“The heavens are telling the glory of God”) to music in his choral masterpiece The creation. Many people testify that it is in contemplating the natural world, whether galaxies or the equally amazing scenes viewed in a microscope, that they have come to understand the divine presence behind the visible world.

 

Others find their inspiration in meditating on the Bible or other religious writings, which lead not towards the outer world but the inner world – contemplation of one’s own spiritual life.  And that naturally leads to self-examination: “But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults”.   The last verse is often used by preachers to ask God to guide their thoughts and words:  “Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer” (19:14).

 

So whether in the heat of conflict, before or after it, whether gazing up at the stars, down into a microscope or into one’s own mind and heart, God is to be found in many ways.  He is never entirely absent from us and will take any opportunity to reveal himself.

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 27 June

If this is your first viewing, please see my Introduction before reading this.

27 June. Psalms 1-8.

The Psalms – all 150 of them – are so diverse and rich in meaning that it is going to be difficult to write just a few paragraphs about each batch of them.  Some days I may write a little about each one, other days pick a single psalm to explore.  If I have missed your favourite, do let me know why you like it!  I will be using the ‘protestant’ rather than ‘catholic’ numbering of the psalms, since that is what I am more familiar with, and sometimes I will quote from the traditional translations rather than the modern (NRSV). But let’s start with the first one.

 

Some Bibles give each psalm the Latin title by which it was known in the days when they were regularly changed by monks and parish choirs in that ancient language.  The first is known as Beatus vir  – “Blessed is the man”.  Modern translations render this as “Happy are those (… who do not follow the advice of the wicked)”.  Right at the start of this collection of wisdom poetry and sacred songs is the assertion that the route to true happiness is not through “success”, wealth or even good health, but in moral virtue.  Those who follow God’s way are like well-watered trees: strong, resistant to anything life can throw at them, and (though the psalmist would not have realised this) producing life-giving oxygen to sustain human life.  The wicked by contrast are “chaff” – straw in the wind – and of no use to anyone.

 

Psalm 2 is the bold statement of the king in Jerusalem that he is God’s son and that through him God will bring victory over those who conspire against him.  No doubt written by or for one of the kings of Judah, probably David to whom several of the psalms are attributed, but Christians see this as a prophecy fulfilled in Jesus of Nazareth, whom God addressed audibly as “son” at his baptism, and whose “reign” from Jerusalem started with his resurrection.

 

Psalm 4 is one of those regularly sung at Compline (the last prayer time of the day in the monastic tradition), owing to its last verse: “In peace will I lie down and sleep; for you alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.”  Combined with verse 4 “When you are angry do not sin; ponder it on your beds, and be silent”, this helps us to relax and forget our worries at the end of the day.

 

Psalms 5, 6 and 7 are among the many written in times of anguish by David (or others) who were in terror of their enemies.  From them we learn that God is never with those who wield terror and threats, rather he is with their intended victims, for he is the defender of the weak and oppressed.  Never forget that, and always consider which side you are on in times of dispute.

 

Psalm 8 is definitely one of my favourites.  For a rare moment in the Bible, which normally pays little attention to the skies (perhaps as a reaction against the sun-worship and astrology of other religions), we are reminded that this earth is just a tiny part of a vast and wonderful creation, the whole purpose of which is to bring praise and glory to its creator.  The writer of this psalm could not have begun to imagine the vastness of the universe as scientists now describe it, but even so he or she was over-awed by creation and moved to worship.  So should we be.