The Apocrypha in Lent – 22 March

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

22 March. Ecclesiasticus chapters 50-51

The book ends with two very different chapters.  The first describes in detail some of the rituals of the Temple, over two thousand years ago, but so slow is change in religious circles that the High Priest of those days, if transported to a Catholic or traditional Anglican church now, would not feel completely out of place.  A priest in vestments that have changed little since Roman times, standing before (or behind) an altar, raising his hands in prayer, holding a cup of wine as an offering, the smell of incense, the sound of the organ perhaps resembling the trumpets of his day, a choir chanting psalms, and at the end a blessing over the assembled people.  And all this in a building designed to symbolise segregation – the narthex for ordinary activities such as eating and drinking, the nave for the laity to worship, a chancel for the choir, the sanctuary with its altar only for the priest.

There are differences, of course, and the Mass even in a very traditional setting is not intended to resemble an animal sacrifice.  Women priests (in an Anglican setting) might be the biggest surprise to our time traveller. The congregation is more likely to be standing or seated than prostrate in prayer – an attitude now found more in Islam than Christianity, but a powerful symbol of humility before God.  But overall, the principles of communal worship  have not changed that much.

The whole book of Ecclesiasticus has been, supposedly, about Wisdom, and the second half of the last chapter (51:13-30) summaries the search for her.  This female personification of God’s inspiration has taken the writer in many directions – good and bad relationships, sex and marriage, and the value of friendship; asceticism, indulgence and a healthy attitude towards money;  life, death and the afterlife; good and evil; truth, lies, gossiping and careful speech; physical and mental health; worship of God and admiration for his creation; and the guidance of God for his people throughout history.  A whole library of practical life skills, in fact.  It deserves to be more widely read.

The Bible in a Year – 26 June

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

26 June. Malachi chapters 1-4.

This is the last book of the Old Testament (at least in Protestant bibles). The reason for putting it last is that it contains so many references to a coming “messenger” who would put right all wrongs.  These verses have often been used in Christian writings and worship as referring to Jesus Christ: “I am sending my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple” (3:1); “for you who revere my name the sun of righteousness shall rise, with healing in its wings” (4:2); “I will send you the prophet Elijah before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes” (4:5).


As with all such application of the Old Testament to the New, we have to be aware of the context, which is God’s condemnation of those who seek privilege and recognition among his people but actually live selfishly, showing hypocrisy in their offerings and infidelity even in their marriages.  They no longer even aspired, let alone reached, the ideal of a leader of the faith community: “the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts. But you have turned aside from the way; you have caused many to stumble by your instruction” (2:7-8).


Understood this way, the main purpose of the coming of the Messiah would be to sweep away the Temple system for good, for it had been so abused. Given the issue this week of the report on the way the Church of England leaders protected a paedophile bishop rather than seeing justice done for his victims, this should be a reading to strike fear into the hearts of those responsible for leadership in the Church.


Another verse from Malachi that is loved by Christian preachers is this one: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse … see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing” (3:10).  It is often quoted to encourage people to give a fixed amount (ten, or even thirty, percent of their income) to the work of the Church.  But it should be seen in the context of a system in which the tithe of grain was actually the food for the workers in the temple, as part of the much wider laws of Moses.  Now that we are freed from that legalistic framework, the Christian principle of giving is that of the “cheerful giver”.  God’s blessing may indeed be felt more keenly by the one who gives a lot away, but that should not be out of a sense of duty, rather a response to being set free by Jesus to live more simply and without the cares of the world.  Not easy to achieve, but that should be what we seek.

The Bible in a Year – 3-5 February

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

3-5 February. Leviticus chapters 8-15

I have combined three days’ readings here as they form a consistent block. Before going on, I should perhaps point out that I am using two short commentaries to aid my own understanding of this part of the Bible – Martin Goldsmith’s study notes on Leviticus and Deuteronomy from the Christian Literature Crusade, and David Edward’s helpful overview “A Key to the Old Testament” (Collins, 1989).


Like most of this book these chapters consist of rituals and regulations that were actually written long after the time of Moses and reflect the more settled nature of life in the writer’s age (hence the references to stone houses rather than tents, for example). And like most of the book, its rituals, especially those of sacrifice, seem arcane to us. But if we remember that the whole point of “The Law” was to keep the Jewish people in covenant with God, it may help us to see the point of them.


In the story of Abihu and Nadab, two of Aaron’s four sons who were killed by “fire from the Lord” for using unauthorised religious ritual, we see a rare touch of humanity, as Aaron in his grief is unable to speak, until later he refers to “such things as have befallen me”.  Even God’s anointed high priest has feelings, and cannot ignore human tragedy on his doorstep. I deliberately use that last phrase as a Christian priest I know recently found an abandoned baby left on his own doorstep; the baby did not live, and the mother has not been found. It has been a shock to the whole community, and not least the man of God who found it.


The many dietary laws and other provisions here do seem (mostly!) to have a sensible origin in terms of hygiene, safe eating and avoidance of contagious disease spreading.  And interestingly, they are to be administered by priests – there is no separate reference to doctors (let alone food inspectors!), and the priests, as among the only literate people in the community, had the welfare of the people as much of their role as performing religious rituals.

The Bible in a Year – 27 January

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

27 January. Exodus chapters 28-29

These chapters, with their extremely detailed instructions for vestments and the manner of sacrifice, seem at first sight irrelevant to us today in an age when no religious groups practice animal sacrifice.  What we can perhaps take from it is that the priest (in the widest sense of any religious leader) needs to be set apart in order to represent people before God in prayer. The provision of jewelled robes for him, and the names of the tribes of Israel engraved on the gemstones, show how important this representative function is.  People today who have no connection with the church will still ask Christian friends, especially those who are ministers in the church, to pray for them.