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 apocrypha in a Year – 7 March

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

7 March. Wisdom chapters 13-15

Chapters 13-15 are devoted (no pun intended) to the condemnation of idolatry.  Of all the sins found in the Old Testament, this seems to have been considered the worst.  The commandments concerning behaviour towards other people – honour parents, but do not steal, kill, commit adultery, bear false witness, or be covetous – were and are routinely broken in both small and large ways, but that does not prevent God from maintaining an active relationship with those who profess to follow him.  Such sins can be forgiven, and anyone who believes in God and admits their guilt can be reconciled to him (15:1-2).

Idolatry, though – believing something other than the true God to be in control of the world (or some aspect of it) and worthy of worship – is a different matter.  If you believe in a false God, no amount of prayer to him/her/it will either direct you in the way you should go, help you keep to it, or forgive and restore you when you fail. That is why it is the most serious of sins.

The writer makes a sensible distinction, though, between nature-worship and the worship of man-made idols.  He can understand (though not excuse) why the people of his or previous generations might worship the sun, stars or animals, for they seem to possess power and (apparent) movement.  Even primitive farmers knew the sun and rain were essential for crop growth, so praying to them may have seemed like a good idea.  But the writer’s argument here is that if you are intelligent enough to work out the ways nature works, you should be able to deduce that someone has planned it that way, and it is that someone who is more worthy of worship.  This is what we would now call “intelligent design” – a step in the right direction towards faith compared with fatalistic atheism or nature-worship.

For the makers and devotees of idols of human making, though, he shows only ridicule.  How can someone who has made an image himself from wood or pottery, or bought it in the market, consider it to have any power or influence over him?  How can anyone be so foolish as to base their life’s decisions on the “answers” that such “beings” give – perhaps by throwing dice in their presence, or some such practice?

We may well laugh at such behaviour, but are those who put their hope in winning a lottery jackpot any wiser?  Or those who trust in horoscopes (which is a form of nature worship as described above)? Or those who have faith in such human constructs as “the economy” or “free trade” or “the Party”?

The conclusion is that “to acknowledge [God] is indeed perfect virtue; to know [God’s] power is the root of all immortality” (15:3).  That is the way that the wise king who is supposed to have written this lived his life, and a path to be followed.

Wholeness through worship

This is one of my extra posts, in between the daily Bible commentary. It is the text of the homily I gave at Evensong yesterday at the church of St Margaret, Bramley (Leeds). The theme of the service was “wholeness” and the readings, to which I refer, were: Psalm 139:1-11; Proverbs 3:1-18;  1 John 3:1-15.

Thank you for coming to share with us in Evensong tonight.  This is an ancient form of worship, one which a generation ago people thought was on its way to extinction, as Anglicans gave up the habit of going to church two or three times on a Sunday, and as new and more modern forms of service came along.  Surely no-one wanted all this 16th century stuff any more?

But they were wrong.  In the last few years there has been a boom in attendance at Evensong at many cathedrals and parish churches.  It is not only the elderly, but a younger generation who are finding meaning in it.  Why is that?

Let me suggest that what people are seeking is wholeness.  That is our theme this evening, as it will be at next Sunday’s Eucharist. There are several aspects to this form of worship that might help contribute to wholeness. Let’s briefly look at them.

Firstly there is peace and security. We live in a stressful and ever-changing world. Coming to a mainly quiet and reflective act of worship offers us the chance to lay aside the cares of the day and go with the flow of the music. Added to that is the sense of continuity that we get from using the same music and words that generations have used before us.  The Church of England, for all the benefits of diversity, is still founded on the worship of the Book of Common Prayer. Common, because it is what holds us together. When new people come along to a service of Evensong, even if the actual words are unfamiliar, they know that they are taking part in a tradition by which English Christianity has defined itself for centuries. The Church has survived all manner of wars, political upheavals, natural disasters and financial crises.  So even those who don’t yet hold a personal belief in Christ may find that the tradition acts as a rock in troubled waters.

Secondly there is the music itself.  It is well known now by health professionals that joining in singing, especially choral singing with its harmonies, is good not only for physical health as we exercise our lungs, but for mental health too.  Even if you don’t rate yourself as choir material, simply taking in the harmonies of the traditional chants as you listen can have some of the same mental health benefits.

Thirdly, there is the act of confession. There are also mental health benefits in being honest with yourself, acknowledging past wrongs and seeking support where you know you are weak.  In other forms of service this element of our religious practice can be skipped over rather quickly. The longer form of confession at Evensong, with its references to being like lost sheep and following the desires of our own hearts, reminds us that we really do need to turn to God to find a sense of direction in our lives; and the form of absolution leaves us in no doubt that we are forgiven.

Finally, there is the scripture.  Again, the passages that we read at Evensong tend to rather longer than those in the Eucharist. The lectionary also sometimes explores the more obscure corners of the Bible.  A careful reading of a lengthy passage in the archaic language of the King James version requires the listener to concentrate carefully on what is being said. That is no bad thing, because it allows the Spirit to penetrate our defences and speak to the inner person through the words that we hear.

So where can we find a sense of wholeness in the readings, which are just those set for the day.  The Psalmist reminds us that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”, that God knows our every word, thought and action, and loves us both because of and despite what we do.   I’m not so sure about the proverb that fearing the Lord being “health to the navel and marrow to the bones” – the modern translation is “a healing for your flesh and a refreshment for your body.”

St John, as always, comes up with the goods. “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren.” This Christian love among brothers and sisters , he says, is evidence that we have passed from death to life, as Jesus takes away the tendency to commit sin and to hate or be jealous of others.  That passing from spiritual death to spiritual life is surely the ultimate expression of wholeness.

Let us now ask the Lord to let us go in peace as we sing “Nunc dimittis”.

© Stephen Craven 2017

 

 

 

The Bible in a Year – 16 September

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

16 September. 1 Chronicles chapters 9-10

Chapter 9 is the last in the series of genealogies. The focus in verses 17-32 is on the ‘gatekeepers’.  They had a key role in protecting the building and guarding its treasures, and preparing for worship.  There were four permanent keepers, one for each gate, with a large rota of (presumably unpaid) assistants.  Alongside them (v.33) were the Temple singers.    It seems that this organisational structure was not unlike that of a Cathedral today, with the Dean (equal in importance to the Bishop, though with a different role), Precentor, Succentor and Chapter, and again often a large rota of volunteer chaplains, visitor guides and so on.  The worship of God may be essentially a matter for the individual heart and conscience, but when there is a large gathered community and a large building in which worship can take place, a great degree of organisation is inevitable.

Chapter 10 reveals that the purpose of the preceding nine chapters of family history was to lead up to, and provide proof of the validity of, the anointing of David as King over Judah.  The rest of the book largely duplicates the history of his reign as already recorded in the books of Samuel.

The Bible in a Year – 4 September

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

Please excuse the delay in publishing the notes for the end of Daniel and all of Ezra, with only brief comments, as I was on holiday for a week and only making short notes to be typed up later.

4 September. Ezra chapters 3-5

The first thing the Jews did on returning to Jerusalem was to build an altar (in the open air, presumably) on which to make sacrifice.  While the idea of sacrificing animals has virtually disappeared from world religions today, the ideas remain that it is important to give thanks to God for the good things that happen to us, and that having a place in which to conduct worship according to whatever we may consider to be appropriate rites is important to a religious community. The location of our worship, and our attitude in conducting it, are always more important than the building (if any).

In chapter 4, the opponents of the rebuilding of the Temple offered to help but it was refused. Not all ‘help’ is welcome, and it is difficult to know from this one-sided account whether the offer of help was a genuine attempt to build bridges, or an attempt to infiltrate a organisation.  Probably the latter, as their letter to Artaxerxes is disingenuous, using the fear of difference and past examples as a way of stirring up present hatred.  Only with a new king (Darius) did the Jews resume the attempt to rebuild the Temple, with an appeal to Cyrus’s previous permission.  Presumably they had feared that Artaxerxes would not take note of what Cyrus had said and done, or even regarded it as a reason to persecute them all over again.

 

The Bible in a Year – 31 August

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31 August. Daniel chapters 7-8

The two apocalyptic visions that are recounted here are dated in the first and third years of Belshazzar, therefore before the “writing on the wall” incident in yesterday’s reading.  They use slightly different symbols, but otherwise are much the same, with horned beasts representing countries, empires and their rulers, with one defeating another, persecution of God’s people and their eventual triumph.

Much apocalyptic writing is like this.  In the second vision, an archangel identifies two of the beasts as the Median-Persian and Greek empires; but otherwise it is pointless trying to identify particular nations and rulers in later centuries.  The principle is clear: there will often be persecution of religious groups by power-hungry men and their regimes, but (as the similar Book of Revelation puts it) those who endure to the end will be saved.

There is one verse in here which is regarded by Christians as pointing to Jesus: “I saw one like a human being [or ‘Son of Man’] coming with the clouds of heaven. And he came to the Ancient One and was presented before him” (7:13). Jesus used the term Son of Man for himself, and here such a person is shown as being brought before the Creator, to be given (in the following verses) everlasting rule over the earth and the worship of its peoples.  That is how the Church has understood Jesus after his resurrection and ascension – he has become for ever the manifestation of God among people, and worthy of worship alongside the one he called Father.

These visions, terrible as they are, serve to remind us that worshipping God – directly or through Jesus – is risky in terms of the persecution that we might face, but ultimately we are on the side of the victor.

 

The Bible in a Year – 19 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.

19 July.  Psalms 115-118

I will look today just at the last of this set – Psalm 118.

Titled “a song of victory”, it seems to mix elements of the personal – one person thanking God for his support in times of trouble (v. 5-14, 17-21) – and the corporate (v. 1-14,  15-16 and 22-27 read like a choral or congregational response).   That indicates the tension always found in corporate worship between the “I” and the “we”. If I go to a church service is it in order to deepen my own faith, pray for my own family, thank God for what he has done in my life?  Or is it to join a community that has its own journey to travel, its own story to tell, and become part of a group of people expressing a common faith, praying for common concerns, thanking God for his deeds for all people?

The answer, of course, is both, but it is a matter of getting a balance right.  That is the challenge that faces me as I get re-licensed tomorrow as a Reader (lay minister) in my local church, having moved from another part of the country a couple of years ago.  As one of the team leading worship I need to be aware of the congregation’s story, its preferences, its challenges, the gifts that are found within it, and the needs of the local community for us to support them in prayer and action. But at the same time I still need to find spiritual nourishment though the worship, prayers and Bible readings.

The same challenge must have faced Jesus Christ, only in a far bigger way.  Yes, he was the Son of God and could work miracles and give wise teaching to the thousands of needy people he met, but he also needed to sustain himself both in private prayer and the worship of the synagogue.  Perhaps that is why at least two verses of this Psalm are found in the New Testament accounts of Jesus.

According to all the “synoptic” gospels, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone” (v.22) was quoted by Jesus, referring to himself.  Rejected by the Temple authorities as a misfit, he had become the cornerstone to the ordinary people, the one on whom they could build a new life.  Paul and Peter, in their letters, also refer to Jesus as the “cornerstone”.

“Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord” (v.26) is one of the congregational responses in this psalm, and was chanted by the crowds who welcomed Jesus into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  Christians still repeat this phrase week by week as part of the common liturgy.  But for Jesus, hearing it at this point in his journey when he knew he was entering Jerusalem for the last time to face trial and death, it must have been a huge relief to feel the love and encouragement of his crowds of supporters.

As cornerstone, he was bearing the burdens of others.  As the recipient of their praise, they were sustaining him.  So it is for a priest (or Reader) – usually we are there for other people – if not as the cornerstone (which is always Jesus), at least as one of the foundation stones. But sometimes we have to let them be there for us.

Tomorrow I shall have to promise the Bishop, among other things, to “conduct myself as becomes a worker for Christ for the good of his church and for the spiritual welfare of all people”.  In return, the congregation will promise to support me with their “prayers, love and loyalty, with the help of God”. May we get the balance right!

 

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.

 

The Bible in a Year – 23 February

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

23 February. Numbers chapters 28-30

Taking this further detailed account of the requirements for worship (chapters 28-29), if we omit  all the details of animal, grain and wine sacrifices (as no longer being part of Jewish or Christian worship) then we are left with the principle of the church leaders and servants offering prayer to God every morning and evening, plus twice on the Sabbath, and “holy convocations” (larger gatherings of people) on festivals through the year.

 

The pattern continues with Catholic and Anglican clergy being expected to say the ‘daily office’ of morning and evening prayer, whether in church or alone, and holding public services on Sundays, while putting extra effort into special occasions.  Those special occasions should stand out either as joyful (Christmas, Easter, Pentecost) or more reflective and penitential (Holy Week, and Advent).

 

Chapter 30 is a totally different theme, and again reflects the patriarchal culture: a single adult woman or widow was expected to honour her word as much as a man, but an unmarried woman still under her father’s authority, or a married woman, was only bound by her own word if her father/husband did not contradict it.  The reason given was to ‘protect’ such women from making foolish vows, but to us it seems like unnecessary control.  However there is still value in married people – husbands as well as wives – checking out their plans with their spouse before making any commitments, to ensure harmony in the marriage.

 

The Bible in a Year – 12 February

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

12 February. Numbers chapters 3-4

These chapters concern the Levitical tribe that was responsible for the tabernacle – the place of worship.  What I find interesting is that the tribe is divided into three: the Merarites with responsibility for the “frames, bars, pillars and bases” – the structure of the tabernacle; the Gershonites responsible for the fabric, hangings and screens of the tent; and the Kohathites to look after the ark, lampstand, altar, tables and vessels – its liturgical furniture.

 

Echoes of this can be seen today in the legal duties of Churchwardens in the Church of England to take care of the building, its fixtures, fittings and the equipment used for worship. If there are two wardens (as is usually the case), often one will be responsible for the building maintenance, and the other for arrangements for worship.

 

The reason for this is that church buildings are neither irrelevant (despite what members of house-churches might say) nor the most important matter for the congregations.  We need places to meet, and it is right that they should be kept in good condition.  But of all the activities that take place in the church, alongside meetings, entertainment, foodbank collections, or whatever, it is worship that is most important. It is what sets us apart from any other community centre.  Some churches have lots of liturgical furniture and fittings, candles and incense burners; others are much plainer. Modern buildings may have audio-visual installations and sound systems instead of an organ and hymnbooks.  But virtually all will have at least a communion table, a font and musical instruments of some sort.

 

Tomorrow I will be part of a panel (including our priest and churchwarden) interviewing four architects to take forwards our plans for repairing and reordering our church building for the 21st century (at present part of it dates from the 19th century although it was partly rebuilt around 1970).  We will be looking for someone who can take good care of the building, but also has a vision for how it can be re-equipped to help us sing God’s praise and tell his story to the next generation.  Someone who is both of the clan of Merari, and the clan of Kohath.  A tall order.  May God guide us.