Another weekend has come and gone. Lest one think I was slacking in my commitment to write, the simple fact is, is that I wasn’t near any reliable internet where I could make my posts. That said, today I will be posting my reflections from Saturday and Sunday, as well as today’s reflection later on this evening.
Part One: SATURDAY
“My soul is athirst for God, athirst for the living God; when shall I come to appear before the presence of God?”
– Psalm 42:2
One of the interesting aspects of Lent is the preference for readings that many Christians today might find at least a little uncomfortable. We see many references to the legal codes such as Deuteronomy, Leviticus, and other texts which seem to make one wonder about how much God is really a god of love and not some sort of tyrant who’s worshipers suffer some form of religious Stockholm Syndrome.
In today’s first reading, God speaks to the Israelites first about how much E loves Eir chosen people and, seemingly in the next breath, discusses how E will destroy those who displease Em as well as gives instructions of religious intolerance that would likely offend the most devout warmonger:
“If you say to yourself, “These nations are more numerous than I; how can I dispossess them?” do not be afraid of them. Just remember what the LORD your God did to Pharaoh and to all Egypt, the great trials that your eyes saw, the signs and wonders, the mighty hand and the outstretched arm by which the LORD your God brought you out. The LORD your God will do the same to all the peoples of whom you are afraid. Moreover, the LORD your God will send the pestilence against them, until even the survivors and the fugitives are destroyed. Have no dread of them, for the LORD your God, who is present with you, is a great and awesome God. The LORD your God will clear away these nations before you little by little; you will not be able to make a quick end of them, otherwise the wild animals would become too numerous for you. But the LORD your God will give them over to you, and throw them into great panic, until they are destroyed. He will hand their kings over to you and you shall blot out their name from under heaven; no one will be able to stand against you, until you have destroyed them. The images of their gods you shall burn with fire. Do not covet the silver or the gold that is on them and take it for yourself, because you could be ensnared by it; for it is abhorrent to the LORD your God. Do not bring an abhorrent thing into your house, or you will be set apart for destruction like it. You must utterly detest and abhor it, for it is set apart for destruction.”
– Deuteronomy 7:17-26
Not exactly an uplifting lesson. On one hand we are assured that God will be with Eir people though things may not exactly seem entirely optimistic, and then instructs Eir people to destroy the religious objects and essentially dehumanize their neighbors and their social order, yet in some ways this can be viewed apart from its very real social and historical context and be applied as a meaningful commentary and warning of the real dangers of idolatry and temptation of literal and spiritual materialism.
As many of my friends know, I have a deep and abiding appreciation for sacred art. Whether it come in the form of Byzantine iconography, ex votos, or statues; sacred art is a way in which we engage with the Divine – it speaks to our needs and wants as well as providing a window into the soul. One of the oldest debates within the three monotheisms of Judaism, Christianity and Islam almost always seems to come back to the problem of idolatry. Within Judaism and Islam, this resulted in the creation of aniconic sacred art employing diverse forms of calligraphy and geometry. Christianity from a very early stage contested with this problem as well.
In Christian circles, iconoclasm has generally been motivated by a literal interpretation of the second of the Ten Commandments, which forbids the making and worshiping of “graven images.” This is clearly a misinterpretation of the Decalogue because if one continues to read through the Book of Exodus one would encounter the command to Moses to build the Tabernacle: a visible icon of the invisible God. In 730, Emperor Leo II the Isurian banned the use of icons of Jesus, Mary and the saints as well as commanding the destruction these images. The Iconoclastic Controversy was fueled by the refusal of many Christian residents outside the Byzantine Empire, including many Christians living in the Islamic Caliphate, to accept the emperor’s theological arguments. St. John of Damascus was one of the most prominent of these. Ironically, Christians living under Muslim rule at this time had more freedom to write in defense of icons than did those living in the Byzantine Empire. St. John of Damascus’s teaching centered around his clarification and distinction of the terms worship and veneration, teaching that we worship God, depicted in the icon, and simply venerate the icon itself as an image of the Prototype. In his defense of icons he wrote, “I do not worship creation over the creator.”
The point made by Saint John of Damascus is important here. It’s revealed that the objects themselves are not the problem per se but rather the temptation toward coveting things that are not of use to the Israelites and could tempt them away from God’s providence and love. How often do we set up ‘false gods’ in our lives? When do things such as work overtake our lives and prevent us from engaging meaningfully with our neighbor and God? Similarly, how many times have we wasted more effort than we should have arguing about one issue or another on social media? When these things divide, we have set up idols or patterns of behavior that distract us from love for one another and the devotion we owe to the Divine in whatever form we perceive it.
Our second lesson strikes this even deeper home:
“Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is sure. I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone. But avoid stupid controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. After a first and second admonition, have nothing more to do with anyone who causes divisions, since you know that such a person is perverted and sinful, being self-condemned. When I send Artemas to you, or Tychicus, do your best to come to me at Nicopolis, for I have decided to spend the winter there. Make every effort to send Zenas the lawyer and Apollos on their way, and see that they lack nothing. And let people learn to devote themselves to good works in order to meet urgent needs, so that they may not be unproductive. All who are with me send greetings to you. Greet those who love us in the faith. Grace be with all of you.”
– Titus 3:1-15
In his letter to Titus, Paul instructs us to pay heed to that which is most important and that is aiding one another and society toward greater harmony in service of the Divine. When speaking of being subject to rulers and authorities, Paul here was most definitely referring to rightly-led civil leaders; obeying these powers is indeed important, but the key here is that in a society, the yoke must go both ways – we should be obedient, but also the powers should be obedient to the eternal law which is love of one’s neighbor.
While meditating on this passage, the presently famous song by Hozier, Take Me to Church, came on my play list. The song itself definitely speaks to a number of the problems of living in a society which becomes oppressive – specifically speaking to the plight of LGBTQ persons and their equal person-hood. Two particular verses struck me to the core, as I was preparing to go on a further discourse of Epiphanes’ sermon On Righteousness which speaks to our paradoxal state:
No Masters or Kings
When the Ritual begins
There is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin.
In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene
Only then I am Human
Only then I am Clean
Amen. Amen. Amen. Amen.
On one hand, we are to obey authority, but in living out the Lenten Mysteries, there are no masters or kings: patriarch and priest, king and president, generals and lawmakers – everyone – is leveled down. We are all sinners. We have all missed the mark. There is a beauty about this, though in a round about way. While the song itself was likely referring to the ‘sin’ of being homosexual, I would be hard pressed as a human being to view someone lesser for who they love – especially being queer myself. We shouldn’t be quick to judge one another for what we perceive of as their state of sin, but rather work together toward a greater and more loving dialogue with one another, and that dialogue can only happen when we are completely and totally naked with our hearts and minds and, in cleansing our perception, come a step closer to beholding God in our fellow beings.
In 813CE, Emperor Leo V (reigned 813–820) instituted a second period of iconoclasm which seemed to be somewhat less severe than the first period of iconoclasm and having fewer martyrdoms and public destruction of icons. Leo was succeeded by Michael II, who was succeeded by his son, Theophilus. Theophilus died, leaving his wife, Theodora the Iconodule, regent for his minor heir, Michael III. Like Irene 50 years before her, Theodora mobilized the iconodules and proclaimed the restoration of icons in 843. Since that time the first Sunday of Lent in the Orthodox Church is celebrated as the feast of the “Triumph of Orthodoxy.”
We return in our Gospel reading to a similar scene which we saw on Friday. Jesus is in Galilee and approaches Philip telling him, “Follow me”, at which point Philip turns around remarking to Nathanael, telling him that he found the person who was spoken of in the writings of Moses and the Prophets, to which Nathanael sarcastically remarks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”
“The next day Jesus decided to go to Galilee. He found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.” Now Philip was from Bethsaida, the city of Andrew and Peter. Philip found Nathanael and said to him, “We have found him about whom Moses in the law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus son of Joseph from Nazareth.” Nathanael said to him, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Philip said to him, “Come and see.” When Jesus saw Nathanael coming toward him, he said of him, “Here is truly an Israelite in whom there is no deceit!” Nathanael asked him, “Where did you get to know me?” Jesus answered, “I saw you under the fig tree before Philip called you.” Nathanael replied, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Very truly, I tell you, you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.”
– John 1:43-51
To contextualize Nathanael’s snarky comment to Philip, the Gospel of Luke describes Nazareth as ‘a city of Galilee’ and the home of Mary. Following the birth and early epiphany events of chapter 2 of Luke’s Gospel, Mary, Joseph and Jesus ‘returned to Galilee, to their own city, Nazareth’ where Jesus grows up. Interestingly, Nazareth is not mentioned in pre-Christian texts and appears in many different Greek forms in the New Testament. There is no consensus regarding the origin of the name. One conjecture holds that “Nazareth” is derived from one of the Hebrew words for ‘branch’, namely ne·ṣer, נֵ֫צֶר, and alludes to the prophetic, messianic words in Book of Isaiah 11:1, ‘from (Jesse’s) roots a Branch (netzer) will bear fruit.’ One view suggests this toponym might be an example of a tribal name used by resettling groups on their return from exile. Both of these possible etymologies seem somewhat appropriate to the Lenten season.
As during Advent we journey with Mary and Joseph through the wilds of the desert into Egypt, we find Jesus coming out of a place associated with exile and into his public ministry. One of the striking things about this chapter is how often the words ‘seek’ and ‘find’ are repeated over and over again in a variety of forms. How often do we find ourselves lost, unable to find an answer to what we’re looking for and, how often when we find that answer we immediately reject it because it doesn’t fit our preconceived notions? Nathanael’s remarks to Philip are exactly that. During this season, stripped of our notions of self-may we slowly embark on that process of coming to see things plainly as they stand right before our own eyes and seek to follow that image and come before the presence of the living God.
Part Two: SUNDAY
“All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies”
– Psalm 25:9
While we may consider Lent to be something that ultimately we go at alone for contemplation, one of the things that scripture constantly assures us of is that we are not at all alone. Our first reading today alludes to that in talking about the importance of God’s covenant with us. At the most basic, a covenant is an agreement typically denoting some formal process of exchange. In the Bible, the word most commonly used in the Hebrew Scriptures is ‘Berith’ (ברית), referring to a legal disposition or pledge which may or may not have the character of agreement; this particular term may be familiar to us from the word ‘bris’ which is preserved amongst observant Jews as a ritual practice of setting apart in comemmoration of Genesis 17:10-14.
In the Greek, the word most commonly used for covenant is ‘diatheke’ (διαθηκη). In the Septuagint διαθηκη is regularly used as the translation of the covenant of God (berith), rather than the apparently more available word συνθηκη. In this there is already an expression of the fact that the covenant of God does not have the character of a contract between two parties, but curiously that of a one-sided grant.
“Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him,”As for me, I am establishing my covenant with you and your descendants after you, and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the domestic animals, and every animal of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark. I establish my covenant with you, that never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth.” God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. When I bring clouds over the earth and the bow is seen in the clouds, I will remember my covenant that is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh.When the bow is in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth.” God said to Noah, “This is the sign of the covenant that I have established between me and all flesh that is on the earth.”
– Genesis 9:8-17
The Covenant laid out in this chapter carries no stipulations, and it has the character of a one-party guarantee. It does of course require the faith of man, but is in its fulfillment in no respect dependent on the faith, an it is validly in force for all coming generations, believing and unbelieving (cf. Gen. 9:9). And in the making of the covenant with Abraham, too, in Gen. 15, the fulfillment of the law is in symbolical form made to depend wholly upon the divine deed – it’s entirely a gift. As a reminder, God places in the heavens the symbol of the rainbow in the clouds.
To those of us who are familiar with Western Esotericism and the Kabbalah, below the ethical triad of Chesed (Mercy), Geburah (Strength) and Tipareth (Beauty) there is depicted in some instances a rainbow that is referred to as the Veil of Paroketh, alluding to the Covenant made between God and humanity. It is this veil which separates our egos from our true and beautiful spiritual natures. Rainbows, as we know, are optical phenomenon caused by reflections, refraction, and disperson of light in water droplets which result in a spectrum of light appearing in the sky – they are optical illusions and cannot be physically approached.
In a similar way, the separation between God and humanity can ultimately be said to be illusory. Throughout Genesis we have multiple instances of humanity separating itself from God because we become to self-centered instead of listening to God’s gentle calls. When we stray too far, we are forced to face the consequences of our actions which take us away from God who is paradoxically always there to remind us of our own innate goodness. In setting up the rainbow, we have a reminder of the manifold mercies God has for us, if only we take a moment to reflect on them.
“For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit, in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigured, now saves you–not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.”
– 1 Peter 3:18-22
In the epistle, Peter addresses the various churches in Asia Minor recalling the covenant with Noah and offering a glimpse of a greater mystery. While many various movements practiced forms of ritual purity that could be comparable to baptism, Peter here makes a marked separation between the physical act of cleanliness and introduces the concept of moral purity, which if we are attentive, leads us through the veil of the illusions we’ve created of ourselves and reminds us again of God’s mercy and beauty. Eight is an interesting number in Christian thought and doubly so in Gnostic thought referring to the Ogdoad.
The earliest Gnostic systems included a theory of seven heavens and a supercelestial region called the Ogdoad. Astronomical theories had introduced the concept of seven planetary spheres with an eighth above them, the sphere of the fixed stars. In this sphere we have our primordial origins. Through contemplating on these mysteries, we are subsequently purified and able to ascend back to our origins and put to rest in Christ our lower natures that prevent us from seeing who we really are.
Our gospel reading today is rather interesting. Again we find ourselves on the river Jordan, but unlike John’s Gospel accounts, things seem a little bit off, if a little rushed even:
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” And the Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness forty days, tempted by Satan; and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels waited on him. Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.”
– Mark 1:9-15
As in the previous gospels, we’re called toward repentance but this time it is Jesus making that call instead of his cousin. When the scene begins, Jesus is baptized and the heavens open up with the Holy Spirit descending upon him in the form of a dove. For those who were present, I would imagine it would be an astounding scene – which it is meant to be. In the Greek New Testament, the word used when referring to the clouds opening up is not a gentle one, so we can rest aside the beautiful Renaissance paintings of billowing clouds. The word used is “schizomenous” – a violent tearing, and one that appears later again when Christ’s earthly mission is complete and the veil in the Temple is rent in part.
The root of this word may be familiar to some people as found in modern psychology, ‘skhízō’ – the same one as found in our word ‘schizophrenia’. Schizophrenia, as we know, is a mental disorder often characterized by abnormal social behavior and failure to recognize what is real. Common symptoms include false beliefs, unclear or confused thinking, auditory hallucinations, reduced social engagement and emotional expression, and inactivity. Naturally, schizophrenia is a very serious disorder and people with it need to be treated with common human dignity, but for the purposes of this let us consider our own bewildered states: our own false beliefs, expressions, confused thinking, and delusions when it comes to our own personal spiritual lives.
In the Gospel, the Epiphany of Jesus seems to have had a major impact, otherwise it wouldn’t have found its way into each of the synoptic gospels. Along with the transfiguration, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension, the Baptism of Jesus is one of the major milestones in the gospel experience. In Mark’s gospel, though, instead of Jesus staying around and preaching he immediately goes into the desert and faces the temptations of the Adversary before coming back and preaching.
The order of events is rather stunning, and the proclamations in Mark’s gospel mirror the account we read earlier in Genesis. God reveals Emself to Humanity and initiates a covenant. The preaching of Jesus, in this account, can in many ways be said to be the start of a new covenant – the Greek for what we in English call the New Testament, Hē Kainḕ Diathḗkē, can be translated as “The New Covenant” which calls us, like the dove which descended upon Christ, to listen to what the Spirit is saying to God’s people and follow Christ together in our own personal journey.