Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Jewish Roots of Palm Sunday

Tomorrow is, of course, Palm Sunday.
Most Christians will celebrate this feast with two prominent features: the story of Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the blessing and waving of palm branches.
This raises the questions: Why did Jesus enter Jerusalem on a donkey? Why not on a horse? Why not in a chariot? And why did the crowds greet him with branches? The answers to these questions can be found by exploring the Jewish roots of the Triumphal Entry, as revealed in the texts of the Old Testament.
Solomon's Rides a Mule into Jerusalem
The answer to the first question is rooted in two texts: 1 Kings 1 and Zechariah 9. In the book of Kings, we learn that Jesus wasn't the first king to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem. Long before him, Solomon had done the same, immediately before he was enthroned as king of Israel:
King David said... "Cause my son Solomon to rid on my own mule, and bring him down to Gihop, and let Zadok the priest and Nathan the prophet there anoint him king over Israel; then blow the trumpet, and say, 'Long live King Solomon!' You shall then come up after him, and he shall come and sit upon my throne... So Zadok the priest, Nathan the prophet, and Benaiah the son of Jehoiada, and the Cherethites and Pelethites, went down and caused Solomon to ride on King David's mule, and brought him to Gihon [the spring alongside the Temple mount]. There Zadok the priest took the horn of oil from the tent, and anointed Solomon. Then they blew the trumpet, and all the people said, "Long live King Solomon!" And all the people went up after him, playing on pipes, and rejoicing with great joy, so that the earth was split by their noise. (1 Kings 1:32-40)
Notice that Solomon's triumphal entry on the mule takes place after his having been anointed king in the waters of the Gihon and immediately before his enthronement. Thus, this is not just a triumphal entry, but a royal enthronement.
The Triumphal Entry of the Messiah
Moreover, this text gives rise to a prophecy in Zechariah, which speaks of the coming Messiah, the future king, who will recapitulate the actions of Solomon:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!Lo, your king comes to you;triumphant and victorious is he,humble and riding on an ass, on a colt, the foal of an ass. (Zechariah 9:9)
Now, most readers stop here, noting the obvious parallels between this messianic oracle and the actions of Jesus. But keep reading: What does the Messiah do when after he rides into Jerusalem on an ass?
I will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem; and the battle bow shall be cut off, and he shall command peace to the nations; his dominion shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth. As for you also, because of the blood of my covenant with you, I will set your captives free from the waterless pit. Return to your stronghold, O prisoners of hope... (Zechariah 9:10-11)
This is a stunning oracle. In it, the future king not only rides into Jerusalem on an ass in humility, but establishes (1) a universal kingdom ('to the ends of the earth'), which is characterized by peace, not war (the chariot is 'cut off). Finally, and most stunning, (3) by means of a blood covenant, God sets Israel's "captives" free from "the waterless Pit" and brings them hold to Jerusalem (the 'stronghold'). This last line is particularly strange; since what is clearly in view is deliverance from Exile in Sheol, the realm of the dead, which is frequently referred to in the Old Testament as "the Pit." Zechariah clearly seems to expect the messianic return from exile to include those who had descended into Sheol, who would somehow be released through the "blood of [the] covenant."
Jesus' Triumphal Entry
Once this Old Testament background is in place, Jesus' Triumphal Entry takes on a deeper significance. First, he is deliberately recapitulating Solomon's royal entry into Jerusalem when he was enthroned as king. Second, he is performing a prophetic sign of the fulfillment of Zechariah's prophecy of the coming of the Messiah. In other words, Jesus is both a New Solomon and the long-awaited Messiah. Should there be any doubt about this, Matthew's Gospel makes both very clear, since he not only cites Zechariah 9, but the crowds describe Jesus as none other than the 'son of David', a title to which, above all people, Solomon bore the right:
And when they drew near to Jerusalem and came to Bethphage, to the Mount of Olives, then Jesus sent two disciples, saying to them, "Go into the village opposite you, and immediately you will find an ass tied, and a colt with her; untie them and bring them to me. If any one says anything to you, you shall say, 'The Lord has need of them', and he will send them immediately." This took place to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet, saying, "Tell the daughter of Zion, Behold, your king is coming to you, humble, and mounted on an ass, and on a colt, the foal of an ass." [Zech 9:9]. The disciples went and did as Jesus had directed them; they brought the ass and the colt, and put their garments on them, and he sat thereon. Most of the crowd spread their garments on the road, and other cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. And the crowds that went before him and that followed him shouted, "Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!" (Matthew 21:1-9)
The Palm Branches of the King Who Comes to Offer Sacrifice
This leaves us with one key question: Why the palm branches? No palms are mentioned in 1 Kings or Zechariah . As Matthew's account makes clear, the branches are tied to Psalm 118, the Great Hallel psalm, which the Jewish crowds are chanting as Jesus enters into Jerusalem. What is striking about this psalm is, when read in context, it too describes the coming of the king into the city. But in this case, the king enters not to be enthroned, but to ascend to the altar and offer sacrifice:
[King speaking:] "Open to me the gates of righteousness, that I may enter through them and give thanks to the Lord. I thank you that you have answered me and have become my salvation. The stone which the builders rejected has become the head of the corner...
[Crowd speaking:] "Save us [Hosanna], we beseech you, O LORD! O LORD, we beseech you, give us success! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD! We bless you from the house of the LORD... Bind the festal procession with branches, up to the horns of the altar!" (Psalm 118:19-27)
That this is the psalm chosen by the pilgrims to celebrate Jesus' entry into Jerusalem is no accident. For while the crowds recognize that Jesus is indeed the long-awaited king of Israel, the new Solomon, what they do not see--what they cannot see--is what kind of king he is, and how he is going to reign. For the altar on which Jesus will pour out "the blood of the covenant" is not the bronze altar in the Temple, but the table of the Last Supper. And the throne to which Jesus is about to ascend as king is not the golden throne of Solomon, but the wooden throne of Golgotha. As king, he will indeed go up to the horns of the altar to offer sacrifice and ascend to the throne of his kingdom to reign. But his triumph will not be through the power of the chariot or the violence of the bow, but through the offering his own life. By means of his blood, the blood of the new covenant, he will bring home the exiles from the land from which no man returns, and will set all captives free, including those imprisoned in the "waterless pit."
At every Eucharist, when we sing the Sanctus, the Church, the new Jerusalem, takes up this cry of the crowds in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and makes it our own: "Blessed is he comes in the name of the LORD!" (Ps 118:26).

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Three Reasons for Teaching the Bible

Why teach the Bible?
In his inaugural lecture at the University of Paris, when St. Thomas Aquinas was installed as Magister in Sacra Pagina--note, as a master commentator on the Bible, not first and foremost as a philosopher--Thomas gave three primary reasons, based on a quotation from the book of Baruch:
"This is the book of the commandments of God, and the law that is for ever. All that keep it shall come to life: but they that have forsaken it, to death" (Baruch 4:1)
[Thomas speaking:] According to Augustine in On Christian Doctrine 4:12, one skilled in speech should so speak as to teach, to delight, and to change; that is, (1) to teach the ignorant, (2) to delight the bored, and (3) to change the lazy.
The speech of Sacred Scripture does these three things in the fullest manner. For it firmly teaches with its eternal truth. Psalm 118.89: "Thy word, O Lord, stands firm forever as heaven." And it sweetly delights with its pleasantness. Psalm 118.103: "How sweet are thy words to my mouth!" And it efficaciously changes with its authority. Jeremiah 23.29: "Are not my words as a fire, saith the Lord?"
Therefore, in the text above [Baruch 4:1] Sacred Scripture is commended for three things. First, for the authority with which it changes: "This is the book of the commandments of God." Second, for the eternal truth with which it instructs, when it says, "And the law that is forever." Third, for the usefulness with which it entices, when it says, "All that keep it shall come to life."
--Thomas Aquinas, Hic Est Liber, 1256
(Ralph McInerny, Thomas Aquinas, Selected Writings, 5-6)
Thomas' statements are remarkable for two reasons.
First, he lays out an admirable philosophy of pedagogy. Teachers should not simply strive to communicate information; they should strive to do it in a way that is delightful, as well as transformative.
Second, he points out that Scripture--above all other objects of study--has the power to accomplish all three of these "in the fullest manner."
I must say that in my own experience, I have seen this time and time again in the classroom. I studied many subjects in college, in which I found great instruction and much delight, but they paled beside the first course I took on the Bible. The experience was... electrifying. That's the only way to describe it.
Now that I'm on the other side of the desk, it's even better. I can't tell you how many times in the classroom we have what you might call an "Emmaus Road" experience, in which the hearts of the students (and my own heart) are "burning within us" when we get down to the task of explaining the sacred page.
Moreover, I've also noticed the distinct power that the Bible has not only has to instruct and to delight (as do many other subjects) but to actually transform students. I like how Thomas puts it: "To change the lazy." (Thomas evidently had no illusions about students in the 13th century, who were evidently not much different than students in the 21st century!)
For those of you who've taught Scripture, have you had this experience?
For those of you who've studied Scripture in the classroom, did your Scripture courses accomplish all three of Thomas goals?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Lent: The Romance of the Wilderness

I've recently been intrigued by two themes which seem to run through Lent: the desert and nuptiality. On the one hand, Lent is a "desert" experience, in which our forty days of self-denial are meant to bring us into closer communion with Christ who fasted forty days in the desert (or "wilderness"). On the other hand, Lent is a preparatory time in the Church as catechumens prepare for their Nuptial Bath (Baptism) and the Wedding Feast of the Lamb (the Eucharist). So, for catechumens and, to a lesser extant, the rest of the Church that spiritually accompanies them on this journey, Lent has the aspect of the final days of courtship and preparation for a spiritual marriage. Nuptial themes run through some of the readings from the Gospel of John used during Lent and the Holy Triduum (Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter).

But the juxtaposition of desert imagery with the joy of wedding preparation seems incongruous; except that they are conjoined in a beautiful passage of Scripture:

Hos. 2:14 “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. 15 And there I will give her her vineyards, and make the Valley of Achor a door of hope. And there she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. 16 “And in that day, says the LORD, you will call me, ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My Baal.’

In this passage, the prophet Hosea speaks to Northern Israel and promises a resumption, at some future date, of the nuptial (spousal, covenantal) relationship between the LORD and his wayward people. The place of the nuptial tryst between the LORD and Israel is described as "the wilderness"--in part because it was in the wilderness that Israel first entered into a covenant relationship with the LORD (at Sinai, Exodus 24). But what does this mean for us?

Lent, when lived well, is a desert experience in which we deny ourselves many of the comforts that usually pad our existence, and the addictive crutches we turn to when stressed. We practice, to greater or lesser extents, sensory deprivation that recalls the barren wilderness of Judea, which offers little to comfort the senses. The advantage of sensory deprivation, however, is that there is less to distract. The wilderness does not have the flashing lights and allurements of Times Square. In the wilderness, one can focus. One can concentrate. And that may be another reason that the LORD leads his people into the wilderness to allure her. In the desert she will not be distracted. In the desert she can focus once more on her beloved. The intent of the Church is that in the desert of Lent we would deny ourselves some of our more common distractions and learn to be alone, and to fall in love once again, with our Bridegroom.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Wooing the Woman at the Well: Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent

The Gospel reading for this Sunday, if your local parish is following the readings for RCIA, is the "Woman at the Well" (John 4).

This is one of the key texts in the Gospel of John that present to us Jesus as the Bridegroom Messiah.

Recall that the Gospel of John begins with an enumeration of seven days, with a wedding on the seventh (the Wedding at Cana, John 2:1-11). There is probably an intentional parallel here to the creation story, in which Adam is created on the sixth day, falls asleep, and wakes up (on the seventh day?) and, seeing Eve, pronounces the covenant words ("bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh") with establishes the first marital covenant. The only identified characters at the Wedding at Cana are Jesus and Mary, whom the Church recognizes as the New Adam and New Eve.

In the following chapter (John 3), John the Baptist explicitly identifies Jesus as the Bridegroom.

Now in chapter 4, Jesus is traveling through Samaria and sits down by a well.

The minute Jesus sits down by the well, the reader familiar with the Old Testament expects a woman to show up. The reader is not disappointed: here she comes (John 4:7). Recall that Jacob and Moses both met their wives at a well, and that Abraham's servant found Rebecca for Isaac at a well. Moreover, the well in John 4 is identified as "Jacob's Well". Although it was clearly not the same well where Jacob met Rachel (which would have been in Northwest Mesopotamia), there was a tradition that this well near Sychar was in fact that very same well, which had now moved to the Land of Israel. In light of all this, it seems like John is telling this story in such a way as to evoke a betrothal scene in the style of the Old Testament.

Jesus' request of the woman, "Give me a drink," (4:7) recalls the request of Eliezer (Abraham's steward) to Rebecca when he was seeking to determine if she was the Lord's intended bride for Isaac. This serves to heighten the nuptial atmosphere of the whole passage.

Jesus and the woman begin to discuss water, living water in particular. At one point, Jesus implies that anyone who drinks of the water he provides will him- or herself become a well of living water (John 4:14), which calls to mind one of the images that the Bridegroom uses to describe the Bride in the Song of Songs (Song 4:15).

Finally, the conversation turns explicitly to marriage (4:16): "Go, call your husband, and come here." We discover that the woman has had five husbands, and the man she is living with now is not properly her husband.

It is probably not coincidental that the Samaritans were the ethnically-mixed descendants of poor Israelites left behind by the conquering Assyrians (8th cent. BC), and FIVE other ethnic groups (each with their own male patron deity) brought in by the Assyrian to repopulate northern Israel (2 Kings 17:24). Apparently, the Israelites left behind intermarried with the five immigrant peoples and worshipped their gods, until some point in history, perhaps after the return of the Judeans from Babylon, when they quit the paganism and returned to the worship of the God of Israel--but not in the authorized way or place! Instead of going down to the legitimate temple in Jerusalem, they built their own sanctuary on Mt. Gerizim and altered the text of Deuteronomy to make it appear that Gerizim was the LORD's intended site for a central sanctuary. So the Samaritan people, after having participated in five different foreign cults, were now back "living with" the LORD, but not in a proper covenant relationship. The experience of this woman of Samaria mirrors the spiritual history of her people.

Trying to change the subject of conversation to something else besides her personal life, the woman tries to distract Jesus with a theological question (v. 19). Jesus responds, speaking about the true manner of worship, but his answer goes over the woman's head. All she can say in response is to make a profession of faith in the coming Messiah, whom she hopes will be able to explain everything. Jesus answers: "He who speaks to you, I AM!"

At this point the woman drops her water jar in amazement and wanders dazed back into town, telling everyone to come out and see this man who has told her everything she did. Can this really be the Messiah? Jesus stays with the villagers two days and many come to place their faith in him.

So what has happened in this story? Jesus, who is the LORD, the God of Israel, has come to woo these descendants of northern Israel (the Samaritans) back to himself, as he promised to do in many prophecies, notably those of Hosea:

Hos. 2:14 “Therefore, behold, I will allure her, and bring her into the wilderness, and speak tenderly to her. 15 ... And ... she shall answer as in the days of her youth, as at the time when she came out of the land of Egypt. 16 “And in that day, says the LORD, you will call me, ‘My husband,’ and no longer will you call me, ‘My Baal.’ 17 For I will remove the names of the Baals from her mouth, and they shall be mentioned by name no more. 18 And I will make for you a covenant on that day ... 19 And I will betroth you to me for ever; I will betroth you to me in righteousness and in justice, in steadfast love, and in mercy. 20 I will betroth you to me in faithfulness; and you shall know the LORD."

The woman is a type and image of her people, the people of Samaria, whom the LORD did not forget, but return to woo them to himself.

Christ the LORD, the Bridegroom Messiah, comes to woo each one of us at the Eucharistic Liturgy (Mass). Despite our sins, shames, and checkered histories, he comes suddenly under the images of bread and wine, offering himself to us, calling himself to us, to be his spotless bride (Eph 5:25-27; Rev 21:9-11).

Friday, March 05, 2010

Defintive Biblical Evidence AGAINST Dogs Going to Heaven

Anyone who's ever taught a High School Religion course knows that at some point, that perennial question that has troubled theologians for centuries and continues to plague modern and post-modern young people will arise: "Do Dogs go to heaven when they die?" To answer this question positively is to give comfort and consolation to the fearful souls of students.
But God forbid you answer this question negatively. As one of my former students learned in his first year of teaching, to even suggest the possibility that dogs might not go to heaven (e.g., because they do not have immortal souls, or that they are not persons, or for some other reason)--much less to unequivocally declare that they do not--will arouse the wrath of students and the ire of their pet-loving parents (not to mention a potential trip to your supervisor's office for teaching such 'rigid' and 'disturbing' doctrines).
Up until now, when asked how to deal with this situation by students, I've simply suggested that they use reason (Hah!) and philosophy (double Hah!) to attempt to persuade the students that the longing to be with 'Fluffy' forever in the heavenly Jerusalem may in fact go unfulfilled.
However, I recently discovered that there is actual biblical evidence against dogs going to heaven. Well, this is entirely different. It's one thing to make a philosophical argument, but quite another to have Sacred Scripture on your side. So here it is. In the final chapter of the Bible, the Book of Revelation is describing the heavenly Jerusalem come down to earth, and in this context explicitly states:
Then he showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city [the new Jerusalem]; also, on either side of the river, the Tree of Life... Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the Tree of Life and that they may enter the city by the gates. Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and every one who loves and practices falsehood (Revelation 22:1-2, 14-15)
There you have it, in black and white! Even the Greek is clear: Outside are "the dogs" (kunes). The Heavenly Jerusalem has a sign, and it reads: "No Dogs allowed." So, for all you dog-lovers, sorry. Dog's don't go to heaven; the Bible says so; that settles it. Whatever you may hope for, you won't be seeing Rover in the New Jerusalem.
P.S. I might note in closing that this brings me no particular grief. I'm a cat person, and of cats being excluded from heaven the Bible says nothing.
P.P.S. It might have helped the now-famous church sign debate over the issue for somebody to actually proof-text Scripture. That is, after all, the usual exegetical method of such signs.