Ash Wednesday

'Low Key Light Manipulation' photo (c) 2006, Sarah (Rosenau) Korf - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/

Yesterday I spent the morning preparing the ash for use in the two services in my benefice today. It sounds as though this should be an easy task, but it is more complicated than it sounds. For a start, the is to use the remainder of last year’s crosses from Palm Sunday. Even after a year, the palm leaves contain quite a lot of water and need further drying in a hot oven before they will burn. Then there is the fibrous nature of the leaves which, even after burning, needs to be broken down for the ash to be usable.

So after taking down the remains of last year’s palm crosses and putting them on in the oven for half an hour or so, the smoke that came out when I opened the oven door sent me rushing to close doors before every smoke alarm in the house went off.

After that it was a quick trip to a sheltered corner of the garden with a tinfoil tray and a lighter. Another forty minutes and the ashes were ready for the final stage – forcing through a sieve into a bowl. The other end of the afternoon and the smell of singed palm had largely receded in the house. But I have been left wondering whether or not simply to buy a packet of ash from one of the ecclesiastical suppliers next year!

In our somewhat sanitized Western culture, there always seems something a little medieval about going around on Ash Wednesday with a black smudgy cross on ones forehead. Although we have become rather showy about all sorts of things over the past few decades, there are certain things we are not keen to parade in public. Way up there on that list is contrition, followed (still, it seems to me) by expressions of grief. Roadside shrines at accident blackspots may have sprung up all over the place in the last fe years, but gone are the days of wearing black as a sign of mourning except on the day of a funeral. Extend that for a longer period and people around you begin to get rather uncomfortable.

But before we write off our medieval ancestors, it is worth considering what such customs are intended to express and convey. We need to look below the surface (which may not seem very appealing) and try to find the deeper intent of the ritual. It is too easy to talk about “mere ritual” and miss the fact that rituals are usually devised to express something profound about our human condition, often something that holds great psychological significance and that we ignore at our peril.

In the Bible, wearing ash, alongside tearing of clothes, is a symbol of mourning and contrition.  On Ash Wednesday we wear ash as a sign of our acknowledgement that we are all complicit in the sin of the world. There are our personal failings and shortcomings before God – though God is fully aware of the circumstances which give rise to them. And then there are the corporate failings of our society and culture in which we also bear a part.

Too often when we talk about these things there is a temptation to sink into a kind of morbid introspection. The Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer has confessional passages which seem to pander to this. I sometimes wonder what the psychological effect of, for instance, the weekly repetiiton of the General Confession that begins both Morning and Evening Prayer has been on generations of Anglicans. In one sense it highlights that marvel of God’s forgiveness that is about to be offered and affirmed. On the other, for those who perhaps already feel guilty or ashamed, it seems to over-emphasise our worthlessness in a world that is often only too eager to point out individual shortcomings. Some of the great saints and heroes of the faith have struggled with precisely this. Both Martin Luther and Ignatius of Loyola wrestled with their consciences, convinced at one time that there were still unresolved and unconfessed sins that prevented them from enjoying a peaceful and right relationship with God.

This is not to argue that we should downplay the seriousness of sin, whether individual or corporate. But surely, the point of repentance (and penitence, too) is that it allows us to move forward rather than remain shackled to past failure. Both Ignatius and Luther eventually found their freedom in the insight that God’s grace is freely extended to all, not requiring us to earn favour. For me, Sr. Basilea Schlink’s book title, Repentance: the Joy-Filled Life, sums up admirably what our penitence should be focussed on – the joy that comes from knowing that, whatever we may have been and done, God loves us and, through Jesus, offers us God’s forgiveness, grace and peace.

As we receive the ash today, may we experience not only true repentance but also the joy of a holy and purposeful Lent.

Jesus, the Hebrew scriptures and #SH2011 – another excursus

Anyway, where were we? Ah, yes. The Bible.

One thing that I have heard a number of times from conservative evangelicals is the argument that, because Jesus apparently believed in the “literal truth” of the Hebrew scriptures, then we should too. They point to the various places in the Gospels where Jesus, in conversation with various groups and individuals, takes Old Testament passages at their face value to make a point. At first sight this seems like a reasonable argument. After all, Jesus was God, the second person of the Trinity. So he should know. Right?

I recently heard a version of this argument from the lips of Krish Kandiah at a seminar I attended at Spring Harvest 2011 in Skegness. I blogged about my (one day) attendance here. The occasion was a seminar on the Tough Texts of the Bible, in this case the Genocidal Texts particularly Deuteronomy 20, where God appears not only to sanction but to command the obliteration of the nations living in the Promised Land. Parts of the seminar were actually quite good, and the problems these texts present were well acknowledged. However I was disappointed to hear Krish bring up this argument to bolster his claim that we should not just conclude that the writers of these texts either misheard God or were pursuing their own agendas.

At the event there was not the opportunity or the time to argue the toss with Krish – there were several hundred people present, and judging by the nodding of heads when he said this, and the few responses that made it to the microphone, many of them were in agreement with him.

However, regardless of one’s view of the historicity of the Hebrew scriptures or of one’s position regarding infallibility or inerrancy, I think that there are a number of weaknesses with this argument. I would say that there are two broad areas where the argument falls down – the first theological, the second rhetorical.

Firstly, although I agree with Krish that Jesus Christ was God incarnate, he was also fully human. Paul in his letter to the Philippians outlines this process:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. (Philippians 2:5-7 NRSV, my emphasis)

Now I will be the first to admit that what this emptying exactly means in practice has been the subject of study, conversation and dispute among theologians and Bible scholars for centuries. But there is agreement that Jesus was in some way limited by becoming human. He learned his (Hebrew) Bible in a human way (we get a glimpse of this in the childhood incident recorded in Luke 2:421ff.). Jesus is nowhere presented as possessing the omniscience we often ascribe to God. Indeed, at the Ascension it appears that there may be things that even the post-resurrection Jesus may not know – the times and seasons that will bring in the fullness of the kingdom of God (Acts 1:7) – certainly things he is not at liberty to disclose to the disciples. Furthermore, in the Gospel narrative, what Jesus does know about other people (the secrets of human hearts) could easily be the result of a highly developed, Holy Spirit-guided intuition.

To argue then, as many do, that Jesus necessarily had a greater understanding of the historicity of the Hebrew scriptures than his contemporaries seems simply to ignore the kenosis involved in Jesus’ incarnation.

Secondly, we come to the rhetorical point: namely, what was it that Jesus was trying to communicate to his contemporaries? Even if we were to allow that Jesus DID know that much more about the historicity of the Hebrew scriptures, would it have been helpful or profitable for him to begin arguing this particular point with the Jewish people (whether the intellectuals or the common people) of his day? Would this not have been a distraction to his primary teaching and purposes which was to give them a clearer understanding and experience of the Kingdom of God/Heaven? Given the reluctance of some to embrace what he did say, wouldn’t teaching that the Hebrew scriptures were not what they appeared and were understood to be have given the excuse for more widespread rejection of the core of his teaching?

When Jesus teaches, he does so from what he and his interlocutors have in common. The wise Christian missionary has always worked in this way. Within the NT writings, Paul looks for things he has in common with his audience – the Hebrew scriptures with his Jewish and “God-fearing” audiences, pagan philosophers and poets with Gentile intellectuals, creation with the populations of Iconium, Lystra and Derbe. Today, it would be unwise for, say, a missionary to Muslims to begin by attacking their understanding of the Qur’an. There are far more important issues at stake. So with Jesus, the historicity of the OT is not an issue germane to his purposes. Indeed, it is unlikely that his audience could have understood him at all had he approached the issue the way we might do so in the early twenty-first century.

Nor, to my mind, does it make a significant difference to the points he does make. Take, for instance, his use of the story of Jonah. Does it make a difference to his point if the story is not history? Preachers often use imaginary stories without an historical foundation to convey truth, indeed Jesus’ own parables are prime examples. Jesus’ reference to the story of Jonah to draw parallels with his own suffering, death and resurrection do not rely on the story’s historicity but takes something that is well known and uses it to illuminate their understanding and expectation of what being Messiah actually involves.

So can we, perhaps, agree to stop trying to use this as a killer argument? The premise may or may not be a valid one, but if it is, it is so on quite other grounds and this argument does little or nothing to advance our understanding of the Hebrew scriptures.

Interest in question

You know what it’s like – sometimes you are in a conversation with someone and suddenly their response seems out of all proportion to what you thought you just said. Or the conversation takes a weirdly unexpected turn and you wonder, “Where did THAT come from?” The answer of course is that we never know exactly what is going on inside someone else’s head, what connections our words make, or what buttons are there just waiting to be pushed. Sometimes it can feel as though Jason Bourne (eponymous hero of Robert Ludlum’s trilogy) had been triggered to action by hearing a particular word spoken.

I hope Revd Lesley will forgive me if that happened to her in an exchange we had yesterday when the subjects of usury and homosexuality came up. What probably seemed to her a relatively uncontroversial analogy in a genuine, though hypothetical, question about homosexuality led to some thoughts I’ve been having about our relationship with our banking and financial systems.

The issue of usury turns out to be an interesting one in relation to the sexuality issue that threatens to divide the Anglican Communion today. The Hebrew Bible gives a clear prohibition to the Israelites against lending “at usury” to their “brothers” – taken to mean any other Israelite. The Hebrew word used indicates any form of interest (as does the Arabic word used for a similar prohibition in the Qur’an). It suggests that charging interest was considered to be a form of exploitation which was not conducive to good social relationships in Israelite society.

During the medieval period, the Western Christian Church maintained a prohibition (based on a reading of the Hebrew scriptures which replaced Israel with the Christian Church) on Christians charging other Christians interest on loans. During the twelfth century this was enshrined in English law. Of course this made things rather difficult for kings and rulers who wished to wage war but didn’t always have the required cash at hand to pay the troops. No pay, and they began to drift back to their own lands to carry on feeding themselves. Solution? Borrow from the Jews, who could charge interest to Christians. No ecclesiastical or civil laws broken, people able and persuadeable (if not always entirely willing). Job done. No sins committed on either side.

Except, of course, that this charging of interest fuelled a certain amount of resentment against a people who were already branded as “Christ-killers” by then-current Church teaching. Financial and economic resentment was stirred into the theological antisemitism that has remained a toxic mix over many centuries.

Skip forward a few centuries, and interest is everywhere in the financial landscape and no respecter of religious or ethnic groups (with the exception of Muslims, which I will come to in a later post). What has happened? No, seriously, because I’d like to know more.

First, we find that during this period theologians (no less) have identified a number of situations where it is (apparently) OK to lend and borrow at interest. So people start doing it. By the mid sixteenth century laws are passed in England restricting the amount of interest that may be charged. This is not to say that it is immediately accepted as a Good Thing. The Merchant of Venice shows that in Elizabethan England, most people still regard interest as a Bad Thing. But the stage has been set.

Secondly, we find that terminology has changed, in the English language at least. That good old word “usury” has now come to mean not simply (any) charging of interest but the charging of “excessive” interest. So when people hear or read the Bible (Authorised/King James Version at any rate), they may hear or read the same physical word, but what they now understand by it is different. One might say that sin has been redefined. What was once considered unacceptable – an affront to Christian society and to God – has now become acceptable.

So where are all the sermons and articles railing against Christians who take and pay interest on their savings and loans? Where are the placards and picket lines outside General Synod protesting at the way the Church Commissioners do their business? Why aren’t we bothered any more?

Messianic Judaism – Christian or Jewish? (3)

The question whether one can be both Christian and Jewish (posed at the end of my last post) is one that would have had early Christians puzzled. As E.P. Sanders, Geza Vermes, Tom Wright and many others have reminded us, the Gospels present a picture of Jesus who, for all his re-interpretation of the Hebrew Scriptures, lived as a Torah-observant Jew, though many questioned some of the company he kept. For the disciples in the post-Pentecost church, the issue was whether one had first to convert to Judaism (with all that implied) before joining the Christian community. The book of Acts narrates some of the story of how Gentiles began to become part of the Church without being circumcised and becoming Torah-observant. That this acceptance continued to be a cause of dispute is evidenced by Pauls Letter to the Galatians and other NT epistles.

Of course, pressure from both Christian and more orthodox Jewish communities began to tell as increasing numbers of Gentiles joined the church. By the mid-second century CE, Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho, a Jew illustrates how each community’s view of the Hebrew scripture was being formed and developed in opposition to the other. This was a process which would continue and sharpen the divide between an almost exclusively Gentile church and Rabbinic Judaism, which now felt the need to commit their oral traditions to writing in order to face life in a new exile from the Temple and the  Holy Land.

As noted before, throughout history there has been a small trickle of Jewish people who have converted to Christianity, for a variety of reasons. For the most part this has been achieved by individuals leaving the Jewish community (often at great personal cost) and joining the various Gentile traditions of the Christian Church. And until fairly recently it has been assumed by all that this is “as it should be.”

So why, at the end of the twentieth century, and the beginning of the twenty-first, should the phenomenon of “Messianic Judaism” have arisen? Is it a “theological sectarian mistake”? What, if anything, does it owe to American fundamentalism? How should the Christian church regard it, and does it have anything to teach us?

To be continued…

Messianic Judaism – Christian or Jewish? (2)

In my previous post I outlined the sad story of the separation of Rabbinic Judaism and Gentile Christianity, and the resulting Christian anti-semitism.

Messianic Judaism revolves around the issue of religious identity. The question “who is a Jew?” has a variety of answers, with both ethnic and religious aspects. Ethnically, Jewish identity may be considered in the same way as other ethnic identities, regardless of religious affiliation. For religious purposes, however, one is a Jew if one has been born to a Jewish mother (fathers alone don’t count here) or has undergone a process of conversion, circumcision (for males, obviously) and reception into the Jewish faith. The process includes instruction in Torah, not just as an intellectual exercise but as a basis for living and making the hundreds of decisions we encounter each day. For universal acceptance, this must be done by a recognised orthodox rabbi – liberal and progressive conversions are not recognised by orthodox Jewish communities or the State of Israel. Those who complete the stages of this process are understood to be included and incorporated into the covenant with God inaugurated through Moses at Mount Sinai.

Christian identity, of course, revolves around following the teaching and example of Jesus of Nazareth, with baptism as the outward sign of initiation, although a few groups, such as the Salvation Army, dispense with this. Christians, too, understand themselves to be covenant people of God – in this instance mediated through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus refers to this new covenant at the Last Supper, and the Letter to the Hebrews can be regarded as an attempt to work out the implications of this.

The question then arises as to whether it is possible to be both Jewish AND Christian. The answer to this will depend very much on how one views the identity and purpose of Jesus and on the view one takes of the relationship between the two covenants. What does it mean when we talk about a “new” covenant? Does this imply that the “old” covenant is completely superseded or is there any sense in which it could still be said to be valid?

To be continued…

Messianic Judaism – Christian or Jewish?

A few days ago I became involved in an exchange with clayboy (Doug Chaplin) in which the subject of Messianic Judaism came up. In a comment, he stated

“And I share with most Jews and most Christians the view that most Messianic Judaism that differentiates itself from Christianity is a theological sectarian mistake, over-influenced by American fundamentalism. That sweeping generalisation (to which I certainly think there are some exceptions) is a topic for another post.”

Rather than wait for Doug’s post, I decided to take up his suggestion and offer some of my own thoughts on the subject of Messianic Judaism. However, as I thought more about it, I began to realise that it would be difficult to do justice to this topic in one blog post, nor do I have time to deal with the issue comprehensively at one sitting. So this will be the first of a number of posts.

The first thing to acknowledge is that Doug is right to say that for most Jews and most Christians, Messianic Judaism is regarded as a theological sectarian mistake. As is well known, the history of relations between Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity is, for the most part, not a happy one. From the second generation of the church onwards, Christianity has been a largely Gentile phenomenon, rejected by the vast majority of Jewish people. Since then the church has attempted to exert pressure of various kinds to “encourage” conversion – from the medieval “disputes”, often heavily rigged by Christian rulers to demonstrate the superior claims of Christianity, to the horrors of the Inquisition which threatened torture and death to those who refused to submit. Sometimes conversions happened, but these were frequently either in response to overt pressure just mentioned, or in order to better an individual’s or family’s social, financial or political standing in a Gentile Christian world.

At the heart of much of the Christian response to Judaism has been an assumption of the superiority of Christian faith over against that of Judaism. In this view the life, death and resurrection of Christ abolished almost everything that makes the Jewish faith so distinctive. A supersessionist, or replacement, theology taught that God had now finished with the Jewish people, that the first covenant had effectively been anulled and that the Church had replaced Israel (indeed now WAS Israel) in God’s scheme of things. In such a view, the only way in which Jewish people could have a part in God’s plan of salvation was to renounce their former faith and join the (Gentile) Church. At the Reformation, Martin Luther began with high hopes that the removal of Catholic “errors” would see Jews flocking to a reformed Christianity. When these hopes proved to be unfounded, he then spewed forth some notoriously anti-semitic invective.

With this history, it is hardly surprising that the name of Christ, and almost everything the Christian church stood for, became an object of fear and loathing to Jewish communities and individuals across Europe. As Christian thinking and practice developed, so did that of Judaism, frequently in response to the other. The result of this, almost inevitably, was that an individual converting from one religion to the other (mostly in the Jewish – Christian direction) was ostracised by their original community. The faiths were regarded by both communities as being mutually exclusive. Converting Jews were expected to live in exactly the same way and adopt the same cultural and religious practices as their gentile neighbours.

Having set the scene in this post, I intend in future posts to consider why Messianic Judaism has arisen during the last few decades, what are its influences and to what extent it might or might not have validity in terms of both Judaism and Christianity. I would be interested to hear your thoughts.