Sunday, May 29, 2016

Concerning Widows

Both the reading from Hebrew scripture and the gospel reading for Proper 5C/Ordinary 10C center on women who are widows. The widows live in Zarephath (I Kings 17:8-24) and Nain (Luke 7:11-17) when they cross paths with someone sent by God. These two widows are both in need of the power of God. And both receive what they need.

The position of being in need is expressed in the words - Hebrew and Greek - that are used to describe these two women. The Hebrew word אַלְמָנָה (almanah) does not simply mean a woman whose husband has died. Rather it means a woman who was once married but who has no means of financial support. There is no use of the word in Ruth, for example, presuming that Naomi has some kind of financial support. Conversely the word is used in Lamentations 1;1 to describe the city of Jerusalem: How like a widow (almanah) she has become, she that was great among the nations! She lacks financial resources. Similarly, the Greek word χήρα (chera) is presumed to be a derivative from the same root as chasma, referring to deficiency - the widow lacks a husband. Both words indicate that those who are described by the word are in need. The good news is that God is going to supply their need.

Both women will get their sons back through the power of God. The story of widow of Zarephath, as depicted in the frescos of Dura Europos, is told episodically. At the left is the woman who holds out, presumably to Elijah, her limp, dead son. In the center panel, the prophet reclines on a couch and holds the child. At the right, mother and son are reunited, and their hand gestures echo one another. Note that the mother's dress has changed from the first episode to the last. Her dark clothing has been exchanged for light-colored clothing. The Dura Europos painting focuses on the people in the story rather than the setting. The hand of God reaches down between the prophet and the now-living child and the mother with her revived son on the right, reminding viewers that this miracle occurs because of God's doing.

By contrast, Lucas Cranach (the Younger) created a painting as much as the portrait of a town as the telling of the story from scripture. At the bottom of the painting are the mother and son and Jesus. A procession of women in black have followed the grieving mother and will bear witness to what Jesus does. Cranach has depicted the women with their mouths covered. They are similar to the figure of Katharina von Bora Luther (Martin Luther's widow). In the colored woodcut she wears a black cloak and carries a prayerbook. Across her mouth is a binding strip that is connected to her head covering. The (presumably linen) strip, which is similar to the ones worn by the widows in Cranach's painting, has been hypothesized to refer to the silence expected of widows (remember the parable of the importunate widow!) or the grief and lament of widows (the German term witwe - widow - having its origin in the word for lament or moan) or to symbolize the difficulty of widows in living lives of chastity, obedience and silence (because they had no husband to provide moral direction).

The Bible has much to say about widows. Neither of these two stories, however, spends time moralizing or criticizing. In both cases, God restores what is lacking, giving the two widows much surer footing as each went forward in life.

Top: Elijah Resuscitates the Son of the Widow of Zarephath. Fresco. 3rd century CE. Dura Europos, Syria. For additional information, see:  Middle: Lucas Cranach the Younger. Resurrectio of the Widow's Son from Nain. c, 1569. Altar panel, Stadtkirche, Wittenberg. For Stadtkirche Wittenberg, see: Bottom: Katharina von Bora in Widow's Weeds (Katharina von Bora in Witwentracht). 1546. Colored woodcut. 

See this week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook page for a take on Mary, widowhood and the crucifixion. Click on the link below.

Sunday, May 22, 2016

I Kings 18: Mount Carmel

The reading from Hebrew scripture for Proper 4C (I Kings 18:20-21, 30-39) takes us to the slopes of Mount Carmel for a "Battle of the Prophets" between Elijah all alone and the prophets of Baal numbering 450+. God shows up, answering the prayers of Elijah and putting the prophets of Baal to shame. God lights a fire for a sacrifice even though both the offering and the altar have been thoroughly soaked with water.

Mount Carmel has a fairly extensive association with Elijah; so much that a group of hermits took to living in the caves of Mount Carmel, in imitation of Elijah. Even before Elijah, though, the heights of Mount Carmet were the site of worship. We know this because Elijah repaired the altar to Yahweh that had fallen into disrepair (I Kings 18:30).
Pietro Lorenzetti. Hermits at the Fountain of Elijah. 1328-29. Siena, Italy: Pinacotheca Nazionale.
In the picture above by Pietro Lorenzetti, hermits are near the Fountain of Elijah, dressed in their Carmelite habit - including a striped cloak designed to symbolize Elijah's cloak which was scorched as he went up to heaven in the chariot of fire. The order later received papal dispensation to change these cloaks because they were a source of ridicule outside the monastery. 
Pietro Lorenzetti. St. Albert Presents the Rule to the Carmelites. 1327-1329. Siena: Pinacotheca Nazionale. For this painting, see:!prettyPhoto[opere]/0/
By the 13th century, the Carmelites had received a rule and their members had founded other Carmelite communities, changing the order from one of hermits to an order of mendicant friars. Currently the Stella Maris Monastery, built in the 19th century, sits on the slope of Mount Carmel directly above a cave or grotto traditionally identified as one of the caves of Elijah.

Sunday, May 15, 2016

Proverbs 8.1-4, 22-31: Holy Wisdom

By Trinity Sunday, Christ has ascended and the Holy Spirit has descended. The disciples have preached and thousands have been baptized. And with Trinity C's reading from Hebrew scripture (Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31) we find ourselves back at the beginning. The very beginning. Creation. At the beginning, God drew a circle on the face of the deep, and Wisdom was there.

The structure pictured here is Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey. It is now a museum. Before that it was a mosque. But at its construction it was a Christian church. Hagia Sophia. Which is not a reference to St. Sophia. The official name is Ναός τῆς Ἁγίας τοῦ Θεοῦ Σοφίας, Naos tēs Hagias tou Theou Sophias, "Shrine of the Holy Wisdom of God."

The Wisdom tradition in Hebrew scripture explores the idea of wisdom: who is wise, what it means to be wise. When writing to the Corinthians, Paul refers to Jesus Christ as the wisdom of God (I Corinthians 1:24). The church of Holy Wisdom (sophia) honors Jesus as divine wisdom. In the Divine Liturgy, the Gospel Book is brought into the center of worship and lifted up by the priest as he exclaims, "Wisdom!" The people reply, "Come, let us worship and bow before Christ." Christ is the wisdom.

One of the mosaics in Hagia Sophia (left, bottom) shows Byzantine emperor Leo VI (called "the Wise") bowing before an enthroned Christ. The mosaic is located in the tympanum over the Imperial Door in Hagia Sophia - the door used only by the emperor. On the left of Christ is his mother Mary, the Theotokos. On the eve of feasts of the Theotokos, one of the traditional readings is Proverbs 9:11. (see more about this on Art&Faith Matters' Facebook page), which ties Mary to Wisdom. In the mosaic to the right of Jesus is an angelic figure. The figure is identified sometimes as the archangel Gabriel, sometimes as the Angel of Great Counsel. "Angel of Great Counsel" (alternatively "Messenger of Great Counsel") is how the Septuagint translates the phrase in Isaiah 9:6, which the NRSV translates as "Wonderful Counselor." Christians read that verse during Advent with its reference to a child who has been born for us and a son who has been given to us. Again, Christ is associated with wisdom - great counsel.

The current structure, which is neither the first on the site nor the first called Hagia Sophia, was built between 532 and 537. Justinian I, Byzantine emperor, charged Isidore and Anthemius with the design and construction of the building, which features a dome that rises 180 feet above the floor. The dome rests on four piers, which transfers the weight of the dome through a series of smaller outer domes. The cathedral was the first great work of Byzantine architecture. For more about the church, see:

In verse 30 of Proverbs 8, the Hebrew word אָ֫מ֥וֹן is variously translated. One approach relates that word to the noun אומן, which means artisan or architect. In that translation, Wisdom is the architect at God's side as the earth is being created. Holy Wisdom is the architect. Holy Wisdom is also the architecture.

For thoughts on Trinity Sunday, click here.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Acts 2.1-21: About the Fire

The story of the Christian Pentecost (don't forget that the reason everyone was in Jerusalem was to observe Pentecost - or Shavu'ot - as established in Leviticus 21:15ff.) is pretty straightforward, if you can call a sermon that yields thousands of baptisms "straightforward." The disciples are gathered together when the Holy Spirit comes upon them in ways they can see and hear (wind and tongues of fire) and then in ways that ultimately lead them to speak (Acts 2:1-21). For today's celebrations of Pentecost, worshipers are encouraged to wear red, and it isn't uncommon to see streamers or balloons or kites or other objects that can catch a breeze as part of a processional. It is a celebratory day.

The part of the story usually handled most abstractly is the fire. Candles may be lit, but the ability to capture actual tongues of fire on the head of each worshiper is a logistical challenge unless your church is CGI-equipped. So those tongues of fire become streamers or ribbon halos or crowns. But what if you think a strip of red or orange crepe paper doesn't tell the story of the Holy Spirit as fire? That's a problem. Some contemporary painters broaden the presence of the Spirit by showing human figures swept up in swoops of the reds, yellows and oranges of active flame. But another problem can come when the extent of the flame makes the human figures look like they are sinners writhing in Hell rather than Galilean fishermen witnessing to the life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

How do you think of the Holy Spirit as fire? It is a fire that burns to ash? Is that what will happen to the disciples and their Pentecost fervor? The day is a flashover that will eventually burn itself (and them) out? Perhaps you perceive the Holy Spirit as a carefully portioned tongue of fire, given in reasonable measure to each disciple.

Maybe it helps to borrow the characteristics of another scriptural fire. What if Pentecost's tongues of fire are like the flames of the bush where Moses received his own commission from God? What if the fire of Pentecost is fire that burns but does not consume?
(Top left) Moses by Elden Tefft. 1982. Smith Hall, University of Kansas  (Top right) Charles L. Marshall. Burning Bush, University of Kansas. (Bottom) Chagall. Moses and the Burning Bush. 1966. Musee national Marc Chagall, Nice, France.
Seeing the Pentecost fire in that way might help us prepare for a season of Pentecost rather than a day of Pentecost. The fire does not go out but neither does it consume us until there is nothing left of us.

And yet the fires of the bush and Pentecost are not exactly the same. Or perhaps the fire is the same but the relationship between God and humans is not. Moses stood at a distance, warned from coming closer, watching this miracle of fire as he heard the voice of God. In the Pentecost story, this fire rests on each disciple individually. They are no longer spectators, they are partakers, sharers of the fire. The fire is not a spectacle to be observed but a part of who they now are.

In both events, the fire is associated with God's promise to "be with". To be with Moses as he goes back to Egypt to free God's people. To be with the disciples as they dream dreams and see visions and make disciples of all nations. Fire that burns but does not consume ensures that disciples will not, on their first Spirit-filled day, go out in a blaze of glory. Rather it sparks a witness that against all cultural and societal odds will grow Christ's church. Come, Holy Spirit.

And here's your connection for flame and wind on Pentecost...when laying a fire, light the upwind side so the wind blows the flame into the "fuel".

For additional thoughts on Pentecost, click herehere or here. For thoughts on Genesis 11:1-9, click here.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Acts 16.16-34: Chains

There are multiple options for this week in RCL Year C in 2016. One option is to treat the week as Easter 7C (if not observing Ascension Sunday on May 8, 2016). If you choose the readings for Easter 7C, the reading from Acts is 16:16-34.

In that passage are several different expressions of the issue of slavery. A slave girl's gift of insight is exploited by her owners in order to make money. She cries out that Paul and Silas are "slaves of the Most High God." When given the opportunity to escape from jail (where they are being kept with their feet in stocks), Paul and Silas choose to remain in the jail, saving the life of the jailer and leading him to belief in the Lord Jesus Christ.

Each of these ideas approaches the idea of slavery and chains in a different way.  The girl has no choice. She is exploited, kept in slavery because her owners profit from her. Paul and Silas are voluntary slaves. Slaves to no human but only to God. That relationship leads them to choose to remain in jail, even when they might have been freed.

We may be tempted to think about slavery in first-century Palestine differently than slavery in more recent centuries. It was not race-based; any person could be enslaved. It was not uncommon for parents of families living in poverty to sell their children into slavery. Perhaps that is how the girl in Acts found herself owned and telling prophecies for her owners. However it is, she was in no position to help herself or to make decisions about staying where she was. And in that sense, in that taking away of personal human agency, all slavery is the same.

Shackles intended for a child.c. 1800.  New York Historical Society. Published in The Civil War in 50 Objects (
The shackles above were intended for a child. And perhaps the girl in the Acts passage was not shackled as the 19th-century African children were shackled, but she was chained every bit as much until she was freed by Paul's words to the spirit that possessed her, "I order you in the name of Jesus Christ to come out of her."

The name of Jesus Christ freed this girl. The name of Jesus Christ could free everyone who is chained.

This week's Art&Faith Matters Facebook post offers some alternate views of the Ascension