Monday, December 25, 2017

Isaish 61.10-62.3: Off the Top of Your Head

You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. That is how the Christmas 1B reading from Hebrew scripture (Isaiah 61:10-62:3) ends. Crown and diadem. It's a parallelism like many others in scripture, especially in poetry: The earth is the Lord's and everything in it, the world and those who live in it (Psalm 24:1). But is there a difference between crown and diadem? And do the choices of those words mean something for how we hear that scripture?
Two different words are used in the Hebrew. Crown is עֲטֶ֥רֶת, a feminine noun translated crown across scripture. The word for diadem is וּצְנִ֥יף, a masculine noun that is translated as diadem, hood, mitre, even turban. The root of both concepts is the same as that for the English words: something worn on, around, or across a person's head. Crown is from the Latin corona "crown," originally "wreath, garland," related to Greek korone "anything curved, kind of crown." Diadem is directly from Latin diadema "cloth band worn around the head as a sign of royalty," from Greek diadema, from diadein "to bind across," from dia- "across" with dein "to bind," related to desmos "band".

Crown, diadem, tiara (headdress worn by Persian kings and by men of rank, from Latin tiara, from Greek tiara, of unknown origin)...who doesn't want one of those? Napoleon Bonaparte decided to give himself a crown. He had demanded the Pope attend the coronation ceremony as Emperor, but when the moment came to put the crown on his head, Napoleon took the crown from the Pope and placed it on his own head. The sketch here was drawn by Jacques Louis David, who attended the coronation and created finished paintings of other episodes of Napoleon's rise to Emperor.
J.-L. David. Napoleon Crowning Himself Emperor. 1805. Drawing. Paris: Musee du Louvre.
There is one not-so-small detail in the scripture that is worth noting. The crown isn't something that the people of God get. It is something the people of God are. The crown - a very visible sign of someone of rank and power isn't going to be ours in this text. We might have expected that with the early verses that described festive wedding attire. We would wear a garland...we would wear a crown. But that is not the case. Instead we - the people of God - will be God's crown. 

Isaiah describes a number of attributes of the time when God's people become God's crown: there is righteousness (tsedakah, translated vindication) paired by turn with salvation and praise. All is right on that day. God's gifts have transformed the world in such a way that everyone can see, and from what God has planted have grown righteousness and praise - the righteousness and praise of the people of God. That's when we are a crown in God's hand. 

At the end of any year, we tend to look back at where we have been and look around at the world as it is now. When we reflect on our own actions, are we seeking crowns for ourselves or are we working to transform this world according to God's will? Do our actions reflect the righteousness (definitely not the same as self-righteousness) that God has planted in our world? Are righteousness and praise of God spring forth in this world? When they do, then we will be a crown in God's hand.

For two considerations appropriate for the Epistle reading for Christmas 1B (Galatians 4:4-7) and the turning of the year, click here or on the Facebook link below.

For thoughts on the Gospel reading for Christmas 1B (Luke 2:22-40), click here.

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