Tag Archives: Gail O’Day

Seventh Sunday of Easter (May 24, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

God can be counted upon to “keep” the creatures of God’s creation. Dennis Ormseth reflects on Jesus’ Farewell Prayer.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 1:6-14
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
John 17:1-11

On this Sunday, the church takes note of Jesus’ ascension to the Father (actually celebrated on the previous Thursday) and recalls Jesus’ prayer for the church in view of the new mode of his presence as universal, that is, at the right hand of God. The significance of the Ascension is, as Gordon Lathrop writes, that . . .

“While the world sees Jesus as dead and gone—’withdrawn’ in that sense—the faith of the community sees Jesus as with God. Jesus’ meaning and presence therefore is universalized, is everywhere, as God is, and at the same time, God’s glory is accessible in Jesus. It is this which the community knows, not the calculations of times and seasons (Acts 1:7)” (Proclamation 6; Interpreting the lessons of the Church Years, Series A, Easter, p. 57).

As anticipated in our reading of the Farewell Discourse of the previous two Sundays of Easter, Jesus is now “at home” in “the Father’s house”—namely, in the whole of the creation!

The manner of Jesus’ “Farewell Prayer” suggests the same situation: Jesus looks to heaven and addresses his Father directly. The prayer itself clearly relates to the Farewell Discourse in a way that is similar to the connection between the Song of Moses (Deuteronomy 31:30 – 32:47) and Moses’ farewell speeches and is deeply grounded in the narrative of the Gospel. As Gail O’Day observes, the prayer echoes with “themes from all of Jesus preceding discourses. . . . The Jesus who speaks in this prayer is familiar to the Gospel reader as the incarnate Logos, the Son of God the Father” (see Gail O’Day, The Gospel of JohnThe New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 787, for a detailed list of verse-by-verse references to texts read during the Year A Easter Season). But it also bespeaks an intimate relationship between Father and Son that clearly anticipates the Ascension. Indeed, as Raymond Brown suggests,

“[t]he Jesus of the Last Discourse transcends time and space, for from heaven and beyond the grave he is already speaking to the disciples of all time. Nowhere is this more evident than in xvii where Jesus already assumes the role of heavenly intercessor that I John  ii 1 ascribes to him after the resurrection.”

Quoting C. H. Dodd, Brown concludes, “the prayer itself is the ascension of Jesus to the Father; it is truly the prayer of ‘the hour” (Brown, The Gospel According to John XIII-XXI, pp. 747).

In striking contrast with this heavenly, filial intimacy, however, is the provocative proclamation represented by the church’s reading of Psalm 68 this Sunday. The God whom the psalmist bids “rise up” so as to “scatter his enemies” presents a much more vigorous and earthly presence: “As smoke is driven away, so drive them away; as wax melts before the fire, let the wicked perish before God.” The joyful righteous “sing praises to . . . to him who rides upon the clouds.” The God whom the church relates to the ascension of Jesus is the God who is “father of orphans and protector of widows. . . in his holy habitation” and who “gives the desolate a home to live in.” This God “marched through the wilderness,” when “the earth quaked, [and] the heavens poured down rain.” With “rain in abundance,” he restored the heritage of the people “when it languished.” Like sheep led into green pastures, the people (“your flock”) “found a dwelling in it; in your goodness, O God, you provided for the needy” (68:1-10). This is the ancient god of the mountains who created and now saves Israel. As Warren Carter writes,

“The language attesting God’s cosmic reign and identity as divine warrior reflects early Canaanite religious claims. God’s identity as ‘the one who rides upon the clouds’ (68:4, 33) derives from Ugaritic descriptions of Ba’al, the storm and fertility god (68:8-9) who battles (68:17) and defeats the evil and deathly powers that would prevent such life (68:20) and who is enthroned king”  (“The Season of Easter,” in New Proclamation, Year A, 2002, p. 67).

And yet, this God is also familiar to us from the story of Jesus’ way through Galilee. Readers will recognize the God of Sinai, but also the God of Zion, who provides water not only in the wilderness, but also at the well of Jacob and in the pool of Siloam in the city of Jerusalem. This is the God whom Jesus made present on his way through the land to his confrontation with the false shepherds of his people. There is even a bit of wildness to this God, we would suggest, a wildness that Jesus would have encountered and indeed embraced in his sojourn in the wilderness. Just so, the ascended Jesus has good reason to be absolutely “at home” with him; this God has been with him all along the way.

Thus the Farewell Prayer of Jesus, so important for those whom he leaves behind—yes, ironically, it is the “left behind” for whom Jesus prays—is richly significant for the creation over which he now rises. There is another very striking aspect of this God with whom Jesus is now “at home.” This “rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens” is full of creative power:

Ascribe power to God,
whose majesty is over Israel;
and whose power is in the skies.
Awesome is God in his sanctuary,
the God of Israel;
he gives power and strength to his people.

Thus the reading of this psalm makes the connection so essential for care of creation. Jesus is the servant of Philippians 2 who did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself; now he is “highly exalted” so that, in the company of the creator God of Israel, at his name “every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth.” This is the Word who glorified the Father “on earth by finishing the work” that the Father gave him to do; the glory he had “from before the world existed” has now been restored (John 17:5). And in light of our reading of the Lenten and Easter lectionary, it is the servant of God whose work was to do his Father’s will in faithful obedience to the rule of the servant of creation, who now ascends to his Father and regains access to the Father’s creative power. Nevertheless, their mutually shared glory and equality means that the exalted Jesus will still do for the creation what God knows the creation needs, not what Jesus might have found from time to time more desirable and “wise” from a human point of view. The powers available to him as Son of God (remember the temptations in the wilderness?) will still be under the discipline of this rule of the Servant of creation.

We see an indication of that in the Farewell Prayer: with the reading of this prayer, we “overhear” Jesus’ conversation with the Father in which he asks that with the name (17:6) and the words (17:7) of the Father which Jesus has given to his disciples (later in the prayer he will add the glory (17:22) and the presence (17:23) of God as well) that the Father will protect or “keep” them in the world. As Warren Carter comments, in this prayer of Jesus, John identifies three “crucial but related affirmations about the church as an Easter people:” “Originating with God” and in God’s purposes, and “commissioned to mission in the present,” the church will be “kept by God in God’s future” (“The Season of Easter,” in New Proclamation, Year A, 2002, p. 72). The second reading reminds us that this is true even though they experience the “fiery ordeal” of opposition and harassment from that world. For “after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.” (1 Peter 4:12). The Father, it seems, like the Son, is also one who can be called upon, and counted upon, to “keep” the creatures of his creation. And together, they will do this forever.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sixth Sunday of Easter (May 17, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

Human beings grow into divine fellowship to participate in the relief of nature’s groaning. Dennis Ormseth reflects on living in relationship.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sixth Sunday of Easter, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Acts 17:22-31
Psalm 66:8-20
1 Peter 3:13-22
John 14:15-21

The reading of Jesus’ Farewell Discourse continues with this Sunday’s Gospel, with its concern for how his followers will live in his absence, in anticipation of the closing of the period of his Easter appearances and his Ascension. The passage extends the discussion of the relationship between the community of believers, Jesus, and his Father, relationships with which we were engaged by the reading of the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Easter. With promises to send the Paraclete and not ever to abandon them (“I will not leave you orphaned”), Jesus invites his followers to look forward to a future in which, by the agency of the Paraclete or “Spirit of Truth,” they will know that he is in his Father, they are in him, and he is in them (14:20). This mutual indwelling is a relationship characterized throughout by love. The relationship of Jesus and the community is one of love: “They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me.” They will be loved by the Father: “and those who love me will be loved by my Father.” And Jesus, loving them, will make himself known to them: “I will love them and reveal myself to them” (14:20-21). By virtue of this circular set of relationships, the believing community is to be caught up in the divine relationship of Father, Son and Spirit.

Thus is adumbrated the teaching that will be worked out in the course of the Christian community’s first four centuries as the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. It is interesting to note that all of the issues at stake in the development of this doctrine are at least implicit in the Farewell Discourse: the question of the unity of God or monotheism, which will be at issue in the church’s conflict with Judaism; the question of how best to define the relationship of the Father and the Son (Spirit or Logos?), which will shape the church’s relationship with pagan thought; the status and role of the Holy Spirit, key to linkage with the prophetic tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures; and the bond between redemption and creation that that church will be called on to defend against Marcion and other Gnostics (For this list, see Jaroslav Pelikan, The Emergence of the CatholicTradition (100-600), Vol.1 of The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, p. 172). The lectionary for the remaining Sundays of the festival season—including the Seventh Sunday of Easter (following the Ascension of our Lord), Day of Pentecost, and The Holy Trinity—will provide occasion to discuss the significance of each of these issues for care of creation. But it is the last of these issues that is still our leading concern here, as we explore the significance of Jesus’ teaching in the Farewell Discourse regarding his mutual indwelling between God and the community of faith with respect to the bond between redemption and creation.

From the readings of the previous two Sundays we have seen that the issue of location (in place or in situation) is a constant feature of the experience of redemption associated with Jesus’ resurrection. The Shepherd leads the sheep out into green pastures. Jesus goes to prepare dwelling places in the house of the Lord, which we take to mean the entirety of God’s creation. The readings for this Sunday further strengthen this theme. The psalmist, for instance, describes an experience of release from a period of testing as being “brought out to a spacious place” (Psalm 66:12b). More importantly, in his speech to the Athenians on the Areopagus, Paul sketches out the works of God in terms of space and time: “The Lord of heaven and earth . . . made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and . . . allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live.” It is God’s presence throughout this cosmos—“In him we live and move and have our being”—which guarantees that all nations will search for him “and perhaps grope for him and find him.” As “God’s offspring” (here Paul quotes a pagan philosopher, but perhaps has in mind the metaphor of “God’s children” that he uses in other contexts), we seem especially well-suited to this cosmic search, rather than attempting to locate God in the shrines and idols made by human hands that Paul observed through the city. With the resurrection, God calls all nations to accountability for righteousness before the one appointed as their judge (Acts 17:24-29).

The appointed Gospel might appear to ignore the cosmic, creational reach of these texts in favor of the intimate communion of the believing community, Jesus, and his Father. Within the fuller context of the Farewell Discourse, however, we see otherwise. Gail O’Day sums up her analysis of the complex relationships between the community of believers, Jesus, and the Father as follows: “When the disciples live in love, and thereby keep Jesus’ word, they experience the love of God, and it is through that love that they will also experience the indwelling of God and Jesus.” She goes on to note, significantly, that while, according to John 14:2-3, the “full communion” of the disciples “with God and Jesus” occurs “in the Father’s ‘dwelling place,’” John 14:23 indicates that “love of Jesus leads to the same end. To love Jesus is to live with God and Jesus—that is, to enter into relationship with them (cf. 15:9-10, 12), to come home” (Gail O’Day, The Gospel of JohnThe New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IX, p. 748). Since the appointed reading ends at v. 21, preachers following this commentary may want to add it to the liturgical reading.  It seems appropriate to us to add this additional insight: Those who do “come home,” are at home were the Father is, in “the Father’s house.” That is to say, they are at home in the fullness of God’s creation. Thus it is precisely the believing community’s communion with God and Jesus, generated through the love of Jesus, which brings them home in relationship to the creation. They are at home with God in God’s creation.

The significance of this insight is developed more fully in reference to contemporary evolutionary thought by Christopher Southgate in his discussion of “the human animal and its ‘selving’” in his Groaning of Creation:  God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil.  “Graced by the continual outpouring of divine love” in the course of human evolution, Southgate writes, the human animal enjoys “possibilities for a ‘yes’ to God that goes beyond mere selving—a usage Southgate adapts from Gerard Manley Hopkins, meaning the dynamic moment when a creature perfectly expresses its “identity, the pattern and particularity of its existence to their full potential,” i.e. “when it is perfectly itself, both in terms of the species to which it belongs and in its own individuality” (Southgate, pp.63-64).

The human animal’s “yes to God” is “based on a sharing of resources with the weak and the non-kin, on reproductive processes accompanied by self-giving love and sustained companionship, on a recognizing of all humans as one’s neighbor, and on sacrificial actions.” But as with all other creatures, humans never “selve” in any fulfilled way. The ambiguous character of the creation as evolutionary process makes that perfection impossible. “The character of created selves is typically not that of self-giving but of self-assertion, for that, in a Darwinian world, is the only way biological selves can survive and flourish” (ibid, p. 5). Evolutionary strategies “almost always involve the overproduction of offspring, and necessarily imply the existence of ‘frustrated’ organisms is a precondition of other organisms ‘growing toward fulfillment’ and ‘fulfilled.’” (ibid, pp. 64-5). Thus, in human consciousness, “old imperatives with regard to resources, reproduction, relatives, and reciprocity” develop “an addictive power:”

Consciousness seems to amplify the potential of humans for evil as well as good. Both our yes and our no to God take on formidable force; our no becomes ecologically the force to become a “plague species,” economically to perpetuate and exacerbate extremes of wealth and poverty, militarily and socially to ghettoize and ultimately to undertake genocide, religiously to crucify the Prince of Peace and Lord of Glory” (Ibid., p. 72).

Our cognitive and emotional resources combine with these biological imperatives to foster “greed, lust, rape, and exploitation of the weak, of the poor, or other species.”   Thus,

“[w]ith our emergent faculties comes a greater and greater need of God—a need not just to receive from God but to dwell within the life of the Trinity, to live within and from the patterns of the triune love. It is the Incarnation, finally, that opens up the being of God in a new way, offering us both the most profound of examples, and a new possibility of being at home within the life of a God who has taken human experience into Godself” (Ibid).

It isn’t that Jesus himself was “at home,” within either the life of God or the creation. On the contrary, Southgate observes, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke have Jesus confess that while “foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Matt.8:20; Luke 9:5). The Christian conviction is instead “that Jesus gives us the example of what it is to keep one’s orientation firmly and wholly on God, and to derive all one’s strength from that. . . The human being has no true home, but only a direction of journeying, into the heart of God in Godself.” What Jesus does to prepare for his disciples, we might say, he does also to prepare for himself. And as he said, “Where I am, there you may be also (14:3).

The model is Trinitarian and, indeed, is more than mere model. It is “not just that a human being fully alive has a quality of life that is like the quality of life that is within God, not just, in the famous saying of Irenaeus of Lyons, that the glory of God is a human being fully alive, but also that a human person living in free, loving, undistorted relationship with others has been drawn up into the life of the Trinity, and participates in that life” (Ibid., p. 73). But this is finally the human animal’s true “selving” as image of God or, more fully expressed, as image of the divine Trinity. As Southgate concludes, “On this model the imago Dei is the imago Trinitatis, the capacity to give love, in the power of the Spirit, to the radically other, and by that same Spirit to receive love from that other, selflessly. But we only grow into that image as we grow into God, as we learn to dwell within the triune love. We never possess the imago independently of that indwelling, that journeying toward God’s offer of ultimate love (Ibid., pp. 72-73). And thus there emerges within human beings that “possibility of a larger ‘yes’—of a sharing of resources with the weak and the non-kin, of reproductive processes accompanied by self-giving love and sustained companionship, of recognizing all humans as one’s neighbor, and of self-sacrificial actions. This possibility will be realized within the web of relationships in the creation, as humans’ grow into the life of divine fellowship and participation in the divine transformation of the biosphere, the relief of nature’s groaning” (Ibid, p. 115).

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Third Sunday of Lent (March 15, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

Real Water, Holy WaterDennis Ormseth reflects on the Samaritan woman finishing a story that began with Nicodemus.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the Third Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Exodus 17:1-7
Psalm 95
Romans 5:1-11
John 4:5-42

The conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman in this Sunday’s Gospel carries forward the concern about God’s presence in relationship to “water and the Spirit” from Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus last Sunday, with primary focus now on water in contrast to Spirit. Our first reading is, of course, a classic text concerning this relationship: At  Rephidim “there was no water for the people to drink.”  Recalling that there had been plenty of water in Egypt, both  for themselves and for their livestock, the people “tested the Lord, saying, ‘Is the Lord among us or not?”  So Moses “called the place Massah and Meribah,” “Test and Quarrel” (Exodus 17:1, 7). The Psalm appointed for this Sunday underscores this link: Hardened hearts doubt Yahweh’s presence in the creation, as the people did “on the day at Massah in the wilderness.” The faithful praise God: “In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, for he made it, and the dry land, which his hands have formed” (95;3-4, 8). Jesus’ conversation with the Samaritan woman touches on these things and their connections: water, mountains, life in the land, and God’s presence amongst the people. The conversation is accordingly rich in significance for understanding our relationship to God’s creation.

Transversing Samaria, Jesus stops at Jacob’s well, where in lively conversation with the Samaritan woman he cultivates a relationship that results in the rich harvest of followers from among her fellow Samaritans. The woman’s arrival at the well in the noon of the day suggests alienation from the other women of her village, who would normally visit the well earlier or later; was she being ostracized on account of her serial marriages? While his typically clueless disciples are away buying food, he offers to give her  “living water,” an expression that is deliciously ambiguous, meaning both “fresh, running water” and ‘life-giving water” (Gail O’Day, The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Nashville: Abingdon Press,1995, p. 566). It is, as Raymond Brown suggests, simply water that bears “the Spirit communicated by Jesus” (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, p. 179). After uncovering the truth about her life, Jesus discloses the truth about himself as well: “I am he,” he says, the one about whom, as she expects, ‘”when he comes, he will proclaim all things to us” (4:25-26). The evangelist has made his point: Not only does Jesus give water as a sign of God’s presence in the land, Jesus is himself that presence (the I AM) (4:26).

On the way to this point, however, their exchange rehearses the more traditional understandings of God’s presence in the land, beliefs that divide Jews and Samaritans. Her people worship God on nearby Mount Gerazim, his on Zion at Jerusalem. The issue is of very obvious importance to her. She was proud of her identity as a Samaritan, one who had access to the well of Jacob, her tribal ancestor. Indeed, the well was itself undoubtedly a significant part of what made her feel confident in worship of God on Mount Gerazim. What we today understand in hydrological terms, was for them primarily a religious reality. Mountain ecology is of crucial importance for local watersheds. The weather system of the mountain deposits water on its slopes, which flows downward in streams or alternatively seeps into the ground to the aquifer, from which it can be retrieved by wells such as Jacob’s. Thus the flourishing of the people who live within that watershed is seen to be dependent upon “the mountain,” or, as alternatively understood here, the God who is worshiped on that mountain. As our first reading so dramatically reminds us, an adequate supply of water is clearly reason to trust in God’s promises and to give God thanks.

Thus Jesus’ offer of living water, as contrasted with the cistern water in the well, quite naturally gives rise to her question about the validity of worshiping God on Mount Gerazim as opposed to Mount Zion.  If Jesus has such living water, on account of which she would never again thirst, her question implies, then perhaps that she too should worship God on Zion rather than on Gerazim. And while Jesus responds to her query with an assertion that salvation is indeed from the Jews—how could he deny it?—it is also clear that for him, God should be worshiped exclusively neither on Zion nor on Gerizim, but rather “in spirit and truth”—that is, in the presence of one who bears the Spirit and tells the truth, the one, that is, who gives the gift of “living water.”

It is striking how completely talk of water and rival mountains vanishes from the conversation at this point, once Jesus has been identified with the presence of God. The woman returns to the village, abandoning her water jar as she goes—she has no further need of it, as talk of water is finished and she will never thirst again. She has received the water that becomes “a spring of water gushing up to eternal life” (4:14). The disciples return with food, which Jesus declines to eat: He has other food, he tells them, which, contrary to the disciples’ astonished suspicion that he might have received the food from the woman (Jews and Samaritans would not share food),  “is to do the will of him who sent me and to complete his work” (4:34). And just so, he goes to his work: the woman’s witness to her neighbors back in the village reconciles them to her and prompts them to come see for themselves this person who has turned around her life. Together they invite him home to their village, where he “dwells” with them (a theme from the Prologue to John’s gospel) for two days, during which they also become convinced that he is indeed the “Savior of the world.” A new community that includes both Jews and Samaritans has been created, with Jesus at its center.

The use of the word “world” (cosmos) reminds us, however, that what is at stake in his “work” is greater than merely the relationship between Jews and Samaritans. By the conclusion of Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in last Sunday’s lesson, we saw that the power of the Spirit is sufficient to restore all creation (John 3:16)—the cosmos as we understand it today. While the meaning of “cosmos” is probably more circumscribed here, meaning primarily “the human world opposed to God’s will and purposes for the creation” (see our comment on last Sunday’s Gospel), we are nevertheless on the trajectory indicated by Paul in his letter to the Romans, of the “promise that rest[s] on grace and [is] guaranteed to all [Abraham’s] descendants, not only to the adherents of the law but also to those who share the faith of Abraham . . . in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Romans 4:16-17). The God present in Jesus is God the Creator who “so loved the cosmos” that he sent [Jesus], his only begotten Son.”

An important consideration relative to our concern for care of creation needs to be addressed here. Once Jesus is identified as the locus of God’s presence, the water-bearing mountains fade to background, and one might easily assume that the non-human creation represented by the mountain and its watershed is relegated to the diminished status as mere ‘background” or “stage” for the Christian narrative. This would appear to be the implication, for example, of a statement by Gail O’Day in her commentary on the text: “‘God is spirit’ (v. 24), not bound to any place or people, and those who worship God share in the spirit,” she writes; indeed, “Jesus’ presence in the world initiates this transformation of worship, because Jesus’ presence changes the moment of anticipation (“the hour is coming’) into the moment of inbreaking (‘and is now here’)” (O’Day,  p. 568). Jesus’ eschatological arrival, it would seem, negates the significance of any particular facet of the creation that might be used to locate his presence within it. We would argue, on the contrary, that the narrative instead relocates that presence within the creation in such a way as to bind it more fully and irrevocably, and indeed with cosmic scope, to the creation. This is the significance of Jesus gift of “living water.”

As we noted above, the “living water” that Jesus offers the Samaritan woman is water that bears “the Spirit communicated by Jesus.” Thus while it is “of the Spirit,” it is nonetheless also water. Water remains the touchstone of the query concerning the presence of God. And appropriately so: as the universally present and uniquely life-sustaining element on Earth, water is the most powerful carrier of that significance conceivable. Someone has suggested that our planet should be called “Water” not “Earth,” because 75% of the planet’s surface is water. Furthermore, all life, from the cellular level up, is mostly water in all its many transformations. Astronomical science is currently engaged in what is truly a cosmic search for the presence of water throughout the universe. So a shift from mountains to water as the definitive locus of the manifestation of God’s presence actually constitutes a grand expansion and enhancement of occasions for divine manifestation.  As it did for Jesus and the Samaritans, water is a reality that can be counted upon to bring people together as long into the future as humans are present on Earth. It is that essential to life. Larry Rasmussen has developed this truth in an almost liturgical chant: “no blue, no green, no green, no you.” Water will draw people into deep discussions of the contending value systems that govern its use. It may also be the issue which will in the end bring the world either to a whole new political arrangement for care of creation or draw the world into final and all-encompassing tragic confrontation. Hence with this shift there is no diminishment of the status of creation in relationship to God’s presence; none, that is, unless the integrity of water itself should become so compromised as to destroy its life-generating and life-sustaining properties.

How is it, then, with water? A host of creation-care issues are inevitably linked here: Protection of watershed habitat, preservation of fisheries, equal access of the rich and poor, of present and future generations, humankind and otherkind, to water; and, of course, of extreme importance, global climate change, with its associated threats of acidification of the oceans and desertification of the land. Some of these issues, Larry Rasmussen points out in a 2009 Nobel Conference lecture, are clearly problems for which we have solutions and lack only political will to address them. Others involve resolving conflicting claims such as human needs versus the needs of plants, urban versus rural requirements; diets; national security; private versus public ownership of resources. Deep differences of value complicate these questions, and the integrity of nature’s most complex systems is at stake. And finally, there is the problem of larger frameworks of meaning: Is water properly an object of merely economic calculation and manipulation? Or is it an object of awe, calling forth from us the deep respect and love that we owe to its Creator? (The Rasmussen lecture is available on the Lutherans Restoring Creation website; we have adopted many of his insights from notes taken, without being able to give precise citations).

Is the link between water and God, which seemed so important to both the wandering people in the wilderness and the woman from Samaria, and as we have urged here also for Jesus, a significant aspect of the discussion of these issues?  Normally it is not. In our age, access to water is primarily an engineering problem of command and control, not a theological one of divine presence. The engineers’ principle of “beneficial use” is an entirely secular calculation of economic utility, according to which human need trumps all other concerns. It was the command and control perspective that was operative also in the Roman Empire’s water management system, of course, as we see from the remains of the Roman aqueducts that supplied water to their cities from distant mountainous regions; it was an important aspect of their economic domination of the world, over against which Jesus pitched the righteous Kingdom of God, in which not only the needs of all peoples but of all creatures are to be taken into account, if we are right with respect to the comprehensive meaning we assign to “cosmos.”

Larry Rasmussen points out how much more compatible an alternative, ecologically sensitive water management policy is with a sense of the sacredness of water. Such a policy appreciates that the presence of water is essential for all life on Planet Earth, and is therefore profoundly respectful of water as sacred gift. As an essential part of God’s creation, water is to be served and protected. People of faith in Jesus as “savior of the world” will promote policies that maintain flow of water for the entire eco-system under human management. Indeed, water policy needs to become a major concern of Christian congregations for the future. What, we must ask, are the consequences of our present use of water for the poor, for future generations of people, and for all other-kind with whom we share the earth? Christians are initiated into life in God’s kingdom through baptism with water and Spirit. Our gratitude for this new life can be expressed in many ways, but none, perhaps, is so relevant as concern and care for the water that sustains life throughout the world God loves. Lutheran catechumens are often encouraged to take a cue from Martin Luther, who, it is told, upon rising for the day splashed water on his face, accompanied by the words baptismo sum, “I am baptized.” For Luther, it was a way to ward off the power of the devil and all his temptations. It remains so for us. We should do likewise, and we might well add, “and I thank God for water; may the Spirit help me to serve and keep it this day.” That might make a difference for our every use of water throughout that day, from the morning’s shower to the water running free in the basin as we brush our teeth, come nightfall. Meanwhile, every congregation should as part of its practice of baptism, give profoundest thanks for the inestimable grace of water.

Second Sunday of Lent (March 8, 2020) in Year A (Ormseth)

The Spirit is the Giver and Sustainer of Life, All of LifeDennis Ormseth reflects on the story of Nicodemus.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2014)

Readings for the Second Sunday in Lent, Year A (2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Genesis 12:1-4a
Psalm 121
Romans 4:1-5, 13-17
John 3:1-17

Our first reading for the Second Sunday in Lent reminds us that Jesus’ Lenten journey goes through the land and amongst the people that God promised to Abraham and Sarah. God called Abram out of his own country, family, and house with a promise to provide not only progeny and new land, but also such notable flourishing in that land as to be a blessing both for his own family and for “all the families of the earth.” That was a long time ago, but God’s promises had not been forgotten.  Indeed, the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus was in a sense about just how well those promises were in their time being fulfilled. The crucial element in the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham was God’s accompaniment: God would show them the land, God would make them a great nation, God would bless them and make their name great. Nicodemus came to see Jesus, as he said, because “no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God” (John 3:2a). 

That Nicodemus came to Jesus “by night,” out of darkness, as it were, is also significant. As Gail O’Day observes, the time of the encounter provides an important clue to the significance of this story: “Night is used metaphorically in the Fourth Gospel to represent separation from the presence of God,” a significance confirmed at the conclusion of the encounter (in verses not included in the reading), when through the mouth of Jesus the evangelist pronounces the judgment, “that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.” Those who do evil avoid the light so as to escape exposure, he says, while those who “do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God” (3:19-21) (The Gospel of John, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, Nashville: Abingdon Press,1995, p.548). Nicodemus, it would seem, in some way represents those who live in darkness. We don’t know his individual circumstances, of course, but everyone who read this story in the time of John would certainly be aware that for some time not all had been well in the land promised to Abraham. There was much darkness there; Jerusalem had been destroyed by the Roman legions in 70 CE and the intra-Jewish struggles that followed meant continued turmoil and suffering for the people. Under such circumstances, neither land nor people could flourish, nor were they in any obvious sense a blessing to other families of the earth.

Nicodemus had in any case good reason to come to Jesus. If the most recent action of Jesus was an ominously provocative cleansing of the temple in Jerusalem, word of his participation in the wedding at Cana and other wonderful actions would have awakened widespread speculation as to whether he was the one come from God to restore Israel. Here is one who can help the land and the people to flourish! Nicodemus very obviously wants badly to know by what means Jesus was doing these things (3:2a). And thus the conversation takes place, a far-ranging conversation that continues today concerning the nature, means, and goal of Jesus’ mission.

“Very truly, I tell you,” Jesus answers Nicodemus query, “no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.”  Jesus’ response is deeply ambiguous: Has Nicodemus seen the Kingdom, or at least signs of the Kingdom, in Jesus action? Is he somehow in the process of being “born from above”? Nicodemus is confused, he doesn’t really understand what Jesus is getting at; it may easily escape us a well. What actually might one expect to see, beholding the Kingdom of God? Particularly in our North American context, exegete Gail O’Day points out, his response easily leads to the conclusion that his question concerns merely individual salvation. O’Day rightly cautions against reducing this dynamic narrative to such a simple essence: as if Nicodemus the reader needs “to let go of what he knows (3:2a) in order to be reborn through what Jesus has to offer (3:3, 5-8)” (O’Day, p.549).

How the reader interprets this exchange will strongly determine the scope of what we can expect to draw from these readings in encouragement for the church to engage in care of creation. What Joseph Sittler said in his address to the World Council of Churches in 1962 remains relevant: “A doctrine of redemption is meaningful only when it swings within the larger orbit of a doctrine of creation.” With every deepening phase of the ecological crisis, it becomes clearer that, as Sittler again puts it,

“Christ cannot be a light that lighteth every man [sic] coming into the world, if he is not also the light that falls upon the world into which every man comes. He enlightens this darkling world because the world was made through him. He can be the light of men [sic] because men subsist in him. He can be interpretive power because he is the power of the Word in creation” (Sittler, “Called to Unity,” in Evocations of Grace, Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Erdmann’s Publishing Co., 2000, p. 41).

The readings invite us to hope for the most expansive redemption possible in view of John’s statement in 3:16 that “God so loved the cosmos. . .’  While scholars caution us that John commonly uses the word “cosmos” to refer only to the world of humanity, and then even principally with respect to its opposition to God’s purposes under the leadership of Satan  (See Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John I-XII, New York: Doubleday, 1996, pp. 508-09; cf. O’Day, pp. 552-53), the more comprehensive reading is seen to be ultimately valid when the full implications of the exchange are drawn out.

Jesus, we would add to Sittler’s Johannine anthem, can bring about the healing of all creation because he is the bearer of the Holy Spirit. We observed in our comment on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, that Jesus was led into the wilderness by the Holy Spirit. Now in this first encounter on this Lenten journey to Jerusalem, the Spirit is once again in play. When Nicodemus appears puzzled by the notion of a new birth, Jesus persists: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (3:5). The combination of water and Spirit bears baptismal significance, of course. But more deeply, it reminds us that so it was in the beginning, when “the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2). Thus Jesus also reminds Nicodemus: “the wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (John 3:7). Throughout his life, Jesus is the “messianic bearer of the Spirit of God,” in theologian Elizabeth Johnson’s phrase. She elaborates:

“The preaching and healing characteristic of his days are done in the power of the Spirit. He remains faithful in the Spirit throughout the suffering of a terrible death on the cross. Through the vivifying power of the Spirit this crucified victim of state terror is raised from the dead into glory, an act of new creation that defines the very essence of the God in whom Christians believe: a God ‘who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist’” (Rom 4:17) (Elizabeth Johnson, She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse, New York: Crossroad publishing Co, 1996, p. 140).

The verse cited is from this Sunday’s second lesson. It makes a vital connection between the Spirit, Jesus, and the new creation of God. We will have opportunity to consider the narrative elements listed here on the remaining Sundays in the Season of Lent and in Holy Week to come. Here our attention is drawn more broadly to the recurring presence of the Spirit in our Lenten journey with Jesus.

“How can these things be?” asks Nicodemus, and so might we ask, given the lamentably meager sense for the reality of the Holy Spirit that characterizes much of the contemporary church. Johnson argues convincingly that the dominant characterization of the Spirit in the Christian theological tradition is as a presence that is “personally amorphous, being ethereal and vacant in what it evokes, thus lacking interest and force.” Why is this so? To begin with, theological articulation of the reality of the Spirit consistently lagged behind development of the doctrines of the Father and the Son,” she insists. Then “[p]rotestant theology and piety traditionally privatized the range of the Spirit’s activity, focusing on the justifying and sanctifying work of the Spirit in the life of the individual believer and emphasizing the Spirit’s gift of personal certitude.” Official Catholic theology has on the other hand traditionally institutionalized the Spirit’s presence.

Development of the doctrine of the Holy Spirit has thus concentrated on “divine immanence among human beings to the practical neglect of God’s presence in the cosmic world, and within that human world to focus on the relation of the individual to God to the neglect of human community and its often debilitating structures.” And then the very notion of spirit tends “to play into the intractable dualism of Western thought, which dichotomizes body and spirit, matter and spirit, flesh and spirit.” The cumulative effect of this history is neglect of . . .

“nothing less than the mystery of God’s personal engagement with the world in its history of love and disaster; nothing less than God’s empowering presence dialectically active within the world in the beginning, throughout history and to the end, calling forth the praxis of life and freedom. Forgetting the Spirit is not ignoring a faceless, shadowy third hypostasis but the mystery of God closer to us than we are to ourselves, drawing near and passing by in quickening, liberating compassion” (Johnson, p. 131).

Nicodemus’ wonderment is thus squarely addressed by Johnson’s very much more robust view:

“So universal in scope is the compassionate, liberating power of Spirit, so broad the outreach of what Scripture calls the finger of God and early Christian theologians call the hand of God, that there is no nook or cranny of reality potentially untouched. The Spirit’s presence through the praxis of freedom is mediated amid profound ambiguity, often apprehended more in darkness than in light. It is thwarted and violated by human antagonism and systems of collective evil. Still, ‘Everywhere that life breaks forth and comes into being, everywhere that new life as it were seethes and bubbles, and even, in the form of hope, everywhere that life is violently devastated, throttled, gagged and slain—wherever true life exists, there the Spirit of God is at work'” (Johnson, p. 127. She quotes Walter Kasper, God of Jesus Christ, p. 20.).”  

Drawing on the full resources of the Hebrew Bible and the Christian tradition, Johnson describes the action of the Spirit as “the gracious, furious mystery of God engaged in a dialectic of presence and absence throughout the world, creating, indwelling, sustaining, resisting, recreating, challenging, guiding, liberating, completing.” The Spirit is the vivifier: the “whole universe comes into being and remains in being though divine creative power, Creator Spiritus” (Johnson, p. 127).

The significance of Johnson’s view of the Spirit for the church’s care of creation is thus rendered manifestly clear: “This creative function relates the Spirit to the cosmos as well as to the human world, to communities as well as individuals, to new productions of the mind and spirit as well as to new biological life.” The energy of the Spirit renews and empowers all creatures: “She initiates novelty, instigates change, transforms what is dead into new stretches of life.” This happens whenever the earth is renewed: “Striking symbols of the greening power of the Spirit occur visibly in spring with the blossoming of the earth, and in autumn with the fruitfulness of earth being harvested. Even more crucially her renewing power is made manifest in the overcoming of rapacious human habits that extinguish other living species, devise instruments of universal death, and foul the human habitat of fresh air, soil, and water itself.”  In our time of ecological crisis, Johnson concludes, the Spirit is especially active in the “responsible care for the network of earth’s life and its systems” that “aligns human beings in cooperative accord with the renewing dynamism of God’s Spirit, an alignment essential for the very future of the earth, and is in truth a major critical gestalt in which the renewing power of the Spirit becomes historically present for the earth” (Johnson, pp. 133-39).

This view holds incredible promise for the restoration and renewal of creation. But do we actually see it taking place in our midst? Where, specifically, do we see it occurring in the community that gathers in the name of Jesus? Does the narrowly privatized, institutionalized understanding of the Spirit so limit our openness to the reality described by Johnson, so that we for all practical purposes “miss” God’s presence and therefore cannot participate therein, much less amplify it for the benefit of the cosmos? It is no doubt telling that the powerful spiritualization of faith in particular Christian traditions seems to contribute little to the concern for creation. The dichotomization of material and spiritual reality referred to by Johnson  is closely linked to the temporal separation between now and then in popular eschatology.  In this respect, it is important to emphasize that salvation defined as “eternal life” (John 3:16) does not mean in the first instance “life after death,” but rather, as O’ Day writes, “life as lived in the unending presence of God. To have eternal life is to be given life as a child of God” in the present (O’ Day, p. 552). As such, the gift of eternal life involves the relationship between the believer and, in Sittler’s phrase,  “the world into which every man [sic] comes.” The pattern of the relationship of God to the world through the believer’s faith, it should be noted, conforms to the pattern already present in God’s blessing of Abraham and Sarah: The blessing involves not only them, but their future progeny and the land that God promises them, and, especially important, “all the families of the earth” who will be blessed in them (Genesis 12:3). And, we might add, to include otherkind with human families in that promise would not seem unwarranted if God’s love were indeed for the cosmos!

But what then, precisely, is the connection between the faith that brings eternal life, or alternately, the presence of God, to the believer, and the salvation of not just that individual believer, or even of the whole believing community, but of the whole creation? How indeed can it be that human faith becomes the agency, the conduit, the means of the divine love for the cosmos? What could it possibly mean that, as Paul wrote to the congregation at Rome, the fulfillment of the promises made to Abraham for the flourishing of God’s people and all the families of the earth, should depend on faith, “in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all?”

This answer will seem counter-intuitive to many Christian believers, but it is that life itself, earthly life, is that connection.  Larry Rasmussen points to this reality in writing about “earth-honoring faith” in his recent work by that title:

“Life is a gift and a sacred trust. We did not create it, not a single blade of grass, nor do we earn it. It bears its own power and energy that courses through the cosmos and nature as we know it. It is a power by which life created the conditions conducive to its own continuation, a rooted confidence that life has what it takes to press on in the face of assault and uncertainty. Robert Pogue Harrison writes that life ‘is an excess, call it the self-ecstasy of matter.’ It engages in a kind of ‘self-exceeding’ that creates new life, or more life, or different life. Some ‘mysterious law of surplus’ makes of animate matter ‘the overflow of its elemental constituency.’ Life exists ‘where giving exceeds taking.’ But life itself does not cease” (Earth-Honoring Faith:  Religious Ethics in a New Key, New York; Oxford University Press, 2013, p.105).

Not only Christian faith but “most religions” affirm this power, Rasmussen observes, and . . .

“identify it with the presence and power of the Spirit and claim it as God’s own. In one way or another, religions hold the conviction that the finite bears the infinite, the material bears the divine, and the transcendent is as close at hand as the neighbor, soil, air, and sunshine. So, too, they identify the Spirit with new or renewed life and the power to bring creatures to their fulfillment. A zest for life, an energy for life, is tapped in life itself, amid Earth and its distress. Nature’s resilience, the generativity of Earth and the biblical ‘teeming’ of the waters, all point to this triumph of life over death again and again, a parallel to the narrow edge that matters seem to have over antimatter in the universe” (Rasmussen, p. 105).

Thus in this Lenten season which began with the imposition of ashes and the reminder that “from dust thou’ art and to dust you shall return, followed by the confrontation between Jesus as agent of the dominion of life over against Satan as the agent of the dominion of death, we are invited to turn and be reconciled to nothing more, and nothing less, than the Earth. “The faith we seek,” as Rasmussen so pregnantly puts it, “is one in which fidelity to God is lived as fidelity to the Earth” (Rasmussen, p. 110).

The Fifth Sunday in Lent in Year C (Ormseth)

Eco-Justice Commentary on the Common Lectionary

The Season of Lent in Year C (2016, 2019, 2022)

By Dennis Ormseth

The Fifth Sunday of Lent in Year C

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126
Philippians 3:4b-14
John 12:1-8

The significance of the encounter at the home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus in Bethany in the reading from the Gospel of John appointed for this last Sunday the season of Lent, is illumined by interpreting it against the background of the Lukan parable of the Man Had Two Sons from the previous Sunday. This story incorporates several themes from that parable: a meal is held to celebrate the return of a brother who was dead but lives again, as did the feast in the parable. The fragrant smell of expensive perfume envelops the participants in an experience of love and adoration, similar to the way the sound of music signaled joy over a lost son returned home. But here, too, the mood of celebration is broken by a divisive figure who might have been expected to join in, only in this instance Judas is actually already part of the circle at the table. The father rebuked the elder son in the name of the love he had for both his sons equally, seeking thereby to restore the unity of the family: so also Jesus here rebukes Judas in favor of Mary’s action, which reveals what binds the group together, their great love for Jesus present in their midst. As with the elder brother, we are let in on the reasons for the division by the agent of dissension himself:  the brother revealed his resentment at what he thought was loss of place, while John has Judas indiscreetly disclose his greed and the implied loss of opportunity for theft of the group’s funds. In each case, there is a tie to the opponents of Jesus: the literary device of the parable linked the elder brother to the scribes and Pharisees; so now the mention of Judas’ coming betrayal links him to the chief priests and Pharisees who have just met to plan the death of Jesus. Prompted by the excitement of the crowds over Jesus’ raising of Lazarus, they are determined to put Jesus and Lazarus to death, in order to quiet any civil unrest during the feast of Passover, which could provoke violent action by the Roman garrison (John 11:47-50).

Thus the narrative of this meal recapitulates crucial elements from the readings for Lent which drive the story of Jesus toward his cross: by eating with “tax collectors and sinners,” Jesus has drawn to himself participants in the new kingdom of God whom his opponents castigate dualistically as “sinners.” His teaching in parables has opened up the hidden anger and resentment that lie beneath the surface of their rejection. What was parabolic fiction suddenly becomes reality: the encounter of Jesus, Mary, and Judas at this meal builds on these motifs to anticipate Judas’ betrayal as part of the conspiracy of the high priest and the Pharisees. Thus the narrative strikingly exemplifies the development of what Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes as  “altruistic violence,” the product of religiously sanctioned dualism (characterization of Jesus’ companions as “sinners”), linked to a sense of victimhood (Jesus is endangering the peace on which their ruling position is based), which provides the rationale for acting against a scapegoat whose death can forestall open conflict in society (“it is better for you to have one man die for the people than to have the whole nation destroyed,” 11:50).

The exchange between Jesus and Judas accordingly thrusts this plot of “altruistic violence” into the inner circle of Jesus’ company. John suggests that Judas’ motivation for participating in this scheme is the fact that he was a greedy thief. However, the obscurity of his motivation elsewhere in the passion narratives has prompted scholars to suggest that he was led by the desire to provoke Jesus into action that would triumph over his enemies. As Raymond Brown summarizes these views, Judas has “grown impatient with Jesus’ failure to inaugurate the kingdom, an impatience born from zeal (those who think Judas was an ardent nationalist) or from ambition (those who note the sequence in Luke 22:21-24 where the woe against the betrayer is followed by a dispute as to which of the disciples is the greatest). In either case, Judas can be seen to be “the instrument of Satan, the main agent in giving Jesus over” (John 13:2, 13:27, and Luke 22:2). We recall that beginning with the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness, Satan’s interest with Jesus has been to engage him in actions of domination over nature and nations that test God (Raymond E. Brown’s, “What Was Judas’ Motive for Giving Over Jesus?” in his The Death of the Messiah:  From Gethsemane to the Grave:  A Commentary on the Passion Narratives in the Four Gospels, Volume Two. New York: Doubleday, 1944, pp.1401-1404; see also our comment in this series on the readings for the First Sunday of Lent).

But if the meal in Bethany thus foreshadows the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, it also anticipates Jesus’ action in the narrative of his passion to foster unity among his followers. Again there is precedent in the Lenten narratives: the shepherd and the woman searching for their lost possessions, the mother hen who would shelter her chicks under her wings, the infertile fig tree that responds to gracious feeding, the son who “remembers mama”(or at least the nourishment he enjoyed at home), and the father who comes out to greet not only the younger son but the elder one as well. As this collection of images includes diverse representatives of the creation in the proclamation of God’s will for all creation to be included in the loving embrace of their creator, it is undoubtedly significant, as Gail O’Day argues, that witness to this message is given here to the woman Mary. Her strikingly womanly act of anointing Jesus feet and drying them with her hair, as O’Day points out, foreshadows two important aspects of the coming passion narrative, namely, Jesus washing of his disciples’ feet at the last supper and Jesus’ burial (Gail O’Day, The New Interpreter’s Bible, Volume IX, The Gospel of John. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995, pp. 702).

The latter of these, the anticipation of Jesus’ burial, has captured primary attention from John’s interpreters, as the example of Raymond Brown demonstrates: “The theological import of the anointing in both John and Mark,” Brown notes, “is directed toward the burial of Jesus (John xii 7; Mark xiv 8), and there is no evidence that the story was ever narrated in Christian circles without such a reference.” Like Judas’s anticipated betrayal, her action, too, follows in the wake of the Sanhedrin’s decision to put Jesus to death. As Brown comments, “The session of the Sanhedrin is the supreme expression of refusal to believe; the anointing by Mary is a culminating expression of loving faith. In each there is an unconscious prophecy of Jesus’ death (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (I-XII).  New York: Doubleday, 1966, p. 454). So the contrast between Judas and Mary is telling: while Judas may have thought his participation in the Sanhedrin’s scheme might only have resulted in Jesus’ arrest and trial before the Jewish authorities, Mary is prescient in her knowledge that the anger and resentment of Jesus’ opponents will necessarily be visited by Roman authorities upon his body. She no doubt sees what Ta-nehisi Coates in his letter to his son laments as truth gained from long experience of racial oppression, that “all empires of humans” are “built on the destruction of the body” (Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015, p. 143; see our introduction to this series of comments on the Lenten lectionary). As O’Day puts it, “Mary’s actions model the life of love that should characterize Jesus’ sheep.” Judas’ “self-centered disdain,” on the other hand, leads to the destruction of the flock. Judas is caught up in the all-too-human impulse to dominate one’s enemies; Mary exemplifies what it is to be a servant in the beloved community, respondent to God’s love.

So with the narrative for this Sunday, we are brought into a very dark moment. Or at least it would seem that way, if God were not “about to do a new thing,” as the prophet Isaiah reminds us in our first reading. “Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” (Isaiah 43:19). What is the new thing God is doing? The death of a prophet is not a new thing. Nor, to update the narrative, is the sacrifice of a scapegoat. The latter is the all too common eventuality that occurs when, as Jonathan Sacks observes, conflicting powers need to ease conflict in society, and a third party is available who can creditably be seen to be powerful enough to cause trouble, but is not actually powerful enough to resist the action against him (Jonathan Sacks, Not in God’s Name: Confronting Religious Violence, New York: Schocken Books, 2015,Sacks, p. 76). Jesus clearly fits this requirement for the action of the Jewish and Roman authorities acting together, but not uniquely so. He will die in a crucifixion suffered by many others for the same purposes of imperial intimidation and domination.

The new thing God is doing actually counteracts that way of domination. It is foreshadowed in this Gospel text, of course, first of all by the presence of Lazarus, raised from the dead. But the new thing God is doing is also anticipated in Mary’s action of washing Jesus feet, As O’Day reflects, in the last supper “Jesus will wash his disciples’ feet as an expression of his love for them (13:1-20), as a way of drawing them into his life with God (13:8). He will also ask them to repeat this act of service for one another (13:14-15).”  But what Jesus will do for his disciples and will ask them to do for one another, Mary has already done for him in 12:3. In Mary, then, the reader is given a picture of the fullness of the life of discipleship. Her act shows forth the love that will be the hallmark of discipleship in John and the recognition of Jesus’ identity that is the decisive mark of Christian life (O’Day, p. 703).

Mary’s action, in O’Day’s view, is an “eschatological announcement of the promise of discipleship” that is companion to Jesus’ “eschatological announcement of the fullness of God available in Jesus and the fullness of life,” represented by Jesus’ raising of Lazarus. Thus the meal reveals the way in which the mission of Jesus leads to refusal of a relationship of domination between people.

It is this new thing, furthermore, that the Apostle Paul celebrates in our second reading for this day, in the wake of what he counts as the “loss” of the “righteousness” he possessed as a Pharisee and persecutor of the church. That loss has been replaced by his knowledge of “Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead” (Philippians 3:10-11). Paul, so to speak, is as an elder brother in the narrative of Israel’s sibling rivalry, who has put himself in the place of the younger son and so joined now in the Father’s welcome.  “Forgetting what lies behind, and straining forward to what lies ahead” (Philippians 3:13), he moves to overcome the dualism of Jewish righteousness and others’ unrighteousness that divides God’s people.

If the overcoming of the way of domination between peoples and nations makes up a good portion of the new thing God is doing, our first reading identifies one thing more: the new thing God is doing, on account of which the people of Israel in exile are also to forget the “former things” when God made a way through the sea and made “the chariot and horse” to fall down, “extinguished, quenched like a wick,” is a new time when God

will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.

The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches;

for I give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert,

to give drink to my chosen people,

the people whom I formed for myself so that they might declare my praise (Isaiah 43:18-21).

The God who “blots out your transgressions” for God’s own sake, the prophet continues, and who “will not remember your sins,” will

pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground;

I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,

and my blessing on your offspring.

They shall spring up like a green tamarisk,

like willows by flowing streams (44:3-4).

The God who overcomes the way of intimidation and domination between persons and peoples, is the same God who will restore the land so that the people may flourish, even as they are on their way home! Like the father who comes out to greet his two sons, this God comes out to renew the creation with a flood in the desert!  Nature, no less than neighbor, is the beneficiary of God’s new action of love! Then it shall be as the psalm for this Sunday suggests it should, that God will restore all earth’s fortunes “like the watercourses in the Negeb” at the end of winter: “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy. Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves” (126:4-6).

How can this be?  How can the death and resurrection of Jesus offer so complete a restoration of creation as God would wish to have it become? How is the narrative of the man who was a scapegoat for national and imperial authorities, acting together to silence their opposition, transformed into a narrative of hope for the reconciliation and renewal of all things?  As the light of day lengthens and the Season of Lent opens up to the Festival of Easter, answer to these questions will be provided in the readings for Passion Sunday.

Suggested hymn of the day: 808 Lord Jesus, You Shall Be my Song

Prayer petition: O God, source and goal of all creation, in Jesus’ company we enjoy hope for the restoration of all of life—our lives, the lives of our neighbors, and the life of your world. Help us to follow in Mary’s way of service; strengthen us in courage to stand firm against the powers that make us fearful. Lord in your mercy . . .