Tag Archives: John Dominic Crossan

Preaching on Creation: Third Sunday of Easter (April 18) in Year B (Ormseth18)

Earth Itself Arose Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Spirit of creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Third Sunday of Easter, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 3:12-19
Psalm 4
1 John 3:1-7
Luke 24:36b-48

The themes we have identified in our comments on the readings for the first two Sundays of Easter, in establishing that Jesus’ resurrection represents the “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by and simultaneously with Christ . . .on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world”—in the words of John Dominic and Sarah Sexton Crossan, are present also in the texts for this Third Sunday.

First, Jesus’ resurrection is for all humanity. As Peter preaches to the people in the Portico of Solomon, Jesus, who has in the context of this narrative already ascended to heaven, must remain there “until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets,” in particular “the covenant that God gave to your ancestors, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your descendants all the families of the earth shall be blessed’” (Acts 3:20-25 our emphasis; these verses should be added to the reading in order to provide a basis for the point being made here). And in the Gospel reading, it is Jesus himself who tells the disciples that “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his [the Messiah’s] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (24:47. Our emphasis).

Secondly, Jesus’ appearance confirms the continuity between the crucified Jesus and the resurrected Christ: “Look at my hands and feet. I am myself! Touch and see,” he instructs his disciples, “a spirit doesn’t have flesh and bones the way you see I have them!” This “risen Lord is the same person whom they knew before,” as Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, one who shares with them a common humanity. On that identity hangs his reassurance of “peace,” a greeting that carries special resonance due to Luke’s portrayal of Jesus “as the prophet whose visitation of the people is a proclamation of peace” (The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1991, p. 400). Again, as the Crossans pointed out, crucifixion as the mode of his death points to the non-violent character of his mission generally.

Which brings us to a third theme, namely, that the community reconstituted by Jesus’ resurrection appearances is not merely a spiritual community. The “flesh and bones” of their common humanity needs to be fed, Jesus’ flesh and bones no less than the disciples’: “‘Have you anything here to eat?’ he asks, and “they gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate in their presence.” The community remains tied to the earth by its resurrection meal, subject to the provisioning relationships it provides. In Norman Wirzba’s view, this material, gustatory bond continues even when Jesus is “in heaven,” if we understand with Wirzba that what constitutes heaven as a place “is not its location but the quality of relationships that happen there” (Food & Faith: A Theology of Eating, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011, p. 213-14). Christians turn to Christ to picture heaven, Wirzba suggests, because his

“. . . ministry, death, and resurrection are the definitive expression of life in its fullness and truth. In his life we discover what it means to live into the memberships of our life together so that these memberships are places of healing, nurture, and hope. In the flesh of Jesus, heaven and earth meet. In the action of his body we begin to see what God’s kingdom looks like, and thus also what God’s desire for all creation is. In the resurrection of his body all the powers that would threaten or degrade life are revealed and defeated, and all the possibilities of embodiment are realized” (Wirzba, pp. 215-16).

And as we saw in the first lesson for the Second Sunday of Easter, the distinctive attitude towards property envisioned there represents a transformed relationship to creation. It represents a vision of the world, working as it should. As M. Douglas Meeks writes, this new economy is securely grounded in creation faith, as contrasted with the modern economy of capitalist society: “For the household of God the tendency of property to create domination is to be overcome in oikic [household] relationships of mutual self-giving, in which possessions are used for the realization of God’s will in the community” (M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, P. 113).

Combined, the three themes constitute a vision of what we might describe in terms of an enduring, global peace: a universal community characterized by non-violent, domination-free relationships between all its members, both human and nonhuman. The vision is consonant with the Crossans’ description of the resurrection as leading to the “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by and simultaneously with Christ . . . on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.” How is this vision to be made reality? It is the strong message of these texts that it is to be brought about by the presence of the crucified and resurrected Jesus in the midst of the human community. As exemplified in the account of the healing of the beggar in the Portico of Solomon, the eschatological presence of the God of creation is relocated by Jesus’ appearances from the Temple to the community of disciples (Acts 3:1-11). That healing presence is now with the disciples: “The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, the God of our ancestors has glorified his servant Jesus” (Acts 3: 13). As Peter said in his Portico sermon, he is “the Author of life,” who was killed by his people, but “whom God raised from the dead” (Acts 3:15). The power of his community of followers will be “power from on high.” As Luke Timothy Johnson explains, the phrase “refers to the Holy Spirit, as Luke’s use in 4:14 and in the sequel, Acts 1:88, makes clear.” This promise of the power from on high at the end of the narrative matches that of the annunciation scene at the opening of the Gospel (Johnson, p. 403). It is

“. . . the final statement of Jesus in the Gospel, and is followed immediately by this first account of his ascension. For Luke, these are two moments of the same process: the “withdrawal” of Jesus is not so much an absence as it is a presence in a new and more powerful mode: when Jesus is not among them as another specific body, he is accessible to all as life giving Spirit.”

Mindful of the prophetic imagery associated with “Moses and Elijah which Luke uses so consistently and flexibly,” Johnson notes, as “their Spirit was transmitted to their successors at their departure,” so also now

“. . . the imagery of “being clothed from on high” is particularly fitting. Jesus’ followers will receive a double share of the Spirit, and the mantle of his prophecy; they will work signs and wonders in his name and declare openly what they had once held in silence (9:36).

Jesus instructs them as to how, guided by the Spirit, they are to interpret not only his words but also the Law, Prophets and Writings, with his suffering and resurrection of which they are witnesses as the key to understanding” (Luke Timothy Johnson, pp. 405-06).

Will the presence of Jesus’ Spirit suffice to make the vision reality? Yahweh, Jesus, Spirit: the church would in the course of five centuries develop an understanding of the relationships of these various representations of this presence and their functions in church and world, culminating in the formulations of the fourth-century Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. Recent philosophical criticism has brought into question the value of this understanding of the presence and power of God. As Mark Wallace describes the presuppositions of postmodern culture, for example, deconstructive philosophy poses “a disturbing challenge to “traditional religious belief by virtue of its sustained argument against a transcendental sign,” with particular attention to the doctrine of the Holy Spirit.

The argument against the metaphysical reality of Spirit covers several aspects: First, there is no longer considered to be a “secure noumenal ‘self’ that grounds existence.” Secondly, the “minds’s eye” of the “agent intellect”, itself a “participation in the Active Intellect of God” is reduced “to a philosophical invention and not the common underlying substrate that makes experience possible.” Thirdly, “there is no single metanarrative to which all human and unhuman beings must conform.” Fourthly, “anthropocentrism is found wanting.” And finally, “belief in God and world as warrant and locale for human growth and preservation is contradicted by suffering irreducible to any theological system of justification” (Mark I. Wallace, Fragments of the Spirit: Nature, Violence, and the Renewal of Creation. Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Trinity Press International, 2002, p. 3. These theses are summations of his discussion, pp. 20-34) These postmodern presuppositions thus appear to evacuate the meaning of “Spirit” as it has been traditionally understood, and, if valid, constitute a serious challenge to the hope expressed in the understanding of the resurrection we have been developing here.

On the other hand, in Wallace’s view this deconstruction has opened up space for an alternative understanding of the work of the Spirit in terms of a “transgressive freedom . . . to promote healing and renewal in a violent world,” albeit “without the security of the normative ideas about self, mind, history, nature, and God that have characterized Western Christian culture.” Selfhood might rather be conceived as a “task to be performed with the aid of the Spirit, not a fait accompli that awaits passive reception by the subject.” Without “the mind’s eye” to fix things in experience, the “other” can no longer be reduced to the gaze of the “same.” Thus “the Spirit can freely enable transformative encounters that preserve each subject’s alterity and integrity.” Amidst a plurality of narratives, the “Spirit can be recovered as an advocate for the particular and the different, and as a defender of persons who resist the tyranny of hegemonistic plot line and coercive forms of social organization.” Absent an all-dominating anthropocentrism, the Spirit can be reimagined as a healing life-force in the mending of the breach between humankind and nature, body and soul, and man and woman.” And finally, absent a defined theodicy, a “refiguring of the Spirt as the divine agon who struggles alongside the marginalized and oppressed may be possible as a performative response to the problem of fundamental evil” (Wallace, p. 34. These proposals summarize Wallace’s argument in Chapters 2-4 of his book).

In this perspective, Wallace points out, “three characteristics of the Spirit’s work in the world come to the fore” in interpretation of biblical texts: first, “in the Gospels the Spirit is portrayed as the divine agent of political and cultural subversion, who inverts the normal power relations within society. The heart of the Spirit’s mission is the scandal of inclusivity, which challenged the fundamental social structures that defined persons and groups in the first century C.E.” The healing of the beggar in Acts 3 is an example of these stories, in which the Spirit “is an agent of moral subterfuge who works to dismantle the structures that keep oppressed persons under the heel of corrupt hierarchies.” “The Spirit actualizes in persons a willingness to enter the fray of history in order to wage peace and speak the truth on behalf of those who are persecuted and without hope” (Wallace, p. 125). Secondly, this advocacy typically arouses the threat of violence “as a means of checking the dangerous influence of insurgent groups and individuals.” But thirdly, in turn, the Spirit’s work promotes the action of “Spirit-filled counter-communities forged by persons who respect difference and renounce the use of violence to suppress difference.” The Spirit “allows those who follow her promptings to exercise ownership over the process that brings together discrete individuals into common, yet asymmetrical, communities of integrity and hope” (Wallace, p. 128). Thus the “Spirit’s work of overcoming structures of victimage enacts the truth of biblical faith that nonviolent compassion toward the other is the ideal of religious life.”

Furthermore, this model of the Spirit, Wallace urges, can be extended “to include a coherent model of the relations between human beings and other species within the purview of the Spirit’s inter-animation of all life-forms,” pointing the way “to an ‘ecological pneumatology’ in which the boundaries that separate the human from the non-human order are blurred by the Spirit’s challenge to our nature-indifferent (even nature-hostile) definitions of selfhood (Wallace, p. 134). The separation of the human from the non-human order can be overcome, Wallace argues,

“. . . in a recovery of the Holy Spirit as a natural, living being who indwells and sustains all life-forms. The point is not that the Spirit is simply in nature as its interanimating force, as important as that is, but that the Spirit is a natural being who leads all creation into a peaceable relationship with itself. Spirit and earth internally condition and permeate each other; both modes of being coinhere through and with each other without collapsing into undifferentiated sameness or equivalence. Insofar as the Spirit abides in and with all living things, Spirit and earth are inseparable and yet at the same time distinguishable . . . . The Spirit inhabits the earth as its invisible and life-giving breath (ruah), and the earth (gaia) is the outward manifestation of the Spirit’s presence within, and maintenance of, all life forms” (Wallace, p. 136).

This view, Wallace maintains, takes advantage of a much neglected theory of the Spirit that has been available within the history of Western theology. The “Spirit has always been defined as both the Spirit of God and the Spirit of creation, the former as “the power of reciprocity between the first two persons of the Trinity, on the one hand, and the interior power of redemption within human beings, on the other;” and the latter as “the breath of God who indwells and sustains the cosmos.” According to the doctrine of the Trinity,

“The Spirit is the bond of love between Father and Son (vinculum caritatis); the inner minister to the human heart who instructs and sanctifies the faithful to seek the welfare of the other (interior magister); and the power of dynamic union within creation who continually animates, integrates, and preserves all life in the cosmos (continuata creatio). While these ministries characterize different aspects of the Spirit’s work, what unites all three modes of activity is that each is characterized by the Spirit’s promotion of unity, intimacy, and reciprocity. In the life of the Trinity, human transformation, and the renewal of creation, the Spirit is the power of healing and communion within all forms of life—divine, human, and nonhuman” (Wallace, p. 145).

The strength of this view in contemporary experience is confirmed by the work of Elizabeth Johnson, in her Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love. In Johnson’s view, the fourth-century Nicene-Consantinopolitan creed was a milestone of the development of this teaching, with continuing relevance for contemporary Christian faith. She recaps its history with respect to the Spirit, in terms similar to Wallace, of an understanding of the “self-communicating love of the trinitarian God in the inner divine life itself (ad intra) and in the action of God in the world (ad extra)” as “divine love on the move, going forth with vital power. “The important point to keep in mind,” she insists, “is that in this context love refers not to something God does or to an affection God entertains, but to who God is, graciousness in person. In formal terms the Spirit is God who is love proceeding in person. The trinitarian framework, she writes,

“. . . secures the fact that language about the Spirit is not about some lesser being or weaker intermediary, but is referring without dilution to the incomprehen-sible holy mystery of God’s own personal being. The Giver of life is not a diminutive or insubstantial godling, a shadowy or faceless third hypostasis, but truly God who is ‘adored and glorified’ along with the Father and the Son, as the creedal symbol of faith confesses. In sum:

Speaking about the Spirit signifies the presence of the living God active in this historical world. The Spirit is God who actually arrives in every moment, God drawing near and passing by in vivifying power in the midst of historical struggle. So profoundly is this the case that whenever people speak in a generic way of “God,” of their experience of God or of God’s doing something in the world, more often than not they are referring to the Spirit, if a triune prism be introduced.

With this understanding, Johnson believes the church can fully embrace even Darwin’s theory of the evolution of species, as an example of ”the presence of the Giver of life not at a distance, presiding beyond the apex of a pyramid of greater and lesser being, but within and around the emerging, struggling, living, dying and evolving circle of life” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, Ask the Beasts: Darwin and the God of Love, Bloomsbury: London, 2014, p.132-33).

The Crossans’ proposal is that the Resurrection of Jesus offers a vision of the “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by and simultaneously with Christ . . . on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.” How is this vision to be brought about? we have pondered. Our texts suggest that it might indeed happen by the “power from on high” active in the community of Jesus followers, but not limited to that community. Johnson observes that Jesus “. . . rose again in his body, and lives united with the flesh forever. Herein lies the hinge of hope for all physical beings. In the risen Christ, by an act of infinite mercy and fidelity, “the eternal God has assumed the corporeality of the world into the heart of divine life—not just for time but for eternity.” This marks the beginning of the redemption of the whole physical cosmos. With this realization Ambrose of Milan could preach, “In Christ’s resurrection the earth itself arose” (Elizabeth A. Johnson, p. 208).

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2018.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Second Sunday of Easter in Year B (Ormseth18)

“How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!” Dennis Ormseth reflects on community, trinity, and unity.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Second Sunday of Easter, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 4:32-35
Psalm 133
1 John 1:1 – 2:2
John 20:19-31

We continue our exploration of “first things” or basic principles of our practice of Christian faith occasioned by the observance of Easter and their relationship to practices of care for creation. In the comment for Resurrection of Our Lord, we saw that the Resurrection of Jesus reveals the eschatological presence of God in the community of Jesus’ disciples, as that community brings to the world the message of the God’s victory over the death. Jesus’ resurrection is, in the words of John Dominic and Sarah Sexton Crossan, a “liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by, and simultaneously with Christ,” in which all creation is eventually to be drawn by God away from destruction and toward salvation “on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.” Distinguishing marks of this presence are the non-violent character of relationships in the community, in conformity with the nonviolent practice of their crucified Lord, and the fellowship meal in which those relationships are celebrated.

The readings for the Second Sunday of Easter encourage us to amplify the significance of those marks, again with special significance for care of creation. The non-violent character of the community is secured in these texts, as in the Easter narrative of Mark, by the affirmation of continuity between the crucified Jesus and the resurrected Lord. While Mark provides for that continuity by having the disciples sent back to Galilee, in John’s narrative, composed significantly later and more fully developed theologically, Jesus himself appears to the disciples, first without Thomas and then with Thomas; when they see the marks of the nails in his hands and the hole in his side, they know that this is the crucified Jesus. He then addresses the fear that keeps them behind locked doors with his word of peace, breaths upon them the Holy Spirit, and commissions them by the power of the Spirit for the mission of forgiveness of sins. The continuity of the resurrected Jesus with the crucified Jesus serves to restore the community they experienced prior to his crucifixion. But with the additional acts of breathing upon them and the blessing of peace, Jesus also anticipates a transition in the community from those disciples who see the crucified and resurrected Jesus and thus believe, to those who have faith only by virtue of the presence of God as the Spirit brings the community to life in an ongoing new creation.

The encounter is intended to be understood as an eschatological moment of new creation. This set of messianic practices constitutes the means for creating community with and amongst the disciples, not just in the moment of this encounter, but enduring into the future. Going forward, the breath, the blessing of peace, and the commission will sustain the formation of communities in which Jesus is worshipped, as in the praise of Thomas, “My Lord and my God.” As Raymond Brown notes, in John 20:17, it was

“. . . promised that after Jesus’ ascension God would become a Father to the disciples who would be begotten by the Spirit, and also would in a special way become the God of a people bound to him by a new covenant. The words that Thomas speaks to Jesus are the voice of this people ratifying the covenant that the Father has made in Jesus. As Hosea 2: 25 (23) promised, a people that was formerly not a people has now said, “you are my God.” This confession has been combined with the baptismal profession “Jesus is Lord,” a profession that can be made only when the Spirit has been poured out (I Corinthians 12:3)” (Raymond E. Brown, The Gospel According to John (XIII-XXI), New York: Doubleday, 1970, p.1035).

Thus the members of the community of the crucified and resurrected Lord, reconciled by the power of the Holy Spirit and empowered to similarly reconcile others, are gathered in the presence of their Creator. Brown called particular attention to this creational emphasis, as he notes, “for John this is the high point of the post-resurrectional activity of Jesus.” He comments:

“Before Jesus says, ‘Receive a holy Spirit,” he breathes on his disciples. The Greek verb emphysan, “to breath,” echoes LXX of Genesis 2:7, the creation scene, where we are told: The Lord God formed man out of the dust of the earth and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life.” The verb is used again in Wisdom 15:11, which rephrases the creation account: “The One who fashioned him and . . . breathed into him a living spirit.” Symbolically, then, John is proclaiming that, just as in the first creation God breathed a living spirit into man, so now in the moment of the new creation Jesus breathes his own Holy Spirit into the disciples, giving them eternal life” (Brown, p. 1037).

That Yahweh the Creator is present to the community is made more explicit in the second half of the reading, in Jesus’ encounter with Thomas. As Thomas moves from disbelief to belief, he confesses his faith in Jesus as “My Lord and my God.” This is, in Brown’s view,

“. . . the supreme christological pronouncement of the Fourth Gospel. In Chapter I the first disciples gave many titles to Jesus . . , and we have heard still others throughout the ministry: Rabbi, Messiah, Prophet, King of Israel, Son of God. In the post-resurrectional appearances Jesus has been hailed as the Lord by Magdalene and by the disciples as a group. But it is Thomas who makes clear that one may address Jesus in the same language in which Israel addressed Yahweh.”

This confession, Brown emphasizes, is not a dogmatic assertion, but rather an act of worship. “It is a response of praise to the God who has revealed Himself in Jesus . . . . Thomas speaks the doxology on behalf of the Christian community” (Brown, pp. 1046-7).

Such praise, it is important to note, entails a characteristic reorientation to the creation of the Creator. As Brown notes, the peace and joy noted in John 20:20 are for John, as for Jewish thought generally, “marks of the eschatological period when God’s intervention would have brought about harmony in human life and in the world. John sees this period realized as Jesus returns to pour forth his Spirit upon men” (Brown, p. 1035). Appropriately, this vision is then also manifest in the first lesson for this Sunday, Acts 4:32-35: they “were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common” (Acts 4:32). Their unity of spirit, in other words, was embodied in the economic practices that secured their well-being, in the face of their minority status within the larger society. Helpfully Ben Witherington takes care to point out that this was not a “communism,” in which everybody turns in “all their assets to the church and then those assets being doled out equally to everyone.” The point was rather that

“. . . no one claimed owner’s rights. No one exhibited selfishness or possessiveness. The issue was to make sure no believer fell into a state of malnourishment or homelessness or sickness . . . . Notice the sharing was done without thought of return. The ancient reciprocity conventions were no part of this practice” (“The Season of Easter,” New Proclamation Year B, 2003:  Easter through Pentecost, pp. 17-18).

The community now found the center of their life in “the testimony to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus” (4:33) and an associated awareness of “God’s grace” which was fostered by the meal they shared, when “they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people” (2:46). Their new life in Christ maintained in strong measure the sense of living fully in God’s presence previously expected by the Hebrew community in its life centered in temple worship.

The distinctive attitude towards ownership of property envisioned here indeed represents a transformed relationship to creation. It represents a vision of the world as it should be. As M. Douglas Meeks describes it in his book God the Economist, this new economy is grounded securely in creation faith, as contrasted with the modern economy of capitalist society:

“The secret of property in the basileia economy has to do with the relationship of those within the household. Household relationships come first, then the definition of property. In our society property is defined as the premise; then household relations must conform to requirements of property abstractly defined. Human relationships are subservient to property. The communal relationship with the Jesus movement and the primitive community of Acts 4 leads to different forms of property . . . . For the household of God the tendency of property to create domination is to be overcome in oikia relationships of mutual self-giving, in which possessions are used for the realization of God’s will in the community” (M. Douglas Meeks, God the Economist: The Doctrine of God and Political Economy, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1989, P. 113).

Key to this understanding, Meeks argues, is “the self-giving life of the trinitarian community of God,” which provides a grounding in the theology of creation for a critique of the self as private property that is reflected in our approach to ownership of property.

“God has a claim on the creation and all creatures not as maker (labor theory of property) or owner (first occupancy), but rather as creator and liberator. At the heart of God’s act of liberating/creating is God’s suffering and self-giving. God’s work of suffering is the source of God’s claim in, that is, God’s property in creation. God brings the world into being through God’s costly struggle against the power of the nihil. God has suffered for the creation and will not allow it to fall into vanity or be alienated.  The creation is properly God’s because God’s power of righteousness makes its life fundamentally a gift of God’s grace.”

God’s owning, Meeks concludes, “is not grounded in self-possession but rather in self-giving.  The mode of God’s possessing is giving, not the hoarding by which human beings claim dominion” (Meeks, p. 114).

In the wake of Jesus’ resurrection, the followers of Jesus have become like those Hebrews of whom the Psalmist sings, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!”(Psalm 133:1). They do indeed “dwell together in unity,” the blessing of “life forevermore” (Psalm 133:3b).  It is striking that a scriptural basis for a trinitarian foundation for this understanding of property and its relationship to the doctrine of creation is given in the texts assigned for this Sunday. The gospel reading, we noted, concerns the gift of the Spirit to the disciples, in which the presence of Yahweh the creator is newly communicated. And in the second lesson from 1 John 1, we encounter the notion that Christian community is fellowship “with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ,” who is the “atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 1:3, 2:2). Congregations who confess their trinitarian faith in worship this Sunday might accordingly move readily to lay hold of the many opportunities for showing their deep gratitude for God’s suffering love in the practices of their community’s “ownership” of property. Care of creation begins at home, where the church dwells together in unity, not only amongst themselves, but in community both with God and with all God’s creation.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2018.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Easter Sunday in Year B (Ormseth18)

A Meal for All Sorts of Hunger Dennis Ormseth reflects on a broad resurrection vision.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the Resurrection of Our Lord, Year B (2018, 2021, 2024) 

Acts 10:34-43 or Isaiah 25:6-9
Psalm 118:1-2, 14-24
1 Corinthians 15:1-11 or Acts 10:34-43
Mark 16:1-8 or John 20:1-18

The centrality of the celebration of the Resurrection in the life of the church means that the Easter texts provide occasion for an examination of “first things” or basic principles of our practice of Christian faith and, with attention to the focus of these lectionary comments, their relationship to practices of care for creation. We begin with an examination of the nature of the Resurrection itself, prompted by recent provocative observations made by John Dominic and Sarah Sexton Crossan in a recent article in the Christian Century. The visions of Christ’s resurrection held by the Western and Eastern churches differ significantly, the Crossans observe, and the difference is important for the future of the human species on the earth. Based on wide examination of artwork east and west, the Crossans noticed a pattern:

“The West celebrates the individual resurrection. Christ rises triumphantly and magnificently—but utterly alone. The guards of the tomb may be shown asleep or awake, but nobody else rises in, by, or with Christ. Whatever may be implied about humanity’s future by this image of resurrection, it says nothing about humanity’s past . . . . The East, on the other hand, celebrates the universal resurrection. Here Christ also rises triumphantly and magnificently—but he takes all of humanity with him. Iconographically, paintings in the East show Christ grasping the wrist of Adam. By the year 1200, he is shown grasping both Adam and Eve. Anastasis-as-resurrection is the liberation of past, present, and future humanity from death in, by, and simultaneously with Christ.” Christian Century, January 31, 2018, pp. 23-24.

Which vision is correct? The Crossans admit that it is hard to decide on the basis of biblical texts alone. No direct account of the resurrection exists. Weighing the alternatives, an individual resurrection is the more easily imagined occurrence, they agree, and thereby more readily available to support creedal faith. Within biblical Judaism, on the other hand, “resurrection was always corporate, communal, and universal.” And for the Crossans, it counts heavily in favor of the Eastern view that it addresses much more powerfully human life in the public square (Crossan, p. 24).

Their travels and study have convinced the Crossans that “the main problem from which humans need to be saved is escalatory violence.” Ever “since Homo sapiens spread out from Africa 70,000 years ago,” they write, “we have never invented weapons we did not use, nor created ones less lethal than those they replace.” On this trajectory, they ask, “What can save our species from itself?” Of the two visions of resurrection, they suggest, it is the Eastern Anastasis that holds out most hope. In addition to its communal character, the Eastern tradition clearly portrays the risen Jesus as “indivisibly crucified-and-resurrected.” Risen Lord though he is, he is also the non-violent Jesus of his crucifixion. “His halo is imprinted with a cross, the gates of death are flattened in cruciform position, he bears wounds on hands and feet, and he carries a processional cross.” This image points to the fact, the Crossans show, that his death by crucifixion was a mode of punishment that Roman rulers imposed on agents of nonviolent resistance. Following this Jesus, his companions would not have engaged in escalatory violence, not even to save him from crucifixion. The vision of Christ’s resurrection in the Eastern church, the Crossans conclude, thus offers the better alternative for our “historical and evolutionary challenge” in the public square:

“The iconographic message is this: only nonviolent resistance to the violent normalcy of civilization can divert the human trajectory away from destruction and toward salvation on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world. . . . As human evolution plays out, Christ’s resurrection isn’t just reality-creating metaphor for creedal Christians—it’s for all of humanity” (Crossans, p. 25).

Our location in the Western tradition aside, the selection of texts for The Resurrection of our Lord in Year B calls for proclamation of this vision of a universal resurrection that offers hope for all humankind. And it does so, we argue, not only in the face of the challenge of escalatory violence feared by the Crossans, but also with regard to the threat of global ecological devastation, which in our view is no less threatening to the future of our species, and a solution to it no less essential to their hope for “salvation on a transformed earth and within a transfigured world.”

Peter’s sermon to the gentiles gathered in the Caesarean home of Cornelius, “a centurion of the Italian Cohort,” (Acts 10:1) witnessed “to all that [Jesus] did both in Judea and in Jerusalem. They put him to death by hanging him on a tree; but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear, not to all the people but to us who were chosen by God as witnesses, and who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (Acts 10:39-41). Thus Peter’s message also is about an “indivisibly crucified-and-resurrected” Christ—again, by the Crossans’ argument, an advocate for nonviolence—who reigns by God’s ordination as “judge of the living and the dead” (10:42)—in other words, of all humanity, past and present. And the alternative first lesson from Isaiah 25 strengthens this expectation of universal resurrection in the company of a non-violent lord: Yahweh promised a feast of rich food, a feast of well-aged wines, for all peoples, and destruction of the “shroud that is cast over all people, the sheet that is spread over all nations; he will swallow up death forever” (v. 6-8, emphasis added)—also, clearly a promise of universal rescue from death, if not explicitly by resurrection.

In addition to their shared view of the resurrection as universal and free of violence, these passages are linked in a second way, one which enlarges the scope of the vision to bring all creation into view: each text mentions a meal, shared in the first instance by the disciples “chosen by God as witnesses” to the crucified-and-resurrected Lord, and secondly, the feast of Isaiah’s prophecy. The latter, we suggest, by its association here in the Easter readings, confers eschatological meaning to the former. The feast of Isaiah 25:6-9 is drawn from the Apocalypse of Isaiah 24-27, as Jon Levenson explains, the background of which “lies in a complex of mythological conceits in which the powers of chaos have never been eliminated or altogether domesticated. These still threaten, and human evil can provoke a cataclysm.” “Central to the eschatological vision of the Apocalypse,” Levenson argues, Yahweh,

“like Baal associated with natural abundance and enhanced vitality, swallows Death, and we have here no hint that this victory will ever be reversed . . . the life-sapping forces will at last be eliminated, . . [W]hat is definitively defeated here is the personification of all life-denying forces, natural and historical, all the forces that make for misery, enervation, disease, and humiliation” (Jon Levenson, Creation and the Persistence of Evil: The Jewish Drama of Divine Omnipotence, Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press,1988, p. 30).

Levenson further notes that the “life-giving dew” of Yahweh at Isaiah 26:19,“brings about a resurrection” which, while not “exemplifying a doctrine of general resurrection . . . of the sort that was later to become central to Judaism, Christianity, and Islam,” nonetheless projects “a definitive victory of YHWH over Death and . . . the rich and joyous feast he provides to all nations in celebration of his long-awaited triumph” (Levenson, p. 31).

Thus the linkage of the texts before us provides for extension of the scope of salvation envisioned by the message of Jesus’ resurrection, to embrace hope not only for a future, universal non-violent community of all humans, but also for an entire, restored creation within which they live. Easter is indeed an appropriate occasion for us to look forward to “a transformed earth . . . within a transfigured world.”

There are difficulties in the way of this reading of the texts, of course. In the first place, as noted above, neither vision of the resurrection, as described here, is a matter of actual historical reality. The lack of any description of the actual resurrection constitutes an absolute prohibition on speculation as to how the resurrection actually happened, a serious problem for appropriating the story’s power in the public square in our scientific cultural context. The resurrection remains a matter of metaphor and imagination. And surely an assemblage of ancient myth may seem a weak structure on which to base such extravagant hope. But, as the Crossans point out, while the vision of universal resurrection that drove the creative work of Eastern Christian artists and theologians through the centuries is indeed a metaphorical, and not a literal, event, that doesn’t matter, because “—at least for our species—metaphor creates reality” (Crossan and Crossan, p. 24).

Yet again, even as a matter of metaphor, the assembled texts present a more serious complication for constructing a vision of the resurrection that embraces all creation. As Levenson notes, the vision of Isaiah with its defeat of “all life-denying forces, natural and historical,” is in its biblical context embedded in a narrative that ties it to a particular locale: Yahweh hosts the feast “on the mountain,” that is, on Zion, as the living God celebrates unqualified victory upon the temple mount. The temple, as Levenson shows, constitutes the earthly completion of the “great cosmogony of Genesis 1:1-2:3.” In Rabbinic legend,

“the Jerusalem Temple is depicted as the cosmic capstone that prevents the great abyss (tehoma) from rising again to inundate the world and undo the work of creation. In this current of Rabbinic thought, as in the older temple mythos of the Hebrew Bible and its near Eastern antecedents, the point is not simply that the two projects, world building and temple building, are parallel. Rather, they implicate each other, and neither is complete alone. The microcosm is the idealized cosmos, the world contemplated sub specie creationis, the world as it was meant to be, a powerful piece of testimony to God the creator, a palace for the victorious king. To view creation within the precincts of the Temple is to summon up an ideal world that is far from the mundane reality of profane life and its persistent evil. It is that ideal world which is the result of God’s creative labors” (Levenson, p. 99).

A “distinctive note” of these ancient themes reflected in Isaiah 25:6-8, Levenson observes, is an “eschatological urgency” that derives from the dissonance between the world affirmed in temple liturgy and the world experienced in quotidian life. “In the former YHWH reigns in justice, unchallenged, and abundantly favoring his faithful and obedient votaries, whereas in the latter Israel is a small and threatened people, lacking sovereignty and often even the respect of those who hold her fate in their hand, and fidelity to her religion brings no temporal rewards, but many afflictions” (Levenson, p. 32).

The emergent community of Jesus’ followers undoubtedly shared a profound sense of such “eschatological urgency,” squeezed as it was between the hostile authorities that dominated Jewish life in Jerusalem and the legions of the Roman Empire. The difficulty here, of course, is that Zion with its temple is no longer for the followers of Jesus a place to participate in such a liturgy, whatever its relevance to their endangered situation. On the contrary, as the resurrection narrative of the Gospel reading from Mark shows them, Jesus and his followers are going out away from that sacred mountain. Indeed, the young man dressed in white who greets the two Mary’s at the tomb expressly directs them away from Zion: “Go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” It is emphatically not part of the resurrection message that the disciples are to remain in Jerusalem: they will not see the risen Jesus there. Nor, we take it, will any later readers of the Gospel.

So what happens here to the cosmological vision of the conflict between Yahweh and the power of evil in the arena of creation? Is it being said that riven from its temple location, the cosmic conflict is no longer relevant to the future of the community of Jesus? Has the non-violent character of the community perhaps succeeded in banishing death from their midst? Not so, in Ched Myers’ view, not at all. In the face of the multiple endings attached to the Gospel, which seek to fill out the picture of the resurrection, Myers alerts us to the enduring importance of this spare narrative: “The ‘implied resurrection’ at the end of Mark,” he writes, “functions to legitimate the ongoing messianic practice of the community.” As he explains in his Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books, 1988; p. 401) this redirection by the young man dressed in white actually completes the great religious reversal that Mark narrates from the very beginning of his Gospel. The Jerusalem temple was the economic, political, and religious center of the nation; its temple was the center of the cosmos, where heaven and earth were joined. But the story of Jesus begins out away from Jerusalem, at the edge of the wilderness, where God is first encountered in the waters of the Jordan. And as the story of Jesus’ passion develops, the temple is utterly vacated of the divine presence. As Myers observes, there was

“. . . no voice from the clouds, only Jesus’ voice protesting his abandonment by God; it is not the heavens that are rent (schizo), but the veil of the earthly sanctuary; Jesus is not with Moses and Elijah, but between two bandits; it is not the heavenly voice that attests to Jesus as ‘Son of God,’ but an enemy, the centurion.”

Even the body that had taken central place in the narrative of Jesus’ action in Jerusalem, as Jesus offered himself in love to his disciples, even that is now gone—“he is not here” (Myers, p. 406). When the story of Jesus is regenerated, it is done so in bodily form: the crucified body is risen from the dead. But also that body is absent from the scene: as Myers observes, in the course of Mark’s narrative not only has Jesus’ body replaced the temple as the center of the symbolic order of Jewish life, but now his absent body is in turn displaced by what Myers refers to as the “discipleship practice.” “In other words,” Myers notes, “the old cult is not replaced with a new cult, but with practice alone,” confirming “Mark’s commitment to a discourse firmly fixed upon the historical world” (Myers, p. 406).

This abandonment of Jerusalem and its temple is in fact deeply significant for our concern for care of creation. The mission of the crucified-and-risen Lord is to be worked out in the context of everyday life. Strong confirmation of this redirection is given, in fact, by the very figure who brings the message. Tom Mundahl reminded us in his comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Lent that the young man dressed in white at the tomb in the Gospel of Mark represents more than the eye can at first see. He is the blind man of Mark 10:47, who flees on the night of Jesus passion, abandoning his cloak; we see him again here at the end of the Gospel, newly dressed in the white robe of the Christian neophyte. His name was Bartimaeus, that is, son of Timaeus. Timaeus was a figure in Platonic philosophy who envisioned heaven and earth, as Mundahl summarizes his view, as “a perfectly-balanced work of harmony plainly visible to any thinking person with normal vision.” The formerly blind but now sighted Bar-timaeus represents the Markan rejection of this elitist view in favor of an understanding of how, in the light of the death and resurrection of Christ, his followers are to be made newly aware of how radically different the presence of God is envisioned when Jesus is seen “in Galilee.” At the heart of Mark’s alternative to the temple/state, Myers finds

“. . . a radical new symbolic system based upon the primacy of human need (3:4). In place of the purity code Jesus exhorts moral imperatives concerning exploitation (7:21) . . . . In place of the debt code he enjoins a community practice of forgiveness (11:25). Jesus’ teaching functions to both ethicize and democratize the traditional symbolic order, undermining the legitimacy of those who mediate it—that is, priests, scribes, and Pharisees. Mark presses the bold claim that the temple is not necessary in order for Yahweh to dwell among the people. There is no sacred institutional site from which Yahweh must be addressed in prayer: that site is faith (11:24) . . . . Yahweh is no longer a recluse in the Holy of Holies, but present among the community” (Ibid., p. 443).

And it is there in the discipleship practice that the world, “contemplated sub specie creationis, the world as it was meant to be,” is manifest as “powerful testimony to God the creator,” albeit without requiring “a palace for the victorious king.”

In its readings for Easter Sunday, therefore, the church properly asserts the profound cosmic relevance of its belief in the universal resurrection from the dead and its celebration of the pascal feast. And it does so without limitation with respect to the locus of this discipleship practice in the vicinity of the Temple of Zion or, which is perhaps the more important, larger point, any other, similar cosmic and political center. The departure from Jerusalem is not so much an abandonment of the cosmic dimension of Israel’s faith and concern for creation so central to temple practice, then, as rather its appropriation for those followers who return to Galilee and, indeed, for the mission of those followers as they move from there across the Roman world. What happened in Jesus death and resurrection on Yahweh’s holy mountain was indeed the vacating of God’s presence from that precinct; but it was also the initiation of a new manifestation of that presence in the community of Jesus’ followers. As Gordon Lathrop puts it, also with reference to the tombside redirection of the two Marys by Bartimaeus, it is now to be understood that

“. . . the actual history and death of Jesus have inaugurated the eschaton of God in this world. God’s acting in justice and mercy for the healing of the created world could therefore be proclaimed in the gathered communities, in the power of the Spirit, by telling there the stories of Jesus and, reinterpreted through him, the very stories of Israel, and by eating there the eschatological feast of his gift . . . . This encounter with the eschaton, with what came to be called ‘the resurrection,’ was taking place in every local assembly, not in Jerusalem alone, or Rome alone, or some other “apostolic headquarter” (Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003 , p.134).

This being so, it is precisely in those assemblies that we might look for the “world as it was meant to be,” not only a human community from which the plague of reciprocal violence is being removed, but also a new creation, a creation being restored because death no longer has dominion there.

If this relocation of the eschatological presence of God removes ties to the temple, it nonetheless imposes all the more strictly the practice of nonviolence. Indeed, domination by any means is excluded. Crucially, it even “subverts the possibility of a glorified christology,” Myers insists, “which might render the community passive. The empty tomb means the story of biblical radicalism can continue in the living and dying of disciples in all ages” (Ibid., p. 408). The risen Christ remains the crucified-and-resurrected Christ of the Gospel tradition. What this means for the proclamation of the resurrection is that the reach of the life-giving and restoring presence of God in the creation can never be stopped short of its cosmic completion. It can never be permanently captured by the powers that control the sacred center of a society by whatever means, violent or otherwise.

In the first instance, therefore, this message will be returned to the original field of activity, Galilee, where Mark sets the first half of the Gospel in the time before Jesus went up to Jerusalem (Myers, p. 406). It seems plausible, as Myers suggests, that in Galilee (or more broadly, in northern Palestine) the disciples will gather up the story of their days in Jesus’ company, which will eventually be written down by the author of the Gospel (See Myers, pp. 40-42, cf. p. 443-44). The story of the life of that “body,” written as it was in the shared language of the ancient world, would prove essential to the spread of the community as they moved outward toward the Roman capital, onto the continent of Africa, and even across Asia. Before long, of course, the material needs of those communities will bring into ever fuller play the full scope of the eschatological realization of God’s restoration of creation, as symbolized earlier in the temple’s eschatology, but now focused on the life of the discipleship community. As with the temple, so with the community. It’s practice and the world of its location belong together; now they are the implicate of each other, as temple and world were before. This is why the inclusion of the eschatolgical meal in the message of Easter is so significant. As Myers astutely notes, “the importance of table fellowship to Mark’s social and economic experiment” means that

“it is not surprising that Jesus chooses this site [the table fellowship] as the new symbolic center of the community. In place of the temple is a simple meal, which represents participation in Jesus’ “body” (14:22-25) . . . . Yet it is the meal, not the body, that is ‘holy,’ for the latter is absent at the end of the story. We are left, then, not with a ritual but the social event of table fellowship. This meal, which itself was an expropriation of the great liberation symbol of Passover, is meant to bring to mind the entire messianic program of justice and the cost of fidelity to it” (Ibid., p. 443).

The meal is, as Myers has it, “for a community in flight, or more accurately, a community that follows its true center, Jesus, who cannot be institutionalized because he is always ahead of us on the road (16:7).” But the community will not be sustained in any of its places of settlement if it is not also a meal that creates new bonds of “membership” in the social, political, cultural and ecological communities in the midst of which it is shared.

Thus the spread of the discipleship practice congruent with the hope of universal resurrection repeatedly draws the community ever more deeply into the public square. If not in Jerusalem, then in Caesarea, in Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople, center of the Eastern Empire, and eventually in Rome as the center of its Western Empire, the historical and natural conditions of life are taken up into the story of the way of Jesus. If the meal necessarily embeds the movable feast in the socio-economic and ecological life of the communities in which Jesus’ followers find themselves at home, then neither location nor dwelling are finally irrelevant to the post-resurrection narrative of the Christian community. Besides the plain where Jesus preached and the mountain on which Jesus died and was raised, there are the other locales in which the story of Jesus plays out: the home of the leper, the attic room, an open field, a courtroom and a courtyard, the city but also the wilderness, each of which offers again and again its special kind of participatory membership for our consideration upon the rereading of the Gospel in the light of the resurrection. And when no longer Rome and its many extensions under the Doctrine of Discovery, by which the Western church secured its attachment to the sphere of the planet Earth, then in each of its re-centering capitals, and eventually the United States of America, with its strong if merely metaphorical claim to be a New Israel, and a City set on a Hill. With each of these extensions, more and more peoples are drawn into the community of human life in the name of the crucified-and-resurrected Jesus, more and more of Earth is encompassed in the hope of creation’s restoration and completion. And everywhere the meal, meant as it was to meet real human need, addresses all kinds of human hunger, and is always a real meal, which ties the community that shares it to the earth and its inestimable community of communities, addressing all sorts of hunger, both human and other than human. But whenever any such center makes a claim to be the center in which God is uniquely, even supremely present, and defends that claim by violence that destroys the bonds of community and actions that result in the degradation of creation, it is time for the celebration of the feast to be moved once again to the margins, to the life-giving river in the wilderness, to the edge of the cosmos, and from there to move freely back into the midst of life. It is therefore crucial to the future of the human race that those margins, that wilderness, the infinite, limitless space, continue to provide place for the ever renewing manifestation of God.

Are we in such a time? The arguments about American exceptionalism in history may legitimately raise the question. The domination of a protestant Christianity over the civil religion of an American imperial leadership in the public sphere may suggest so. The attempt to exclude or at least limit other than Christian religious practice at that seat of military and economic power may also suggest so. With the arrival of the Anthropocene, when humans dominate all the biological processes of earth, and indeed weaponize the earth against its weaker and more vulnerable communities, both human and non-human, is it not time, if not already too late, to ask, whether our current coalition of religious, economic and political power will ever be able to deliver the fullness of both human and other-than-human life, as promised in resurrection vision of the Eastern church? Surely, it seems not. Very few, if any, of the “life-denying forces, natural and historical, all the forces that make for misery, enervation, disease, and humiliation” have been removed from our centers of civilization. It is perhaps not surprising that for most followers of Jesus in this age of the great American Empire, it suffices for them to hope that they are among those who in the resurrection will be delivered, individually, or at best, in community limited by faith, out from this vail of tears. We have been making do with that limited vision of an individual resurrection for too long already. Again, let it be said, in the hope of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, we all rise together, and that includes the communities of non-human life, no less than the human species, or we finally rise not at all.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2018.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Passion Sunday and Holy Week in Year B (Ormseth12)

The Transformation of All Life Dennis Ormseth reflects on the reorientation of creation to its sacred center.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Year B (2012, 2015, 2018, 2021, 2024) 

Sunday of the Passion
Mark 11:1-11 or John 12:12-16 (Procession)
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Mark 14:1-15:47 or Mark 15:1-39 [40-47]

Maundy Thursday
Exodus 12:1-4 [5-10] 11-14
Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
John 13:1-17, 31b-35

Good Friday
Isaiah 52:13-53:12
Psalm 22
Hebrews 10:16-25 or Hebrews 4:14-16; 5:7-9
John 18:1-19:42

The week we call “holy” traditionally begins with the congregation’s Palm Sunday procession: the pastor reads the processional Gospel from Mark 11; as the people go into the sanctuary, they wave palms while singing “All glory, laud, and honor to you, redeemer, king, to whom the lips of children made sweet hosannas ring.”  With the second verse of this hymn, the singers might envision themselves to be joined by “the company of angels,” as “creation and all mortals in chorus make reply” (Evangelical Lutheran Worship, No. 344). The procession thus calls forth cosmic expectations for the events of the week thus initiated: All creation recognizes the great significance of the remembrance of Jesus’ “last week.” As the participants quiet themselves for the long reading of the passion narrative that is ahead, however, they will likely have already missed an important point of entry into the cosmic meaning of the day.  Their procession has ended, and they begin to grapple with the sudden shift from joy to dread as the reading begins: “It was two days before the Passover and the festival of Unleavened Bread. The chief priests and the scribes were looking for a way to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. . . .” (Mark 14:1). What will have been missed is the strange “non-event” at the end of the processional Gospel.

Jesus “entered Jerusalem” we read, “and went into the temple; and when he had looked around at everything, as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve” (Mark 11:11). The entry of the son of David into the great city might be expected to end in triumphal arrival at the center of power of the Jewish temple-state. As Marcus Borg and Dominic Crossan describe the importance of the temple, it was “the sacred center of the Jewish world.”  The temple in Jerusalem was “the navel of the earth” connecting this world to its source in God, and here (and only here) was God’s dwelling place on earth. . . . To be in the temple was to be in God’s presence . . . . To stand in the temple, purified and forgiven, was to stand in the presence of God” (The Last Week, p. 6). But Jesus only “looked around at everything,” we are told, and “as it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the twelve.” His arrival at the temple was apparently as unnoticed and, for him personally, as unmoving, as that of a typical modern tourist among the late-hour crowds on a tour of too many churches in a European city, and ready to retreat to the hotel for dinner. From the perspective of our concern with the significance of holy week for the creation and its care, however, his “look around”  signals a momentous shift in understanding: The temple’s significance as the “sacred center” and “dwelling place” of God has, as far as Jesus is concerned, been vacated.

Jesus’ relationship to the temple in Jerusalem is a central motif in Mark’s Gospel, and no less so at precisely this point in the narrative. Indeed,  the events narrated between 11:12 and 13:37, namely, from the end of the procession Gospel to the beginning of the passion narrative, are focused almost entirely on Jesus’ relationship with the temple: Jesus curses a fig tree (11:12-13), “emblem of peace, security, and prosperity” associated with the temple-state; the next day, Jesus re-enters the temple, this time to cleanse it of all that makes it “a den of robbers” (11:15-19); looking on the withered fig tree, Jesus suggests that “this mountain”—that is, Zion, the location of the temple—could “be taken up and cast into the sea” (11:23); and, although the temple was, as Borg and Crossan put it, “the only place of sacrifice, and sacrifice was the means of  forgiveness,” mediating access to God  (The Last Week, p. 6), Jesus instead proposes that “Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that our Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses” (11:25).

Thus is the status of the temple indeed reduced in Jesus’ view to the condition suggested by his casual “look around.” Moreover, while “walking in the temple,” he engages its officers in controversy about the authority of their traditional antagonists, the prophets, in this instance represented by John the Baptist and Jesus himself. And he tells against them the prophetic parable of the wicked tenants of the vineyard: They are the wicked tenants who would take as their own the land that the presence of God in the temple rendered holy. They should give back the land to God (“Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” 12:17). Obedience to the Great Commandment of love to God and the second one like it, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” he stipulates, is “much more important than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” And, in a final outburst of rejection, he disputes the view that the coming of the Messiah entails the restoration of the temple state: the Messiah is not David’s son (12:37) and, as such, will not rehabilitate the old imperial vision. The piety practiced in the temple is, in Ched Myers’s phrase, nothing but “a thin veil for economic opportunism and exploitation,” as is illustrated by the poor widow who gives everything she has to the temple treasury (Myers, Binding the Strong Man, p. 321. See Myers analysis, Chapter 10, pp. 290 – 323, on all the several points summarized here in these two paragraphs). Accordingly, Jesus’ teaching in the temple ends with the announcement of its desecration  and its apocalyptic destruction (13:1-22).

Jesus’ repudiation of the temple is complete and total, Myers argues. Noting that Jesus “takes a seat ‘facing’ the temple (13:3) in preparation for delivering his second great sermon, he summarizes the moment’s significance this way:

“With this final dramatic action, Jesus utterly repudiates the temple state, which is to say the entire socio-symbolic order of Judaism. His objections have been consistently based upon one criterion: the system’s exploitation of the poor. He now sets about warning his disciples against joining those who would wage a messianic war in defense of the temple (13:14).  The ‘mountain’ must be ‘moved,’ not restored. Jesus now offers a vision of the end of the temple-based world, and the dawn of a new one in which the powers of domination have been toppled” (Myers, p. 322-23).

And so we arrive once more at the Gospel text with which the Season of Advent begins in this year B of the lectionary cycle, the apocalypse of Mark 13:24-37. Readers joining us only recently or for the first time with this comment will be helped to appropriate the significance of this recapitulation by reading our comment on the First Sunday of Advent. What has concerned us from that beginning is the possibility that with the rejection of the temple comes a displacement of what, beyond its socio-political significance, the temple represented in Jewish cosmology. As we put it then, “the temple was the sacred space in and through which the people experienced the presence of God in creation, and by means of the stories of creation . . . were given their orientation, not only to God, but also to creation.”  What, we again ask, are the consequences for creation of the dislocation of God’s presence from the temple, if it was indeed regarded as “the navel of the world.”?

In answering this question, we have shown in subsequent comments on the texts from Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany, first, that what displaces the temple as the locus of divine presence in the narrative of the Gospel, and indeed, more fully in the experience of the Christian community at worship, is of course the person of Jesus himself. And second, we have argued that the story of Jesus is as fully engaged with the reality of the creation as the temple itself ever was. The Gospel of Jesus the Christ not only provides access to the presence of God in creation, but it also provides a characteristic orientation to creation. “Yes, to be sure,” we wrote already in that first comment, “the ‘heaven and earth’ of the social order of the temple state is passing away, and soon; but the new creation will rise in the Garden of Gethsemane toward which Mark’s story now proceeds” (First Sunday of Advent).

In what follows here, we argue that it is precisely in Mark’s narrative of the passion and in the week’s associated Scriptures that the church’s lectionary for Year B gives us its most full access to the God of Creation in the person of Jesus, and that this access brings with it a definitive orientation to the creation Jesus was called to serve. The events accompanying the destruction of the temple, Mark has Jesus observe to his disciples, are “but the beginning of the birth pangs” for the new creation (13:8). As we noted in our comment on the readings for the First Sunday of Advent, “The darkening of the sun and moon are the creation’s sympathetic participation in the wrath of God against human sinfulness, which is systemically connected to the ‘desolation’ of the earth, drawing on Isaiah 13:10. The falling stars allude to the ‘fall’ of the highest structures of power in history, which, Myers suggests, refers to the Jewish and Roman elites who will shortly assemble to watch Jesus’ execution (Myers, p. 343; cf. Carol J. Dempsey, Hope Amid the Ruins: The Ethics of Israel’s Prophets, pp. 78-79).” These cosmic signs will be followed by the coming of the Son of Man with “great power and glory,” as his angels are sent out to “gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of heaven” (13:26-27).

(It is helpful to note that while this section of Mark concerning the culmination of the conflict between Jesus and the temple-state is not part of our readings for Holy Week, the section of the Gospel of John that tells the story of Jesus’ cleansing of the temple was read on the Third Sunday in Lent, with the same message: the temple will be destroyed, and it will be replaced by the resurrection body of Jesus [see Tom Mundahl’s relevant comments on the readings for that Sunday]. But Mark will be our primary source for what follows. We are primarily concerned to locate and discuss those elements of the narrative that are most important for our concern for creation and its care in each of these sections. We follow the interpretation of Ched Myers in his Binding the Strong Man.)

Myers observes that in the opening verse of our reading of the Passion, Mark “plunges the reader into the deepest heart of Jewish symbolic life: the high holy days in Jerusalem.” It is interesting to note, then, that as important to the festival as the temple was, it no longer figures as the center of action; the story of Jesus’ last days unfolds, rather, in “the house of a leper and a Jerusalem attic, the Mount of Olives and an open field, a courtroom and a courtyard, and of course ‘Golgotha’ and the tomb” (Binding the Strong Man, p. 357). The first of these settings is the house of a leper in Bethany, ‘a narrative reminder of the way in which Jesus’ discipleship practice continues to challenge the social boundaries of the dominant order” (Ibid. p. 358). Astonishingly, a woman anoints Jesus’ head with expensive oil, an action condemned by some present but which receives Jesus’ profound approbation as a proper anticipation of his death and burial, as opposed to the inauguration of a triumphal reign. But, as Myers also significantly notes, “her care for Jesus’ body narratively prepares us for the emergence of this body as the new symbolic center of the community in the corresponding ‘messianic banquet’” which follows” (Myers, p. 359).

So the scene shifts quickly to what Myers suggests is “an attic room”: Jesus instructs his disciples to make preparations for their meal in a place that will be identified for them by a man bearing water. Myers thinks that this is an appropriately inconspicuous signal that helps conceal the whereabouts of Jesus as they “celebrate the meal after the manner of the original Passover.” They will eat the meal “as those in flight,” seeking escape from oppressive exile (Myers, p. 361). And the notion that the attic room is a place to which water must be carried reminds us that water itself is important to the gathering of Jesus’ disciples. Indeed, from the beginning, the gatherings of this community have taken place in the presence of water.  A river of water, we recall, was the site of Jesus’ commissioning by the Holy Spirit (Mark 1:10). His first disciples would be called from their work at the side of the sea (Mark 1:16). Those he healed followed him to the sea, where the unclean spirits identify him as the Son of God (Mark 3:7-11).  After he stilled the storm while crossing the sea with his terrified disciples, he sent the Legion of unclean spirits crashing down the bank into the sea to be drowned (Mark 5:13). He fed five thousand by the sea, and walked on the sea, imploring his disciples to “take heart, it is I; do not be afraid.”

So if all of these references are to the flight through the water at the Red Sea, remembered in the festival, they also point to the fact that water in each of these events is a touchstone for the very presence of God, and that its use is instrumental to God’s gracious and redemptive purposes. Just so here: the water carried in the jar to the hidden space marks the divine presence in the midst of those gathered and so confers on the gathering the high significance of what happens there. Furthermore, if we pick up on the tradition of foot washing from John 13, the primary reading assigned for Maundy Thursday, we note that Jesus will use this water to wash the feet of his disciples, an expression of his service to them as the very Servant of God (John 13:1-17, 31b-35). As the woman in Bethany cared for his body, anointing it with oil, so does Jesus in turn freely care for the bodies of his disciples, with water made very precious, not only by its scarcity, but also by its use according to the will and purposes of God. Jesus models for his disciples that holy use: “So if I, your lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).

We have in other places discussed the significance of water for an ecologically oriented faith, most pointedly in our comment on the story of the encounter between Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well of Jacob in the gospel reading for the Third Sunday in Lent in Year A of the lectionary. As we asked there, “Is water properly an object of merely economic calculation and manipulation,” as it is increasingly seen and treated in the world?  “Or is it more properly an ‘object of awe,’ calling forth from us the deep respect and love that we owe to its maker?” We would refer our readers to that discussion, and it seems appropriate to repeat the main point of our conclusion: What faith calls for is an orientation that appreciates the presence of water as essential for all life on our blue planet, 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.” (See also Tom Mundahl’s  comment on the flood story in his commentary for the First Sunday in Lent and on baptism as “an ark-assembly that hears God’s promise to Noah and creation amplified to become a powerful word of resurrection and renewal, trumping the watery muck of all that would destroy creation”). It was only a jar of water that alerted the disciples to the place where they should prepare for their meal according to Jesus’ instruction. But, as we noted on the occasion of the Baptism of our Lord, whether there is a bowl of it, a pool or a river, water will come to provide a center not just for the rites of Christian worship, but as a “a center to the world,” a “spring from which the whole earth may drink and be washed, a tiny point in the scheme of things that nonetheless give a center, a little pool of water that washes all the people.” (The quotation is from Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground, pp. 105-06)

If the bodies of the disciples must be washed, these bodies must all the more be fed.  And so, when they had gathered, Jesus “took a loaf of bread,” we read, “and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, ‘Take; this is my body.’” The bread, Myers observes, “that sustained the hungry masses ‘on the way’ (Mark 8:2) has now become Jesus’ ‘body’—which body has just been ‘prepared’ for death.” “Then he took a cup,” we read on, “and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, ‘This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many.’” And again, as Myers notes,  the covenant will “be ratified in the shedding of Jesus’ blood (Mark 14:24).”  What becomes clear about this meal, Myers concludes, is that Mark is portraying Jesus here as the “eschatological paschal lamb,” and we realize suddenly “that Jesus is not after all participating in the temple-centered feast of Passover (note that Mark never mentions the eating of lamb). Instead he is expropriating its symbolic discourse (the ritual meal) in order to narrate his new myth, that of the Human One who gives his life for the people.”

The displacement of the temple is now complete, Myers observes. “Through the symbolic action of table fellowship,” he notes,

“Jesus invites the disciples/reader to solidarity with his impending arrest, torture, and execution. In this episode, Mark articulates his new symbolic center, and overturns the last stronghold of symbolic authority in the dominant order, the high holy feast of Passover. In place of the temple liturgy Jesus offers his “body,”—that is, his messianic practice in life and death. It is this very “sanctuary/body” opposition that will shape Mark’s narrative of Jesus’ execution” (Myers, p. 364).

And the narrative of the Gospel of John no less so, we might add, noting the frequent mention of temple authorities in the section of the narrative appointed for Good Friday, John 18:1 – 19:42 (See especially 18:13-14, 19; 19:14, 31, and 42).

As Jesus leaves the meal and goes out of the city to the Mount of Olives, one senses that not only the temple but the city itself is no longer the sacred center of Jewish life for him or for his disciples. It is left entirely in the control of  those whose collaboration will destroy it, even as they conspire to capture Jesus and kill him because he has spoken against them. Who can save this city from its leaders? But the disintegration of the community is felt most palpably in the reality that Jesus’ own community is also being torn apart: even as they share the meal, the betrayer is at hand. Later in the garden, the three leaders of the disciples cannot stay awake to watch with him, their bodies enacting, as Myers puts it, “the mythic moment of struggle” between “staying awake” and “sleeping” (Myers, p. 368). Their spirit may be willing, “but the flesh is weak.” Judas has betrayed Jesus for money; his bodily embrace will mark the target for the soldiers who come to arrest Jesus. Rejecting violent response, Jesus is led away, as “all of them deserted him and fled” (Mark 14:50).  The crowing of a cock will signal his complete abandonment—the non-human creation, we are reminded, is keeping watch.

Thus does the narrative of the last days of Jesus with his disciples end. There is only the curious episode of the young man who “was following him, wearing nothing but a linen cloth. They caught hold of him, but he left the linen cloth and ran off naked” (Mark 14:51-52). Myers suggests that he is “a symbol of the discipleship community as a whole, which has just itself fled (Mark 14:50). He escapes naked (gumnos), indicative of shame, leaving behind a cloth that becomes the “burial garment” for Jesus.” He comes back at the end of the Gospel, however, as the young man “’sitting at the right’ and fully clothed in a white robe—symbols of the martyrs who have overcome the world through death.” The figure suggests to Myers that “the discipleship community can be rehabilitated, even after such a betrayal. The first ‘young man’ symbolizes ‘saving life and losing it,’ the second ‘losing life to save it’” (Myers, p. 369).

Helpful as Myer’s discussion is, as far as it goes, Gordon Lathrop offers the more creative insight that the young man represents something much more dramatic: He is Bartimaeus, son of Timaeus, the blind beggar who receives his sight from Jesus, a literary allusion to Plato’s Timaeus, a resource of great significance for Western cosmology. The point Lathrop would advance is that Mark’s gospel fundamentally challenges that cosmology, in which the “wise man follow[s] the thoughts and revolutions of the universe, learning the harmonies of the sphere, so that having assimilated them he may attain to that best life which the gods have set before mankind, both for the present and the future.” It was a world view “marked by the privilege and domination of certain upper-class, physically intact males.”

Once he is given new sight, Mark’s “son of Timaeus” instead follows Jesus to his death, to reappear as the first witness of the resurrection. He represents an alternative cosmology in which there is “a hole in the heavens, a tear in the perfect fabric of the perfect sphere, then the Spirit descending like a dove at the end of the flood and a voice coming from the heaven.” In this new cosmology, the blind who have come to sight are “associated with the word about the death of Jesus and with the bread, cup, and baptism that hold out that death as a gift of life” (Lathrop, Holy Ground, pp. 26-38). And we might add, where the movements of earthly bodies have more to tell us than have all the stars in heaven. The idea that the young man ran off naked, it occurs to us, is not so much a symbol of shame as a sign of readiness to be baptized into a new creation.

Along with water, we accordingly note, bodies and their care are of crucial significance to the passion narrative. Indeed, we would suggest that they provide the basis for exploring the fullest meaning of this narrative for creation and its care. Jesus washed the bodies of his disciples as would a servant, and yet he feeds them as one who can give them new life, even his very own being. He is, as it were, both source and sustainer of the life that is theirs in community. Norman Wirzba argues in his recent excellent book on Food and Faith that their own bodies are where humans become most immediately and irreducibly aware of their relationship to the creation that sustains them in life, as one of interdependence and responsibility.

“Bodies are not things or commodities that we have or possess. In the most fundamental sense, every body is a place of gift. It is a vulnerable and potentially nurturing site in terms of which we come to know and experience life as the perpetual exchange of gift upon gift. The realization inevitably leads to the conclusion that bodies are therefore also places of responsibility. How have we received what we have been given, and what have we done with the gifts of nurture? Through our bodies we learn that who we are is a feature of where we are and what we receive. Through our bodies we discover that what we become is a feature of what we have given in return. Bodies are the physical and intimate places where we learn that life is a membership rather than a solitary quest” (Food and Faith, pp. 103-04).

In terms of our interest in the relationship of humans to creation, our bodies, we suggest, are where we are oriented fundamentally to the rest of creation as members of the great body that is creation itself, and to our responsibility to care for that creation as part of ourselves.

There is an inherent anxiety about this membership in the larger creation, Wirzba suggests, namely, what he describes as “the fear of interdependent need and responsibility” that

“compels us to see bodies (in some extreme cases even our own bodies) as alien and as a threat. We worry that the fragility of life will be the occasion for someone else to take advantage of us. Recoiling before our own vulnerability and need, we come to view others with suspicion. We become filled with the desire to control every body that we can” (Ibid, p. 104).

This anxiety results in various forms of exile, both forced and self-imposed—ecological, economic, and physiological—that constitute a state of alienation from full membership in the creation, characterized by “the belief that we can thrive alone and at the expense of others” and that fundamentally denies “the fact that we eat, and so depend on each other for our health and well-being. Because of this denial we forfeit the hope of communion” (Ibid. p. 109).

In this perspective, we see that the narrative of the meal is about Jesus’ most essential work. In it he addresses  just this denial and provides its remedy. On the one hand, as Myers suggested, the need for the disciples’ retreat to the attic room is an expression of this alienation and its impact of human relationship. The gathering of disciples in the Jerusalem attic was pervaded, it seems, both by deep “anxiety of membership” in their society and by a “fear of interdependent need and responsibility,” which compels their suspicion in others as alien and as a threat to their life. The washing and feeding of the disciples bodies, on the other hand, is an expression of restoration of human solidarity in membership both with other people and with the non-human creation that continually gives and sustains life.

At stake here is the interpretation of Jesus’ cross as a sacrifice. We note that the readings for Good Friday place particular emphasis on this theme. Jesus, the reading from Isaiah 52 reminds us, is God’s suffering servant who “shall startle many nations; kings shall shut their mouths because of him; and for that which had not been told them they shall see, and that which had not been heard they shall contemplate.” Psalm 22 offers, after its dreadful lament of forsakenness, the hope that “all the ends of the earth shall remember and turn to the Lord; and all the families of the nations shall worship before him.’ Why? Because “we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus,” as the reading from Hebrews 10 puts it, “by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great priest over the house of God.” Or alternately, from Hebrews 4 and 5, because “we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. . . . In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to the one who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and having been made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him . . . .” (Hebrews 4:14-16; 5: 7-9.)

Key to understanding the significance of the meal that Jesus shares with his disciple as a re-orientation to creation is that with his sacrifice he restores to those he feeds the sense of their bodies as created gifts from God. As Wirzba explains, citing David Bentley Hart, as a  replacement of the temple, Jesus’ sacrifice effects

“‘a miraculous reconciliation between God, who is the wellspring of all life, and his people, who are dead in sin.’ Christ’s blood, like the blood sprinkled in the Jewish temple, is not a substance of terror reflecting violence and death, but the medium of reconciliation healing division and renewing life by putting it on a divinely inspired, self-offering path. Christ is a continuation of the temple because it is in him that heaven (the place of God’s life) and earth (the place of creaturely life) meet. By participating (through Baptism and Eucharist) in his sacrificial life, Christ’s followers taste the fruit of heaven” (Ibid. pp. 124-25).

Accordingly, “when Christians declared Jesus to be the final and complete sacrifice who atones for sin (see Romans 3:25, Hebrews 2:17, and I John 2:2), they were not simply making a statement about the man from Nazareth. They were saying . . . that a sacrificial logic of self-offering has been at the heart of the divine life from all eternity” (Ibid., p 125) and “also characterizes created life” Why? “Because there is no life without sacrificial love, and no love without surrender, the destiny of all creatures is that they offer themselves or be offered up as the temporal expression of God’s eternal love” (Ibid., p. 126). Jesus’ life and death are finally about the “transformation of all life and the reparation of creation’s many memberships. Where life is broken, degraded, or hungry, Jesus repairs life, showing it to us as reconciled, protected, and fed” (Ibid. p. 147). And as members incorporated into his body, we are privileged to share in that ministry of restoration – of all creation!

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

First Sunday of Lent in Year B (Mundahl18)

Coming Down to Earth Tom Mundahl reflects on our vocation to make earth a hospitable household for all.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the First Sunday of Lent, Year B ( 2018, 2021, 2024)

Genesis 9:8-17
Psalm 25:1-10
1 Peter 3:18-22
Mark 1:9-15

During times of crisis God’s people have not only returned to their foundational stories, but have been called to interpret them in new ways that speak to the community of faith today. This opportunity is especially afforded by the season of Lent, when not only do we prepare candidates for baptism and ruminate on what it means to live as a resurrection community, but we also take seriously the call to repentance—turning our lives around and developing new mindsets. On Ash Wednesday we are starkly reminded of our mortality as we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” This surely provokes questioning of the quality and purpose of our lives: our vocation.

This Lent could not be more timely, because those of us called to build ecojustice in the United States are challenged by government and corporate leaders dead set on ignoring the most basic climate science, privatizing public lands, and extracting any “natural resource” that could turn a dollar’s profit. What we do to nature we do to people; so it is no surprise that normal patterns of immigration are threatened and the very notion of truth-telling is put at risk.

In recent years,  we have experienced a series of storms and wildfires of nearly unparalleled strength and duration, wreaking environmental damage and costing human life. While the economic costs of these storms is great, the message these events conveys is far more ominous. As Earth system scientists have pointed out, these events reveal a rupture in planetary history requiring us to recognize that we live in a new epoch, the “Anthropocene,” an unprecedented epoch in which human activity is impacting the ongoing course of evolution. It has become clear that the aim of industrial technology to bring the natural world under human supervision has produced quite the opposite effect.  Even though human alteration of the natural world has reached unimagined levels, “we are now more vulnerable to the power of nature in a way we have not known for at least 10,000 years since the last great ice sheets finally retreated. The climate system, in response, is becoming more energetic, bringing more storms, wildfires, droughts, and heat waves” (Clive Hamilton, Defiant Earth: The Fate of Humans in the Anthropocene, Cambridge: Polity, 2017, p. 45.) In a sense, “Gaia” has become enraged and is fighting back.

It is crucial to make clear that to call this new epoch “the anthropocene” in no way is to make a normative claim for human superiority.  Quite the contrary, it is a descriptive, scientific term attesting to how far our species is affected the planet. If we are to look at our time from the standpoint of value and responsibility, humans are “special” only in our “special responsibility” to recognize where we are and to respond appropriately. As French philosopher Bruno Latour suggests, “Either we deny the evidence of the problem or we look to come down to earth. This choice is what now divides people much more than being politically on the left or right.” (“The New Climate,” Harper’s, May 2017, p.13)

We need the season of Lent to help us “come down to earth,” to retreat to the desert to rediscover our identity and vocation that comes from a renewal of our baptismal calling. We will begin this journey by looking back at the story of Noah, the focus of this week’s First Reading.

The complex narrative of Noah begins with divine disgust at the violence and corruption of those who threaten the good creation (Genesis 6:11-13). The Priestly writers detail the instructions to Noah: build an ark of very specific dimensions and fill it with a male and female of every living thing.  Even though we are given no inkling to what lies ahead for Noah and the creatures, Noah is obedient and prepares for the flood. Echoing other flood stories circulating in the ancient middle east, this flood effectively blots out all of life except for Noah and all the genetic treasure contained in the ark, a “seed pod” for renewing creation.

In the face of this watery dismemberment of creation, “God remembered Noah and all the animals that were with him in the ark (Genesis 8:1).” As Walter Brueggemann suggests, “God is no longer angered but grieved.  He is not enraged but saddened. God does not stand over against but “with” his creation. Tellingly, the pain bequeathed to the woman in 3:16 (‘asav) is now felt by God” (Brueggemann, Genesis, Atlanta: John Knox, 1982, p.79). The crisis is not so much the flood but the pain that God endures for the sake of a wayward creation, pain transformed into promise in remembrance of the very purpose of creation.

The promise forms the content of this week’s lesson, and if it is a covenant, it is a covenant of promise for the renewal of creation.  Its features are clear: it is a covenant with Noah and his descendants (all humankind) and all living creatures, a covenant that promises never again (Genesis 9:12, 15) shall a flood destroy the earth. This covenant is sealed with the sign of the rainbow, the signature of God’s “unilateral disarmament” (Ellen Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture, Cambridge, 2009, p.18).

Indeed, this qualifies Noah to be the “new Adam.” “He is the fully responsive man who accepts creatureliness and lets God be God” (Brueggemann, p. 80). Not only is he the first to embody faith, but “he is righteous because, like God, he took upon himself the maintenance of all creation” (Norman Wirzba, The Paradise of God, Oxford, 2006, p. 33). It should come as no surprise, then, that Noah becomes the first planter of a vineyard, one of the richest sources both of fine drink and of a biblical metaphor (Genesis 9:20).

This covenant of promise provides courage and comfort for those who work for ecojustice.  William P. Brown puts it this way: “With the rainbow as its sign, God’s covenant, like the Sabbath, sets an example: it offers a model of human conduct, for only by covenant, by the resolute work of the human community working in consort, can life be sustained amid a new onslaught of destruction, this time wrought by human hands, against the community of creation” (The Seven Pillars of Creation, Oxford, 2010, p. 234). Writing in 2010, Brown’s warning was prescient. If the natural world is “fighting back,” what is the place of the rainbow covenant of promise?

As Brueggemann considers the Noah tradition, he reflects: “God resolves that he will stay with, endure, and sustain the world, not withstanding the sorry state of humankind. He is God. He takes as his vocation not judgment but the resilient work of affirmation on behalf of the death-creature” (Brueggemann, p. 81). Just as God’s people in the Babylonian exile were not abandoned, so the promise continues its validity. And it is no surprise that much of the Noah narrative comes from this period. But the capacity of humankind to physically alter the very Earth systems underlying earth functioning during the 12,000 years of the Holocene period, when the climate proved stable for what we call “development,” is beyond the imagination of even biblical writers.

How can we continue to model “down to earth” ecojustice in the tradition of Noah when a hole has been torn in the fabric of creation?

The psalmist reminds us that continued trust in the mercy and steadfast love (Psalm 25:6) of the creator is key to living fruitfully in the land. Because the theme of “waiting” is repeated (vv. 3, 5, 21), it is likely this psalm stems, like much of the First Reading, from the time of exile (James L. Mays, Psalms, Louisville, John Knox, 1994, p. 125). The ultimate result hoped for is that the humble who learn the paths of the LORD will “abide in prosperity, and their children shall possess the land “(Psalm 25:13). As Ellen Davis argues, “For God, earth is mortal—for God, humans are earthy, both earth and its inhabitants are mutually destructive when their relationship with God is severed” (Davis, p. 19). The way past this “shame” and back to their homeland (Psalm 25:2, 3) is active walking in God’s paths (v. 4), another “down to earth” approach to holistic community health, health that includes care for the land.

The Second Lesson from 1 Peter also stems from a time of great pressure, this time on the early community of the Risen One, dispersed as “resident aliens” (1 Peter 1:1-2) throughout the regions of what today comprises Turkey. While the level of persecution is not specific, it is clear that believers have been arrested and required to give an account of their faith (1:6) in a “judgment to begin with the household of God” (4:17).

But this oppression is to be met with confidence: in baptism believers have been “built into a spiritual house” (2: 5) and been transformed into “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people that . . . proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light “(2:9). With this strong foundation, community members are alerted  to “Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and  reverence” (3:15-16).

What is the basis of this bold courage? The author finds it in the baptismal imagery of Noah and the great flood (Pheme Perkins, First and Second Peter, James and Jude, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 65). He does this to describe Jesus’ proclamation to the spirits responsible for creation’s distress at the time of Noah (3:19-20). And, because Jesus did this, the resurrection community which, like Noah, has gone through the water—this time of baptism—and landed in the ark of the ecclesia now has spiritual power to do the same in a situation where, all too often, informers and secret police agents were eager and ready to pounce (Bo Reicke, The Epistles of James, Peter, and Jude, The Anchor Bible, New York: Doubleday, 1964, p. 73). Their power has been broken. (Ibid., p. 111)

That is, baptismal creation of the new “household of faith” corresponds to Noah’s planting a vineyard—planting a new kind of community with the resilient confidence to flourish even in the face of oppression (John H. Elliott, 1 Peter, The Anchor Bible, New York: Doubleday, 2000, p. 692). That Christ’s work is cosmic in scope and truly trans-historical is made clear by this reading, the central text in the letter which gives a theological basis for the confident hope of the believers’ experiences in the face of persecution. For this text makes it clear that by going through the “baptismal flood,” every Christian is Christianus alter Christus, a second Christ (Ibid.).

Just this source of courage is needed now to counter a regime that aims at extracting maximal levels of carbon to burn and sell, resulting in an even more rapid despoiling of God’s earth. If there is anything to be learned from our fearful transition to the “anthropocene epoch,” it is that our baptismal vocation “to care for others and the world God made, and work for justice and peace . . . .” (“Holy Baptism,” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2006, p. 228) must be emphasized even more energetically.

In their 2014 manifesto, Uncivilization, leaders of the predominantly UK-based Dark Mountain movement focused on countering the headlong destruction of the planet affirm: “We believe the roots of these crises lie in the stories we have been telling ourselves. We intend to challenge the stories which underpin our civilization: the myth of progress, the myth of human centrality (that is, the normative “right” humans have to benefit at the expense of creation), and the myth of our separation from nature” (Uncivilization, Dark Mountain Project, 2014, p. 30). The Christian story, when seen from the standpoint of creation, provides the right alternative, bringing us through the flood to plant new vineyards and nurturing new communities that gives us vision and courage even in the face of an angry Gaia.

We see the power of the Christian story in the very first words of Mark’s Gospel: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1).  In this simple phrase, the author rips an iceberg-size gash in the side of the Roman Empire where “the good news” was the birth of “the most divine Caesar” which is a “new beginning for the world” (John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire, San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2007, p. 147). As we can see from the text, even though Mark describes Jesus’ entry onto the world stage with less fanfare, he comes as “the stronger one.”

Leaving Galilee for Jordan River, the site of John’s ministry, Jesus’ arrival is almost unnoticed. But he, too, is baptized and as he emerges from the water, “he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him” (1: 10). Here we see the result of Jesus’ baptism: a new tearing of the heavens. Not only does this satisfy the longing cry from Isaiah, “O, that you would tear open the heavens and come down” (Isaiah 64:1), but this violent verb of tearing is repeated at the moment of his death, when he “breathes out his spirit” and the temple curtain is torn in two (Mark 15:38). Clearly, the one who brings new creation is on the loose, unconfined by humanly-engineered sacred spaces (Donald Juel, Master of Surprise: Mark Interpreted, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1994, p. 34).

To educated readers of the Hellenistic world, the notion of a tear in the fabric of the world was shocking. Had they not steeped themselves in the cosmology of Plato’s Timaeus, the most-studied Greek text after Homer?  According to the Timaeus, the earth is a perfectly-balanced work of harmony plainly visible to any thinking person with normal vision. Of course, that eliminates those who were blind. Anyone who could not see was incapable of being a philosopher and attaining the good life (Peter Kalkavge, Plato’s Timaeus, Newburyport, MA, Focus Publishing, 2001, (47 b,c), p. 78).

But in Mark’s Gospel, with its massive tear in Timaeus’ perfect world, it is precisely the blind who are able to see most clearly. Immediately following Jesus’ three passion predictions, he encounters a blind man named Bartimaeus. Not only is this a name not found in his culture, it takes very little to realize that symbolically he is bar-Timaeus, the “son” of Timaeus. As Jesus passes bar-Timaeus’ begging corner in Jericho, the beggar shouts out to the embarrassment of the crowd, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me” (Mark 10:47). Somehow this son of Timaeus can “see” that Jesus is Son of David, the expected one. After this cry is repeated, Jesus calls him to get up and approach him. “Throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus” (v. 50).

So is it his “philosopher’s cloak” he is throwing off, or simply his need to beg, as he engages in the ritual performance preceding early Christian baptism? (Gordon Lathrop, Holy Ground: A Liturgical Cosmology, Minneapolis: Fortress, 2003, p. 33). Whatever we conclude, Bartimaeus gains his sight and, as a new catechumen-disciple, he “follows Jesus on the way” (v.52). Even though he is blind, he has found the path toward the “best life.”

Mark’s cosmology breaks the cosmological structure of the Timaeus.  Everywhere the Greco-Roman world (including Judea) is full of the blind, the possessed, and the hungry, those demanding a “sign” to validate their religious opinions. It is no wonder (or, is it a great wonder?) that God’s action tears a hole in the fabric of Timaeus assumption that the world is only beautiful, balanced, and perfect. For now even the blind and the centurions on “the other side” can find a sense of belonging. “A new sense exists that all the houses, fields, and families of the earth can be seen as home to those who follow Jesus” (Mark 10:30).

The broad compass of this new beginning is made clear by the voice heard as Jesus emerges from the water: “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” The first part of this powerful sentence refers to Psalm 2, an enthronement psalm, where the psalmist contrasts the king about to be enthroned with the “kings of the earth (who) set themselves . . . against the LORD and his anointed” (Psalm 2:2). This royal one emerging from the water, however, rules not as tyrant, but as a servant, indicated by God’s pleasure in his humility (Isaiah 42:1). While servanthood is often given lip service by royalty, it has never been demonstrated as fully as it has by this newly baptized one, who shreds the job description of all royalty.

And then he is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness, where, as one who seems native to the ragged edges of the official world (e.g. Galilee), he is tested. The tempter is there; and so are the “beasts” perhaps representing the kings and other powers opposing him (Daniel 7). Despite these challenges, not only is he served by the angels, but there seems to be a kind of desert refreshment that propels Jesus on “his way.” As Belden Lane writes, “The place of death in the desert becomes the place of miraculous nourishment and hope, while the place of order and stability of Jerusalem leads only to the chaos of the cross.” (The Solace of Fierce Landscapes: Exploring Desert and Mountain Spirituality, Oxford, 1998, p. 44)

We began this reflection confessing that we humans are responsible for the massively powerful systems that have pushed the climate God’s earth beyond the point of equilibrium, with even more desert being created—the Sahel in Africa and the increasing size of China’s Gobi. This “rupture” requires more serious action than the Paris Accords of 2015 have called for, even though this agreement is a beginning.

What people of faith cannot do is sit back and rest on the graciousness of the Noachic Covenant.  For this covenant only promises that God will never again destroy the earthnot that human beings cannot do so. During this Lenten season of repentance—turning around and being renewed in our thinking—where is hope?

Perhaps hope lies in the fact that the community of faith often discovers new hope at “point zero.” The stable world of the holocene epoch (11,700 years!) may be over, but even in the face of climate change, over-population, and rapid species extinction (Richard Heinberg, “There is No App for That,” Post-Carbon Institute, 2017 (www.postcarbon.org), new ways of coming down to earth and serving creation may be discovered. But even though God often works sub contrario (under the appearance of opposites), bringing new life out of deluge, finding insight and sight in blindness, or puncturing the safety of an old cosmology to usher in new creation, as creatures we have no choice but to own our limitations, mitigate climate damage, and care for this earth as best we can. It is, after all, our home; and our vocation is to make it a hospitable household for all.

Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com

Originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2018.

First Sunday of Christmas in Year B (Ormseth11)

All Nature Sings! Dennis Ormseth reflects on the incarnate God, given for all creation.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for the First Sunday of Christmas, Year B (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3
Psalm 148
Galatians 4:4-7
Luke 2:22-40

“All Nature Sings”

The readings for the First Sunday after Christmas conform to the pattern of praise and witness we have observed in the Christmas lectionary so far. The circle of nature’s praise is dramatically enlarged, and our understanding of the reason for this praise is deepened. Psalm 148 is the classic example of the points made by Terry Fretheim regarding nature’s praise (see the introduction to our comments on the lessons for The Nativity of Our Lord).  Heavens, heights, all the host of angels, sun, moon, shining stars, highest heavens and waters above the heavens; sea monsters and all deeps, fire and hail, snow and frost, stormy wind; mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds, and human beings. The list amply illustrates the psalmist’s “ecological” awareness: each entity contributes its unique voice, but it does so in complementary ways as an orchestrated whole

The Lord creates the fruits of the earth and the fruits of righteousness.

Why does all creation raise this extraordinary chorus of praise? The psalm itself emphasizes God’s generative, ordering creativity: God “commanded and they were created;” God “established them forever and ever; he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.” All things know their limits and work together cooperatively and sustainably. The reading from Isaiah adds more seasonal focus to this by repeating words from the Third Sunday of Advent, words that revel in awareness of God’s saving presence among God’s faithful, an awareness that is connected to renewed vitality of the earth: “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God causes righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” But it is the story of the presentation of Jesus in the temple in Jerusalem that gives us a most surprising justification for the praise of God by all creation.

On the surface, the story of the presentation of Jesus to the Lord in the temple is a rather straightforward tale of obedience to the traditions of Israel. As Luke Timothy Johnson puts it, “the Messiah will emerge from within a family and social world deeply enmeshed in the traditions of Israel, a pious and expectant ‘people of God.’ His parents observe the laws regarding circumcision, purification, and presentation of the first born as dedicated to the Lord, and do so within the symbolic heart of the people, Jerusalem, and its Temple” (Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, p.  56). Yet the observance here is anything but conventional. The temple is the holy center of national life, and the boy is brought there to be “designated as holy to the Lord” (Luke 2:23). But his holiness clearly derives from elsewhere, as the prophetic Simeon acknowledges by the power of the Holy Spirit which has drawn him to this encounter with “the Lord’s Messiah.” Jesus is the “salvation” God has “prepared in the presence of all people.”

Jesus is the salvation that loves, heals, and transforms.

Fred Strickert highlights the irony of the scene: “a closer examination of the text brings to light a stark contrast between the old reality and the world into which Jesus was born and the new reality of his life and ministry.” In this sacred space, access to which was limited to Jews and only partially open to Jewish women, Simeon declares Jesus “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel,” without distinction or qualification. And what he has to say will be heard by Mary and witnessed by the ancient Anna, herself also a prophetess. Simeon, Strickert suggests, “sees what others would not and declares inclusion of the whole world in this place of exclusion.” Similarly, Anna, “a woman doing a man’s job,” blesses the child. “These two represent all of those without title that Jesus will meet, love, heal, and transform.” (Beth Tanner, “First Sunday of Christmas,” in New Proclamation, Year B 2012 Advent through Holy Week, p. 46-47. Strickert’s comment is quoted by Tanner from his article, “The Presentation of Jesus:  The Gospel of Inclusion.  Luke 2:22-40,” Currents in Theology and Mission 22, no. 1 (1995): 33.)

The temple and its place in Jewish national life are clearly being challenged by the infant boy brought there for blessing. This challenge has been anticipated in the sequence of lections read during Advent and Christmas, as the opening of the Gospel of Mark presented a clear break with the temple-state in favor of “the one who is coming,” and the Gospel of John confirms this transfer of God’s presence from the temple, first to the womb of Mary and then to the house of the church with the proclamation of the Word made flesh, whose glory we have seen, “the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14; see our comments on the lections for the Sundays of Advent and for Christmas for the development of this theme). In having Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the temple, Luke might seem on the one hand to resist this transfer, or at least ignore it;  the Isaian prophecy of the first reading might prompt us, after all, to see in the presentation itself the fulfillment of prophecy concerning Jerusalem and its temple: “For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest, until her vindication shines out like the dawn, and her salvation like a burning torch”  (Isaiah 62:1-2). Yet we note that even this prophecy points to “the nations” who shall see this vindication, and to “all the kings” who will see God’s glory. Just so, the prophet Simeon announces “the light for revelation to the Gentiles” and of glory “to your people Israel.” And if the prophetess Anna speaks of the child precisely “to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem,” it is because these two affirmations complement each other. As we recalled in our comment on Mary’s Magnificat on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, God’s promises to Abraham included a blessing to be a blessing for all the nations. Jerusalem and its temple is no longer at the center of God’s story.

God moves from the temple to the creation at large.

If Mark suggested displacement of God from the temple to Jesus, here the appropriation of the temple and its meanings fit better here as a description of Luke’s strategy, just as it does for the Gospel of John. The temple is not without ongoing significance in the course of Jesus’ life and mission (See the list of relevant passages in David Tiede, Luke, p. 74). And indeed, its meaning for him already casts a shadow over the boy’s future here in the story of the presentation. As Simon tells Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” This foreshadowing of the opposition that Jesus will encounter and the crucifixion that such opposition will lead to is symbolized here by the mention of the “pair of turtle doves or two young pigeons’ the offering of the poor which Joseph and Mary  brought for sacrifice.

Borg and Crossan’s observation about the Christmas stories being “parabolic overtures” to their gospels which, with great economy and literary creativity, serve as a “summary, synthesis, metaphor, or symbol of the whole’” of each narrative is again well taken. In this perspective even the smallest detail may register a profound shift in perspective and meaning. For an evangelist that “is interested in temple practices and settings, and intent on demonstrating the faithfulness of Jesus and his followers to true temple worship” (so writes David Tiede, Ibid.), the matter of the sacrifices mentioned here is a bit of a puzzle. The text mentions both the ritual of consecration of the firstborn (Exodus 13:20) and the sacrifice for the purification of the mother (Leviticus 12:8).  But, as Tiede points out, “Luke speaks of ‘their purification,’”  implying that both Mary and Joseph are purified. And while the law actually stipulated a redemption price of five shekels for the consecration of the boy and a lamb and a dove or two doves for the ritual cleansing of the mother, only the later is mentioned, and the less costly offering provided for the poor is the option taken. Gordon Lathrop thinks that Luke conflates the traditions here: “the birds for the sacrifice being juxtaposed to the ‘presented’ child.” The conflation goes to support a key point of the text, Lathrop suggests, because it reminds us that the temple is

“a place of ritual killing. That the child is carried into that place makes us hear the text in a certain way. In succeeding texts in the Gospel of Luke, Jesus will be spoken against in the temple (Luke 20:1ff) and his death will be prophesied there (20:15; cf. 19;47). If he is “set” for the falling and rising of many in Israel, it is as a stone in temple building (20:17-18), which is rejected and yet becomes the source and ground of the rising new temple. He falls and rises and so is the source of all rising (Lathrop, “The First Sunday after Christmas,’ in Proclamation 4: Advent/Christmas, Series B, pp. 52-53).

Thus, the Gospel of the day brings Jesus’ future suffering into the midst of Christmas. The shadow of the crucifixion darkens the entry of the family into the temple. But the story foreshadows even more; and it is this “more” that makes clear the justification for the fulsome praise of all creation.

As several commentators have noted, Simeon’s song has been appropriated to the Christian eucharistic liturgy as the canticle following distribution of the bread and wine. The words are of course entirely appropriate: in the service, we, too, have seen God’s “salvation, which God has prepared in the presence of all peoples.” But perhaps more yet is intended here. Simeon is a prophetic figure, but he is commonly represented in Christian art as a priest. This assumption is natural, not only because he comes to the temple, but also because the pattern of this story confirms closely to the ordo of the Christian liturgy. The participants in the story have been gathered there by the Holy Spirit. Simeon takes the boy up in his arms and praises God. But then he bespeaks of the boy’s future suffering and death, with which Mary is now incorporated: a sword will pierce her soul, too. Just as bread and wine are taken and lifted up in blessing, then broken and distributed, so also is the boy taken, lifted up in blessing, and his breaking is anticipated in speech inspired by the Holy Spirit. And as at her annunciation, Mary is the church, whose destiny is identified with that of the child. We who hear this story read aloud in the assembly of the congregation know ourselves to be allies of the suddenly present and active Anna, who gives thanks and who proceeds to spread the word, speaking “about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

In the meal is revealed grace by which the incarnate God is given to all creation.

If this encounter cannot be described as the first Christian Eucharist, it nonetheless anticipates that meal with sufficient clarity to justify the praise of all creation which we join to the story in our singing of Psalm 148. Here is revealed the means of grace by which the incarnate God will be given to all creation. As Lathrop again notes, as the temple suggests the theme of suffering, it “also suggests the theme of light. This house is, after all, the ancient dwelling place of the glory of God. It is the place of light.” The new temple “of which this child is the cornerstone is not a place of killing. His suffering is the end of that” (Ibid. p. 53).

In Christ, God is in solidarity with suffering creation.

There is much to consider here, but, surely, we can understand that creation has reason to praise God. In the first place, in place of the practice of animal sacrifice is substituted the eventual sacrifice of the cross, which brings healing and new life to the world God loves. The non-human animals among God’s creatures will surely rejoice! More fundamentally, as a comment by Christopher Southgate (which we quoted a year ago as we reflected on the story of Herod’s killing of the innocents) brings out, God’s presence to the creation is here revealed to be a suffering presence “of the most profoundly attentive and loving sort, a solidarity that at some deep level takes away the aloneness of the suffering creature’s experience” (The Groaning of Creation:  God, Evolution, and the Problem of Evil, p. 52). The incarnation we celebrate at Christmas is accordingly “the event by which God takes this presence and solidarity with creaturely existence to its utmost, and thus ‘takes responsibility’ for all the evil in creation—both the humanly wrought evil and the harms to all creatures” (Ibid., p. 76). Just so, since this pertains to all creatures, considered both as collective species and as individuals, all things and all creatures find reason to rejoice, and do so greatly. In our Christmas worship, we are privileged to join in their song.

All nature sings.

The Lord creates the fruits of the earth and the fruits of righteousness.

Jesus is the salvation that loves, heals, and transforms.

God moves from the temple to the creation at large.

In the meal is revealed grace by which the incarnate God is given to all creation.

In Christ, God is in solidarity with suffering creation.

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

Christmas Eve and Day (Nativity of Our Lord) in Year A (Ormseth10)

A Light Shining in the Darkness – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day readings.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common

Lectionary Readings for Christmas Eve (2010, 2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Psalm 96
Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14 [15-20]

Readings for Christmas Day 

Psalm 97 or 98
Isaiah 62:6-12 or 52:7-10
Titus 3:4-7 or Hebrews 1:1-14 (5-12)
Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20 or John 1:1-14

Introduction

The birth of Jesus is an occasion for great joy in the church. What we have hoped for and waited for, not just in the season of Advent but also in “all the years” of hope and fear, begins to be realized in this event. It comes naturally to us, therefore, to draw on great psalms of praise to give voice to this joy—Psalm 96 for Christmas Eve, Psalm 97 or 98 for Christmas Day, and Psalm 148 on the First Sunday after Christmas. What strikes this reader looking for the “green meaning” of Christmas is the expectation these psalms share, namely,  that “all the Earth” will join with God’s people in these songs of praise. In remarkable unison, they give voice to nature’s praise. Using these psalms, therefore, the church embraces the notion that “all the Earth” joins our celebration of the birth of Jesus.

What are we to make of this notion of nature’s praise? Is it simply a poetic convention, in terms of which the psalmist imagines rather anthropocentrically that the non-human creation has voice and desire to sing such songs? In his book God and World in the Old Testament, Terry Fretheim argues that commonly this kind of interpretation closes off important possibilities and denies the texts the full depth of their expressive thickness. The call for non-human creatures to voice their praise, he suggests, functions like metaphors for God that are drawn from nature. While there is obviously an aspect of “is and is not” in saying, for example, that “God is [like] a rock” or God is [like] a mother eagle,” in some measure these creatures do “reflect in their very existence, in their being what they are, the reality which is God.” The use of such natural metaphors “opens up the entire created order as a resource for depth and variety in our God language.”

Similarly, calling on natural entities to voice their praise draws “attention to the range of God’s creative work and hence God’s praise-worthiness.” Listing the creatures together, which occurs frequently, suggests the importance of both the individuality and the complementary nature of their praise. Each entity’s praise is distinctive according to its intrinsic capacity and fitness, with varying degrees of complexity, and yet each entity is also part of the one world of God, contributing its praise to that of the whole. The model of the symphony orchestra comes to mind, Fretheim suggests, and environmental considerations are immediately present as well. For if one member of the orchestra is incapacitated or missing altogether, the scope, complexity and intensity of the praise will be less than what it might otherwise be. Indeed, “environmental sensitivity in every age is for the sake of the praise of God and the witness it entails,” and it has “implications for God’s own possibilities in the world.” In fact, the responsiveness of the creatures to the call to praise is itself a factor in the realization of these possibilities. In their interaction with God, the creatures can become “more of what they are or have the potential of becoming” (Fretheim, pp. 255-9).

Our purpose in the following comments on the readings for the Nativity of Our Lord here, and for the First Sunday of Christmas subsequently, is to show how the use of these psalms in the celebration of the birth of Jesus brings into focus certain “environmental sensitivities” in the stories of Christmas. What is it in these stories, we ask, that might be seen to give rise to non-human nature’s praise, beyond human praising? Answers to this question, it is significant to note, have been anticipated in our comments on the lections for the Season of Advent, the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent especially.  As we shall see, first the good news for Earth in the message of Mary’s Magnificat, is developed fulsomely in the Lukan birth narrative; and, secondly, the affirmations regarding creation we found in the Annunciation story from the Fourth Sunday of Advent are richly celebrated in the lections for Christmas Day.

Christmas Eve

“O sing to the lord a new song;
sing to the lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.” (96:1-3)

Praise and witness are here united, as “all the earth” joins in a song of praise and declares God’s glory among all the peoples. Indeed, perhaps only the full witness of “all the earth” is adequate to the challenge posed, if “all the people” are indeed to hear and join in praise of God. So we listen for the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; we watch for the field to exult, and everything in it, and “then all the trees of the forest sing for joy” at the Lord’s coming (96:11-12). We note the complementary nature of the creatures called on to give praise: habitat and animals, in the sea and in the field, constitute natural harmonies; sea and land unite in a cantus firmus, as it were, with the trees making up the chorus. All Earth makes magnificent music, because the Lord is coming to judge the earth—meaning that the Lord will restore the good order of creation and teach the peoples how they might live in accordance with that order, indeed teach “the truth.”

Why exactly is this cause for nature’s joy? A key linkage between the psalm’s praise and the Gospel for Christmas Eve is in the contrasting metaphors of light and darkness. As we noted in comments on Isaiah 7:10-16, the first reading for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, the “darkness” in which people walk, is the “distress and hunger” they experienced looking out on the devastated Earth in a time of warfare between the nations. That is to say, the metaphor of “darkness” refers to more than a spiritual or moral condition; it points to the lived experience when the physical landscape has been disordered and its productivity destroyed by human sinfulness. So also with regard to the contrasting image of “the light.” Here the prospects for the people are reversed. As the nation is multiplied, the people rejoice as at the harvest. The people are freed from oppression; and the boots of the ‘tramping warriors” and all the bloodied garments of war are to be burned. The birth of a child initiates a lasting reign of peace with justice and righteousness. The cessation of violent destruction, coupled with the fulfillment of life as embodied in the promised reign of a wise and gracious king. All of this comprises the “light shining in the darkness.”

Borg and Crossan develop the parallel passage from darkness to light exhibited in Luke’s story of Christmas, reading it within the military, economic, political, and ideological contexts of Luke’s writing. The Emperor Augustus had brought peace to the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, bringing to a close a generation of civil war between the rival leaders of the Roman Republic. It had seemed as if the Empire “was destroying itself and ruining much of the Mediterranean world in the process of its own destruction,” Borg and Crossan comment (p. 61). With the great sea battle of Actium, however, the wars were over, and a long period of peace ensued. An inscription at Halicarnassus on the Aegean coast lauded Caesar Augustus, proclaiming that “land and sea are at peace and the cities flourish with good order, concord and prosperity.”

The false character of this imperial peace is suggested, however, by how the Roman legions enforced that peace in Palestine around the time of the birth of Jesus. Upon the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, Jewish rebels in several places rose to throw off Roman rule. A rebellion at Sepphoris, capital of Galilee and just a few miles north of Nazareth, was put down with typical violence. Roman legions from Syria captured the city, burnt it, and enslaved its inhabitants. What happened elsewhere no doubt became the fate of people from Sepphoris as well, Borg and Crossan suggest: “either there was timely flight to hiding places well known to the local peasantry, or its males were murdered, its females raped, and its children enslaved. If they escaped, the little they had would be gone when they returned home, because, as another rebel said, when you had nothing, the Romans took even that. ‘They make a desert and call it peace.’” Borg and Crossan speculate that Jesus would have been told the story of this destruction by his mother Mary, perhaps to help him understand why his father had disappeared.

Contrast this “darkness’ with the “light” of Luke’s story. The night of Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us, was filled with light all around. The shepherds on the hills above Bethlehem were engulfed in “the glory of the Lord” as a host of angels sing praise to God and proclaim “peace on earth among those whom he favors!” The shepherds, representative of the marginalized peasant class that experienced Roman oppression and exploitation most acutely, live on the hills with their herd, close to the earth. They come down to honor their newly born prince of peace, and thus do heaven and earth join in praise of God’s salvation. The story, Borg and Crossan suggest, is a subversive parable of how things should be—and how they will be when the kingdom of God displaces the reign of Caesar, when the eschatological peace with justice and righteousness supplants the Roman Empire’s “peace through victory.”

As an “overture” to the gospel, Luke’s Christmas story anticipates the full story of his Gospel. Rival kingdoms promise peace: peace through victory or peace through justice and righteousness, darkness or light. Who is the true prince of peace? The one who turns the land into a desert? Or the one whose admirers come from heaven and from the hills to join in united praise? The light shines in the darkness, and beholding the light, both sea and land and all their inhabitants join in a new song in praise of their Creator—with the singing trees making up the chorus!

Christmas Day

“Let the earth rejoice!” (Psalm 97:1). Clouds, thick darkness, fire, and lightning attend the arrival of the ruler whose throne is established on a foundation of righteousness and justice. So “the earth sees and trembles” (97:2-4). “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” The sea and all that fills it will roar, joined by the world and all its inhabitants; the floods clap their hands and the hills sing for joy at the presence of the Lord, “for he is coming to judge the earth” (Psalm 98:4). Again today the church employs nature’s praise to celebrate the birth of Jesus. (For a discussion of the interpretation of nature’s praise, refer to our introduction on the readings for the Nativity of our Lord, above). And again our question is: What exactly gives rise to nature’s joy? What is the judgment that all the Earth awaits?

In the readings for Christmas Eve, the contrasting metaphors of light and darkness provided the link between the psalmist’s song of all the Earth and the Christmas story. The metaphor of a marriage covenant provides the link for these readings for Christmas Day: “You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. (Isaiah 62:4). This verse is not actually part of the assigned scripture. It would be helpful to include it for the liturgical reading, since it provides the premise for what follows. The land clearly benefits from this covenant between God and the people of Israel. There will be grain to feed the people, and wine to be enjoyed by those who labored to produce it—an agrarian image of local agricultural practice, in which the land is cherished and lovingly cared for, contrasted with the desolated land characteristic of the economy of a foreign empire exploiting the land and denying the farmer its benefits (62:8-9). The passage exhibits a frequently noted consequence of God’s saving judgment, as summarized by Terry Fretheim in his God and World in the Old Testament: the “work of God with human beings will also positively affect the estranged relationship between human beings, the animals, and the natural orders more generally. Indeed . . . human salvation will only then be realized“(p. 196)Inclusion of the land in the benefits of the covenant makes it clear, as Fretheim puts it, that “God’s creation is at stake in Israel’s behaviors, not simply their more specific relationship with God” (p. 165).

Our other scripture readings for Christmas Day share this premise, and extend the scope of the significance of Christmas. The selection from the Letter to the Hebrews says that the Son whose birth we celebrate is “appointed heir of all things,” and is the one “through whom the worlds are created, and by whom all things are sustained.” And the prologue of John, the climactic Gospel reading for this high feast of Christmas, anchors this divine embrace of creation in a three-fold, cosmic affirmation: The Word that is from the beginning, is the agent through whom all things come into being; he is life itself; and he “became flesh and lived among us.” Being, life, and human selfhood are the three great mysteries of the creation. The light shining in the darkness is primordial, cosmic light, which the darkness cannot overcome. As Norman Wirzba writes in The Paradise of God, “God becomes a human being and in so doing, enters the very materiality that constitutes creation. The home of God, rather than being a heaven far removed from our plight, is here” (pp. 16-17). Niels Henrik Gregerson captures the significance of this embodiment for modern readers in his concept of “deep incarnation:” Christ is incarnate in putting on not only human nature but “also a scorned social being and a human-animal body, at once vibrant and vital and yet vulnerable to disease and decay.” (Quoted by Christopher Southgate in The Groaning of Creation, p. 167). For a provocative elaboration of Gregerson’s notion of ‘deep incarnation” as a contrast to Arne Naess’s deep ecology, see his “From Deep Ecology to Deep Incarnation, and Back Again,” (available online.)

So yes, “all the earth” has the profoundest reason to rejoice at the birth of Jesus: all things rejoice for what this event means, for both the human and non-human creatures. In Jesus, God embraces Earth absolutely and irrevocably. Every shadow of cosmic dualism is banished by the light of the Christmas gospel.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2010.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

 

Sunday July 24-30 in Year A (Ormseth)

Feast on These Parables from Nature! Dennis Ormseth  reflects on the messy business of God’s kingdom.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 

Readings for Sunday July 24-30, Year A (2011, 2014, 2017, 2020, 2023)

1 Kings 3:5-12
Psalm 119:129-136
Romans 8:26-39
Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52

Our reflection on the teaching of Jesus, the Lord, the Servant of Creation, continues to explore themes significant for caring for creation days in a medley of new parables: the Mustard Seed; the Yeast, Treasure Hidden in a Field; A Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls; and a Net Thrown into the Sea. As with the parables from the previous two Sundays, our reading brings out new treasures along with the old treasures (Matthew 13:51). Similarly, the reading from Romans continues from where we left off last Sunday, in considering life in the Spirit, the Lord, the Giver of Life. We turn first to the teaching of Jesus the Servant of Creation.

The mustard seed: What a strange mess is this kingdom! The parable begins with signs of the unclean, a planting in a garden, and will not meet grandiose expectations. Yet. . . the birds will find shelter in its shade.

The Mustard Seed. Again we encounter a sower planting seed, and, again, like the sowers who cast the seed wildly and forgot to protect the field from alien intruders, the action of the sower strikes us as unlikely. A farmer in the ancient world would normally not sow a mustard seed in the midst of his field. As Bernard Brandon Scott point out, “the mustard, a common plant in the eastern world, grew and spread quickly. Consequently, a farmer sought to control its seeds.” The plant, this comment suggests, was regarded somewhat as we would an evasive species. More importantly, in Jewish tradition, the action of sowing depicted here could be seen as a violation of the “rules of diverse kinds.” These rules “had as their purpose to bring order into the disorderly world, and the creation of order in this world replicates the division between the sacred and the profane. Where things could or could not be planted and what could be planted or mixed together were important for the maintenance of purity boundaries.” Following other commentators, Scott notes that “a mustard seed could not be planted in a garden,” where vegetables would be the usual planting. And it could be planted in a field only in carefully proscribed spaces. The parable thus begins with “a metaphor of impurity.” The sower “has risked breaking the law of diverse kinds by mixing what should not be mixed. . .” (Scott, Hear Then the Parable:  A Commentary on the Parables of Jesus, pp. 374-76, 381). How is the kingdom of heaven like a sower who proceeds in such a disordered, unholy manner?

The focus of interpretation, of course, is usually more on the seed than the sower, precisely because the seed is very small, and the tree that grows from it, at least in the parable, is “the greatest of shrubs and becomes a tree.” The parable is about astonishing growth, this suggests:  the kingdom, though small and hidden, will become very large and impressive, thus confirming its divine character. This perhaps makes good sense for us, for whom growth is culturally taken to be a nearly unmitigated good. However, that would not have been true for the ancient farmer, for whom the growth of an invasive species like the mustard seed had to be seen as an agricultural disaster! Nor is it true for an ecologically aware reader, who would appreciate the possible harm to be done to the field. As Scott notes: “The seed’s planting and its growth create a conflict for a hearer. Is this growth a divine blessing or a violation? Is it clean or unclean? How is one to decide?” (Ibid., p. 383).

To make things worse, in a sense, the parable’s shrub outgrows the normal limits of its “kind,” to become a tree. No anticipation of Darwinian evolution, this; on the contrary, this transformation is miraculous: the shrub is transformed into a “mixed allusion” familiar to the ancient hearer as the “eschatological tree of Ezekiel and Daniel,” which, like the great cedar of Lebanon, shelters not only birds in its branches, but underneath them, gathers “all the creatures of the earth.” Scott concludes: ‘A hearer is left to make sense, to fit together a mustard plant that has pretensions to the grandeur of a cedar of Lebanon. How that resolution takes place leads from story to kingdom” (Ibid., p. 385-86).

The parable makes a light-hearted burlesque of the noble cedar as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God by substituting the mustard shrub.

Scott concludes: the parable “makes a light-hearted burlesque of the noble cedar as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God by substituting the mustard shrub.” Although a symbol of both strength and protection, the cedar also represents pride: “A Grain of Mustard Seed extends the logic of Ezekiel [17]. All cedars and trees, even Israel, will be brought low.” It is the lowly mustard bush, scandalously planted in the field of the world that both political and religious authorities seek to keep well-ordered according to a static conception of the creation, that “will ‘bear Israel’s true destiny’” (Ibid., p. 386; Scott cites Robert W Funk, Jesus as Precursor, for this point). Still, significantly, the mustard bush does what the cedar would do: provide shelter for the birds of the air. “The parable begins with signs of the unclean, a planting in a garden, and will not meet grandiose expectations. Yet. . . the birds will find shelter in the shrub’s shade. Many have preferred the mustard tree, this unnatural malformity of mythical botany, to the recognition that God’s mighty works are among the unclean and insignificant” (Ibid., p. 387).

A tree does not exist for itself alone, but for others. So it is with those who are part of the kingdom of God!

The sower, we note, might well have his own purposes: to provide a niche for creatures that do not easily fit into the economic calculations of our agricultural, “growth” obsessive, economy. A field on the University of Minnesota agricultural campus in St. Paul had for years several large cages to trap birds that disrupted the research conducted in it. A sower who deliberately seeds a tree to host birds in the midst of his field is of a different mind-set, a servant of all creation, perhaps, who meets the needs all creatures (sometimes by creative adaptation, even!), and not only those of human beings. In good ecological form, whether mighty cedar or lowly mustard, the tree does not exist for itself alone, but for others. So it is with those who are part of the kingdom of God!

The Yeast.  The parable of the yeast begins in a way similar to the Mustard Seed, with a highly ambiguous image of growth. Scott calls the parable “one rotten apple.” The yeast, a woman, and her kneading the dough, combine to offer an image of impurity. As Scott notes, yeast (leaven) “is made by taking a piece of bread and storing it in a damp, dark place until mold forms. The bread rots and decays, unlike modern yeast, which is domesticated.” Leavened bread was for everyday use; only unleavened bread was appropriate for holy days (Ibid., p. 324). The negative connotations of “leaven” are familiar: “the involvement with even a little evil can corrupt the whole,” and Matthew elsewhere associates leaven with the “teaching of the Pharisees and Sadducees (16:12).” How, the hearer must ask, “can the kingdom be like leaven?” (Scott, pp. 324-25) As to the woman, Scott quotes Albrecht Oepke: “Characteristic of the traditional position and estimation of woman is a saying current in different forms among the Persians, Greeks and Jews in which man gives thanks that he is not an unbeliever or uncivilized, that he is not a woman and that he is not a slave.”

Three measures of flour is a metaphor for divine largess.

By way of contrast, the three measures of flour is a metaphor for divine largess. The large amount is evocative of the story of Abraham’s reception of three visitors, Gideon’s preparation for the visitation of the angel of the lord, and Hannah’s gift for the dedication of the temple. Thus the parable suggests, “not only are three measures much more than normal but that the amount is connected with an epiphany,” an image that coheres with the “kingdom of God.” “Yet how is a hearer to combine three measures with the preceding negative terms?” (Ibid., p. 326-27) Scott refuses to dodge the strikingly messy implications:

The kingdom (the holy and good) is pictured in terms of an epiphany of corruption. How radical is the parable’s intention? Does it mean to state that good is evil in an ethics of absurdity? Or is its function to subvert a hearer’s ready dependency on the rule of the sacred, the predictability of what is good, and warn that instead the expected evil that corrupts may indeed turn out to be the kingdom.

Would not a teacher who is the Servant of all Creation, who indeed saves the whole creation by dying on a cross, be entirely at home in a kingdom of God that embraces the awful messiness of life on the earth?

Or again, we would add, would not a teacher who is the Servant of all Creation, who indeed saves the whole creation by dying on a cross, be entirely at home in a kingdom of God that embraces the awful messiness of life on the earth?

 Treasure Hidden in a Field.  Once more we are confronted by a dilemma, the problem, as Scott names it, of “Finders Keepers:”

If the treasure belongs to the finder, buying the land is unnecessary.  But, if the treasure does not belong to the finder, buying the land is unjust.”  If the dayworker has claim to the treasure, he has no need to rehide the treasure and buy the land. He can simply claim the treasure. That he does rehide the treasure and buy the land indicates that he does not believe he can make such a claim. Also, from the point of view of narrative structure, a hearer discovers that the finder is not the landowner only when he buys the field, thus concentrating narrative attention on the buying. The structure of the line involves finding and joy/selling and buying. But because buying signifies that he does not own, does not owning call into question the joy of finding? (Ibid., pp. 399-400; the quotation in italics is from Dominic Crossan, Finding is the First Act, with his emphasis).

Treasure receives its value, its joy, because it appears outside the bounds of the everyday. It is an occurrence that breaks expectations and interrupts the everyday.

The kingdom of God is like finding the treasure, suggests Scott, in that “treasure receives its value, its joy, because it appears outside the bounds of the everyday. It is an occurrence that breaks expectations and interrupts the everyday. Because it is not something earned or labored for but something found, it is lawless. Its joy is precisely in its lawlessness, its unearned, not worked for character” (Scott, pp. 401-02).

What if the kingdom of God is like a person who walking in the woods and discovers an endangered spotted owl?

We can suggest a contemporary analogy: A person walking in the woods discovers a creature, a spotted owl, say, in any case, an individual animal belonging to an endangered species. In his joy, he resolves to buy or otherwise get control of that patch of woods; for only by preserving that habitat does the owl have a chance of survival. But who owns the woods? In order to “save” the owl, he has to sue the owner to limit his control over use of the woods. Is this a proper action driven by great joy? Only by keeping the owl hidden in the woods is there a chance of sustaining that experience of joy in the presence of the beautiful creature. Or is the action an unjust transgression of property rights, sanctioned by environmental laws that the owner has to regard as an unconstitutional deprivation of his property rights? What if the kingdom of God is like a person, who walking in the woods, discovers a spotted owl?

That is the kingdom’s corrupting power—the desire to possess it!!

A Merchant in Search of Fine Pearls.  The dilemma of this parable builds on an aspect of the parable of the treasure hidden in a field. As ownership of the field and the treasure within it calls into question the possibility of sustaining the joy of discovery, so does ownership of the pearl of great value complicate the life of the merchant. Scott captures the point succinctly: “If to buy the pearl he has sold off his capital, whether all he owns or his merchandise, he will again have to sell the pearl, or else he will be broke, because the pearl only generates in being sold. Thus the thing of value, the pearl, has no ultimate value.” The kingdom of God is like that, Scott suggests, in that it “cannot be possessed as a value in itself . . . for the merchant will sooner or later have to sell his pearl. And that is the kingdom’s corrupting power—the desire to possess it” (Ibid., p. 319). Might one not say the same for God’s creation?

A Net Thrown into the SeaHas the hearer been caught within the net of these parables, the teaching of Jesus, the Servant of Creation? Are those caught up in his net—members of his church—good fish or rotten fish? Which side of the parable’s various dilemmas do they fall out on? The sorting out into baskets is indeed something to be reserved for the end, when the angels of God will bring final clarity to our relationship with the creation and our relationship with the creation’s creator. Until then, we swim with all the rest of the fish, utterly dependent for our very lives on the environing sea, chaotic as it may sometimes appear to be. For to be taken out of water is for fish or for any species to die.

The creation is bound up with humanity—and the Spirit is in a solidarity of shared groaning and, similarly, a shared hope.

An ear for the groaning of creation.  The parable of  “A Net Thrown into the Sea’ thus returns us, we would suggest, to the narrative about creation which David Horrell, Cherryl Hunt and Christopher Southgate construct on the basis of the “ecotheological mantra text,” namely, Romans 8:18-25. As we argued in our comment on that reading a week ago, the parables of Jesus share a narrative of creation that is strikingly similar to the one these scholars identify as key to understanding Paul’s view of the relationship between “the children of God” and the non-human creation (See our comment on the readings for last weekend). As we summarized their argument,

Paul teaches that a creation “enslaved-to-decay has been subjected to futility by God.” But that it was “subjected in hope” means “that the focus, from the subjection onwards, is entirely forward-looking; there is no description of the act of creation, no indication as to what (if anything) preceded its subjection to futility.” The “co- groaning” and “co-travailing” has been the state of creation since its subjection; the creation is “bound up with humanity and the Spirit in a solidarity of shared groaning and, similarly, a shared hope.”

In terms of the parable of the Net Thrown into the Sea, for the time being, we swim in the sea while drawn toward the light of the final judgment of God regarding our relationship with God and God’s creation. But as “children of God,” we do not swim aimlessly, or alone. The Spirit of God, the Lord, the Giver of Life, present at creation, sustainer of all of life, accompanies us on this great migration. As Paul writes, “the Spirit helps us in our weakness.” In our “co-groaning and “co-travailing,” the Spirit “intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (8:26-27). It is on this account, and this only, that “we know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.” And if we give “all things” a strong reading as intending the fullness of creation, as it does elsewhere in Paul’s writings, rather than simply the particular occasions of trial and suffering for which we usually appropriate it, we are indeed encouraged to look and to live forward in hope for the full realization of the purposes of God and for the complete restoration of creation.

Feast on these Parables from Nature! The Kingdom is Messy Business Indeed!

The mustard seed: What a strange mess is this kingdom! The parable begins with signs of the unclean, a planting in a garden, and will not meet grandiose expectations. Yet. . . the birds will find shelter in its shade.

The parable makes a light-hearted burlesque of the noble cedar as a metaphor for the Kingdom of God by substituting the mustard shrub.

A tree does not exist for itself alone, but for others. So it is with those who are part of the kingdom of God!

Three measures of flour is a metaphor for divine largess.

Would not a teacher who is the Servant of all Creation, who indeed saves the whole creation by dying on a cross, be entirely at home in a kingdom of God that embraces the awful messiness of life on the earth?

Treasure receives its value, its joy, because it appears outside the bounds of the everyday. It is an occurrence that breaks expectations and interrupts the everyday.

What if the kingdom of God is like a person who walking in the woods and discovers an endangered spotted owl?

That is the kingdom’s corrupting power—the desire to possess it!!

The creation is bound up with humanity—and the Spirit is in a solidarity of shared groaning and, similarly, a shared hope.

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

First Sunday of Christmas in Year A

We need greater courage and imagination in standing up against those who would destroy Earth.  – Tom Mundahl reflects on Matthew 2:13-23.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary
(originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2013)

 Readings for the First Sunday of Christmas, Year A (2013, 2016, 2019, 2022)

Isaiah 63:7-9
Psalm 148
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23

My late father-in-law kept mules and an impressive Belgian mare named Dolly at his home in central Iowa. The few times that I spent Christmas there before pastoral duties occupied my Christmas celebrations, I noticed that on Christmas Eve he would spend more time than usual  in the barn with these powerful animals. It took me years to gather the courage to ask him, somewhat playfully, if it was true that on Christmas Eve even the animals give voice to Christmas joy. He merely smiled in a most mysterious way. As the traditional Matins service for Christmas Day suggests, it is a great mystery: O Magnum Mysterium.

We have just celebrated Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. As we continue the Season of Christmas, we have almost been convinced that “heaven and nature sing,” that “Mountains and all hills, fruit trees and cedars!  Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds” (Psalm 148:9-10) join to celebrate the incarnation.  Then we are confronted with Herod’s slaughter of the “holy innocents.” Although we may be tempted to conclude that this is little more than an aberration on the way to the greater light of Epiphany, a close look at the infancy narratives in Matthew and Luke disabuse us of our naivete.

Did not the Christmas Eve reading from Luke 2 graphically subvert the pretention to divine power of Caesar Augustus in favor of “the Savior, who is Messiah, the Lord?” (Luke 2:11). In the face of the overwhelming military presence of Rome, this one was able to call upon “an army of angels” (Luke 2:13).  And these warrior-messengers proclaimed the good news in words stolen from Caesar, who had inscribed them on tablets throughout the Empire. The “good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10) and “the peace to God’s people” (Luke 2:14) use Caesar’s language to point to a new source of sovereignty, who as the genuine Savior and Lord brings “peace” to the earth (John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire: Jesus Against Rome Then and Now, San Francisco: Harper, 2007, pp. 107-108). How could this not have occasioned a violent response?

Much the same is true with Matthew’s infancy narratives. Like Luke, Matthew gives us a historically tenuous, but theologically rich prologue to his Gospel. Here, the Emperor is replaced by Herod the Great, a loyal vassal, who is now seen as an analogue to the Pharaoh of the Exodus narrative. In fact, it could be argued that Matthew gives us the history of Israel compressed. This evangelist begins the story of Jesus with quotations from Genesis (1:1), Exodus (2:15), and Deuteronomy (507) (N. T. Wright, The New Testament and the People of God, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992, p. 402). Clearly, it is the Genesis and the Exodus quotations that interest us most as we enter Matthew’s worldview.

Our Gospel text continues Joseph’s role in Matthew’s prologue, now orchestrated in three “movements” each with a formula quotation to root it squarely in the continuing story of God’s people. Once again, Joseph’s sleep is interrupted by a divine messenger who makes it clear that he is to take the family to Egypt with great haste for Herod seeks to destroy this ‘new king’ (Matthew 2:13). Like Mary in Luke’s Gospel, Joseph continues to model obedience and follows the angel’s instructions exactly. They remain there until Herod’s death.

It is just this displacement that invites Matthew to recall the line from Hosea 11:1, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” If this prologue is unhistorical, the use of such formula quotations as these give greater theological significance to these events. The quotation from Hosea is there to let the reader know in no uncertain terms that Jesus is involved with a New Exodus, an Exodus that will result in a new community. Whether it is Pharaoh or Herod, God will provide not only a new Moses, but one who is greater than Moses.

This parallel is made even clearer in the ‘second movement’ of our pericope, where Herod follows Pharaoh in the killing of infants in the region of Bethlehem (Exodus 1: 22). Here, the formula quotation is from Jeremiah (31:15). Not only does Matthew reference Pharaoh’s infanticide here, he asks readers to recall the near destruction of God’s people (symbolized by “Mother Rachel,” who is reputed to have been buried near Bethlehem) as they gathered at Ramah, the staging area for deportation to Babylon (Jeremiah 40:1). Here Matthew clearly associates the killing of children with the near death of religious identity during this chapter in the history of God’s people.

Not only is Herod the Great associated with Pharaoh, his actions clearly put into question any possible claim to legitimacy. How can any ruler kill the “next generation” of his people and make any claim to kingship? Herod’s obsession with total control here seems to spill over into shocking violence! This certainly is a question that we hear today in regard to Syria and the Central African Republic. Perhaps we need also to question more deeply the plight of children in richer countries who suffer shocking increases in asthma, attention deficit disorder, hunger, and a basic lack of loving attention from family structures. Is this not little more than a more ‘palatable’ form of infanticide?

But even obsessed rulers die. Once more, Joseph’s sleep is troubled.  This time the message is welcome: “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead” (Matthew 2:20, see also Exodus 4:19). But all is not rosy. Because Archelaus, the cruelest of the tetrarchs, rules their former home area, they must locate farther north, in the Galilean micro-village of Nazareth. Here Matthew stretches things a bit by inventing his own formula quotation: “So that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, ‘He will be called a Nazorean’” (Matthew 2:23).

Matthew solves one important problem here: He relocates the Holy Family from the Davidic town of Bethlehem to Nazareth. But he also creates much thornier problems of understanding! Since these formula quotations have provided rich theological ore, what can we learn? Is this a word play where we are to understand that Jesus is neser, the branch from the “stump of Jesse?” (Isaiah 11:1-2).  In addition, might this also refer to this child who is Emmanuel being nazir, a “nazirite,” one consecrated to the LORD? (Numbers 6:2). Yes, the church has affirmed Jesus as “the branch from the stump of Jesse,” and Jesus is certainly consecrated at baptism, although the ascetic John the Baptist fits the “nazirite” model more closely.

Or, is there an additional meaning, as suggested by Luz? “The geographical statements of 2:19-23 anticipate the way of the Messiah of Israel to the Gentiles. This thesis is supported from another side: exactly in the Syrian area in which the Matthean community is living, “Nazorean” is the designation for a “Christian. Thus, an ecclesiological note is sounded: because Jesus comes to Nazareth in the Galilee of the Gentiles, he becomes a “Christian,” the teacher and Lord of the community that calls on him and preaches to the Gentiles” (Ulrich Luz, Matthew 1-7, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1989, p. 150).

If we follow this lead, we will see that even in the Matthean prologue, the call to “go to all nations” (Matthew 28:18-20) given by the one who is Emmanuel (“with you until the fulfillment of all things”) is powerfully present. This is why “heaven and nature sing!” And it is why parochial rulers, like Herod, obsessed with maintaining and expanding power, cannot tolerate this new birth of interconnected life. Their power depends on fragmentation, “divide and rule.”

Whether we argue that breaking down barriers that exclude non-Jews implies including all creatures in this new “genesis” or that the new community’s claim that this birth of the Holy One as part of creation engenders songs of praise from sun, moon, stars, wild animals, all cattle, creeping things, and flying birds and even kings of the earth (Psalm 148:3,10,11), the results certainly have one thing in common. This divine intrusion has the capacity to provoke those in power to maintain that domination with such tenacity that the results become increasingly destructive.

The motive is the same, whether it is a Holocaust of millions of Jews, the near elimination of Native Americans, or the use of military-based munitions to blow off mountaintops in Kentucky to mine the coal that continues not only to be a primary source of carbon pollution in the atmosphere, but also poisons the water near coal mining centers and kills miners with an alarming upsurge of black lung. Because they are born out of anxiety, power and control brook no opposition.

Because the one Matthew calls Emmanuel is “the teacher and Lord of the community which calls on him and preaches to the Gentiles” (Luz, op. cit.), this community is called not only to join in praise with all creation, but also to be involved in making sure that all creatures—including people—are free to engage in such praise. This is why 77-year-old Wendell Berry joined with Kentucky neighbors in 2011 to protest the destructive effects of mining companies by “sitting in” one weekend in offices of the Governor of Kentucky. They had concluded that the only way to force even a limited conversation with a government that does the bidding of large corporations was to go beyond normal, blocked forums of decision-making and participate in civil disobedience (conversation with Bill Moyers, available on BillMoyers.com).

To prevent the “slaughter of the innocents,” whether children in Newtown, Connecticut, polar bears in the Arctic, or the carbon pollution of a healthy atmosphere, the community gathered in the name of the one called Emmanuel needs greater courage and imagination. Perhaps we have to emulate Berry’s “mad farmer,” who says, “If it be my mission to go in at exits and come out at entrances, so be it” (“The Contrariness of the Mad Farmer” (Farming: A Handbook, New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1970, p. 44).

Tom Mundahl, St. Paul, MN                         tmundahl@gmail.com

Christmas Eve and Day (Nativity of Our Lord) in Year C (Ormseth12)

All of Earth Rejoices at the Birth of Jesus – Dennis Ormseth reflects on the Christmas Eve and Christmas Day readings.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary 
(originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2011)

Readings for Christmas Eve (all years)

Psalm 96
Isaiah 9:2-7
Titus 2:11-14
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Readings for Christmas Day (all years)

Psalm 97 or 98
Isaiah 62:6-12 or 52:7-10
Titus 3:4-7 or Hebrews 1:1-14 (5-12)
Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20 or John 1:1-14

Introduction

The birth of Jesus is an occasion for great joy in the church. What we have hoped for and waited for, not just in the season of Advent but also in “all the years” of hope and fear, begins to be realized in this event. It comes naturally to us, therefore, to draw on great psalms of praise to give voice to this joy—Psalm 96 for Christmas Eve, Psalm 97 or 98 for Christmas Day, and Psalm 148 on the First Sunday after Christmas. What strikes this reader looking for the “green meaning” of Christmas is the expectation these psalms share, namely,  that “all the Earth” will join with God’s people in these songs of praise. In remarkable unison, they give voice to nature’s praise. Using these psalms, therefore, the church embraces the notion that “all the Earth” joins our celebration of the birth of Jesus.

What are we to make of this notion of nature’s praise? Is it simply a poetic convention, in terms of which the psalmist imagines rather anthropocentrically that the non-human creation has voice and desire to sing such songs? In his book God and World in the Old Testament, Terry Fretheim argues that commonly this kind of interpretation closes off important possibilities and denies the texts the full depth of their expressive thickness. The call for non-human creatures to voice their praise, he suggests, functions like metaphors for God that are drawn from nature. While there is obviously an aspect of “is and is not” in saying, for example, that “God is [like] a rock” or God is [like] a mother eagle,” in some measure these creatures do “reflect in their very existence, in their being what they are, the reality which is God.” The use of such natural metaphors “opens up the entire created order as a resource for depth and variety in our God language.”

Similarly, calling on natural entities to voice their praise draws “attention to the range of God’s creative work and hence God’s praise-worthiness.” Listing the creatures together, which occurs frequently, suggests the importance of both the individuality and the complementary nature of their praise. Each entity’s praise is distinctive according to its intrinsic capacity and fitness, with varying degrees of complexity, and yet each entity is also part of the one world of God, contributing its praise to that of the whole. The model of the symphony orchestra comes to mind, Fretheim suggests, and environmental considerations are immediately present as well. For if one member of the orchestra is incapacitated or missing altogether, the scope, complexity and intensity of the praise will be less than what it might otherwise be. Indeed, “environmental sensitivity in every age is for the sake of the praise of God and the witness it entails,” and it has “implications for God’s own possibilities in the world.” In fact, the responsiveness of the creatures to the call to praise is itself a factor in the realization of these possibilities. In their interaction with God, the creatures can become “more of what they are or have the potential of becoming” (Fretheim, pp. 255-9).

Our purpose in the following comments on the readings for the Nativity of Our Lord here, and for the First Sunday of Christmas subsequently, is to show how the use of these psalms in the celebration of the birth of Jesus brings into focus certain “environmental sensitivities” in the stories of Christmas. What is it in these stories, we ask, that might be seen to give rise to non-human nature’s praise, beyond human praising? Answers to this question, it is significant to note, have been anticipated in our comments on the lections for the Season of Advent, the Third and Fourth Sundays of Advent especially.  As we shall see, first the good news for Earth in the message of Mary’s Magnificat, is developed fulsomely in the Lukan birth narrative; and, secondly, the affirmations regarding creation we found in the Annunciation story from the Fourth Sunday of Advent are richly celebrated in the lections for Christmas Day.

Christmas Eve

“O sing to the lord a new song;
sing to the lord, all the earth.
Sing to the Lord, bless his name;
tell of his salvation from day to day.
Declare his glory among the nations,
his marvelous works among all the peoples.” (96:1-3)

Praise and witness are here united, as “all the earth” joins in a song of praise and declares God’s glory among all the peoples. Indeed, perhaps only the full witness of “all the earth” is adequate to the challenge posed, if “all the people” are indeed to hear and join in praise of God. So we listen for the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; we watch for the field to exult, and everything in it, and “then all the trees of the forest sing for joy” at the Lord’s coming (96:11-12). We note the complementary nature of the creatures called on to give praise: habitat and animals, in the sea and in the field, constitute natural harmonies; sea and land unite in a cantus firmus, as it were, with the trees making up the chorus. All Earth makes magnificent music, because the Lord is coming to judge the earth—meaning that the Lord will restore the good order of creation and teach the peoples how they might live in accordance with that order, indeed teach “the truth.”

Why exactly is this cause for nature’s joy? On the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we had occasion to note the reasons for the joy Mary expressed in her song of praise. Her Magnificat celebrates the expectation of the “radical reversal of the fortunes of the unjust powers that dominate human history, so that God’s intention with the creation might at the last be completely fulfilled.” A key linkage between the psalm’s praise and the Gospel for Christmas Eve is the way in which the story opens up this expectation. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan read Luke’s story of Christmas within the military, economic, political, and ideological contexts of Luke’s writing. The Emperor Augustus had brought peace to the lands around the Mediterranean Sea, bringing to a close a generation of civil war between the rival leaders of the Roman Republic. It had seemed as if the Empire “was destroying itself and ruining much of the Mediterranean world in the process of its own destruction,” Borg and Crossan comment (The First Christmas, p. 61). With the great sea battle of Actium, however, the wars were over, and a long period of peace ensued. An inscription at Halicarnassus on the Aegean coast lauded Caesar Augustus, proclaiming that “land and sea are at peace and the cities flourish with good order, concord and prosperity.” Borg and Crossan again comment aptly: “For Augustus and for Rome it was always about peace, but always about peace through victory, peace through war, peace through violence” (Ibid., p. 65).

In our comment on the readings for the Third Sunday of Advent, we noted how destructive this “peace” was for the Palestinian countryside; whole hillsides were stripped of forests to produce lumber for Roman constructions. The treacherous character of this imperial peace is further suggested by how the Roman legions enforced “peace” in Palestine around the time of the birth of Jesus. Upon the death of Herod the Great in 4 BCE, Jewish rebels in several places rose to throw off Roman rule. A rebellion at Sepphoris, capital of Galilee and just a few miles north of Nazareth, was put down with typical violence. Roman legions from Syria captured the city, burnt it, and enslaved its inhabitants. What happened elsewhere no doubt became the fate of people from Sepphoris as well, Borg and Crossan suggest:

“either there was timely flight to hiding places well known to the local peasantry, or its males were murdered, its females raped, and its children enslaved. If they escaped, the little they had would be gone when they returned home, because, as another rebel said, when you had nothing, the Romans took even that. ‘They make a desert and call it peace.’”

Borg and Crossan speculate that Jesus would have been taken by Mary his mother to the top of the Nazareth ridge and told the story of this destruction, perhaps to help him understand why his father had disappeared (Ibid., pp. 77-78).

Contrast this Roman peace, then, with the vision of peace from Luke’s Christmas story: the night of Jesus’ birth, Luke tells us, was filled with light all around. The shepherds on the hills above Bethlehem were engulfed in “the glory of the Lord” as a host of angels sing praise to God and proclaim “peace on earth among those whom he favors!” The shepherds, representative of the marginalized peasant class that experienced Roman oppression and exploitation most acutely, live on the hills with their herd, close to the earth. They come down to honor their newly born prince of peace, and thus do heaven and earth join in praise of God’s salvation. The story, Borg and Crossan suggest, is a subversive parable of how things should be—and how they will be when the kingdom of God displaces the reign of Caesar, when the eschatological peace with justice and righteousness supplants the Roman Empire’s “peace through victory” (Ibid., pp. 46-53).

The stories, as Borg and Crossan aptly characterize them in their recent book on The First Christmas, are “parabolic overtures” to their gospels. With great economy and literary creativity, they serve as a “summary, synthesis, metaphor, or symbol of the whole” of each Gospel narrative. Affirmations concerning the creation found in them, we think, while seemingly of minor significance, are highly suggestive of grand themes of the Gospel stories, which are to be explicated more fully in the full narrative of each Gospel. As an “overture” to the gospel, Luke’s Christmas story anticipates the full story of his Gospel. Rival kingdoms promise peace: peace through victory or peace through justice and righteousness, darkness or light. Who is the true prince of peace? The one whose armies turn the land into a desert? Or the one whose admirers come from heaven and from the hills to join in united praise? The light shines in the darkness, and beholding the light, both sea and land and all their inhabitants join in a new song in praise of their Creator—and the singing trees, safe from imperial destruction, do make for a grand chorus!

Christmas Day

“Let the earth rejoice!” (Psalm 97:1). Clouds, thick darkness, fire, and lightning attend the arrival of the ruler whose throne is established on a foundation of righteousness and justice. So “the earth sees and trembles” (97:2-4). “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.” The sea and all that fills it will roar, joined by the world and all its inhabitants; the floods clap their hands and the hills sing for joy at the presence of the Lord, “for he is coming to judge the earth” (Psalm 98:4). Again today the church employs nature’s praise to celebrate the birth of Jesus. (For a discussion of the interpretation of nature’s praise, refer to our introduction on the readings for the Nativity of our Lord, above). And again our question is: What exactly gives rise to nature’s joy? What is the judgment that all the Earth awaits?

In the readings for Christmas Eve, we have seen, contrasting visions of peace by violence and peace with justice and righteousness provide the link between the psalmist’s song of all the Earth and the Christmas story. Now in the first lesson for Christmas Day, the vision of peace with righteousness is extended so as to include specific reference to the restoration of the land. The land clearly benefits from a covenant of marriage between God and the people of Israel, the image provided by Isaiah in 62:4-5. (The reader may want to include these verses in the reading, to help the congregation understand the connection.) There will be grain to feed the people, and wine to be enjoyed by those who labored to produce it—an agrarian image of local agricultural practice, in which the land is cherished and lovingly cared for, contrasted with the desolated land characteristic of the economy of a foreign empire exploiting the land and denying the farmer its benefits (62:8-9). The passage exhibits a frequently noted consequence of God’s saving judgment, as summarized by Terry Fretheim in his God and World in the Old Testament: the “work of God with human beings will also positively affect the estranged relationship between human beings, the animals, and the natural orders more generally. Indeed . . . human salvation will only then be realized“(p. 196)Inclusion of the land in the benefits of the covenant makes it clear, as Fretheim puts it, that “God’s creation is at stake in Israel’s behaviors, not simply their more specific relationship with God” (p. 165).

Our other scripture readings for Christmas Day extend the scope of the significance of Christmas for creation more broadly. The selection from the Letter to the Hebrews says that the Son whose birth we celebrate is “appointed heir of all things,” and is the one “through whom the worlds are created, and by whom all things are sustained.” And the prologue of John, the climactic Gospel reading for this high feast of Christmas, anchors this divine embrace of creation in a three-fold, cosmic affirmation: the Word that is from the beginning is the agent through whom all things come into being; he is life itself; and he “became flesh and lived among us.” Being, life, and human selfhood are the three great mysteries of the creation.

So as we anticipated  in singing Mary’s Magnificat, on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, we are invited to see in her child the glory of God incarnate, the “glory a of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth (John 1:14; see our comment on the Fourth Sunday of Advent). With her, we are through her child given new orientation to the creation as finitum capax infiniti, capable of bearing infinity. The light shining in the darkness is primordial, cosmic light, which the darkness cannot overcome. As Norman Wirzba writes in The Paradise of God, “God becomes a human being and in so doing, enters the very materiality that constitutes creation. The home of God, rather than being a heaven far removed from our plight, is here” (pp. 16-17). Niels Henrik Gregerson captures the significance of this embodiment for modern readers in his concept of “deep incarnation:” Christ is incarnate in putting on not only human nature but “also a scorned social being and a human-animal body, at once vibrant and vital and yet vulnerable to disease and decay.” (Quoted by Christopher Southgate in The Groaning of Creation, p. 167). For a provocative elaboration of Gregerson’s notion of ‘deep incarnation” as a contrast to Arne Naess’s deep ecology, see his “From Deep Ecology to Deep Incarnation, and Back Again,” (available online). So, yes, “all the earth” has the profoundest reason to rejoice at the birth of Jesus: all things rejoice for what this event means, for the non-human creation no less than for the human.  In Jesus, God embraces Earth absolutely and irrevocably. Every shadow of cosmic dualism is banished by the light of the Christmas gospel.

Originally written by Dennis Ormseth in 2012.
dennisormseth@gmail.com

Sunday of the Passion (Palm Sunday) in Year A (Mundahl)

Offering Life for the World Tom Mundahl reflects on Christ’s suffering and death.

Care for Creation Commentary on the Common Lectionary (originally written by Tom Mundahl in 2017)

Readings for the Sunday of Passion, Year A (2017, 2020, 2023)

Matthew 21:1-11
Isaiah 50:4-9a
Psalm 31:9-16
Philippians 2:5-11
Matthew 26:14-27: 66 or Matthew 27:11-54

The Sunday of the Passion begins the eight-day holy week, which culminates in the central celebration of the Christian faith: the passage of Jesus from death to life marked by the Three Days. Not only do the readings contain rich support for serving creation, but the gospel readings show the cosmic significance of the events—ranging from the donkey and tree branches of the entry into the city to the cosmic elements of darkness and earthquake in the passion story.

Norman Wirzba summarizes the connection between our readings and ecojustice concerns: “We discover that sacrificial offering is a condition for the possibility of the membership of life we call creation. Creation, understood as God’s offering of creatures to each other as food and nurture, reflects a sacrificial power in which life continually moves through death to new life” (Food and Faith, Cambridge, 2011, p. 126). While the very notion of sacrifice is uncomfortable to death-denying North Americans, it still is the way of the cross that leads to new life.

To grasp Isaiah’s Third Servant Song (Isaiah 50:4-9a), it is important to uncover the world of self-deception many exiles still embraced. In fact, one of the purposes of Second Isaiah is to convince the people that they were responsible for their condition; they had lost their freedom and land because they had convinced themselves that any wealth and status they enjoyed resulted from their own efforts, not as a gift of God. They had clearly forgotten the warning of the Deuteronomist: “Do not say to yourself, ‘My power and the might of my own hand have gotten me this wealth’” (Deuteronomy 8:17).

Yahweh responds to this arrogance with an indictment and trial immediately preceding our First Reading. Here the very notion that the LORD is responsible for breaking the covenant and selling the people off to the highest bidder is shown to be pathetic and self-serving (Isaiah 50:1-3). Since living in self-deception only leads to greater self-destruction, the verdict is a stiff dose of the truth. As Paul Hanson suggests, “the God of the Hebrew Scriptures is not dedicated to avoiding offense at all costs, but to dispelling the delusions that imprison human beings” (Isaiah 40-66, Louisville: John Knox, 1995, p. 137). As the prophetic word delivered by Isaiah has it, “I the LORD speak the truth, I declare what is right” (Isaiah 45:19).

This reminds us of nothing so much as the delusion of “American exceptionalism” that credits national wealth totally to a genius that forgets what once were seen as limitless natural “resources,” centuries of slave labor, and the genocide of native people. Like the exiles, advocates of eco-justice are called to be prophetic truth-tellers, awakening us to the fact that we, too, because of water depletion, resource waste, and climate change are also living in an illusion of prosperity containing the seeds of destruction.

This Servant Song reminds us that, in spite of human delusion, God does not give up on sending prophets as messengers to help the recovery of our senses. Whereas in Isaiah 42 it is the Spirit that emboldens the servant, in this Sunday’s text it is the power of the word itself: “The LORD has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word” (Isaiah 50:4). In fact, this Servant Song comes close to presenting a job description for prophets. The power of calling provides the endurance to confront those who meet the truth with “insults and spitting” (Isaiah 50: 6). The simple fact of persistence—“setting the face like flint” (Isaiah 50:7)—in the face of constant ridicule is the key to prophetic effectiveness (Claus Westermann, Isaiah 40-66, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1969, p. 229).

It is through the suffering of the servant that power to transform the whole community grows. One of the great mysteries of faith is that those with the greatest ability to encourage the distraught are often those who, far from being exempt from suffering , discover special gifts of empathy and empowerment precisely in their own valleys of personal suffering (Hanson, p. 141). Again. we see life emerging from death.

As we began these comments on Lenten season texts, climate activist and Methodist layperson Bill McKibben’s 2016 lecture to inaugurate the Jonathan Schell Memorial Lectures was referred to. We saw that McKibben took as his task applying the lessons of the anti-nuclear movement of the 1970’s and 80’s to the climate struggle. The first lesson McKibben mentioned was the power of “unearned suffering” (This lecture is available online at www.fateoftheearth.org). Increasingly, it appears that McKibben’s prescience was uncanny. The courage to endure in seeking eco-justice in the face of opposition from the current presidential regime can only come from a source as strong as that described by Isaiah: in our case, the power of baptismal calling to give us strength “to set our face like flint” in the quest for eco-justice, a quest that seems more likely with each passing day to require civil disobedience. This may be how we offer ourselves to one another “to till (serve) and keep” the creation.

Few texts sing the melody of self-offering for the life of the world as clearly as our Second Lesson, Philippians 2:5-11. “For at the heart of the story of creation, from its origins through problem to resolution is the story of Christ, who enters the world to redeem it, and is raised to glory as the firstborn of the new creation. Paul summarizes this story most famously and tellingly in the Philippian hymn” (Horrell, Hunt, and Southgate, Greening Paul, Waco: Baylor, 2010, p. 172).

Named after the father of Alexander the Great, by the middle of the first century CE Philippi had become a retirement center for the Roman military, a city where loyalty to the emperor was highly valued. In the face of the dominant culture, this Christ hymn makes the subversive claim that believers are “citizens of an empire where Christ is Lord” (Michael J. Gorman, Apostle of the Crucified Lord, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017, p. 499). Of course, the appellation, “Lord,” was a commonplace when referring to the emperor. As Ovid wrote, the emperor is “Lord of the empire, no less mighty than the world he governs” (John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire, San Francisco: Harper, 2007, p. 108). To send a letter featuring this Christ-hymn naming Jesus as Lord (Philippians 2:11) was surely crossing the line.

But the “career trajectory” of this lordship is unlike any sanctioned by Roman culture. Instead of a climb to the top, this lordship participates in the depths of life by obedient self-emptying (kenosis). Influenced by elements of the Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53: 12), the Genesis narrative of disobedience (Genesis 3), and the Roman cult of the emperor, this Christ-hymn concisely summarizes the story as one of incarnation (he emptied himself), death (he humbled himself), and glorification (Gorman, p. 506).

Although we are mindful of the final verses of the Christ-hymn, it is crucial to recognize on this day, formerly referred to almost exclusively as Palm Sunday, that it was not “hosannas” all the way. To remind his audience (and all hearers) of this, Paul makes it clear that Jesus’ self-emptying is the pattern of faithful life: “Let this same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus….” (Philippians 2: 5).

Some years ago, Wayne Meeks suggested that the basic purpose of Philippians “is the shaping of a Christian phronesis (way of thinking) that is ‘conformed to Christ’s death in hope of resurrection’” (“The Man from Heaven in Paul’s Letter to the Philippians,” in Birger Pearson, ed., The Future of Early Christianity: Essays in Honor of Helmut Koester, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1991, p. 333). As we recently celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Lutheran Reformation, perhaps we could see this “way of thinking” as shaping Luther’s theology, in particular his notion of the “priesthood of all believers.”

Early in his career as a reformer, Luther made it clear that “everyone who knows he is a Christian should be fully assured that all of us alike are priests” (“The Pagan Servitude of the Church” (1520), in Dillenberger, ed., Martin Luther—Selections from His Writings, New York: Doubleday Anchor, 1961, p. 349). That same year, in his “Appeal to the German Nobility,” Luther defines this priesthood, drawing from Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (12:12f.): “We are all one body, yet each member has his own work serving others” (Ibid., p. 407). Surely this priesthood—offering life for the world in the name of the Christ—includes serving creation and securing eco-justice.

Even on the Sunday of the Passion, we “lean” toward the culmination of this holy week at the Vigil. Therefore, we cannot ignore the glorification in the final part of the Christ-hymn. This, too, reflects the baptismal priesthood we share. We learn that “what a priest does today is ‘lift our hearts’ to the place of heaven so that heavenly life can transform life on earth here and now . . . . When we ‘lift our hearts’ to God, what we are really doing is giving ourselves and the whole world to the new creation, ‘the new heaven and new earth’ (Rev. 21:1). As priests we begin to see the whole creation as an altar of God’s offering. This altar becomes the inspiration for our offering of the world and ourselves” (Wirzba, p. 207).

We cannot neglect our gospel reading(s). The processional reading requires good participation from the congregation—energy is important (as are eco-palms that are widely available). Because it is important to begin this week being immersed in the passion story, my recommendation is reading the longer version. If it is a single reader, it should be done at an appropriate pace, unhurried. If there is a talented storyteller in the congregation willing to take this on, what a gift! Even better is a choral reading using resources that are widely available. However, the key to a good choral reading is recruiting good readers, all standing near the lectern, who have practiced together at least twice. If sound reinforcement is necessary, that should also be “practiced.”

Is a traditional sermon necessary? That is a local decision. While serving as a pastor, when I did preach I usually focused briefly on the Philippians Christ-hymn. In the last fifteen years of ministry, simply hearing the passion gospel read was more than enough. If this is done, it is particularly important to allow silence (more than a minute before and two minutes or more after the Passion Gospel) for reflection and prayer.  While this may seem unusual and even uncomfortable for some, silence is a gift of life for this unique week and always in congregational worship.

Hymn Suggestions:

Processional: “All Glory, Laud, and Honor,” ELW, 344
Hymn of the Day: “A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth,” ELW, 340
Sending: “What Wondrous Love Is This,” ELW, 666

Tom Mundahl, Saint Paul, MN
tmundahl@gmail.com