Tag Archives: Old Testament

In the Garden

The man and his wife heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and they hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden. But the LORD God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid, because I was naked; and I hid myself.” He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit from the tree, and I ate.” Then the LORD God said to the woman, “What is this that you have done?” The woman said, “The serpent tricked me, and I ate.” The LORD God said to the serpent,

“Because you have done this,
       cursed are you among all animals
       and among all wild creatures;
upon your belly you shall go,
       and dust you shall eat
       all the days of your life.
I will put enmity between you and the woman,
       and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
       and you will strike his heel.”  Gen 3:8-15.

In today’s Lectionary reading, we encounter the third chapter of Genesis, taking us back to a time when God walked freely within His creation, a time before the separation of God and mankind, and before the separation of mankind and nature.  Yet through their disobedience, mankind has chosen to separate themselves.  I think that’s how it still works today.  We chose to move away from God, and find ourselves isolated and sometimes exiled.  

When God asks if they’ve eaten from the forbidden true, Adam’s response typifies our own response to being caught.  “It wasn’t my fault; you’re the one who made her, and she’s the one who gave the fruit to me.”  Eve joins in the fray, shifting the responsibility for these events to the serpent. 

The knowledge of good and evil leads, in a primordial sense, to our urge to compare ourselves to others.  Right from the outset, mankind is caught in a “worthiness trap”, in which we try to avoid the consequences of sin by comparing our tiny offenses to the far greater misdeeds of others.  Within this story, mankind discovers that it’s nakedness; we have learned shame.

I think the story also teaches us a bit about the nature of God.  God makes himself vulnerable to creation, endowing mankind with the free will to make choices, some of which are self-destructive.  This understanding of  God allowing Himself to be vulnerable to humanity will echo again in the story of Jesus, who suffers remarkable humiliation through His entry into human history.  It’s sometimes difficult for us to imagine an omicient, omnipotent God who somehow remains vulnerable to us, and yet, that seems to be exactly the sort of Father we have.

The third chapter of Genesis offers us an insightful examination into humanity’s instinctive habit of transgression, trespassing across the boundaries God has set for us.  Rather than depending upon God, mankind has sought its independence, we choose to discovery “good and evil” for ourselves.  The lynchpin upon which this story of the Fall turns is mankind’s refusal to trust God.  Our mistrust, not our sexuality and not our gender, places us on a path of separating ourselves from paradise and the Father.

For thousands of years, our stubborn insistence on our own ability to understand the nature of good and evil has resulted in a steady process of separation from the Source of our lives.  The story of Genesis teaches us about our remarkable ability to forget that this is God’s world, that we belong to His family, and our willingness to blind ourselves to the spiritual landscape that surrounds us. Genesis centers around a profound feeling of loss, the feeling that we have lost an intimacy with the Source of our lives.  The rest of the Bible examines the issue of how we might recover what we’ve lost.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

A Season For Everything

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;  a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up;  a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance;  a time to throw away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;  a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to throw away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace.

What gain have the workers from their toil? I have seen the business that God has given to everyone to be busy with. He has made everything suitable for its time; moreover he has put a sense of past and future into their minds, yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. I know that there is nothing better for them than to be happy and enjoy themselves as long as they live; moreover, it is God’s gift that all should eat and drink and take pleasure in all their toil. I know that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it; God has done this, so that all should stand in awe before him. That which is, already has been; that which is to be, already is; and God seeks out what has gone by.  Eccles. 3:1-15.

Today’s reading  from the Daily Office is taken from the book of Ecclesiastes.  We don’t know much about the writer of this book, who is generally referred to as Qoheleth, often translated as The Preacher or The Teacher.  Although the early Church attributed these writings to King Solomon, The Teacher probably lived much later, about 200-300 years before Jesus.

In the first section of the poem, The Teacher offers 14 pairs of events and their antipodes (keeping and throwing away, killing and healing, seeking and losing), which seem to offer a vision of a sort of balance within the universe.  Throughout the ancient world, the belief in specific, appropriate times ran very deep.  They looked for the right time to plant, to harvest, to build a house, or to begin a battle.  

Aligning one’s actions with divinely set times offered the best chance for success.  In a way, Jesus himself seems to have echoed this notion, having on one occasion told his mother “My hour has not yet come.”  John 2:4; see John 7:6. .  Later, in the Upper Room with the disciples, he said, “Father, the hour has come.”  John 17:1.  At a minimum, Jesus had a keen sense of divine time, and of working within God’s chronology.

The Teacher suggests that both within our lives, and within time itself, creation moves toward a kind of equilibrium.  The teacher also struggled, as many of us do, with questions about the real point of our existence, about the meaning of our sorrows and our joys.  Throughout all the seasons of our lives, God remains the only constant, and God alone remains sovereign.  Jesus announced that quite clearly when He told us, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near ….”  Mark 1:15.  (Interestingly, these are the very first words the Savior speaks in Mark’s Gospel.) 

Although we struggle and strive, our efforts are mere vanities, as though we were “chasing after the wind.”  Eccles. 4: 16. None of our efforts will add to or subtract from God’s work.  As Rabbi Heschel taught, we will not be able to locate the meaning of our lives abstracted or apart from God.  As the Teacher observed, most of our work, and almost of all of the things we worry about, will pass away.  He tells us, however, that “whatever God does endures forever.”  Because we know that God loves us, we know that His love for us therefore will live forever.  In that, we find the good news, the Gospel.

May we feel that love today and throughout our time,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Holy, Holy, Holy

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lofty; and the hem of his robe filled the temple. Seraphs were in attendance above him; each had six wings: with two they covered their faces, and with two they covered their feet, and with two they flew. And one called to another and said:

“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”

The pivots on the thresholds shook at the voices of those who called, and the house filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips; yet my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”

Then one of the seraphs flew to me, holding a live coal that had been taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. The seraph touched my mouth with it and said: “Now that this has touched your lips, your guilt has departed and your sin is blotted out.” Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And I said, “Here am I; send me!”  Isaiah 6:1-8.

In today’s reading from the Lectionary,  Isaiah describes the vision in which he received the call to his vocation as a prophet.  He locates this mystical moment at a very specific time,  “the year that King Uzziah died.”  King Uzziah had enjoyed a long reign (783-742 B.C.), during which Judah achieved the summit of its power.   The economic, agricultural, and military resources of the country increased substantially during his rule.    Like a Greek tragedy, however, Uzziah’s strength emerged as his great weakness.  He usurped the power of the priesthood, ultimately leading to an outbreak of leprosy on his forehead which precluded him from entering the Temple.  II Chron 26:18-21. 

The death of the King, especially under such metaphorical circumstances, placed the kingdom in a time of mourning and uncertainty. It was a time, as Shakespeare observed, to “sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings”.   Richard II.  Upon entering the Temple during this troubling moment, Isaiah receives a mystical vision of God which sets the fledgling prophet on a unique path.  (It’s worth reminding ourselves that the prophets’ primary function was not foretelling the future.  They acted as the voice of the Lord, most often in the role of social critics.)

Isaiah has the remarkable experience of actually seeing the Lord (“Adonai”) in this vision.  Surrounding Adonai are seraphs who cry to each other, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of his glory.”  The threefold repetition of the Lord’s holiness should resonate with us particularly on Trinity Sunday.   

Like a number of Christian mystics, Isaiah’s initial response to this intense and personal encounter with the Almighty is one of profound humility, even inadequacy.  He says:  “I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips….” Overcome with a feeling of acute inadequacy, Isaiah expresses profound awe at this vision.

Rather than offering a word of consolation, one of the seraphs touches his lips with a burning coal, burning away his sin and freeing him to speak God’s word.  As a priest explained to me when I was a young boy, within this passage the seer is seared. I think for many of us this rings true:  our vocation does not always arise from a remarkably joyous event, nor does it occur without some pain. And yet, somehow this burning moment will both heal and enable Isaiah to become God’s voice.  Having been thus cleansed and healed, Isaiah can now hear God’s call and answer “Here I am; send me!”  In a very rich sense, that vision will provide the touchstone upon which the balance of Isaiah’s life and ministry will depend.

Too often, our world seems to have devolved into a pathology of the ordinary, where nothing is sacred.  For so many people, their experience of life and creation strikes them as commonplace, as profoundly ordinary.  This passage offers us a glimpse of something completely different.  Isaiah suggests a vision of creation brimming over with the divine, “full of his glory.”

For many of us in liturgical churches, the cry of the seraphs (“Holy, holy, holy”, known as the sanctus) now serves as a part of our weekly worship.  When we hear that wonderful hymn, I wonder if we also hear a call to our own vocation.  I wonder if we can hear the Lord asking, “Whom shall I send?” and whether we will answer that question. Isaiah’s encounter with the Living God changed him forever.  I pray that ours will, too.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Standing on Holy Ground

 

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.” Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites. The cry of the Israelites has now come to me; I have also seen how the Egyptians oppress them. So come, I will send you to Pharaoh to bring my people, the Israelites, out of Egypt.”

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” He said, “I will be with you; and this shall be the sign for you that it is I who sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall worship God on this mountain.”  But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’“ God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations. Exodus 3:1-15.

I found this reading in the Daily Office for today.  The passage begins with Moses engaged in an everyday sort of task.  He’s tending to his father-in-law’s flock; he’s working.  Moses has not set out on a spiritual journey, he hasn’t gone into the desert to retreat and encounter the Infinite.  Like most of us, God confronts Moses when he’s busy trying to do something else.

We should also note that Moses is pretty much homeless when this remarkable event happens.  Although an Israelite child, he was adopted by the Egyptians and lived among them until he killed an Egyptian overseer.  He runs away from the wrath of Pharoah into the land of Midian.  And as we know from the balance of the story, Moses will spend the bulk of his life wandering.  (It’s a bit ironic that he ends up finding a homeland for his people, but not for himself.)  In fact, Moses offers a revealing glimpse into himself when he says, “I have been an alien living in a foreign land.”  Gen. 2:22.  I think lots of folks feel that way, constantly looking for a home.

As Moses encounters this burning bush, YHWH tells him to remove his sandals because he is standing on holy ground.  The removal of one’s sandals not only signifies that one has arrived at a sacred space, but also (within many cultures) suggests that one has entered a home.  Therefore Moses, the wanderer, finds his home with the Lord.

Two questions from this passage echo into each of our lives, and will shape the course of our faith.  The first is the question Moses asks of the Lord:  “Who am I?”  Moses wants to know his own authority to preach truth to power, and it’s a question most of us have faced at one time or another.  Who am I to be God’s voice in this troubled world?  Who am I to speak out against something that’s wrong?

We should find the second question equally troubling, and equally determinative for us.  Moses asks the Lord (the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of our ancestors), “Who are you?”  Moses wants to know exactly what he’s going to tell people about who he met in the burning bush.  He wants to understand the Almighty; he wants to know God’s name.

The answer Moses heard, “I AM WHO I AM,” probably didn’t leave him completely satisfied.  The name “I AM” obviously conjures up so many of Jesus’ “I am” statements (the bread of life, the light of the world, the good shepherd, etc).  In this case, however, we might find particular encouragement in Jesus’ assurance:  “I AM with you always, even to the end of the age.”  Matt. 28:20.

Many of us still hear the reverberations of these two questions, “Who am I?” and “Who is God?” As we begin to answer them, I think we may find the story of Moses even more rich.  Once Moses begins to understand the answers (a rudimentary and incomplete understanding) God immediately sends him on a mission.  In Moses’ case, the mission involves confronting Pharoah and leading the people into Israel as God saves His people.  In our case, that mission may be completely different.  But only through that journey, which will last for the rest of his life, will Moses come to more fully understand who God is and who Moses is.

The journey leads him to a deeper understanding of YHWH, which leads him to a deeper understanding of himself, which leads him further along the journey.  I believe that’s part of the reason why the Exodus became the overarching narrative of the Jewish people, and why it remains so important today.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

A New Song

Sing to the LORD a new song,
for he has done marvelous things.

With his right hand and his holy arm
has he won for himself the victory.

The LORD has made known his victory;
his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations.

 He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel,
and all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.

Shout with joy to the LORD, all you lands;
lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.

 Sing to the LORD with the harp,
with the harp and the voice of song.

 With trumpets and the sound of the horn
shout with joy before the King, the LORD.

Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it,
the lands and those who dwell therein.

 Let the rivers clap their hands,
and let the hills ring out with joy before the LORD,
when he comes to judge the earth.

 In righteousness shall he judge the world
and the peoples with equity.  Psalm 98.

The Psalm from today’s Lectionary offers us the perfect message as we near the end of the Easter season.  The Psalmist calls for every person, every nation, and all of creation to rise up in a joyful song of being known and loved by the God of Israel. We need “a new song” because God has done something new, something out of our experience.  Even the rivers will clap their hands as God’s judgment will set creation right.

The Sabbath, the day of rest, offers both Jews and Christians the principle occasion for giving praise to God.  Praise is a funny thing; it is not particularly useful and does not accomplish any particular thing.  Praise, therefore, is not a means to an end.  Rather, praise is the end.  We join together to acknowledge God and give Him thanks for no particular reason other than He is God.  And somehow, in that simple act of gratitude, the Psalmist tells us we will find our joy.

One of the reoccurring ideas in this psalm is the Lord’s “victory”, also sometimes translated as “salvation”.  In the original Hebrew, the word is Y’shua or yeshua.  That word is the basis for the name of the old Testament hero Joshua, and is anglicized as “Jesus.”  Viewed through a Christian lens, this psalm speaks of the victory God has won, offering us a wonderful Easter message.

Walter Brueggeman has observed, “In this literature the community of faith has heard and continues to hear the sovereign speech of God, who meets the community in its depths of need and in its heights of celebration. The Psalms draw our entire life under the rule of God, where everything may be submitted to the God of the gospel.”

In the life of Christ, God sang a love song to all of creation, a song through which all creation was made new.  This psalm invites us to share in that song, replying to God’s song with great gladness.  My prayer for all of us is that we join in that new song, in that love song, with happy voices and glad hearts.

Shabbat Shalom,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Not One Letter, Not One Stroke of a Letter

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished.  Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Matt. 5:17-20.

In the Gospel from today’s Daily Office, Jesus emphasizes his continuity with God’s message to His people, a message first announced in the law and the prophets.  That continuity shines forth in the story of the Transfiguration, which St. Matthew records at Matt. 17:1-9 and which the icon above depicts.  As God announces Jesus as his beloved Son, Christ appears flanked by Moses and Elijah.  We might wonder, “Why those two heroes of the Old Testament?”  Moses and Elijah, respectively, represented the Law (given by Moses) and the prophets.  Jesus comes as the full flowering, the conclusion or completion of the law and the prophets.

Rather than encouraging his disciples to abandon Scripture, he asks them to take it seriously. Like many of us today, the Pharisees and scribes had read scripture as calling us into a worthiness competition.  We find the perfect example of that view in the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector.  (Luke 18:9-14; see here).  Jesus completes the law and the prophets by showing us that God’s love and grace has nothing to do with our worthiness.

A legalistic vision of Scripture works externally, requiring people to confirm to rules and to require such conformity from those around them.  Jesus calls us to internalize the Scripture, allowing it to transform our hearts so that we can live more deeply into it.  Legalism mistakes the packaging for the contents.  Thus, he tells his disciples that must go beyond the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees.  The impulse to legalism always calls us into a kind of idolatry, in which we substitute performance of a given set of obligations for a relationship with the living God.

Jesus asks us to move forward from the notion of right action to the idea of a right relationship with God. We find an example of what Jesus means in Matthew 23:23.  There, He notes that the Pharisees “tithe mint, dill, and cummin, but have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”  Jesus doesn’t ask us to reject the Law (the Torah), merely to examine the principles which underlie it.  When our principle objective becomes a relationship with the Almighty that pushes us toward justice and mercy and faith, we will read the Law in the right context.

Jesus brings that Law into its fullness, pointing out how narrowly the people had come to understand God’s purposes.  The problem wasn’t that the scribes and Pharisees overvalued the Law; the problem lay in their underestimation of God’s purposes.  Thus, Jesus taught that the good Samaritan actually lived into loving his neighbor, while a more legalistic or superficial view asked, “And who is my neighbor?” Luke 10:29.  Like many of us today, while the scribes may have known exactly what the words of the law said, they had completely missed what they meant.  They had captured the notion of compliance, but missed the blessing of God’s spirit reshaping their lives.

I pray that we find that blessing today.

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis

Standing in Awe of Him

1 May God be merciful to us and bless us,*
show us the light of his countenance and come to us.
2 Let your ways be known upon earth,*
your saving health among all nations.
3 Let the peoples praise you, O God;*
let all the peoples praise you.
4 Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,*
for you judge the peoples with equity
and guide all the nations upon earth.
5 Let the peoples praise you, O God;*
let all the peoples praise you.
6 The earth has brought forth her increase;*
may God, our own God, give us his blessing.
7 May God give us his blessing,*
and may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him. Ps. 67.

We find Psalm 67 in the Daily Office for this morning.  The idea of a blessing provides the principle theme for this psalm, one of the great songs of the people of God.  In the opening verse, the psalmist prays for the blessing of the light of God’s presence.

We see the movement of asking for a blessing in the idea of God revealing Himself (“show us the light of your countenance”) and asking the Lord to make Himself known.  The psalmist, however, seeks not only that God’s gifts be apparent to the people of Israel, but also throughout the world.  He prays “let all the peoples praise you” to “all the ends of the earth”.  We hear the echo of the book of Genesis, in which God told Abram, “‘I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’” Gen 12:2-3.

While the psalm celebrates the prior gifts of God (a good harvest), it calls for God’s blessings throughout the world.  It strikes me that the psalmist really prays for an awareness of God’s presence throughout all creation.  The psalm asks for the light of God’s presence.  I’m struck by the idea that we never actually see “light”; rather we see all things because of the light.  The light which flows from God’s presence, therefore, enables us to see the grace of our blessings.  To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, I believe in God’s grace “as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

When we do become aware of God’s presence in and movement through the world, the psalmist describes our appropriate response:  “may all the ends of the earth stand in awe of him.”  I believe we have been conditioned to avoid experiencing awe.  If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’m a big fan of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.  He said, “The opposite of good is not evil; the opposite of good is indifference.”  Many of us have become indifferent to God’s presence in and blessings of this world.

We are like guests at a banquet, who have stuffed ourselves and gorged upon the feast for so long that we’ve forgotten how to savor the food.  God’s presence surrounds us; only through it do we “live and move and have our being.”  Acts 17:28.  As Rabbi Heschel noted, “The thought of it is too powerful to be ignored and too holy to be absorbed by us.”  So today, my prayer for you is that, full of the certainty of God’s presence, that you be blessed today, and that you be a blessing.

Pax Christi,

James R. Dennis, O.P.

© 2012 James R. Dennis