The first session of lecture, prayer and discussion on the Crucifixion met last Thursday. It was wonderful seeing members of St Charles and Grace Church praying and discussing a matter of our common faith so intently together. You may find the Podcast of the address and the music at our website here. I hope you will find the talk enlightening and the music uplifting, but the most valuable part of the evening was the discussion. This is the kind of topic which calls out for an examination from as many perspectives as possible. I hope that you will be able to attend next Thursday’s session at Grace Church and add your heart and voice to our Lenten journey.
(A question on Gnosticism arose at the meeting; you will find an excellent article on this at the end of this post.)
FORTIETH ANNIVERSARY OF ORDINATION TO THE PRIESTHOOD
I will be celebrating my 40th Anniversary of Priestly Ordination on Sunday, March 31st at the 11:15 AM Mass. I ask for your prayers and thank you for the tremendous affection and support you have shown me in my relatively brief time at St Charles. As this is Lent, there will be no reception or other commemoration. I expect to be alive for my 50th Anniversary and will have something then.
– Fr Bill
Second Sunday of Lent
Genesis 15:5–12, 17–18
Today we read a section from the 15th chapter of Genesis. It is the origin story of the Jewish people. Dating the portrayed events – much less separating fact from legend – is essentially impossible. Memories would have been passed down for a millennium before they were written down about 500 BC. Along the way they would have been influenced by historical events, theological assumptions, and real estate conflicts. What we shall see, however, is that the Jews could not understand themselves without prophecy and covenant.
Chapter 15 begins:
(This) word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision: “Fear not, Abram! I am your shield; I will make your reward very great.” (Genesis 15:1)
This is clearly a prophetic call that we have seen before with Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Jeremiah among others. The word of the Lord is made known in a vision. Abram is told not to fear and, as we have seen many times, connection with the living God is a terrifying experience.
Abram, however, asks how this will happen, as he is without a son to carry on his name:
2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what good will your gifts be, if I keep on being childless and have as my heir the steward of my house, Eliezer?” Genesis 15:2
Let us remember that Abraham’s wife Sarah was well beyond child bearing years. That he could be the father of anyone much less a nation is miraculous. God the takes him outside:
4 Then the word of the LORD came to him: “No, that one shall not be your heir; your own issue shall be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said: “Look up at the sky and count the stars, if you can. Just so,” he added, “shall your descendants be.” Genesis 15:4–5
This is where our passage today begins.
6 Abram put his faith in the LORD, who credited it to him as an act of righteousness. Genesis 15:6
Against all evidence he accepted the Lord’s promise and was thus in a right relationship with God. Yet words, even God’s words, need to be completed in a covenant,
8 “O Lord GOD,” he asked, “How am I to know that I shall possess it?” Genesis 15:8
Existence was quite precarious in those days and agreements were matters of life and death. Convents were formed by cutting an animal in two and walking between the separate pieces. This bound the parties. If they failed to keep the terms of the covenant, they were cursed to share a fate like that of the split animal. The ceremony even at this time would have had several other components, as we saw when we examined in the Book of Joshua last August. The parties would have uttered curses at each other; there would have been clearly delineated responsibilities for each party, and most importantly, they would share a meal together: common meal/common life. The author of Genesis was emphasizing certain points here and used only those features he needed.
Therefore, God first reminds Abraham who He is:
7 He then said to him, “I am the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as a possession.” Genesis 15:7
He is not a theological principal or a deity who is distant from the people; therefore, he will himself make a covenant to embody this promise:
9 He answered him, “Bring me a three-year-old heifer, a three-year-old she-goat, a three-year-old ram, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.” 10 He brought him all these, split them in two, and placed each half opposite the other; but the birds he did not cut up. Genesis 15:9–10
) 12 As the sun was about to set, a trance fell upon Abram, and a deep, terrifying darkness enveloped him. Genesis 15:12
17 When the sun had set and it was dark, there appeared a smoking brazier and a flaming torch, which passed between those pieces. Genesis 15:17 (NAB)
As is often, God is symbolized by fire, so by this a convent would have been formed and Abraham told in his own terms that he would be the father of a people.
18 It was on that occasion that the LORD made a covenant with Abram, saying: “To your descendants I give this land, from the Wadi of Egypt to the Great River (the Euphrates),
19 the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites,
20 the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim,
21 the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.” Genesis 15:18–21
The lands which are clearly marked here are precisely that of the Kingdom of Israel under King Solomon.
The Jews who returned to Jerusalem from Babylon in the 5th century BC were seeking to discover who they were after the trauma of losing the temple and their independence. As all of us they needed to return to their beginnings. It was important for them to emphasize that they were a people because they were called by God. Indeed, from the very beginning they were guided by him and given land by him. He is not an anonymous deity, but “the LORD who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans to give you this land as a possession”. The Jews are the descendants of those who responded to God’s prophetic call.
Their right to the land was sealed by a covenant. They still maintain that covenant with the sacrifices in the temple. Note rams, goats and birds were still used in temple sacrifice in their day. Usually this covenant as we have seen had stipulations like that of the 10 commandments on Mt Sinai but here it was the promise of God alone. They are a people not because of a legal arrangement but because God sought them and made Abraham and his decedents his own.
As the Jews rebuilt themselves after the exile, they recognized that they were born of a response to a prophetic call that required them to continue following God. They did not seek to find God; He sought them and continued to find them. They are not bound to Him by a breakable contract, but a permanent covenant. This ultimately is what a chosen people means.
As we look at what it means for us to be a church, let us remember that the Jews could not understand themselves without prophecy and covenant. Neither can we.
Gnosticism (nos´tuh-siz-uhm), a generic term for a variety of religious movements that flourished during the second to fourth centuries CE. Although the theology, ritual practice, and ethics of these groups differed, all purported to offer salvation from the oppressive bonds of material existence through gnōsis, or “knowledge.” Such knowledge consisted of privileged, esoteric understanding of the relationship between one’s true spiritual self and the transcendent source of all being. Typically, this knowledge could only be conveyed to humans by a revealer figure. What is known about Gnosticism must be gathered from two sources: reports in the writings of early church leaders—Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian, Origen, and Epiphanius—who were opponents of Christian gnostic teaching, condemning it as a heresy; and a number of ancient works produced by gnostics themselves—Codex Askew, Codex Bruce, the Berlin Gnostic Codex and, especially, works contained in the library found at Nag Hammadi. Both sources of information are problematic. The antignostic Christian writings often provide a fairly clear description of ideas and practices, but since these writings are highly polemical, these descriptions may not be ones that gnostics themselves would have used. The gnostic materials themselves, however, are often highly esoteric, intended for readers who knew much that is not contained in the writings themselves.
All the various expressions of gnostic thought appear to have evinced a radically dualistic attitude that identified “spirit” as fundamentally good and “matter” as fundamentally “evil.” Thus, the physical world in general and individual human bodies in particular were understood to be material prisons in which divine souls or spirits had been trapped. The most prevalent form of Gnosticism known to us held that the world was created by an evil god called the Demiurge. Human beings are basically eternal spirits that were captured by the Demiurge and confined in bodies of flesh and in a world of matter. Gnostic Christians believed that Christ had come as a spiritual redeemer (disguised as a human being) to enable the enlightened to be liberated from their material existence and to realize their true identities as spiritual beings. The implications of such a belief system for life in this world varied dramatically. Many (probably most) gnostics held that such liberation from the flesh involved renunciation of bodily pleasures and material concerns; they encouraged virginity, celibacy, fasting, strict diets, and other aspects of an acetic and austere lifestyle that would enable them to become more spiritual. Other gnostics appear to have drawn the opposite conclusion (or so certain Christian authors hold); they engaged freely in all manner of wanton excesses on the grounds that, since the spirit is all that matters, what one does with the flesh is irrelevant.
In any case, although Gnosticism is clearly related to the development of early Christianity, its significance for interpretation of the New Testament remains highly controversial. There was a period around the middle of the twentieth century when many New Testament writings (especially the Gospel and Letters of John) were interpreted as a response to Gnosticism. Some passages were even read as potentially supportive of Gnosticism. By the end of the twentieth century, however, it was generally recognized that such interpretations were anachronistic: at the time of these writings (first century CE), Gnosticism did not exist as any developed system that New Testament authors would have been supporting or denouncing. Nevertheless, historical scholars do not think that Gnosticism would have simply emerged fully formed in the middle of the second century without a considerable period of predevelopment; the ideas and tendencies that would later define Gnosticism must have been present earlier. Thus, it has become common for New Testament scholars to speak of an almost invisible and largely unidentified “proto-Gnosticism” as part of the milieu in which New Testament writings were produced. The apostle Paul writes about the distinction between “what is of the flesh” and “what is of the spirit” (Rom. 8:4–13; Gal. 5:16–26; 6:8). The Gospel of John and the Johannine Letters emphasize that Jesus was not just a spiritual being, but a man with a body of actual flesh (John 1:14; 1 John 4:2). Such passages seem to indicate that Gnosticism was “on the horizon”; people were already thinking about the kinds of things that Gnosticism would seek to address, sometimes in ways that were compatible with the New Testament documents and sometimes in ways that were radically distinct from those writings.