By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 3/30/12 in The Madera Tribune
In ancient times, tomorrow was known as Lazarus Saturday. The name refers to the organizer of a supper that Jesus ate in the community of Bethany “six days before the Passover” (cf. John 12:1).
That naturally wasn’t the first visit of Jesus, but it would be his last.
The Greco-Syrian physician Luke describes the first meeting (Luke 10:38-42). Jesus had arrived in the village of Bethany, which sat a few miles east of the metropolis of Jerusalem, and a woman named Martha welcomed the traveling rabbi into her home. While Martha busied herself with serving her famous guest, her sister Mary sat at his feet and listened.
This irked her sister, probably for multiple reasons. For one, Mary’s pose was customary of male students listening to a religious scholar.
Jewish boys began their formal education around the ages of 5-7, either in the synagogue or at home. They would first be taught the Hebrew alphabet, the Aleph Bet, and then memorize and study verses from the first five books of the Bible, the Pentateuch.
Note that I said “boys.” Jewish women received little formal instruction, did not read from the Bible in the synagogue, were not taught Jewish law, could only observe religious ceremonies, and weren’t expected to attend on festivals and feast days.
Mary’s adoption of this student role before a rabbi was scandalous.
Moreover, Martha didn’t think it was fair that her sister was just sitting around while she was busy with the work of being a good host. So she complained: Rabbi, don’t you care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her to help me!
Surely to Martha’s surprise, Jesus not only didn’t scold Mary for her revolutionary behavior, he praised it: Martha, Martha, you are full of care and trouble about many things, but only one is necessary. Mary has chosen that good part, and it will not be taken from her.
This wasn’t the only time Jesus defied expectations in a radical way. Those unwilling to accept this struggled with his hard teachings. From there, it was only a step onward to reject the teacher too.
The memoir of the “beloved disciple” John says that when Lazarus later died of illness Jesus wept, prayed, and called his friend forth from the cave in which his corpse had been entombed (John 11:1-44).
Talk of this alleged miracle frightened Jewish religious leaders.
It wasn’t the first time a self-proclaimed messiah had arisen. Decades before, a tall and handsome slave of King Herod gathered followers, declared himself king of the Jews, plundered and burned the royal palace at Jericho, and did the same elsewhere, according to Jewish historian Josephus Flavius. The commander of Herod’s infantry led Roman soldiers against this “messiah,” Simon of Peraea, and beheaded him.
Likewise a shepherd named Athronges and his four brothers led a flock of rebels against Herod Archelaus. Less than a dozen years later, Judas of Galilee marshaled a violent fight against the Roman census. All these so-called messiahs had ended amidst bloodshed, and Jewish leaders decided it would be better if only one died this time -- Jesus -- instead of many.
In this context, Jesus ate in Bethany with his friends Lazarus, Martha, and Mary in the house of Simon the leper on the sabbath (Matthew 26:6-13; John 12:1-11). Unexpectedly, Mary washed and anointed his feet with costly scented ointment and wiped them dry with her long hair.
This was another scandalous gesture by Mary, and yet once again her teacher praised it. Leave her be, he told his indignant apostle Judas Iscariot, for it is for the day of my burial she kept this spikenard.
It was the custom of the day to perfume the newly dead to soften the eventual stench of decay.
The next day, which Christians call Palm Sunday, Jesus rode a young donkey into nearby Jerusalem. There was symbolism in the choice of transportation, for a horse was the mount of war and the donkey a steed of peace.
He was met with cries greeting him as the king of Israel and you can easily imagine the alarm of those fearful of another disastrous false messiah.
So began the time that fourth-century Christians called the “Great Week” (now known as Holy Week).
Spy Wednesday was the day Judas joined those plotting against Jesus; Holy Thursday, his last supper; Good Friday, his death; Holy Saturday; and Easter Sunday, new life.
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 3/23/12 in The Madera Tribune
Comedian and actor W.C. Fields (1880-1946) presented his first performances, juggling, in churches and theaters at the age of 15. Three years later he left his parents’ Christian home in Pennsylvania and soon became a headliner on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean.
Many years later, a friend found him — now a known atheist — reading a Bible in a hospital. When the surprised visitor asked why, Fields replied, “I’m checking for loopholes.”
Weeks later he died of an alcohol-related stomach hemorrhage.
Whether flippant or sincere, his attitude is hardly limited to those at the end of life. A joke tells of a Catholic school cafeteria with a crate of milk cartons and a sign that read: “Take only one. God is watching.” At the end of the lunch line sat chocolate cookies. On a napkin someone had scrawled: “Take all you want. God is watching the milk.”
There seems to be a nearly universal desire in humans to justify what they do, whether before God or others. Why is this?
Many religions, Christian and non-Christian alike, believe that humans possess a “conscience” — an understanding of right and wrong. The Latin roots of the word itself literally mean “with knowledge.”
Though heartfelt, the conscience judges the morality of an action using one’s reason and understanding, and that can sometimes be its downfall. Who among us hasn’t been biased, mistaken, or misinformed? A well-formed and truthful conscience is vital.
Many religions would again agree that it is for this purpose (among others) that divinity speaks to humanity — to remind us of the truth about good and evil. Even so, educating and correcting one’s conscience is a lifelong task. Neglect or abuse of it brings blindness.
Two movies opening in U.S. theaters today may help refresh the sensitivity of our consciences. These are “October Baby” and the literary adaptation “The Hunger Games.” Though I have only screened the first one, I have read the young adult novelettes behind the second, and encourage moviegoers to see both if possible.
In far different ways, these films look at the effects of socially-approved violence on children and society.
The light drama “October Baby” does so gently and uplifts, though it does so with a heroine that some might find taboo: a grown survivor of an attempted abortion. In contrast, the lightly science fiction trilogy that begins with “The Hunger Games” directly challenges the myths of U.S. entertainment and culture by showing the scars that killing inflicts on those who do it, even when it is arguably justified.
Elsewhere in media, many video gamers have been infuriated by a disappointing end to a blockbuster science fiction triad. On Wednesday, Bioware promised to heed the backlash.
Its recent game, Mass Effect 3, may have sold 890,000 copies ($60 each) in the U.S. within its first 24 hours of availability earlier this month, but the final minutes of the 90-120 hour trilogy left a sour taste. It offered three similar sad endings with the main visual variation being the color of the explosions.
The irony is that, before the one-size-fits-all end, the series maintained an illusion of freedom and consequences. An act of kindness or brutality, diligence or laziness, by a player could shape future encounters far down the story’s path.
In games and reality, we want our choices to have meaning. Our conscience insists some do, at least outside of a fantasy.
In 1933, the Nazi government outlawed all non-religious youth groups unconnected with the Hitler Youth paramilitary organization. Within three years the remaining church youth groups were also purged.
Among the secular casualties was Jungenschaft, a high-spirited teenage boys club in Germany. With equal gusto and appreciation, members explored woods, ice-cold rivers at dawn, wild bird migrations, fine arts concerts, museums, cathedrals, plays, and movies.
They were wiped out by the Nazis, who arrested and imprisoned its young members for weeks or months and destroyed their diaries, magazines, and songbooks.
Yet lyrics of the group’s favorite song survived, and the message holds true today.
“Close eye and ear a while / against the tumult of the time; / you’ll not still it or find peace / until your heart is pure.
“As you watch and wait / to catch the eternal in the everyday, / you freely choose to take your role / in history’s great play.
“The hour will come when you are called. / Be then prepared, be ready; / if the fire dies down, leap in; / again it blazes, steady.”
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Published 3/16/12 and 5/04/13 in The Madera Tribune
When a catechism teacher supposedly asked her class why they should be quiet in church, a child replied, “Because people are sleeping.”
Many, young and old alike, may agree with the late comedian George Burns when he said, “The secret of a good sermon is to have a good beginning and a good ending, and to have the two as close together as possible.”
A joke tells of a boy whose eyes wandered during an especially long homily preached at Sunday Mass. Noticing the red sanctuary lamp by the tabernacle, he tugged his father’s sleeve and asked, “Daddy, when that light turns green can we go?”
Confusing an altar lamp with a traffic light isn’t really a far-fetched mistake. I sometimes notice a few fellow worshipers mistaking the distribution of the Eucharistic bread as a signal to race to the parking lot and start their engines. Precious indeed must be the minutes they squeeze free.
It hasn’t always been so, and indeed isn’t necessarily so now.
In ancient times, the apostle Paul captivated the thinkers of Athens when he spoke of God while on the Areopagus (Rock of Ares), a hill northwest of the Acropolis (Acts 17). The greatest minds of the day listened intently… at first. But all too soon they sneered and cut Paul off. I imagine they then rushed to their donkeys so they could avoid the inevitable gridlock when the crowd dispersed.
Perhaps that wasn’t the best example.
Centuries later, the great archbishop John of Constantinople (A.D. 346-407) would be nicknamed Chrysostom (golden-mouthed) after his death. When he spoke in church, he frequently had to beg people to be quiet. It wasn’t that they were disrespectful — quite the opposite. In his day, preachers were greeted with applause, and polished texts of homilies were in demand. As today, ministers who moved hearts could become celebrities.
John wasn’t typical for his time however.
Though the public preferred complicated sermons with extravagant language and style, John spoke very simply.
He preached in the newly built basilica Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), which would be the largest cathedral in the world for a thousand years. But despite the size of his congregation he would often interrupt his homilies to ask questions of those present to make sure they understood.
He didn’t strive to flatter those in power though ministering in the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire. He repeatedly dared to denounce corruption. His reward, naturally, was being banished twice by the government. He appealed to the bishop of Rome, but the delegates sent by Pope Innocent were not only barred from Constantinople — they were imprisoned. After they refused a bribe, they were sent on a ship whose captain had been ordered to wreck it.
Needless to say, John died far from his devoted flock.
Hmm… again that may have been a poor example of the honor shown to those who speak of God.
In the Middle Ages, people were so interested in good sermons that preachers normally traveled by night so that devotees wouldn’t prevent their departure.
In that era, homilies were deeply entwined with scripture, so much so that it appeared that many preachers knew much of the Bible by heart. The sermons were more mystical than academic, adapted to the poor and uneducated. Each were tightly focused on expressing a single idea, and were full of examples from nature and daily life.
For those in the pew, such talks were verbal time machines carrying them to days long past.
This age of mystics in the pulpit perished by the time of the Renaissance. One historian, Rev. Pierre Batiffol, writes that a famous Renaissance orator preaching in Rome on Good Friday concentrated on praising “the self-devotion of (Roman emperor) Decius and the sacrifice of Iphigenia (of Greek mythology).”
Ultimately the church as a whole rebelled against such misguided shepherds — in more ways than one. The Protestant Reformation and the Catholic response, led by the bishops at the Council of Trent, later helped renew the precious art of homiletics.
Clearly sermons have had their rise and fall many times in the past two millennia. We Christians tend to become devoted or hostile to our better preachers, persecute and venerate our best ones, and lampoon, endure, or ignore the rest.
In his Rule, Francis of Assisi told his friars not to preach without proper permission from the local bishop. But he added words we too should follow: “Let all the brothers, however, preach by their deeds.”
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 3/09/12 in The Madera Tribune
A fictional little boy who was being punished studied his mother with fascination. Finally he asked, “Why are some of your hairs white, mom?”
Irked by the day and the reminder that a few strands of her hair were indeed turning gray, she replied, “Well, every time you do something wrong and make me upset or cry, one of my hairs turns white.”
He pondered this a long time and then said softly, “How come all of grandma’s hairs are white?”
I suspect many of us can easily forget the words of a Jewish rabbi spoken less than two millennia ago: “as you judge, so will you be judged, and the measure with which you measure will be measured out to you.” (Matthew 7:2)
One needn’t wait until Judgment Day before God to discover the truth of this warning. In a different and far lesser sense, it occurs even now.
A 2010 psychology study by Dustin Wood, Peter Harms, and Simine Vazire concluded “how we perceive others in our social environments reveals much about our personality.”
How do our judgments expose us? As an ancient text on Jewish laws and history, the Talmud, said: “We do not see the world as it is. We see the world as we are.”
In the study, university students were asked to rate the good and bad traits of acquaintances. Researchers found that those with more positive characteristics themselves, according to a self-rating and the opinions of others, were much more likely to see others positively.
Yet the sunnier students didn’t simply assume others were similar to themselves. Instead they were able to recognize good in others even if they did not share in it.
How positively students saw others also matched their own level of likability and their satisfaction with their own lives. In contrast, those who viewed acquaintances darkly were more likely to have a personality disorder, such as narcissism or depression.
The students were not merely tested once for this study. They were tested across a year, and surprisingly the results were stable. The fickleness of momentary moods didn’t seem to have an impact.
Nonetheless, I trust Jesus had something deeper in mind than psychology when he spoke long ago.
Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964) of Savannah, Georgia, wrote popular short stories, novels, and more, often in a style known as Southern Gothic. The genre uses macabre twists to highlight the values of the U.S. South. Her tales often featured an ugly and morally flawed character who unpleasantly received God’s help to see more clearly.
She explained in a letter, “All human nature vigorously resists grace because grace changes us and the change is painful.”
You’ll never see her dramas illustrated by painter Thomas Kinkade or in television movies sponsored by a greeting card company. She confronted and challenged rather than soothed. But she was unapologetic and even defiant when faced with the critics of her day.
“Most of us have learned to be dispassionate about evil, to look it in the face and find, as often as not, our own grinning reflections with which we do not argue, but good is another matter,” she said.
“Few have stared at that long enough to accept that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction. The modes of evil usually receive worthy expression. The modes of good have to be satisfied with a cliche or a smoothing down that will soften their real look.”
Some, such as Pope Benedict XVI, would say the greatest danger to Christianity is we Christians, who wound self and others as we fall short of its ideals.
According to a vision by the apostle John, Jesus lamented those followers who were neither hot nor cold. He preferred either of those to the lukewarm, which he viewed as vomit worthy (Rev. 3:15-16).
That points to a deeper truth behind the admonition of Jesus to not be judgmental of others. How many Christians are truly and completely on fire for God? We should pray no one gets what he or she deserves from God, but rather that they receive God’s mercy — for that is our own best hope as well. We all sin.
As rock band Reliant K sang, “The beauty of grace is that it makes life not fair.”
So how can we be hot and not lukewarm? With God’s daily help, love self and others as God loves you, and love God most of all.
By John Rieping | All rights reserved | Previously published 3/02/12 in The Madera Tribune
Did you hear about the student whose mother had bought him a really cheap dictionary app for his smartphone? He couldn’t find the words to thank her.
It gets worse. While defending her purchase, she declared that a good education was a man’s best friend.
The family dog bit her.
Nonetheless the son took her words seriously. The next day he was suspended for hacking into the school’s computer and raising his “U.S. History” grade. When asked why, he said he was just trying to make his mark in history.
At least he was brighter than his classmate. She had been offered an iPad and told it could take her all over the world wirelessly. She became frightened and demanded a seat belt.
I can empathize with her confusion. The other night I was in the mood for heavy reading, so I read the telephone book. But I couldn’t make sense of the plot. There were too many characters.
So I picked up “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” and skimmed through some life stories. To my disappointment, all the biographies were the same: the main character always died at the end.
Even so, I know literacy is important. One of my job interviews went smoothly until I was asked if I had read Shakespeare. Not wanting to appear ignorant, I confidently replied: “I’m sure I have. Who wrote it?”
I think I impressed her.
As Shakespeare wrote, “For my part, it was Greek to me.” But some of you might instead insist: “Give thy thoughts no tongue.” To that I would respond: “I am not bound to please thee with my answer.”
By the way, if I’m going too fast for you to follow along in your complete works of Shakespeare omnibus edition, let me know and I’ll type slower next time.
Now, all of my above ramblings are utter fiction, but “give me my robe, put on my crown; I have immortal longings in me.” Let us speak of a literacy more sublime than that of the so-called “Immortal Bard” (AD 1564-1616). There is an ancient practice of prayer known as “lectio divina,” a phrase that literally means “reading God” or “divine reading.”
It traditionally involves reading the Bible slowly and with imagination and thought.
We tend to read the Bible like we drive on the freeway, eager to reach our destination. But lectio divina requires reading it like a car trapped in rush hour traffic — stop and go.
Begin by silently putting your focus on God and letting go of distractions. A prayer may help. Next, read a sentence or phrase, and then reflect upon it. Put yourself in the circumstance mentioned, ponder what it must have meant to those present, or listen to its echoes in your own life. The exact meditation isn’t important. But in whatever way you choose, “Go to your bosom: knock there, and ask your heart what it doth know,” as Shakespeare would say.
Then speak to God about it or just spend time with God.
After an uncomfortable pause, continue on. Lectio divina will test one’s patience at first if done properly. But the temporary breaks are necessary, like in any conversation, to make space for a two-way exchange.
Lectio divina isn’t “Bible study.” It is meant to be an encounter. The goal isn’t to master knowledge. It is to embrace God.
The Cistercian monk Charles Cummings sums it up better than I: “Sacred reading allows the word of God to touch and awaken my heart. 'Indeed,' says the Letter to the Hebrews, ‘God’s word is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword... It judges the reflections and thoughts of the heart’ (Heb. 4:12). When I spend time in sacred reading I invite God’s word to penetrate my heart and to evoke from that deepest center of my being a response of surrender, wonder, praise, regret, petition, love. In the words I read, God speaks to me; in my prayerful pauses I respond to God, verbally or wordlessly.”
Lectio divina generally remains a daily prayer for monks and nuns as it has been since their earliest predecessors, the “desert fathers” and “mothers,” who fled Roman decadence by seeking the desolation of the deserts of Egypt in the 4th century.
By grace, may we all be able to say: “Truly I have set my soul in silence and peace. As a child has rest in its mother’s arms, even so my soul” (Psalm 131:2-3).