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Archive for the ‘Lenten Thought’ Category

The Pesacho, Maundy Thursday in the calendar of the churches of the East is a powerful day. The readings from the Bible take the Lenten worshipper through an amazing walk with Jesus, on this day when he celebrated the Last Supper, the Passover, with his disciples.

It begins with a reading from the institution of the Passover narrative, Exodus 12:1-11. The context is the enslavement of the Hebrew people at the hands of the priestly-royalty of Egypt. Egyptian religion allowed a group of people called the “Firstborn-“ the priestly-royalty, to treat the Hebrews as indentured slaves, rape the women, and commit genocide- especially killing baby boys. God reveals himself to Moses saying, “I have surely seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt and have heard their cry because of their enslavers. I know their sufferings, and I have come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians (Exod. 3:7,8).  In Exodus 12, this group of enslaved people is given hope. They are told that this month will be the first of the months. It will be the month in which they will be recreated, just like in Genesis 1. They were told to sacrifice a lamb on the fourteenth day of the month, and put it on the doorposts of the houses, as a sign of their faith that God will deliver them from slavery. The following narrative shows how God delivers them our of the hands of these brutal enslavers called “the Firstborn-priestly-royalty.”

Other readings from the Old Testament, e.g. Ezekiel 45:18-25, remind the Lenten worshipper that this group of saved people were expected to annually remember this day of salvation. In fact, they had to observe it for seven days- each day they were supposed to be sacrificing a lamb and partaking of unleavened bread. This was a paradigm for a future Messiah Lamb, who would be sacrificed to save people from all over the world, from the kinds of systemic forms of evil the Hebrews in Egypt faced.

The Gospel readings introduce the Lenten worshipper to this Messiah sacrificial Lamb. John points the people to this “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). The book of John constantly points to centrality of Passover in the life of Jesus. In John 13, while getting ready for the Passover, Jesus takes a washcloth touched only by slaves, and begins washing the feet of his disciples. A Rabbi in good standing would never do such a thing. But, Jesus says, “This is the model of the Church, messianic community. This is the only way to eradicate slavery.”  In Luke 22, Jesus points to the intrinsic meaning of the elements of the Passover Seder. The Matzah, or Unleavened bread, represented the body of the pure Pesach Lamb. He broke it, and said, “This is my body, which is given for you, do this in remembrance of me.” Pesach Seder consists of four cups- the cups of Sanctification, Judgment, Redemption and Praise.  The third cup, the cup of Redemption, represented the blood of the sacrificed lamb, which was put upon the doorposts. When Jesus prayed over the cup of Redemption, he says, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.”

This is the biblical messianic model to deal with the problems of the human condition even today- problems of human trafficking, poverty, injustice . . . The Church is asked to be slaves, like Jesus. The Church is asked to be the sacrificial lamb, like Jesus.  This is the only, and radical solution. All other solutions are mere band-aid treatments.

 

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The Old Testament readings of the Sunday before the Passion Week, in the churches of the East are very poignant. The first reading is from Genesis 49. It is a narrative, where the patriarch Jacob gathers together his sons and prophesies to them regarding things, which will happen in “the last days.” (Gen. 49:1). In Hebrew this phrase, Acharit Hayamim, is a Messianic term, and appears at crucial junctures in the whole Hebrew Bible. Genesis 49:10 reads, “The scepter will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until he comes to whom it belongs; the nations will hear him.” This sets the tone for the expectation of a Messiah, who will be a global, kingly Messiah. The readings from the prophetic books underline this. Micah 4, e.g. proclaims the futuristic prophecy of Micah, “It shall come to pass in the latter days, Acharit Hayamim, that the mountain of the house of the LORD shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and it shall be lifted up above the hills; and peoples shall flow to it, and many nations shall come, and say: ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’  For out of Zion shall go forth the Torah, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between many peoples, and shall decide for strong nations far away; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore; but they shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid, for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken.”

It is quite clear from these, and other lectionary readings from the Old Testament, that the prophets constantly talked about a Day of the Messiah, in the Last Days, when a Messiah King will come. He will establish universal peace and justice.  The question still remains, “What kind of a king will this be?”

This Sunday is called by many names, most often the Palm Sunday, or the Sunday of the Triumphal entry into Jerusalem.  Yet, the songs and cries of the common people on the streets of Jerusalem do not give this picture.  They sing passages from the Old Testament, which proclaim him to be the king of justice, (Hebrew. Tsadiq). He brings about complex, spiritual, physical, social, racial, Yeshua, Salvation (Matthew 21:5).  He bears the image of poverty and slavery, (Hebrew, ‘Ani). These common poor people cry out, “Hoshiana! Hoshiana! Save us! Save us! Oh, Son of David” (Matt. 21:9). This is not a triumphant cry, as is so often portrayed in songs of the churches in the West, but is rather a cry for help and salvation.

This picture of the Messiah King is quite an enigma. Is he the triumphant king, or is he the humble king of the persecuted, poor and enslaved?  This is the dilemma faced by the people- then and now.  The problem also lies in the solution- then and now. The religious leaders then expected a Triumphant King, who would give them political power, wrested from the Romans.  Even today, this Sunday is called the Sunday of the Triumphant Entry, of the Triumphant King. The ancient liturgy simply calls this the Hosanna Sunday.

This Sunday defines the kind of King Messiah proclaimed throughout the Bible. Jesus the Messiah hears the heart cries of the people for salvation- “Hoshiana! Please cause your salvation to come, Oh Lord!”  Jesus, the humble Messiah King, heard their cries and died for their salvation.

He hears the cries of the poor, the enslaved, the persecuted . . . even today!

 

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The Saturday before the Passion week, in the lectionary of the churches of the East, interestingly does not focus on the crucifixion. Rather it focuses on the resurrection. It is called the Lazarus Saturday, and focuses on the resurrection of Lazarus in John 11. When Jesus hears about the illness of Lazarus, his response is, “This Illness does not lead to death. It is for the glory of God, so that the Son of God, the human face of God, may be glorified.” (John 11:4).  He responds to Martha, the sister of Lazarus, “I am the resurrection and the life.” (John 11:25). At the end of the narrative, Jesus cries out loudly, “Lazarus, come out,” The man who had died came out.” (John 11:43).  Of course, the obvious response is. “Who can do this but God himself!”

The Old Testament reading focuses on the mission statement of Jesus the Messiah’s life from the prophet Isaiah 61. This was Jesus the Messiah’s Bar Mitzvah text, a text, which was read during the week of Passover. It is also the text, which Jesus recited when he entered into public ministry at the age of 30. He cried out, “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me. He has made me the Messiah to proclaim the Gospel to the poor, captives, blind, enslaved, oppressed . . .” The Messiah proclaimed the year of Jubilee, the time of global transformation and resurrection. The obvious conclusion is that only the one, who can cause individual resurrection, can bring about global and dramatic resurrection in humanity.

These readings focus on the crux of the Gospel. It is not crucifixion, but rather resurrection. In history many have died, many have been crucified. There is only one who rose from the dead. He alone can cause global resurrection and transformation in humanity.

 

 

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The Friday before the Passion Week, in the churches of the East, is called the Fortieth Friday. On this day the worshipper reflects on the text, which forms the central idea of Lent- the forty days of fasting of Jesus in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). The number 40 is very significant in the Hebrew Bible- Noah’s flood was caused by forty days and forty nights of rain; Moses went up to the mountain and fasted for forty days and forty nights, at the end of which the Ten Words were given; The Exodus generation were in the wilderness for forty years; Elijah fasted for forty years . . . and so on. The season of Lent enables the follower of Jesus, to follow his footsteps and actualize the essence of “forty days” into one’s life.

There is a sobering thought found in all these narratives- each of the people/ peoples groups in the Bible were tested. Yet each, except for Jesus failed.

In the Old Testament reading for this day, Isaiah the prophet puts his finger on the central problem this way, “Why have we fasted, and you see it not? Why have we humbled ourselves, and you take no knowledge of it?’ Behold, in the day of your fast you seek your own pleasure, and oppress all your workers. Behold, you fast only to quarrel and to fight, and to hit with a wicked fist. Fasting like yours this day will not make your voice to be heard on high.” (Isa. 58:3-5)

It is clear that Lent can become just another tool of patting oneself on the back with hollow religiosity, while seriously fasting, and doing all the minutia of Lent. One can do this while completely ignoring the central teachings of the Bible. In the New Testament reflection, this is precisely what the evil one tempts Jesus to do. The devil says, “Just do something religious and spectacular to prove that you are the Son of God, the human face of God. That is all it takes!” But, Jesus eschewed this kind of hollow religiosity. He knew that the mission of his life, at the end of his “forty days,” was to die on the cross, to bring salvation to the world. Jesus’ life is the model of a Lenten life. He is the standard for all time for his followers to live out the real meaning of Lent.

 

 

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The sixth Sunday in the season of Lent, in the lectionary of the ancient churches of the East, focuses on a critical encounter which takes place between two, “I ams-” On the one hand, it is Jesus, who defines himself to be the “I AM” ten times in the Gospel of John, on the other, there is the human “I am.” In John 9, the central reading of this Sunday, Jesus heals a man who was blind from his birth. The religious leaders were more interested in pinning the blame on someone for this condition of the man. They ask questions like, “Did his parents sin? Or did he sin in his past life?” Jesus says to them, “You are asking the wrong questions. It is not a matter of pinning the blame on someone. Humanity and creation is in a fallen condition. In this condition, there are diseases and sicknesses, etc. However, right in the midst of these, the glory of God is revealed, and it is revealed through the everlasting I AM, the one who caused the good creation to come into being.” Jesus therefore healed the blind man, and declared, “I AM the light of the world.”  The people, however, were skeptical of this healing. They kept asking the man, “Were you really blind? Are you really that man?” He kept responding, “I am.”

The Old Testament reading is from an important section of the book of Deuteronomy- 26:1-13. In this section, Moses reminds the people that when they get to the Promised Land, they always had to bring a First fruits offering into the temple. When they did this, they had to say, “A wandering Aramean was my father, he went down to Egypt . . .” This offering was always a reminder of their fallen-ness and enslavement. They had to acknowledge the fact that were it not for the revelation of the everlasting I AM, and his grace, they would still be in a state of slavery and fallen-ness.” In recognition of this, they brought the First fruits into the presence of God.

The readings for this sixth Sunday proclaim that this same God, who revealed himself in the Hebrew Bible to Moses, and all the prophets, as the everlasting I AM, now reveals himself in the face of Jesus the Messiah, the everlasting I AM.

The crucial encounter on this Sunday is the encounter between two, “I ams.” The blind man changed as a result of this encounter, while who did not acknowledge their blindness, did not change. Unless one always acknowledges ones fallen-ness, and sinfulness-“the fallen I am,” one will not really encounter the everlasting I AM.

 

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The focus of the fifth Sabbath of Lent, in the lectionary of the churches of the East is on Jesus’ teaching on Sabbath in Luke 6. First, Jesus and his disciples plucked and ate grain from the fields. This incensed the religious leaders.  So Jesus responds, “Have you not read the Hebrew Bible? It is the principle of the Sabbath, which ought to be the focus, not the minutia of laws.” He then goes on to heal a man with a withered hand, saying, “I ask you, is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or evil, to save life or to destroy it?” Obviously, the answer is to do good, to save lives, to recreate, and to bring about personal and systemic salvation and justice.

The Torah and the Prophets reflection on this day reiterate Jesus’ teaching. The prophet Hosea, e.g. underlines the heart cry of the LORD, “I desire Covenant Love (Heb. Chesed), and not sacrifice; the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6).  It is so much easier to focus on the non-essentials of religion, rather than the essence of biblical teaching. The focus of the minutia is on the ego. The focus of the Bible and Jesus is on the Other- the hungry, the poor, the person with the withered hand . . . Those ought to be the focus of Lent.

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The fifth Sunday in the season of Lent, in the churches of the East, is called the Sunday of the Crippled Woman.  It is based on the event where Jesus heals a woman who was crippled for eighteen years on a Sabbath day (Luke 13: 10-17). The religious leaders are incensed that he should heal a crippled woman on a Sabbath day. Two aspects of religion and society of the day, which are stressed in this incident, are: one, an utter disregard for women in society and religion; and two, a disdain for mentally, emotionally, and physically handicapped people.

Two other passages from the Gospel of Luke are recited by the Lenten worshipper on this Sunday: Luke 7:11-17, where Jesus has deep compassion on a widow, and raises her son, her only hope for sustenance, from death. Without her son this woman would have been enslaved by the high caste people. The second passage is the Good Samaritan narrative, in which Jesus focuses on the good deeds of an outcaste, and enslaved group of people called the Samaritans.

It seems clear that the Lenten worshipper is reminded that Jesus came to heal and transform society by reaching out to the poor and the marginalized. These people had endured much due to systemic evil in society.

The Torah text, poignantly, is the Noah’s Flood narrative. The introduction to Noah’s Flood describes a world beset with systemic evil. Ancient exegetes have always asked the question, “What was the evil in global society that God was so incensed about?” The answer is found in Genesis 6:2, “The sons of god saw the daughters of man were good, and they took them as women, as they chose.” This was a central part of systemic evil in religion and society of that time in Sumerian, Akkadian, Egyptian, etc. society. Women were taken by the priestly and ruling classes to be “religious prostitutes-“ an ancient form of human trafficking. This was sanctioned by religion of that time. The closing of the Noah’s Flood account stresses the evil of murder of common human beings (Genesis 9:6). It seems clear that crimes against women and killing of common, low class human beings were the core systemic evil addressed in Noah’s Flood account.

God became incarnate to address all these forms of systemic evil. Evil, which was seen in the time of Noah, was also seen during the time of Jesus, and is also prevalent in society, today. One needs only to read global newspapers to read various forms of evil. The follower of Jesus, just like Noah, and Jesus, are called upon to squarely face systemic evil of our time- raise the sons of the widows; reach out to outcaste Samaritans; heal the crippled women of our time. These are in this state because of systemic human evil of our time.

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The core Lenten readings for the fourth Saturday of Lent are Genesis 18:1-15, and Luke 9:10-17.  “At the Appointed time next year I will return to you, and Sarah will have a son.” (Genesis 18:14). This text forms the heart of this crucial narrative of the LORD’s revelation to Abraham. The introduction says, “The LORD appeared to him;” (Genesis 18:1); the next verse says, “three men” appeared to him (Genesis 18:2). This, quite clearly is the human revelation of God- a series of revelations in the Hebrew Bible, which ultimately culminate in the final revelation of God in the face of Jesus the Messiah, God Incarnate.

The LORD promises to return at the “appointed time.” In Hebrew, this word connotes a miraculous revelation of God to do a supernatural miracle. This miracle was the conception, and birth of a son through a couple who were way, way, beyond their childbearing time. Sure enough, “Sarah conceived, and bore Abraham a son, in his old age, at the appointed time” (Genesis 21:2).  Throughout the Bible, these “appointed times,” were times of dramatic, divine encounters.  This Hebrew word is found for the first time in the Bible in the creation narrative, when God placed the lights in the expanse of the skies to be “for signs and appointed times” (Genesis 1:14).  Throughout the Hebrew Bible, these were reminders of God’s appointed times of encounter with humanity.  Finally, the New Testament claims, “at the fullness of the appointed time, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman,” (Galatians 4:4). This miracle of the birth of the Incarnate One was very much in the mold of the miracle of the birth of the son of Abraham and Sarah.

The Gospel reading reminds the Lenten worshipper that this incarnate one did many “signs and miracles-“ ones that only the Divine One could do.  The rest of the New Testament reminds us that the same God who revealed himself to Abraham, Sarah and the disciples is able to do “signs and miracles,” even today, at “the appointed times.”

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The lectionary readings on the fourth Thursday of Lent, in the churches of the East, reminds the worshipper of a very central thesis of the Bible- “God is a forgiving Father.” Two texts, which are highlighted are the Ten Commandments passage, Deut. 5:6-21; and the story of the lost and dead son, Luke 15:11-32).

The Ten Commandments are based on the concept of the fatherhood of God. He saves the people from the systemic evils of the world. For this reason the people are told that they are to worship him, and him alone (Deuteronomy 5:6).  This command was not given merely to portray haughty and dogmatic exclusivism. A study of the religions of the world reveals that other ideas of divinity in the religions of society were designed to propagate slavery and systemic forms of evil. The worshipper is reminded that the God of the Bible is the only true God and savior, who eschews all these forms of systemic and personal evil.

One might ask the question, what if one goes astray from this central thesis of the Ten Commandments? Is one a gone case? Jesus says, “No.” He illustrates this with the story of the younger son in Luke 15:11-32.  The younger son rejected his father by asking for his share of the property, and goes away to explore society and religions. He is thrilled by the initial euphoria and freedom to explore. Sadly, he finds out that it eventually leads him to despair. He finds himself subjected to enslavement and pig-animal like treatment- pretty much like the original Exodus community experienced in their enslavement in Egypt. Thankfully, he decides to “arise-” very interestingly, the Greek word used to describe Jesus’ resurrection, and go back to his father.  Starkly, the picture, which Jesus paints of this father, is very unlike the proud Eastern father. This father has been eagerly looking for the “lost and dead son.” This father has a deep surge of compassion, which rises from the depth of his bowels (Greek, splangchna). This father runs like an Eastern patriarch would never run. He throws himself at his son, like a proud old man in the East never would. This father showers his lost and dead son with many kisses. Then this father throws a party!

The Lenten worshipper is reminded, “God is a forgiving Father.” He is not a despot who must be pleased with all kinds of rituals.

The call to the Lenten reader is, “Return to this Father, oh lost and dead child! Arise, for he is your father and longs for you to arise and return!”

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The fourth Wednesday of Lent is mid-Lent. It is the nucleus of the Lenten season. In the liturgical cycle of the churches of the East, on this day, the focus is on Zechariah’s prophecy, “I will pour out on the kingship of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem a spirit of grace and supplication, so that, when they look on me, on him whom they have pierced, they will mourn for him, as one mourns for the One and only, and weep bitterly over him, as one weeps for the Firstborn” (Zechariah 12:10).

The Lenten worshipper is reminded that the main focus of the season of Lent is the one who was pierced. He is the One and only, in Hebrew, the Yachid. This is the word, which describes the son whom Abraham was asked to sacrifice in Genesis 22. It also describes the sacrificial Messiah in Psalm 22. Texts like these prefigure the pierced Messiah.

The Gospel reading is the most famous text from the Bible, John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he have his One and only Son, that whoever believes him will not perish but have eternal life.”

Keeping these two central texts in mind, the Lenten worshipper prays, “Oh Lord pour out your Spirit today on all- both Jews and Gentiles, who pierced the Yachid– the One and Only, the Firstborn. May there be a spirit of grace and supplication. May all acknowledge the pierced one as the divine Messiah of humanity, so that humanity may experience eternal life. Oh Lord, may this happen in my time!”

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