Archive for the ‘Pentecost’ Tag

The Genuine Jerusalem and ‘the trump of God’: part seven – Apocalyptic Literature and Millenarianism.   Leave a comment

003

Above: The cover of Norman Cohn’s 1957 ground-breaking, iconic and scholarly work on Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages (subtitle), the first chapter of which deals with The Tradition of Apocalyptic Prophecy in Jewish and early Christian literature. The picture shows a detail of Albrecht Altdorfer’s

Battle on the Issus in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich.

‘The Rapture’ at the ‘End of Days’:

The Book of Revelation is Christian apocalyptic literature, but despite many resemblances to Jewish apocalyptic, it has distinct characteristics of its own. It is not attributed to a figure in the distant past, such as Daniel, nor does it survey past ages in the guise of prediction. It is prophetic in the best sense of the word and is Jewish apocalyptic transfigured by the influence of Christianity. Imminent persecution by Rome is expected in the text, and Revelation was written to strengthen those who would face it. The message is given symbolically, however. Pages are filled with symbols and numbers: swords, eyes, trumpets, horns, seals, crowns, white robes; 7,12, 144,000 people, 1260 days, 42 months, 666: the number of the beast. As a result, it has been searched down the centuries for hidden knowledge of the future. There are two verses in the book which refer to Zion, or Jerusalem, often taken out of context by a variety of Christian eschatological churches and traditions, most of which are found today in the USA, having their origins in the mid-nineteenth century. Appropriately, I hope, the following texts are from The Revised Version of the Bible, published in London, New York and Toronto by the Oxford University Press, in 1880:

Chapter 14 v 1:

And I saw, and behold, “the Lamb sitting on the mount Zion, and with him a hundred and forty-four thousand, having his name and the name of his Father, written on their foreheads.

Chapter 21 v 2:

And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, made ready as a bride adorned for her husband.

These passages are commonly, though perhaps erroneously, linked with the following passages from elsewhere in the New Testament, concerning what has come to be known as ‘the rapture’ at the ‘End of Days’. The earliest of these to be recorded is in Paul’s first letter to the Church in Thessalonica:

1 Thessalonians 4 v 16 – 5 v 5, Revised Version:

For the Lord himself shall descend from heaven, with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first: Then we that are alive, that are left, shall together with them be caught up in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air: and so shall we ever be with the Lord. Wherefore comfort one another with these words. But concerning the times and the seasons, brethren, ye have no need that aught be written unto you. For yourselves know perfectly that the day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night. When they are saying ‘Peace and safety’, then sudden destruction cometh upon them, as travail upon a woman with child; and they shall in no wise escape. But ye, brethren, are not in darkness, that that day should overtake you as a thief; for ye are all sons of light, and sons of the day; we are not of the night, nor darkness.

Some first-century Christians believed Jesus would return during their lifetime. When the converts of Paul in Thessalonica were persecuted by the Roman Empire, they believed the end of days to be imminent.

003

The ‘Olivet Discourse’:

The ‘Second Coming’ of Christ, the Messiah, is also related in the minds of some eschatological evangelicals to Jesus’ references to a time of great tribulation in what has become known as ‘The Olivet Discourse’, which appears in all three of the Synoptic Gospels, almost verbatim (Mark 13. 1-13; Matthew 24. 1-14; Luke 21. 5-19). According to the narrative of the synoptic Gospels, an anonymous disciple remarks on the greatness of Herod’s Temple, a building thought to have been some 10 stories high and likely to have been adorned with gold, silver, and other precious items. Jesus responds that not one of those stones would remain intact in the building, and the whole thing would be reduced to rubble. This quotation is taken from a twentieth-century translation:

As Jesus was leaving the Temple, one of his disciples said, “Look teacher! What wonderful stones and buildings!” Jesus answered, “You see these great buildings? Not a single stone here will be left in its place; every one of them will be thrown down…

Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, across from the Temple, when Peter, James, John, and Andrew came to him in private. “Tell us when this will be,” they said, “and tell us what will happen to show that the time has come for all these things to take place. “

Jesus said to them, “Watch out, and don’t let anyone fool you. Many men, claiming to speak for me, will come and say, ‘I am he!’ and they will fool many people. And don’t be troubled when you hear the noise of battles close by and news of battles far away. Such things must happen, but they do not mean that the end has come. Countries will fight each other; kingdoms will attack one another. There will be earthquakes everywhere, and there will be famines. These things are like the first pains of childbirth.

You yourselves must watch out. You will be arrested and taken to court. You will be beaten in the synagogues; you will stand before rulers and kings for my sake to tell them the Good News. But before the end comes, the gospel must be preached to all Peoples. And when you are arrested and taken to court, do not worry ahead of time what you are going to say; when the time comes, say whatever is given then to you. For the words you speak will come from the Holy Spirit. Men will hand over their own brothers to be put to death, and fathers will do the same to their children. Children will turn against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me. But whoever hold out to the end will be saved. (New English Bible).

006

The disciples, being Jewish, believed that the Messiah would come and that his arrival would mean the fulfilment of all the prophecies they hoped in. They believed that the Temple played a large role in this, hence the disciple in the first part boasting to Jesus about the Temple’s construction. Jesus’ prophecy concerning the Temple’s destruction was contrary to their belief system. Jesus sought to correct that impression, first, by discussing the Roman invasion, and then by commenting on his final coming to render universal judgement. It is unclear whether the tribulation Jesus describes in the rest of this passage is a past, present or future event, in the terms of the gospel authors, but it seems to refer to events surrounding the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and as such is used to dates of authorship to around the year AD 70.

Nevertheless, many evangelical Christian interpreters say the passages refer to what they call the ‘Last Days’ or ‘the End of Time’. They disagree as to whether Jesus describes the signs that accompany his return. The discourse is widely believed by scholars to contain material delivered by him on a variety of occasions. The setting on the Mount of Olives echoes a passage in the Book of Zechariah which refers to the location as the place where a final battle would occur between the Jewish Messiah and his opponents.

016

Jesus then warned the disciples about the Abomination of Desolation standing where it does not belong. Later Christians regarded this as a reference to Hadrian’s Temple (see below), built in 135 AD over the site of Jesus’ tomb, but other scholars dispute this. By some accounts, a statue of Venus was placed on the site of Golgotha, or Calvary. Archaeologists have found evidence of an abandoned quarry just outside the original city walls, which was used as a Jewish cemetery. Hadrian’s workers paved it over with stone, including the supposed tomb provided by Joseph of Arimathea for Jesus’ burial.

004

The Gospels of Matthew and Mark add, let the reader understand, revealing how these passages may have been edited later in order to strengthen this assertion. Matthew makes clear that this is a reference to two passages from the Book of Daniel from the post-exilic eschatological Old Testament literature. Alan T Dale gives a modern rendering of these passages in poetic form, emphasising that this is a quotation by Jesus from the prophets inspired by his ‘view’ of Jerusalem at the time, a great city continually suffering at the hands of evil and violence throughout its history (Luke 21. 20-28), rather than his own prophetic ‘vision’ of its future:

When you see the city besieged by armies,

be sure the last days of the city have come.

Let those inside her walls escape

and those in the villages stay in the villages.

These are the days of punishment,

the words of the Bible are coming true.

There will be great distress among men

and a terrible time for this people.

They will fall at the point of a sword

and be scattered as captives throughout the world.

Foreign soldiers will tramp the city’s streets

until the world really is God’s world.

This was probably not the first time Jesus had remembered these lines during his visits to Jerusalem, as he came to and from the Mount of Olives to the temple and caught sight of the city walls. He was reported by Matthew to have lamented its seemingly eternal fate on at least one other occasion (Mt. 23. 37-39). Jesus then states that immediately after the time of tribulation people would see a sign, the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light; the stars will fall from the sky, and the heavenly bodies will be shaken (Matt. 24:29–30) (Joel. 3:15). Once again, he is quoting from the Old Testament prophets, so that it is difficult to know whether he is describing a contemporary event or predicting one in a distant future. Joel had already prefaced his description of this event by predicting that this would be a sign before the great and dreadful Day of the Lord (Joel 2. 30-31). While the statements about the sun and moon turning dark sound quite apocalyptic, they are also borrowings from the Book of Isaiah. (Isa. 13. 10).

What Revelation reveals…

005

Above: Albrecht Dürer, The Day of Wrath, from the Apocalypse series, 1498.

(British Museum)

The Book of Revelation also mentions the sun and moon turning dark during the sixth seal of the seven seals, but the passage adds more detail than the previous verses mentioned. (Rev. 6. 12-17). However, the Book of Revelation should not be read as a kind of secret manual to the End Times, containing a series of cryptic clues which need to be deciphered in order to produce a chronology of eschatological events. It is both pure poetry, and a continuous meditation and commentary on the prophecy of Old Testament, with reading and vision inextricably combined. In fact, it gives a clear demonstration of the need to understand the New Testament in the context of the Old. It may seem strange to those without an understanding of the latter since it seems savage and barbarous to those coming to it without that understanding. It should be viewed as a picture of the situation of the Christian Church in the hostile world of the end of the first century in which the power of Christ’s presence was still at work. It tells us what it was like to be a Christian at that time, and is not about what the world would look like at the end of times. Originally all these prophecies were devices by which religious groups, at first Jewish and later Christian, consoled, fortified and asserted themselves when confronted by the threat or the reality of oppression. It is natural that the earliest of these prophecies should have been produced by the Jews.

The Role of Jerusalem in the Early Church:

005

It was also natural that Jerusalem should remain the focal point of the church’s unity well into the first century. Jerusalem was not only the Holy City of Judaism, but also the place of the resurrection, ascension and Pentecost, and the headquarters of the early church. In Acts, everything seems to revolve around Jerusalem and the Jerusalem church exercises careful supervision of what goes on elsewhere. It is Jerusalem that sends down envoys to Samaria to approve the actions of Philip (8.14), Jerusalem that sets the seal on the conversion of Cornelius (11.18), Jerusalem that is the scene of the Apostolic Council (15.4) and Jerusalem to which Paul has to return, to his peril, to give account of his missionary journeys. (20.16; 21. 11, 15 ff.). And yet the journey which he was planning when he was planning when he wrote to the Romans was essentially a peace-making mission. When the Jerusalem concordat was made, which dispensed with the need for Gentile converts to undergo circumcision, and released them from most of the demands of the Law, the leaders of the church there had stipulated that the Gentile churches should take some responsibility for the support of the poverty-stricken Jewish Christians of Jerusalem.

Paul responded eagerly to this request (Gal. 2. 10). The leaders in Jerusalem may have had in mind something like an equivalent for the contributions which Jews in the Diaspora made to the temple in Jerusalem. As we know from his letters, Paul saw it as a chance to demonstrate the true fraternal unity of Christians, bridging any divisions among them. He set on foot a large-scale relief fund, to be raised by voluntary subscription from members of the churches he had founded. He recommended a system of weekly contributions (Rom. 15. 25-28; 1. Cor. 16. 1-4; II Cor. 8. 1-9, 15.). The raising of the fund went on for a considerable time and there was now a substantial sum in hand to be conveyed to Jerusalem. He was to be accompanied by a deputation carefully composed, it appears, to represent the several provinces.  (I Cor. 16. 3 f; Acts 20. 4). The handing over of the relief fund was to be an act of true Christian charity and also a formal embassy from the Gentile churches affirming their fellowship with Jewish Christians in the one church (Rom. 15. 27).

007

The goodwill mission, thought to have taken place in AD 59, dramatically miscarried. Paul’s reception by the leaders of the church at Jerusalem, if not unfriendly, was cool. James was thoroughly frightened of the effect his presence in the city might have on both Christian and non-Christian Jews, in view of his reputation as a critic of Jewish ‘legalism’. He urged Paul to prove his personal loyalty to the Law by carrying out certain ceremonies in the temple (Acts 21. 20-24). Paul was quite willing, but unfortunately, he was recognised in the temple by some of his enemies, the Jews of Asia, who raised a cry that he was introducing Gentiles into the sacred precinct (Acts 21. 37-29). There was no truth in the charge, which could have resulted in the death penalty, but it was enough to raise rabble, and Paul was in danger of being lynched. He was rescued by the roman security forces and put under arrest. Having identified himself as a Roman citizen, he came under the protection of the imperial authorities (Acts 21. 30-39) and was ultimately transferred for safe custody to the governor’s headquarters at Caesarea (Acts 23. 23-33). Following lengthy wrangles over jurisdiction between the Jewish Council and two successive Roman governors during which Paul remained in solitary confinement, he exercised his citizen’s right and appealed to the emperor, fearing that he might otherwise be delivered back into the hands of his enemies in Jerusalem (Acts 25. 1-12). Accordingly, he was put on board a ship sailing for Rome, then famously and dramatically shipwrecked off Malta.

After these events, Jerusalem began to lose its position as the centre of the church. According to a report by the fourth-century historian Eusebius, Jewish Christians withdrew from Jerusalem in AD 66, before its fall, and settled at Pella, a city in Decapolis. Jerusalem did not regain its importance for Christians until the fourth century when it became a place of pilgrimage. Indigenous Jewish Christianity lived on but became increasingly a backwater, of little more than historical significance.

Jewish into Christian Apocalyptic Literature:

The ideas of a messiah who suffered and died, and a kingdom which was purely spiritual, were later to be regarded as the very core of Christian doctrine, but were far from being accepted by all the early Christians. Ever since the problem was formulated by Johannes Weiss and Albert Schweitzer at the end of the nineteenth century, experts have been debating about how far Christ’s own teaching was influenced by Jewish apocalyptic literature. The celebrated prophecy recorded by Matthew remains significant whether Christ really uttered it or was merely believed to have done so:

For the Son of Man shall come in the glory of his Father with his angels; and then he shall reward every man according to his works. Verily I say unto you, there be some standing here, which shall not taste of death, till they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.

It is not surprising that many of the early Christians interpreted these things in terms of the apocalyptic eschatology with which they were already familiar. Like so many generations of Jews before them, they saw history as divided into two eras, one preceding and the other following the triumphant advent of the Messiah. That they often referred to the second era as ‘the Last Days’ or ‘the world to come’ does not mean that they anticipated a swift and cataclysmic end of all things. On the contrary, for a long time great numbers of Christians were convinced not only that Christ would soon return in power and majesty but also that when he did return it would be to establish a messianic kingdom on earth, and that they confidently expected that kingdom to last, whether for a thousand years or for an indefinite period.

Like the Jews, the Christians suffered oppression and responded to it by affirming ever more rigorously, to the world and to themselves, their faith in the imminence of the messianic age in which their wrongs would be righted and their enemies cast down. Not surprisingly, the way in which they imagined the great transformation also owed much to the Jewish apocalypses, some of which had indeed a wider circulation amongst Christians than amongst Jews. In the Book of Revelation, Jewish and Christian elements are blended in an eschatological prophecy of great power. Here, as in the Book of Daniel, a terrible ten-horned beast symbolises the last world-power, the persecuting Roman state, while a second beast symbolises the Roman provincial priesthood which demanded divine honours for the Emperor:

And I stood upon the sand of the sea and saw a beast rise up out of the sea, having… ten horns… And it was given to him to make war with the saints, and to overcome them: and power was given to him over all kindreds, and tongues, and nations. And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him, whose names are not written in the book of life… And I beheld another beast coming up out of the earth… And he doeth great wonders… and deceiveth them that dwell on the earth by means of those miracles which he had power to do…

And I saw heaven opened, and behold a white horse; and he that sat upon him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness he doth judge and make war… And the armies which were in heaven followed him upon white horses, clothed in fine linen, white and clean. And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations… And I saw the beast, and the kings of the earth, and their armies gathered to make war against him that sat on the horse, and against his army. And the beast was taken, and with him the false prophet that wrought miracles before him, with which he deceived them that had received the mark of the beast, and them that worshipped his image. These both were cast alive into a lake of fire burning with brimstone. And the remnant were slain with the sword of him that sat upon the horse…

And I saw the souls of them that were beheaded for the witness of Jesus and for the word of God, and who had not worshipped the beast… and they lived and reigned with Christ a thousand years…

At the end of this period – the millennium in the strict sense of the word – there follow the general resurrection of the dead and the Last Judgement, when those who are not found written in the book of life are cast out into a lake of fire and the New Jerusalem is let down from heaven to be a dwelling-place for the Saints forever:

And he carried me away in the spirit to a great and high mountain, and showed me the great city, the holy Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, having the glory of God: and her light was like unto a stone most precious, even like a jasper stone, clear as crystal…

001

From the Liber cronicarum of Hartmann Schedel, with woodcuts by Michel Wohlgemuth and Wilhelm Pleydenwurff. Nuremberg, 1493. (British Museum)

Religious movements which expect that the second coming of Christ as a cataclysmic event, or series of events, as shown above, are generally called Adventist. These have arisen throughout the Christian era but were particularly common after the Protestant Reformation, as described in Norman Cohn’s seminal work of 1957, The Pursuit of the millennium.  One of the most popular of these views is that the rapture of the church, as described in 1 Thessalonians 4-5 occurs just prior to the seven-year tribulation when Christ returns for his saints to meet them in the air. This is followed by the tribulation, the rise of the Antichrist to world-rule, the return of Christ to the Mount of Olives, and Armageddon, resulting in a literal thousand-year millennial reign of the Messiah, centred in restored Jerusalem. The original meaning of millenarianism was therefore narrow and precise. Christianity has always had its own eschatology, in the sense of a doctrine concerning the last times, or the last days, or the final state of the world, so that Christian millenarianism was simply one variant of Christian eschatology. But the early Christians already interpreted the prophecies in a liberal rather than a literal sense, in that they equated the martyrs with the suffering faithful, i.e. themselves, and expected the second coming in their lifetime. There have always been countless ways of interpreting the millennium and the route to it. Millenarian sects and movements have varied in attitude from the most violent aggressiveness to the mildest pacifism and from the most ethereal spirituality to the most earthbound materialism.

006

Above: Melchior Lorch: the Pope as Satan-Antichrist, 1545 (Courtauld Institute of Art).

‘Mainstream’ Protestants reject this literal interpretation. For example, instead of expecting a single Antichrist to rule the earth during a future Tribulation period, Martin Luther, John Calvin and the other Protestant Reformers saw the Antichrist as a present feature in the world of their time, fulfilled in the papacy. In theological terms, this mainstream branch of Christian eschatology is referred to as Historicist. Its adherents, whilst holding to a belief in a literal second coming of Christ, as given in the Apostles’ Creed, would regard the signs referred to in scripture as symbolic, and the events as relating to past, present and future events in the history of the church.

Eschatology and the Fundamentalist Right in the USA Today:

By comparison, in the Dispensationalist view, History is divided into (typically seven) dispensations where God tests man’s obedience differently. The present Church dispensation concerns Christians (mainly Gentiles) and represents a parenthesis to God’s main plan of dealing with and blessing his chosen people the Jews. Because of the Jews’ rejection of Jesus, Jewish sovereignty over the promised earthly kingdom of Jerusalem and Palestine has been postponed from the time of Christ’s first coming until prior to or just after his Second Coming when most Jews will embrace him. Those who do not will suffer eternal damnation, together with the non-believing Gentiles. There will then be a rapture of the Gentile church followed by a great tribulation of seven (or three-and-a-half) years’ duration during which Antichrist will arise and Armageddon will occur. Then Jesus will return visibly to earth and re-establish the nation of Israel; the Jewish temple will be rebuilt at Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Christ and the people of Israel will reign in Jerusalem for a thousand years, followed by the last judgment and a new heaven and a new earth.

This view is also held by most groups that are labelled Fundamentalist, believing in the literal and inerrant truth of the scriptures. The more politically active sections within this eschatological view often strongly support the misnamed Christian Zionist movement and the associated political, military and economic support for Israel which comes from certain groups within American politics and parts of the Christian right. They have recently given strong support to the election campaign of Donald Trump, and it is widely believed that they have been influential in his decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of the modern-day state of Israel as a prelude to moving the USA’s Embassy from the current political capital, Tel Aviv, to Jerusalem.

017

Above: Maps of Jerusalem and its environs from a pre-1948 Bible concordance.

Below: A Map of Palestine and Transjordan from the same concordance

019

This decision has, of course, confirmed the Fundamentalist-Dispensationalists of the United States in their belief in an End of Time eschatology, which is, at best, at variance with ‘mainstream’ Judao-Christian beliefs. Moreover, the idea of basing the ‘business of good government’ and international diplomacy in the twenty-first century on a literal interpretation of the apocalyptic texts of the first century is, I would argue, completely antithetical to a genuine understanding of the true history of Israel, Judah, Jerusalem and Palestine throughout the ages. More seriously, it is also at least as likely to ‘trigger’ nuclear Armageddon as any of the near-apocalyptic events of the Cold War, whether they were ideological or accidental in cause and catalyst. Already, Trump’s decision has alienated moderate opinion not just in Palestine and the Middle East, but throughout the world. Having survived an ‘accidental’ nuclear catastrophe over the second half of the last century, we now face Armageddon by the ideological design of the White House in Washington. Is this really what the people of Israel and Jerusalem want? I don’t think so because I don’t hear so. In the meantime, all we can do is to honour the age-old commandment, Pray for the Peace of Jerusalem. Amen to that!

Sources:

Robert C Walton (ed.)(1982), A Source Book of the Bible for Teachers. London: SCM Press.

Norman Cohn (1970), The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary millenarians and mystical anarchists of the Middle Ages. Chapter 1. St Alban’s: Granada Publishing.

Kristin Romey (2017), The Search for the Real Jesus in National Geographic, December 1917, vol. 232, No. 6.

Alan T Dale (1979), Portrait of Jesus. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pentecost to Paraclete: The Coming of the Holy Spirit   1 comment

English: Gian Lorenzo Bernini - Dove of the Ho...

English: Gian Lorenzo Bernini – Dove of the Holy Spirit (ca. 1660, stained glass, Throne of St. Peter, St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sentences:

Jesus said: I will pray the Father, and he will give you another Counsellor, to be with you for ever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him; you know him, for he dwells with you, and will be in you.

God‘s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God are sons and daughters of God. When we cry, “Abba! Father!”  it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.

The Story:

A few weeks after Jesus went back up to heaven, he sent the Holy Spirit to live in our hearts. Jesus’ friends were all together. Suddenly they saw little flames on each other’s heads. Then the people began talking in other languages they hadn’t learned (Acts 2)

Prayers:

A Children’s Prayer for Whitsun

We remember today how the coming of God’s Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost changed the lives of the disciples.

Loving Lord God,

Thank for the joy of the disciples.

We need the gift of joy;

Give us your Spirit, Lord.

Thank you for the courage of the disciples.

We need the gift of courage;

Give us your Spirit, Lord.

Thank you for the goodness and unselfishness of the disciples.

We need these gifts;

Give us your Spirit, Lord.

Thank you for the way the disciples spread the good news of your love.

We need to be your messengers;

Give us your Spirit, Lord.

Thank you for the disciples’ certainty that Jesus would always be with them.

We need his friendship and help;

Give us your Spirit, Lord.

Lord, help us feel your living Spirit present with us as we worship and at all times. Amen.

(John D Smith)

Luke 4. 18-19:

May the spirit of the Lord be upon us that we may be announce good news to the poor, proclaim release for the prisoners, and recovery of sight for the blind; that we may let the broken victim go free, and proclaim the year of our Lord’s favour; according to the example of Christ and by his grace. Amen.

Galatians 5. 22-24:

Grant to us Lord the fruit of the Spirit: and may your life in ours fulfil itself in love, joy, peace; patience, kindness, goodness; faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. May our lower nature, with its passions and desires, be crucified with Christ, that true life may come. And may the Holy Spirit, the source of that new life, direct its course to your glory, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Hymn:

The Breath of the Spirit

Breathe on me, Breath of God,

Fill me with life anew.

That I may love what thou dost love,

And do what thou wouldst do.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,

Until my heart is pure,

Until with thee I will one will,

To do and to endure.

Breathe on me, Breath of God,

Blend all my soul with thine,

Until this eartly part of me

Glows with thy fire divine.

Breathe on me, Breath of God;

So shall I never die,

But live with thee the perfect life

Of thine eternity.

Notes:

The idea of breath has always had a central role in Christian theology. The Greek word for this, and for the Spirit is ‘pneuma’, as in pneumonia, pneumatic, etc.. The Latin word ‘spiritus’ also refers to breath. The creative function of God has often been thought of as the action of breathing life into mankind, following the description in Genesis 2:7: ‘And the Lord God formed man of the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living soul.’

Whereas to a physicist pneumatology means the science of air and gases, to a theologian it means the doctrine and study of the Holy Spirit. It is this notion of the Holy Spirit as the breath of God breathed into his creatures that Edwin Hatch (1835-89) develops in this simple devotional hymn. It first appeared in 1878 in a privately printed pamphlet, Between Doubt and Prayer. Hatch was born into a nonconformist family in Birmingham, educated at the King Edward VI School and Pembroke College, Oxford, where he met and befriended several members of the future Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood of artists, including William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones. Although contributing articles to magazines and artistic reviews, he didn’t follow his friends into a literary or artistic career, but chose instead to become a Church of England minister in the East End of London. Later, he became Professor of Classics at Trinity College, Toronto and then returned to Oxford, ending his academic career as a Reader in Church History. Despite his academic abilities, his faith was said to be as simple as a child’s, and deep.

Breathe on Me Breath of God’ is sung to a number of tunes, the most effective of which is ‘Wirksworth’, named after the Derbyshire village with traditions of well-dressing at Whitsun, and found in a Book of Psalmody of 1718, harmonised by S S Wesley (1810-76). The use of some less lively tunes has been criticised as suggesting ‘that the breath of God was an anaesthetic, not a “Giver of Life”.’ So perhaps we should stick to Wirksworth or, even more appropriately perhaps, to Carlisle,  by Charles Lockhart (1745-1815), who , despite being blind from infancy, was a notable church organist in London, well known for his training of children’s choirs.

Thanksgiving:

O God, who art father of our spirits, the lover of our souls, and the Lord of our lives: we offer thee our worship and our praise. With thy whole Church in heaven and on earth we adore thee for thy wondrous mercy in the work of our redemption through Jesus Christ thy Son. We thank thee for the grace of thy Holy Spirit, who did brood upon the waters when darkness was upon the face of the deep, speak in the prophets to foretell the coming of thy Christ, and descend as in tongues of living fire upon thy Church at Pentecost. We bless thee that thou hast never taken or withheld thy Holy Spirit from us, but that he abides with us for ever to rebuke us for our sin, to comfort us in our tribulations, to help our infirmities and teach us how to pray, and to witness with our spirits that we are thy children and joint-heirs with Christ. To thee, O god, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, we give all praise and glory, for ever and ever. AMEN.

Benediction: 

Grace, Mercy and Peace from God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be upon you and remain with you always. AMEN.

Whit Sunday (Seven Weeks after Easter Sunday)   1 comment

English: A Protestant Church altar decorated f...
English: A Protestant Church altar decorated for Pentecost with red burning candles and red banners and altar cloth depicting the fire and sound of blowing wind of the Holy Spirit. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The world is charged with the grandeur of God,   It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.   (Gerard Manley Hopkins)   Of the three major festivals in the Christian calendar, Whitsun is perhaps the least celebrated by people in Britain, certainly as a ‘folk’ festival, though it has become more important recently with the growth of the charismatic movement in churches. The coming of the Holy Spirit to revitalise the apostles and, through them, the whole church, is more difficult to picture, especially for children, than the events of Christmas and Easter week. In English culture, at least, Whitsun was upstaged by May Day. It is no longer merits a general ‘bank’ holiday in its own right in Britain, for the Monday following, though there is a late Spring Bank Holiday at the end of May, which may or may not coincide. In 2012, this holiday was postponed to coincide with the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Celebration of the 2nd-5th June, to allow for a long weekend. In parts of Ireland, including Northern Ireland, ‘Ladies go Dancing at Whitsun’ still, as the song has it. The white clothes worn in these secular activities, as well as in churches for baptisms and confirmations, is the origin of the name in English, though other cultures use the original Greek name for the Hebrew festival of the fiftieth day after Passover, ‘Pentecost‘.

After the events of Easter Day, the disciples of Jesus were comforted and encouraged for forty days by his appearances before them. They were still looking for Christ’s kingdom to come and needed the presence of the King. However, Jesus told them that it was not for them to know how this kingdom would be achieved, but he would always be with them and they would be inspired by the Holy Spirit. Then, forty days after his Resurrection, he went from their sight in the event which is commemorated by the Church on Ascension Day. Ten days later the apostles (now made up to twelve by the appointment of Matthias as treasurer, replacing Judas Iscariot) came together to celebrate Pentecost. As they talked, fearful of what might happen to them, a power came over them, in a moment of time, which they all experienced, and which, sweeping away their fears, emboldened them to go out to the crowds and to preach the gospel in such a way that all the pilgrims , gathered in Jerusalem from many lands and speaking many languages, could understand their enthusiastic message. Although, like Jesus, the disciples would have spoken a little Greek as well as their own colloquial Aramaic, and may have been able to read and write in Hebrew, they could not possibly, as uneducated Galileans, have learnt so many languages, especially the Persian and Asian languages. Even the fifty days they had been quietly preparing for their ministry would not have been long enough to learn the range of tongues required to preach confidently in each. The tongues of fire which ‘spread out and touched each person there’ remind one of the ‘dragon’s tongue’ symbol of the Welsh language Society.

They were so enthusiastic that the more cynical onlookers made fun of them, suggesting that they’d been drinking wine at breakfast, as it was only just nine o’ clock. This was how the missionary work of the Church began, bringing death in many cruel forms to some of the twelve, and many others.   Today, most Whitsun ceremonies, derived from the Saxon ‘Hirita Surnondseg’ customs, have little reference to the first Whitsun described in the Acts of the Apostles  (chapter 2), and many of them are pagan in origin, although the Church has given them Christian significance. The pagan cult of well worship and veneration of water spirits was one of the most difficult traditions to transform. To this day, in most European cultures, the custom of throwing coins into a fountain or ‘wishing well’ is still a common practice and a good way of charities gaining income. Wells and spas are still a feature of many towns in Britain, with England’s smallest city named after the several natural springs which surface there, near the Cathedral. Bath, a world heritage centre, has been an important Spa since Roman times, of course, and place-names like Royal Leamington Spa and Llandrindod Wells are part of the revival of water-treatments in Georgian times.

The most colourful ceremony which continues in contemporary celebrations at Ascentiontide and Whitsuntide is Well Dressing, very popular in the north Midlands, or Peak District. This has become an art form in its own right with origins in the Dark Ages and floral pictures up to ten feet (3m) in height are set up at springs and well-heads. Tissington, Buxton and Wirksworth in Derbyshire, are noted for the beauty of their well dressings. The scenes depicted are biblical, constructed entirely from natural materials, pebbles, flowers and petals, leaves, moss, and crystal rocks. At Tissington, after morning prayers, the clergy and choir process around five local wells, blessing each one. The Whitsun Ale was a sort of parish ‘carousel’ vaguely linked to the ‘Agapae’ or Love Feasts of the early Church when the rich ate with the poor and shared their food. The churchwardens arranged the event and provided the beer which was sold, with all profits going to the poor. The ‘Church Ale’ led to village benefit clubs of the nineteenth century which did more to benefit the hierarchical control of squire and parson, than they benefited the poor, and were replaced by ‘friendly’ and co-operative societies.   More than anything, Whitsun, now Spring Bank Holiday,  is the time for Morris-Dancers to emerge, and the popularity of this tradition, encouraged in the 1960s by the English Folk Dance Society, remains widespread throughout England and Wales. The ‘Morris’ is the English version of the ‘Morisca’ or ‘Moorish’ Dance which began as a ritualistic form of battle mime, brought back to England by the Crusaders. As in other European cultures throughout May, floral decorations like the ‘Kissing Bower’ are still made by children in some villages. These are two intertwined circular arches of wild flowers, which are carried from house to house. These customs were not always popular with clergymen, however, who would perhaps have been more positive about the cycles of mystery plays performed at Whitsuntide outside the Cathedrals at Chester, Wakefield and Coventry. These were presented as ‘pageants’ on moving stages which processed around the town, which meant that the biblical scene for a particular festival was presented several times by the chosen trade guild for that scene, as the audiences watched on at different points around the city. Freed from the direct control of the Church, they contained sometimes bawdy dramatic effects, or ‘slapstick’ humour, written into lively, colloquial scripts. It would be interesting to know what special effects they could produce both for the Ascension and Pentecost stories.   Which brings us back to where we came in. Children can understand the idea of the Holy Spirit as a conscience, or counsellor, as well as a comforter or helper, as in the picture and text below. And both children and adults can understand Paul’s teaching on the ‘fruits of the spirit’; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost may have been dramatic, but its continuing charisma is manifested in the ordinary, everyday lives of Christians who follow its promptings and reveal its power in the way they live out these values and qualities of Love Divine.

Shovuos (Pentecost – Jewish Festival)   2 comments

Even unto the morrow after the seventh Sabbath shall ye number fifty days. (Leviticus 23: 16) Judaism‘s  festival of weeks comes seven weeks, or fifty days (‘Pentecost’) after the Passover Festival. This festival was originally celebrated as the gathering of the barley harvest, seven weeks after the harvesting of the wheat crop. It was, therefore, the a thanksgiving festival and was first observed after the Hebrews had settled in Palestine as a farming community. It gained greater importance as the festival of ‘the Torah’, the Hebrew Law given by God on Mount Sinai to Moses. According to the Bible story, the Hebrews entered the Sinai desert in the third month of their exodus from Egypt. Much later, in the nineteenth century, the festival acquired even greater significance when it was recognised as the day of confirmation, on which thirteen year-olds were confirmed in the faith through a special ceremony. Previously, only boys were allowed to go through this ‘Bar Mitzvah’, but now both boys and girls are confirmed at this age. The festival also has a Christian significance, for it was at Pentecost that Jesus’ disciples suddenly found the courage to go out and tell the whole world about their belief, so that the festival became ‘Whitsun’ in the Christian calendar, a popular day for baptisms and confirmations, with the weekend popular for white weddings!  I was baptised on Whit Sunday, forty years ago, fifteen years after being born at a Nottinghamshire Baptist manse on a Whit Monday! Shovuos is a summer festival and Jewish homes are decorated in green, while the food is largely composed of dairy dishes. A popular dish is ‘blintzes’, which is cheese rolled in dough. In Jewish schools children are taught the story of Ruth, which reminds them of their agricultural heritage and also turns their thoughts to David and Bethlehem, his home town. The story begins in a time of hardship and famine, when a farmer named Elimelech, together with his wife, Naomi, and their two sons, decided to move to another country, Moab, to find better pastures there. Sadly, Emilelech died, leaving the two boys to look after their mother. In time, the boys married, the elder to a Moabite woman, Ruth. Naomi found happiness with her two daughters-in-law and her sons, and they prospered for a decade. Then, tragically, the two sons were killed in an accident and Naomi, now very lonely, decided to return to Bethlehem. Ruth asked to go with her, with the words:

Cover of
Cover of The Story of Ruth

Wherever you go, I will go, Wherever you live, I will live. Your people shall be my people and your God, my God. (Ruth 1:16)

English: House of the People is a multi-purpos...
English: House of the People is a multi-purpose hall. Here, Bar Mitzvah boy called to the Torah עברית: בית העם הוא אולם רב תכליתי. כאן, נער בר מצוה עולה לתורה. באולם קיימת הפרדה בין הגברים לנשים., Original Image Name:בר מצוה בבית העם, Location:בית העם במושב צופית (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

They went back to Bethlehem together, to find the situation very different to how it had been a decade previously. The famine was over and the harvests were good. However, the two women remained poor and at the barley harvest time Ruth went into the fields to ‘glean’ among the sheaves left by the reapers. The owner, Boaz, saw her, fell in love with her, and gave her six measures of barley to take home to her mother-in-law. They were married and their son, Obed, was Jesse’s father, who was father to David, hence the significance of the story to Christians, since Jesus was David’s descendant, born in his home town of Bethlehem. However, although the Christian festival of Whitsun is a popular time for baptisms and confirmations, like ‘Bar Mitzvah’ celebrations, the basis of the festival is the New Testament story of what happened to the apostles on the morning after the seventh sabbath.

Mazel tov hats at a bat mitzvah
Mazel tov hats at a bat mitzvah (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The ‘Bar Mitzvah’ (boys) and ‘Bat Mitzvah‘ (girls) ceremonies mark the occasion when the young Jew reaches religious and legal maturity. There are celebrations both in the synagogue and at home. The young boy is taught to read the Torah scroll, and a great extended family party follows. The young person gives a speech in which s/he expresses their thanks to their parents for all their love and concern in bringing them up.

%d bloggers like this: