Saturday, April 17, 2010

Who's Afraid of Old Testament History?

Over the last few months, I've been reading through the historical books of the Old Testament, starting with I Samuel. This is a part of the Bible which many people avoid for two oddly contrasting reasons. First, it seems entirely pointless for Christians to re-hash all the history of Israel thing again. Isn't it just one damned thing after another, complete with interminable lists? Second, they're really offensive to our sensibilities what with the miracles, massacres (sometimes to the point of genocide) and ugly court politics which characterized the days when Israel stood as a kingdom on the earth. Thus, one is faced with books which will either put your to sleep or outrage you, so why would you bother?

So, why am I bothering?

Well, for one thing, I'm an inveterate historian. What's worse, I'm interested not so much in the history as the writing of history. Back in my grad student days, my main field of interest was Roman historiography and its connection with Roman identity. If history serves as a culture's memory, what is remembered and how something is remembered becomes crucial questions in determining how a culture thinks about itself. Like many cultures, history taught the Romans what it meant to be Romans by looking back on what seemed to exemplify the Roman-ness (or lack thereof) of one's ancestors. Thus, what we choose to remember and to value is central to what we seek to replicate and imitate today. This is true of Rome just as it is true of ancient Israel or, appearances to the contrary, even ourselves.

A second reason why I'm bothering is that, these days, what I'm most interested in is what it means to be a Christian historian both today and in the patristic era. There is, of course, no doubt that the Graeco-Roman historiographical tradition is central to understanding the emergence of church history in the fourth century AD., but I can't help but wonder if we're missing something when we restrict our consideration of Christian church historians to this set of influences. How does the historical books of the Bible contribute to the invention of a Christian historiography or, for that matter, the political ideology of Christendom? I don't know if anyone has explored this, but, if one is to start, one has to start with the sources. So, ad fontes, folks, ad fontes! And, here, I mean all the sources, not just those convenient to our sensibilities.

And a last reason is that I'm fascinated by the charting of the history of the kingdom of Israel. It has always intrigued me, for instance, that the establishment of the kingship in Israel was marked by one of the more prescient political analyses of the nature of kingship that I know. God, through Samuel, gives Israel the king it asks for, but not before He warns Israel what kingship really meant.

These will be the ways of the king who will reign over you: he will take
your sons and appoint them to his chariots and to be his horsemen, and to
run before his chariots; 12and he will appoint for himself commanders of
thousands and commanders of fifties, and some to plough his ground and to
reap his harvest, and to make his implements of war and the equipment of his
chariots. 13He will take your daughters to be perfumers and cooks and
bakers. 14He will take the best of your fields and vineyards and olive
orchards and give them to his courtiers. 15He will take one-tenth of your grain
and of your vineyards and give it to his officers and his courtiers. 16He will
take your male and female slaves, and the best of your cattle
* and donkeys, and put them to his work. 17He will take one-tenth of your flocks, and you shall be his slaves.
18And in that day you will cry out because of your king, whom you have
chosen for yourselves; but the Lord will not answer you in that day.’

All of his amounts to 'Fine, you can have a king, but you'll. And so it proves. Even the great kings of Israel, David and Solomon, proved imperfect and their reigns burdensome. David was a 'man of blood' and an adulterer, who knocked off his rival. He dared to have a census of his army, offending God whose help he was supposed to rely on. He was forced to kill his own son, who rebelled against him. And, Solomon. Yes, he was wise and built the Temple, but he was uxorious, idolatrous and the burden of his building projects was so heavy that most of Israel broke into rebellion after his death when his successor refused to ease up. And this sets aside the kings of Israel and Judah who were, on the whole, rather a bad lot, worshipping false gods and oppressing the godly and weak. In the historical books, we find God intervening time and again to point out the corruption of the political process. The ultimate end of this sorry tale is the exile- the eradication of Israel/Judah as a political entity, even as the religious/cultural entity of Israel continued.

All of this makes me wonder if what we are meant to see in the debacle that was the kingdom of Israel is the insufficiency of our efforts at controlling our lives in this world. That is, while I believe that God used the kingdom of Israel for his purposes, I believe that what we are expected to learn is that we aren't good enough to manipulate the world on our efforts alone. Israel did best when it abandoned its own 'wisdom' and 'power' and listened to the power and wisdom of God. God's interventions in favour of Israel are less common than one would think when one remembers Israel's election, but they are not less decisive or surprising. Time and again, Israel routs its enemies with little or no effort when it relies on God alone. Yet, time and again, it refuses to trust God alone. The result is failure and collapse.

Honestly, I don't know what to do this lesson. Yet, there is a a strong warning in these books about relying too much the power politics of the day. Many of the decisions of the kings of Israel really did make sense politically in their day- concessions to the cults of other gods kept those gods and their supporters onside, the oppressive political and economic policies of Israel's kingship were 'necessary evils' to maintain the trappings of Near Eastern kingship without which one just wasn't considered a player or worthy of respect. Yet, what God called Israel to do was radical reliance on God alone which meant an uncompromising faith in God and justice, God help us, justice! If the failure of Israel's political experiment signals the failure of human self-reliance, I can't help but wonder if it doesn't, also, signal the anticipation of the success of God's Kingdom to come. That we have failed, I think, is clear enough. That God won't is central to our hope as Christians.

So, I'm still struggling my way through the historical books. Yet, even as I'm wadding through list upon list of people we can never know anything about past their names and their jobs in the Temple of Solomon, I'm watching for God's footprints. I wonder what would happen if we did the same, when we read our newspapers or watch the evening news. God acted in the life of Israel and, I think, He acts now- just not the way we expect or, necessarily, even want. God's word to those of us who live in the modern-day West today is unlikely to be comforting or comfortable just as it was rarely comfortable for the kings of Israel.


Monday, April 05, 2010

Christ has risen! Easter and St. John Chrysosthom

Christ has risen!

Well, he rose yesterday, strictly speaking, but the last day of the Triduum Triathlon was extremely busy what dragging ourselves awake after the Easter Vigil on Saturday night, dealing with a sick toddler, getting out to Easter Sunday service where I was MCing and, then, having friends over for our Paschal feast of leg of lamb, Greek style potatoes, asparagus et al. I had a good Triduum, especially because, for the first time in a couple of years, I managed to make all the services (Good Friday was the children's service- an abbreviated Stations of the Cross- but, still, good) plus the Stations of the Cross on Wednesday. Good, but tiring.

Another good thing was that I made an acquaintance with St. John Chrysosthom's famous Paschal Homily. I can't believe that I hadn't run into this sermon before. Not only is St. John Chrysosthom one of my favourite patristic authors, this homily is so famous it is read Easter morning in Orthodox churches. You'd think I'd have read it before. Mind you, I could have and simply forgot. That happens sometimes.

So, for those of you who haven't read it, here is the full sermon from good folks at

If any man be devout and loveth God,
Let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast!
If any man be a wise servant,
Let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord.
If any have laboured long in fasting,

Let him how receive his recompense.
If any have wrought from the first hour,
Let him today receive his just reward.
If any have come at the third hour,
Let him with thankfulness keep the feast.
If any have arrived at the sixth hour,
Let him have no misgivings;
Because he shall in nowise be deprived therefore.
If any have delayed until the ninth hour,
Let him draw near, fearing nothing.
And if any have tarried even until the eleventh hour,
Let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness.
For the Lord, who is jealous of his honour,
Will accept the last even as the first.
He giveth rest unto him who cometh at the eleventh hour,
Even as unto him who hath wrought from the first hour.
And He showeth mercy upon the last,
And careth for the first;
And to the one He giveth,
And upon the other He bestoweth gifts.
And He both accepteth the deeds,
And welcometh the intention,
And honoureth the acts and praises the offering.

Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord;
Receive your reward,
Both the first, and likewise the second.
You rich and poor together, hold high festival!
You sober and you heedless, honour the day!
Rejoice today, both you who have fasted
And you who have disregarded the fast.
The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith:
Receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.

Let no one bewail his poverty,
For the universal Kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one weep for his iniquities,
For pardon has shown forth from the grave.
Let no one fear death,
For the Saviour's death has set us free.
He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it.

By descending into Hell, He made Hell captive.
He embittered it when it tasted of His flesh.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry:
Hell, said he, was embittered
When it encountered Thee in the lower regions.

It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took that which was seen, and fell upon the unseen.

O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead,
Is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.

To Him be glory and dominion
Unto ages of ages.

What I love about this homily is that St. John manages to convey the joy of Easter in such a human and humane way. We all know that St. John was not exactly a shrinking violet when he saw injustice or luxury or sin in his congregation, but here he is at his most charitable, largely because he sees God's grace cascading forth in Easter in such a way that it covers over our sins and shortcomings. Thus, he invokes the labourers in the parable of Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20) as a way of encouraging his congregation to celebrate the Easter no matter their successes or failures at Lenten disciplines. Further, he reinforces this sense by the bold juxtapositions in the fourth stanza in which he sets those who 'succeed' at Lent and those who do not, but calls them both to the Paschal (and, thus, the eschatological) Feast.

Ultimately, the reason for this call and for this grace comes towards the end- the resurrection of the Lord. That moment, the moment when Jesus broke the power of sin and death, is a crucial moment for all of us sinners. Without warning or expectation, God intervened in the world in a dramatic and intimate way in order to save us (US!) from the mess that we ourselves had created through our continued rebellion against God. Easter reminds us of that new beginning and the new creation we are called to be. And it calls us to the consummation of that new beginning in the hoped-for future

So, it is comforting to know that no matter how well our Lenten discipline have gone, we are called to the Paschal feast and to the redemptive victory so painfully won by God himself.

Christ is risen!

He is risen indeed!