Religion

Tuesday of Holy Week | Jesus Christ Superstar, pt. 8

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God in the Marketplace

As Holy Week unfolds we are reminded of the events that led up to Jesus’ death, one of the most prominent being the Cleansing of the Temple. Recounted here is the version appearing in Mark 11:15-18:

“They came to Jerusalem, and on entering the temple area he began to drive out those selling and buying there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who were selling doves. He did not permit anyone to carry anything through the temple area. Then he taught them saying, “Is it not written:

‘My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples’?

But you have made it a den of thieves.”

The chief priests and the scribes came to hear of it and were seeking a way to put him to death, yet they feared him because the whole crowd was astonished at his teaching.”

When I was a child and heard this particular part of the Gospels it never really hit home how outraged Jesus must have been upon seeing the money changers and those who were selling doves. At one point someone told me that Jesus was angry because the doves were not the ritually pure animals required for sacrifice, but instead lower quality birds that weren’t suitable for an offering. That idea is, of course, reading into the text quite a bit. No, Jesus was shocked by the mere fact of commercial activity taking place in a holy space.

I think what really confused me was that in America, specifically in American Christianity, everything is for sale. Christianity is rife with marketing trends and schemes, from WWJD to Fireproof. Not only that, but we want to buy things because they are marketed as holy or pure. PureFlix exists, as does an entire genre of music, books and movies; all vying for the dollars of American Christians. There are even churches where you can buy coffee in the narthex (perhaps this is actually common, if it is, more’s the pity). Everywhere an American Christian looks there is stuff being sold in the name of God, so when the Son of God walks into the outer courtyard of the temple and sees money changing hands and animals being sold his overturning of tables seems like an overreaction. But perhaps looking at it from another angle will put it into perspective. This is a clip from the 1973 Jesus Christ Superstar:

In this scene we see all kinds of wrong going on at the temple, all condoned by the Caiaphas the Chief Priest. We see quack doctors, drug dealers and whores. All of them are singing about what you can get there, what’s available for sale.

Watching the pushers and the prostitutes look for business is a little unsettling the first time you see it. It feels all wrong to see such activity in a place that is supposed to be holy, and the camera work revels in the gratuitousness of it all. All this excess is the real focus of the temple during the busy season, the God-thing is just secondary. When Jesus flips out and begins flipping tables you can sympathize with his feelings. While there were no drugs for sale in the temple the sense of revulsion elicited by the movie is perhaps a taste of what Jesus felt. I first saw this movie as a child and every time I think of the Cleansing of the Temple I come back to it. Buying and selling in a holy space is a big deal, something that can profane the sacred and sully the pure. This movie was able to cut through the fog of our selling obsessed culture and get the point across. Jesus wasn’t overreacting, not by a long shot.

Religion

28th Day of Lent | Evening Prayer

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23rd Psalm

The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.

Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me;
thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.

Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil;
my cup runneth over.

Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Religion

13th Day of Lent | Jesus Christ Superstar, pt. 3

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Even Jesus Christ Needs Someone to Take Care of Him Sometimes

In Jesus Christ Superstar (1973) there is a song called Everything’s Alright sung by Mary Magdalene to Jesus after he returns to where he and his followers are staying.

While this is something of an amalgamation of different stories in the Bible, there is a current, both in the movie and in the Gospels, that occasionally Jesus needed someone to take care of him. Jesus, at times, is portrayed as a mythical figure more akin to Hercules than a human being. We think of Jesus taking care of us, we think of Jesus as strong, immune, other-worldly.

But, I think that kind image of Jesus can make it that much harder for Christians. We have this standard of strength to live up too, but we are doomed to fail to meet it from the outset because there is no way we can be as strong as Christ. It only serves to discourage us when we try to attain the unattainable.

We may not ever be able to be as strong as Christ, but we can be as weak as him. Here, we have an example that depicts Jesus needing someone to take care of him. He is tired and needs care. As Mary Magdalene soothes him, he relaxes. Sometimes, we too need care. Having someone care for us is not a common experience after we are grown. Often we spend a lot of our time caring for everything and everyone else. It can make us feel guilty if we need to ask for help or accept care. But, when we stop and remember that Jesus needed care at times, that he needed others to take care of him sometimes, it is a relief. It is not a sign of failure as a Christian to be weak or need care, it is a way to follow Christ, it can be a conduit for grace.

but he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness.” I will rather boast most gladly of my weaknesses, in order that the power of Christ may dwell with me.

2 Corinthians 12:9

Religion

11th Day of Lent

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Today’s reading from the USCCB is from the Gospel of Luke

Jesus said to his disciples:
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

“Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned.
Forgive and you will be forgiven.
Give and gifts will be given to you;
a good measure, packed together, shaken down, and overflowing,
will be poured into your lap.
For the measure with which you measure
will in return be measured out to you.”

This is a short and powerful statement from the lips of Christ. Jesus gives explicit commands to His followers that are, ultimately, the most difficult things for people to do. He tells us to stop judging and condemning and directs us to forgive and give instead.

It seems to me that doing so will take our hearts from being closed and critical, and open them to being giving and joyful. We are able to really connect to the glory that is in this world if we are not always putting ourselves above others. If, instead of judging someone when they do not meet our standards we instead give to them and help them. By opening ourselves to others through giving and forgiving we tear down the barriers between us. With those demolished we can see each other for who we really are, children of God made in the image and likeness of God. When we see God in another person we can no longer hold ourselves in superiority to them, but instead must fall to our knees at their feet in reverence.

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Sketch for ‘Jesus Washing Peter’s Feet’ by Ford Madox Brown

Image credit goes to the Tate Museum.

Religion

8th Day of Lent | Breath of God

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Out here, in the spring, the wind blows constantly. It sweeps across the land driving out the leaves from last fall, and the hidden litter in the brush. It pours over the fields constantly, roaring through the countryside like a freight train. It is powerful and strong, and also enlivening. When you step outside you can smell it, the crisp edge and the cool warmth. The land is being awakened and given the breath of life.

In the Hebrew and the Greek of the Bible the word for “wind” and the word for “spirit” are the same. (This is why there are some variations in the translations of certain verses, take Genesis 1:2 for example) Understanding the link between spirit and wind can give rise to deeper meaning in our life. The world was created by God and is a testament to His life-giving goodness, the wind is His movement over the surface of the world, a movement that continually gives.

Out here, the rain will pour for days on end, and then the wind will come. The wind cleanses the land and raises it into wakefulness. The wind dries the flooded ground, it clears the air, and it warms the earth. The wind is not merely a meteorological fact, it is the life-force that purifies and readies. It is the breath of God that fills our bodies and makes us live.

Religion

6th Day of Lent

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Today’s reading from the USCCB is Isaiah 55:10-11

Thus says the LORD:
Just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
And do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.

God’s grace is not a zero-sum game. It pours out on the world in abundance with enough for all. However, it doesn’t stop there, not only does it overfill our cups, but it sparks a response. That response adds to the abundance and enough becomes more than enough with more besides. God gives us the life-spark and what is alive must grow. The goodness of Jesus Christ is never emptied out, the more it is poured out, the more even more of it returns. Good can never be emptied from our world for it is flowing out upon us and it has life.

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Religion

1st Sunday of Lent | 40 Years, 40 Days

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Today’s gospel reading from the USCCB is Matthew 4:1-11

“At that time Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert
to be tempted by the devil.
He fasted for forty days and forty nights,
and afterwards he was hungry.
The tempter approached and said to him,
“If you are the Son of God,
command that these stones become loaves of bread.”
He said in reply,
“It is written:
One does not live on bread alone,
but on every word that comes forth
from the mouth of God
.”

Then the devil took him to the holy city,
and made him stand on the parapet of the temple,
and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down.
For it is written:
He will command his angels concerning you
and with their hands they will support you,
lest you dash your foot against a stone
.”
Jesus answered him,
“Again it is written,
You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.”
Then the devil took him up to a very high mountain,
and showed him all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence,
and he said to him, “All these I shall give to you,
if you will prostrate yourself and worship me.”
At this, Jesus said to him,
“Get away, Satan!
It is written:
The Lord, your God, shall you worship
and him alone shall you serve.”

Then the devil left him and, behold,
angels came and ministered to him.”

Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness recalls the forty years Israel spent wandering in the wilderness. During that time the Israelites had to completely depend on God to sustain them from day to day. It was a trying time for the people, but it was also a time that brought the Israelites to seek God more fully, and to depend on His providence.

Like the Israelites in the wilderness, we too are often wandering in the deserts of our lives. We are hungry and ragged and under attack from vipers. It can feel like we are so far away from God, it can seem like no matter how far we travel, or no matter where we go, we are never any closer to finding a way back to God. It can be as though we are banished and forgotten.

However, in all that estrangement, somehow, strangely, we can find our path to God more clearly. We can find that path because Jesus Christ first walked that path for us. By following the path of the Israelites in the wilderness, Jesus showed us that there is sanctification to be found in the wild. He wandered like they wandered. He was tempted like they were tempted. He depended on God like they depended on God, and in all his trials He imbued holiness into the suffering. He took the estrangement of the human race and remade it into a means of reconciliation. He took a path that led away from God, and made it run backward, toward God. He brought God into the most godforsaken parts of human life.

When we are wandering there is solace in the knowledge that Jesus wandered here first.

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Briton Rivière - The Temptation in the Wilderness

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