Ancient Answers

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Human Freedom Revealed

The mythopoeic genius of the Yahwist writer continues to unfold in today’s reading, Genesis 2:20-3:20. The readings from Isaiah 3:1-14 and Proverbs 3:19-34 contain a few gems – O my people, your leaders mislead you, and confuse the course of your paths” (Isaiah 3:12); Do not say to your neighbor, ‘Go, and come again, tomorrow I will give it’—when you have it with you” (Proverbs 3:28) – but it’s the Genesis reading that must hold our interest today because of its momentous importance in the biblical and Christian traditions.

On days when the world is ugly, it is easy to understand the bleak conclusion of the creation story. But as I write this, the sun is out, the neighborhood is quiet and a motet of unearthly beauty by Josquin des près is playing in the background. At a beautiful moment like this I find it hard to enter into the world of the so-called “Fall of Man.” Proverbs 3:19 tells us today, The LORD by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens.” So God’s wisdom couldn’t possibly have failed in the creation of human beings.

AdamsRib_541x600In the “first” creation story, we read that God made man, male and female God made them (Genesis 1:27). Here, in the “second” creation story, man is made first and then woman is made from man’s ribs quite a bit later, after all the animals are created! Woman-haters down through the ages have used this as an argument for the inferiority of women. I think the Yahwist had something totally different in mind. Human beings are not made to live alone. Animals are wonderful and they enrich our lives and the life of the earth; dogs indeed are man’s best friends. But no animal is a fit partner; only another human being is. The myth of course requires a man and a woman in order for the human race to begin. But just as our text is not an excuse for the denigration of women, so also it’s not an excuse for excluding same-sex attractions. We have to be very careful how we use or misuse biblical texts, especially when their purpose is different from ours!


The harmony of the garden existence into which the man and woman were placed is disrupted by the entrance of the serpent in chapter 3. The serpent is one of God’s creatures, one of the animals that “creep upon the ground” that God created on the sixth day (Genesis 1:24-25), the same day on which God created human beings. And, remember, “it was very good”! Did God miss something in creating the serpent? Was the serpent exempt from the “very good” pronouncement? Good questions. I have a friend who loves snakes – he is a herpetologist – but most people prefer not to have anything to do with snakes.

Of course most Christians see the snake as simply the devil. The Book of Revelation certainly makes two references to “that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan” (Rev 12:9 & 20:2) – but Revelation itself is a huge multi-layered mythopoeic masterpiece with its own theology. Snake or devil, it doesn’t matter. The same freedom was given to the serpent as was given to the human beings. Free will is at the root of what happens in chapter 3 of Genesis. The serpent’s free will meets the free will of the two humans, and the result is rebellion.

Is the punishment excessive? A pointless question. The myth’s purpose is to explain why snakes crawl on the ground; why people die; why there is toil and trouble; why there is pain in birth-giving; and why women are subject to their husbands. Very neat – like all good myths. This is what myths do: they use stories to explain big realities. The realities are all too real; the stories are real within the context of the storyteller and his or her audience. A reader of two thousand years ago had no trouble taking the story exactly as told. Most readers today listen to the story or read it with a different understanding.

Free will is not free unless it is put to the test. This is what God did, through the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the tree from which the man and woman were forbidden to eat. The exercise of their free will caused them to disobey God’s commandment. The disobedience and the punishment are not the most profound insights of the myth. The real genius of the biblical story is that this act of disobedience, this act of freedom, was necessary for the man and woman to be fully human. Theoretical free will means nothing. The man and woman could have obeyed God blindly and lived in the bliss of paradise. The deception of the serpent blinded them into desiring something that wasn’t theirs to desire: to be like God (Genesis 3:5). Instead, they became human, all-too-human. And it is our story. We are humans, not gods. The myth has served its purpose – albeit under the watchful eye of God, Yahweh!

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A Lower Origin?

After the exalted view of human beings made in the image and likeness of God, today’s readings bring us back down to earth – literally: Genesis 2:4-19; Isaiah 2:11-21; Proverbs 3:1-18. Isaiah continues his attack on the haughtiness of men. Isaiah threatens that God will “terrify the earth.” Thank you, Lord – I feel like saying – thank you, but we don’t need more terror, we have plenty, and most of it is done in the name of some god or other. The cynic in me wants to hit back and say, if God threatens to terrorize and if human beings are made in the image and likeness of God, then no wonder we terrorize each other. This is a problem I have with how Christians view and explain God: We let God off too easily, much more easily than some of the biblical writers, as a matter of fact: Jeremiah, Job, some Psalms.

It seems God has little confidence in the humanity that God created; perhaps God forgot that human beings were created in the image and likeness of God. So in the Proverbs reading we are told: Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths. Be not wise in your own eyes…” Again, I am confused. Are we made in the image and likeness or not? Why is my insight of no value? 

This low view of human beings goes back to our Genesis reading – what has been called the second creation story. Except, it’s not the second creation story at all; it is actually the first creation story! Scholars are quite certain, that this alternate creation story came first. The author is usually called the Yahwist because he uses the name YHWH for God. In English translations of the Bible, YHWH is represented by the capitalized LORD. It’s not certain how old this version is, but it’s definitely older than the creation story we read in chapter 1.

There is nothing in the Yahwist version about image and likeness. It’s a muddy origin, a lower origin story. And not only that, but a test is set up for man: he is told never to eat from “the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” And the threat is death: “in the day that you eat of it you shall die.” Much ink has been spilled over the millennia speculating on this commandment and what the forbidden tree meant. I’m not going to add any speculation of my own. Let’s just see it in the simplest and most direct way: it was a test of obedience.

Obedience: a messy concept. Most of us resist it; we don’t like to obey orders, regardless who gives them. So did God set up humanity for failure from the start? It’s a pointless question. It’s a myth, created by the Yahwist. Whatever psychological or archetypal reality underpins the story, it doesn’t cease to be a story, a parable. It’s funny, but myths more often than not are more real than actuality reports.

Most Christians are scared of the word “myth” because it brings up the idea of something false. But what really is a myth? It’s an archetypal parable. A parable reveals aspects of human experience we can relate to. Myth is parable stretched to cosmic, primeval dimensions. That’s all, nothing to be scared of. Our lives are built on myths and are enhanced by myths. Science itself creates myths to promote its discoveries and intuitions. My first encounter with the myths of the Bible will remain firmly in my mind forever. It occurred in my first year of seminary, in my first class with our professor of Old Testament, Fr. Paul Tarazi. In his introductory class he indeed began speaking of “myth” in connection with the first books of the Bible. I actually rebelled and raised my hand in protest. I remember quoting some text from the New Testament – probably 2 Peter 1:16, or maybe something from the Epistle to the Hebrews, I can’t remember for sure – to challenge what I was hearing him say. Today I continue to be in awe of the magnificent vistas of biblical meaning that Fr. Tarazi revealed to me those many years ago.

Orthodox iconography is not afraid to use mythological imagery in representing the creation of man. Note in particular how Jesus is present in physical form at the creation! Beautiful theology, profound truth, but not exactly a “selfie” taken with God’s smartphone! In fact, I venture to say that Orthodox iconography is much closer to the spirit of the biblical writers than any literalist or fundamentalist reading of the Bible – or most scholarly readings for that matter!


And here is a very unusual image to represent the creation of man in the “image and likeness” of God. God is represented as a trinity of angels – an echo of Genesis 18, but also to represent the plural “Let us make man in our image…” in Genesis 1:26.


Did God create man by shaping a mound of earth and then actually breathe into his nostrils to give him life? Of course not. But is man from the earth, connected to the earth, and does man return to the earth? We know this is so. Is human “life” meant for intimate union with God? This also we believe, and that is what is meant by God breathing into the nostrils of man. The mythical language of the Yahwist’s “second creation story” is less exalted than the “image and likeness” language of the first chapter of Genesis – but it accurately describes our connection to the earth and our intimacy with God and the earth. As for the obedience requirement, we’ll leave that for another day.

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Image and Likeness

What a marvelous trio of readings today, and how impossible to do justice to all three in a few paragraphs: Genesis 1:24-2:3; Isaiah 2:3-11; Proverbs 2:1-22.

The Proverbs reading contains basic truth for believers in God: Receive wisdom by following God’s commandments. Nothing profound or radical, but who doesn’t want what verse 10 promises: “For wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul”? However, most of us will want to pass over Verses 16-19 with their misogynistic moralizing. “Loose” women need “loose” men to do their thing, but the book of Proverbs doesn’t talk about loose men! Eve and women in general became the scapegoats to explain male lack of self-control.

The Isaiah reading confronts us with the arrogance of human societies, especially the arrogance of the strong – and this, of course, is a theme that runs throughout the scriptures. But verse 11 asserts in uncompromising terms: The haughty looks of man shall be brought low, and the pride of men shall be humbled.” And verse 4 proclaims a promise that still resonates in the hearts and minds of all who seek peace:

He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; 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 any more.”

Note the final words: “neither shall they learn war any more.” The war and gun industries teach war to adults and children through video games, violent films, and aggressive campaigns against any regulation of guns. The NRA makes sure that children can “learn war” from the earliest possible ages! All these stand under the judgment of God in verse 4. It will be a long time before swords are beaten into plowshares, but eventually the haughty will be brought low. If there is one promise in the Bible that I want to hold on to, it’s that one. Everyone and everything that destroys God’s good creation will be brought down… eventually. And indeed, God’s creation is “very good.” That’s how the six days of creation come to completion, with that simple phrase (Genesis 1:31).

On the sixth day of creation all land animals were created, the last of which were the human. At least in this respect, Genesis agrees with the theory of evolution, which is our own basis for understanding human origins, rather than the mythological language of Genesis. There was something different about the creation of human beings, no doubt about that. There was an element of self-expression that we see in God that is missing from the other acts of creation. God speaks, as if to his own conscience: “Let us make man…” instead of pronouncing, “Let there be man,” as he did in all his other acts of creation. The creation of human beings was a more personal act of God, an expression of his own character. This is expressed by the two words “image” and “likeness” in verse 26: “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.”

The Fathers of the Orthodox Church interpreted these two words, image and likeness, according to their own philosophical understanding; today’s scholars prefer to look at the Hebrew meanings and contexts. Here is one contemporary scholar:

Let us for a moment pay attention to the terms צֶלֶם and דְּמוּת, which we translate as “image” and “likeness.” The first refers to a statue, alludes to a sign that makes present all that is absent. Said of human beings in relation to [God], it indicates that each one of the possible humans will evoke the deity, bringing it to life, suggesting the presence of something that is absent. The human being, thus, is the evocation of the absent presence of the deity in the world. This general term specifies another, “likeness, similarity,” which gives more depth to the first and constitutes a semantic whole in Hebrew. The creation through image and similarity is part of genealogy. (Mercedes Navarro Puerto, in the essay Divine Image and Likeness: Women and Men in Genesis 1-3 as an Open System in the Context of Genesis 1-11, pages 208-9, in the volume Torah)

Her reference to “genealogy” certainly arouses memories of the genealogies in Matthew and Luke, especially Luke, where the genealogy of Jesus Christ is carried all the way back to Adam (Luke 23-38). Our similarity to God is built into our genes – so to speak!

A fellow blogger in Scotland, Mike Mair, with whom I occasionally exchange emails, was similarly inspired by the discoveries of scholarship and archeology to write: “Historical scholarship has helped by noting that the god-kings of the ancient middle east used to set up images of themselves throughout their domains as a constant reminder to their subjects and to strangers of their rule. In some cases a digest of the king’s law was inscribed on the monument. In a similar way the author shows God creating humankind as his monument in his world, to exercise his rule and responsibility in it.” You can read the rest of his excellent commentary here.

There is so much more to say, but I’ll hold off further reflections until tomorrow, when we read the other creation account in Genesis 2. I’d like to close my thoughts today by quoting a beautiful hymn from tonight’s Vespers. This hymn accurately exemplifies the true spirit of Lent. It also echoes Isaiah’s admonitions for justice, peace and charity. And it illustrates what it is to have dominion on earth – as representatives of God, made in God’s image and likeness – more than any big theological treatise can do:

While fasting with the body, brothers and sisters, let us also fast in spirit. Let us loose every bond of iniquity; let us undo the knots of every contract made by violence; let us tear up all unjust agreements; let us give bread to the hungry and welcome to our house the poor who have no roof to cover them. Let us receive great mercy from Christ our God.


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Waiting for Humans

The story of creation continues in today’s reading from Genesis 1:14-23. Everything is now almost ready for the appearance of human beings. I say “almost” because the “fifth day” of creation only brought into being the living creatures of the air and the waters. Land animals will appear on the sixth day, on the same “day” as humans!

Somewhere after the “fifth day” or in the middle of the “sixth day” God perhaps took a deep breath and contemplated the final act of creation. Will humans be a blessing or a curse upon the earth? The two other readings for today give us a preview of the answer to that question: Isaiah 1:19-2:3 and Proverbs 1:20-33. The picture in both readings is bleak. The “city” has failed (Isaiah 1:21); Wisdom cries out in the streets of the city (Proverbs 1:20), vainly looking for reason and faithfulness. The human domain has proven to be a failure! But God looks to a restoration, a return to “mountain” imagery rather than “city” landscape! Yes, it is the city Zion that “mountain of the Lord” refers to (Isaiah 2:2-3) and the terms are used interchangeably throughout the scriptures, but here in Isaiah the language serves also to emphasize the failure of the “city” and God’s preference for “mountain” language.

In Romans 8:19, we read: “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons and daughters of God…” We will discuss the fuller context of that statement in future reflections, but for now we can stop here at the fifth day of creation and imagine creation and God’s heavenly realm waiting in eager anticipation for the final act of God’s days of creation, and that will come in tomorrow’s reading from Genesis. The narrative is about to reach its climax. But it will be a climax that does not appear separately from what precedes it. God’s six days of creation are indeed one majestic symphonic movement.

I like what our Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, spoke at a symposium in 1997 at the Saint Barbara Greek Orthodox Church in California. It beautifully expresses the continuity of God’s creative action: “The Lord suffuses all of creation with His divine presence in one continuous legato from the substance of atoms to the Mind of God. Let us renew the harmony between heaven and Earth and transfigure every detail, every particle of life.” I love his use of the word legato, a musical term that describes the interpretive approach that avoids choppy, disconnected articulation and brings out the flow and continuity of musical phrases. It is an approach most masterfully employed by great conductors like Wilhelm Furtwängler.

Most of the hymnography this week is influenced by monastic negativity toward the body and its passions. Whereas the bleak pictures that Isaiah and Proverbs have presented to us concern failure to do justice and to know God, the church fell captive to monastic language of self-mortification – for example: “Let us keep the Fast not only by refraining from food, but by becoming strangers to all the bodily passions; that we who are enslaved by the tyranny of the flesh….” and so on, you get the drift. Nevertheless, the genuine gospel spirit survives in some of the hymnography: “Let us begin, O people, the pure Fast that is our soul’s salvation. Let us serve the Lord with fear: let us anoint our heads with the oil of charity, and let us wash our faces in the waters of purity. Let us not use vain repetitions in our prayers, but as we have been taught, let us say: Our Father, who art in heaven, forgive us our trespasses in your love for humankind.” One may wince at the idea that fasting is “our soul’s salvation” – clearly that is not the Lord’s teaching – but the rest of this and similar other hymns for this week clearly resonates with memories of Christ’s teaching in Matthew 6:1-18.

I’ve enjoyed reading a wonderful book, Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril; edited by Kathleen Dean Morris and Michael P. Nelson (Trinity University Press, 2010) – a volume to which Patriarch Bartholomew and other religious and spiritual leaders have contributed. One of the “action” pages in this book (p. 163) provides a more creative way to look at fasting:

Say thank you before morning coffee, which is a gift of grace from the water and the soil, which owe you nothing.

Celebrate the season of harvest with feasting, the season of scarcity with fasting, the season of new life with dancing, and the season of ripeness with listening.

Now that’s what it means to understand the unity and “legato” of God’s creative work. And we share in that legato by harmonizing with the seasons. When you start each day with an attitude of thanksgiving, it is easier to understand how fasting has its place in the grand scheme of things. Perhaps, without consciously knowing it, the church instituted the season of the Fast out of a subconscious understanding of the “season of scarcity” which we call winter. Deep in our collective DNA there is a memory of life without supermarkets, packaged foods, GMOs, and global trade – when life depended on understanding the seasons and our indebtedness to the goodness of the earth. I’ve lived my entire life in cities and I love what the city provides, but perhaps we need some of that wild mountain language that God uses in Isaiah and elsewhere. Jesus himself preferred the desert and the mountains for his reflective moments and encounters. We need the world, this planet and all life on it. Without it we are incomplete; and without us the planet is incomplete. Can we appreciate that? The future depends on it.


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The Word and my words

And so we begin. During the weekdays of Lent, the Orthodox Church reads from the Old Testament instead of the Gospels and the Letters of Paul. And three books of the Old Testament in particular are read on a daily basis: Genesis, Isaiah and Proverbs. Today, it’s the beginning of each of those three books: Genesis 1:1-13; Isaiah 1:1-20; and Proverbs 1:1-20.

CreationOfLight%28008236%29__25713.1409569925.1280.1280How extraordinary those opening sentences of Genesis, they never grow old. “In the beginning, when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep… Then God said, ‘Let there be light;’ and there was light….” 


CreationSeriesGroup__50522.1405401018.900.900And so it continues. God speaks and things come into being; and things order themselves according to God’s wishes – and God sees it all, and it’s all good.

Or, is it? Isaiah paints a bleaker picture. Here, too, God speaks. But God speaks to lament:I reared children and brought them up, but they have rebelled against me. The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” A new “word” is now spoken – not a word that creates, but a word that judges: “Hear the word of the Lord… What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices?… bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me… Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me… When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood.”

Prophet_Isaias__20333.1409482756.490.588Have you ever read such words before in any holy book of any religion? This is why I love the Old Testament. There is nothing “old” about it; that’s a terrible misnomer that Christians use to devalue words of God that are just as contemporary today as they were three thousand years ago! What is “old” about what we read in this opening of Isaiah? Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow.” It just doesn’t sound like the god of many of today’s Christians, does it?

But this is a god who is open to dialogue: Come now, let us argue it out, says the Lord…” That’s why this is no ordinary god, but God! This is why the Bible is no ordinary human document. It is a human document permeated by an experience of the living God. Too bad we look at Isaiah as primarily a prophet of the coming of Christ. We end up missing 95% of his message.

And what about the third book that the Orthodox Church uses during this Lenten season, the Book of Proverbs? Let’s be honest; most of this biblical book is full of antiquated moralistic teaching, much of it patriarchal and misogynistic. And yet, scattered here and there, in this book also, there are extraordinary insights into the same truths that Genesis and Isaiah reveal more frequently. And so we read in this opening chapter of Proverbs words that sound remarkably like those in Isaiah: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction… If they say, “Come with us, let us lie in wait for blood; let us wantonly ambush the innocent… do not walk in their way, keep your foot from their paths; for their feet run to evil, and they hurry to shed blood… they lie in wait—to kill themselves! and set an ambush—for their own lives! Such is the end of all who are greedy for gain; it takes away the life of its possessors.”

The language in Proverbs is less cosmic, less awe-inspiring than what we read in Isaiah, but the message is the same: Flee from evil, flee from greed – it will take possession of you and drive you away from God, the living God. The “fear” of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge: not so much fear of punishment, but fear of losing the intimate reverence and fellowship that was meant to be ours from those first words spoken at the very beginning: “Let there be light…” Not only the light of cosmic creation, but light in our lives and in our relationship with others.

Yesterday, the Matins service included the following Kontakion: Τῆς σοφίας ὁδηγέ, φρονήσεως χορηγέ, τῶν ἀφρόνων παιδευτά, καὶ πτωχῶν ὑπερασπιστά, στήριξον, συνέτισον τὴν καρδίαν μου Δέσποτα. Σὺ δίδου μοι λόγον, ὁ τοῦ Πατρός Λόγος· ἰδοὺ γὰρ τὰ χείλη μου, οὐ μὴ κωλύσω ἐν τῷ κράζειν σοι· Ἐλεῆμον, ἐλέησόν με τὸν παραπεσόντα.

Beautiful prayer for the last day before Lent: O Master, Guide to wisdom, Giver of good counsel, Instructor of the unknowing and Champion of the poor: Make my heart firm and understanding. O Word of the Father, give me word: so that my lips will not stop crying out to you: Merciful One, have mercy on me the fallen. And here, of course, Word (Logos) is the name that the Gospel of John (1:1-18, especially verses 1 & 14) designates for the eternal existence of Jesus.

It’s too bad that monastic self-absorption crept in at the end of this kontakion. How much more meaningful if the writer of this kontakion had been inspired by Isaiah instead of the morbid theology that has poisoned many lives with self-loathing. Here is what we read in Isaiah 50:4 – The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary. Morning by morning he wakens, he wakens my ear to hear as those who are taught.” (Most modern translations have really messed up this verse and taken away its poetry, which is why I prefer the Revised Standard Version which I have quoted here.)

How much even more meaningful this kontakion would be if we took our lead from Isaiah and today’s Bible readings – and from the first half of this same kontakion! – to say something like this: “O Word of the Father, give me word, so that I may comfort the weary, instruct the unknowing and defend the poor.”

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think of myself as “fallen”! I know I sin and I need forgiveness, but to call myself “fallen” seems to deny everything that Orthodox theology has taught me. If the monks want to consider themselves fallen, that’s their privilege, but don’t put words in my mouth to speak their sentiments. I’d rather the Word put words in my mouth so that I can speak comfort – to myself and to others – and speak wisdom – again, to myself and to others – and to speak up for the poor and the oppressed.

That’s what Lent means to me. It’s a season that tells me to listen as one who is taught, so that the Word might to speak through my words. The Bible speaks to us today and every day with words of creation (Genesis), words of challenge and correction (Isaiah), and words that instruct and alert us (Proverbs). How the Word relates to my words is the essential lesson I need to learn during Lent. Everything else follows from this.

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The Last Party

My hometown Patra is best known for its Carnival. On the last weekend before Lent (Feb 21-22 this year), Patra hosts the biggest party in Greece. I loved the Carnival parade when I was a boy growing up in Patra. I especially loved all the chocolate they used to throw from the floats. Perhaps that’s where my love for chocolate started.

Other cities around the world are known for their carnivals. Think Rio de Janeiro – probably the biggest carnival in the world. And in this country New Orleans has its Mardi Gras. Throughout the Catholic world, Carnival is the last big opportunity for excess partying before the sobriety of Lent sets in. And even though Lent has ceased to be much of anything for most people, the idea of carnival persists. People love to party, whatever the excuse.

Perhaps the reason why Patra has had its Carnival for such a long time (around 180 years!) is precisely because it had a large Italian population. One of my great-grandmothers was Italian. The word carnival itself (karnavali in Greek) comes from the Latin. The Greek equivalent is apokre-es, and people speak of apokreatiko glendi. But an apokreatiko glendi is not a Carnival. Patra proudly prefers the word Karnavali for its big splash before Lent. It is closer in spirit to the carnivals in Catholic countries than to anything in the Orthodox world. It is, as I said, what Patra is most famous for.

Lent in the Greek-speaking world begins with “Clean Monday” – kathara deutera. That’s today, February 23rd. The label is suggestive of what Lent offers: an opportunity to make a new start, a renewed journey to our authentic self, a new opportunity to see our neighbor and to care for those who are desperate for compassion and understanding. Fasting is the least important aspect of Lent; and quite frankly it’s rather self-serving and self-focused. Fasting that does not open our eyes to the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters is useless.

And maybe this is the reason why I think Carnival is such a wonderful part of the whole Lenten idea. Carnival is a party, the last party before Lent. But it’s a party that is shared by multitudes. There are no restrictions, no invitations. Indeed, it is analogous to that parable in Luke where the banquet is opened to anyone and everyone who cares to come in. Carnival allows the open interaction of strangers in an atmosphere of joy – young and old, rich and poor, Christian and atheist….

Then it becomes possible that the stranger with whom I shared laughter and dancing on Carnival Sunday might turn out to be one of the least of Christ’s brothers or sisters who needs my compassion a week later. Carnival is a break from my lonely, secure existence. It allows for the risky opening of my soul and heart. And Lent transforms what Carnival starts, so that the opening to the other, the stranger, the one different from me, becomes an experience of Christ’s presence! (Read again Matthew 25:31-46 if you need reminding.)

Here are some photos of the Carnival in Patra, 22 Feb 2015, which I gathered from the Internet. From the looks of it, the floats have become much more extravagant than anything I remember from my childhood years in Patra. I wish I were there.






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Lessons for Lent

In an interview several years ago, the famous German conductor Herbert von Karajan (1908-89), was talking about his early years as a musician. He made this remarkable statement: “Then came the decisive day when I discovered that my two hands weren’t enough to express what I wanted to express.”

His two hands were not enough to express what he wanted to express. That’s how he discovered that he needed a hundred pairs of hands to express what he wanted to express. In other words, he needed a fully symphony orchestra, and that’s how he discovered his calling to be one of the leading conductors of the 20th century, who went on to become music director for life of the most famous orchestra in the world, the Berlin Philharmonic.

The same can be said of the Bible. It needed many hands to get its story out. And the story got told many times, in many variations. The Bible is indeed a collection of stories. Jesus himself taught mainly in stories; we call them parables.

And three of those parables have prepared us for the beginning of Lent.

  • Three weeks ago, the Parable of the Publican and the Pharisee, taught us to watch out for pride and hypocrisy in our lives.
  • Two weeks ago, the Parable of the Prodigal Son gave us the story of a young man who squandered his inheritance in a far country until he “came to himself.” The parable is a call for us to come home!
  • Last week, the Parable of the Last Judgment (the Sheep and Goats) told us that it’s not theology that decides our standing with God, but rather whether we notice and help those less fortunate than ourselves.
  • Finally, today’s Gospel reading tells us we need forgiveness. And this is why we need forgiveness: Like the Pharisee, we act with pride and hypocrisy. Like the Prodigal Son, we drift far from God. And like the goats at the Last Judgment, we are self-centered and ignore those who need our compassion.

In the final analysis, we are invited to enter Lent with awareness that we are not alone. The Christian life is not simply about me and God, my personal relationship with Jesus. You can’t have a relationship with Jesus alone! The Gospel today tells us that you can’t ask God to forgive you if you don’t forgive those who have done bad things to you.

My sermon today explored this theme in greater detail. The audio file is here: