Bach’s Passion for Lent

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions,
    he was bruised for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that made us whole,
    and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned every one to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.

Isaiah 53:4-6 RSV

Fair copy in Bach’s own hand of the Passion of St Matthew

This last year I suggested that we might accompany our Advent reflections with Handel’s Messiah. In this same vein, I would like to suggest that Bach’s Passion of St Matthew can help us to think more deeply about the the passion of our Lord Jesus.

Alan E. Lewis in his book, Between Cross & Resurrection notes that Christians pass far too quickly from the crucifixion on Friday to the resurrection on Sunday. We do not give Holy Saturday its due. I would say that most Christians today (myself included) do not spend enough time meditating on the end of Christ’s earthly life.

A slow reading of the canonical Gospels will most certainly aid us. In addition to the reading of Scriptures, the contemplation of arte sacro or liturgical music can help us meditate upon the meaning of the events that brought us salvation through the person and work of Christ.

Here is an excerpt from the Passion of St Matthew by Bach:

Der Heiland fällt vor seinem Vater nieder;
Dadurch erhebt er sich und alle
Von unserm Falle
Hinauf zu Gottes Gnade wieder.
Er ist bereit,
Den Kelch, des Todes Bitterkeit
Zu trinken,
In welchen Sünden dieser Welt
Gegossen sind und häßlich stinken,
Weil es dem lieben Gott gefällt.

The Savior falls down before his father;
Thereby he raises me and all people
From our fall
Upward to Godís grace again.
He is ready
The cup of death’s bitterness
To drink,
Wherein the sins of this world
Are poured and stink odiously,
Because it pleases dear God.

For a greater understanding of Lent, I recommend the following books:

Bobby Gross. Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009.

Alan E. Lewis. Between the Cross & Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2001. 

Philip H. Pfatteicher. Journey into the Heart of God: Living the Liturgical Year. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013. 

Fleming Rutledge. The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2015. 

One for All

But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” – John 11:49-50

There in the meeting of the council a pertinent answer is found to the question, “What are we to do?” Caiaphas, the High Priest, listened for a long time to the excited speeches. Now he rose and said, “You know nothing at all. Nor do you understand that it is better for you that one man should die for the people, not that the whole nation should perish.” Some of the council might have secretly had the same thought but not dared to express it openly. Caiaphas, however, shies away from nothing. It is all one to him whether they do right or wrong, whether they fulfill the law or bring bloodguilt upon themselves. His decision is certain. Earthly power must be secured even if heaven is lost in the process. If the agitated populace is to be restored to order and the authority of those in power maintained, then Christ has to die. That is the radical expedient. As always in such meetings, strength prevails. Caiaphas’s suggestion forces its way through, and the most terrible crime of the human race, the murder of the Messiah, is decided. 

The whole meaning and purpose of this murderous decision can be summed up in Caiaphas’s remark: one for all. Yet “one for all” rang also in the shining depth of the heart of God. Caiaphas had to prophesy because he was the high priest. Without knowing it or wanting it, he had to disclose God’s eternal counsel of grace. All people have sinned and deserve death, but God will not let himself be robbed of his most beloved creation by Satan’s power and cunning. His heart is filled with pity for the whole race of his lost children. For this reason he prepared the one who is the head of all. He alone is pure and has done nothing to deserve death. Nevertheless he wants to die for all, for he is love. He is able to die without perishing, because he is life. His death is valid for all in the sight of eternal justice, because he is more than all, and because all are one in him. If he dies, all have died in his death; if he lives, all live with him. This is Jesus of Nazareth, God’s Son and the Son of Man. 

One for all – that is now the comfort of all who have faith. What a dark mystery life and death would be without this word! But if the inscription “one for all” is placed over the manger and the cross, how clear everything becomes. 

How could we dare to call ourselves God’s children if Christ were not born for us? How could we believe in the forgiveness of our sins if he had not atoned for us? How could we approach death with tranquil hearts if he had not died for us? Yes, “Christ for us” – “One for all”. That is the great fact of salvation through which the world is saved, our human race is newborn, our life is blessed, and death is overcome. Whoever grasps this One in faith has everything that he needs both here and in eternity, peace on earth and blessedness in heaven. 

– Johann Ernst von Holst

The Crucified is My Love: Morning and Evening Devotions for the Holy Season of Lent 

Lost in Thought: The Hidden Pleasures of the Intellectual Life

A review of Lost in Thought by Zena Hitz

כִּֽי־טוֹבָ֣ה חָ֭כְמָה מִפְּנִינִ֑ים וְכָל־חֲ֝פָצִ֗ים לֹ֣א יִֽשְׁווּ־בָֽהּ׃

“For wisdom is better than rubies;
And all that you may desire cannot compare with her.”
— Proverbs 8:11

I am blessed to be a student of theology and languages. When I’m not studying, I’m often teaching others. I read and collect books like an academic but it would be stretch to identify myself as one. My areas of interest are varied, possibly quite too diverse to be an expert on anything. My research speciality: messy people searching for God.

I enjoy reading literature, philosophy, and theology in multiple languages. However, I am usually doing so between appointments, doctors visits, counseling sessions and meals with people who teach me more about God’s love. Unless it is finally time for uninterrupted reading (between 10:00 p.m. and 3:00 a.m.), I am usually reading on the run.

Thank heavens I do not have to publish scholarly articles in order to achieve tenure or to simply keep my job. If I do read them it is because they interest me. I read them because they can help me better understand or communicate something of interest to me.

Princeton University Press, 2020

In her book, Lost in Thought, Zena Hitz eloquently makes a case for learning for pleasure, learning for its own sake. She notes that learning can cultivate the inner life and aid us in our search for human flourishing. The intellectual life can also lead us to God who is truth and true beauty.

Throughout the book she interacts with philosophers, novelists and two of my heroes for the integration of their faith and Christian service: St. Augustine and Dorothy Day.

Hitz’s book is one of the best I have read so far this year. I recommend it both to my friends of faith as well as to those who profess to have no faith at all. It is a stimulating read that requires long pauses and thoughtful contemplation.

In this same vein, I would recommend the following two books:

How Christian Faith Can Sustain the Life of the Mind by Richard T. Hughes

Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind by Mark A. Noll

Too Eager to Become Babylonians

The Hebrew Bible is a mirror that can help us discern if we are faithful to God’s calling as His holy people.

Marc Chagall, Isaiah

When I was younger, I would often get frustrated reading the First Testament. It was upsetting to see so much faithlessness, idolatry and sheer stubbornness. The older I get, the more I see myself. I begin to discern my own lack of faith, idolatry and yes, how I often insist that I am right when I am clearly not.

I find it interesting that in the New Testament, so many of Paul’s ethical arguments begin with baptism (i.e., Col 2:20). When Paul wants to argue that we are not living lives worthy of the Gospel, he reminds us of our death, burial and resurrection with Christ.

Because of the hardness of their hearts, Judah was taken off to exile in Babylon. God had not abandoned His purposes for them but they had to learn the hard way what it meant to be His people, to be a light for the nations. But this time, they had to be taught this lesson far away from home.

They were tempted, as they had always been, to want to be like the other nations. They envied their apparent prosperity and their forms of government. Numerous times God warned them that they were better off being God’s people among the nations. Their uniqueness was part of God’s promise to them and part of God’s blessing to the nations.

It seems that even in exile they had not learned their lesson. God warned them through His prophet Isaiah:

Seek the Lord while he may be found,
call upon him while he is near;
let the wicked forsake their way,
and the unrighteous their thoughts;
let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them,
and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon
(55:6–7 NRSV).

In his Lenten meditations, Walter Brueggemann writes:

“These verses are a familiar call to worship or a call to repentance, not a bad accent for Lent. . . . The imperative is around four verbs, ‘seek, call, forsake, return,’ good Lenten verbs. But this is not about generic repentance for generic sins. I believe, rather, the sin addressed concerns for Jews too eager to become Babylonians, too easy to compromise Jewish identity, Jewish faith, Jewish discipline — in order to get along in a Babylonian empire that had faith in other gods with other disciplines. The imperatives are summons to come back to an original identity, an elemental discipline, a primal faith.”

Brueggemann continues his meditation of this prophetic text and makes observations about the American church. He could have easily been writing about the Latin American or European church.

“I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence.

“The good news for the church is that nobody, liberal or conservative, has high ground. The hard news is that the Lenten prerequisite for mercy and pardon is to ponder again the initial identity of baptism . . . ‘child of the promise,’ . . . ‘to live a life worthy of our calling,’ worthy of our calling in the face of false patriotism; overheated consumerism; easy, conventional violence; and limitless acquisitiveness. Since these forces and seductions are all around us, we have much to ponder in Lent about our baptismal identity.”

Maybe we’ve missed the mark trying to be something we’re not. Maybe we’ve forgotten that our sole allegiance belongs to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Quite possibly the narrative that most excites us and rises our blood pressure is that which appears on the nightly news and not that which we read from Genesis to Revelation.

I certainly do not have all the answers. But repentance, turning back to God and away from false identities and loyalties is always a good place to start.

Book Recommendations for 2021

Books worth reading this coming year

Here are a few books that have challenged and inspired me this past year. I pray they might do the same for you this coming year!

Book Recommendations for 2021

These are the best reflections I’ve read about Coronavirus and the Christian faith. Both N.T. Wright and Walter Brueggemann are two of my favorite theologians.

Not only are we facing a pandemic, but a lot of political unrest. Please, please, please take the time to read Lee Camp’s political manifesto for Christians. It might just change your life (as Kingdom thinking does).

I have been reading and re-reading St. Augustine for years. I have also been following the work of James K. A. Smith. In this book I found much more than I imagined! This was this year’s most spiritually forming book for me. I highly recommend it!

I love reading biblical theology by scholars who strive to condense their longer and deeper works into tomes for a popular level. This book by Richard Bauckman is absolutely brilliant!

In addition to reading theology, I enjoy reading novels and poetry for spiritual formation. This year during quarantine I spent time with Rainer Maria Rilke and T.S. Eliot. I always love reading Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Check out these anthologies that will help you better discover the spiritual writings of these two Russian giants!

This past year I have taken a greater interest in Patristics. If you would like to read writings from early Christian theologians, the Philokalia is a great place to begin!

In addition to Patristics, I discovered Alexander Schmemann and his work, For the Life of the World. I started learning about sacramental theology in regards to storytelling in Catholic literature (for ex. Flannery O’Connor) and now I’ve found one of the classic works on the topic and it has revolutionized my thinking.

Check out this anthology of short stories by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. These stories can help you reflect on interracial relationships and what it means to be a part of the same community with people who are radically different than you are. Also check out Chimamanda’s fellow Nigerian author, Chinua Achebe, especially his work, Things Fall Apart.

In the area of pastoral theology, I could not leave out a title by Eugene Peterson. This book is not to be read straight through but to be read little by little for deep reflection. This book is a part of a larger series on pastoral work.

Even before I saw his painting “The Garden of Earthly Delights” in person, I have been fascinated by the person and work of Hieronymus Bosch. So I thought I’d end this list with a book by one of my favorite publishing houses, Taschen.

Let yourself be challenged by people who are different than you, people who lived in other times and places. Dare to become not only better informed, but spiritually transformed.

A Coronavirus Prayer

A prayer by Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann. Virus as Summons to Faith: Biblical Reflections in a Time of Loss, Grief, and Anxiety. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2020.

The Giver of Bread and Fish
Walter Brueggemann

Matthew 7:7–11

We do “thoughts and prayers” easily and glibly;
we do “thoughts” without thinking;
we do “prayers” without praying.

We commit that glib act
because it is what we know how to do with an anemic god, or
because we are embarrassed to do more, or
because it is convenient and costs us nothing.

Now, however, we are driven to unthinkable thoughts, about
all that is ending, and
all this we have lost, and
all that leaves us with a sinking feeling.

Now, however, we are driven, some of us, to unutterable prayers.
We are driven to such prayer
by awareness that our usual reliabilities are gone.
We are driven to you, the abiding God
when other helpers fail and comforts flee.

Thus we are bold to pray:

We are bold to ask, because it will be given!
So we pray for the end of this virus,
for the health of the neighborhood,
for the recovery of the economy.

We are bold to seek, because you will be found!
We seek your mercy and your goodness and your generosity,
so let yourself be found by us.

We are bold to knock, because it will be opened.
We know many doors slammed shut,
doors of health and safety and comfort and fun.
Open to us the door of life, and love, and peace, and joy.

Here we are in your presence:

We ask for bread:
the bread of life,
the bread of abundance,
the bread of neighborly sharing.
Do not give us a stone or a crumb.

We ask for fish:
the fish of a good diet,
the fish of your abundant waters,
the fish that signs the gospel,
Do not give us a snake or the hiss of poison.

We dare to pray, not because we are at our wits end,
but because you are at the center of our life.
Our hope is in no other save in thee alone!
So hear, heal, save, restore!
Be the God you have promised to be. Amen.

Handel’s Messiah for Advent

“The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” — Isaiah 9:2

Handel’s Messiah, credit: The British Library

We often think of Handel’s Messiah as an oratorio for Christmas, but it was in fact written as a commentary on the birth, death, burial, resurrection and ascension of Christ. The libretto was written by Charles Jennens and the music was composed by George Frideric Handel.

The libretto was taken from the King James Version and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. The libretto is taken from 81 different Bible verses, most of them from the prophet Isaiah.

This masterpiece has nurtured my Advent meditations for years. We can be a part of God’s redemption of time and space as we relive the expectation of Israel, longing for the Messiah and His Kingdom here on earth. As we rehearse Israel’s wait, we also expectantly wait for Jesus’ second coming when He will come to judge the living and the dead.

Here are the Scriptural citations for the Advent part of Handel’s Messiah if you would like to spend more time in the biblical text while listening to their musical interpretation.

Handel’s Messiah

Scene I: Isaiah’s prophecy of salvation

Overture
Comfort ye my people — Isaiah 40:1–3
Ev’ry valley shall be exalted — Isaiah 40:4
And the glory of the Lord — Isaiah 40:5

Scene II: The coming judgment

Thus saith the Lord of hosts — Haggai 2:6–7; Malachi 3:1
But who may abide the day of His coming — Malachi 3:2
And he shall purify the sons of Levi — Malachi 3:3

Scene III: The prophecy of Christ’s birth

Behold, a virgin shall conceive — Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23
O thou that tellest good tidings to Zion — Isaiah 40:9; 60:1
For behold, darkness shall cover the earth — Isaiah 60:2–3
The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light — Isaiah 9:2
For unto us a child is born — Isaiah 9:6

For a greater understanding of Advent, I recommend the following books:

Bobby Gross. Living the Christian Year: Time to Inhabit the Story of God. Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2009.

Fleming Rutledge. Advent: The Once & Future Coming of Jesus Christ. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2018.

God Still Speaks of Justice

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in his book on the Hebrew prophets tells us about the importance of not only translating the prophets correctly, but understanding the power of their words both emotionally and spiritually.

The Prophet Isaiah, Marc Chagall

Hear the Word of the Lord from Isaiah 58

“Shout! A full-throated shout!
 Hold nothing back — a trumpet-blast shout!
Tell my people what’s wrong with their lives,
 face my family Jacob with their sins!
They’re busy, busy, busy at worship,
 and love studying all about me.
To all appearances they’re a nation of right-living people — 
 law-abiding, God-honoring.
They ask me, ‘What’s the right thing to do?’
 and love having me on their side.
But they also complain,
 ‘Why do we fast and you don’t look our way?
 Why do we humble ourselves and you don’t even notice?’

“Well, here’s why:

“The bottom line on your ‘fast days’ is profit.
 You drive your employees much too hard.
You fast, but at the same time you bicker and fight.
 You fast, but you swing a mean fist.
The kind of fasting you do
 won’t get your prayers off the ground.
Do you think this is the kind of fast day I’m after:
 a day to show off humility?
To put on a pious long face
 and parade around solemnly in black?
Do you call that fasting,
 a fast day that I, God, would like?

“This is the kind of fast day I’m after:
 to break the chains of injustice,
 get rid of exploitation in the workplace,
 free the oppressed,
 cancel debts.
What I’m interested in seeing you do is:
 sharing your food with the hungry,
 inviting the homeless poor into your homes,
 putting clothes on the shivering ill-clad,
 being available to your own families.
Do this and the lights will turn on,
 and your lives will turn around at once.
Your righteousness will pave your way.
 The God of glory will secure your passage.
Then when you pray, God will answer.
 You’ll call out for help and I’ll say, ‘Here I am.’

“If you get rid of unfair practices,
 quit blaming victims,
 quit gossiping about other people’s sins,
If you are generous with the hungry
 and start giving yourselves to the down-and-out,
Your lives will begin to glow in the darkness,
 your shadowed lives will be bathed in sunlight.
I will always show you where to go.
 I’ll give you a full life in the emptiest of places — 
 firm muscles, strong bones.
You’ll be like a well-watered garden,
 a gurgling spring that never runs dry.
You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew,
 rebuild the foundations from out of your past.
You’ll be known as those who can fix anything,
 restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate,
 make the community livable again.

“If you watch your step on the Sabbath
 and don’t use my holy day for personal advantage,
If you treat the Sabbath as a day of joy,
 God’s holy day as a celebration,
If you honor it by refusing ‘business as usual,’
 making money, running here and there — 
Then you’ll be free to enjoy God!
 Oh, I’ll make you ride high and soar above it all.
I’ll make you feast on the inheritance of your ancestor Jacob.”
 Yes! God says so!

Translation: Eugene Peterson

Fox News & Spiritual Formation

You are being discipled by Fox News. And if not by Fox News, maybe by CNN, Blaze Media, Democracy Now! or Ben Shapiro. And maybe the news media is not discipling you, but possibly someone other than Jesus is.

We do not normally think that spiritual formation takes place while we follow the news in our preferred outlets. The truth is that we are often unaware or not critical enough of the messages we are receiving from these sources. As long as news media is a for-profit industry, as long as they need sponsors, target groups, marketing strategies and as long as media outlets simulate a fourth branch of the government, we must be careful of what we uncritically digest.

Please do not misunderstand me, American media outlets have done a lot of good for our country. They often denounce corruption, share information the government would rather keep quiet and a host of other services for the welfare of the general public. I am not anti-media in any way. I am, however, not in favor of allowing media outlets to take over a role that belongs to Christ and the church.

How does the media disciple us?

Christ’s Kingdom project teaches us what it means to be human (we are made in the image and likeness of God) and how to live with one another in society (loving our neighbors and enemies as an expression of our love for God). Jesus teaches us what should enrage us (injustice, hypocrisy, legalism) and what should be cause of celebration (repentance and resurrection). Jesus tells us what is the goal of human history (a day of reckoning when God will right all wrong and restore our broken creation and our broken bodies). The Gospels give us a political theology (Christ is King, Christ is Lord and not Caesar).

If you have watched or read anything from CNN or Fox News lately, you would know they’re teaching us ways of being human that are contrary to the ways of Jesus. They’re telling us that God’s chosen people is America, that we should be fine with the status quo, that the poor and the foreigner are our enemies, that political top-down power and influence is what is going to bring about real change. The way they report the news if powerful because they are not simply stating facts but sharing key parts of larger narratives that support different visions or worldviews. Neither Fox or CNN, neither the right or the left faithfully tells the narrative of God’s upside-down Kingdom.

Christians are told every day on cable news that they must choose to be on the right or the left and that to be for something you have to be against someone. However, in between the right and the left stands the cross where we are called to die to self, to individualism, to country, to the myths of nationalism, white supremacy, neoliberal and socialist economic systems and to adopt Christ’s Kingdom project as the only true expression of Jesus Himself, the way, the truth and the life.

Will you allow Jesus’ Kingdom project to be the dominant narrative that tugs at your heart, that shapes your vision of the world, that determines how you view and treat others? Will you let Jesus teach you about what should make you angry or why you should celebrate? Will you recognize Fox and CNN for what they are — human attempts to make sense of human life and society that do not express or represent faithfully the witness of Jesus Christ in the world?

Cf. Christian Nationalism & the Crucified Christ

Swept to Big Purposes

A subversive prayer by Walter Brueggemann

Hosea & Jonah by Raffaello — prophets with odd callings and vocations

Swept to Big Purposes

You call and we have a vocation.
You send and we have an identity.
You accompany us and we are swept to
big purposes: 
chosen race,
royal priesthood,
your own people,
receiving mercy.

But we, in our restlnesness, 
do not want to be so peculiar.

We would rather be like the others, 
eager for their wealth,
their wisdom,
their power. 
Eager to be like them, comfortable,
beautiful, 
young,
free.

We yearn to be like the others, 
and you make us odd and peculiar and different.

Grant that we may find joy in our baptism,
freedom in our obedience,
delight in our vocation.

The same joy, freedom, and delight
that so market our Lord
whom we follow in oddness.

— Walter Brueggemann

Walter Brueggemann, Prayers for a Privileged People. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2008.