Tag Archives: Epiphany

Last Sunday after Epiphany: On Not Understanding the Transfiguration

Gospel: Mark 9:2-9.

I don’t know what to make of this story – of the Transfiguration – at all. Mark’s point in telling it seems to be to clarify his understanding of the role of Jesus, to give the command ‘listen to’ Jesus directly from the mouth of God, and to make links through time: forwards to the resurrection, and backwards to Moses and Elijah. It puts Jesus firmly in a certain company, and in the context of the Jewish tradition: he is accepted by Elijah and Moses, who are talking to him when they appear. (The three disciples who are present don’t seem to hear what is said, and Peter’s next comment is to my mind a bit of a non sequitur – and it is followed by the information that ‘they did not know what to say’ which makes it somewhat strange that he speaks at all.)

The closest I can come to relating this story to my own experience is, frankly, not that close at all; and because the only experiences I have had which do seem to relate to this one came in contexts and have content which I would call Pagan, I’m hesitant to take that step. Is my – vivid, memorable, life-enhancing – experience of a visit by/vision of a Goddess really relevant to understanding a text which is so clearly set within the Jewish/emerging Christian tradition? One of the ideas which I spend a lot of time challenging in my academic work is the claim, made by many Christian pluralists and Quaker universalists and some Pagans too, that all religions are somehow the same, or that they all ‘really’ teach the same thing, or that all religious experience is of ‘the same thing’. These various claims tend to get bundled up together, and all of them are used as an excuse to claim that X from religion Y is ‘the same is’ A from religion B. I’m sceptical about that. Why should we think that, for example, the Inner Buddha Nature and the Inner Light are the same thing?

I don’t, then, want to assume that seeing Moses and Elijah having a chat with Jesus on a mountain is anything like meeting the Goddess in a garden. On the other hand, when I try to imagine what it would be like to stand on that mountain with Jesus and see Elijah and Moses join him, all I have to fill in the gaps, to provide the emotional resonance, is my own experience. Like an artist  who dresses the people of the Bible in the clothes of the artist’s own time, all I’ve got is my own personal Quaker-Pagan-a bit Buddhist-culturally Christian experience to help me understand this picture.

And from that point of view, the last bit of this story – the command not to tell anyone what they had seen until some future point which, although obvious to a reader now, couldn’t have been clear to the disciples at that time – does make a kind of emotional sense. It’s often a long time between a striking spiritual experience and the stage where one can discuss it freely with others.

Epiphany 8: letter and Spirit

Lesson 2: 2 Corinthians 3:1-6.

The last part of this passage is well-known to Quakers – or at least, it sort of is. It was quoted in 1656 by some Elders who met at Balby, and the paragraph containing that quotation (but not the rest of the text) now appears in the introduction to Advices and Queries. When a Friend today cites this, then, saying – of something or other as they are prone to do – “Well, I’m sure we can interpret this quite broadly; after all, the letter killeth but the Spirit giveth life,” there are two ‘hidden’ texts to which they allude, and their audience may not have read either of them. (If you wish to do so, you can read the Epistle of the Elders at Balby online.)

Incidentally, I had occasion to read Alastair Heron’s 2001 pamphlet ‘The Future of British Quakers’ recently, and he has some pretty stiff things to say about Friends who – in his view mistakenly – take this quotation from the beginning of Advices and Queries and apply it to the whole of Quaker Faith and Practice, at least some of which should be prescriptive. I’m not sure this is as terrible as he makes it sound, but perhaps we are in need of some clarifications – either to accept the authority of Yearly Meeting or to acknowledge our tendency to a more area-based or even congregational model.

Returning to the Biblical text, it is immediately obvious that this familiar quotation is part of a much longer sentence which is actually talking about competence and ministry. God has made Paul and his companions – it’s not quite clear how broad the ‘we’ is meant to be – ministers of a new covenant which is not of the letter but of the spirit. The contrast here is with the previous covenant given to the people of Israel, a covenant known to the people of Paul’s time in a written form and unfortunately depicted by some, then and now, as at least dusty and dry and perhaps at worst dangerous to the spiritual life. The supercessionist and even anti-Semitic assumptions involved in that approach certainly make me want to question it.

One level on which Quakers specifically might want to ask those questions is about the relationship between the letter and the Spirit. When I taught Quaker Faith and Practice to undergraduates, I tried to explain how the book and the community – specifically, the Yearly Meeting – relate, and I ended up drawing a big circle of arrows on the whiteboard: the Yearly Meeting approves the book and all changes to the book, and the book tells you how to run the Yearly Meeting, which approves the changes to the book, which tells you how… you get the idea. But on what basis does the Yearly Meeting change the book? Well, it (and its many committees, several of which will have been involved in producing and recommending the change which is brought to the Yearly Meeting) uses the Quaker business method, in which discernment around an issue takes place in the context of worship, with the aim of discovering the will of God for us now – with the help of the Spirit.

Whatever we think of the status of Biblical texts (although I think it would be possible to hold a suitably adjusted version of the view which I am about to describe), the Quaker texts such as Advices and Queries quite distinctly claim to reflect a discernment process which incorporates the inspiration of the Spirit as She spoke to us. (Standard disclaimer: not all Friends would be comfortable with that language.) There is, therefore, no clear distinction between the ‘letter’ and the ‘Spirit’ – the letters which we have reflect the Spirit as our Meeting understood it, and perhaps life can be given through them.

Maybe a clearer understanding of this would even help with the problem Alastair Heron mentioned.

Epiphany 7: God is not a philosopher

Lesson 2: 2 Corinthians 1:18-22.

The message is not ‘Yes and No’, but ‘Yes’. (The context, for which you have to go back a couple of verses, is Paul changing his mind about his travel plans, but by the end of this passage it’s clear that this is meant to be generalisable.)

We have a family joke that when someone asks a difficult question, the proper philosophical response should be ‘Well, yes and no…’. This is then followed, until someone interrupts, by detailed explanations of why the answer should be yes, and why it should be no, and why it should be maybe. This method can be applied to travel plans especially in the early stages (‘Are you going out tonight?’), but also to epistemology (‘Do you know that chairs exist?’), theology (‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Saviour?’), and other serious philosophical matters (‘Did Descartes like soup?’).

Paul, although obviously more than capable of playing this game himself, affirms that Jesus does not. “In him every one of God’s promises is a ‘Yes’.” Saying both yes and no is a worldly practice, something people do, but not a godly one – other versions of this are found in Matthew 5:37 and James 5:2, the latter especially being quoted by Quakers when refusing to take oaths. In fact, as we can see from that, the Quakers could be said to be trying to extend God’s patterns of behaviour into their own, rejecting the worldly ways of speaking.

The passage ends with a restatement of the firmness of God’s promises in what seems to me a rather strange financial metaphor. Translations differ, but the gist seems to be that God has chosen us, owns us and has put a seal upon us, and made a down payment – a first instalment or deposit – as a guarantee that the promises will be fulfilled. The deposit is of the Holy Spirit into our hearts, not a currency usually accepted by banks. This could also be interpreted as an encouragement to behave – and speak – differently. To a Quaker perspective, the Spirit can be said to enable ministry, a kind of speaking in God’s voice in which, as in the first part of this passage, we say not ‘yes and no’ but ‘yes’.

Epiphany 6: Fame

Gospel: Mark 1:40-45.

The theme which strikes me in this reading is about the fame of Jesus – questions of who can or should be told about the healing, and the results of the news spreading, seem to be uppermost in this passage. The result presented here is not entirely positive; although it might be good that “people came to him from every quarter”, a position where you can “no longer go into a town openly” is presumably a problem even to people who like the hang out in the desert anyway.

Issues of fame are clearly present today for any number of people, but let’s stick with Jesus for the purposes of this blog post. I think that a lot of Christians – and I know that a lot of Quakers – find the issue of when to talk about Jesus and how to be a sometimes thorny one. If you have a traditional, set liturgy, that helps with the issue when you’re at church (although there’s still always some optional content – hymns to choose, that kind of thing – which can raise the same problems), but there’s also the issue of when to talk about what outside the context of worship. For Quakers, there’s an issue about what to say during worship, too – I have heard plenty of stories, usually told in a tone of horror, about Meetings which never/always have ministry about Jesus. (At present, the ‘never’ and the ‘always’ stories are running about even.)

Outside worship, there are plenty of examples of people who talk about Jesus more/less than we would prefer. (As far as I can tell, this is true whatever your preferred about of Jesus-talk happens to be – although if you’re reading this, I guess/hope your favoured level is at least ‘some’!) There’s also the matter of what is said. In this example from Mark, the healed leper is presumably sharing his own experience; in today’s world, although many people do share their first-hand religious experiences, there’s also a lot of talk about Jesus which draws on texts and traditions instead. These range from serious attempts to understand the texts we have (as in academic christology), through semi-serious discussions of issues raised (such as this blog) or retellings of the stories (many of the films, and even some of the musicals, might count in this category), right through to the huge range of cartoons which feature Jesus as a prop or a punchline.

Sometimes I can’t help wondering if we’d be better off for a bit less talk about Jesus!

Epiphany 5: Suffering

Lesson 1: Job 1:1-7.

I find Job one of the most relatable characters in the Bible, especially in moments like this. Most of us have had nights when we were “full of tossing until the dawn” – I know I have many – and this forthright articulation of suffering can come as a breath of fresh air especially when we are being encouraged by all around to ‘be positive’, ‘look on the bright side’, and ‘focus on happiness’, etc.

I’m quite capable of seeing both sides of things – I can quite easily tell you why it’s good news as well as a bad news that a hospital consultant has decided that there’s no point continuing to try and treat my condition – but my approach, which I prefer to call realism, is often labelled pessimism especially by those who are looking to blame me for whatever it is I’m complaining about at the time. One of my repeated causes of despair over the years has been ‘trying to get a job’. The things I’m good at and which I enjoy doing – reading, writing, thinking, talking, research – are not actually skills much in demand on the job market, which tends to focus on shelf-stacking, phone-answering and mindless obedience. (There are exceptions, of course; sadly, they’re a relatively small part of the market as a whole and a lot of people want those jobs. I was recently rejected from something, admittedly exceptional, with 900 applicants.) I give that background because I find that it informs my reading of the first verse in this passage: “Do not human beings have a hard service on earth, and are not their days like the days of a labourer?”

(You may insert your own Job/job pun here.)

“Like a slave who longs for the shadow, and like labourers who look for their wages,so I am allotted months of emptiness, and nights of misery are apportioned to me.”

This seems like a fair description of my experience of being on JobSeeker’s Allowance. We are hearing a lot about benefits at the moment, quite a lot of it from people who don’t seem to have any experience of being on benefits, and conversations about ‘scroungers’ seem more common than those about fairness. My experience was that accessing benefits was hard, and that the demands made of me while I was on JSA were difficult. It didn’t seem unreasonable, to begin with, to be expected to apply for jobs. I was going to anyway, after all. The spread of things for which I was expected to apply did become unreasonable, though; if you apply for something which you are not qualified to do, you’re wasting your own time and – since someone then has to look at and shred your CV – someone else’s as well. The barriers to doing voluntary work were considerable, and when – thanks in part to the stress induced by the way I was treated at the JobCentre – I became ill, the doctor gave me a sick-note which said that I could only work part-time. This, apparently, did not compute at all. I lost count of how many times I had to explain that yes I had a job, no it was only one hour a week, yes I was ill, no I was planning to keep working for that one hour a week, yes it was compatible with my sick-note, no can’t you just read what the doctor wrote? Her handwriting wasn’t even that bad!

Therefore I will not restrain my mouth; I will speak in the anguish of my spirit; I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.”

Epiphany 4: Healing and Destruction

Gospel: Mark 1:21-28.

Taken within its own worldview (and so accepting, for example, that an ‘unclean spirit’ is an unclean spirit, and not, for example, the manifestation of an illness), this story is about the power and authority of Jesus. Mark chooses to show this through the actions of Jesus in calling forth the spirit, and to tell us what this means by reporting the comments of the audience. He doesn’t – I am inclined to call this an unfortunate choice – report what teaching Jesus gives when he speaks “as one who had authority and not as the scribes”. This contrast doesn’t tell us much, either: scribes were writers and teachers of the law, but it’s clear that they could hold a range of views.

What are we to make of this incident, then? One point is to pay attention to what the man, and/or the unclean spirit within him, cries out when he is introduced into the story: “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are, the Holy One of God.” Readers of Mark’s gospel are not surprised by the latter statement; we, too, are beginning to get the picture of who Jesus is – if the introduction with its quote from Isaiah didn’t tip us off, the baptism narrative should have done. Perhaps we should be asking the same questions, though: what have you got to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us?

Jesus then rebukes the man/spirit for speaking, and calls the spirit out of him – the way this is phrased makes me think that he is probably speaking to the spirit throughout, and under the assumption that it was the spirit, rather than the man, who cried out; but it would be possible to read it differently (i.e. to read the command ‘be silent’ as applying to the man, and ‘come out of him’ as directed to the spirit. The practical problems of addressing two beings in one body, sometimes addressed in science fiction or fantasy literature but always somewhat difficult, are clear here – and made worse by the authorial choice not to name either of the beings involved). If it is the spirit whom Jesus asks to “Be silent, and come out of him,” it does not entirely obey, since it throws the man into convulsions and cries with a loud voice before leaving him (although it doesn’t speak any more words, and perhaps this is the significance of the command). For this unclean spirit at least the answer to “Have you come to destroy us?” seems to be “yes”.

We don’t know what happened to the man. Was he hurt by the convulsions? Did he miss his unclean spirit once he was alone in his body? Was he the centre of attention as evidence as the story spread?

For me, this story tells us something about what it’s like to encounter Jesus. Even a healing can be or feel destructive.

Epiphany 3: Concerns

Lesson 2: 1 Corinthians 7:29-35.

So Paul is just wrong here, right? I mean, obviously he’s wrong about the end times arriving imminently, unless he’s working with an understanding of time very different to my own – which is certainly possible, I’m come back to that later. But in this passage he’s also wrong about people.

He claims that the unmarried are concerned with religious matters, “the affairs of the Sovereign”, but that married people are concerned with worldly affairs. This doesn’t match my experience at all. Firstly, I know quite a number of people who are married and yet also seem to be concerned with “how to be holy in body and spirit”; secondly, I know quite a lot of unmarried people, myself among them, who are “anxious about worldly affairs”. I am, for example, concerned about publishing academic papers, committee meetings, the number of books I need/want to read, letters written by HMRC even after matters have allegedly been cleared up, and whether I feel yucky today because I’m lazy, because I slept too much, or because I’m coming down with a cold. And that’s just today!

I am also, as it happens, concerned about whether I’m doing what God/dess wants me to do, how to explain Christa in one sentence, whether I understand the Bible correctly, whether it’s possible to do Quaker business in right ordering entirely by email, whether blogging about the Bible is spiritually useful, the ways in which I and others speak about God, and what Jesus would do about fracking. (Statistically speaking, if the the verbs used in the Gospels are a guide, the answer to WWJD is almost always ‘talk’.) These concerns and others like them do not vanish when I’m in a relationship, and I can’t imagine them vanishing if I ever got married; and indeed I know many married people who are also concerned about these and other related questions.

It’s nice that Paul doesn’t want people to be anxious. I’m not sure he’s got the right way of going about it, though.

Gospel: Mark 1:14-20.

Jesus says here: “The time is fulfilled, and the realm of God is at hand;repent, and believe in the gospel.” It’s easy to see how this produces an interpretation like Paul’s, in which “the form of this world is passing away”; and it’s even possible to argue that Paul just got the date wrong by a few thousand years, or more plausibly that on God’s time, which is nothing like our own, it is still in some sense ‘close’. It’s also possible to understand this change, to the time of the realm of God, in a more mystical way: as Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, “the Kingdom of God or the Pure Land of the Buddha is not a vague idea; it is a reality”. Whether or not we agree with him that the realm of God and the Buddha’s Pure Land are the same thing, we can appreciate the idea that the “pine tree standing on the mountain is so beautiful, solid, and green. … the pine tree belongs to the Kingdom of God, the Pure Land of the Buddha.” In this image, the realm of God is here and now, if we are open to experiencing it. In order to do this, we need to repent – change our minds, our ways of thinking – and accept the good news.

This, of course, is a classic case of the interpretation shaping the reading. I happen to like some aspects of Thich Nhat Hanh’s teachings, and so I read them into the Biblical text.