A Meditation on “Bread” in Matthew’s Gospel

February 26, 2014 § Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Lord’s Prayer.  And the enigmatic phrase related to “daily bread”.  Enigmatic because the prayer uses a word for “bread” which apparently was so little used in Greek (and nobody knows the presumed Aramaic equivalent used by Jesus) – that now nobody knows exactly how to interpret that part of a prayer so well known to all of us.

So, here goes…  Based on the petition for bread from the Lord’s Prayer – as the theme of bread resonates  across Matthew’s Gospel – and possibly dovetails with another theme close to my heart – that of God’s Rest.  (I’m thinking of the beloved quote:  “Come to me all you…  and I will give you rest.”)  Let me anticipate by adding that another title for this post might have been:  Jesus – Source of Sabbath Rest. 

Let’s start with the first reference to “bread” in Matthew’s Gospel.  Maybe this will surprise you:  “Jesus was born in Bethlehem…”  Bethlehem means House of Bread.  Now, recall that only two gospels provide information on  Christ’s birth… but in two different locations.  So if Matthew states he was born in Bethlehem, should we see meaning in that?  You can choose not to, but I’m going to entertain the idea that Matthew (or his tradition) had reason to flag House of Bread as the earthly origin of Emmanuel (God with us) .  

Doesn’t that just start your neurons tingling???

Moving right along…  Our next meeting with the word bread comes in the desert when the Tempter says to Jesus:  “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.”  Once again, two gospels (the same two) reference such a temptation.  Luke words it slightly differently and has Jesus answer only that “one does not live by bread alone” while Matthew extends that by adding “but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.”  And Matthew also tells us that Jesus is quoting scripture when he uses that reply – in a quote from Deuteronomy:

He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord.

Wow!  Now we’ve got humility, hunger, and a mysterious kind of feeding – from the Lord’s mouth to ours.  Word = Bread.  Bread of Life.  Word of Life.  And a connection to the Torah, specifically to the book which constitutes Moses relaying God’s teachings – akin to Matthew’s portrayal of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount – a teaching centered around the Lord’s Prayer.  Which is itself centered around the request for bread.

And if we look closely at the Sermon on the Mount, we find it bracketed at its beginning and end by allusions to bread:  a reference to “hungering and thirsting” smack in the middle of the Beatitudes which begin the Sermon in Chapter 5; and the command in Chapter 7 to “ask… search… knock” with the promise that “the door will be opened” – illustrated by the very image of a child asking for bread and God’s gifts being akin to a parent granting her child’s request.  So we again have a connection with bread – as the image of God’s goodness and graciousness, blessing us for hungering and thirsting (for righteousness/justice, etc.), where prayer and action on behalf of the Kingdom  are somehow linked in meaning with images of  “word” and “bread”.   To stretch the image even further, one could imagine the kneading of dough – water and wheat, salt and yeast – as putting the Sermon into practice, following the recipe, so to speak.  Prayer and the Holy Spirit – being perhaps the condition of dough becoming bread.  (Ok, yes, it’s a stretch – but this is meditation, not a proof!)

I could practically rest my case here.  But indulge me a bit longer…

Scripture is so rich!  As I’ve said before, it’s like a symphony, a harmonic whole, conversing with itself.

So now we take what may appear to be a bit of side trip, where I’m going to present a quote and then comment upon its placement, because it’s the placement, I think, that will help us connect this quote with the theme of bread that I’ve been following.  Like a trail of breadcrumbs…  here’s the next bit:

 ‘Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.’

Now rest concerns the Sabbath.  (God rested on the 7th day.)  And immediately following Jesus invitation to take his yoke (recall that Yoke for a Jew suggests the Yoke of the Torah =  God’s Teaching, his Word of Life)…  Immediately (!) we have a story where Jesus went through the grainfields on the Sabbath.  And Matthew has Jesus justify his disciples’ plucking heads of grain and eating them by reminding the Pharisees that David and his men, when hungry “entered the house of God and ate the bread of the Presence.”  Among other important things, Jesus also tells them (us):  “The Son of Man is lord of the sabbath.”

Wow!  Lord of the SabbathImmediately following the promise of rest – if we will just take his yoke, learn from him, God-with-us, “gentle and humble of heart.”  And Matthew soon provides this wonderful quote from Isaiah:

‘Here is my servant, whom I have chosen,
my beloved, with whom my soul is well pleased.
I will put my Spirit upon him,
and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles.
He will not wrangle or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.
He will not break a bruised reed
or quench a smouldering wick
until he brings justice to victory.
   And in his name the Gentiles will hope.’

So many allusions in that quote.  Reminds us of the recent Baptism story (just before the desert fasting and temptations), the Gospel message – even to the Gentiles – and the gentle invitation to us all in the quote promising rest, that Jesus’ yoke is one that “will not break a bruised reed or quench a smouldering wick…”

But let’s back up just a minute.  For I’ve given you part of the context for the quote promising rest (which is what follows in the Sabbath story).  But I need to provide what exactly precedes the invitation, which is a quote more reminiscent of John’s Gospel than of Matthew’s.  A quote which appears in John’s Gospel at the Last Supper (umm…. think bread!) just prior to the footwashing (an action which stands, in John’s Gospel, where the Eucharistic event is recalled by the synoptics).  I’m going to give the whole of the quote, for its seems to be part of a prayer – but I will flag in bold the words which most interest me (and match those prior to the footwashing):

At that time Jesus said, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

Followed by “Come to me….  and I will give you rest.”  Rest…  the Sabbath.  Given by God as a time and a commandment.  Now entrusted to Jesus, who offers us both companionship and rest.

Ok, I know this is getting really long.  Long story short:  Matthew’s Gospel offers two miraculous feedings.  Should we take special note of that?  Yes!  One in Chapter 14.  Another in Chapter 15.  Smack in the middle of this Gospel.  Both in the context of crowds who’ve come out to listen to his teaching, to follow this man whose words and deeds are so powerful.  Unlike John there is no lengthy mystical preaching on Jesus as the Bread of Life.  But we know that already:  Jesus comes from Bethlehem; he offers God’s rest (with all its biblical implications of wholeness, healing, eternal Life).

Finally, as we all know, Jesus, at the Last Supper, identifies himself with bread that has been blessed and broken to feed his disciples.

I end with a reference to the monastic view of reading and internalizing scripture.  There is an image of meditating upon it as one would chew bread.  Ruminating.  (Think of a cow chewing its cud.)

There’s a huge amount of commentary on whether the Lord’s Prayer asks only for physical breadThere’s nothing wrong, of course, in praying the prayer that way.  But somehow I’m not convinced, that Matthew wants to limit our understanding of the prayer that way.  Bread is just too rich a symbol.  To waste.  S0  …  Go for the mystical!

Pondering the Perplexing Personality of Paul

January 19, 2013 § 2 Comments

I’ll confess from the outset:  For a long time, I had trouble appreciating St. Paul.  Eventually I came to really treasure Paul’s mystical side, his lyrical, poetic passages and prayers.   But even then, Preachy Paul, who could be something of a scold, sorely tried my patience. 

I am no scholar of Paul.  Nor am I any kind of expert on scripture.  But lately I’ve gained some compassion for Paul’s tendency to be judgmental and scolding. How or why this change of perspective on Paul came about I can’t explain.  It’s a good feeling when God changes your heart.  And that’s what this feels like.

God’s mercy is never-ending.  And it often comes when (and how) we least expect it.  Even at times when we may least deserve it.  I can attest to that – from my own experience.  And Paul is a perfect example!

This Mercy of God, so Undeserved, so Relentless in its pursuit of people.  Well, to me it’s one of the greatest proofs of God’s unique care for each of us, God’s stunning willingness to upend things and prod us to rethink and change direction.

So I think of Paul.  A scholar of Jewish law.  A zealot, by his own admission.  A party to persecution.  A witness to martyrdom.  A tent-maker.  A man who kept the Commandments.  Was zealous about prayer, scrupulous about performing the duties of a pious Jew.  And who, for a time, felt deputized to scour the countryside in search  of wayward Jews… new followers of a strange prophet, who’d been crucified and was rumored to have been raised from the dead.

We know very little about Paul before his conversion.  But from the little we know, we have to assume, I think, that he was a passionate man.  That he had a passion for God.  A passion for Torah.  A passion to take matters into his own hands?  It would appear so.  A bit prideful?  That too.  Hasty at times?  He was definitely a man on a mission.   Judgmental?  Yes, indeedy!

Now we know even less about God’s choice of Paul.  But from the disciples Jesus chose, we can make some assumptions.  We can think of Moses and Abraham and Jacob – all chosen as well.  We can think of prophetsso many of whom tried to decline the Divine intervention in their lives, viewing themselves as sinful or not up to the task.

But Paul is unique in a sense.  An intellectual.  A zealot on a self-chosen mission.  A man versed in Torah.  Venerating Torah.  So dedicated to Torah he was willing to exterminate those he viewed as veering off the Torah path.  But a man who turned on a dime, so to speak.  Becoming one with those he was persecuting.  Because Jesus’ appearance, especially his words – “Why are you persecuting me?” – made it clear that Jesus was ONE with them.

It seems to me that Paul’s mystical side relates especially to this encounter with Jesus.  To the moment when his whole life was turned inside out and upside down.  When Holy Mystery took hold of him and, suddenly, he knew this Mystery – to be the Risen Christ.  And his judgmental side?  I wonder if that is the thorn in his flesh, which bothered (and humbled) him.  We all have these limitations.  Yet God pursues us and bids us welcome… nonetheless.  I find that very comforting.

The Divine Symphony

July 9, 2012 § 3 Comments

Scripture is like a symphony.  One does not listen to just one note or one measure or one chord or one theme.  Scripture vibrates and resonates.  There are echoes one can hear.  One musical instrument answering another.  Or questioning.  Cymbals clashing.  Silences.  Conversations.  The sounds of water.  Of trees rustling.  If you listen closely.  If you read with heart tuned.  Scripture arose through such a process.  And it remains alive for those who steep themselves (in it) as one steeps tea.

This morning I was reading Psalm 39 (40) – depending upon how one counts the psalms.  And I heard it speaking, not just to me, but to the end of John’s Gospel.   Or you could say I understood that the end of John’s Gospel was like an echo/commentary on verses of that psalm.  And hearing the melody gave me new insight into what the writer of John was doing.  For when one hears such a melody it is like a cue to await further reverberations hidden in both texts.

Origin was a master at this way of reading scripture.  Like someone weaving an exquisite tapestry, he moves back and forth throughout the entire Bible – using vibrant colored threads to create images and metaphors as he brings to life a text – through other texts.   He is both breathtaking and charming.  And I’ve only just begun to drink deeply at the wells he’s opened up, whose waters have seeped into much of spiritual and theological writing (in spite of his being martyred as a heretic).

But I digress…

Let’s start with the end of John’s Gospel.  Which is probably familiar to many.  Its final verse [John 21:25] reads:

But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.

And now listen to this verse from Psalm 40 (Grail Version):

6 How many, O LORD my God,

are the wonders and designs

that you have worked for us;

you have no equal.

Should I wish to proclaim or speak of them,

they would be more than I can tell!

Now, whether or not this is the real ending to John is not our concern here.  But this resonance between the Old and New Testaments, between prayer (the psalm) and announcing the Good News (the Gospel) is just one example of what occurs all over the place in scripture.  It is exactly the method the resurrected Christ taught the disciples on the Road to Emmaus.  A method clearly understood and practiced by Origin. 

John’s Gospel can usefully be read as a call to decision.  As a witness to events, which prompts a response.  Indeed its penultimate verse hints at a community which seems to endorse the Gospel writer as:  “the disciple who is testifying to these things and has written them, and we know that his testimony is true.”  A community of converts one has to assume.  Perhaps even a community whose members might have experienced conversion in the manner of psalm 40 [NRSV]:

1 I waited patiently for the Lord;
he inclined to me and heard my cry.
2 He drew me up from the desolate pit,
out of the miry bog,
and set my feet upon a rock,
making my steps secure.
3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.
Many will see and fear,
and put their trust in the Lord.

4 Happy are those who make
the Lord their trust,
who do not turn to the proud,
to those who go astray after false gods.
5 You have multiplied, O Lord my God,
your wondrous deeds and your thoughts towards us;
none can compare with you.
Were I to proclaim and tell of them,
they would be more than can be counted.

6 Sacrifice and offering you do not desire,
but you have given me an open ear.
Burnt-offering and sin-offering
you have not required.
7 Then I said, ‘Here I am;
in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
8 I delight to do your will, O my God;
your law is within my heart.’

9 I have told the glad news of deliverance
in the great congregation;
see, I have not restrained my lips,
as you know, O Lord.
10 I have not hidden your saving help within my heart,
I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation;
I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness
from the great congregation.

11 Do not, O Lord, withhold
your mercy from me;
let your steadfast love and your faithfulness
keep me safe for ever.
12 For evils have encompassed me
without number;
my iniquities have overtaken me,
until I cannot see;
they are more than the hairs of my head,
and my heart fails me.

13 Be pleased, O Lord, to deliver me;
O Lord, make haste to help me.
14 Let all those be put to shame and confusion
who seek to snatch away my life;
let those be turned back and brought to dishonour
who desire my hurt.
15 Let those be appalled because of their shame
who say to me, ‘Aha, Aha!’

16 But may all who seek you
rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who love your salvation
say continually, ‘Great is the Lord!’
17 As for me, I am poor and needy,
but the Lord takes thought for me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
do not delay, O my God.

I hope perhaps this psalm may be your guide to a closer reading of John’s Gospel (and its impact on you).  Just as Luke’s story of the disciples on the Road to Emmaus (and their subsequent carrying of Jesus’ message back to Jerusalem) resonates like an opening theme or interpretive key – for the Gospel it immediately precedes.   Opening our eyes to the fact that nothing in scripture stands by itself.

This is just one tiny example of the power of the Divine Symphony which plays in Scripture.  And of which we ourselves are a part.  We too are words spoken by our Creator.  Notes in the cosmic symphony.  Like musical instruments awaiting the Spirit’s breath to come to life.   Exactly as the psalmist did in the words above.

3 He put a new song in my mouth,
a song of praise to our God.

Everything She is Called to, We are Called to

April 3, 2012 § Leave a comment

Mary, Theotokos and so much more!  God-Bearer.  Disciple.  Priesthood Personified.  Divinization.   Spirit Bearer.    Not necessarily in that order.

In the post which precedes this post, I laid the groundwork for what I hope to do here.  I provided a scriptural underpinning for our common humanity with both Mary and her son (who receives his humanity from her and wants to share his Divinity with us).

Instead of just putting my comments into words, I hope to do so through images.  For it is not just a saying that “one picture is worth a thousand words” but indeed our right hemisphere codes meaning in “flashes” you might say, in imagery, packing “wholeness” for us, which pages and pages of words can only try to unpack.

So without further ado, I want to present several images.  Images which “show” what I hope to say here, images which tell us theological truths about Mary, the Theotokos, and also about our own calling, to be transformed into God-Bearers ~ in order to exercise a Priestly Callingto bring all things into Christ.

First, the Burning Bush.  The image par excellence of God’s fiery Love and Presence – in our hearts:

HOLY GROUND

 

We are all called.

As Moses was called.

As Mary was called.

Worthiness?

We live into it.

As best we can.

Most HOLY Theotokos

Mary, Theotokos, tells us everything

I’m trying to say.

….

Life-Giving Spring

Heart Streams:

Our hearts and Mary’s heart.

Streams of Life running through us.

The Gift of Tears.

The Sacred in the Ordinary.

Inner Liturgy of the Heart.

A Heart crushed and broken!

On Fire with Love!

Divinization!

Mary’s Calling and our Calling.  The inner priesthood of the heart.  Note Mary’s upturned hands in the orans or priestly position.  The inner Christ.  Presiding in Temple of our Heart.  The flame of the Spirit within our hearts.

See Alexander Golitzin’s wonderful paper (in two parts) on Liturgy and Mysticism, which does a far better job than I could ever do in putting all this together.  See also this wonderful description by him of the Place of the Presence of God – in the living presence of a divinized holy person.  (These articles require time and attention, but yield much fruit!)

Slicing time: 1/4000 of a Second

July 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

Who would have imagined that we could break up Time?

That we could capture what is unseen to the naked eye?

Each.  Tiny.  Fraction of Time.  Matters.

Alan's Camera captured this from a fountain at 1/4000 sec.

And apropos of nothing (except the concept of Time, TS Eliot’s kind of time), I’ve been thinking of translating Goethe’s famous lyric poem, well, the most famous lyric poem in all of German literature.

First a timely quote from Eliot:

….. As we grow older
the world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated
Of dead and living. Not the intense moment
Isolated, with no before and after,
But a lifetime burning in every moment
And not the lifetime of one man only
But of old stones that cannot be deciphered.
There is a time for the evening under starlight,
A time for the evening under lamplight
(The evening with the photograph album).

The evening with Alan‘s photograph album… And so… back to Goethe, a Romantic poet, so different from Eliot, who always must lead us into the darkest dark.  But I digress…

Goethe’s Wandrers Nachtlied. Literally, “Wayfarer’s Night Song.”   What we would call a “Lullaby.”   Should I call it Hiker’s Lullaby?   Trekker’s Lullaby?  Both would be accurate.  But I’ve settled on Pilgrim’s Lullaby, because I think this title provides a deeper connotation for what I see in the poem.

The German has very few lines.  And few syllables in each line.  I’ve tried to follow that pattern.  As well as to keep to the simplicity of words, the directness of language.  All to hint at an atmosphere the poem conveys.

So here goes…

Pilgrim’s Lullaby                                                                              

Repose nestles over the hilltops.

Hardly a breath rustles the trees.

Birdsong’s hush quiets the woodland.

Bide your time.  Soon…

You’ll rest in peace too.

Strictly speaking, the second line should end in the word “treetops” – but so as not to repeat “tops” and to limit the number of syllables, I took a bit of liberty.

…………………………………………….

In case you know German, here’s the Original.  I memorized it so long ago…

Über allen Gipfeln
Ist Ruh,
In allen Wipfeln
Spürest du
Kaum einen Hauch;
Die Vögelein schweigen im Walde.
Warte nur, balde
Ruhest du auch.

The rhyme scheme is exquisite.   Schubert set it to music.

A Price on His Head

June 23, 2011 § Leave a comment

On the night he was betrayed – so powerful are those words, you know immediately to whom I am referring.  Matthew’s Gospel shares with us two versions of a “price” on the head of Jesus.

First we have an unknown woman.  Who approaches him and pours a priceless perfume on his head.  The Fathers have encouraged us to see this as an image of faith and prayer.  An image of how Jesus “God With Us” is close enough to touch and be touched.  Compassionate enough to regard especially the least in his culture as worthy of approaching him.  Both John’s Gospel and Matthew’s Gospel record how the cost of this precious anointing was questioned.  But the point of the story, I think, is the value of the person so honored.  Jesus is priceless for those who have faith, for those who seek the face of God.

Next, we have Judas.  Who trades for the head of Jesus.  Thirty pieces of silver was the price.  The priceless one – devalued.  Sold.  (A temptation Jesus himself had refused when he was offered the whole world in exchange for selling his soul.)

Matthew puts this into context earlier in chapter 6: 19-21:

‘Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal; but store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust consumes and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

Which reminds us of what really matters.   Yet it’s interesting that in terms of the story, in terms of the ultimate outcome of God’s Inbreaking Kingdom, price holds a Paradox.  The ultimate humility, the ultimate Incarnation, was to join with those who suffer most deeply:  the tortured; the mocked; the abused; the humiliated; the innocently imprisoned, tried, convicted, condemned; the betrayed.  All the disciples expected their Messiah to achieve worldly glory, an earthly kingdom, but instead, as we see throughout the Old Testament as well, God always surprises us, choosing the unlikely person or situation – hiding Himself in the most amazing ways.

Jesus had to fail and to be betrayed in order to join with us in those ways.  And in that joining, to lift us up into His humble exaltation.

So I have to wonder… to ponder… the fate of Judas.  To be honest, I hope he was saved.

A Work in Progress

April 14, 2011 § 2 Comments

I love it when someone’s post really hits the nail on the head. Or in this case, it could be a nail onto a hand or a foot. Or maybe a leg up a ladder I’ve been needing rungs to climb on. In any case, read Macrina’s wonderful post and then what follows here may or may not make a bit of sense, as I’m not finished thinking these topics through yet myself.

First, “the Key” – from Kallistos Ware (as quoted by Macrina):

Underlying all six models [Ware analyzes] is one fundamental truth, namely that “Jesus Christ, as our Saviour, has done something for us that we could not do alone and by ourselves. We cannot save ourselves; we need help. … We could not come to God, so He has come to us.”

Then a simple method by which Ware analyzes the concept of  “Salvation in Christ” in terms of 6 models, using 4 hugely important questions to “test” each model.  (Please see Macrina’s post for that info.) The brilliance of this method leaves me yet again grateful for having slid into First Base (in my dotage) within Eastern Orthodoxy. And grateful as well to have stumbled upon Macrina’s blog. Twice. First, when she was a Cictercian nun. And next, when she reappeared as a tent-dwelling, would-be Orthodox convert. (Now she’s an Orthodox, South African bookbinder!)  If that transformation does not intrigue you… well… then maybe my own “work in progress” (below) won’t pique your interest either.

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