C.S. Lewis, Jupiter and Christmas

November 29th is the anniversary of the birth of C.S. Lewis. In his university lectures on the medieval cosmos, Lewis would sometimes refer to his own birthday, saying: ‘Those born under Jupiter are apt to be cheerful and festive, loud-voiced and red-faced.’ He would then pause and add, ‘It is obvious under which planet I was born!’ – which always produced a laugh.

Lewis did not literally believe in astrology, but he certainly admired the poetical use to which astrological symbolism could be put. ‘The characters of the planets, as conceived by medieval astrology, seem to me to have a permanent value as spiritual symbols,’ he wrote in 1935. In this article I want to show something of what he thought about the stars and planets not only in connection with his own birthday and ‘days’ in general, but also with an immeasurably greater day, the Feast of Christmas, the nativity of Christ.

From time immemorial and right through into the late Middle Ages, there were only seven known planets. Uranus was not discovered till 1781, Neptune in 1845, and Pluto in 1930 (since 2006 it has been classified as a ‘dwarf planet’). A planet is literally a ‘wanderer’. The planets are the wandering stars that take their own individual paths across the sky. All the other celestial bodies are not planets, but stars, either fixed in their own unique positions, like the Pole Star, or forming fixed parts of larger constellations. The seven medieval planets included the Sun and the Moon; the other five were Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. The Earth was not considered ‘Planet’ Earth, but rather was thought to be the still centre of the turning universe.

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The planetary deities in the order of the days of the week.  Illustration from an edition of Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’.

It is from the seven medieval planets that we take the names of the days of the week. How Saturday, Sunday, and Monday relate to Saturn, the Sun, and the Moon is pretty obvious. The connection between the other four planets and the other four days of the week is slightly concealed from us who speak English because, for some odd reason lost in the mists of time, we use the Norse names for the relevant planetary deities rather than the Roman names. Thus Tuesday is named for Tiw or Tyr, the Norse equivalent of the Roman god, Mars (think of Martes in Spanish or Mardi in French). Wednesday is named for Woden, the Norse equivalent of the Roman Mercury (Miercoles / Mercredi). Thursday is named for Thor, the Norse equivalent of Jupiter or Jove (Jueves / Jeudi). And Friday is named for Freya or Frigg, the Norse equivalent of Venus (Viernes / Vendredi).

In the course of researching Lewis and the seven heavens for my book, Planet Narnia, I discovered a page of notes (see below) that he scribbled in the end-leaves of one of the volumes of his complete edition of Chaucer.  These notes, which Lewis made about Chaucer’s poem, ‘The Knight’s Tale’, from The Canterbury Tales, indicate the interest Lewis took in the poetic use that could be made of planetary symbolism.  Lewis admired the way Chaucer not only put the planetary characters into ‘The Knight’s Tale’ as actors in the drama, but also wove the relevant planetary influences into the plot. So, for example, the climax of ‘The Knight’s Tale’ happens on a Tuesday, the day of Mars, an appropriate ending for a story about martial knights.

lewis-on-chaucerLewis’s notes explain how it is that certain days of the week are connected to particular planets. He writes: ‘The first hour of every day belongs to the planet of the day: after that the others follow in downward order from him to the rest; then go on repeating.’

To understand what Lewis means by ‘downward order’, take a look at the diagram below, showing the seven heavens. The planet in the seventh heaven is Saturn. Below Saturn come Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, and the Moon.cosmos

Lewis’s notes clarify why Monday follows Sunday in the order of the days of the week, even though the Moon and the Sun are not adjacent in the order of the planets. The Sun, being the eye and mind of the whole universe, was believed to rule the first hour of the first day of the week. After the Sun has laid claim, so to speak, to Sunday by ruling its first hour, it moves aside and allows Venus, the planet immediately underneath in the order of the planets, to rule the second hour of Sunday. Venus then makes way for Mercury to rule the third hour of Sunday, and Mercury then lets the Moon have a go. After the Moon has ruled the fourth hour, there are no planets lower down to take over, so the sequence starts again from the top, with Saturn ruling the fifth hour of Sunday, Jupiter ruling the sixth hour, and Mars ruling the seventh hour. At the eighth hour, it’s the Sun’s turn again. And, as the sequence continues, the Sun rules also the fifteenth hour and the twenty-second hour. With the day drawing to a close, the twenty-third hour of Sunday is ruled by Venus, the twenty-fourth hour by Mercury, and then Sunday’s twenty-fifth hour (as it were) is governed by the Moon, but since each day only has 24 hours, we find ourselves in a new day, whose first hour is Lunar, – hence we call it Moonday. And that, in a nutshell, is why Monday follows Sunday!

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Jupiter enthroned in the heavens and the people on earth who exhibit the Jovial influence.  Woodcut by Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550).

Back to the date of Lewis’s birthday and his being born under Jupiter: we are all familiar with the idea of being ‘born under’ a planet. We tend to think of this mostly in connection with the twelve houses or ‘signs’ of the zodiac, as they correspond (roughly) to the twelve months of the year. If you are born in late November, like C.S. Lewis, that puts you in the house of Sagittarius, whose sign is a centaur aiming a bow and arrow. The planet responsible for ‘ruling’ that zodiacal house, according to astrological tradition, is Jupiter.  So Lewis was indeed ‘born under’ Jupiter, as he said he was, at least as regards the month of his birth.

As for the day on which he was born: 29th November fell on a Tuesday in 1898, so he was born under Mars as well as under Jupiter. I do not know the hour in which he was born on that Tuesday, but one supposes it to have been a ‘jovial’ hour. Lewis was a hearty, rubicund man who had a love of Jupiter (or Jove) throughout his life. He inherited these qualities from his father, for Albert Lewis was ‘often the most jovial and companionable of parents’, according to Surprised by Joy.

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Ruth Pitter

Lewis once declared that, if he were to marry anyone, it would be the poet Ruth Pitter (this was before he was surprised by Joy Davidman!). He wrote to her in 1954 remarking on her name: ‘I always thought that the Pitters (dies-piter and all that) descended from Jove through Aeneas and Brute.’ The name Jupiter derives from dies-piter, which literally means ‘shining father’, as Lewis would have known from (among other sources) Edwyn Bevan’s Symbolism and Belief, a book he rated highly.

Brute, or Brut, the first king of Britain in mythical history, was the son of Aeneas Silvius, grandson of Ascanius and great-grandson of Aeneas of Troy. In another letter of 1954, Lewis offers a little more detail about this mythical British or Celtic line ‘that goes back through the Tudors to Cadwallader and thence to Arthur, Uther, Cassibelan, Lear, Lud, Brut, Aeneas, Jupiter.’ It is amusing to find Lewis, the self-styled Jovial man, toying with the idea of marrying into Jupiter’s family by taking Ruth Pitter as his wife. And it is intriguing to observe that Lewis gives to the heroine of That Hideous Strength, Jane Studdock, the surname ‘Tudor’ as her maiden name. Jane and her husband Mark (a suitably Martial moniker) are to become the parents of a son who will perpetuate Jupiter’s line in modern-day England.

Version 2How apt, incidentally, that Lewis’s favourite Oxford pub, the Eagle & Child, home to so many meetings of the Inklings, was named for an episode in the life of Zeus, the forerunner in Greek mythology of the Roman god, Jupiter. Zeus fell in love with the beautiful child, Ganymede, and sent an eagle to snatch him up to Mount Olympus where he could serve as his royal cup-bearer.

Those who knew C.S. Lewis have often noted his joviality, though not always with a clear recognition of the significance the term had for him in his personal lexicon. Paul Piehler remembers ‘a plumpish, red-faced Ulsterman with a confident, jovial Ulster rasp to his voice’. Peter Milward recalls ‘a burly, red-faced, jovial man’. John Lawlor relates how Lewis’s ‘determined and even aggressive joviality was all on the surface: within was a settled contentment’. Peter Bayley describes him as ‘Jove-like, imperious, certain, absolute’. Richard Ladborough says he was ‘frequently jovial’. W.R. Fryer speaks of his ‘jovial maleness’. Peter Philip opines that ‘his manner was jovial when he was in a good mood, which I must say was most of the time’. Pat Wallsgrove likens Lewis to ‘a jovial farmer’. Claude Rawson writes that his nickname, ‘Jack’, was ‘well suited to his jovial “beer and Beowulf” image’. Nevill Coghill recalls that, although Lewis was formidable, ‘this was softened by joviality’. Douglas Gresham remembers his step-father as ‘jovial’. The title of Chesterton’s novel, The Man Who Was Thursday, might have been coined as a description of C.S. Lewis, notwithstanding his Tuesday nativity!

Version 2But though so many people use the word ‘jovial’ of the man, only George Watson, his Cambridge colleague, explicitly recognizes how important the planetary derivation was for Lewis himself: ‘His own humour was sanguine, its presiding deity Jove, and . . . he knew that it was’ (Watson, Critical Essays on C.S. Lewis, 1992, p3). Peter Milward goes further, making a link to Lewis’s fiction. Having emphasized Lewis’s ‘sturdily jovial manner’, Milward notes an important connection: ‘he was indeed a . . . jovial man; and these qualities of his I later recognized . . . in his character of the kingly animal, Aslan.’

Aslan, Narnia’s Christ figure, brings us to Christmas and the birth of the infant Jesus. In early January 1953, Lewis wrote to Ruth Pitter remarking on what he had seen in the night-sky during the recent Christmas: ‘It was beautiful, on two or three successive nights about the Holy Time, to see Venus and Jove blazing at one another, once with the Moon right between them: Majesty and Love linked by Virginity – what could be more appropriate?’ Venus signifies love, of course, and the Moon virginity. Jupiter signifies majesty or kingliness and, as such, was a very suitable symbol for Christ, the ‘king of kings’ (Revelation 19:16).

In attempting to read the significance of the Christmas stars, Lewis was modeling himself on the magi, the wise men who followed the star from the east and who came to Herod asking, ‘Where is he that has been born King of the Jews?’ (Matthew 2:2). There is a right and proper use of astrology, if it leads to the worship of Christ. That the stars speak of Christ is only to be expected, for, in the words of Lewis’s favourite psalm, ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God’ (Psalm 19:1).

Lewis was alert to the royal and imperial implications of Christ’s nativity.  Writing about Psalm 110 in his only full-length work of scriptural commentary, Reflections on the Psalms (1958), Lewis notes that this psalm is appointed to be read on Christmas Day in the order of readings given by the Anglican Prayer Book. He remarks:

We may at first be surprised by this.  There is nothing in [Psalm 110] about peace and goodwill, nothing remotely suggestive of the stable at Bethlehem.  It seems to have been originally either a coronation ode for a new king, promising conquest and empire, or a poem addressed to some king on the eve of war, promising victory.  It is full of threats.  The “rod” of the king’s power is to go forth from Jerusalem, foreign kings are to be wounded, battle fields to be covered with carnage, skulls cracked.  The note is not “Peace and goodwill” but “Beware.  He’s coming”.  Two things attach it to Christ with an authority far beyond that of the Prayer Book.  The first of course is that He Himself did so; He is the “lord” whom “David” calls “my Lord”.  The second is the reference to Melchizedek.

Lewis then proceeds to give a detailed disquisition on Melchizedek, the numinous priest-king mentioned in the Book of Genesis (14:18-19). Melchizedek becomes, in Psalm 110, a spiritual ancestor of the Davidic king. The psalmist says of the king, ‘thou art a priest forever in the order of Melchizedek’, a description which is taken up in the New Testament in the Epistle to the Hebrews and applied repeatedly to Jesus Christ (Hebrews 5:6; 6:20; 7:11; 7:17; 7:21).

There is one interesting fact about Melchizedek that Lewis does not disclose in his Reflections on the Psalms, though he undoubtedly knew of it, and it provides another reason for regarding this Christmas psalm as Jovial in its symbolism: the Hebrew word Melchizedek means both ‘my king is righteousness’ and ‘my king is Jupiter’.  (For more details on this fascinating link, see the helpful article here.)

Jesus Christ, the king of kings and lord of lords, the divine Word by whom all things were made, spoke the planet Jupiter into being on the fourth day of creation (Genesis 1:14-19). Lewis in his commentary on the psalms is not, of course, arguing, or even suggesting, that Jesus was actually ‘born under Jupiter’, as he jokingly told his university lecture audiences that he himself had been. But from all that we have seen of his interest in the planets and his love of Jove in particular, I am sure he would have considered the idea highly appropriate.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Sanctuary

It’s the season of Lent, that time in the church year when Christians prepare for the incomparably great Easter Feast. The forty days of Lent, reflecting Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, are intended to be observed as a kind of askesis, a spiritual training and a moral challenge, undertaken in order to discipline our desires and strengthen our wills, subduing our unruly habits and showing us ‘the one thing needful’.

This Lenten boot-camp usually involves a temporary (and sometimes, for some people, even a permanent) giving up of things which are good in themselves, but not essential. By abstaining for a while from these good things, we exercise the muscles of detachment and clarify our vision.

In the two traditions I’m familiar with – Anglicanism and Catholicism, – and no doubt in other Christian traditions too, part of this preparatory activity is seen in certain small changes to the liturgy of public worship. For instance, the Gloria in excelsis Deo (‘Glory to God in the highest’), an ancient hymn of praise that Christians have sung since at least the fourth century, and which is usually recited every Sunday, is forgone during Lent. The word ‘alleluia’ is not used at the proclamation of the Gospel reading. Hymns with the word ‘alleluia’ aren’t sung. Flowers aren’t used to decorate the church.

Like Christ in the desert, we go through a barren period. We simplify our lives and forsake things that are good in themselves in order to check on our priorities, to ‘detox’ our spiritual system, to run down our batteries so they will hold the charge better when we charge them back up.

Now, all these reflections on Lent are meant by way of introducing the following account. I wish to relate something I saw recently, soon after the start of Lent, something that ranks as . . . well, you will see what I think it ranks as. It’s completely true. I haven’t changed or exaggerated it. Let me set the stage.

It occurred at the church I go to in Oxford, where I live. The church is dedicated to St Gregory and St Augustine, the ‘apostles to the English people’. It’s a church where J.R.R. Tolkien often worshipped, when he lived in north Oxford, and where his daughter, Priscilla Tolkien, still attends. It’s a small, uncluttered building, erected in 1911, a fine example of the Arts and Crafts movement in English architecture and design.

I was attending the 6.00p.m Vigil Mass for the second Sunday of Lent. (For those who aren’t familiar with Catholic-speak, ‘Vigil Mass’ means ‘Saturday evening service of Holy Communion’.) The date was 20th February 2016.

As I entered the church, I noticed a dog lying on the floor to one side of the aisle, by the back pew on the left. I was surprised. I had never seen a dog inside St Gregory’s before. In fact, I’m fairly sure I’ve never seen a dog inside any church anywhere at any time.

It was a golden Labrador Retriever (full-grown) and at first I thought it was a guide-dog for a blind person, but when I glanced at the lady who was obviously in charge of it, I could tell she wasn’t blind. For some reason, she’d just brought her dog inside the church. I’d not seen this lady before. She was short-ish and trim; about 55 years old, I supposed; quiet and unassuming, with a slightly nervous air, keeping herself to herself, – doing her best, perhaps, not to invite comments or complaints about her pet.

The dog seemed to be well-trained and well-behaved. There it was, lying down on the floor, quiet and contented. Though it had a collar round its neck, it wasn’t on a leash, indicating the extent to which the owner trusted the dog to behave itself, so there didn’t seem to be any reason for anyone to object. I did have to take a quarter step to the right to avoid stepping on the gently waving tail as I passed down the aisle; apart from that there was nothing at all about its presence that could be taken as offending against public-spirit.

I recalled how a cathedral tour-guide had once told me that, in the Middle Ages, dogs would quite often be taken to services, because they would lie across their owner’s feet, helping to keep them warm. And although this dog wasn’t serving as a feet-warmer, evidently its owner wanted or needed it there for some reason, and I assumed that she had probably got permission beforehand from the parish priest, Father John Saward. And if she hadn’t got permission, well, – it would be up to Father John to speak to her about it afterwards. So I said to myself, ‘Live and let live,’ and went and took my customary place in the front pew on the right.

The bell rang and the service began. Things started, as normal, with the Penitential Rite, and proceeded smoothly to the Liturgy of the Word. The dog was behaving itself, as far as I could tell. I mean, it was ten rows behind me, so it wasn’t in my eye-line, but I couldn’t hear it making any noises, so I assumed it was continuing to conduct itself with all due propriety.

I was serving as lector, and when I returned to my seat after doing the readings and leading the responsorial psalm, I glanced to the back of the church and saw that the dog was still lying down, innocently enough, in the aisle adjacent to the back pew.

During the Offertory, I got a further chance to check on the dog because I was responsible for taking up the two collections. This meant that I twice went to the back of the church as I was passing round the plate. Again, I had to take a little care to avoid stepping on its tail. Again, the dog continued to be perfectly well behaved.

Then there was the Liturgy of the Eucharist. When it came to Holy Communion, I went and knelt along with the first batch of people at the sanctuary rail, as my seat was in the front pew. I returned to my seat, where I again knelt and prayed, like I always do. Sometimes I pray with my eyes open and sometimes with my eyes shut. On this occasion, I kept my eyes open.

St Gregory’s is a small church, so I was only a yard and a half from the sanctuary, and one always gets a good view of other communicants as they come and go.

The last person to come and receive Communion was the dog-owning lady. The dog, somewhat surprisingly, decided to follow her up to the front and, while the owner knelt at the rail towards the left of center, the dog walked to the right, passing behind the backs of the other kneeling communicants, sniffing their shoes and legs and sometimes, rather embarrassingly, their bottoms. As dogs will. But it was quiet and unthreatening and no one took any notice of it. If it had been a Rottweiler or Great Dane, I daresay things would have been different. But everyone likes a Labrador Retriever, even if it sniffs where it oughtn’t. The whole scene was a classic case of the English being far too polite to suggest that anything impolite was going on.

Once the last batch of communicants were returning to their seats and the rail was mostly unoccupied, the dog saw that it could actually get through the rail and into the sanctuary. The rail is wooden and the uprights are widely spaced, so it was easy enough for the dog to pass through, without any squeezing. I could see the dog making up its mind to do this. It didn’t do so quickly, but actually rather hesitantly and thoughtfully.

The owner, who had just received Communion, was still kneeling as the dog began to make its move and as soon as she saw what he was about she tried to stop him. But he was already half way through and although she tried to grab his haunches she couldn’t halt him, let alone pull him back.  Once he was fully through the rail and inside the sanctuary, – that was when the extraordinary thing happened.

The dog very deliberately and devoutly knelt. I kid you not. He put his forepaws against the altar step, lowered his front forelegs and laid his chin flat on the red carpet. His hind legs were still standing upright, but his front legs were flat on the floor. He held this position for a few seconds. An agile and experienced acolyte could not have done an act of obeisance more humbly or unself-consciously.

This was remarkable enough, but what followed was just as striking. The dog then turned towards his left. Previously, he had been facing straight towards the altar. Now he turned so that he was sideways on, with his right side close to the riser of the altar step.

At this point, he stretched his full length on the carpet, his back legs out behind him, his chin again flat on the floor. He pressed himself downwards as flat as he could manage, and squirmed to and fro and round about, – an inch forward, an inch left, an inch back, an inch right. He was hugging the carpet, trying to pull himself, or push himself, into the ground. After he’d continued this prostration for about six or seven seconds, he just rolled on his back and basked.

The priest was standing on the altar step with his back to all this and didn’t see what was going on. It was happening silently, so there was no cause for him to turn round and watch. I had an uninterrupted view from where I was kneeling in the front pew. One of the two altar boys, who was occupied with handling the sacred vessels, observed it from the side of the sanctuary. The other altar boy, who was closer to the dog, stood looking down at this curious canine behaviour, utterly transfixed, like I was, and like the owner was.

Eventually, the boy opened the altar gates, at which point the dog’s owner, who was still on her knees, edged herself into the sanctuary, whispering ‘Come here, come out!’ But the dog was enjoying himself far too much to be going anywhere right away. He just lay there, first on his back, then on his side, till finally the owner was close enough to grab his collar and bodily drag him out. He wasn’t exactly ‘playing doggo’, but it was rather like that. She had to pull him forcibly towards her before he accepted that his time was up and he would have to get on his feet. Which he did. He followed his owner back to her seat, and that was the end of the curious incident.

What could account for her dog’s behavior? Imitation? Was the dog trying to mimic human actions? Very unlikely, I would suggest. Nobody had lain down flat on the floor and then rolled on their back as the dog had. Most people in the building, including the dog’s owner (the person whom the dog would be most likely to imitate), had simply knelt at the rail, yet the dog hadn’t copied that.

The simplest and most natural explanation, I think, is that the dog was, according to his lights, in his own doggy way, worshipping. For many Christians, not only Catholics, it is an article of faith that Jesus Christ is really, and not just metaphorically or symbolically, present in the bread and the wine (John 6:55; 1 Corinthians 10:16; etc). Catholics call the process by which this comes about transubstantiation; Lutherans call it consubstantiation; Christians of the Eastern churches, together with some Anglicans and Methodists, call it an objectively real presence but avoid technical explanations as to how it occurs; other Christians call it a presence which is there for those with the faith to perceive it, subjectively rather than objectively real. Yet in all these traditions, in different ways, the bread and the wine are not merely bread and wine. They somehow become more than themselves; they become channels of divine grace and even of divine presence. Never before had I seen evidence that animals could sense this too, but that’s what this dog’s behavior so strongly indicated. He was, after his own fashion, ‘discerning the body of the Lord’  (1 Corinthians 11:29).

Very properly, the dog didn’t stand on the altar step, let alone try to jump up on the altar in order to reach the Tabernacle, where the consecrated bread and wine are housed. He remained on the floor of the sanctuary, on a level with his owner. So he seemed to know his place, but nevertheless wanted to get as close to the Blessed Sacrament as he could and play his part in this corporate act of worship.

I spoke to the dog-owning lady after the end of the service, to praise her pet’s devoutness. She was embarrassed about the whole thing and more concerned to apologise for accidentally letting him into the sanctuary than to discuss the deeper significance of what had happened.

But to my mind we had witnessed an example of what the psalmist exhorts all creation to do: ‘Wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds . . . praise the name of the Lord!’ (Psalm 148: 10, 13); ‘Praise God in his sanctuary . . . Let everything that has breath praise the Lord!’ (Psalm 150:1, 6). It’s a theme taken up in the New Testament. Repeatedly, in the Book of Revelation we are told of the ‘living creatures’ – in Greek the word is zoon, a term that normally denotes animals rather than humans or angels, – who worship God night and day (Revelation. 4:8-9; 5:11-13, etc).

Had I caught a glimpse of that ideal, heavenly paean at a little church in north Oxford? Quite possibly so, I think. And, in an odd way, it struck me as being suitably Lenten in spirit, – an extraordinary thing that disturbed one’s normal routine. It made me forget the very good sermon that had been preached that day and pay attention instead to an ‘enacted sermon’, if I can call it that. I had been invited to hear the divine Word speaking in an unusually provocative manner, – not unlike what happened to Balaam when his donkey turned prophet (Numbers 22:21ff). It had jolted me out of conventional patterns of thought and caused me to consider the mystery of faith in a mode that was strange and challenging.

It was like something out of a medieval bestiary or like a Nativity scene where the ox and the ass reverently bow before the new-born Christ-child. The great creation hymn of St Francis of Assisi comes to mind:

Let all things their Creator bless

And worship Him in humbleness.

Alleluia, alleluia!

 Please forgive me for saying ‘Alleluia’ in Lent.

 

Christmas isn’t the Charade. Peace apart from Christ is.

“We are close to Christmas. There will be lights, there will be parties, bright trees, even Nativity scenes – all decked out – while the world continues to wage war … It’s all a charade. The world has not understood the way of peace. The whole world is at war.” – Pope Francis [1]

Many articles have been circulating concerning Pope Francis’ recent mass wherein he claimed that the Christmas celebrations this year are a charade, because there is no peace in the world right now. While it is true there is much war and bloodshed currently taking place in the world and we should weep as Jesus weeps for those that suffer, there is something strangely missing from the message of the leader of the largest Christian community in the world. The message of hope that only the Prince of Peace can bring.

While it is true that many of those that will celebrate during the upcoming Christmas season are not celebrating the birth of Christ, the truth remains that Christmas is about Christ. It is about Christ coming into a world of sin, brokenness, and death to save us from an eternal death. It is a message of hope precisely because of the darkness of this world. It is a message of peace precisely because there is no true peace to be found in the world.

One need only crack a history book to find evidence that if there has ever been a time when there was absolutely no war, bloodshed, or genocide, those periods were very short lived, if there are any. Even Jesus’ birth was marked by a mass genocide of all Jewish boys 2 years of age and younger, in King Herod’s attempt to kill the infant Jesus (Matt 2:16). If the very birth of the one we celebrate was marked by blood, why should we expect peace during our commemoration of it?

While the victimization of the past year has not been exclusive to Christians, many of the people who are suffering the most horrifically are the very ones who call on the name of Christ. Innumerable Christians are being persecuted throughout the Middle East simply because they are Christ followers. Videos of their executions have circled the internet, wherein even at the moment of execution these fearless Christians are praying and bearing witness to Christ’s ability to save and bring peace in the midst of the most horrific of circumstances. Is it not dishonoring to their sacrifice to consider the celebration of the birth of the Savior, in whose name they died, a charade because their blood was shed?

They died because they refused to deny him. Many more suffer because they refuse to deny him and pray that through their witness others will come to know him. The bloodshed in western countries is precisely because our post-Christian societies still bear witness to the freedom found in Christ’s message, even if our societies no longer recognize that freedom’s foundation in Christ.

During this season of remembrance, those of us who are Christians should use the atrocities of this year as an opportunity to share the message of Christ’s peace with others. We should use this season of celebration as an opportunity to share the real reason that we can celebrate, because we are free in Christ and have life that cannot be taken by a sword, gun, or bomb, eternal life in Jesus. Rather than focusing on the fallen state of this world, we should be celebrating our freedom in Christ and sharing that freedom with the lost. The lack of peace in the world should be no surprise to anyone that calls on the name of Christ, for Christ said “You will be hated by everyone because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved” (Matt 10:22). So rather than shrink away from celebration this year, due to the atrocities of this world, let us as Christians celebrate all the more, for the freedom the persecuted have in Christ, for the freedom the martyrs now experience in full in the presence of Christ, and for the opportunity to shine light into the darkness of this world, through our witness.

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God— children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” – John 1:9-13

[1] https://ca.news.yahoo.com/pope-says-christmas-charade-because-121919232.html

Image from: http://www.christianstatements.com/and-his-name-shall-be-called-isaiah-9-vinyl-wall-decal

Of Scapegoats and Jubilees: Reading Between the Lines in Luke 4:16-30

torah-readingIn Luke 4:16-30 we have a uniquely Lukan story. After his baptism by John, Jesus undergoes 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. He then returns to Galilee full of the Spirit and teaches in the synagogues. Luke 4:16-30 gives us one example of his teaching. In Luke, this sermon is programmatic. It sets the agenda for Jesus’ mission: the restoration of Israel, with a focus on the poor, the marginalized, and the outcast. Here, in his hometown Nazareth, Jesus appropriates the prophet’s words from Isaiah 61: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

A couple things in this text should be noted. First, the text, in Jesus’ mouth, points back to his own reception of the Spirit at his baptism. This is the divine empowerment which enables him to carry out his prophetic task. Second, the gospel (good news) that Jesus brings has a distinctively social and economic texture. The Israel Jesus addresses (his Nazareth audience is surely typical of the subsistence-level peasant population in Galilee) is viewed as one languishing in captivity. Under foreign domination (Rome) and a corrupt temple establishment, ancestral lands had been confiscated and once-free Israelites suffered in poverty as virtual debt-slaves. Many pious Israelites would have seen these woes as the outworking of the covenant curses (see Deuteronomy 28:15ff), brought on by Israel’s sins. The vision of salvation here is thus holistic, dealing not only with personal sins against God but with corporate sins involving systematic oppression. Continue reading

Is There a Better Word than “Lord”?

Recently, I gave the Hayward Lectures at Acadia Divinity College in Wolfville, Nova Scotia.  My topic was “Paul’s KYRIOS Christology.”  Kyrios is a Greek word most often translated “Lord” in English Bible translations.  Paul uses the word about 200 times in his letters to refer to his Lord, Jesus Christ.  On a few occasions he used the word in reference to God, the Father. The word can be used of people as well who possess some sort of recognized, superior status, a king, a master of slave, for example. logo_kyrios

One night after the lecture during the Q&A time, someone asked a good question. It had to do with the English word “lord” or “Lord” as a translation of Kyrios.  The fellow knew about The Voice translation and he appreciated that we had tried to find new words and associations which communicate well to a modern audience.  We translated words like Christos as “the Anointed” rather than “Christ.”  We translated apostolos as “emissary” rather than “apostle.” So he asked, is there a better word than “Lord” to translate kyrios?

The word “Lord” was used first to translate kyrios and other biblical words for English-speaking audiences in the middle ages when the upper classes were referred to as “my lord” or “my lady” by those who occupied lower status.  Given the sensibilities of the modern world, the fellow wondered whether there was a better word.  Though those titles are still used in some societies, they are rare in many countries including the United States.  They have lost currency in many places. The use of “Lord” is restricted to religious language most often referring to God, Christ or, in some cases, the Holy Spirit.  For some “Lord” functions as a name or title for God.

Well, I had no answer. No one had ever asked me that question before so I had never thought about it.  I’m embarrassed to admit I had no response given the fact that we rethought so many of the other key religiously-laden words. I’m still puzzling over it.  I’d be interested in your thoughts.  Is there a better word than “Lord” to translate kyrios in modern English? It would have to have the right meaning and sets of associations. It would need to convey the idea that the person holding the title had supreme authority and power.   Since it is most often used in the New Testament as a title for Jesus linking him with the One, True God, it must be an appropriate honorific (fancy word for “title”) for the Liberating King. I’m hard pressed to come up with anything. If we put our heads together, I bet we can think of something.  Then again, maybe not?!

Jesus and Mighty Works

Jesus and Mighty Works

Last week I traveled to Arlington TX to B. H. Carroll Theological Institute (bhcarroll.edu).  Founded in the 1990s, the institution exists to provide graduate-level theological education for men and women who are called to serve Christ in the diverse and global ministries of His church.  My professor, Dr. Bruce Corley, was founding president and continues in retirement to help direct the effort. I can’t begin to describe how influential he has been on a generation of scholars and church leaders. B. H. Carroll is the second largest seminary in Texas with students around the world in Russia, Cuba, Vietnam and China.  They have a great model for how to do education in this technological world.  They keep overhead low and are making a difference in the lives of many people.

Every spring BHCTI holds a colloquy for its PhD students.  There have been many times I have wanted to attend but final exams and grading have typically interfered.  But this time I got a special dispensation to turn my grades in just a wee bit late.  Thanks to my dean.

In addition to sharing with these pastors and church leaders about The Voice Bible project, I had the privilege of listening and responding to Dr. Craig Keener, professor at Asbury Seminary in Kentucky. 

The topic for the colloquy was “Jesus and Mighty Works.”  Much of the discussion has centered around Dr. Keener’s two volume work Miracles: The Credibility of New Testament Accounts (Baker Academic, 2011).  It is the best book available on miracles as a modern phenomenon.  Dr. Keener brought together a staggering number of accounts from the modern world about miracles that are taking place now in order to help us understand the miracles in the Bible.  Keener said that these two volumes (1100 pages) began as a footnote in his Acts commentary regarding eyewitness accounts of miracles. Some people (known as cessationists) have claimed that miracles stopped centuries ago when the Bible was complete. Dr. Keener offers ample evidence to the contrary.  Others are skeptical about miracles because they have never seen one, but Keener finds easily over 200,000,000 people who claim to have had direct experience with ‘extranormal’ events. He interviewed scientists, doctors, and eyewitnesses from several continents.

 In the 18th century David Hume, the Scottish philosopher, argued that miracles are impossible because they violate natural law and are only testified among uncivilized and uneducated folks.  Keener does a masterful job at deconstructing Hume’s argument and showing that his perspective is based on an ethnocentric bias against non-whites.  Essentially, Hume rejected the testimony of the majority of people in the world because they were not educated in western culture.  He then declared that “uniform human experience” tells us that miracles do not occur.  Apparently, the “us” Hume was referring to were Scottish professors living in the 18th century. “Uniform human experience” only applied to Hume and his friends.  

If you are curious whether miracles are still happening today, you will be amazed at the evidence Keener produces.  Not only are miracles still happening but they are more common than you think.

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The Gospel Project: Valuing Life

GospelProject
Last year, I wrote a session for LifeWay’s The Gospel Project on “The Meaning of Life.”  That session is in the current issue for Winter 2013-2014: “A God-Centered Worldview.”  My contribution is about meaning and purpose in human lives in a world void of God. It reflects on the writings of King Solomon (Ecclesiastes), the apostle Paul, William Lane Craig, Friedrich Nietzsche, Bertrand Russell, and others. It also looks at the value that Jesus’ resurrection gives to human life. Along with the study, I wrote some devotionals. LifeWay Christian Resources has made one devotional available online here: Valuing Life

Is It Time to Retire “The Old Testament”?

Old TestamentSo why do we call the first part of the Bible the “Old Testament”?  Well, for several reasons.  First, there is tradition.  For hundreds of years Bibles have been published with a page in front of the collection of 39 books from Genesis to Malachi clearly declaring these are the books of the Old Testament.  Second, there is Jesus’ declaration that he comes to establish a New Covenant in His blood.  We hear these words spoken first at the Last Supper when Jesus breaks the bread, blesses God and invites His followers to “take and eat.” That phrase “New Covenant” becomes identified later with part two of the Christian Bible; we call it the New Testament (the Greek word for “testament” means “covenant”).  If these 27 books from Matthew to Revelation make up the New Testament, then the first part must be, well, the Old Testament. 

Seldom, if ever, does anyone stop and ask “Why?”  Or perhaps even more significantly: “What do we mean when we call these books the Old Testament?”  Tradition is a powerful factor in how we think.  Now I have no real problem with calling these books the Old Testament as long as we do not fill the word “old” with the wrong content.  Frankly, I think sometimes we do.  When Christians refer to these books as the Old Testament—if by “old” they mean worn out, used up, obsolete, yesterday’s news—then  I think we ought to retire the term altogether.  Certainly that’s not how Jesus and his followers looked at their Bible. For them it was God’s Word.  In “the Law, Prophets and Writings”—the way they referred to the Scripture—the Voice of God could be heard and felt.  They heard prophecies there, stories there, poetry there that found ultimate fulfillment in the New Covenant inaugurated by the Liberating King.  For Jesus and his contemporaries the “Old Testament” was not “old” at all.  It was as fresh as the morning, as relevant as the Internet news.  They were still waiting for some of its prophecies to be fulfilled.  There is no sense in which they considered their Scripture old or obsolete.  If that is what we mean by “old,” we ought to throw a retirement party and be done with it.  

 But if by OLD Testament we mean tested, tried and true,

if we mean the foundation upon which the New Covenant is built,

if we recognize that these books point toward the climactic moment of

God’s redemption of the world . . .

then why don’t we just call it what it is: the Classic Testament. 

In many ways I prefer “Classic Testament” to “Old Testament” because it can help us reframe the discussion about Scripture.  I suggest that this subtle change might pay big dividends when it comes to thinking about the relationship between part one and part two of the Christian Scriptures. Although this is an oversimplification, the Old Testament stands in relation to the New as promise is to fulfillment, as foundation is to temple, as classic is to contemporary.  You cannot have one without the other.  The earlier paves the way and makes the later possible.  That’s why the Christian Scriptures contain both Old and New Testaments or what I prefer to call the Classic and New Testaments.

Now I realize I’m not likely to change many minds on this.  I don’t expect Bible publishers to change the introduction page to part one of the Bible.  I just want to get you thinking.  When you say Old Testament, what do you really mean?

God and the Art of Lawn Mower Maintenance

mowingSummer in Houston can border on unbearable.  As a friend of mine once said, “It’s like living on the surface of the sun…under water.”  One result is that mowing one’s lawn becomes a dreaded ordeal to be avoided at all costs.  One additional obstacle for me has been the lawn mower itself: slow to start, running rough, and in general disagreeable all summer.  I initially thought it was aping the attitude of its owner like a pet.  But I became convinced that the lawn mower was on its last leg and would need to be replaced.  Continue reading

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