Thursday, August 30, 2012

Women of the OT: Abishag the Shunammite

Abishag the Shunammite makes her appearance in the twilight years of King David’s life: a young woman, she cherishes and serves the dying King, whose enfeebled condition - lying in bed, unable to get warm, and surely close to death - contrasts with the beauty and energy of the youthful virgin. Somewhat passively (and no doubt with considerable horror), Abishag finds herself caught up in the royal politics concerning succession. The heir-apparent to the throne, Adonijah, David’s eldest remaining son after the deaths of Absalom and Amnon, inappropriately attempts to seize power from the weakened King, and is ultimately passed over in favour of the younger Solomon. After Solomon’s accession, a smarting Adonijah asks for Abishag’s hand in marriage. Bathsheba, the Queen Mother, intercedes for him with the King, but Solomon responds by having Adonijah put to death. 

At first glance, we might feel rather sorry for Adonijah. Abishag is, after all, a woman whose beauty is renowned throughout the land, and it seems quite natural that Adonijah - who has lost his inheritance - would want her hand in marriage. The earlier story of Absalom’s rebellion (2 Samuel 16:21-22), however, reveals the true nature of Adonijah’s request: the ‘possession’ of the royal harem was an oblique claim to the Davidic throne, and thus an act of treason against Solomon, and of blasphemy against the will of God expressed through the prophet Nathan. It is interesting to speculate why Bathsheba was apparently willing to make intercession for Adonijah, despite the insult it implied to her son the King. One theory could suggest tension in the royal harem between the Queen Mother Bathsheba and Haggith, the mother of Adonijah. Haggith too would have lost considerable status as a result of her son’s folly. There is, however, no evidence within the text that Haggith is involved in any way in Adonijah’s rather inept political manoeuvring. 

Abishag’s story is written in few words, but it is easy to imagine that she would have been a very significant figure in the last days of David’s reign. Conscious of this, some readers have sought to extend her role beyond where she is explicitly mentioned, finding her as the one beloved by Solomon in the Song of Songs (1:5, 6:13). The story of a May-December romance, of a beautiful young woman caught up in the politics of an Ancient monarchy, ending in the death of her hapless suitor, has of course excited writers of fiction over the centuries. Perhaps we can even see a reflection of Abishag, the jilted virginal bride, in Miss Havisham of Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations. These fictional expansions should not be allowed to detract, however, from the very human and personal relationship that Abishag shared with David. Perhaps what makes her most extraordinary is also that which makes her profoundly ordinary: that she loves, that she cherishes and that she serves a fellow human being in his time of profound need. We do not have to look to the ancient world to see such extraordinary lives of heroic charity: a brief glance around the pews of our Churches will no doubt reveal many such ‘hidden’ saints.

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Monday, August 27, 2012

Women of the Old Testament: Bathsheba

Bathsheba ('daughter of the oath') is one of only five women to be mentioned, albeit indirectly as 'the wife of Uriah', in St Matthew's genealogy of Jesus (Mt 1:6). As a wife of King David and mother of King Solomon, Bathsheba is a direct ancestor of Our Lord. She thus holds a unique place in Israel's history, which is the history of our salvation. The story of David and Bathsheba teaches us about the importance of right conduct, how the Lord is displeased with sin, and how we suffer as a result of our own sin and folly.


Yet Bathsheba, in the Old Testament as in the Gospel genealogy, seems to have a largely indirect role and could easily be overlooked as a passive victim. Her story is principally related in 2 Samuel 11 and is not a happy episode. King David is lazing at the palace, instead of leading his soldiers in the war against the Ammonites, when he spies from his roof a very beautiful woman bathing. He lusts after her, despite learning that she is Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah the Hittite, a brave and loyal soldier. David nevertheless calls her, seduces (or rapes) her, and she becomes pregnant. David is unable to cover up his adultery, since Uriah honourably refuses to lie with his wife during the campaign season, and the king resorts to murder: he ensures that Uriah is placed in the front of the battle line, and thus gets him killed (2 Sam. 11:14-17). Finally, David takes Bathsheba as (another) wife.


But David's wicked actions displease the Lord, who is the God of righteousness. Nathan the prophet speaks God's word of rebuke to David, and the king is full of remorse. This is the moment immortalised in the soulful words of Psalm 50 (51), the Miserere Mei, famously set to the beautiful music of Allegri (video below), as David acknowledges his sin before God and begs for forgiveness. Although this repentance is met with God's forgiveness, David has already set in motion a chain of events that will overtake him. Having raised the sword against Uriah, David receives Nathan's prophecy: 'therefore the sword shall never depart from your house, because you have despised Me, and have taken the wife of Uriah the Hittite to be your wife' (2 Sam 12:10). David now becomes the victim in the story - the victim of his own sin. His child from the adulterous relationship with Bathsheba dies. Later one of his own sons, Absalom, will indeed raise the sword against him, in a conspiracy that leads to civil war (2 Sam. 15-20). Absalom even sleeps publicly with David's concubines to shame him, as he had shamed Bathsheba and Uriah (2 Sam. 16:22).


It is David who plays the central role in all of this; Bathsheba is but a victim on the sidelines. Although we're not told whether she refuses and rebukes David, as the lust of Amnon is explicitly refused by his sister Tamar (2 Sam. 13:12-14), we can probably assume that Bathsheba is as blameless as Tamar, as much an upright woman as her husband, Uriah, is an upright man.

It is only in David's old age that Bathsheba seems to come into her own. She had given birth to four other sons - Solomon, Shammua, Shobab and Nathan - and now she takes the initiative to secure Solomon's accession to the throne (1 Kg 1:11-31). Bathsheba's evident resolve and faithful commitment, as both wife and mother, indicate that throughout these narratives she maintains her dignity and uprightness. As a result, she truly deserves her place in Our Lord's genealogy.




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Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Women of the Old Testament: Hannah


The story of Hannah, found in the first book of Samuel, is both moving and inspiring. The wife of Elkanah, Hannah is forced to endure the humiliation of being unable to bear him a child. Added to this shame, Hannah also has to endure the ridicule of Peninnah, Elkanah’s other wife, with whom he has had children. “So it went on year after year; as often as she went up to the house of the Lord, she used to provoke her.” (1 Samuel 1:7) Yet Elkanah would seem to have been a good and loving husband; he said to her, “Hannah why do you weep? And why do you not eat? And why is your heart sad? Am I not more to you than ten sons?”


On one of their yearly visits to the Sanctuary at Shiloh, Hannah went to the Temple and poured out her heart silently to God.  She did so with great emotion; so much so that Eli the High Priest thought that she may be drunk and questioned her. When he realised she was in earnest he left her saying that her prayer would be answered; “Go in peace, and the God of Israel grant your petition which you have made to him.” (1 Samuel 1:17) Her prayer, indeed her vow, was that she be granted a son and in return she would offer that child for service in the temple when it was weaned. We see in this vow, not only Hannah’s great faith in God, but also her selflessness. If God were to make her the gift of a child then she would make God the gift of that child’s service for life.

God does indeed grant her the gift of a child, whom she names Samuel, or son of God; a fitting reward for her faith, patience and perseverance in prayer. We understand from the Law in Leviticus that Hannah could have fulfilled her vow, upon reflection, by offering money for the support of the priests and the Temple at Shiloh. Indeed, she could have done less as her pledge was known only to God and her husband. However, Hannah with the support of Elkanah, honours her pledge literally and presents Samuel to Eli after weaning. “For this child I prayed; and the Lord has granted me my petition which I made to him. Therefore I have lent him to the Lord; as long as he lives. He is lent to the Lord.” (1 Samuel 1:27-28)

But Hannah’s blessing did not cease there. God was to bless her further by giving her three more sons and two daughters. But perhaps the greatest blessing was to see Samuel ‘grow in the presence of the Lord’ and to become the last of Israel’s judges, a great prophet, and wise counsellor to its first two Kings, Saul and David.

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Friday, August 17, 2012

Women of the Old Testament: Ruth

Thus far Godzdogz's series on the women of the Old Testament has often had cause to draw attention to the courage and leadership shown by the women of Israel in furthering God's plan of salvation. These virtues are once again on show in the book of Ruth, yet it is striking that they are conditioned and to a certain extent distorted by the context of extreme vulnerability in which they are manifested. A famine drives Elimelech, his wife Naomi, and his two sons from their home in Bethlehem into the plains of Moab - beyond the Promised Land. Here the family settles, and Elimelech dies. His sons,  by now married to Moabite women, die ten years later leaving their mother Naomi and their wives Ruth and Orphah as unprotected widows. Alone and isolated, Naomi decides to return to Judah and gives her daughters in law leave to return to their families. Orpah departs, but Ruth refuses to abandon Naomi declaring: 'Your people will be my people and your God will be my God' (Ruth 1:16). Ruth the Moabitess refuses the security that a return to her own family would offer and risks becoming an unprotected and unsupported young women in a foreign land, all so she might herself support the now-elderly Naomi. 

Ruth and Naomi return to Bethlehem (which means 'house of bread') just as the barley harvest it beginning. Ruth goes out to scavenge for ears of corn, hoping that 'some man might look kindly' on her (2:2). By chance she chooses the field of Boaz, a kinsman of Elimelech and one who has a right of redemption over the land of Elimelech and Ruth as the widow of Elimelech's son. Boaz allows Ruth to take what she needs from the field, offers Ruth food and water, and orders his men not to molest her because he has heard of Ruth's kindness to Naomi. Ruth therefore works in Boaz's field until the end of the harvest. When all the work is finally finished Ruth hides, at her mother in law's instruction, until a 'happy' Boaz has finished eating and drinking and has gone to lie down. There, in what is something of a euphemism in ancient Hebrew, Ruth 'turned back the covering of his [Boaz's] feet' and lay down with him (3:4).

In a highly patriarchal society, Ruth needs the assistance of men if she is to provide for her own needs and the needs of Naomi. As a foreigner in Judah, she did not have the family connections that might have mitigated this vulnerability.  She must gain a husband, she must marry into the people People of God if she is to survive. She therefore chooses to risk her reputation and her dignity by offering herself to Boaz. If Boaz had taken advantage of her desperation and made it known, the consequences could have been disasterous for Ruth. Instead, Boaz acts justly. The nexts morning he moves quickly to claim his right to redeem Elimelech's land and marry Ruth after a kinsman with a prior claim  renounces this right on the grounds that it would threaten his own inheritance. The fact that another man was offered Ruth and did not take her for financial reasons suggests that marrying Ruth involved some sacrifice for Boaz, and gives us some idea of the risk Ruth ran when she came to him. Nevertheless, with all legal obstacles removed Boaz takes Ruth as his wife and she bears him a son who was named Obed. This boy would grow up to be the father of Jesse, and Jesse would become the father of King David.

The book of Ruth offers, then, a rich commentary on the difficulties that surround doing what is right in a  world twisted by ethnic, economic and gender inequality. Yet when we view this book in the context of the whole canon of scripture, a deeper significance emerges. Matthew's gospel includes Boaz and Ruth in the genealogy of Christ himself. Even in the midst, then, of the moral ambiguities and struggles that arise in situations that have been complicated by sin, God is still able to further his plan of salvation. Ruth the Moabitess, the pagan, in desperation married Boaz and became a member of God's people at least partly through a kind of sexual coercion. She herself would no doubt have admitted that this is not the ideal way to go about finding a husband, yet God used this marriage to prepare his people for the coming of his Son the bridegroom. For Ruth, entry into the people of God was fraught with risk and humiliation. For us it is a gift, the fruit of Christ's marriage to the Church. Ruth had to stoop low to enter the promise, we must not ask the vulnerable of our own society to do the same. 


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Wednesday, August 15, 2012

15th August - The Assumption of Our Lady

Readings: Apoc 11: 19a, 12: 1-6a, 10ab; Ps 45; 1 Cor 15: 20-27; Lk 1: 39-56


What is the significance of the event we celebrate in today's feast, the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary? Well, starting with perhaps the most obvious, Our Lady, by an exceptional privilege, has been assumed body and soul into heavenly glory. This fact in itself is a cause for celebration – it is a natural and good human reaction to delight in another’s good, and this truly unique gift which has been bestowed on Our Lady is no exception.


But it’s not just the fact that Mary is in heaven, body and soul, but the way in which she came to be in this state. For we do not celebrate her Assumption as the achievement of some kind of individual struggle, but as God’s gift, the culmination of that fullness of his grace by which she was preserved from every stain of sin, and so fitted to be the first to receive in its fullness the reward won for us by the death and resurrection of Jesus, the Word of God whom she bore.

Thus, then, the Assumption of Our Lady is also a sign for us Christians, who, though not to the same degree, have been given a share in God’s grace. By assuming Mary into heaven, God not only gives us cause to celebrate her special place in the history of our salvation, but reminds us of what that salvation in Christ ultimately aims towards – eternal life in him, united with Our Lady and all the Saints.

As we rejoice in this great privilege which was granted to Our Lady, then, let us seek her prayers that we too, and all our loved ones, may at the last be raised, by the death and resurrection of Christ her Son, to the glory of heaven.

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Monday, August 13, 2012

Naomi - widow and match-maker

Naomi is a major character in the Book of Ruth. This short book is an endearingly told account of how Ruth, a Moabite woman and widow of a Jew (Naomi’s son Mahlon) commits herself to the Jew Naomi, helps to provide for Naomi and finds a Jewish husband, Boaz, who thus provides for her and continues the family line of Naomi as well as his own. It is a finely constructed story, and has a higher dialogue-to-descriptive-action ratio than any other historical book in the Old Testament. All this helps to give us a sense of human realism and a more developed sense of the main characters (Naomi, Ruth and Boaz) than in many other texts. Lots of theological issues are thrown up in the narrative, showing it to be rich and subtly suggestive religious text, not just a romantic novella. The developments in Naomi’s life are inextricably bound up with the actions of Ruth (see next blog post) and Boaz, so it is artificial to look at her in isolation, but I will attempt some comments.

Naomi moves from a perceived situation of being judged negatively by God to being seen as blessed. She sees herself as judged negatively, ie punished, by God: she left for Moab due to a famine with a husband and two sons and came back with none of them (1:20-21). Such a view expresses a conventional Old Testament interpretation of suffering, but not the only one. We are not told the cause of her guilt unless it perhaps consists in going to Moab and marrying her children to Moabite (not Jewish) women (See Dt 23:3). She had proposed a change in name: she should now be called ‘Mara’ meaning ‘bitterness’ rather than Naomi which means ‘my sweetness’. When Ruth and Boaz, blessed by God (4:13), have a child (Obed), and Naomi cares for him, the village women see her as blessed by God (4:15). In a way she can now be renamed Naomi.

However, it is not really her own religious uprightness or moral standing that is instrumental in bringing about this transformation, but rather that first of Ruth (in choosing YHWH as her God out of loyalty to Naomi) and then of Boaz. Naomi has a part of play but she acts at a rather more practical and pragmatic level – and on occasion in what could be called a worldly manner in its negative sense. Certainly she shows concern for Ruth but this is at a human level, and not seemingly motivated by spiritual aspirations, let alone by consistent religious and moral orthodoxy. This can be illustrated from aspects of the story.


Naomi tries to persuade her widowed daughters-in-law to go back to their own people and by implication their gods – if she hopes that YHWH will bless them - in order to find new husbands (1:9-17). Naomi, then, has not despaired of God blessing others, but she does not think God will bless her. She feels a certain hopelessness and helplessness that Ruth seeks to put aside. It is Ruth, not Naomi, who suggests working in the fields of Boaz (2:2) to provide for them both. Naomi does care about Ruth but at a practical level – and arguably at risk to her religious integrity. She know how insecure life can be for a woman especially an unmarried one. She is happy to make use of religious laws to help Ruth in this regard (The situation as it plays out seems to combine aspects of Levirate Law and the role of a family redeemer of property but not in the detailed forms codified in Old Testament texts (Dt 25:5-10 and Lev 25:23-25 respectively). But she combines this with an exploitation of sexual arousal that goes beyond the religious moral convention of the day. She is clearly not convinced that Boaz has yet shown sufficient interest or action towards Ruth. Her instruction is that Ruth makes herself sexually available to him. Naomi tells Ruth to wash and perfume herself but hide her identity, to then wait for Boaz to have had a good deal to drink and then, in effect, to get into his bed, if at the bottom of it (3:3-4). This is highly sexually provocative – even if it may suggest other contractual possibilities about redemption. One may seek to avoid this interpretation but that is to be prudish. (It also has similarities with the story of Judah and Tamar (Gen 38) to some extent.) Ruth goes along with this, raising a question about her own integrity. Boaz is explicit about acting with due moral decorum. The fact that she leaves early in the morning (3:14), only highlights that all know that the action is liable to start rumours, or worse. Nonetheless this night encounter does stir Boaz to take the legal action that leads to his marriage to Ruth. It is quite possible that it is a conviction about the strength of sexual desire, which Naomi now presumably thinks is aroused in Boaz, that leads Naomi to assure Ruth, when she comes home, that Boaz will speedily resolve the matter and marry her (3:18). In fact, Boaz, seems, to show restraint and act with high levels of integrity if also legal cunning.

Naomi then is an ambiguous character. She has a certain warmth and evokes good reactions from those around her. She lives in a religious world, and makes use of its provisions for securing marriage and property. But she lacks a certain religious zeal. At the same time she engages in a very sexually provocative, and religiously and morally questionable, form of match-making. In this way she tries to take religious matters into her own hands. But at the same time she has accepted God’s judgement on her. Her religious attitudes and piety are far from unambiguous. How much does that matter? Perhaps there was sufficient sincerity in this that God was able to ‘redeem her’, working amidst the rather more dubious aspects of her conduct, to bring out a good outcome, one in which she herself is blessed as well. Or did God bless her for other reasons? How do we interpret the many mixed religious and profane motives we find around us, and even in our own hearts and lives?

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Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Solemnity of Our Holy Father St Dominic

We Dominicans have not always been very good at promoting devotion to Our Holy Father St Dominic: that’s why our constitutions explicitly remind the brethren of our duty to foster a deeper appreciation of St Dominic’s life and ministry. Even at his birthplace in Caleruega, it feels like there is greater devotion to his mother, Blessed Jane of Aza, than there is to St Dominic, whose legacy as a preacher and founder of a religious order has left a deep impression on the history and intellectual culture of Europe. There is, however, something appropriate about this: St Dominic was, above all, a preacher and the life of good Christian preachers consists largely in learning to point away from themselves, so as to become translucent to the light of Christ’s truth, and repeat John the Baptist’s “He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3:30) in each successive era. So it is that St Dominic, the founder of the Order of Preachers, never draws attention to himself, but - as his early biographers observed - lived an entirely God-centred life, speaking only to God or about God. 

In Segovia too, the cave in which St Dominic devoted himself to prayer and penitential exercises is now hidden in the middle of a modern campus university. Although Dominic probably wouldn’t recognise the modern academy, his motley band of sons - who have continued century after century to follow in his footsteps - have contributed much to the development of the university system. The presence of the cueva, a place of prayer and penance, at the heart of the University in Segovia is a reminder, however, that for Dominicans, study is always understood as a spiritual and an ascetic discipline. It may seem that the cave is the grit around which the pearl of the University develops, but in fact our study is the grit, and our preaching the pearl. Thus for Dominic study was not an end in itself, nor was it primarily about amassing facts, gaining advanced qualifications, or becoming learned, but rather about discerning the voice of God, speaking primarily through the Scriptures and Tradition of the Church, but also in - and to - our culture. This listening, because it is a listening to the voice of God, is one that demands obedience, an obedience which sends forth the listener for preaching and teaching. Throughout Dominic’s life, and the life of the brothers gathered around him, listening and preaching always go together: Dominicans preach as listeners, and listen as preachers, for no man is sent as an apostle without having first been called as a disciple. 

From the outside, I expect that from time-to-time it seems like St Dominic has been eclipsed by the Order he founded. Sometimes, I suspect, it seems like we talk about our brother St Thomas Aquinas more than we do about our father St Dominic. Even during his own lifetime, Dominic’s vision that lay brothers should assume the burdens of leadership, in order to free the ordained for preaching, was rejected by his brothers meeting in General Chapter, a decision which Dominic accepted in humility. I suspect many subsequent Dominican superiors will have tasted such ‘defeat’ at the hands of the brothers, but this isn’t really a defeat at all, since our way of life commits us to discerning the will of God as a community of brothers. What Dominic bequeathed to the Order, and which we must never lose, is the sense of the radical urgency of our task. The type of urgency with which one puts water on a burning building is the type of urgency with which the sons of St Dominic approach this task of prayerful preaching: it is the single priority of our lives, and it is in following Christ in the task of proclaiming his Good News that we - like St Dominic - find our essential identity.

This sense of urgency does not derive from an obsession with doctrinal purity. Rather, St Dominic saw with great acuity that the world in which we live is the very world in which we encounter God, and that it is this simple principle that is so often threatened. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is not an event in the same order as the resurrection of Lazarus: Christ does not return to the same old unchanged creation, but to a new and transfigured one, shot through with new possibility. No matter what new and innovative ways we find to scourge our world with the sins of violence and hatred, these can be healed and corrected by a faithful preaching of the Gospel. This Good News that we proclaim is not an abstract truth, but one that has brought us freedom, and a gift that we share with our brothers and the world, “that our joy may be complete” (Jn 15:11). Thus, like St Dominic, our lives together should be lives of joy and laughter. Ours is not the cheap laughter of the drunkard, but the costly laughter, purchased for us by Christ’s passion and given freely to us, the laughter of those intoxicated by the sharing of God’s word, and thus of a joy that is born of authentic hope, itself born of faith in the gospel. 

So, while there are very few people who espouse the strange doctrines of the Manicheans that Dominic dedicated his life to preaching against in the South of France, there are plenty who follow them in denying the possibility of God’s presence in the world. Many of our fellow countrymen stand on one of two metaphorical beaches: either they stand with Matthew Arnold on Dover Beach, watching the tide of faith apparently recede, or they stand with the Manic Street Preachers on Porthmadog Sands, singing ‘this is my truth, tell me yours’. At the heart of both these positions - the modern and the postmodern - there is a rejection of the presence of God and his Truth in the world. Supported by the prayers of Our Holy Father, then, may we be faithful in our task of preaching, pointing out the presence of God in our midst, that - in the word of Francis Thomas’ poem - Jacob’s ladder is pitched “betwixt heaven and Charing Cross”, and “Lo! Christ walks upon the water, not of Genesareth but Thames”.

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Monday, August 06, 2012

Feast of the Transfiguration

Terror is truly a natural, human response to the Transfiguration. Peter, James and John are confronted with the blinding glory of Jesus's divinity and they can hardly bear it. Perhaps they recalled Daniel's vision of the Ancient of Days, that fiery majesty, that awesome glory (Dan. 7). Even 'the mountains melt like wax before the Lord' (Ps. 97:5), so how could human frailty fare any better? But we may also wonder, since the truth is that God loves us, and 'perfect love casts out fear' (1 Jn 4:18), whether fear is ever an appropriate reaction to God's presence among us? 
File:Transfiguration by Lodovico Carracci.jpgI explored these themes of fear and truth at the Transfiguration with the 7-11-year-olds of the Blackfriars Family Mass earlier this year, by talking about boggarts. If you've read Harry Potter, you'll know boggarts are malevolent shapeshifters which adopt the appearance of whatever you most fear (a giant spider, a mother-in-law, etc.). We are all so full of fears that the boggart is really spoilt for choice. We fear things in our environment, things that could happen to us or our loved ones (losing our job, falling ill, or worse), and other people who can hurt us. Perhaps most of all, we fear ourselves, with all our frailties and failures. We fear that, deep down, we are not as good as we'd like to imagine. We fear we have a corrupt core. We fear, in short, that our own transfiguration would show us monsters. The boggart, however, has no core, no 'deep down' at all, only a superficial power of illusion. It is easily dismissed when its ridiculous, hollow reality is laughed away. It is truth, like love, that casts out fear. 

The Transfiguration is, of course, a moment of truth, a revelation that the glory of God the Father belongs to Jesus even as a mortal man on earth. Outshining Moses and Elijah, who represent the Law and Prophets, the radiant Jesus provides a miraculous foretaste of his heavenly glory. So, as St Thomas emphasises (ST 3.45.2), this is a moment of utter clarity. Jesus shows his disciples (and us) that the road to the Cross will end in glorious triumph. He wants their fear (and ours) to give way to joy. 'Arise, and be not afraid.' (Matt. 17:7) 

Let's be clear: Jesus's humanity is in no way obliterated by his divinity, but the two natures are perfectly united in the one person. As St Irenaeus says, 'The glory of God is a human being fully alive.'

Let's be clear: deep down we are good people, lovingly created by God to praise his majesty and enjoy his precious gift of life. We all fall short of his glory (Rom. 3:23) but our sins are forgiven in Christ and he wants us to share in his divine glory too (2 Cor. 3:18; Phil. 3:21). So, we have no reason to fear ourselves.

Let's be clear, too, that it is only through faith that we can face the truth and overcome out fears. St Peter, when his fear turns to faith after the Resurrection of Jesus, preaches 'the prophetic message that is altogether reliable' (2 Pet. 1:19). In good faith, Peter had earlier recognised the present gulf between his imperfection and God's perfection: 'Lord, depart from me, a sinner' (Luke 5:8). But it is also faith that enables Peter to say, despite his fears, 'Rabbi, it is good for us to be here.' Even if, like Peter, we do not quite overcome all our fears, let us still count on that same faith to carry us through to glory.

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Thursday, August 02, 2012

Women of OT: Delilah



The history of Samson and Delilah has fascinated readers throughout the ages. Peter Paul Rubens found the motif of Samson lying in Delilah's arms worth  spending twelve months finishing a painting.

In this picture, the atmosphere in the room contains all that we feel when we hear about the deceitful intentions of Delilah, as, having failed three times, she finally discovers the secret of Samson's strength. By cutting off his hair, the Philistines are free to do with him as they like. What happened to Delilah afterwards the story does not tell. We only know that what seems to start out as passionate love story - possibly with mixed motives - ends up with Samson being blinded, tortured and put to a slave's work before the grande finale when he tears down the columns of the temple, resulting in the death of 3,000 men and women. From this perspective, Samson is the good guy, falling for the conspiration executed by Dalilah and her fellow people. This is what Neil Sedaka sang about in the sixties, when he composed the hit Run Samson, Run:

Oh Delilah made Sammie's life a sin
And he perished, when the roof fell in
There's a moral, so listen to me pal
There's a little of Delilah in each and every gal

Neil Sedaka makes it sound so simple, so straight forward. Delilah is the femme fatale who through seduction and betrayal becomes responsible for Samson's death. But the story suffers from some logical weaknesses that forces us to pose some embarrassing questions.

Dalilah tries repeatedly to uncover the secret of Samson's strength. And every time he has given her an answer, she follow the instructions and then tests out his strength in order to see if he has revealed the truth. Was Samson so naive that he did not know what was at stake? Of course Samson is aware of what is going on. He has many enemies. Giving up the secret of his strength is surely risking his own life. Why should Delilah want to know from where Samson had got his strength? Her question to Samson even says explicitly that she wants to know how he may be bound in order to be controlled (16.6). And why does Samson finally reveal the secret? He must have known that by revealing the secret he is risking it all? He has been cheated before, when his first wife told the men of her people the answer to the enigma about the lion and the honey (14.10-20).

The story of Samson and Delilah is not a story of an honest (but incredibly stupid) man and a wicked woman. It is more a story of a game where passion, sex, power and control is the key motivation. In the book 'Sacred Witness - Rape in the Hebrew Bible', Susanne Scholz cites Lori Rowlett' view that the story of Samson and Delilah is a tale of bondage and degradation. Samson is playing with fire, knowing that the game with Delilah might become deadly. We find ourselves face to face with some of the darkest forces that live in us human beings. Because as the human nature carries within it an almost limitless will to live, it also consist of a hidden side, a death wish that might be suppressed but rarely not totally removed. The story of the relation ship between Delilah and Samson is a reminder of forces sometimes life-threatening, sometimes beyond our control. It is these same forces that Lars Von Trier wanted to expose in his theatrical movie Antichrist. Interpreting the Biblical story about Samson and Delilah in this way brings the human reality to the surface. Not always pleasant. Not always calming and comforting. But it certainly gives an ever valid presentation of the forces that lives in us, sometimes strengthening us, sometimes threatening us.

As for Neil Sedaka, I think he should have added another last verse in his song, making the story of Samson and Delilah complete:

Oh Samson felt tempted by a dark desire
At the sight of Delilah his blood went on fire
So listen to the truth my friend, and don't be shy
There's a little bit of Samson in every guy.

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