Unfaithful Partners and the Birth of Jesus: 17th March 2021

Numbers 5:11-6:27

In today’s Old Testament reading, there is an unusual ceremony to check if a wife has been unfaithful to her husband. It requires a couple of ‘ingredients’. In 5:17, there is the first mention of ‘holy water’. Holy water is a common sacramental still used today in every Catholic church (https://www.catholicsacramentals.org/holy-water) and this passage is demonstrates that not only is its use biblical but also that it has important properties. Exorcists and saints, such as Theresa of Avila, have repeatedly demonstrated that demons detest holy water (water that has been blessed / exorcised by a prayer) and demons can tell when priests have forgotten to bless the water (MacNutt, 246-247, 2006). People have ‘checked the power of blessed oil, salt and water, comparing them to the elements that have not been blessed. The evil spirits can tell the difference‘. The same effect can be demonstrated with blessed objects. Exorcists have noted that people who are possessed will try to avoid a certain chair or react strongly to it if a blessed object – such as a medal – has been inserted into the chair cushion.

The rite of blessing said over water by a priest to make it holy contains prayers of exorcism. It can banish demons, heal the sick, and send unwarranted grace upon us—yet most of the time we cross ourselves with this water without even thinking about how holy it really is‘ (https://www.catholiccompany.com/magazine/8-ways-to-use-holy-water-5699).

The second element needed for the ‘unfaithful wife test‘ is ‘dust from the tabernacle floor‘, which no-one can obtain since the destruction of the temple in AD 70.

In verse 24, the mixture of holy water and tabernacle dust (‘the bitter water’) is drunk by the poor wife under suspicion and it ‘brings a curse‘, which can either convict or clear her of guilt. If we were to just read the New Testament, we might forget that the Israelite priests did have some real spiritual authority. In the New Testament, we see them trying to plot against Jesus and eventually engineer his death. We aren’t reminded of their heritage and the important role they played in shepherding the Israelites and settling disputes.

Chapter 6 lists the rules for people who want to make a special vow to the Lord, and temporarily become a ‘Nazirite’. A Nazirite is banned from drinking wine or any other fermented drink. They can’t eat any form of grapes, even raisins, go near a dead body and must not cut their hair. Their long hair is dedicated to the Lord and at the end of a period of separation, once their vow is successfully completed, their hair is cut off and burnt.

In Acts 18:18 Saint Paul ‘had his hair cut off at Cenchreae because of a vow he had taken’. It’s interesting that hair has some special sacrificial significance and can indicate a period of intense devotion to God. Samson was a Nazirite dedicated to God from his mother’s womb but the Lord left him after Delilah treacherously had his hair shaved off (Judges 13-16). Several people I know have ceremonially cut off their hair and sent it to a wig-making charity such as The Little Princess Trust (https://www.littleprincesses.org.uk/). For these kind donors, it was a generous act of charity sometimes prior to starting cancer treatment – perhaps asking for God’s blessing and healing to come upon them – or marked a special turning point in their lives.

In 6:22-26, the Lord tells Moses how the priests should bless the Israelites. The blessing are beautiful and still relevant today. I find it is always a difficult decision how to sign off an email. If I write ‘Regards’ it seems a bit harsh. I am not a great fan of the softer ‘Kind Regards’. I think I will select one of these wonderful phrases in the future to finish off my emails:

May ‘the Lord bless you and keep you’ (v.24)

May ‘the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you (v.25)

May ‘the Lord turn his face towards you and give you peace’ (v.26).

Of course, if we were to do this while working for a company with an evil HR department, it may want to discipline us for ‘forcing’ religion onto people. It would be an interesting industrial tribunal if we were to be disciplined for blessing our workmates.

Luke 2:1-20

Today, we read about the birth of Jesus which feels slightly strange on March 17th (Saint Patrick’s day).

Joseph and Mary travelled to Bethlehem to the town of David for a census. The Romans seem uncharacteristically disorganised by making everyone travel to different towns. They could have quite easily interviewed Joseph in Nazareth, where he lived, and ticked a box to say where his family had originated from. I have to fill in a census form this weekend and I don’t have to travel to Bolton (where my father comes from) to do it. It will all be online and mainly comprise of multiple questions about my sexual orientation and exactly how much Welsh I can understand. However, God has pre-planned this census to exactly coincide with Jesus’ birth. To fulfil yet another Old Testament prophecy, Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem, ‘But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times’ (Micah 5:2).

Mary gave birth to Jesus while she was ‘pledged to be married’ (v.5) to Joseph. Mary was an unmarried, teenage mum. Jesus was wrapped in cloths and placed in a manger. Western nativity scenes typically have this manger located in a stable – a small agricultural shed. The Eastern tradition is that Jesus was born in a small cave in the town, over which the Church of the Nativity is now located. (https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1433/#:~:text=Documents-,Birthplace%20of%20Jesus%3A%20Church%20of%20the%20Nativity%20and%20the%20Pilgrimage,Jesus%20since%20the%202nd%20century).

We know from Exodus 1:15-19 that some Hebrew women were midwifes. We would have expected Mary, particularly as a very young mother, to have been attended to during her birth. However, Luke 2:7 says Mary ‘gave birth to her firstborn‘ and she ‘wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger‘ implying that she did this all by herself. The non-canonical ‘The Protoevangelium of James‘ mentions midwives. They turned up too late for the birth because Mary would have delivered Jesus remarkably easily by herself – as she had been conceived free from original sin and thus had not inherited the curse of painful labour that God had given to all other women following Eve’s disobedience (Genesis 3:16) (https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/was-mary-free-from-labor-pain). One of the midwives has traditionally been identified as Salome, who (as Mary Salome) is believed to be one of the three daughters of Anne and Joachim (Jesus’ grandparents on Mary’s side). All three of their daughters were confusingly called Mary. Salome is also often identified as the wife of Zebedee, the mother of the apostles James and John.

According to the non-canonical legend, Salome had her hand withered by God after having the temerity to question (and check) the other midwife’s observation that Mary’s virginity had remained intact during and after the birth. Salome was then told to hold baby Jesus with her withered hand and was miraculously healed. It would make perfect sense if Salome was the elder sister of Mary because the most likely person to disrespect someone to this extent is a close member of their own family. This same Salome, the ‘believing midwife’ in medieval art, then follows Jesus as a disciple throughout his adult ministry and touchingly brings spices to his tomb intending to anoint his dead body (Mark 16:1). She had remained dedicated to Jesus for the whole of his life. However, ‘The Protoevangelium of James‘ has always been condemned by the church and so we can’t rely on any of it. Presumably no-one wants to officially promote this gynaecological version of the story of doubting Thomas (John 20:24-29).

Some pastors make a big point out of verse 7: ‘there was no room for them in the inn‘. Jesus wasn’t laid in a manger because his parents were poor. They probably had enough money to stay in the inn. However, the inn was full due to the census. There were no hotel booking websites or telephones in those days. It was first come, first accommodated. However, this does not mean that Joseph and Mary were rich or even well-off. Joseph was a carpenter. Mary was unemployed and so they had as much money as an honest elderly carpenter bringing in a single wage. God would have made sure they had all their needs and after the Magi (Wise Men) gave them gold, frankincense and myrrh they had enough funds for a long sojourn in Egypt.

The shepherds visited baby Jesus after angels told them about his birth. The shepherd were outsiders ‘living out in the fields near by’ (v.8). The town would have been in busy uproar with everyone turning up for the census and so it is wonderful that people living on the outskirts of society, in the relatively quiet and peaceful fields were included in the celebration. The people in the town were probably so tied up with their own lives, recovering from their journeys to Bethlehem and fighting to get a meal and some wine at the packed inn, they wouldn’t have given our saviour’s birth the respect and wonder it deserved.

I love verse 19, ‘ Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart‘. I love to ponder (to think and to meditate about things carefully) and this blog is an outpouring of my daily pondering. Please join my pondering club and join me in ruminating on the wonderful things in the Word of God.

Proverbs 7:6-20

The temptations of the adulteress. She tempts ‘one who lacks judgement‘ (v.7). Their nefarious liaison takes place ‘as the dark of the night set(s) in‘ (v.9). She is ‘dressed like a prostitute‘ is ‘loud and defiant’ and has ‘crafty intent‘ (v.10). She has a ‘brazen face‘ (v.13). She seduces the one who lacks judgement, while her husband is away on a long journey, ‘let’s enjoy ourselves with love‘, but, as it takes two to tango, they are both as guilty as each other.

Verse 14 shows the hypocrisy of the situation, ‘I have fellowship offerings at home; today I have fulfilled my vows‘. How many times have we come out of church, having had our sins forgiven by God, and almost immediately started to sin again. The lady in this reading was planning to sin even while fulfilling her holy vows (v.14). We can’t expect God to pay any attention to our prayers if we are plotting serious sin in our hearts. As a Catholic. I have heard the devil whispering to me, ‘Plan to go to confession next Saturday and then it doesn’t matter if you fit in a few sins beforehand. It will make it more worthwhile‘. Shocking.

One wonders whether her husband is up to the same sort of shenanigans. ‘He took his purse filled with money’ (v.20). It’s a story of sexual misdeeds that still sounds current to our modern ears apart from the quite romantic, ‘I have perfumed my bed with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon’ (v.17). Today, this might read, ‘I have squirted my bed with ‘Nude’ by ‘Rihanna’ that was on offer by the checkout in the supermarket’.

God takes adultery incredibly seriously and Jesus stresses that we should not even look at others with lust in our minds let alone be dragged off to their scented bed chambers. We shouldn’t go out for a night on the town without our spouse. The best way to beat temptation is to avoid it. God will forgive us if we repent and renounce our behaviour but only if we say sorry out of our love for him and are truly repentant for having offended him.

References

Adoration of the sheperds - Matthias Stomer

The Angel Gabriel visits Mary: 14th March 2021

Numbers 1:1-2:9

At first glance, today’s Old Testament reading looks like a dull list of numbers we can scan through quickly before getting on with breakfast. However, there are a few interesting points.

A census is taking place of who can fight in the Israelite army and the total number of men comes to 603,550. This is a pretty impressive fighting force. We need to take a count sometimes of who can fight alongside us. At 06:00 this morning, my fighting force appeared to comprise of just me and my dog but later my wife joined me for breakfast to discuss today’s New Testament reading – which is outstanding. However, it is important that we Christians are always part of a vibrant church community. There can be no lone-rangers in Christianity. We all need back-up. Just as we should never be impertinent to a single police officer because they represent the entire law enforcement community and can call on backup from the army if necessary, I know that all my Pentecostal friends are there for me during any personal or spiritual crisis and, as I am also a member of the Catholic Church, I can call on thousands of my brethren all the way up to the Pope if needed. All practicing Christians, who are active members of a parish community, have an impressive army backing us up twenty-four hours a day.

It’s fascinating that the census of fighting men in Numbers 1 is God’s idea even though He would already precisely know how many fighting men there were. The data is for Moses’ information. However, later in 1 Chronicles 1: ‘Satan rose up against Israel and incited David to take a census of Israel‘ and David gets in major trouble with God as a result, culminating in 70,000 men falling dead with a plague. It’s a puzzle as to why carrying out the census in Numbers is ok but the later one is not. The first point is that we shouldn’t do anything that Satan incites us to do but it can be difficult to discern whether something was our idea or whether it came from an outside influence. The general consensus about why the census in Chronicles was a bad idea is that David was starting to rely on his own resources and power rather than God’s. He wanted to count his people so that he knew he could launch an attack on enemy forces and win – without needing to ask God for help. He wanted reassurance that he had enough assets to be independent from God. I often get the temptation to check how much money is in my pension fund – to see if there is enough for my whole retirement. However, I should just relax and know that God will make sure I have sufficient provision – as he has done for my entire life – when the time comes.

This passage is a handy list of the tribes of Israel. It’s a good mental challenge to try to memorise the names of the 12 tribes – just like trying to remember the names of the twelve apostles. I find the names of the 12 tribes somewhat elusive because there are still 12 names in this list of potential soldiers, even though the Levites are excluded (as they are going to look after the tabernacle rather than fight) which makes 13 tribes. How can this be when Jacob ‘only’ had 12 sons by 4 different women (sounds exhausting)? The answer, if you look closely, is that Joseph had two sons: Ephraim and Manasseh – and the descendants of these two are counted separately.

(v.51) states that anyone, other than a Levite, who goes near the tabernacle shall be put to death. This is a long way from being able to come into God’s presence today and address him as ‘Abba (Daddy), Father’ thanks to the sacrifice of Jesus.

Luke 1:26-28

This is the first time we hear about Mary in the Nativity story and what an amazing introduction it is.

Mary and I go back a long way. I was brought up as a typically slack Church of England Christian. My parents might have attended church twice a year at the most. My primary school was actually called St. Mary’s and I remember, at the age of seven, reading out Luke’s nativity story in the neighbouring St. Mary’s church as part of a carol concert. Even at this young age, I was impressed by the role of Mary and didn’t quite understand how throughout my entire Anglican school education little thought or reflection was dedicated to the Holy Family: Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus.

When I became a Catholic, there was a lot more attention given to Mary. I even found myself carrying a statue of her through the rainy streets of Holywell on a pilgrimage while a bystander with a megaphone shouted at us that we were all ‘idol worshippers’. I am not a big fan of huge statues and parading in public but the fact is that it is harmless. I think a proper parade in a devoutly Catholic country like Spain would be awesome. The simple fact is that Catholics, exactly like Protestants, worship God alone. They do not worship idols and they do not worship Mary. A statue or a painting of Mary is used in exactly the same way that we might refer to a photograph of a member of our family. It’s just a reminder of what they look like. None of us will worship the painting that advertises today’s blog.

Anglicans seem to warming up a little towards how incredible a disciple Mary was: ‘In the greatest and most decisive act of faith in history she offered herself to God as a clean page on which he could write what he wanted’ (Nicky Gumbel (153)).

There are several doctrines about Mary that need to be carefully considered. Having spent 40 years as an Anglican, 14 years as a Catholic and the last 2 years mixing with Pentecostals, here is my view:

God sent the angel Gabriel ‘to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph (Luke 1:27). Don’t be confused that this was going to be a normal kind of marriage, that they were going to settle down and have children, this was something completely different. When the gospel says the angel was sent ‘to a virgin’, Mary’s virginity wasn’t a temporary biological state. Being a virgin was her job! Her vocation was to be a virgin. In verse 34, after she is told she is to have a son Mary says ‘How will this be since I am a virgin?’ (v.34). This is her stating that her job is to be a professional virgin for ever. She is never going to have sexual relations with anyone ever. She was dedicated to God as a young child and is His bride already. Instead of punishing her, as the same angel punished Zechariah in yesterday’s reading for being impertinent, the angel could have said at this stage: ‘Good point!”.

Books like the non-canonical ‘The Protevangelium of James‘ give some tantalising glimpses into Mary’s infancy leading up to these events, with Mary being dedicated to God at the age of 3 by her parents and brought up in the temple, but as this book was condemned by Pope Innocent I in 405, we can’t take anything from it as the ‘gospel truth’ even though details like the names of Mary’s parents, Anne and Joachim, have been accepted by the church.

When discussing Mary’s perpetual virginity, many people point out that the Bible mentions that Jesus had ‘brothers’. However, these didn’t have to have come from Mary. The Eastern Church tradition is that Joseph was an old man when he agreed to be Mary’s guardian / ‘husband’ as she needed to be removed from her home in the the temple before she reached puberty. Joseph had already had children by a previous wife and was now a widower and so Jesus had older ‘step-half-brothers’, who had neither Mary as their mother nor the Holy Spirit as their father. The Roman church states that ‘James and Joseph’ are the sons of ‘the other Mary’ referred to in Matthew 28:1. Half-brothers and brothers are often rolled together in the Bible. For example, Joseph had 11 ‘brothers’ but only one of these, Benjamin, had the same mother as his. It doesn’t really matter. Even if Mary had become a normal wife and mother after having Jesus, any children she produced wouldn’t have had the Holy Spirit as their father and so they would have been half-brothers at best. We can all agree to disagree, but I know that if was a very old man and had witnessed my very young wife give birth to the son of God, with angels and visits from the Magi – I would want to just be her friend and protector.

It is difficult not to be slightly irritated by modern translations of Luke 1:28. I long to see the traditional ‘Douay-Rheims’ version from Saint Jerome’s fourth century Latin translation: ‘Hail Mary, full of grace‘. Virtually every modern Bible switches to a variety of ‘highly favoured’. Even my Catholic Bible has ‘Rejoice, you who enjoy God’s favour‘ which is horrible in comparison. There is a hymn called ‘The Angel Gabriel from heaven came‘ which has the final lines: ‘Most highly favoured lady! Gloria!‘. A priest gleefully pointed out that many people sing: ‘Most highly flavoured gravy‘, which I can never un-hear. I am sorry if I have just ruined your life as well. ‘Hail Mary, full of grace‘ exactly implies that Mary is exactly the right person, predestined by God before she was conceived, to be the mother of Jesus. All creation paused in silence, waiting for her to give her perfect free-will consent.

Mary’s pregnancy must have been awesome – to have her own blood separated by just a thin placental wall from the perfect blood of Jesus for 40 weeks. She provided life support to God. There is also a good chance at the time of delivery that some of a baby’s blood cells will enter the mother’s bloodstream. How awesome is that?

Psalm 33:12-22

God is always keeping a loving, close eye on us to rescue us and keep us alive if we have a holy reverence and love for him.

‘But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love (v.18).

Bibliography:

The Protevangelium of James

https://amzn.to/3uxjxeI

Picture by: Luca Giordano, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

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