The notion of a “bit” comes from the world of stand-up comedy. It’s hard to define specifically, but pretty much everyone agrees that a “bit” is a short, self-contained illumination, illustration or insight. Once you’ve heard the whole bit, just a passing reference to it can shed that light on a new story or passage. Here are some of the bits that show up from time to time in Canon Gatza’s preaching.
St. Peter — One of my first mentors, the Rev’d Ken Thomas of St. John’s Church in Essex, Connecticut, used to say that St. Peter reminded him of a teenager. He can be impulsive, argumentative, inattentive and repeatedly misunderstands what people around him are up to. He gets it right sometimes, and wrong sometimes, and often in the middle of the same conversation. The experience of living with teenagers in my household convinced me of the truth of this proposition. Here is a case where the rich history of Christian art can be deceptive. St. Peter is often portrayed as a balding man, with just a tuft of gray hair above his forehead — and thus he may have been at his death, some 30 years after walking with Jesus! It is entirely conceivable that he began to follow Jesus as a very young man.
“Doubting Thomas” — Another apostle who deserves a bit is Thomas, called “the Twin.” As an apostle, he is entitled to a feast day on the calendar; however as the one accused of doubting, he gets December 21st — the shortest day of the year! He is mentioned by Matthew, Mark and Luke only in the list each gives of the 12 apostles. In John he has a speaking part, but what he says hardly portrays him in a good light. When he hears that Lazarus has died (John 11) he blurts out “Let us also go, that we may die with him.” Don’t you just wonder how the other 11 reacted? In John 14 as Jesus begins to explain why he must go and prepare a place for us in heaven, Thomas doesn’t get it. His plaintive question, however, receives the often quoted reply, “I am the way, and the truth and the life.” The “doubt” — and I think “incredulity” would be better here — he expressed at the news of the resurrection was not rooted in skepticism, but rather in an eagerness to experience what his friends had. And when Jesus appears to satisfy him, it is not a matter of changing his mind, rather a chance to catch him up to the others.
“Here I am!” — In Hebrew “hineyni.” In some of the key stories of the Hebrew Scriptures God or God’s voice or an Angel appears suddenly and calls out to one of our heroes, as God does to Moses from the burning bush. The answer is always “hineyni,” and it is invariably translated “Here I am!” as if the character was fully prepped and ready to go on whatever fateful mission God had planned. Biblical scholars even made up a linguistic name for this reply: it is called the Ethical Dative. As much as I’d like to believe that Abraham and Moses and Samuel and the others were such faithful people that they were, indeed, able to respond immediately to God’s call, I suspect a different reality obtains. If God were suddenly to call to me out of the blue, I’m pretty sure the first sound out of my mouth would be “hunhh?” Once upon a time, I tried a little thought experiment and read through each of the stories substituting my utterance for the more traditional translation. Not only did it fit every time, but the expression of surprise and bewilderment fit better with the conversation that followed. I find this to be the source of really good news. I know that I am much more like a person who answers, “hunhh?” than “Here I am!” and if the former is what our exemplars of faith really said, there is hope that God can use me as well.
“Practicing Heaven” — The current Emmanuel Church (the second on this site) dates from 1896 and was designed in the “Ecclesiological” style. Essentially, it consists of two rooms. The “nave,” where the congregation sit, represents our earthly home. The “chancel,” where the altar sits, represents heaven. The clergy and readers and musicians lead the service in the space under the great arch, as it were, between heaven and earth. The symbolism is reinforced by the several steps that raise the chancel above the nave, as if heaven were above earth. After we have prayed together, listened to the Scriptures and interacted during the sermon, the congregation is invited to leave earth for a few moments and come to heaven. What we do there is to “practice” what we will do ultimately in heaven, which is to join in the great banquet with all of the saints throughout the ages. One can only imagine what we will feast on then, but in the meanwhile, we enjoy a “foretaste” using the elements that Jesus “re-purposed” at the Last Supper, the bread and wine of the the Paschal meal. We return to our pews — and are ultimately dismissed into the world — refreshed and reconnected and ready to participate in the mission of the Church.
Fig Trees — This Della Robia bisque sculpture is to be found at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, decorating the grand staircase that now sits between the modern and the original wings of the building. Adam and Eve are near life sized, as are the figs on the tree — if figs they are! Genesis tells us that after eating the forbidden fruit, the couple discovered that they were naked and hurried to clothe themselves, using the most available material, fig leaves. Later, in the Gospels, we read of Jesus passing a fig tree that had no fruit (we’re even told that it wasn’t the season of fruit!) and cursing it. That seems harsh, and I am distinctly uncomfortable with the notion of a capricious savior who condemns a poor tree for no reason. Unless … unless the fig tree had come to stand for something else over the years. Sure enough, it is not hard to look at other references to fig trees in Scripture as signifying the presence of sin in the world, in particular sins of unmet expectations. Check, especially, the odd quotation of the spokesperson for the King of Assyria in Isaiah 36. The leafing out of the fig tree that we hear about in Luke’s Gospel as a sign of the coming of the end has, in this understanding, a double meaning. On the one hand, a tree coming to full leaf does portend summer, but sin coming into full view anticipates the coming of the end times. Finally, when Jesus calls Nathaniel in the Gospel of John, having “seen him under the fig tree,” he makes a dramatic confession of Jesus as the Son of God. That Jesus can see faithfulness in him even under the pall of sin seems to be the cause of such a remarkable claim.
“Manual Acts” — I learned long ago that more than 50% of the content of any spoken communication comes from the body language that accompanies the words themselves and the tone of voice in which they are uttered. That number seemed high when I first heard it, but I have seen a lot of documentation to back it up since. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that a lot of what a priest does with her or his hands and body during worship is aimed at reinforcing the words of both prayers and sermons. Lumped together, these are called “Manual Acts.” There are some standard gestures that you will see at various times in the service: making the “Sign of the Cross,” that is touching forehead, heart and each shoulder in sequence; bowing slightly in reverence at the name of Jesus; bowing more deeply during the Nicene Creed as we remember how awesome it was for God to join us on earth; making three little crosses at the announcement of the Gospel, praying that God will be in our minds and on our lips and in our hearts. You will see both clergy and lay people using those gestures.
At the Altar, you will see the priest doing some other things. The priest is directed by the Prayerbook, for example, to physically touch the bread and the chalice during the prayer at communion. Typically, between these actions, a priest will adopt a position very much like the one we see in the stained glass portrait of Jesus, above. This is called orans position, from the Latin word “praying.” I continue to “elevate” the bread and the chalice, a habit that derives from years of services done from an altar up against the east wall.
Finally, there is one set of gestures that I have adopted unique to Emmanuel Church. As I stand at the altar facing the congregation the window above my left shoulder portrays Jesus crucified. The window over my right shoulder depicts Mary Magdalene and the other women at the empty tomb speaking to the angel of the resurrection. When those events are mentioned in the communion prayer, you will see me point, first to the one and then to the other. The great west window, behind the congregation, shows the moment where Jesus begins to ascend to heaven 40 days after the resurrection. At the mention of that holy moment you will see me gesture, as it were, over your heads to remind you of that scene.
Again, the body language of our worship is intended to bring a fullness of meaning to what we say and hear. Far from random flailings, manual acts by both leaders and worshipers are intended to enhance our participation so that our souls and lives may be enriched.
Plumb Bob or Lead Reinforcements? Amos 7:7-15 includes one of his most famous visions. Yes, visions. We are quite used to speaking of scripture as the Word of God — and extending that through John’s image to Jesus Christ himself — but it turns out that a substantial portion of what God reveals comes in the form of a vision. This extends way beyond scripture to mystics like Julian of Norwich, who wrote of her “Showings.”
In the midst of the vision cited, Amos sees God beside a vertical wall with ‘anak. Commonly, this word — which is clearly related to Akkadian and other Northwest Semitic words for the element “lead” — is translated as “plumb line.” But since this is the only place the word in found in an ancient Hebrew text, it is worth asking the question “What does it mean here?”
In the 1980’s, archaeological evidence uncovered a class of wall architecture where the stones were reinforced by lead connectors to make them stronger and thus safer. The illustration above depicts one such technique of reinforcement, where a lead bar links two stones with keystone-like expansions on each end to hold the structure tightly.
Go back now and read the passage, substituting “lead reinforced walls” for “plumb lines” and see how much better sense it makes when God stands next to a reinforced wall, rather than just a strait one.
A Christmas Trilogy 2016-2017