Ad Fontes

Politics, Theology and Christian Humanism


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Whoever would call their brother ‘raca’?

Raca!

Today, the Fourth Sunday before Lent, we continued reading the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel in church. The chunk of gospel appointed for today was Matthew 5.21-37, a fairly hefty chunk of moral instruction covering murder, anger, name calling, adultery, divorce, oaths and promises. I didn’t preach a very good sermon, getting far too bogged down in a process-like interpretation of collective responsibility for ethics and the liberation of understanding that sin is a normal part of ‘fallen’ human existence, albeit non-essential (for Christ was without sin).

Apart from my missing the mark, I noticed that the original Greek text of Matthew 5.22 includes the non-Greek word raca (ρακα, raka, or ραχα, racha). This is one of the handful of Aramaic words and phrases that litter the New Testament, and the gospels in particular, where the Greek text merely transliterates the Aramaic in to Greek letters as best it can (fitting Aramaic into Greek letters is an awkward fit at the best of times). When we translate the Bible into English we then have a choice of leaving the translated Aramaic in, as we do for Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani, or translating it into English too. Where there is a Greek gloss with the phrase, as there is for Eloi, Eloi, it doesn’t matter that we’ve left this foreign language there: it comes with a translation. However, for the word raca in Matthew 5.22, we are given no translation help. Some translators leave it in, some ‘translate’ it to English.

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Christmas present

Japanese Mary and Jesus

Japanese Mary and Jesus

Happy Christmas one and all, God bless!

It’s now evening on the feast of St Stephen, the second day of Christmas, and, being a Sunday this year, the end of a long run of Christmas services. This Japanese picture of Mary and Jesus was my Christmas card picture this year. Being interested in the history of Christianity in Asia, I was looking for a similar image to last year’s card.

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Bartholomew

Bartholomew is named as one of the Twelve Disciples in all three synoptic gospels, and always is paired with Philip (Mark 3·18, Matthew 10·3 and Luke 6·14; though he is paired with Matthew in Acts 1·13). Bartholomew does not appear in the Gospel of John, and his place with Philip is instead taken by Nathanael, who is brought to Jesus by Nathanael (John 1·45). Seeing as Nathanael does not occur in the synoptics, there is an ancient tradition of considering Bartholomew and Nathanael to be one and the same person.

Michelangelo's Last Judgement

Michelangelo’s Last Judgement.

Eusebius of Caesarea (EH V.x) tells us that, in the late second century, Pantaenus of Alexandria was a Stoic philosopher and a missionary to India and found that he had been preceded by Bartholomew as missionary in that place, and Bartholomew had brought there Matthew’s writings in Hebrew script (which could mean Aramaic). The term ‘India’ was rather imprecise, and other legends place Bartholomew in Ethiopia, Mesopotamia, Parthia or Anatolia. Armenian Christians believe that Bartholomew along with Thaddaeus brought Christianity to Armenia, where Bartholomew converted the king, which led to the king’s brother ordering his execution. In tradition, Bartholomew was flayed and then either crucified upside down or beheaded. In line with popular ‘martyrological torture porn’, Michelangelo depicted Bartholomew as a loose bag of flayed skin in the Last Judgement scene of the Sistine Chapel. The thirteenth-century Armenian monastery of St Bartholomew (Սուրբ Բարթողոմէօս Վանք Surb Bartʿoɬomēos Vankʿ) in Başkale, Turkey’s Van Province, is said to be built at the place of his martyrdom. However, the ancient city of Derbent on the Caspian Sea (Dagestan, Russian Federation) is also a candidate. Various places claim relics of Bartholomew, including Canterbury Cathedral, which claims an arm given it by Queen Emma, consort of King Cnut. This and his appearance in Felix’s Life of Guthlac may explain Bartholomew’s popularity in England: there are 165 ancient churches dedicated to him.

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To fast too furious?

Iftar (berbuka puasa)

Iftar (berbuka puasa or fast breaking) at Mesjid Raya al-Mansun (Mansun's Great Mosque) in Medan, Sumatera.

A blessed Ramadan to all!

Depending on which authority you follow, based on the observation of the first crescent of the new moon, the holy Islamic month of Ramadan began either last Wednesday or Thursday. This month of months is set apart by fasting.

Islamic practice is to refrain, during the daylight hours of the month of Ramadan, from consuming any food, drink, tobacco, and having sex. On the positive side, Muslims are encouraged to pray, give charitably and think on God more during the fast.

As the Islamic calendar is based solely on lunar phases without regard to tropical seasons, the months slowly move through the seasons each year. Ramadan falling in August means, in the northern hemisphere, around fifteen hours without food or water each day for around 29/30 days. (Mehdi Hasan has written some basic FAQs on Ramadan for New Statesman.)

As an Anglican I’m fascinated by the Islamic fast. The practice of fasting in Anglicanism is in a shabby state. For most it consists of ‘giving up’ something for the forty days of Lent, usually chocolate. It is not exactly taxing. Apart from the giving up of things, we do encourage Lent courses as a way of getting some positive spiritual input, but we have to admit that it’s all quite slim. The Roman Catholic Church has always been more legalistic when it comes to fasting, setting out what can and can’t be eaten, and how much. However, the history of Catholic pronouncements on fasting shows a steady rolling back of strictures. In contrast, Eastern Christianity has retained a more robust idea of fasting: animal products and alcohol are not consumed during fasts, making one a vegan teetotaler.

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Revisiting why I’m an Anglican

Ten months ago I posted on why I’m an Anglican. That article struck some people as somewhat negative, and I especially like this reflection on what I wrote by Pradusz. The background for that article was partly thinking on those I know who were raised in the Church of England but have converted to Roman Catholicism or Eastern Orthodoxy. For them, the ministry of women was a stumbling block, but I could also trace a deeper sense of turning away from the everyday normality of Anglicanism in English religion to something more exotic, challenging and full of the certainty of tradition. For those converting to Eastern Orthodoxy, old-fashioned orientalism was often part of the allure, and I hope the Orthodox quickly put them straight on that account. Likewise, I’ve known Anglicans convert to charismatic house churches for the certainty that comes from a certain type of biblical interpretation and emotionally charged worship. For me, Anglicanism is part of cherishing who I am, rather than trying to be something different. I wanted to emphasize the Kierkegaardian way in which the historical reasons for our life choices are often different from the interpretations we put on them. For the majority of people in this world, their religious conviction was chosen for them, by their parents and society at large. I wanted to embrace the religion that chose me, rather than applauding the concept that the grass always has to be greener in someone else’s field.

Celebrating the religion that chose me is important because I can find good reasons to question Anglican religious history. The Church of England has always been associated with English state power, and the global Anglican Communion owes its existence to British imperialism and colonialism. I am horrified at how most Anglicans seem unaware of this history, but realise that ignorance of them is part of the reason why Anglicanism is trying and failing to deal with its internal fault lines.

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Thoughts on the Second Sunday of Easter

There is something especially visceral about that Locked Room at the moment. The first and second Christian Sundays, were evenings where the nascent congregation gathered in fear, they were terrified, as depicted in the Gospel for Easter 2 — John 20.19–31. A small yet prominent section of the Church of England have picked up on and imported the persecution complex of the US Religious Right, compounded with manufactured cases of religious discrimination towards Christians. The disciples were fearful of a very real persecution beyond that Locked Room, we just have to look at the companion reading from Acts, and the other arrests, imprisonments, beatings and executions bear witness to this. Yet this meeting with the risen Jesus transforms hidden cowards into brave martyrs who throw back the bolts, step into the street and proclaim that ‘You may kill me, but this life in me and this message of life cannot die!’

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Meals with Jesus V: Home cooking at Bethany

This article is the fifth in a series on Meals with Jesus which formed part of this year’s Lent course. This fifth is on the pericope of Mary’s anointing of Jesus, John 12·1–11.

The Anointing by Stephen St. Claire

The Anointing by Stephen St. Claire.

There’s no place like home, and this place offers security, love and comfort in the midst of spiraling tensions in Jesus’ ministry. Perhaps we all got too comfortable, and when the love and friendship overflowed in an attempt to push those fears aside, they came right back in with fears and hates expressed by one thought to be a friend.

This house in Bethany — the House of the Lord’s Grace — is the place of Jesus’ greatest victory, raising Lazarus from the dead. Here the Pharisees would only point and whisper, not confront and condemn.

It had been a long journey, with little comfort, so reclining on cushions around a table laden with food, surrounded by friends, was a joy. We were looking forward to celebrating the Passover in Jerusalem, but there were fears of what it might bring.

We smelt it first, as Mary came in with the box after dinner. We didn’t know that scent, but it was Matthew Levi or Judas Iscariot who, in hushed tones, told us of this precious Indian plant. We shifted on our cushions, cleared our throats and examined the patterned cloth that covered the dining table. We couldn’t watch this embarrassing display, and Jesus’ accepting of it. We wished someone would say something.

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