Why the church needs to come to terms with Jesus’ Jewish heritage

In the final presentation of the 2012 Advent Series at Christ Church Cathedral, Professor Arthur Dewey sought to remind the audience that the heart of the Christian tradition is Jewish; that Jesus was Jewish and his life and ministry were embedded in a diverse Judaism of his time. Oftentimes, the church portrays a Jesus fashioned after the Roman empire with empire message.

Good News, for example – Euaggelion – from which we translate Gospel – was a familiar concept in the Roman empire. Similarly with terms like soter, or savior,  or even son of god –used for emperors (we know that for certain, for example, from a coin of Emperor Tiberius which has the inscription, Tiberius, son of god).

To understand Jesus’ teaching, Prof. Dewey emphasized, we need to be familiar with the social setting of Galilean peasantry of his time. For example, it would not have made much sense to teach  loving one’s enemies in a society where communities or groups shaped individuals way of like. In our individualistic society today, we tend to lose the impetus of community dynamics.

He also drew examples from the Sermon on the Mount to underscore how easy it is to miss the message or totally misinterpret it when the Jewish heritage of Jesus is not fully realized. Turning the other cheek, for example, going an extra mile when unfairly ordered to go one mile; or giving the coat in addition to the shirt that a powerful man demands are not actions of resignation as many in our society understand them.

Within the diverse Judaism of his day, Jesus was innovative, creative and artistic. He was a comedian too. The Jesus portrayed by many Christian churches today is quite often far removed from the Jesus of the Gospels.

As co-founder of the Healing Deadly Memories program, Prof. Arthur Dewey is a specialist of the historical Jesus and the Gospels. Through workshops the program seeks to deal with the issues anti-Semitism in the New Testament.


Children will strive to do good even in the midst of tragedy

 The sixth-graders had heard stories about City Gospel Mission from their teacher who has been a volunteer in the Outlet for some time. As with all kids, the stories made them curious and inspired to do something like their teacher.

On Saturday, December 15, they were scheduled – along with their teacher and parents – to prepare and serve lunch for the men of the Exodus Program

6th Graders singing carols to heal the brokenhearted

6th Graders singing carols to heal the brokenhearted

. Despite the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, they kept their schedule. They even sang carols to uplift the hearts and spirits of their audience.

Different experts have advised parents and those working with children – like teachers and school nurses – to reassure their children that they are loved and safe; that occasionally tragedies happen; and that the world and life goes on: it is not the end. In addition, there has been advice to direct children’s attention to doing something good and positive, like volunteering.

To what degree those sixth-graders were aware of the tragedy of the previous day was not apparent. They might not have heard about it, which is good, because there is no need to tell children if they have not already learned of it. If they knew then their parents and teachers did an excellent job in the areas mentioned above.

The children did what they always do: being curious and desiring to do good. They brought healing to the guests of the Outlet and the men of the Exodus Program. They also helped bind the wounds of the adults – their parents and their teachers. Ultimately, they too, reassured everyone that there is a lot of good even in the midst of a troubled society.

Heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds

Evacuating horrified children in the wake of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting

Evacuating horrified children in the wake of Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting

Addressing the nation – and indeed, the world – after news broke out that 26 people – twenty of them children – had been killed in Newtown, Connecticut, President Obama concluded his sombre speech with the words: “Heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds”. He appropriately attributed the words to scripture.

The scripture he quoted is Psalm 147:3 which reads: He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.

In Hebrew the Psalm begins and ends with Hallelujah, translated into English as Praise the Lord. Verse 2 says: “The Lord rebuilds Jerusalem; He gathers in the exiles of Israel” and verse 4 reads: “He reckoned the number of the stars; to each He gave its name”. There is a picture of brokenness when you think of these words, and there is also a picture of infinite power and knowledge and compassion.

Sixteen 6 year old and four 7 year old children were tragically gunned down along with six adults between 27 and 56 years. It is shocking when any innocent life is cut down without reason – not that there is even enough reason to cut short anybody’s life. No human society can fathom senseless killing of children.

The main question that is in everybody’s mind is: how do we explain this tragedy to children? Indeed, how do we understand it before we can explain it to our children?

The truth is that we may not have all the answers. We need to admit to ourselves, that our knowledge is limited and so some questions may not have answers. It is alright when we do not know everything.

We see in the Psalm that God rebuilds and gathers. That is because there is already that which is broken and needs rebuilding; there is that which is already scattered and needs to be gathered. Brokenness and disarray are conditions of our imperfections, as individuals and as communities and a society.

It is futile to try to figure out why God allowed the brokenness – the violence, or the accident. We are connected as a society and each individual affects the welfare of the whole. That is why, now in our heart-break we seek to heal one another and bind the wounds of one another. We have the capacity for brokenness and we also have the capacity to heal.

That is how God, according to Psalm 147:3, heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. We are not only agents of the healing and bandaging, but we are also participants. Actually it is when we participate that we become agents. When we are healed, we heal others and the world, just as the opposite is true.

It has been repeated over and over again; and it cannot be repeated often enough: Let us embrace our children and reassure them of love. Let us embrace and reassure one another of love. Let us be intentional about loving and embracing the next person.



Thankfulness in everything? It is possible in God

2012 Fall Fest 003In her book, Healing Troubled Hearts: Daily Spiritual Exercises,(Cincinnati: St. Anthony Messenger Press, 1993), Lyn Holley Doucet recounts the story of Monique, a resident of Louisiana, a region renowned for – among other things – hurricanes. In the aftermath of hurricane Lily Monique stepped outside to her backyard and witnessed a sight that stirred nothing but sorrow. The trees were uprooted; all her green plants and flower beds were gone; only debris covered the backyard. From the deck of her house she recalled the special times the backyard provided for family and friends and now it appeared these memories were lost forever.

Monique knew that the fact that her house was still standing deserved thanksgiving but she was not able to be thankful. The sorrow in her heart was too heavy. Just then she noticed that her Cherokee rosebush remained intact. There were also flowers it whose yellow colors reflected the sunlight.

That picture seemed to reassure her that hope was still alive even in the midst of destruction and sorrow. Think of that flower growing in a rock!

Chapter 3 of the book of Zephaniah from which the First Reading for the Third Sunday of Advent comes is full of comfort and hope after scathing warnings of destruction and sorrow in the preceding chapters. “Sing aloud, O daughter Zion”; declared Zephaniah, “shout, O Israel! Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem” (3:14).

How could this be possible after declaring in 1:15, “That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of trouble and ruin, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and darkness”? It sounds like the day of the hurricane, does it not?

Similarly, the Gospel Reading has John the Baptist chastising the crowds, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Luke 3:7). The text ends with the words, “with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people(Luke 3:18). It begins with sorrow and ends with good news.

How could Paul, in the Epistle Reading from Philippians 4:4-7, and while sitting in a prison, write: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus”.

It is a spiritual mystery: Be thankful in everything and everything will be alright. In so many ways, that is what this season is all about.



Yet another example of how our stories transform us and the world

The second lecture of the 2012 Advent Series at Christ Church Cathedral was given by a notable Cincinnatian, Rabbi Abie Ingber, under the title: From Tolerance to Celebration. It turned out to be a powerful story of how to build a bridge, literally and figuratively, that connected communities of different faiths, and in so doing, transform lives and the world.

Rabbi Abie Ingber is very well-known in the interfaith community at the local, national and international levels. He is founding director of the Interfaith Community Engagement Center at Xavier University, an initiative that epitomizes his life story.

His parents were holocaust survivors from Poland. His father and the man who would later become Pope John Paul II were teenage “buddies” in their native Poland and his mother was saved from the Nazis by four different Christian families who hid her in an attic. It is this background that transformed him into believing that “living in solidarity with others is not just an option in this global, pluralistic society, and especially not as part of a community that worships a God of all people”.

Using engineering analogies from Cincinnati’s Suspension Bridge, the Brooklyn, and the Niagara Falls bridges, Rabbi Ingber stressed that the most important part of the bridge is the structure on both sides of the river. They must be built on firm foundations. By analogy, it is important that those in interfaith dialogue be grounded firmly in their own faiths.

The second analogy from bridge building is the bridge’s ability to support its own weight – or the dynamic load equation. This includes weather conditions and traffic. Communities too need to be able to withstand varying and variable factors from within and without.

In the course of his passion to build bridges between people of different faiths, and through the Interfaith Community Engagement Center, Rabbi Ingber has experienced first hand what it means to be a refugee in Darfur and in Little Mogadishu (in Nairobi). He was invited to the Cameroon Muslim Students Association where he got to engage with thousands of Muslim students. He has had audiences with both the late Pope John Paul II and the current Pope Benedict XVI.

Again, it was a powerful – and even emotional – presentation. The larger context of the Advent Series this year is the significance of Immanuel, “God with us”. It is an exploration of how the celebration of the coming of Christ can unite rather than divide us.

Rabbi Ingber’s task was to “challenge us to move from tolerance of the other to celebration of otherness, that we might engage the world around us with integrity in our own tradition and compassion for others’ beliefs”. To that end, perhaps nobody could have done it better. He did it with a personal story that only he could tell.

The final lecture in the series will be given by Arthur J. Dewey, professor of theology at Xavier University.

The Advent message of comfort, hope and redemption is historical, present and in the future

Advent is a season reminiscent of the past, the present and and the future. The Old Testament   readings for the  Second Sunday of Advent (Baruch 5:1-9; or Malachi3:1-4) have the Babylonian Exile as the background. In the midst of this heart-wrenching and humiliating experience, both Baruch – Jeremiah’s secretary – and the prophet Malachi, bring a message of comfort, hope and redemption.

“Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God”,

Baruch proclaimed. “Put on the robe of the righteousness that comes from God; put on your head the diadem (crown) of the glory of the Everlasting”. This was a message of comfort for people sorrowful with affliction and humiliation of conquest and exile. It was also a message of hope of redemption in their lifetime

Whether the people believed Baruch and his message or not is another story. Indeed, a reading through Jeremiah 31 and 32 reveals more of a sense of disbelief than whole-hearted embrace of the message. Nevertheless, the message was about the Lord’s doing – the Everlasting crowning with glory those who were afflicted.

It was a message to Jerusalem – the people of Judah – that God had remembered those who were carried off to exile. “They went out from you on foot, led away by their enemies; but God will bring them back to you, carried in glory, as on a royal throne”. This is about the Lord, not so much about the people; it is the Eternal’s doing.

Looking back, we see that this came to pass, whether the people believed it or not. The exile ended when the Persian king, Cyrus, allowed the captives to return to Judah. In retrospect, Baruch’s words make sense to us today, and sometimes we may even feel sorry for the people of Judah who might not have believed Baruch and Jeremiah.

That is the advantage of retrospect: We have it, they did not. Furthermore, Advent is also about us in the present. Do we fare any better?

Find out next.

Today’s messenger and voice crying in the wilderness is a community of hope, compassion, forgiveness and redemption

During a bible study session, the group leader made a convincing suggestion of paraphrasing the Gospel Reading for the Second Sunday of Advent (Luke 3:1-6) to make it contemporary – not about gender or neutrality – but contemporary to today’s time and society. This is how we would read the Gospel: “In the fourth year of the presidency of Barack Obama, when John Kasich was governor of Ohio (or whoever is governor in your state), and Steve Beshear was governor of Kentucky and Mike Pence? was governor of Indiana (or whoever are governors in your tri-state region) when so-and-so was bishop (or priest or pastor of your congregation), the word of God came to…

To whom is the word of God coming in our society today?

The New Testament makes it easy when it points to John the Baptist. In the Old Testament Reading from Malachi 3:1-4 or Isaiah 40:3, which is the context for both, the messenger is not identified. Todate, scholars are still debating who this messenger was. The fact that Malachi 4:5 identifies the messenger as Elijah does not make it any easier for today’s interpreter.

Isaiah 40:3 stirred a lot of interest in the early days of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls because, in the Manual of Discipline – 1QS – (Serekh Ha-Yahad in Hebrew), the Qumran community interpreted it as a reference to the Teacher of Righteousness, a figure who was persecuted by the Wicked Priest. Most Jewish biblical scholars interpret – quite correctly, in my view – the messenger as the whole Jewish community.

Today, the whole community of faith has the call to “prepare the way of the Lord…” In the context of the exile, this was a message of hope, a message about redemption, a message of comfort as Isaiah 40 begins: “Comfort (Thee), comfort my people, says your God”. Today’s community of faith is called upon to practice forgiveness and compassion, to bring hope to “those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death” as the Canticle for the Second Sunday of Advent implores.