Week of Proper 2: Monday, Year 1   5 comments

Above: Lauterbrunnen Valley, in the Bernese Alps, Switzerland

Awe

NOT OBSERVED THIS YEAR

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Holy Women, Holy Men:  Celebrating the Saints (2010), of The Episcopal Church, contains an adapted two-years weekday lectionary for the Epiphany and Ordinary Time seasons from the Anglican Church of Canada.  I invite you to follow it with me.

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Ecclesiasticus (Sirach) 1:1-10 (Revised English Bible):

All wisdom is from the Lord;

she dwells with him for ever.

Who can count the sands of the sea, the raindrops, or the days of unending time?

Who can measure the height of the sky,

the breadth of the earth, or the depth of the abyss?

Wisdom was first of all created things;

intelligent purpose has existed from the beginning.

To whom has the root of wisdom been revealed?

Who has understanding of her subtlety?

One alone is wise, the Lord most terrible,

seated upon his throne.

It is he who created her, beheld and measured her,

and infused her into all his works.

To everyone he has given her in some degree,

but without stint to those who love him.

Psalm 93 (1979 Book of Common Prayer):

1 The LORD is King;

he has put on splendid apparel;

the LORD has put on his apparel

and girded himself with strength.

2 He has made the whole world so sure

that it cannot be moved;

3 Ever since the world began, your throne has been estabished;

you are from everlasting.

4 The waters have lifted up, O LORD,

the waters have lifted up their voice;

the waters have lifted up their pounding waves.

5 Mightier than the sound of many waters,

mightier than the breakers of the sea,

mightier is the LORD who dwells on high.

6 Your testimonies are very sure,

and holiness adorns your house, O LORD,

for ever and for evermore.

Mark 9:14-29 (Revised English Bible):

When they came back to the disciples they saw a large crowd surrounding them and scribes arguing with them.  As soon as they saw Jesus the whole crowd were overcome with awe and ran forward to welcome him.  He asked them,

What is this argument about?

A man in the crowd spoke up:

Teacher, I brought my son for you to cure.  He is possessed by a spirit that makes him dumb.  Whenever it attacks him, it flings him to the ground, and he foams at the mouth, grinds this teeth, and goes rigid.  I asked your disciples to drive it out, but they could not.

Jesus answered:

What an unbelieving generation!  How long shall I be with you?  How long must I endure you?  Bring him to me.

And they brought the boy to him; and as soon as the spirit saw him it threw the boy into convulsions, and he fell on the ground and rolled about foaming at the mouth.  Jesus asked his father,

How long has he been like this?

He replied,

From childhood; it has often tried to destroy him by throwing him into the fire or into water.  But if it is at all possible for you, take pity on us and help us.

Jesus said,

It is possible! Everything is possible to one who believes.

At once the boy’s father cried:

I believe; help my unbelief.

When Jesus saw that the crowd was closing in on him, he spoke sternly to the unclean spirit.

Deaf and dumb spirit,

he said,

I command you, come out of him and never go back!

It shrieked aloud and threw the boy into repeated convulsions, and then came out, leaving him like a corpse; in fact, many said,

He is dead.

But Jesus took hold of his hand and raised him to his feet, and he stood up.

Then Jesus went indoors, and his disciples asked him privately,

Why could we not drive it out?

He said,

This kind cannot be driven out except by prayer.

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The Collect:

Almighty and merciful God, in your goodness keep us, we pray, from all things that may hurt us, that we, being ready both in mind and body, may accomplish with free hearts those things which belong to your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever.  Amen.

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One alone is wise, the Lord most terrible,

seated upon his throne.

–Sirach 1:8 (Revised English Bible)

ter-ri-ble6.  FORMIDABLE causing awe or dread

Encarta World English Dictionary (1999)

“Fear of God” is an expression I hear often.  I wonder how many people who use it know what it means.  “Fear,” in this case, is not terror; it is awe, as in the use of the word “terrible,” which is present (meaning definition #6, quoted above) in many older hymns.  Look at Sirach 1:8 again and compare translations.  The New American Bible reads “awe-inspiring” were the REB says “terrible,” and the New Revised Standard Version has “greatly to be feared.”  The Roman Catholic version of the Good News Translation, Second Edition (1992), reads:

There is only one who is wise,

and we must stand in awe before his throne.

What, then, is awe?  The best definition I can find comes from the Encarta World English Dictionary (1999):

a feeling of amazement and respect mixed with fear that is often coupled with a feeling of personal insignificance or powelessness

We are all insignificant and powerless relative to God.  This lesson ties into the reading from Mark.  Before I get to that, I need to establish our place in the Markan narrative so far.  The Transfiguration has just happened.  Selected Apostles have seen a manifestation of how significant and powerful Jesus is.  Meanwhile, at the base of the mountain, disciples have tried and failed to heal a boy afflicted by what his culture understood as a demon.  (We would have a clinical diagnosis today in North America, but that is beside the point of the story.)  The disciples tried and failed because they were unprepared and out of their league.  Jesus had not given them this assignment.  These disciples were eager and ineffective beavers, almost certainly motivated, though, by altruism.  (Let us assume the best, given the absence of evidence to think otherwise.)

These disciples felt powerless and insignificant, as did many other members of the crowd.  The Markan Gospel tells us that, as Jesus and his hand-picked Apostles descended the mountain, people looked at him with awe.  Previous chapters in Mark contain stories of our Lord and Savior’s renown, so this account fits neatly with those.  And Jesus does what people believe he can do.  The father believes somewhat that Jesus can cure his son.  The “somewhat” part of this is understandable, given the stress the man must have experienced for years.  But it was enough; it was little yet sufficient.

Jesus was close to God, the source of his power.  (He was also part of God.  Let us not attempt to explain any further, for the Trinity is a beautiful mystery beyond human comprehension.)  And, as Ben Sira tells us in Sirach, one of my favorite books of the Bible, we must stand in awe before God’s throne.  Ben Sira writes that this is God who has created nature and wisdom, personified as a woman.  (This gender personification is appropriate, I think.  Generally speaking, I am more likely to have an intelligent conversation with a woman than with a man.)  Wisdom, Ben Sira, writes, is the original creation, and God has distributed it to everyone, but “without stint” to those who love him.

So all that is good, noble, constructive, and really wise is of God.  This realization need not drive anyone to theocratic leanings and opposition to science and intellectualism, for that negative approach is neither good nor noble nor constructive nor really wise.  As an Episcopalian, I affirm that human reason is a valid prism (along with scripture and tradition) through which to consider matters of faith and theology.  Science is a valid path to much knowledge, and the misuse of scripture to contradict proven reality is an old sin of much of the Church.  For example, when Copernicus (in the 1500s) and Galileo (in the 1600s) argued from observations that the Earth revolves around the Sun, the Catholic Church labeled such ideas heretical.  They cited texts including Psalm 93:2:

He has made the whole world so sure
that it cannot be moved;

Poetry is a poor substitute for astronomy.

To be clear, I state simply that we mere mortals need to know that we are mere mortals who must stand in awe of God, if we are to proceed on solid ground during our spiritual journeys.  This is humility, certainly a virtue.

KRT

Published originally as Week of 7 Epiphany:  Monday, Year 1, at ADVENT, CHRISTMAS, AND EPIPHANY DEVOTIONS OF KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR on October 31, 2010

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