Friday, 22 October 2021

These are the Names

In the first weekday Mass that I celebrated, a chalice with hosts (a ciborium) stood on the altar. However, I had forgotten to place it on the small white linen cloth that is spread out halfway during the Mass (the corporal). I had also forgotten to remove the lid from the ciborium. As the time came to distribute Communion, I was suddenly faced with a major problem: could I distribute these hosts as the “Body of Christ”, because they had been on the altar? Or was it still only ordinary bread, because it had not been placed on the corporal, and would I commit idolatry by calling it the “Body of Christ”?

I have become rather a fan of the book These are the Names by Tommy Wieringa. It is more exciting than the story above, but to my mind, there is a connection. Spoilers alert!

These are the Names has two main storylines. The first one concerns a band of refugees in the former Soviet Union, no friends of each other but clinging together for a greater chance at survival, making their way across a barren wasteland, hoping to find a habitable place to live. They remember being in the back of a truck, and a moment of tense silence at a border crossing – which would presumably make them ‘illegal aliens’.
Because of the harsh conditions, some of them fall sick or die. But in the end, the remaining five struggle into the town of Mikhailopol.

The second storyline concerns the police chief of Mikhailopol, Pontus Beg. He is part of a corrupt system and has made his peace with the occasional indulgence of dishonesty or violence, though he is not a bad man in general. He has been in love once, a relationship that did not last a year, and since then has been relatively successful in ignoring his grief and settling into a convenient life. He has a sexual relationship with his cleaning lady, which could be considered an abuse of power and a boundary violation; but while she is dependent on him economically, she holds the power in the relationship, as she decides the time and frequency of their sexual encounters (only during infertile periods).

Near the beginning of the book, the Jewish rabbi of Mikhailopol dies, and there are no other Jews in town. The responsibility of organizing the funeral falls on Pontus, who finds himself confronting the puzzling question: how does one bury a Jew? At a loss, he visits the rabbi of a neighbouring town, Zalman Eder. As Pontus learns more about Judaism, he becomes intrigued by it, and eventually he finds out that his mother had a name of Jewish origin. Was she a Jew? And if so, has Pontus always been a Jew without realizing it? Is he accidentally within the boundaries of the community chosen by God?

The title of the book, These are the Names, corresponds to וְאֵלֶּה שְׁמוֺת, the opening words of the book of Exodus (of which the Hebrew name is Shemot, ‘Names’). Exodus is about a chosen community leaving behind their old life of enslavement, oppression and scarcity. Through the agency of Moses, they are liberated by God from the Egyptians while passing through the Red Sea. At Mount Sinai, God gives them directions about how to live, and promises that He will lead them to a good land. But while the book looks forward to the Promised Land, they never actually get there.
In fact, we learn from the other Books of Moses that most of the people who set out from Egypt die on the desert journey. Even Moses himself dies in the desert; he sees the Land but does not enter it. That is the task of his successor, Joshua / Yehoshua.
Christians believe that a certain Jew named Yeshua (a variant of Yehoshua) has crossed the boundary of the spiritual Promised Land and that everyone who believes in Him already lives there with Him. Jews are sceptical of this claim and argue that no such boundary has been crossed.

Some of the refugees are Christian, including a man from Ethiopia. He does not speak the others’ language, but he is seen kissing a cross. Another refugee from Ashgabat considers this insulting, because to him Black men are on the level of animals, and so they do not belong within the community that honors God.

Pontus is probably Christian in a vague cultural way. From the Jewish perspective, however, he is a goy. He learns that while it is possible for a goy to embrace the Jewish customs and to study the faith, he will always lack something. If he is not biologically related to the patriarchs, he will always lack something undefinable that is passed down in Jewish heredity. The rabbi tells him, ‘The goy can cross the bridge but never reach the other side.’
Pontus reads in an old Jewish book (all translations are mine):

The Jews are not bound to the Torah because God has created us, but the Torah was given to us because God brought us out of Egypt, because He has bound himself to us and because we have been chosen. If this were otherwise, Blacks and Whites would be equal as well, because God has created all people.

Of course, there is an indication that Pontus is possibly Jewish. In that case he would be able to live as a complete Jew. But perhaps he does not want to become a Jew. For one, his cleaning lady would not understand and probably disapprove of his being circumcised.
However, he is fascinated by the ritual bath of Judaism:

He was not sure if it was allowed, but sometimes he longed, even more than for the Eternal One, for submersion in the mikve, the stone niche deep in the earth, where the living water would cleanse his soul.

But Pontus will always be Pontus: a ‘bridge’ hovering over the water, connecting two shores. You start with the Baptist, you end up with a Pontifex – that is what history does.

The longing to start a new life is mirrored in a more fear-filled conversation with one of the refugees:
‘Where are you from? Is there someone we can inform that you are here? Wife, children, family? Someone will want to know where you are?’
‘No family.’
‘And where are you from?’
‘The hedge… The hedge of terrors.’
‘What is that?’
‘The poacher says…he says we should cross it, in order to be at home.’

Near the end of the book, we discover that the refugees have been deceived. The people who took their money to get them across the border did not want to run any risks. The border crossing that the refugees remember was artificial, fake: in reality, there was no border. They are in their own country after all, even if they cannot prove it. However, that does not matter – there are also Chinese immigrants, and as long as they are harmless, no one investigates too closely.

Likewise Pontus does not know which country is his home: the Promised Land, or the lands of the goyim. He is invited to cleanse himself in the mikve, but hesitates and refuses. He finds consolation in participating in Jewish rituals with the rabbi in the other town, without choosing on which side of the boundary he wants to live. The rabbi does not have that liberty: he is clearly a Jew living in a foreign land, but he is alone, old and tired, he does not have prayer services and does not observe all the commandments.

In the final chapter, Little Moses, Pontus takes a young boy, one of the refugees, to the border of his own country. The border is heavily guarded from the other side. The other side offers a better life, so obviously the government there has an interest in limiting the influx of migrants. It would be very unlikely that the boy could cross that border, given the technology they have to hunt down trespassers.
Pontus offers the boy to become his adoptive father, to give him a chance of acquiring an Israeli passport, permission to enter the Promised Land.
Pontus, who is perhaps a Jew, will perhaps become the legal father of someone who will perhaps have better opportunities after crossing the borders of the Promised Land. Within those boundaries is life, outside of the boundaries is struggle.
The boy gazes into the distance. What he thinks or what he chooses, we do not know.

In my first weekday Mass, rather than repeating the long Eucharistic Prayer and upsetting the congregation, I distributed the hosts from the ciborium that had escaped my attention, and proclaimed them to be the “Body of Christ”. After Mass, I went to the tabernacle as secretly as possible and whispered the words of the consecration of the bread once again, under my breath. Consecrated hosts and unconsecrated hosts should always be kept clearly apart.
Sometime after that experience, I talked to a young colleague who asked with some surprise, ‘Did you not form an intention before your ordination either to consecrate only the bread and wine on the corporal, or all the bread and wine on the altar?’
I never did.

Wednesday, 14 July 2021

Space for the Imperfect

I do not read Italian easily. When I read Fratelli tutti, I read it in English. Some time afterwards, I was invited to give a talk about it for a Dutch group. To my surprise, in almost every memorable phrase I wanted to quote, I found the Dutch translation lacking. This surprised me, as it had been produced by the Flemish, who tend to combine accuracy with readability.

(For some reason, the Netherlands insist on producing their own Dutch translations in addition to the Flemish ones; these are usually well-intentioned but overly literal and rather clunky as a result.)

Some examples of nuances that got lost in the Flemish translation:


(1) il gusto e il sapore della realtà (FT 33) has been translated as de smaak en geur van de realiteit (the taste and smell of reality). English: “the taste and flavour of the truly real”. Flavour is more than smell. As far as I know, gusto and sapore both mean “taste”, but gusto is the taste you have for something (appetite), whereas sapore is the taste something has of itself.

In the first paragraph Pope Francis refers to il sapore del Vangelo “the flavour of the Gospel”. His choice of words connects the Gospel and reality, in the sense that both have a “taste” that can be appreciated. This fits squarely into the Ignatian spiritual tradition.

Also, the use of sapore makes it possible to point out that sapiens, the Latin word for “wise”, literally means “tasting”. Wise discernment, then, is only possible when one knows the flavour of the Gospel and of reality. And flavour is more than smell, because it is connected to nourishment, to that which feeds us, becomes part of us and gives us life.

(The Kantian adage Sapere aude! “Dare to know!” could also be translated as “Dare to taste!” Although this maxim might not be universally approved of, certainly not by Kant.)

Per questo

(2) About the Samaritan in the parable, Pope Francis writes: La dedizione al servizio era la grande soddisfazione davanti al suo Dio e alla sua vita, e per questo un dovere. (FT 79)

This has been translated: Zijn poging om iemand anders te helpen, gaf hem grote voldoening in het leven en tegenover zijn God, en betekende voor hem gewoon zijn plicht doen. (His attempt to help someone else gave him great satisfaction in life and before his God, and meant for him simply doing his duty.)

English: “His effort to assist another person gave him great satisfaction in life and before his God, and thus became a duty.”

In this case, I think both translations fall short. They refer to an isolated incident, an “attempt” or “effort”, whereas the original speaks of dedizione al servizio (dedication to service) as a character trait. But later in the sentence, the English gets something right which the Dutch doesn’t, because the Dutch simply juxtaposes “satisfaction” and “duty”. In both the Italian and the English, it is quite clear that duty is causally subordinate to satisfaction: service gave the Samaritan great satisfaction, and per questo “thus” it was a duty.

This, too, is part of Ignatian spirituality: your heart’s joy indicates your appointed path.

Nessuno si salva

(3) Repetition is a form of emphasis. There is a phrase that occurs three times: nessuno si salva “no one is saved”. Obviously this verb, while it could refer to any threat, has a strong theological connotation: being saved from sin to live in nearness to God.

These are the three times it is used in Fratelli tutti:

- ci siamo ricordati che nessuno si salva da solo, che ci si può salvare unicamente insieme (FT 32). English: “Once more we realized that no one is saved alone; we can only be saved together.”

- hanno capito che nessuno si salva da solo (FT 54). English: “They [viz. the people who provided essential services during the pandemic] understood that no one is saved alone.”

And then the clincher:

- Abbiamo bisogno di far crescere la consapevolezza che oggi o ci salviamo tutti o nessuno si salva (FT 137). English: “We need to develop the awareness that nowadays we are either all saved together or no one is saved.”

A bold statement that could give any traditional systematic theologian an outbreak of rashes. I don’t know if they were on the Flemish translation committee, but this translation certainly neutralizes the impact:

We moeten het bewustzijn ontwikkelen dat we de problemen van onze tijd alleen samen of helemaal niet zullen oplossen (We need to develop the awareness that we will solve the problems of our time either together or not at all).

Come on – “solving” is not “saving”, let alone “being saved”! I suppose the Flemish decided on a more optimistic translation of ci salviamo, “we are saved” which can also be translated “we save ourselves”. But still!

(Side note: it is interesting that the statement “no one is saved alone” is always prefaced by a verb of mental activity: ci siamo ricordati “we remembered”, hanno capito “they understood”, far crescere la consapevolezza “make the awareness grow”.)


(4) When discussing the importance of the State as a safeguard of tranquil family life, un caldo focolare domestico (“a warm domestic hearth”, FT 164) has been translated: een huis (a house). No comment.

A tense situation

These were sentences I wanted to quote to my Dutch audience, and at every turn I had to correct the translation. I knew something was off because I remembered it was different in the English translation. But while I was referring back to the Italian original, I noticed something else, a revolutionary point that has been erased in both the English and the Dutch translations.

You see, Pope Francis makes an unprecedented move in the last chapter on interreligious dialogue. He omits any reference to the Christian religion as the ultimate revelation which everyone is called to adhere to. But he does not minimize his own commitment to faith in Jesus Christ. In fact he says – and here I will quote the official English translation first:

“We Christians are very much aware that “if the music of the Gospel ceases to resonate in our very being, we will lose the joy born of compassion, the tender love born of trust, the capacity for reconciliation that has its source in our knowledge that we have been forgiven and sent forth. If the music of the Gospel ceases to sound in our homes, our public squares, our workplaces, our political and financial life, then we will no longer hear the strains that challenge us to defend the dignity of every man and woman”. Others drink from other sources.”

When I first read it, I thought the Pope went pretty far already with the concluding sentence, dropping this fact of life on his readers so casually and without any hint of regret or concern. Then I read the preceding quote in Italian, and my appreciation deepened.

Se la musica del Vangelo smette di suonare nelle nostre case, nelle nostre piazze, nei luoghi di lavoro, nella politica e nell’economia, avremo spento la melodia che ci provocava a lottare per la dignità di ogni uomo e donna.

Two letters made all the difference.

The English translation speaks of “the strains that challenge us”. This is the present tense, which may be used to indicate a general and abstract truth. Beavers build dams. Lampposts increase visibility and safety. The Gospel challenges us to fight for dignity. The present tense gently encourages us to include generally everyone in ‘us’, just as Red Bull’s slogan “It gives you wings” is not aimed at a specific ‘you’. And so, “The Gospel challenges us” becomes a statement about the Gospel, not about us.

(The Dutch translation suffers from the same problem: de melodie die ons oproept te vechten “the melody that summons us to fight” – also present tense.)

But this is different in the Italian. The tense is imperfect: not provoca, but provocava. The imperfect tense describes things that went on for a while, or habitually. The melody of the Gospel provoked us, or rather kept on provoking us to fight for dignity.

The imperfect tense gives the reader space to compare his own experience with the experience described. Perhaps he feels an allegiance to the Gospel, but does not remember it challenging him to fight for someone else’s dignity; in that case, perhaps it is not too late to make the experience his own. Perhaps the Gospel does not form part of his life story; in that case, he will have heard not a religious advertisement, but the sediment of an old man’s personal experiences and encounters. Which does not call for affirmation or rejection, but only asks to be taken seriously.

So much is lost when we do not give space to the imperfect.

(As I write this, I notice another discrepancy. If the music of the Gospel ceases to sound, then what? According to the English translation, we will no longer hear the strains that challenge us. This is a simple future tense: we will (not) hear. But the Italian uses a more complex tense, the futuro anteriore, a tense that takes a future vantage point in order to look back: avremo spento, “we will have turned off”.

If the melody of the Gospel ceases to sound, we will have turned it off.)

Friday, 28 September 2018

Baal ha-Khalomot

Disclaimer: moving around in Hebrew texts, I am like a half-blind man walking on crutches. It would be ironic if a text which revolves around the verb ‘interpret’ should receive a blatant misinterpretation from me, but the ironic and the actual have significant overlap, actually.

When the unsuspecting, though rather gossipy Joseph ben Jacob wanders into Dothan, looking for his brothers, they see him coming from afar and call him ba‘al ha-khalomōt, ‘master of dreams’. In their hatred, they throw him into a pit, and through an unfortunate series of events Joseph ends up in Egypt. There he rises in the ranks to become steward of Potiphar’s house, but through an incident with Potiphar’s wife, Joseph ends up imprisoned again. (The precise nature of the incident might be more dubious than it appears at first sight!)

In the dungeon he meets two officials of the King of Egypt: a cupbearer and a baker. One night they have a dream. For my studies, I was analyzing the chapter about these dreams (Genesis 40) and discovered some interesting details.

For starters, it is a bit ambiguous whether the cupbearer and the baker have different dreams at all. A hint is given that the dream has a different interpretation for each of them, but when the baker suddenly appears to have had a completely different dream, it is a bit surprising.

Prodded by Joseph, who asks them why they look so sad and then invites them to tell their dream because interpretations belong to God (the logic of this is somewhat elusive), the cupbearer begins elegantly, ‘In my dream ! a vine was before me, and in the vine were three branches…’

The dream branches out until it shifts to the cupbearer himself: ‘And the cup of Pharaoh was in my hand, and I took the grapes, and I pressed them into the cup of Pharaoh, and placed the cup in the hand of Pharaoh.’

Joseph has an extensive response. The first half is the interpretation of the dream itself; the second half is a request and a declaration of innocence. In the request, one action is emphasized: zākhar ‘remember’. Unfortunately, this gets lost in most translations.
The ESV has ‘Only remember me, when it is well with you, and please do me the kindness to mention me to Pharaoh, and so get me out of this house.’
More literally: ‘Only remember me close to you, when it is well with you, and do grant kindness to me, and remember me to Pharaoh, and get me out of this house.’
It is basically one job: ‘remember me close to you … remember me to Pharaoh.’

And then Joseph tells them that he was stolen away from the land of the Hebrews and that he has done nothing to deserve being kept ‘in the pit’, as he calls it – an old wound opens again.

Abruptly the story continues, ‘When the chief baker saw that the interpretation was favorable…’ (ESV)
The entire second half of Joseph’s speech is ignored. The baker does not even ‘see’ it, let alone remember it.
In this translation, another thing is not visible. Something even more fundamental than old wounds is echoed here: ‘And the chief baker saw that it was good.’ God’s praise of his creation is repeated. But it is out of place, because things are out of place: the light has been separated from the dark and somehow Joseph has ended up on the wrong side of the divide.

Incidentally, ‘interpret’ is a verb here. I would guess that the sentence could be translated ‘When the chief baker saw that he interpreted well’…

Then it is the baker’s turn to speak. His introduction is similar to the cupbearer’s, but it has none of the elegance. He declares, not ‘I also had a dream’ (ESV), but ‘Also I was in my dream.’ The baker starts with himself and reconstructs his dream upward from there: three baskets, food in the supreme basket (‘supreme’ because ‘elyōn is also a common title for God), and the birds above it who eat the food.
What is in the basket, precisely? According to the ESV, ‘all sorts of baked food for Pharaoh’. And even the interlinear translation does this. But if I’m not mistaken, the word ‘baked’ does not occur in the sentence: ’ofeh is the active participle of ‘bake’. What the baker carries around in his supreme basket is ‘all sorts of food for Pharaoh, works of the baker!’
You gotta advertise!

So we can sympathise, perhaps, when the cupbearer is restored and the baker is hanged. The story ends: ‘And the chief cupbearer did not remember Joseph, but forgot him.’

This is why I love the Old Testament: it always ends badly.


Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Nel Mezzo del Cammin

This Sunday we celebrated the Feast of Christ the King. It was on this feast day that I first went to Mass, ten years ago now. I remember it, partly because I wrote about it. When Fr. Paul de Maat in Middelburg raised the chalice, I was ‘profoundly awed’, and could only think in brief lines from The Anathémata and traditional prayers.

Ten years later, I myself was raising the chalice – the first time in this church that this chalice was used, a chalice that I inherited from a predecessor in faith and in priestly ministry.

More precariously than he knows he guards the signa

Some fragments from the current time:

Yesterday was the first meeting of a group intended for thirty- and forty-somethings. It would not have started without an Italian couple, who have kindly, but regularly and persistently reminded me that such a group was lacking in our community. Through an accident of circumstance, it is now called the Panettone group. Mention was made of an Italian celebrity who could recite passages from the Divina Commedia for hours on end (without repeating himself, obviously). Hence the title.

For a reading group that meets this Thursday, I have started reading a modern book for young adults, inspired by Dante: Bianca come il latte, rosso come il sangue (White as milk, red as blood). It is about a normal 16-year-old boy, called Leo (I didn’t make this up), who likes to play football, grows nervous in silence, and who is deeply in love with someone called Beatrice.

The teachers have nicknames. The religious education teacher is a celestial priest who is well-versed in the Bible and whom Leo calls Gandalf. When a girl in class who is somewhat of a teacher’s pet makes a reference to Gollum, ‘Gandalf’ says, ‘I don’t know who this Gollum is, but if you say so, I believe it.’ And Leo reflects inwardly, ‘Gandalf doesn’t know Gollum, it seems absurd, but that’s how it is.’
This is too subtle to be merely a joke or an absurdity.

But there are many subtleties in the book. Leo attends a school named after a character from Mickey Mouse. In English known as Horace, the Italian name is of course Orazio (‘There are more things between heaven and earth, Horatio…’)
The new, young, and enthusiastic philosophy teacher is inspired by a movie called in Italian L’attimo fuggente (The Fleeting Moment) but known in English as Dead Poets Society (wink, wink).
And in the same (short) chapter, there is another ‘wink’ moment that even rhymes with this one:

Leo in latino significa “leone”. Leo rugiens: “leone ruggente”.
(Leo in Latin means ‘lion’. Leo rugiens: ‘roaring lion’.)

This time the author basically spells it out. Leo rugiens is a phrase from 1 Peter 5, which returns in the prayer of the Church every Tuesday night at Compline: ‘Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith.’
Leo does not seem particularly active in the resistance, but he is not spectacularly failing either.

As the title makes clear, colours are very important in the book. Red and white run through it as recurring themes. White is associated with silence, emptiness, infinity. Red is associated with overwhelming impressions, passion, love. ‘Beatrice is red,’ Leo grandly proclaims. But what he does not know (and what, so far, I have only gleaned from the summary) is that Beatrice suffers from leukemia: a Greek word (leukon haima) that means ‘white blood’.
It’s so good to read truly intelligent young adult novels.
(Leo also says: ‘Silvia is blue, like all true friends.’ The city of Delft has a big blue heart in the city centre. I feel quite at home here.)

Well, that’s enough about the book. Today I talked to someone who watched at a deathbed last week. And now my eye has fallen on the obituaries in the newspaper. I don’t usually read the paper, but scanning through it, I noticed a couple of things.
Firstly, there are many completely unfamiliar names among the youngest generation. Kayleigh and Kenza, Vaan and Keet, Vayènn and Lovis – next to the more reassuring Sven and Rik, Maarten and Tessa, Guus and Dirk.
Secondly, it is a common occurrence for deceased family members to be included in the obituary. But this is indicated in different ways; I see four in one newspaper. The traditional cross symbol is one. But another (a child) has a star. One obituary contains two different ways: a 96-year-old woman has a son with the words ‘(in loving memory)’ affixed to his name, but her great-grandson has a butterfly symbol in the same place.
Thirdly, there is another strange symbol that occurs in two different obituaries. Kira, Tessa, Britt, and Foxy have a dog’s paw after their name. Apparently the pets are so much part of the family that they are included, mostly in the absence of other children.

Dear future nephews and nieces, I admire how much you care for your pets – but if you will not keep their dirty paws from defacing my death notice, I am coming back to haunt you.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Lost in Translations

For preparing my homilies, I tend to use the USCCB website. It has a nice little calendar that enables you to pick a date and get the Scripture readings for it – a feature no Dutch website has. But if you rely on it too much, you are in for some surprises.

The first surprise was months ago, on a regular weekday Mass at seminary, the memorial of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. I had been asked to provide the homily and had duly read the texts. When I arrived in the chapel, however, I discovered that Cyril and Methodius had been named co-patrons of Europe and were therefore celebrated with greater attention on this side of the ocean. That included special Scripture readings that reflected the missionary lifestyle of these saints.
So when one of the students started on the first reading, I had no idea what precisely it was going to be.
Fellow students told me later that my homily had been bolder and more passionate than usual.

The second surprise was later, on a Sunday in the parish, when the parable of the two sons was read. A father asks his two sons to work in his vineyard. The first one says no, but changes his mind. The second one says yes, but does not carry out the work.
It is interesting to reflect on the reasons why the second son says yes. Is it perhaps because he has heard his brother’s reply and wants to be better? Does he think: I’m the only one left, and if I don’t say yes, no one will?
These are attempts to add some dynamics to the story. But it requires some improvising and back-pedalling when, on reading the Gospel in church, you find out that the Dutch translation has the first son saying yes and the second saying no.

The third surprise came today, on the feast of Christ the King. The first reading from Ezekiel includes the following words (God in the figure of a shepherd speaking to His flock):
The lost I will seek out,
the strayed I will bring back,
the injured I will bind up,
the sick I will heal,
but the sleek and the strong I will destroy,
shepherding them rightly.
The theme of this passage fits well with the theme in the Gospel of Luke that God will have mercy on the lowly and punish the uncaring rich. There is an idea of separation (of the good and the bad) that is also expressed in the Gospel reading of the day, about the sheep and the goats. The ‘right shepherding’ is precisely this, that the weak are strengthened and the egoists are taken down a notch. And besides, even in regular shepherding practice, aren’t the healthy and fat animals chosen for slaughter?
It is unsurprising that the passage in Ezekiel continues:
As for you, my sheep, says the Lord GOD,
I will judge between one sheep and another,
between rams and goats.
Well, isn’t that a perfect parallel with the image of the Last Judgment in the Gospel?
It is, until you get to the Dutch translation, which goes something like this:
The lost sheep I will seek out,
the strayed I will bring back,
the injured I will bind up,
the sick I will strengthen,
and the healthy and strong I will continue to care for.
I will pasture them as it ought to be.
And you, my sheep – says the Lord God –
I will do justice to the one animal opposite the other,
opposite ram and goat.
This time, having grown hoar with age and wary with experience, I discovered the divergence before it was too late. I understand the connection between ‘judge’ and ‘do justice’. The link between ‘destroy’ and ‘care for’ remains a mystery. I thought it might be shrouded in Hebrew depths, but according to Strong’s dictionary, the verb שמד has the following meaning:
to desolate: – destroy, bring to nought, overthrow, perish, pluck down, X utterly.
So I just don’t know. In any case, this is why I still use the USCCB website, but always double-check.

Monday, 30 October 2017

Historian's Irony

Cardinal Newman said, ‘To be deep in history is to cease to be Protestant.’ That might be the case for systematic Protestantism along the lines of the Reformation, with a strict observance of the solas. It applies less obviously to a Protestantism that understands itself as a form of developing Christian faith that happens not to include a strong allegiance to the bishop of Rome.

Diarmaid MacCulloch is deep in history, and he has ceased to be anything in particular. Nonetheless he looks with understanding and sympathy on the spiritual and religious quests that have occurred in history and will no doubt continue to occur.

I am rereading MacCulloch’s book Reformation: Europe’s House Divided (1490-1700), which I first read 10 years ago while I was in the process of becoming Catholic, and which I am now reading in preparation for a historical trip to Germany in the footsteps of Martin Luther.

It is striking how religion and politics interplay, how allegiances and rivalries help to build consensus, and how people navigate a world with the consciousness of a last judgment, with a network of relations that has shifting perspectives on the wheat and the tares, and with the human needs that are basic to us all.

When King Henri IV of France (formerly King of Navarre) ultimately decided to convert to the Catholic Church, allegedly on the grounds that ‘Paris was worth a Mass’, this was the reaction of a prominent Reformer:

Theodore Beza, who all through his long years in Geneva had corresponded with Navarre, regularly received cash from him and was devoted to him as a new King David in Israel, was devastated at Henri’s betrayal of the godly cause. Beza nevertheless remained loyal, and sadly consoled himself with a different Old Testament image: God’s champion in Israel, Samson, sacrificed his life to slay his enemies, and now perhaps King Henri was making an even greater sacrifice of his soul in God’s cause. He also continued to regard himself as on King Henri’s payroll.

Monday, 9 October 2017

The Vineyard Song Remastered

Sometimes writing a homily is difficult. But at rare moments, hints are thrown at you from all sorts of different places and the homily basically writes itself.

This time it was the song of the vineyard in Isaiah 5, and the Gospel passage associated with it, of the wicked tenants who kill the vineyard owner’s son (Matthew 21). I thought to myself, didn’t Pope Benedict write something about this? He’s usually pretty good at contextualizing the parables and explaining how Jesus is inviting the Pharisees to let down their guard and join Him in his new creation.

Indeed the Pope wrote about this Gospel, and the Isaiah passage and even Psalm 80 in connection with it. Surprisingly, it can be found in the chapter on the principal images of the Gospel of John (Jesus of Nazareth I, ch. 8), under the heading ‘Vine and Wine’. Pope Benedict considers the Isaiah passage foundational for the vine motif, and writes:

The Prophet probably sang it in the context of the Feast of Tabernacles, in the context of the cheerful atmosphere characteristic of this eight-day feast (cf. Deut 16:14). […]
Everyone knew that “vineyard” was an image for a bride (cf. Song 2:15, 7:12f.), so they were expecting some entertainment suited to the festive atmosphere.

Many more interesting and edifying things were said about the passage, but this information made me see the whole passage in a different light. So I decided to take out a Hebrew-English Old Testament and see if I could make some sense of it, despite the fact that my Hebrew knowledge is sorely limited.

The first thing that stood out was that the song starts out very sing-song-y, which is recognizable as soon as you can read the Hebrew alphabet:
’āshīrāh nā līdīdī
shīrat dōdī l’kharmō

Li-di-di, it is as airy and light-hearted as fa-la-la. It means ‘for my beloved / friend’ and is related to dōdī (‘of my friend’).

The word is used twice, for the text continues:
kerem hāyāh līdīdī
b’qeren ben-shāmen
(‘My beloved / friend had a vineyard’, or more literally ‘A vineyard was there for my friend’: a possessive dative. And then, ‘On a very fertile hill’. ‘Vineyard’ and ‘hill’ are very similar words: kerem and qeren.)

Next I wanted to know if there was a similar play in the lines ‘He hoped it would yield grapes. Instead, it yielded wild grapes.’ In this I was disappointed:
wayqaw la‘asōt ‘anāvīm
wayya‘as b’ushīm
Yes, it rhymes, but that is only because -īm is the regular masculine plural ending. Nothing surprising there.
But wait…what was it that the man of the winepress was looking for? Grapes? Then why did it sound like something else? The word ‘anāvīm looked strangely familiar, and would look familiar to any amateur theologian worth three miserable grains of salt. There are some words that are known even to your average American Catholic blogger (no offense), and one of them is anawim, the ‘poor’ for whom poverty is a spiritual attitude. ‘Blessed are the poor in spirit’, the anawim. And indeed the word is almost identical in spelling to ‘anāvīm: ענבים and ענוים.
The almost-double meaning of ‘grapes’ is the first hint of the revelation in verse 7: ‘The vineyard of the LORD of Hosts is the House of Israel’.

Now I wanted to know if something similar applied to b’ushīm, the ‘wild grapes’. And while I could not find a similar word, I chanced upon the commentary in E.W. Bullinger’s Companion Bible, which told me two things:
(1) The word b’ushīm was derived from bashash [Strong suggests it’s actually ba’ash], meaning ‘to stink’ – which can easily shade into an aesthetic, ritual, or ethical judgment (in any language).
(2) Isaiah 5 is the only place in the Old Testament where qeren is translated ‘hillside’; all the other seventy-five times it means ‘horn’.

Wait, what? What did the text say again?

kerem hāyāh līdīdī
b’qeren ben-shāmen
‘My best friend had a “vineyard”
On a really fertile “horn” ’

They were expecting some entertainment suited to the festive atmosphere.

For more random wordplay, go and watch this clip.