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Monday, 13 February 2012

The Gospels and the Jewish year Luke and Feb.

Reading Luke chapter 2 verses 40 to 51 

I start with a quote from Christopher Sande a member at John Pounds Unitarian Church he has an interest in following Jewish festivals and has provided me a few notes to work on..

For us this festival  of  the “new year for the trees” is a wonderful opportunity to give thanks for the wide variety of fruit that our world possesses, and to remember that despite the bleakness of the weather and landscape at this point in the year, the spring will come, and the trees will blossom and fruits will once again hang from tree after tree. Likewise when life may seem harsh and empty one can keep hold of the hope that good times, in some form or another, will return.
This festival originally marked the beginning of the agricultural year, for the specific purpose of calculating the tithing of fruit. (Fruit from trees blossoming prior to this date are last year’s harvest, after this date this year’s.) As this is the time of year that almond trees blossom in the Land of Israel, the festival is seen as the harbinger of spring. Over the years many traditions have developed around the day, and today it is primarily observed by eating fruit, especially fruit of the trees that the bible praises the Land of Israel for: Pomegranates, Olives, Grapes and Dates.
But the Torah says, "Man is a tree of the field." We are nurtured by deep roots, as far back as Abraham and Sarah; we reach upwards to the heavens while standing firmly on the ground; and when we do all this right, we produce fruits that benefit the world—namely our good deeds. (So said our reading by Adrian)
When we start to look at Lukes Gospel in line with the then Jewish festivals, Luke is relfecting much of this in his writing about the early life of Jesus. It is a sort of preamble. To the good deeds Jesus did in later life, starting with his pre existance that shows his roots.  So there is a parallel here to the jewish festival, but we have to take on board Luke whoever he was, was not jewish. So his gospel is a gentile interpretation of the life of Jesus and he does not get it accurate to Jewish or hebrew understanding.
If you had a bible to hand the passages surounding the picture given of Jesus being at the temple aged 12 we heard read ,are about Jesus roots and another  odd geneology account is given, different to the one in Matthew. Get to verse 34 of chapter 3 and it states..Son of Abraham and ends that section with son of Adam son of God. Luke is giving us a litergy he is making a case for Jesus being rooted on earth but streaching in time towards the heavens, like a tree.  Claiming his roots are in the divine nature of God himself. Lukes overall purpose is to interpret Jesus in the light of  the hebrew scriptures, so he uses names for people to give his writing a hebrew scriptures root. Names such as Zacheriah for the father of John the Baptist and Sarah as his mother are less about historical accuracy and more about using names from the Hebrew scriptures to interpret Jesus.  Zacheriah is actually one of the last of the minor prophets of the hebrew scriptures. But Luke uses this name for the father of John The Baptist althought this prophet was far to early to have actually been the physical father of John the Baptist.
But actually in the mystical traditions of judaism this festival has another ancient link to being a pre existant hidden thought to the creation of man by a cosmic picture of what may be termed god. The very thought of existance was celebrated in the Jeweish festival now known as the New Year for the trees. Hence come back to this gospel of Luke and we have some clues to this in a write up that this thought of a creation was first seen in a baby, seen by Simeon at the temple who in the baby jesus saw the light of the gentiles in this child..  In order to fully understand how Luke is thinking requires us to know the context of Jewish thinking at the time in relation to hebrew scripture.  Not such an easy task as there were several strands of thinking. What we can say about the Judaistic people of the time is they followed a way  of life. The time of the Gospels are centered on the synagogue life that would consist of a reading of the Torah , prophets and other writings handed down from generation to generation.  Then telling stories that reflect the scripture and interpret them, this is what the gospels try to do.
To us today looking from outside of the Jewish tradition we perhaps fail to see that much of this way of living a life was a reasoned approach at the time. It was all about the use of nature as a teaching method to pass on the observations about the roots of the people.  It was a community way of life marked by the seasons and times, every year a little growth of thinking is added.  Gospel writers like Luke at this point are trying to add to this reasoned way of thinking. But their problem is the main authroities of the time disagree.. Eventually these (sect) “followers of the way” such as Luke are excommuuicated from the synagogues and the Jewish community went on without these writings being accepted. Now if you know any rabbis today, youll know they are a very studious people who know their scriptures very well. Hardly suprising that a plaguist like Luke  who pulls names out of hebrew scripture not understanding their significance, led to the birth of christianity away from its jewish roots.  These litergies as they were had to stand away from Jewish thinking from this point on, and lost their significance as related to the Jewish litergical year. At this point the early church is no longer a sect of judaism.  Instead it becomes something else, but the jewish way of life continues to this day..
It's a funny way of inhabiting time, this Jewish calendar of ours. Every seventh day a holiday. Every new moon a holiday. And then, studding the year like jewels in a crown, the festivals, each with its own music, its own flavor, both literally and metaphorically. Writes the Velveteen Rabbi online in her blog.

What is perhaps even more funny is that people later on the readers of what became the New Testament were trying to reinterpret a way of life as being found in one life that of Jesus. But they often removed from context these early gospels and made claims and alliances with other ways of life. These did not always reflect the gospels.  Often later generations have taken completely out of context these writings. Some have often missed the need to do good deads… This is at the root of the gospels.

This week I have been particularly mindful of the fact that some 200 years ago another writer was born, in Portsmouth. His works were and are still are considered great writings. I am of course talking here of Charles Dickens. For much of his adult life he identified with some powerful USA Unitarians, such as Channing who he maintained a long friendship with. In London he attended Essex Street and Little Portland Street Unitarian Chapels, but in later years moved to Rochester to be with family and returned nominally to the Church of England because there was no Unitarian Chapel in the area. At this time the Church of England also became a broader Church. Separated by distance he remained friends with Unitarians all his life.

Dickens's religious beliefs were those of most 19th century British Unitarians. In his will he urged his children to adopt a liberal, tolerant, and non-sectarian interpretation of Christianity, "the teaching of the New Testament in its broad spirit." He recommended they "put no faith in any man's narrow construction" of isolated passages. In The Life of Our Lord, written for his children and not published until 1934, Dickens summarized his faith as "to do good always." He believed humanity, created in the image of the divine, retained a seed of good. He preached the gospel of the second chance. The world would be a better place if, with a change of heart, people were to treat others with kindness and generosity. (Taken from web site UUA on Dickens)

Unitarians these days still sometimes look at our roots, looking at the Festivals of the Jewish year, and looking at the context of gospels once held as sacred can reassure us that we are still growing from our ancient roots. Others have been a part of what we are today, people like Charles Dickens have been a part of our past growth, and he too found strength and inspiration from Unitarian roots. Reason tolerance and freedom of religion are how we allow growth.
Those roots we still feed from now they can help us to produce good fruit. When I think about this old meeting place I often see it as an old olive tree. Those who have been around a long time may remember I spoke of the olive tree once before. Some olive trees have roots a couple of thousand years old, new growth can come to old stumps and trees can re-grow. We have started to see new growth.  Perhaps we stand more firmly on the ground than other ways of doing religion, we have allowed ourselves to evolve in our understanding and not to stick to one perception of any given religion. Our organized kindness does benefit the world already and there is no shortage of need to be satisfied. May we grow to do more good deeds as we stretch out our branches in the year ahead…
Let it be so..

The Jewish year and the Gospels Introduction Dec

Readings used..
Reading from the Bible..Matthew Chapter one..verses 15 – 25
Reading Genesis Chapter 36 verse 40 to Chapter 37 verse 11.

In the Jewish calendar we are in the month of Kislev and this particular period is about being in the midst of Winter. It is sometimes known as the month of dreams.  The name of the month could have several meanings, but all of them are reflective of hope positive ness and expectation. At the end of this period comes the festival of Chanukah as it is known today, but go back in time to the time of Jesus and this was known as a festival of Dedication. It celebrated the rededicating of the Temple in the period of around 200 BCE.

At the time when the synoptic gospels were written Matthew Mark & Luke that Temple had been completely destroyed by the Romans in CE70, It is from Mathew and Luke that we get what has become known as the Christmas Story.  These were not written as historical accounts, and in a recent book by Bishop John Spong I have been reading fresh insight is gained. He points to the fact that at the time of their writing Christianity was a sect in Judaism. At the time in Synagogues these so called gospels were commentaries on the Jewish readings of the time of the year. But synagogues like Churches had different views and associations; hence we have different accounts in the Gospels.

The much later Gospel of John, has none of the Christmas Story, this is because this gospel is written after the Christians were expelled from the synagogues as heretics.

Come back to the gospel of Mark and we have no Virgin birth, Shepherds, wise men and so on. Mark is clearly the oldest of the three Gospels here and some 90% of it is included in Matthew and some 50% in Luke. What is interesting is that both more or less follow the same narrative but add embellishments along the way. These Gospels are also written in Greek, something alien to the synagogues who used spoken Aramaic or Hebrew texts.
The synoptic Gospels as they are known actually reflect the Jewish year celebrations and are probably the way early Christians reflected on the then Torah read to the people. Once the selected passages of the law prophets and so on had been read to people in synagogues, people were asked to give reflection on those passages. The Synoptic’s are these reflections. In order to understand why we have different accounts we need to look at the Jewish calendar and try to see what these commentaries were trying to say in relation to the readings of the Torah at the time.

Look at the original Hebrew words for “Behold a virgin shall bear a child” that we have as the Greek synoptic’s have things, and you’ll find a different meaning in the Torah these Greek gentile writers try to reflect from the commentaries they record. It is in the Old Testament.. Behold a woman, not behold a virgin.  I could go on and detail every misconception made by these Gentile readers: But to what point?

We know there were no camels, no wise men, the dates for Herod and so on and so forth do not tally.  Look with fresh eyes at these synoptic gospels however and we do find parallels between the life of Jesus and things known to the Jewish people. Trips to Egypt, first son killed and so on and so forth. The year of Jesus Ministry reflects the year of festival readings of the Torah in the synagogues. Not the history of the times.

Go back to the season and the time of the year and we have stories and dreams in the wise men, the shepherds the angels. The synoptics are giving us Hope in Jesus, hence we have stories that reflect this. They continued to be stated in synagogues for a few more years, they were trying to show that this person Jesus was now the meeting place of God with his people. Until CE 70 the Jews believed for the most part that this was what the Temple in Jerusalem represented. Here the shekinah glory of God radiated to his chosen people Israel. Now that very temple was destroyed forever and Israel was no more, wiped from every map. Those who were “followers of the way” as they were known, who in CE 88 were excluded from the synagogues were saying that the shekinah glory was found in the life of a man who had been the messenger of the way.

The festival of dedication of the temple (now Chanukah)  was reflective of hope positive ness and expectation. It was an annual celebration one that featured how central to Judaism was that God had chosen this people to be a light to the nations. Just about everything in the synoptics is a story reflecting the background understanding of the Jewish people. Think in particular abut our two readings, one the end of the genealogy written by Matthew culminating in the earthly father of Joseph, who was a son of a Jacob.. What did he do? He had dreams..  Then look at our other reading from the time of the patriacs, we have another son of Jacob, following and genealogy in Geneses and what do we find, another dreamer called Joseph, son of another Jacob.. Interestingly these are huge similarities, but this is because what Matthew is trying to do is give continuity to a line of thinking ..Jewish thinking… The living Talmund.  Tradition passes from generation of how God revealed himself to his people.
Quotes and miss quotes from books such as the psalms and Isaiah and the minor prophets all end up these synoptics according to the times of the Jewish calendar when they would be read for consideration in synagogues.

This month is a time for hope and a time to be looking for our dreams to be good and a time to be looking forwards. But in terms of this congregation what are our expectations for the year to come?  Would like to say we are hopeful of continuing to build something here for the generations to come. Are we looking to the stars for signs? Interestingly the Orion constellation shines more brightly this time of the year and may have had a bearing on the reasons for the original seasons that are reflected in the Jewish calendar.
Looking to the stars is all well and good, but understanding them is not something I excel at, but looking at scripture I can claim a bit more knowledge. As we look forward to 2012 we agreed to consider becoming a more progressive Christian community.  I think this is looking forward with hope and a positive ness that reflects this season. While we may never look to scripture as some do, we do look to it to inspire our thoughts, to guide us as we glean more from its messages.

Each one of us will have slightly different hopes and expectations, that is a good thing and exactly what the Synoptic Gospels were written for. To say as we are saying, this is not the end. I suspect many found in the humanity of Jesus things that continued the story of the Children of Israel in a new way. That is what Johns gospel is about, a joyful retaliatory claim to the Jews from whom exile had taken place for Christians.. This is the story now, Jesus is the new covenant he is the Logos, the word, he is the Spirit, the manifestation of God on earth.. We have Gods shekinah glory now that the Temple is no more. 

In our lives we all reflect Gods glory, we all reflect that love told in stories about a man who lived called Jesus. Our expectation is to promote that and do those things that speak of love, to find for ourselves a little bit of knowing God that heartens our consciousness and lifts our spirits. Following the seasons, recalling the old stories and making each gathering a time to share in fellowship. Fellowship that is about being the Christ light, not preaching him at people, sharing hope positive ness and expectation for all humanity, and to all the earth that we may term creation. Many need that message at this time, in a world still full of uncertainty, greed and wrong doing to one another, our little bits of trying to get it right for all humanity count.. That’s the star we must follow this Christmas time.  This is the reason for ancient ways of viewing the season.. Stories that bring hope and expectation for the year still to come to birth..

Let it be so…