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Thursday, March 01, 2007

Esther, Humility, Mortification

As I am traveling in the desert with Jesus, I am trying to be more diligent about my scripture reading. There are a couple places online where you can find the daily office with all the scripture readings for that day. I particularly like Mission St. Clare as they have any saints of the day with their stories listed as well as a guided morning and evening prayer, so you know how to use this tool the Church has given us. Since I get on the computer relatively early in the day while nursing Jerome, I can pray and do the daily readings at the same time.

It's relatively easy to pray when you have small children. You pray all day, when you're tired, when you need to get work done and have no time, when you need patience, kindness, wisdom, when they are sick, when they are fighting with each other, when they have a spelling test, when they are healing, when they are getting along, when they delight you. This isn't always a long, eloquent prayer, often just a quick one. Dear Lord, please don't let them kill themselves. Please don't let me. You know, all that spiritual thinking that goes on in a mother's head. It doesn't matter how much you love them, they still do insane things. This is so we understand how we look to God.

*Me: Don't run in the house! And look in the direction you are moving! Do you understand me?

Child: Yes, Mama. (continues to run while looking backward all around the house. Because it's fun!!!)

Me: Are you new? Are we supposed to run in the house?

Child: shakes head, runs into the corner of the door, crashing and crying.

Me: hugs child. "Do you see why I say not to run in the house?"

Child: nods head, recovers and runs around some more.

Repeat from * to end of Mama's sanity.

This is very similar to God's relationship with me. Only He is more patient and forgiving.

*God: Hold your tongue. Just wait. I will handle it.

Me: Okay. (blathers on gathering steam).

God: Ranee, didn't I talk to you about that?

Ranee: Yeah, but You were taking too long. I'm going to help myself. You help those who help themselves, right? Besides, waiting is boring. (talks herself into a bad spot that felt like a short cut to the solution, but now feels like a long cut, and has made a highly uncomfortable day)

God: Didn't I tell you not to do that? Don't you see the problems that causes?

Me: Uh-huh. (starts drifting to other thoughts...)

Repeat from * to me being made into His likeness.

See, the difference between me and God (one of) is that I run out of patience, while He works on making me more like Him. Patient. Wise. Slow to anger. Quick to forgive.

Part of Lent is mortification. This isn't a word that gets a lot of use now. It is making dead. The Protestants out there will think of this in terms of dying to self. It is a scriptural concept, and one that gets ignored in much of modern Christianity, as it makes itself into a bad copy of the world. The Church! Just like the world only not as good at it! We'll entertain you, and give you pretty lit stages, and a soundtrack and if you bring this coupon with you, you can get a free espresso while you watch (we mean worship)! The modern church is so obsessed with personal blessing, God blessing our paths, and all that we do, that it has forgotten the way to God's blessing. Christ said to take up his cross and follow him. He said that the world would hate us, and that there would be trouble in this world, but to take heart for he has overcome the world.

An aside, I just saw a book in a bible book store which had a title including something like Finding Your Personal Glory. After I averted my eyes and cringed, I thought, "Aren't we supposed to be seeking God's glory?" Anyway, the early church didn't find much health and wealth as they were being persecuted, and though they grew and spread, and prospered, their prosperity came to fruition in very different ways than people are being taught to look for now. They took on mortification, because they were commanded to do so, but also because it is a fact that if you won't mortify yourself, God will find ways for you to be mortified.

So, part of my discipline is to return to regular scripture reading and meditation. It is a mortification to set aside time daily to study. Not because I hate to study the scriptures, but because there is so much else I want to do and don't have time for during the day. It is also mortifying to find my character described in the scriptures, and not so favorably all the time. It is so important to have time to pray and hear from the Lord, not just my quick hellos and requests, or even the thanksgiving, but to communicate with Him.

I have been using the daily lectionary as my guide, but while listening to the local Catholic radio this morning and found that their lectionary was different from ours this morning. Usually, the lectionaries for the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Methodist and Lutheran churches are the same, at least on Sundays, but rarely, there are differences. Perhaps more so during the week, I don't know. So, while we were reading in Deuteronomy this morning, the Roman Catholic reading was in Esther. This part was emphasized, and it really struck me.

Queen Esther, seized with mortal anguish, likewise had recourse to the Lord [some versions say fled to the Lord].

Then she prayed to the Lord, the God of Israel, saying: "My Lord, our King, you alone are God. Help me, who am alone and have no help but you, for I am taking my life in my hand.

Esther is lying prostrate before the Lord, all day and night, with her maid servants. This is also during a three day fast. She is praying in desperation and utter humility. She is literally faced with two options of death. If she does nothing, Haman will succeed in destroying all of the Jews in Persia, and if she approaches the king, her husband, without permission, the law allowed her to be put to death. Yet instead of despairing, she goes to the Lord and says that she can do nothing, nothing at all and asks Him to intercede. She confesses her people's sins, and asks forgiveness and protection of the Lord.

It is this kind of prayer that I wish to pray. Not a flippant, please rubber stamp my plans kind of prayer, but a prayer in which I present my absolute weakness to God for Him to redeem. Christ redeemed suffering and weakness when he redeemed Man from sin on the cross, but if I hold on to mine and refuse to offer it to God to be transformed, it is simply worthless, wasted weakness. It is my desire to come before God, prostrate and receptive to hear His answers and plans, rather than to submit my own. This requires humility and mortification. A holy priest I know, the priest who married us and baptized our children, once said that humility can be practiced by listening to another rather than working on your response while they are speaking. This is especially true in our relationship with God. You may not get the last word, or the best word, but you will be mortifying yourself, and putting that person, or Person, first.

If you are not familiar with this passage, you may be wondering where in the bible this is. This is taken from the Greek texts of Esther, not found in most Protestant bibles. In bibles which have it listed separately, rather than in context, it is numbered as Esther 14:1, 3-4, in those versions which have it in context, it is Esther C 12, 14-15. If you are a part of much of modern Protestantism, you may want to know why I am quoting a Catholic addition to the bible, though there are some parts of Protestantism which do accept these books.

These texts, and a few other books missing from those bibles, are commonly called the Deuterocanonical texts. They are the writings between the first and second covenant. It is from these books (The Maccabees, to be specific) that the story of Channuka is related, that we learn about the angel Raphael, that the names Judith and Tobias originate, that the birth of the Messiah would come in the middle of the night is prophesied, among various other wisdom and information. The Greek bible is what the Apostles used, quoted both in their letters that are outside of scripture as well as in the New Testament. These books were included, in order, in both the original King James version of the bible and the Gutenberg bible. Until the Protestant Reformation, these books were universally accepted as canon.

It was only because Luther, and later Calvin, Knox and Zwingli, could not square their theology with the these scriptures that they were removed. These men also tried to remove the book of James, Revelation and most of the catholic letters, for many of the same reasons, but faced too much opposition. The main reason they gave for not keeping the deuterocanonical books was that they were only available in Greek, not in Hebrew. However, since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, this argument should have been revisited, since they were indeed found there. Also, since the Jewish scriptural canon wasn't decided until after the Christian canon was made, is is an odd thing for a Christian to argue based on that. The Jews also honor the oral tradition in a way much more like the Catholic/Orthodox/Anglican communions, so not having a text in the canon of scripture doesn't make it any less inspired or binding, and therefore doesn't pose the same problem in Judaism that is does in modern Protestantism. Since excising these books from the bible, many people have said that they were not quoted by the New Testament writers, but this is also incorrect, and requires a deliberate filter to miss all of the references within the New Testament alone. In the passage in Ephesians about putting on the whole armor of God, for example, Paul is quoting almost exactly a passage from the Wisdom of Solomon. I have also read an explanation that implies that these books were not considered canon until the Council of Trent. This is misleading. The Catholic church stated authoritatively at that time that these books were canon. That is true. However, it was in response to reformers removal of them, and was a statement of affirmation, as the original bible used by the Apostles and early church included these texts, St. Jerome's translation into the common tongue, known as the Vulgate, also included them and the Orthodox, which had broken from Rome much earlier and therefore wouldn't be bound by the Council of Trent, also accepted these books.

So, my answer to those who ask about all these books that were added to the bible is to respond by asking why these books were removed from the bible. The answer leads to the conclusion that it was strictly ideologically driven. We'll talk about the myth that the bible wasn't available in the common language of the people before the Protestant Reformation another time.

Now that I've given you a sermon and an education, may I suggest that you read David Mills' exhortation to give up something for Lent, even if that isn't your normal practice or the tradition of your church. His thoughts on it are quite edifying. Lenten sacrifices are not intended to be purging of our souls problems, but rather physical and mental training so we can do the spiritual discipline every day, all the time, not simply for a season. So the dietary restrictions that many use, and the abstaining from favorite activities or other similar things, isn't at all a reflection on the goodness of those things, nor are they to be seen as something that should be given up for all time, they also aren't just some little thing we give up to make us look good, but they are to be a way of training our minds and souls to give up greater things that we hold on to, such as our attachment to sin. Also, in the Tradition, fasting is code for fasting, praying and almsgiving. They are the trinity of the fast. Lent and Advent are penitential seasons, so we pray, examining our consciences, seeking forgiveness from God and repenting. This is the kind of prayer that is recommended during the fast.

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You know, I'm not particularly Christian, and I think I'm definitely not Catholic, but it is such a joy to me to read something like this, that comes from a point of understanding and education of the religion you are living. From that point of view, I say, nicely said. :)
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