In May I’ll be teaching a Sunday school class at my church on the Communion of Saints. I know, that’s not really a hot topic for Baptists, but strangely enough that is what they wanted me to talk about. So I’ll take a couple of weeks to look at how the dead were remembered and reverenced in ancient Israel and the surrounding cultures, unpack a bit of church history about the development of early Christian devotion to the saints, and cap it off by trying to raise questions about how twenty-first-century Protestants might think about all of this in fresh ways while remaining true to their theological convictions.
Probably because I’ve been reading (for the second or third time) Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince with my daughter for the last few weeks, I began to notice a couple of days ago that the Boy Who Lived himself might provide some help in shaping that last session.
Maybe I’m the last person in the world to notice this, but the Harry Potter novels actually have quite a bit to say about how the living can interact with the dead, and the benefits that accrue such relationships. For example:
- We can draw strength generally from the memory of what they mean to us, as with Harry’s Patronus (and Snape’s). Need I mention that patronus is Latin for “patron [saint]”?
- We can imaginatively relive their experiences to gain wisdom and insight, as with Dumbledore’s Pensieve.
- We can keep around us reminders of their former presence, which still speak to us in their customary tones. The talking, moving paintings that adorn the halls of Hogwarts are the prime example.
- Finally, we can interact directly with whatever part of them remains accessible to the living, as with the Hogwarts ghosts or the “shadows” invoked by the Resurrection Stone.
I’m thinking only the last of these may be theologically problematic for traditional Protestants.
Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman imparts some Seder wisdom for our time:
But think of it. When is it normal to plead, “Enough”? Not when we don’t deserve something, but when we don’t really want it. It is as if, at each step, we pleaded, “Enough already! Please, God, no more.”
Dayyenu should be read alongside the well-known midrashim that emphasize how little Israel wanted the responsibility of being a chosen people. God, we are told, first offered Torah to other nations, who refused it altogether. We agreed to shoulder its burden only after God lifted Mt. Sinai over our heads and threatened us with extinction otherwise.
Looking back, we might find good reason to have been wary. Given the task of Torah and the history of being Jewish, we can well imagine our ancestors pleading, “Enough already. Who needs being chosen?” Every single redemptive step implies further obligation. Wouldn’t just a little obligation have been enough?
We know how it ends. We did not short-circuit salvation. God did it all, and so must we.
To the extent that it is possible for a lifelong Baptist to have a patron saint, Joseph of Nazareth is one of two that I will claim. (The other is Vincent of Lérins, whose feast day is May 24.) I’m drawn to his story as a loyal, humble husband and father. I know what it’s like to need to find a new place to live—and in a hurry! Here are some of the lessons Christians can learn from Joseph:
1. Meat-and-potatoes spirituality. Joseph was not a prophet, priest, or rabbi. He was simply a “righteous man” who tried to do what was right, based on the laws and traditions of Israel. He ensured that Jesus was properly received into the Jewish community through circumcision and the ceremony for the redemption of the firstborn. He participated in at least some of the pilgrimage feasts in Jerusalem. Even his early inclination divorce Mary discreetly when he suspected she was unfaithful grew out of his commitment to the Torah. People who make their living with their hands don’t as a rule have much time for abstractions, but they can be very good at a lot of old-fashioned spiritual disciplines like honesty, generosity, consistency, and hard work.
2. Openness to mystery. All this does not mean, however, that Joseph merely went through the motions of his religion. It is clear that he was open to hearing something fresh from God. On a number of occasions, angels delivered important information or instructions through his dreams.
3. Family as a vehicle for devotion. We remember Joseph because he took care of his family. That is his spiritual legacy: not sermons, miracles, epistles, or missionary travels. In a lot of depictions of the Nativity, Joseph is portrayed with a worried expression on his face. Even at the incarnation Joseph, we are led to believe, was wondering how he was ever going to take care of his wife and her newborn son. He may not have been the most pious or well-educated man in Israel—and he was certainly not the richest—but he gave his all to the people he loved.
4. Actions, not words. There is not a single recorded word of Joseph in the New Testament. There is no Magnificat when the angel announces that Mary’s son is the promised Messiah—or even a bewildered “How can this be?” There are no gentle words to Mary when he tells her he has changed his mind and wants to go through with the wedding. Nor are there any bold challenges to any who would question Mary’s honor. We know what Joseph is like not because of anything he says, but because of what he does.
O God, who called your servant Joseph to be the faithful guardian of your incarnate Son, and the spouse of his virgin mother: Give us grace to follow his example in constant worship of you and obedience to your commands, that our homes may be sanctified by your presence, and our children nurtured in your fear and love, through the same your son Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.
I’m thankful for
- The love of God, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit
- A loving, longsuffering wife
- A brilliant, happy, healthy ten-year-old daughter
- Freedom to practice my faith without anybody looking over my shoulder
- The King James Version of the Bible
- The Screwtape Letters
- A warm house with a full refrigerator
- Parents who care, help, and advise without being pushy
- A job where I’m appreciated
- Ray Charles
- A church where I’m both challenged and comforted
- The Proto-Sinaitic alphabet
- Archbishop Malkhaz Songulashvili
- The unforgettable experience of celebrating a Baptist Eucharist that involved vestments, chant, and real wine in a golden chalice
- Writers who help me see Scripture in different ways
- Interstate 75 (except around Atlanta)
- The Charlie Brown Christmas Special
- The Mercer University Children’s Choir
- Two arms, two legs, and all five senses
- The Internet
- Students who indulge me by laughing at my jokes
- Bedtime stories
What are you thankful for?
Jesus’ enemies denounced him as a friend of sinners. He never denied the charge. In fact he augmented it: “I’ve come for people who are sick, not those who are healthy.”
It seems to me we do a disservice to Jesus and diminish the amazingness of grace when we take sin out of this equation. Yes, Jesus was a friend of folks who couldn’t keep up with all the religious rules, people who were mistreated and scorned by the hyper-scrupulous majority, people who were deemed “sick” because of factors beyond their control.
But Jesus was also a friend of adulterers, prostitutes, tax cheats, insurrectionists, and pagan idolators (like the centurion). At least once, after pouring out his unmerited, compassionate grace upon one such person, he said, “Go, and sin no more.”
It’s relatively easy to befriend misunderstood minorities or oppressed people, especially if you’ve been a victim of oppression, too. But to acknowledge that someone is destroying his or her soul through immoral behavior, to see the brokenness of their lives (whether we prefer to call it addiction, compulsive behavior, or simple depravity) and then turn around and love them unconditionally anyway? I’m not sure we have the courage or the creativity to do that. At least, I’m not entirely sure that I do.
Whatever else you do this Columbus Day, please read this column by Mark Buchanan. Please.
“It must be hard for you,” I said to the First Nations people, “to believe that salvation has come to my house when I refuse to repent of behavior that’s harmed you deeply. It must be hard to believe the Bible and its Good News when white people have had it for so long but don’t seem any better for it.”