A Light Against Darkness

Yesterday marked the beginning of Advent, and this year, it was the start of Hannukah, the Jewish “Festival of Lights.” It is somewhat of a minor holiday in Jewish tradition, owing its prominence in our culture to the fact that it is celebrated around the same time of year that Christians celebrate Christmas. But the festival of lights recalls a dark period in Jewish history. Judah had returned to its land and had rebuilt Jerusalem and the Temple, but for centuries it was ruled and dominated by powerful neighbors (Babylon, Persia, Greece). In 167 BCE, a Seleucid monarch, Antiochus IV Epiphanies, set up an altar to Zeus inside the Jewish Temple. Apocalyptic Daniel refers to this event as “the abomination of desolation” (Daniel 9:27; 11:30-31). It was a dark time for the Jews

This event scandalized the Jews in Jerusalem and led to the Maccabean revolt. Jacob Maccabees restored the temple with an 8-day rededication ceremony, lighting the menorahs in the Temple courts (which is inspiration for Hannukah). The Maccabean revolt would lead to the formation of the Hasmonean dynansty (140 BCE-37BCE) which ruled for a hundred years before the Herodians rose to power. (1 and 2 Maccabees in the Old Testament deuterocanonical books tell this story).

I am not Jewish, I don’t celebrate Hannukah. The closest I come is a rousing rendition of Adam Sandler’s Hannukah song. This is not my tradition to appropriate. But as I began my reflections this Advent on Darkness and Light, I think there is something worth paying attention to. I respect my Jewish friends and they have lots to teach me.

The lighting the menorah at Hannukah, was about rededication, restoring what had been profaned when Antiochus IV desecrated the temple. For Jewish people, it a festival about maintaining their Jewish identity in the face of a dominant culture, that is often antagonistic toward their community. It is an act of political resistance.

When we light our Advent candles and wait for the coming of the Lord, we too are doing something counter-cultural designed to stave off the dark. To light a candle of hope for the coming of Christ, is to take a stand against the powers, the principalities, and rulers of this age.

It is the 21st Century, and we have seen our own abomination of desolation. We have seen so-called followers of the Prince of Peace beat the drums of war. We have seen those who proclaim Christ as healer and savior, turn their back on the oppressed widow, orphan and the aliens in our land. We have watched as followers of Jesus have chosen personal freedom and autonomy over compassion, care and community in ignoring mask and vaccine mandates. We have witnessed (and sometimes participated in) the desecration of the image of God in people we don’t see politically eye-to-eye with. And when people are called to account for ways in which they have victimized, bullied, and oppressed people, we denounce accusers for the political correctness and their counter-culture. We fight for the freedom of the abuser instead of fighting for the life of the abused.

Light the Advent candle. Light it in hope that the world we live in, is not the world we will live in. Light the Advent candle. Light it in hope that it doesn’t have to be this way. Light the Advent candle. Light the Advent candle and know: a light shines in the darkness and darkness has not overcome it (John 1:5).

Espiritu Santo and John’s Gospel

It started at a prayer meeting several weeks ago. While praying for my city I felt led to read Jesus’ words and to pray for the Spirit to come afresh to my city, “Jesus stood and said in a loud voice, ‘Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.’ By this he meant the Holy Spirit” (John 7:37-39).

The image of a spring of the Holy Spirit set my mind ablaze. The town I live and minister in is Safety Harbor—the ‘Green Spring city.’ According to the local legend, the Spanish explorer Hernando De Soto discovered the natural springs of our city when he landed in Tampa Bay ca. 1539. Believing that springs were the site of Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth, he christened these springs Espiritu Santo—the springs of the Holy Spirit.  These springs now sit in the belly of a Spa and Resort in town. Over the years it has been the site of bathhouses and health spas.  These waters that flowed here were once revered and sought after for their healing properties.

Thinking of springs of living water in a prayer meeting made me wonder about the metaphoric and spiritual significance of water in John’s gospel.  I do better reading the Bible if I ask questions for the text. So I read through John looking for water.  Four of John’s ‘sign’ miracles involve water: The wedding of Cana (2:1-12), the healing at the pool of Bethesda (5:1-15), Jesus’ walking on water (6:16-24), Healing of the blind man when he washes in the pool of Siloam (John 9:7; 11; 15).  Additionally Jacob’s Well provides a meeting place between Jesus and a Samaritan woman (John 4) and Jesus washes his disciples feet (John 13). During the crucifixion, Jesus thirst (19:28) and the act is done when blood and water pour from the wound in Christ’s side (19:34).  The book closes on the shores of Galilee when several disciples meet the Lord after a night after returning to fishing (John 21). While there are several other motifs in John’s gospel, water flows through it.

But as I read John’s gospel and asked questions about water and its significance I also noticed where water was lacking.  The gospel that gives us ‘living water’ is surprisingly not wet. While the synoptic gospels record several trips across the Sea of Galilee by Jesus and the disciples in John the disciples are in the boat in just two chapters (in John 6 framing the feeding of the five-thousand and their return to fishing in John 21). Even the call of Simon and Andrew is surprisingly waterless.  Jesus doesn’t board Simon’s boat and send him to deep water so he can teach the crowds (like he does in Luke 5). Nor are we told of Jesus’ encounter with Simon Peter and Andrew and the sons of Zebedee while they were mending their nets (like in both Mark and Matthew). Instead Andrew seeks out Jesus because of John the Baptist’s testimony about him. He runs and tells Simon, ‘We have found the Messiah” (John 1:42).  Here their coming to Jesus emphasizes their coming more than Christ’s initial call, but it is noticeably dryer.

I think part of what John is doing in drying out the scene is playing with the metaphor of water.  The theme of thirst becomes more significant and urgent under the dry Palestinian sun (John 4, 6:35, 7:37, and 19:28).  The lack of water makes us pay attention when we find it. But often John’s gospel sets out to marginalize the importance of water, setting it alongside God’s spirit and Christ’s presence.

The first time we see water in the text is chapter 1. John the Baptizer comes a baptizing (1:28). He tells the Pharisees, “I baptize with water” (1:26). The one who would come after him (Jesus) was going to baptize with the Holy Spirit (and not just water). In John 2:1-12, six jugs for ceremonial washing are filled with water and transformed to new wine. As significant as baptism (and other ceremonial cleansing is) the Spirit and New Wine are offered as something radically better.  In John 3, Jesus tells Nicodemus that those in the Kingdom need to be born not only of water but also of the Spirit (3:5). It is clear from these texts that water is valued as a natural commodity, but Jesus was unfolding a spiritual, supernatural reality. By the end of chapter three we learn that Jesus’ disciples are baptizing more people than John (3:26; 4:1).

Water is again compared with the things of God continues in John 4. Jesus meets a Samaritan woman at well and asks her for a drink. They begin with a conversation about water.  But Jesus turns the conversation to something better than mere water. Something he calls living water,” If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water” (4:10). And again, “Anyone who drinks this water [the water from the well] will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:13, 14).  By the end of their conversation, the woman leaves her water jug (this is significant) and goes to tell people of her town about Jesus (4:28).

In John 5, an invalid for thirty-eight years is unable to get himself to the waters of Bethesda to heal himself when an angel troubles the water.  Jesus comes and heals the man instantly. Telling him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk” (5:8). Jesus is greater than healing waters.

In John 6, again Jesus promises that those who come to him will never thirst (John 6:35). This time he compares the thirst quenching aspect of water to being nourished by his presence—eating his flesh and drinking his blood (6:53-58).  The crowds desert Jesus preferring easier, more digestible fare, but here again Jesus is setting the supernatural over and against the merely natural. Just before this Jesus appears to his disciples walking on the waters (6:16-24).

In John 7:37-8, the passage that sent me on my quest, Jesus promises those who believe in him would be filled with rivers of living water and John interprets this for us, “By this he meant the Holy Spirit.”  In a number of texts we see Jesus (and John the Baptist) poking at the significance and necessity of water: to signify repentance, to wash, to quench thirst, to heal. Yet as we see over and over again as significant water is for human flourishing, what Jesus brings is far richer and more meaningful than anything water brings us. Just as we thirst for water, we ought to thirst after the things of God.

So I sit in my church office, not a half mile away from the springs my city is founded on. While there is legend of the healing properties and significance of theses springs, I know this city needs something more. May the springs of the Holy Spirit flow through Safety Harbor.  Springs greater than anything that occurs in the natural world. May this city encounter Jesus afresh and find freedom, healing, cleansing and satisfaction in him.

The Third Word from the Cross

Jesus’ mother was standing next to his cross along with her sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene. Jesus looked to see His mother and the disciple He loved standing near by.

Jesus (to Mary, His Mother): Dear woman, this is your son(motioning to the beloved disciple)! (to John, His disciple) This is now your mother. (John 19:25-27-The Voice)

Throughout the gospel narratives, Jesus’ relationship with his mother seemed strained. When he was twelve he ditched his parents to go to temple(Luke 2:41-49). As an adult, Mary approaches Jesus to help with a wine shortage at a wedding, he responds, “Woman, what has that to do with me?(John 2:4)” I know, from years of Bible studies and commentaries that ‘Woman’ was a common address during the time, something like “Dear woman.” But try as I might I cannot make this phrase of Jesus sound like he’s being nice to mom.

mary&JohnOnce when his mother and brothers came to get him, fearing he was off his rocker, he virtually disowned them. “Who are my mother and brothers? You here are my mothers and brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my true family (Mark 3:33,35).”

And it is this Jesus who uttered the words that warm every mother’s heart, “If you come to me without hating your own father, mother, wife, children, brother, sister, and yes, even your own life, you can’t be my disciple. (Luke 14:26).

But on the cross, Jesus took a moment away from dying for are sins to focus on the family. “This is your son. . .this is now your mother.” What does this mean? What is the significance of this little interchange?

Was Jesus taking time to make sure his mother is cared for in his absence? Was he giving his mom and disciple shoulders to cry on in their grief? Certainly there is an element of provision here for his grieving mother. A good Jewish boy would see that his mother was properly cared for in her old age. Augustine observes as much:

AUGUSTINE. (Tr. cxix. 1) This truly is that hour of the which Jesus, when about to change the water into wine, said, Mother, what have I to do with thee? Mine hour is not yet come. Then, about to act divinely, He repelled the mother of His humanity, of His infirmity, as if He knew her not: now, suffering humanly, He commends with human affection her of whom He was made man. Here is a moral lesson. The good Teacher shews us by His example how that pious sons should take care of their parents. The cross of the sufferer, is the chair of the Master.

But this brief episode also invites reflection on the significance of Mary. As Stanley Hauerwas writes:

Mary, the Jew is in a singular fashion becomes for us the forerunner of the faith, making it impossible for Christians to forget without God’s promise to Israel our faith is in vain. When Christians repress the role of Mary in our salvation we are tempted to forget that God remains faithful to his promises to his people, the Jews. Our Savior was born of Mary, making us, like the Jews, a bodily people who live by faith in the One who asks us to behold his crucified body.

Jesus therefore, commands the disciple, his beloved disciple, not to regard Mary as Jesus’s mother but rather to recognize that Mary is “your mother.” Mary’s peculiar role in our salvation does not mean that she is seperate from the church. Rather, Mary’s role in our salvation is singular because, beginning with the beloved disciple she is made a member of the church. Mary is one of us which means the distance between her and us is that constituted by both her and our distance between the Trinity and us, that is, between creatures and Creator. (Cross-Shattered Christ, 53-54)

Mary’s yes thirty-something years before inaugurated the events that led to this moment. Her son, the God of the universe, was stretched out on a cross. With dying breath he honors her for her role and her love for him. He gave John to her as a son, reconstituting family. It is not an overstatement to say, that church is born at the foot of the cross. And the hopes of Mary, and with her all of Israel, are bound up in the Son she saw die.