Saturday, August 31, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

May Thy rich grace impart
Strength to my fainting heart,
My zeal inspire;
As Thou hast died for me,
O may my love to Thee
Pure, warm, and changeless be,
A living fire!

- Verse 2 of Ray Palmer's hymn "My Faith Looks Up to Thee"

Friday, August 30, 2019

Hymn of the Week: I Bind Unto Myself (St Patrick's Breastplate)

This hymn is an adaptation of the famous ancient Irish prayer attributed to Saint Patrick (often called "St. Patrick's Breastplate"). There have been many attempts to render his prayer-poem into song--my current favorite is the recent worship song by All Sons and Daughters, "Christ Be All Around Me"--and my own effort adds to that corpus only in that it adheres more closely to a traditionally hymnic form. Much of the verse material comes directly from a translation of St. Patrick's prayer as recorded in the Treasury of Religious Verse (1972), along with a chorus that I wrote based on the central theme of the original Irish poem. I've recorded it to a repeated use of the tune from Isaac Watts' "Jesus Shall Reign," but it would fit any Long Meter tune scheme.

I Bind Unto Myself

I bind unto myself today
The power of God to hold and lead,
His eye to watch, His might to stay,
His ear to hearken to my need;
The wisdom of my God to teach,
His hand to guide, His shield to ward;
The word of God to give me speech,
His heavenly host to be my guard.
     Christ be before me, Christ behind,
     Christ in the eye and in the mind
     Of all who see me on this day,
     Following in my Savior's way.
               Amen, Amen, Amen!

I bind unto myself the name,
The strong name of the Trinity;
By invocation of the same:
The Three in One and One in Three,
Maker of all, seen and unseen,
Eternal Father, Spirit, Word;
Praise to the God who sets me free:
Salvation comes from Christ my Lord!
     Christ be before me, Christ behind,
     Christ in the eye and in the mind
     Of all who see me on this day,
     Following in my Savior's way.
               Amen, Amen, Amen!

Thursday, August 29, 2019

Pilgrimage Memoir: The Way the Temple Faced

 Well may the cavern-depths of Earth be shaken, and her mountains nod;
Well may the sheeted dead come forth to gaze upon a suffering God!
Well may the Temple-shrine grow dim, and shadows veil the Cherubim,
When he, the chosen one of Heaven, a sacrifice for guilt is given!
O, shall the heart--whose sinfulness gave keenness to his sore distress,
And added to his tears of blood--refuse its trembling gratitude?

- John Greenleaf Whittier, "The Crucifixion"

~ ~ ~

            As the next day dawned in Jerusalem, I was getting nervous. Onus was shuffling the schedule around with a fairly free hand, advised by Nora on the best ways to do so. Our original slate of activities for Jerusalem hadn’t been cropped of any items—if anything, we had found room to fit more sites in than we originally thought—but the order was being shifted, such that the one place that I most wanted to visit in all of Israel—the Church of the Holy Sepulchre—was looking more and more squeezed in its precarious slot for our final day in Jerusalem. The premise behind changing our schedule was a good one: our final two days in Israel marked that nation’s Memorial Day, followed by its 70th anniversary of Independence, and so we had shifted forward some of our visits (like Bethlehem) that would have otherwise put us in places potentially hostile to Israel and the US on those particular days. But I began to have a nagging feeling that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was going to face the same fate on this pilgrimage as so many other churches had: a hasty ten-minute glance, without time enough to breathe the ancient air or say a prayer. All of that was still a day away; nonetheless, on our second-to-last day I was beginning to feel the anxiety inherent in the danger of leaving the best things for last.
            The day before us, though, promised to be an interesting one: a morning walk around a few Jerusalem sites before we headed east again, toward the Dead Sea and the mountain fortress of Masada. And the first stop on our agenda was the centerpiece of biblical history itself. We were going to the Temple Mount. Despite all of my prior research, this was a stop that took me a little by surprise. I hadn’t known that it was permitted to walk across the Temple Mount itself. I assumed we would be visiting the Wailing Wall (as indeed we did, a day later), but I knew how closely-watched the Temple Mount was by its Muslim caretakers, and so the possibility of being able to walk its sacred grounds had not occurred to me.
            We ascended toward the Temple Mount from the south, from the direction of David’s old city—the same way that Solomon and all the kings of old would have walked up to the sacred grounds on Mount Moriah. We could see the ruins of the southern steps where many pilgrims in Jesus’ day (including, likely, the Lord himself) would have entered the holy precincts. The pathway took us up beside the southwestern corner, where on one side we could see the rubble of the Temple’s destruction—blocks thrown down by Roman soldiers in AD 70—and on the other side the gathered masses of faithful Jews at the Wailing Wall, offering their morning prayers. Then the walkway led us up onto the vast open courtyard of the Temple Mount itself, and the sheer space of it stood as a remarkable testament ot the scale of Solomon’s achievement (and of Herod’s later reconstruction). It was peaceful, almost parklike, with trees and sunshine and a vast fountain in the space between the mosque and the gold-domed shrine. In one wide corner of the platform were arranged remnants of the old Herodian pillars from the first-century Temple, capitals and fragments of the highest workmanship. 
            I paused for a moment to take in the vast mosque on the southern end—a low, wide building with a series of arched doorways that bespoke its Crusader heritage. Like many things on the Temple Mount, it whispered its memories of other faiths. Though now a mosque (and one of the most important mosques in the entire Muslim world), the building itself was an old Crusader palace, where Baldwin had reigned as king over Jerusalem. It had served as a church, too, and as a headquarters of the old Christian Knights Templar, before being turned to its present function. In the same way, the Dome of the Rock itself, the centerpiece of the Temple Mount, had been built as a Muslim shrine, then converted to a church during Crusader rule, before being put back to its original use. It heartened me somewhat to think that I was standing in the midst of old churches, though, truth be told, Christianity didn’t have much of a claim to the space: the Muslims were the first post-Jewish rulers to use the Temple Mount as a sacred space again (early Byzantine Christians tended to ignore it, believing that the Body of Christ had fulfilled completely the position and significance of the Temple).
            You might think, on reading this rambling historical prologue, that I know quite a bit about the history of the Temple Mount. But that’s far from the case. I was shocked to discover during this trip that for my whole life, and in the face of clear biblical evidence to the contrary, I had been picturing the Temple Mount entirely backwards. I’m the sort of person who always has maps and pictures in my head, and the map and picture in my head for the Temple always showed the doors pointed west, with the Holy of Holies aligned east, toward the rising sun. This seemed natural to me: old churches were usually aligned this way, and further, it struck me as fitting that the doors would be facing the main part of the city, the entrance visible for the people to see as they looked up toward it on the eastern edge of their city. As it turns out, however, the Temple was pointed exactly the other way: doors to the east, the Holy of Holies toward the west, and the blank back wall of the Temple was what most of the city would see when it looked up at Mount Moriah. Its doors were thrown open not toward the city, but toward the pilgrims and their promised Messiah, who would come over the crest of the Mount of Olives to see the Temple welcoming them with open arms.
            Well, okay, so I was wrong about its directional orientation. Why does this matter? Well, let me pick up the narrative of my visit to the Temple Mount to explain. We ascended a short flight of stairs to the upper platform, where the massive, gorgeous shrine of the Dome of the Rock dominated the center of a vast esplanade. Now we were walking close to the hallowed courts of the Temple itself, that scene of so many wonders: of Abraham bringing his son Isaac up Mount Moriah to sacrifice; of David seeing his vision of the Angel of the Lord at Araunah’s threshing-floor, where God’s mercy stopped judgment in its tracks; of Solomon constructing the Temple and the cloud of God’s shekinah-glory filling the place with his power; of centuries of faithful priests offering prayers and sacrifices for the sins of the people; of Jesus teaching and driving out money-changers; and of the disciples preaching the good news of salvation in Jesus’ name. All these scenes whirled through my mind in a moment as I looked up at the gold-plated dome. I didn’t share the exact same faith that that dome represented, but as a marker for a place made unspeakably sacred by the great works of God, it was a fittingly awe-inspiring structure.
            But then I started to look around. On one side, just there to the east, was the Garden of Gethsemane at the base of the Mount of Olives. I thought once again of Jesus praying there, and of him being able to look up and see the Temple before him: the doors of the entrance and the glowing sacrifice-altar. It was as if he could look up into the open face of his Father--at the very doorways that led into the Holy of Holies itself. But then I turned and looked in the other direction. And there, to the west, were the blue domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, marking the area both of Jesus’ crucifixion and of his burial. And in that moment it struck me that the position of the Temple really did matter in Jesus’ story. When he was hanging on the cross, dying, he would have been put on display to face the nearest gate and city wall, due east of Golgotha. And so, facing east, he would have been looking straight up at the blank back wall of the Temple. When he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”, the one thing dominating his field of view would have been the Temple, facing away. It was as if God the Father had, quite literally, had to turn his back on his Son. The Temple faced east, toward the dawning of a new sunrise, and its back was toward Golgotha.
            Suddenly the pain of Jesus’ torment on the cross ripped like a floodtide through my mind. There at the Temple Mount, we weren’t just standing in a place made holy by the shekinah-presence of God; we were standing at the axis-point of Christ’s own passion. To the east, the Garden of Gethsemane; to the south, the prison-pit of Caiaphas; to the north, the Via Dolorosa, where tradition long believed Jesus to have been judged and to have carried his cross; and to the west, the hill of Calvary itself. I was standing in the center of the world, and it was all about Jesus.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Photo of the Week

When my soul is o'erwhelmed by the waves of distress,
And doubt and despair my faint spirits oppress,
May the beacon of faith, beaming bright from above,
Guide my tempest-tossed barque to Thy harbor of love.

- from #79 of the Augustine Hymn Book, 19th cent.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Quote of the Week

"It is never too late to be what you might have been."

- George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans), 19th-century novelist

Saturday, August 24, 2019

Saturday Synaxis

I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.

- the Apostle Paul (Eph. 3:16-21)

(Image: Baroque ceiling fresco from Ljubljana Catheral, Slovenia, painted by Giulio Quaglio in the early 18th century; photo by Petar Milosevic; usage licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike International 4.0 license)

Friday, August 23, 2019

Hymn of the Week: Our God Is Lord of All

My new hymn this week is set to an adapted version of the old Robert Lowry tune to the hymn "Something for Thee." (Most of the tune remains the same, but I've composed a different final line.) The chorus that I've written comes from the song of the angels before the throne of God in Rev. 7:12. The verses introduce this paean of worship with reflections on each member of the Trinity.

Our God Is Lord of All

Our God is Lord of all,
Over all things sovereign.
In Him is love and grace,
Joy without end!

     Praise, glory, and honor,
     And wisdom, strength, and pow'r
     Be to our God forever
     Amen, Amen!

Christ is our Savior,
Master and friend.
By his death and new life,
We may enter in.


The Spirit is our guide,
Always, ever present,
Giving us pow'r to love
And to repent.


Thursday, August 22, 2019

Pilgrimage Memoir: Of Doves and Tongues of Flame

O, the outward hath gone!--but in glory and power,
The Spirit surviveth the things of an hour;
Unchanged, undecaying, its Pentecost flame
On the heart's secret altar is burning the same!

- John Greenleaf Whittier, "Palestine"

~ ~ ~

          As had happened on our first day in Jerusalem, we came to the end of our second day to find that we still had time remaining after seeing all the sites on our list. This was perfect: there was still another site nearby that I very much wanted to see, but which wasn’t included on our initial agenda: the Cenacle, or, as it’s better known to us, the Upper Room (“cenacle” comes from its Latin designation). One would think that the reputed site of Jesus’ Last Supper, as well as the site of Pentecost, would be a must-see for most Christians, but it sometimes gets left off of tour schedules for three reasons: (1) because its authenticity is questioned; (2) because it’s a disputed area caught amid the tensions of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism; and (3) because there’s frankly not much to see there—it’s one of the rare instances in which a modern site actually might look quite a bit like the original: just a big, plain, open room.
          But I had done some advance reading on the site, and I found the historical case for its authenticity to be, if not compelling, at least fairly plausible. There is a very ancient thread of evidence, likely going back to traditions associated with the early Jewish-Christian community on Mount Zion, that pointed to this spot as the Upper Room of Jesus and the apostles. So, having plugged my case to Onus for a visit there if time should allow, I now found to my great delight that my hope would be realized. We left the church of St Peter in Gallicantu and trudged a bit further up the slope of Mount Zion, past the Zion Gate of the Old City and into a remarkably narrow alley that led to the precincts where the ancient Byzantine cathedral of Hagia Sion once stood.
          Today, there is once again a beautiful Christian church on Mount Zion, the Dormition Abbey, constructed by German Catholics in the late 19th century. Though not as big as the ancient Hagia Sion would have been (the walls of the massive old church stretched right up to the Cenacle itself), it does rest on part of the footprint of the cathedral that once commemorated the birthplace of Christianity. The present church is built in honor of the tradition that the Virgin Mary lived out her years there, and that it was there that she fell asleep in the Lord (to use the original Christian way of talking about death)—thus the name “Dormition Abbey” (the second half of the name refers to the fact that it is the church of an adjoining monastic community, not a parish church).
          As we walked toward it (the Cenacle being a few turns around and behind the church), Norah asked if we wanted to see it. The invitation to see a church is never one to be turned down. I don’t know exactly how my foot-weary fellow pilgrims were feeling, but I voiced an immediate assent. So Norah took us around the front and inside, revealing one of the most beautiful churches we had the pleasure of seeing in Israel. The inner space was cavernous and lofty, and we drank in its beauty. Down below, in the church’s crypt, was a beautiful rosewood statue of the Virgin Mary on her deathbed, as well as side-chapels with works of art depicting Pentecost and the heavenly worship of the Lamb of God.
          After that brief excursion, we went to the Cenacle itself. Though the Upper Room is a holy site associated with only one of the three major religions, it has the unfortunate legacy of sitting directly upon another site with a far more dubious claim: the reputed “Tomb of David” (though virtually all scholars now agree that this rather late tradition is almost certainly false—David would have been buried in the area adjoining the Kidron Valley and the City of David, not on the current Mount Zion). But the ascription is enough to make both Jews and Muslims claim a religious interest in the site (in fact, Jews often used it as a place for prayer in periods when they didn’t have access to the Wailing Wall at the Temple Mount). The Upper Room itself has gone through many back-and-forth periods in which it was, respectively, a Christian church (of various configurations through the centuries) and a Muslim mosque. This explains the fact why no religious enhancement of the site has taken place for some time; it remains an empty room, with an armed guard stationed not far away.
          Nonetheless, the fantastic importance of the place was enough to suffuse it with wonder for me.  As we approached the Cenacle, along a raised walkway that joined two sections of the larger building, we could hear the sound of Pentecostal worship bursting out from within. Sure enough, there was a large group of Pentecostal (or charismatic) Christians there, shouting and singing and speaking in tongues in the wild, joyful revelry of being in the place where the Holy Spirit was first poured out on the infant church. It didn’t bother me—I rather like Pentecostals, and what better place for them to be at their high tide of Pentacostal-ishness than in the Upper Room itself? But Norah was evidently displeased. “They shouldn’t be doing that,” she grumbled. At the time, I thought that she was offended by the noise and disruption, but it occurred to me later that she probably meant that they were breaking the strict rules that preserved the ‘status quo’ in disputed sites among the three main faiths of Jerusalem—the place was meant to be used largely as a museum now, not as a venue for overt religious activity which could raise the ire of competing faiths.
          In any case, since the interior was occupied by a chanting mob, we paused outside the open doorway of the entrance to do our little service of prayer out there. And this is where one of the most weirdly fantastical events of our Israel trip occurred. I’ve already narrated a few times in which I felt like God was using the birds of Israel to bless or encourage me in various ways—in most of those stories, it was a subjective experience that was only relevant to me. But this time, someone else noticed the birds too. You will recall, of course, that the dove is used as the symbol of the Holy Spirit, both in artwork and in the biblical text itself, and that the Upper Room was the very place where the Holy Spirit had been poured out in miraculous fashion. Well (and I swear I’m not making this up), as we stood there doing our Scripture reflection outside the Upper Room, a dove (one of the ruddy dove species native to Israel) swooped down right over our heads, flew straight into the open doorway of the Upper Room, and then on out the doorway on the other side. Onus had seen this too, and we regarded each other with raised eyebrows and smiles. Was it mere coincidence, or a sign of God’s wild and winsome grace, that the symbol of the Holy Spirit should be soaring right over our heads at the scene of Pentecost? I’m inclined to account it the latter.
          We then took a few minutes to slip into the Cenacle itself, looking around while the Pentecostal group continued their worship. It was wide and plain, but showed evidence of its previous use: the pillars and simple Gothic vaulting remained a testimony of its Crusader heritage (along with a beautiful capital illustrating another Christian bird-symbol: the legend of the self-sacrificing pelican, a common medieval sign for Christ) as well as the qibla-niche and Arabic calligraphy that attested to its later use as a mosque.
          I tried to imagine Jesus there with his disciples, talking and eating together: the wonder and holiness of that moment, of the King of Universe kneeling to wash dirt-caked feet, of the loaf and the grail, of Jesus’ giving his great new commandment: “Love one another as I have loved you.” But the room was full of boisterous praise, not of stillness, and my mind was drawn toward another day, of the Spirit’s fire and tongues and preaching, and of a day yet further down the road: the great eruption of celebration and praise at the final ‘last supper,’ when we feast once again with our Lord in the Kingdom that is to come.