Saint Basil: scholar and gift-giver

Today (1 January) is the feast day of Saint Basil the Great in the Eastern churches. Basil wrote many theological works and is remembered (along with the two Gregorys, of Nyssa and Nazianzus—pictured below) as one of the Cappadocian Fathers, who played an influential role in the development of patristic thinking about the triune God.

It is said that Basil was tall, thin, partly bald, with a long beard. (He is the one on the left in the icon above.) He ate no more than was absolutely necessary for his survival; he never ate meat. It is said that he had only one worn undergarment and one overgarment.

Basil said that prayer was the seasoning for our daily work, as we season food with salt; that sacred and holy songs can only inspire us and give us joy and not grief. His philosophy fits well into the Christmas Season, when we season our lives with carols!

At the age of 28, Basil “left the world” and became a monk; at 35 a priest, then at 41, the Bishop of Caesarea. It is said that Basil, being born into a wealthy family, gave away all his possessions to the poor, the underprivileged, those in need, and children.

For Greeks and others in the Orthodox tradition, St Basil is the saint associated with Santa Claus. In Greek tradition, he brings gifts to children every January 1 (St Basil’s Day). It is traditional on St Basil’s Day to serve vasilopita, a rich bread baked with a coin inside.

It is also customary on his feast day to visit the homes of friends and relatives, to sing carols for the New Year, and to set an extra place at the table for Basil.

The celebration of St Basil on 1 January marks the day of his death. In the Western Church, because 1 January commemorates the Solemnity of Mary, Mother of God, Basil shares his saintly commemoration on the next day, 2 January, with Gregory of Nazianzus.

St Basil’s Hymn is one of many traditional Greek carols (often referred to as calanda) that are still sung by children on St Basil’s feast day (New Year’s Day). In the tradition still practiced to some extent in modern times, Greek children roam the neighborhoods from house-to-house on St Basil’s Day, playing instruments and singing songs, bidding New Year’s tidings to everyone, and receiving gifts of sweets and pastries from householders.

Here is the hymn (in a quirky and rather stilted translation):

It’s the beginning of the month
beginning of the year
High incense tree
Beginning of my good year
Church with the Holy Seat
It’s the beginning of our Christ
Saint and spiritual
He got out to walk on earth
And to welcome us
St. Basil is coming from Caesarea
And doesn’t want to deal with us
May you long live, my lady
He holds an icon and a piece of paper
With the picture of Christ our Saviour
A piece of paper and a quill
Please look at me, the young man

Realism at Christmas

The combined collection of traditional carols that we sing each Christmas demonstrate a very strange dichotomy.

On the one hand, there are those carols, or verses in carols, which go goo-gah at ten news of the cute little bay by, ruddy-cheeked and gurgling enticingly (or sleeping silently, making not a hint of baby noise).

On the other hand, there are those carols that really want us to focus on Jesus the exalted Lord, resplendent in glory, coming to earth from heaven, bring peace and joy, salvation and redemption, to the whole world. They move us quickly away from the vulnerable infant, and especially from the grim political and social realities of the time, into an ethereal heavenly realm.

Aotearoa/New Zealand hymn writer Colin Gibson has written a fine hymn, We who love Jesus, that offers a realistic take on what Christmas might/should/must mean for people of faith:

We who love Jesus asleep in the hay,
for all those children who wander today,
homeless and hungry and driven, we pray.
Et te Ariki, whakarongo ki a matou.*

We who see Jesus on Mary’s sweet breast
pray for the children who are nobody’s guest,
walking to nowhere, with nowhere to rest.
Et te Ariki, whakarongo ki a matou.

We who praise Jesus, the gentle and kind,
pray for all children unseen, out of mind,
beaten, abused or in conflict entwined.
Et te Ariki, whakarongo ki a matou.

We who in Jesus know God come to earth
pray for all children, wherever their birth;
may they find shelter, beloved, given worth.
Et te Ariki, whakarongo ki a matou.

*New Zealand Maori for ‘Lord, hear our prayer’;
it is pronounced ay tay areekee, fockarongo kee a ma-toe.

*****

Another much more realistic offering comes in one of my favourites, to the tune of Away in a Manger, in which Rebecca Dudley (of Shine on Star of Bethlehem, Christian Aid, UK) has reworked the unrealistic saccharine lyrics of the traditional Carol into a reflection on the story in a far more realistic mode:

How ancient and lovely this news of a star,
a baby, a mother, the kings from afar.
Come close now, Lord Jesus, we ask you to stay
and show us your face in your people today.

What star shall we follow but one that leads here
to a baby born homeless and a family in fear?
What heaven shall we long for but one that starts there
for all the world’s children in your tender care?

We thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth;
for the light in the darkness that shone at your birth,
for life in its fullness that you promise today,
and the hope of a baby asleep in the hay.

*****

There are some other reworkings of Away in a manger that I have collected at https://johntsquires.com/2019/12/18/no-crying-he-makes-get-real-puhhh-leeeease/

*****

British lyricist Andrew Pratt has written What makes Christmas real? — a whole Carol devoted to being more realistic!

Christmas is real when the cost that we measure
reaches the manger and touches the skies,
shop fronts give way to divine revelation,
God is among us and selfishness dies.

Christmas is real when the gifts that are given
mirror the love of this God upon earth,
God who is known in self-giving and loving
crowning our poverty, coming to birth.

Christmas still echoed when screams of the children,
slaughtered by Herod inflamed people’s fear.
Christmas remains when the trees and the tinsel
make way for news that we’d rather not hear.

Christmas is real when we enter the squalor
mirrored in Bethlehem so long ago;
off’ring the love that was seen in the God-head,
total self-giving not baubles and show.

Copyright Andrew Pratt (andrewpratt@btconnect.com)

Tune: Epiphany Hymn

John: fisherman and follower, eyewitness and evangelist, apostle and saint

Today is the feast day of John, remembered in the Catholic tradition as Saint John the Apostle and Evangelist, and included in the Uniting Church’s list of commemorations as John, Witness to Jesus.

The fourth Gospel in the New Testament has long been accredited to the disciple named in the three Synoptic Gospels as the fisherman who was the brother of James and the son of Zebedee, one of the earliest called to follow Jesus (Mark 1:19: 3:17; Matt 4:21; 10:2; Luke 5:10; 6:14). Ironically, however, this disciple is not specifically named in the fourth Gospel. (Apart from John the baptiser, the other John noted in this Gospel is the father of Simon Peter; John 1:52; 21:15–17).

In the early fourth century CE, Eusebius wrote in his Ecclesiastical History (6.14.7) that Clement of Alexandria had described this Gospel as the “spiritual” Gospel, written to complement the “physical” depictions of Jesus found in the other three Gospels. (Clement was Bishop of Alexandria at the end of the second century CE.)

This view has exercised a widespread influence throughout Christian history; in the twenty–first century, John’s Gospel is often cited as the easiest way for new converts to understand the “spiritual truths” of the Christian faith. It is frequently said that it contains the most direct expression of the simple Gospel message: “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son …” (John 3:16).

More recent scholarly study of this Gospel, however, has indicated that it is a complex and intricate piece of literature. The literary style of this Gospel is distinctive amongst the Gospels found in the New Testament. Jesus speaks at far greater length than the succinct sayings and compressed argumentation reported of the Synoptic Jesus. Some of the key images included in these speeches are ripe with symbolic significance.

There are multiple layers of meaning to be explored in the fourth Gospel. A number of key words contain ironic references or wry puns. Some scenes tell of misunderstandings which arise because of the different meanings built into the text. A hint of secrecy runs through the narrative—secrecy regarding the deeper, hidden meaning of Jesus and his story. The work is a complex literary creation.

An anonymous figure among the disciples—“the disciple whom Jesus loved”—lays claim to be the author of this work (John 21:20, 24). Who is this figure? Over time, the evangelist came to be equated with the disciple John, son of Zebedee, brother of James. Nothing in the text itself explicitly supports this, however.

Over the past few decades, a different understanding about the origins of this work have developed from scholars who have explored the authorship of this Gospel and the context in which it was written. There is widespread agreement that this work was not written, in the form that we have it, by this John who was one of the earliest followers of Jesus.

Some scholars developed the notion that this figure of “the beloved disciple” was a symbol embedded within the narrative, representing an earlier authority for the evolving traditions about Jesus. The Gospel itself, they consider, came to be written down many decades after this authority figure had first begun to recount the story of Jesus. The shape of the Gospel was heavily influenced by the nature of the community of faith through which these stories were passed, over a number of decades.

This has led to a detailed hypothesis concerning the origins and development of the community of believers which gave birth to this Gospel in written form. (The North American scholars most often associated with this line of interpretation are Raymond Brown and J. Louis Martyn.) This hypothesis makes two central claims.

The first claim is that, in its earliest stages, the community which produced this Gospel had been essentially Jewish. That community received and retold stories which may well have come from the John who was a follower of Jesus. The second claim is that, by the time the body of the Gospel was written in the form that we know it, this community found itself in an antagonistic relationship to the dominant form of Judaism. This opened the way for Gentile ideas, so that they are found mixed with Jewish ideas in the final form of the Gospel.

So if this Gospel was indeed stimulated by the teachings of one of the first followers of Jesus, a Jewish man in Galilee, known as John, it reflects a remarkable trajectory in the first century of the movement initiated by Jesus, tracing its development from a Jewish renewal movement towards a global religion. The stories from the Apostle have presumably been reworked and reshaped over decades as that trajectory develops.

The “disciple whom Jesus loved” certainly occupies a prominent place in the narrative of the fourth Gospel. He reclines on the breast of Jesus at the final meal in Jerusalem (John 13:23) and stands at the foot of the cross with Mary, the mother of Jesus (19:26–27).

After Mary Magdalene announced that the stone at the entrance of the tomb where the crucified Jesus had been laid had been removed (20:1–2), he runs to the tomb, with Simon Peter (20:3), arrives first, and sees that the tomb is empty (20:4–5)—but leaves it to Peter to see the inside first (20:6–7), before himself entering and attesting to the empty tomb with his own eyes (20:8).

Later, when seven of the disciples are fishing on the Sea of Galilee, this same beloved disciple is the first to recognise Jesus standing on the beach next to their fire; this time, he announces the identity of Jesus to Peter (21:7). A little later, Peter draws from Jesus the words about this disciple remaining with him (21:20–23). Finally, the same beloved disciple has the last word in the later-added Appendix to the Gospel, affirming his role as eyewitness and evangelist (21:24).

This is the figure that, in the tradition, is linked with John, the fisherman brother of James, the son of Zebedee, one of the earliest followers of Jesus, accorded a place as one of The Twelve Apostles.

In the book of Acts, the disciple John visits Samaria with Peter, in order to authorise and sanction what Philip had been teaching and doing in that region (Acts 8:14–17). That episode indicates the respect and authority that John was held to have as the movement developed—although the author of Luke and Acts writes some decades after the events he describes, at the end of the first century, and his material is filtered through various intermediaries (see Luke 1:2).

“Apostles Peter and John Blessing the People of Samaria,”
by Giorgio Vasari, 1511-1574, Italian.

However, in one of his early letters from the 50s, Paul himself acknowledges this important position of John, along with James (brother of Jesus) and Peter, the “acknowledged pillars” of the church. Paul relates how he went, with Barnabas and Titus, to Jerusalem (Gal 2:1), in order to receive the approval from the mother church for his activity amongst the Gentiles. Accordingly, “James and Cephas and John, who were acknowledged pillars, recognized the grace that had been given to me, they gave to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship, agreeing that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised” (Gal 2:9).

This corroborates the view we find in Acts, that John had a position of importance in the early church. It doesn’t demonstrate, however, that this John wrote the book of signs, the work we know as the Gospel of John.

The scholar Jerome, born in Dalmatia (now Albania), lived for some time in Palestine in the late 300s. Jerome recounts an anecdote still being told at that time about John the Evangelist. When John was old and feeble and no longer able to walk or preach, he would be carried among the faithful in church and would repeat only one thing over and over again: “My little children, love one another.”

This, of course, is the central mantra in the first of the three letters that bear the name of John (see 1 John 3:11-17; 3:23; 4:7–12; also 2 John 5; 3 John 6). The legend explains how these anonymous letters were attributed to the apostle John.

Polycarp, through Saint Irenaeus, tells us that the Apostle John lived a long life, which ended peacefully in Ephesus around the year 100 CE. If that was so, then John was the only Apostle not to die a martyr. That may then equate him with the John who claims authorship of the book of Revelation, exiled on the island of Patmos (Rev 1:9). However, the style and language of this last book of the New Testament differs significantly from the style of the Johannine gospel and letters.

The Encyclopedia Britannica reports that two rival sites at Ephesus initially claimed the honour of being the grave of John. One eventually achieved official church recognition, becoming a shrine in the 4th century. By the 6th century the healing power of dust from John’s tomb was famous, and the church of Ephesus claimed to possess the autograph of the Fourth Gospel. We don’t have that manuscript today, however.

John was said to have written the Acts of John, a domestic work that was known in the second century; but it was condemned as heretical at the Second Council of Nicaea in 787 CE. And so the traditions about John continued to grow.

Indeed, in some Medieval and Renaissance works of painting, sculpture and literature, John is often presented in an androgynous or feminized manner, perhaps reflecting the ambiguous identity of “the disciple whom Jesus loved”.

St. John the Apostle by Jacques Bellange, artist
and printmaker from the Duchy of Lorraine, c.1600

All of which demonstrates the maxim that I hold for early Christian writings: the further away from the first century we get, the more information is known about the writers of the Gospels!!

It was not a silent night (for Christmas)

It was not a silent night. The stables were full with extra animals from the visitors. All the animals were restless, sounding their calls with a sense of unease. They could sniff the stress of their human masters. Extra bodies meant extra chores, so there was extra stress all round.

It was not a silent night. The visitors in town made settling down well nigh impossible. Family reunions, catching up on gossip, calling around to see friends from long ago; the streets were abuzz with good-natured banter. None of the humans were silent for very long.

It was not a silent night. There was blood on the ground; you could hear the young woman streets away, her cry stabbing into the night, as the new baby made his way into the world of his family.

It was not a silent night.

Still, in our time, it is not a silent night. Yes, babies are rocked to sleep, and tired visitors bunk down to rest … but still, the sighs and groans of people in distress fill our nights, invade our minds, unsettle our lives.

It is not a silent night, for the woman battered by her partner.

It is not a silent night, for the old man grieving his loss.

It is not a silent night, for the young woman and her starving children, fleeing violence, seeking safety, hoping for a second chance.

It is not a silent night, for the indigenous young man in the lockup.

If we listen with care, we will realise: it is not a silent night.

It is not a silent night in our time … and yet, still, the baby makes his way into our lives. Not to whisk us away from all the noise and distress; but to be with us, to sit with us, to grow with us, to feel with us, and to share with us.

The baby becomes the man, the one who offers acceptance to everyone; the one who reassures us we are loved; the one who holds out the gift of grace and yearns to share all of life with us.

It is not a silent night. And we are grateful.

“Personal responsibility”

A couple of days ago, NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has defended his refusal to reinstate COVID-19 health restrictions ahead of Christmas, saying it’s a matter of “personal responsibility”.

“When it comes to face masks”, he said, “we recommend face masks in areas where you can’t socially distance. It is the time for personal responsibility for our state. We are treating the people of our state like adults. If we need to tailor our responses from time to time, we will.”

The next day, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said that “Australia must embrace a ‘culture of responsibility’ that places the onus on individuals to take protective actions against COVID-19 rather than a ‘culture of control and mandates’ by government.”

“Personal responsibility” is the latest mantra, to be placed alongside the repeated admonition that “we need to live with the virus”.

Is this a reasonable position to advocate?

We have lived through the first and second waves of the pandemic throughout 2020, and learnt much about how to handle the pandemic. We have demonstrated during those months that we could, indeed, pivot and change, as a society.

Then, the third wave in mid-2021 hit hard, as Delta ran riot through the community; but we made our way through that surge, as well, and rejoiced as we saw case numbers decline, hospital staff breath a little more freely, and ICU units step back from high, high stress moments.

And now, we are on the edge of a “fourth wave”—the Omicron wave. It is a wave that threatens to wreak more damage than the previous three have done. The numbers that are being projected by responsible medical researchers and national medical associations are deeply troubling.

We know the potential for, not just scores or hundreds of people to become ill, but thousands, tens of thousands, perhaps even more than this to become ill, and for a significant number of them to die. The deepening grief that is being spread by this virus is a third pandemic, alongside that of deaths and the second pandemic of mental ill-health.

The political leadership of our day is now standing outside the praetorium, side by side with Pontius Pilate, dipping their hands into that same bowl of water, washing their hands as they declare in lip-synch with him: “we are innocent of these consequences … it is a matter of personal responsibility”.

We, in the church, say often, that the zeitgeist of our time is one of rampant individualism – an individualism that has given up on the age-old tradition of corporate responsibility, communal care, extended-family responsibility for the wellbeing of each and every one of us.

The political mantra of “individual responsibility” is a crystal-clear manifestation of that abdication of communal responsibility for one another. It is the starkest instance, in our modern times, of the ancient problem that plagued Israel in its formational period: when every person did what was right in their own eyes. The utterly fraught nature of that period is attested in scripture, even in the airbrushed and polished accounts we have inherited in Judges.

So the place that I see for the church, now, at this time, is this: we are called to stand against the dominant culture of rampant individualism. We are called to bear witness to our concern that we have for the whole of society, not just for our own individual and localised part of that society.

We are called to work for the welfare of the city [and the whole state, or territory], not just to ensure that our local manifestation of the body of Church is able to continue with ‘business as usual’ whilst infections spread, hospitals once again overflow, ICU staff become hyper-stressed, people die, families grieve, and communities fracture under this heavy weight.

We are called to live out that love for the world which so fundamentally encapsulates who God is, how God acts, who were are as God’s people, what we are called to do in our daily lives. Love our neighbours. Love those around us. Love those far from us. Act in love.

Paul wrote wisely that if one member [of the body] suffers, all suffer together with it. That is surely a mantra for our current time. There is suffering, and the potential for greater and more widespread suffering. The call we have is to stand with those who suffer; to act in ways that ensure that we do not occasion any further suffering; to behave responsibly so that we minimise the spread of COVID, to act in ways that demonstrate, not just “individual responsibility”, but communal care, corporate responsibility, in appropriate ways.

We know that the most vulnerable are most exposed to the risks that COVID infections bring—serious illness, ongoing ‘Long COVID’, and death. We know, also, that we are in pastoral relationship with, and bear pastoral responsibility for, many such vulnerable people. How do we best care for them?

Wearing a mask indoors (and outdoors in crowds), using the QR check-in code, sanitising, maintaining social distancing, bumping elbows rather than shaking hands—all of this is now commonplace, and ought to be the usual practice for all of us. We can take personal responsibility for this, indeed.

It seems to me that there is a more important step that we can take, by encouraging our Congregations to move back to online worship. To make the bold declaration that, simply wearing a mask and being careful about not hugging or shaking hands, is not an adequate response in the situation that we find ourselves. Not being together in person—especially not being together indoors (even if we open all the windows and turn up all the fans)—this is what is most responsible at this time. To make this decision irrespective of any official government advice is an important step to take.

Yes, individuals taking responsibility is important. But collective responsibility, acting corporately, with a care for all of us, is very important, at this time.

*****

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/06/28/values-and-principles-in-the-context-of-a-pandemic-revisited/

“Living with COVID”—the shameful cry of our “leaders”

We are at a critical moment in Australia, as we watch the beginnings of the Omicron phase of the global pandemic here. And we are being told to

Prime Minister Morrison says that we need to “keep our nerve, keep calm and carry on”, and that “we want to stay safely open so the economy can continue to grow and people can get jobs”. NSW Premier Perrottet advises that we must “move away from fear” and “take on more hope and confidence”. Again and again, day after day, we hear advice that we must now “learn to live with COVID”.

“Living with COVID” is a sly, misleading, devious slogan. It belies the fact that whilst many are “living with COVID”, there is a regular stream of deaths each day, as the chart below shows (Victoria on the left, NSW on the right). Think about those 74 deaths from COVID in NSW and Victoria that are tabled on that chart, from the last 12 days.

Think about those 2,146 deaths across the country that have been attributed to COVID since March 2020.

How many grieving spouses does this represent? How many children, siblings, parents, cousins are mourning? How many neighbours, lifetime friends, extended family members will be amongst those impacted? And how many medical and hospital staff are being hit emotionally by the persistent recurring patients deaths that they experience?

Many are living with COVID, but also many are dying from COVID or grieving because of COVID.

“Living with COVID” reminds me of the slogan that the prophet Jeremiah punctured: “peace, peace”. He says, “They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. They acted shamefully, they committed abomination; yet they were not at all ashamed, they did not know how to blush … We look for peace, but find no good, for a time of healing, but there is terror instead” (Jer 8:11-12, 15).

Those words can apply to the Prime Minister, the Premiers, the “leaders” that bleat that this is just “personal responsibility”, the “leaders” that abdicate their responsibility to lead, to mandate sensible restrictions, to model good practice, to advocate for the most vulnerable and exposed in the communities they allegedly “serve”.

We can deal with the current situation in a much better way than abdicating everything to “personal responsibility”.

“See, I am letting snakes loose among you, adders that cannot be charmed, and they shall bite you, says the Lord” (Jer 8:17). As it was then, so it is now.