It was yet another Passover meal—or was it? (Maundy Thursday, Year C)

The following liturgy was written in April 2022 and conducted at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Maundy Thursday, 14 April 2022. The liturgy was conducted around a labyrinth, laid out in the worship area. There were six tables, each forming the focus of one section of the liturgy.

Seven candles were lit at the end of the first section, as reflective music played. Participants were invited to remove their shoes for the service, to sit and meditate or gently walk the labyrinth whilst the reflective music was playing.

After the words for each following section, a candle was extinguished, and reflective music was played, during which participants could sit and meditate, or walk a section of the labyrinth. Participants were encouraged to stay in their place on the labyrinth, or move to a nearby chair, as the words of each section were spoken.

The first and last sections took place focused around a table on which some cups, grapes, and bread were set, forming the elements for communion in the last section.

***** *****

A LITURGY FOR MAUNDY THURSDAY in the YEAR OF LUKE (Year C)

1 The Room

(Please remove your shoes)

Tonight, we gather, and remember;

we remember, and rejoice …

for it was Passover time.

Now of course, it began in celebration;

a gathering of friends and family;

a joyful occasion, with the drinking of wine,

some singing, some laughing; a meal shared together;

but then, a kiss … a betrayal … a denial … a trial …

Yet it began in celebration.

For years, it was so; for decades, for centuries,

on this very night, we would gather, joined as family,

to remember, to rejoice, to recall the act of liberation.

So we praise you, Lord our God, King of the universe;
You who have chosen us and made us holy,

a nation of priests, a people set apart.


Yes, we praise you, Lord our God, King of the universe;
You who create the fruit of the vine.
Yes, we praise you, Lord our God, King of the universe;
You who bring forth bread from the earth.

We praise you in the lighting of the candles,

signs of your presence amongst us tonight;

in these sparkling, enlivening lights,

we remember that we are a light to the nations.

THE CANDLES ARE LIT

SONG: Bless the Lord, my soul (Taize)

*****

2 The Road

It was yet another Passover meal — or was it?

We began like every other Passover meal;

we began by recalling the story …

and yet, although we did not know it,

this time it would be different;

a different Passover celebration;

a different time entirely.

It probably began with what he said

as he went on ahead, going up to Jerusalem.

“Sell all you own, care for the poor;

Take up your cross, come follow me;

Lay down your life, deny yourself.”

Looking back, we can hear the resonances;

the hints were there; but we were deaf.

We couldn’t grasp these words;

for the journey was the moment,

the crowds that surged as he healed,

the crowds that marvelled as he taught,

the crowds that continued with him on the way,

enthralled, persuaded, believing.

You see, the journey was the moment,

destination Jerusalem, holy city,

city of the prophets, city of the kings,

the holy place where God still dwells.

Hosanna, blessings, celebration;

“Bless the king, sound hosannas;

peace in heaven, the promise is near,

glory abounds”, the crowd cries out;

the day of salvation is at hand.

“Sell all you own, care for the poor;

Take up your cross, come follow me;

Lay down your life, deny yourself.”

We cared not for those hard words now;

the swirl of the crowd, the shouts of acclamation,

the spreading of cloaks and waving of branches,

reminders of the times of triumph,

anticipation of the coming glory.

Blessed is the king;

he comes in God’s name.

He comes in God’s glory,

he comes bearing peace.

When would we see it?

A CANDLE IS EXTINGUISHED on table 2

SONG: Hosanna, hosanna, hosanna to the king of kings

*****

3 The Room

Now the festival drew near:

unleavened bread, called the Passover,

the celebration of redemption,

the time of God’s salvation.

God came, God saved us,

we hurried to respond;

no time to prepare, no time to bake the bread;

we gathered what we could, left hurriedly,

in haste, intent on being ready—

it was the Passover of God,

when God saved the people.

So we gathered, now, to remember,

retell the ancient story,

relive the present promise.

The table was set, with bread and wine,

for this festival of the Lord,

the celebration of Passover …

We met around the table; a family extended,
with brothers and sisters, children and friends;
aunts … uncles … cousins … disciples …
a cacophony of colleagues, family and followers.

As we met around the table, we joined our voices,

with a psalm of celebration; a psalm of hallelujah.

We gathered as a family,

with roasted lamb and bitter herbs,

unleavened bread, four cups of wine;

we gather now, to celebrate,

and as we do, we anticipate:

God, you saved us then;

O God, save us now.

A CANDLE IS EXTINGUISHED on table 3

SONG: Laudate Dominum

*****

4 The Room

You know the Passover is coming,

when God will save the people;

“and the Son of Man will be handed over;

they will mock him, they will whip him,

they will nail him to the cross, to die.”

For the Passover is coming,

when God will save the people.

“I have eagerly desired to share this time,

to celebrate this Passover, with you, my friends.”

First, the cup which signals the kingdom to come;

“take it, drink from it, remember as you drink”;

then the bread, “this is my body”,

words that strained our incredulity.

Then yet again a cup, the covenant renewed;

familiar ground? yet curiously,

“the cup poured out, a new covenant,

sealed in my blood, shed for you”.

Then words of betrayal; woe to that one,

one we had trusted, one we had honoured.

What was going on in his mind?

We could not know:

of the gathering of leaders, we knew not,

of the plot to seize him quietly, we knew not,

of the thirty pieces of silver, we knew not.

Unthinkable, it turns out, what he was doing:

unimaginable, the consequence of this squalid deal.

But we were at a meal that was filled with celebration;

the somber notes he sounded were lost amidst the joy.

It was the Passover of God,

when God has saved the people.

It was a gathering of friends and family;

a joyful occasion, with the drinking of wine,

some singing, some laughing; a meal shared together.

A CANDLE IS EXTINGUISHED on table 4

SONG: Jesus, remember me, when you come into your kingdom (Taize)

*****

5 The Garden

Not too long after the betrayer left him,

not too long after, they came for him.

Not just the crowd in the garden,

not just the priests from the temple,

not just the elders who had formed an unholy alliance,

scribes and priests together, on the hunt;

but they came with their thugs, the temple police,

intent on arresting him, as if he were a criminal.

“I was with you, day after day, in the temple,

and you didn’t come for me there. But now—

but here, in this dark moonlit moment,

under cover of night, you seize me?

This is your hour; this is the power of darkness.”

So began this cruel, twisted fate,

from Gethsemane to Golgotha.

With brute force they manhandled him;

to the High Priest, mocking him on the way.

The mocking continued in the assembly,

priests and scribes, elders of the people,

taunting, baiting, condemning.

And then to Pilate, accusing him of crimes

that made no sense to our listening ears.

“Sell all you own, care for the poor;

Take up your cross, come follow me;

Lay down your life, deny yourself.”

That’s what we remembered him saying.

They said, however, that he perverts the nation,

forbids the paying of taxes,

claiming to be Messiah,

claiming to be king.

So Pilate sends him to Herod;

and Herod sends him back to Pilate;

and Pilate insists there is no charge to answer.

Of course there was no charge to answer!

His words cut to the heart of what it means

to be a disciple, to be committed to the covenant,

to share generously with those in need,

to put the concerns of others before oneself,

to open the eyes of the blind

and enable the lame to walk,

to proclaim good news for the poor

and liberation for the captives …

… then again, then perhaps,

that can sound somewhat …

confrontational …

revolutionary …

no wonder that they say he came

to turn the world upside down.

But we had no notion of this

as we walked the road, while he healed and taught,

or as we entered the city, surrounded by jubilations,

or as we sat with him at table, remembering with joy.

Yet there he stood:

charged, condemned;

sentenced to be crucified,

the punishment of slaves,

the fate in store for rebels,

perhaps, even, the inevitable outcome

of a predetermined plan?

Lord, have mercy;

Lord, have mercy …

A CANDLE IS EXTINGUISHED on table 5

SONG: Stay with me (Taize)

*****

6 The Hill

So they led him away, to the top of the hill,

the place of punishment for rebels and criminals.

There were no echoes, now,

of the jubilant cries of the crowd;

there was no sound that fitted

with family celebrations at Passover;

there most certainly was no longer the basis

for acclaiming him as King,

for announcing him as Saviour,

for decreeing he was Lord.

Naked, bloodied, scourged, humiliated,

brought down to common status

as the wooden beam was lifted high;

the mocking words of the soldiers,

the scornful tongues of the leaders,

the taunting cry of the disbelieving thief;

the silent sobbing of companions on the way,

the eerie overshadowing, the turmoil of darkness.

This, to be sure,

was a cruel, twisted fate.

So he died.

What cry pierced the air?

Distraught rejection, some would say;

a cry of sheer abandonment.

Others claim it was far more serene;

“Abba, Father, into your hands

I commend my being, I place my spirit.”

“Sell all you own, care for the poor;

Take up your cross, come follow me;

Lay down your life, deny yourself.”

Who remembers those words now?

A CANDLE IS EXTINGUISHED on table 6

SONG: Be still, and know that I am God

*****

7 The Room

We returned to the room;

the place of celebration;

the place of remembering.

There is no doubt that we would remember;

the events of the past few days

are seared into memory,

caught in the web of recollection,

every year, every month, every day.

But how could we celebrate?

The Passover of God,

the time of salvation,

the deed of redemption,

in the days of Moses.

That surely would continue;

we would most certainly recall,

we would indeed remember,

embedding the story for our children

and their children.

Would this passing of the master

be a Passover for God?

How could this untimely ending

be the cause of celebration?

So we gather, we remember.

It began in celebration;

a gathering of friends and family;

a joyful occasion, with the drinking of wine,

some singing, some laughing; a meal shared together;

but then, a kiss … a betrayal … a denial … a trial …

“Sell all you own, care for the poor;

Take up your cross, come follow me;

Lay down your life, deny yourself.”

SONG: Eat this bread (Taize) as we exit the labyrinth

(Around the final table)

So he took the bread,

as they had always taken the bread;

and lifting it high, he offered his prayers to God.

And we take the bread, and break it:
and we praise you, Lord our God, King of the universe;
You who bring forth bread from the earth.

WE EAT THE BREAD

Then he took the cup,

as they had always taken the cup;

and lifting it high, he offered his prayers to God.

And we take the cup, and drink it,

and we praise you, Lord our God, King of the universe;
You who create the fruit of the vine,

You who bring forth hope from anguish,

You who bring forth what was promised,

You who bring forth life from death.

WE DRINK THE CUP

A CANDLE IS EXTINGUISHED

For it was the Passover of God,

when God redeemed the people,

when God saved his chosen people.

And it is the Passover of God,

when God still redeems his people,

when God still saves his faithful people.

And the shouts of acclamation

and the silent shedding of tears

join mysteriously in celebration,

join as one across the years.

In this cruel, twisted fate

is the Passover of God;

for God still redeems his people,

for God saves his faithful ones.

THE FINAL CANDLE IS EXTINGUISHED

We step out in faith

we walk forth in hope

treading the path before us

walking into life as his follow ers …

WE LEAVE TO THE MUSIC of Wait for the Lord

***** *****

Song playlist

0 As people gather, a selection of quiet meditative songs and chants

1 Bless the Lord my soul

2 Hosanna, hosanna

3 Laudate dominum

4 Jesus, remember me

5 Stay with me

6 Be still and know

7 Eat this bread

8 Wait for the Lord

Tables

1 In the Foyer, with communion elements. White

2 The Road. Green. Branches, cloaks

3, 4 The Room. Purple. Each has a cup and plate

5 The Garden. Red. Sword.

6 The Hill. Black. Cross.

7 In the Foyer. White. Broken cups and plates with elements

A community of prayer; a community of care; a community to share

“Oh, no—not another ZOOM meeting!” How often have you heard this lament? I confess, it has been uttered with some frequency in my household, over the last two years—with increasing frequency in the past 6–8 months!

Committee meetings. Worship services. Catch-ups over coffee. Bible study groups. Seminars. Why, even full conferences have been held online, by means of ZOOM. ZOOM meetings of Presbytery. ZOOM meetings of Church Council. Even the state-wide 2021 Synod was held online (although on a different platform from ZOOM).

Early on in the pandemic, the Synod organised for all Congregations to have a ZOOM account at a reduced rate, especially for church organisations. It meant that we were able to maintain connections with friends, family, people in our Congregation, people across the Presbytery, despite all the restrictions and lockdowns. There have been lots of online gatherings. People have been grateful for the continuation of connection that online gatherings have provided. And yet, people are getting weary of it. “Not another ZOOM meeting!”

However, there has been one opportunity for meeting online that has a different feel about it. It has only recently started. It has just begun to gain momentum in the past few weeks. At the beginning of Lent, opportunity was provided for people to gather, briefly, online, at the start of each day, and towards the end of the afternoon, for Daily Prayers. The offer was for something that lasted 8–10 minutes, a regular pattern of prayer, each weekday. It was an initiative of Elizabeth Raine, minister of the Tuggeranong Congregation, and was advertised across the Presbytery as well as on the TUC Facebook page.

Over five weeks, now, the online community has been meeting. There are about 20 people who participate—although, in true church style, “you never see them all together at the one time”, just like most Sunday morning worshipping communities! Over the weeks, the community of prayer has formed; the pattern and routine are becoming familiar. Each time, there are 8, 10, sometimes 12 or 13 people online. It changes each time.

The centering of heart and spirit for the day is now an expected part of each weekday morning. The slowing and gathering together at the end of the day is also a regular routine. And the invitation to reflect back on the past seven days, on Friday at 6pm, brings a sense of completion to the week. Each day the resources of the Northumbria Community (a dispersed monastic community) are used, providing reflective prayers, short scripture passages, and an opportunity to reflect in silence and then with gentle music.

But more than this has been taking place. The community of prayer has become a community of care. Some folks log in a few minutes early, chat with each other, share their news, and exchange plans for the day. More recently, one person reported that their partner was moving into palliative care. Those present, hearing this news, have ensured that this person and their partner are remembered in prayer; one participant has ensured that practical help and support is provided. Those gathering make gentle enquiries before prayers begin. The community of prayer has become a community of care.

And even more: the community of prayer, now a community of care, has become a community to share with still more people. Those participating are largely members of the Tuggeranong Congregation. A few people from elsewhere participate in the weekly online Bible Study of the Tuggeranong Congregation; some folks from elsewhere in Canberra, someone 300kms north, another person 250kms west, are joining in regularly for prayer.

Facebook advertising has drawn the group to the attention of a person in a large rural town; they are now “part of the group”, participating regularly. A welcome voice, an assurance of gratitude that they have joined, a clear expression that “we are glad you are here; you belong!” is all that it takes. The community is there, to share with others.

This is how the Church is meant to function! An open community, focussed around our spiritual needs; an invitational community, welcoming people in and actively ensuring that they are made to feel comfortable, valued, a part of the group. And offering food for the soul, a prayer gathering, can be a doorway into community as much as offering food for the body, a soup kitchen, or food for the mind, a Bible study group, or food for our relationships, a community worship service. For this Lenten experience, I am most grateful.

To join the Daily Prayer, go to the TUC website ( https://tuc.org.au ) and click on the Church Services icon.

To sample the worship resources of the Northumbria Community, go to https://www.northumbriacommunity.org/offices/morning-prayer/

Gilgal: place of transition (Josh 5:9–12; Lent 4C)

The Hebrew Scripture offered for this coming Sunday passage (Joshua 5:9-12) occurs at the end of the period of Wilderness Wanderings that the Israelites experienced. It takes place at Gilgal, to the east of Jericho, just inside the land of Canaan, which has been the destination in view throughout those forty long years of their wilderness journey.

At Gilgal, things start to change. There, the manna and the quails that had consistently been provided throughout their Wilderness Journey (Exod 16; Num 11), now ceased. The people had to leave behind that aspect of their past. And many of us would know that changing habits after forty years is difficult, is it not?

At Gilgal, the place of transition, the Israelites are now in the land of the Canaanites. Their diet would change. The Israelites would start to eat from the produce of the land. They would enculturate with the people already living in the land. Over time, they would marry Canaanites. They would adopt new customs. Their language would change. They would become, not wanderers in the wilderness, but settlers in the towns and villages of the land. Changes would happen. A very significant transition would take place.

This all begins at the place called Gilgal. Gilgal is a Hebrew word meaning “circle”. It was adopted as the name for the place in this story where Israel marked their transition from fugitives fleeing the slavery of Egypt, to invaders conquering the land that they believed they had been given. At Gilgal, a gilgal (circle) of stones was set up (Josh 4:1–9). The circle in this place marked the moment of transition, as the people cross the Jordan into the land.

The Hebrew offers a neat word play: where the circle is (Gilgal), the Lord rolled away (gallowti) the reproach of Egypt. The reproach was the fact that Israelite boys were not circumcised during the wilderness wandering (5:5)—the covenant which was signalled by the mark of circumcision (Gen 17) had been forgotten (Josh 5:1–5). So, Joshua ordered that circumcisions should be carried out on the Israelite males at this place (5:3). Once they had adhered to the forgotten covenant, and reinstitute the overlooked sign of that covenant, the people were able to live in the land that had been promised (5:6–9).

The Passover meal that is shared at Gilgal (Josh 5:10–12) recalls the swift departure from Egypt (Exod 14). Entry into the land means that the wilderness provision of manna ceases; “the land flowing with milk and honey” (5:6) would provide abundant nourishment. So it is, that both Passover and Gilgal signal transition—the liminal space of crossing over into a new experience. Stepping into the river, and then out on the other side, would effect a transformation in the people of Israel.

See https://johntsquires.com/2019/03/18/on-the-threshold-in-a-liminal-space/

On the Gospel passage for this Sunday

and, in relation to the Christian festival of Easter

See also

Challenged and transformed: with thanks for rainbow people, this Lent

The following reflection was written by John Squires and Elizabeth Raine, and shared with the Rainbow Christian Alliance at Tuggeranong Uniting Church on Sunday 13 March 2022.

In many churches, including the Uniting Church, today is called the Second Sunday in Lent. Our church follows the calendar of seasons that is held by many churches around the world; instead of spring, summer, autumn, winter, we have Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost.

The season of Lent lasts for just six weeks, and it leads into the three day celebration of Easter. It’s called Lent, incidentally, not because it is tilted or skew-whiff, but because in the northern hemisphere, where such seasons were first given their names, the days are starting to lengthen (the name was Lencten in Old English).

In the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches, Lent is a period of fasting. The day before, Mardi Gras, which is French for Fat Tuesday, was a day to use up all the fatty goods in the kitchen — eggs, flour, milk — so they were out of the way for Lent. The day is also known as Pancake Tuesday. In South America, in countries where Roman Catholicism was the dominant religion, Mardi Gras became a public festival, a day not only to feast, but a day for street parades, for big banquets to celebrate, with colourful costumes and extravagant public exhibitions of joy.

And that has surely been the inspiration for the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, both in recent years with colourful and extravagant floats, and in the decades before, with lots of rainbow groups marching, and even in the early days of protest and attempting to “claim the streets” and “go public” about gays and lesbians and more.

*****

Immediately after Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, comes Ash Wednesday — a solemn day of penitence; and the fasting continued right through Lent, until Easter Sunday. We don’t actually do full-on fasting in the Uniting Church, but in recent times it has become customary to decide to “give up something for Lent” — chocolate and alcohol being the most common, but also more significant things like not driving your car and catching public transport; or not eating meat. In this way, Lent becomes a time of challenge, as we try to remind ourselves each day of the importance of being faithful to God. We “give up” so that we can focus in more clearly on God, if you like.

So there is already a connection between the season of Lent and rainbow people; because Lent starts immediately after Mardi Gras. And the annual Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, now an institution in our annual public events; the extravagantly colourful celebrations of that event mark, if you like, the climax of joy as rainbow people celebrate that they are each made exactly as they are, and they can be happy about that.

We both enjoyed watching (on TV) the parade of organisations and people that were out and proud, out and loud, a week ago, walking unhindered around the SCG — a striking contrast to the first Mardi Gras, when police barricaded the road and people were arrested. It is truly wonderful to see that the rainbow colours can be flown in society, that people can acknowledge and declare who they are, and not be under threat of arrest.

*****

So in the cycle of seasons for Christians, after Mardi Gras comes Lent. And Lent is about giving up; or, at least, focussing intently on Jesus, the one in whom we see most clearly see God. How else might Lent relate to the experience of rainbow people?

There are a collection of stories that the church retells each year, in association with Lent. In preparation for Lent, the story is told of the day that Jesus was baptised: in the river Jordan, to the east of Jerusalem, fully submerged into the water by his crazy cousin John, baptising people as they repented of their sins.

John was crying out to the people who came to him, to repent; to change their way of being and living; to be transformed, completely, by being baptised. That’s what is meant by the single Greek word that John used, calling people to metanoia—to a complete transformation of who they are and how they love. Jesus came to that moment, willing to submit to that call, willing to experience metanoia in his own life.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

And yet for Jesus, this baptism became more than just the moment of call, or the moment of change; it was the moment when God publicly acknowledged him, when God declared, “this is my son, my beloved child; listen to him”. In that voice, booming from the clouds, a central affirmation is made: look at him, this is who he is; can you see that this is really who he is? And from that moment, Jesus began his mission of challenging people and transforming society.

The story of the baptism of Jesus tells us that, when God looks at us, God sees us exactly as we are; and we may well also hear God saying to use, and to those around us, “this is my child, my beloved one; I can see exactly who they are, and I am well pleased that this is who they are”. God sees me, a straight white male, and is well pleased; God sees a lesbian woman, and is equally well pleased; a trans man, and God is pleased; an intersex person, and is well pleased; an enbie, a gay, a pan sexual—God is just well pleased with each of us, as we are, and declares us to be beloved. And that means that we can get on with the kind of life that we each want to live, and are called to live.

*****

There’s another story about Jesus that is associated with Lent. It’s a story that, from our rather privileged, straight, perspective, sounds a great challenge to us. It’s a story about being changed; about being transformed. It’s a story that shows that being transformed means you are able to stand and challenge others to be transformed. It’s the story of when Jesus took his three closest friends to a mountain, and they had a shared experience of seeing Jesus standing between two of the greats of their people: Moses, to whom God had given the Law to govern the people of Israel, and Elijah, through whom God had established a long line of prophets in Israel.

The Gospel writers say that Jesus was transformed at that moment. But in this story, also, there is the indication that the friends of Jesus were transformed. That moment on the mountain was a challenge to each of them; the response that Peter wanted to make was seen to be inadequate. Jesus challenged him to respond differently. It was another moment when metanoia, complete transformation, took place. And these disciples did change; yes, it took some time, but these friends of Jesus ultimately became leaders amongst the followers of Jesus, and spearheaded the movement that became the church.

The change, the metanoia, that occurred within Peter, James, and John, spread widely. They faced the challenge head on, and responded with their own metanoia. That is mirrored, today, in changes that are taking place in society. As we watched the Mardi Gras last weekend, it soon became evident that this was no longer a side carnival, an event that was important to a minority group in society, and that’s all.

For the Mardi Gras—commercialised, mainstreamed, headlined and noticed—now reflects the way that society has been challenged—by you, by rainbow people—and how it has responded in metanoia, by being transformed. Banks, unions, police, sports teams, churches, golfing clubs, and more—all marched in the Mardi Gras, all affirming that there is a place in their ranks for rainbow people, no matter what letter an individual identifies with. And that reflects a very significant change in society, in which public acknowledgement and public discussion of gender and sexuality can take place.

Sure, there is still work to be done—much work to be done; many changes still to occur, deeper acceptance still to take place. But the changes are clear and evident; and it has been because those who themselves have been able to meet challenges by holding firm and calling for change, have then effected transformation, thoroughgoing change, in society. Rainbow people are changing our society. Last week’s Mardi Gras demonstrated that.

And for that, we are grateful, and say: thanks be to God.

Belonging, first and foremost: the message of “the alien” (Deut 26; Lent 1C)

There is much debate amongst Christian thinkers, these days, about what comes first as we invite people to be a part of the church. Do we say, “this is what we believe, expressing our fundamental understanding of life; do you want to sign up to show you have the same beliefs?” Or do we say, “this is how we behave, guided by our fundamental ethical principles; would you like to act the same way and join us?” Or perhaps the invitation is simply, “come along, join in with us, see what we believe, what we are on about, and soon you’ll feel like you belong”?

Is it believe first? Or behave? Or simply, belong? The tendency to put a creed at the forefront of our invitations—to show that we are a people who believe, first and foremost—is widespread and deeply ingrained. Whether it be affirming The Apostles Creed in baptism, or saying The Believer’s Prayer at conversion, or working out a new Mission Statement for the Congregation, giving priority to belief is a very familiar pattern for us. We tend to think that, whatever formula we are repeating, that is exactly what declares and confirms our identity as people of faith.

So it’s no surprise that when we read Deuteronomy 26 (the Hebrew Scripture passage in next Sunday’s lectionary), we gravitate to the middle part of the passage, and lay claim to what looks to be an early affirmation of faith that sets out the identity of the people of Israel: “A wandering Aramean was my ancestor; he went down into Egypt and lived there as an alien, few in number, and there he became a great nation, mighty and populous” (Deut 26:5). This affirmation seems to go right back to the start, affirming what sets the people of Israel apart as a distinctive entity.

This way of reading this passage gained influence from the analysis of Gerhard von Rad, a German scholar of the 20th century. Von Rad claimed that the credal statement in verses 5 following was most likely a formula much older than the era when the book of Deuteronomy was written. And the origins of this creed, he claims, most likely lay in ancient cultic remembrances of the origins of the people. The wandering Aramean (Jacob, grandson of Abraham of Aramn) and the time in Egypt (leading up to Moses) reflect those times of origin.

*****

But the whole of this “creed” is not actually a “statement of faith”. It is more a narrative that tells a story. Such was the way of the ancient world; central beliefs were not articulated in crisp propositional statements (for this is the way of the post-Enlightenment western world); rather, a story was told, in the course of which key events pointed to central affirmations for the people. The ancients were story-tellers, more concerned to tell the story than state the faith. This is the story of the people; it is their saga.

God is important in the story that is told, nevertheless. God is the one who “heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression … who brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with a terrifying display of power, and with signs and wonders” (26:7–8). The rescue of the people by their powerful God is central to the story. This, of course, if the story of the Exodus, which stands at the heart of Israelite identity and later Jewish identity. It is the central story of the people of Israel.

More than this, God is the one who “brought us into this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (26:9). The land of Israel is the second aspect of ancient Israelite life that is central and fundamental; and so it continues to be, in the 20th and 21st centuries, in which the land of Israel has been one of the most contested pieces of land in the world.

The story is told, however, for a purpose. Not just to remember—although remembering is important, for it recurs as a regular refrain in the book of Deuteronomy (7:18: 8:2, 18: 9:7, 27; 11:2; 15:15; 16:12; 24:9, 18, 22; 25:17; 32:7). The story is told, also, to inculcate the ethos, the values, the very identity of the people. And central to that ethos, taking prime place amongst the things that were seen to be important to affirm about who the people of Israel were, is this: giving back to God the first fruits produced by the land.

“So now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground that you, O LORD, have given me”, are the words that the people are to say, each time a harvest is produced. “You shall set it down before the LORD your God and bow down before the LORD your God”, the instruction declares (26:10). Gratitude is to the fore; gifting back the beginnings of “the fruit of the ground” to the God who gave the people the land to grow this fruit.

*****

Of course, there is a dark story submerged, for the most part, underneath that celebratory action. The land was “given” by God over the resistance of the people who were already IN the land, producing fruit, settled and content with their lot in life. The battles recounted in the book of Joshua—most likely not actual historical events, but reflecting a reality of submission to the Hebrews who took control of the land—reflect this dark story.

This dark story does not figure in the “received tradition” and “authorised affirmation” that we read in Deut 26. Nor do we find this in the affirmation of Deut 6:20–24, which begins “we were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out …”. Mention of the Exodus jumps straight across to life in the land—no mention of the conquest that (in other biblical texts) is reported in detail.

This conquest is part, by contrast, of the larger recitation of Josh 24:2–13, “I brought you out of Egypt … and I handed the Amorites over to you, and you took possession of their land, and I destroyed them before you … and also the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites; and I handed them over to you … I gave you a land on which you had not labored, and towns that you had not built, and you live in them; you eat the fruit of vineyards and oliveyards that you did not plant.” At least this version of the affirmation is honest about the cost to the earlier inhabitants, and the benefits enjoyed with relative ease by the invading Hebrews.

*****

Yet the affirmation of Deut 26 highlights the central importance of gratitude for the gift of the land; and not only that, for it especially indicates the importance of making this celebration inclusive: “you, together with the Levites and the aliens [or, sojourners] who reside among you, shall celebrate with all the bounty that the LORD your God has given to you and to your house” (26:11). So the instructions for the annual festival of the first fruits provide.

The inclusion of the aliens in this annual festival reflected a gracious openness to others in the developing people of Israel. These texts differ from the xenophobic antagonism of earlier texts, recounting the conquest of Israel. They reflect a later understanding of the identity of the people, as they were collated during and after the Exile, centuries after the formation of Israel. People designated as aliens (non-Israelites), sojourners in the land, were welcome to bring offerings to the Lord (Lev 22:18), to adhere to Israelite food prescriptions (Lev 17:12), to keep the Sabbath (Exod 20:8–11; 23:12), to have gleaning rights (Lev 23:22), and to join in the annual process of atonement (Lev 16:29–31; Num 15:29).

The foundational Passover narrative indicates that aliens, or sojourners, were able to join (under certain conditions) in the Passover celebrations (Exod 12:47–49); a second narrative (Num 9:14) is much less restrictive. Aliens were to be subject to the same laws regarding murder (Lev 24:17–22), able to have right of access to cities of refuge (Num 35:13–15), and indeed to enter into the covenant at the annual covenant renewal ceremony (Deut 29:10–13; see also 31:10–13). The voice of the alien even sounds appreciation for the Law: “I live as an alien in the land; do not hide your commandments from me” (Ps 119:19).

Because Israelites were once “an alien residing in the land” of Egypt, the people were instructed, “you shall not abhor any of the Edomites, for they are your kin; you shall not abhor any of the Egyptians” (Deut 23:7); by the third generation, the children of aliens “may be admitted to the assembly of the Lord” (Deut 23:8).

This meant that “the alien who resides with you shall be to you as the citizen among you; you shall love the alien as yourself, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God” (Lev 19:34; a similar affirmation is made at Num 15:14–16).

The principle of equality is clear: “you shall not deprive a resident alien or an orphan of justice; you shall not take a widow’s garment in pledge” (Deut 24:17; see also Jer 7:5–7; 23:5–7; Zech 7:9–10; Mal 3:5). The alien, or sojourner, deserves the same measure of justice as all residents of Israel.

Accordingly, amongst the curses at the end of Deuteronomy, we read, “cursed be anyone who deprives the alien, the orphan, and the widow of justice. All the people shall say, ‘Amen!'” (Deut 27:19). The curse outlines the negative consequences from not adhering to the positive principle of welcoming and including those sojourning for a time innIsrael, the “alien”. That is integral to the celebrations each year, when the harvest produces its fruit from the land.

Gratitude. Belonging. Celebration. Inclusion. All of this is embedded in the story; and all of this comes before believing, repeating doctrinal claims, affirming credal statements. We are a people of welcome, including, belonging. This much is embedded in the ancient Hebrew tradition. This much should be living, still, in Christianity today.

See also

Gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love (Joel 2; Ash Wednesday)

The Hebrew Scripture passage set by the lectionary for Ash Wednesday, the first day in the season of Lent, is part of an extended announcement by the prophet Joel (1:13–2:17), calling the people of Israel to “put on sackcloth and lament” (1:13), “sanctify a fast” (1:14), “blow the trumpet” (2:1) in order to “return to [the Lord] with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning” (2:12). He exhorts the people to offer a prayer to “spare your people, O Lord” (2:17).

The prophet makes this call in the midst of describing “the Day of the Lord” that is coming—“a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness” (2:1–2). He evokes the traditional imagery of repentance—sackcloth and lament, weeping and mourning, prayer and fasting—as the appropriate responses to that Day, even as he utilises the traditional imagery of the doom that awaits on that Day.

The prophets warned of the Day of the Lord; it will be “darkness, not light” (Amos 5:18), it will come “like destruction from the Almighty” (Isa 13:6), as “a day of distress and anguish” (Zeph 1:14). Joel joins his voice with this parade of doom: “Blow the trumpet in Zion; sound the alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming, it is near—a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness spread upon the mountains a great and powerful army comes; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them in ages to come.” (Joel 2:1–2).

Yet the response desired is not meek acceptance, but rather to “return to me with all your heart, with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing” (Joel 2:12). “Return to the Lord, your God”, Joel advises, highlighting the central purpose of the role of the prophet, to recall the people from their waywardness and lead them to recommit to the covenant with God, which lies at the heart of the identity of the people of Israel. That’s probably the reason that this passage from centuries before the time of Jesus (let alone our time) is set for Ash Wednesday, when the season of Lent begins.

The tradition about Lent is that it is a time for “giving up”, for restraint and abstention and ascetic practices. However, Lent is also a time for returning; for re-connecting with God, for turning back to depend on God, for returning to the heart of faith. And this passage helps to remind us of that purpose.

The passage also provides a further thought which undergirds the call to “return to the Lord”, and that is what it says about the fundamental nature of God. Joel repeats a mantra that must have been important to the people of ancient Israel; an affirmation about the nature of God, the one who, in the midst of the turmoil of the Day of the Lord, stands firm as the one who is “gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13).

For, although the Lord is credited as the one who demonstrates his wrath on the Day of the Lord, this divine figure is also one who is willing to step back from the threat of judgement and destruction, who is willing to give a new opportunity to a repentant person, and reach out to them in grace. “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent?”, the prophet asks. And so, he advocates that the people leave “a grain offering and a drink offering for the Lord, your God” (Joel 2:13–14). The process requires maintaining a tangible sign of the intention to return to God: an offering, in ancient Israel, a marking of ashes, on Ash Wednesday, for Christians.

The mantra that Joel offers about God is sounded by another prophet, Jonah; in his prayer to God, begging that God take his life, he affirms that “I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4:2).

The same affirmation about God is made in the story of Moses, after the account of the Golden Calf and the smashing of the first set of tablets containing The Ten Words. Here, Moses is instructed to cut two new tablets of stone, in preparation for renewing the covenant. The Lord then passed before him, declaring, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin (Exod 34:6). This citation, however, does maintain the ominous threat that this same Lord is yet “by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation”, so the picture is fuller and more realistic here.

During the time of King Hezeziah (king of the southern kingdom from 715 to 686 BCE, after the reign of Ahaz), after the neglected Temple had been cleansed and sanctified, Hezekiah restored the worship 9f the Lord in the Temple, exhorting the people, “do not now be stiff-necked as your ancestors were, but yield yourselves to the Lord and come to his sanctuary, which he has sanctified forever, and serve the Lord your God, so that his fierce anger may turn away from you” (2 Chron 30:8).

It was a time to “return to the Lord”, and Hezekiah encouraged the people, especially encouraging northerners who had suffered under the Assyrians to return, saying “your kindred and your children will find compassion with their captors, and return to this land; for the Lord your God is gracious and merciful, and will not turn away his face from you, if you return to him.” (2 Chron 30:8–9). That same mantra appears.

Still later, after the southern kingdom had been exiled to Babylon, and then returned to the land and the city, after Ezra had reinstated the Law in Jerusalem and the people had celebrated the Festival of Booths, Ezra prayed at a ceremony to recommit to the covenant, confessing that “our ancestors acted presumptuously and stiffened their necks and did not obey your commandments; they refused to obey, and were not mindful of the wonders that you performed among them; but they stiffened their necks and determined to return to their slavery in Egypt” (Neh 9:16).

Ezra continued in praise of God: “you are a God ready to forgive, gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and you did not forsake them.” (Neh 9:17). Again, we hear that central affirmation about God, who is also described as “the great and mighty and awesome God, keeping covenant and steadfast love” (Neh 9:32).

It’s a mantra that appears in a number of Psalms. In one, a fry for divine help, we hear, “you, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Ps 86:15). Here, the psalmist pleads, “turn to me and be gracious to me; give your strength to your servant; save the child of your serving girl; show me a sign of your favour, so that those who hate me may see it and be put to shame, because you, Lord, have helped me and comforted me” (Ps 86:16–17).

In another, a thanksgiving in praise of God’s steadfast love, we hear the familiar refrain, that “the Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love (Ps 103:8). This psalm continues, “He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him.” (Ps 103:9–13).

In another psalm of praise, the psalmist exults, “Great are the works of the Lord, studied by all who delight in them. Full of honour and majesty is his work, and his righteousness endures forever. He has gained renown by his wonderful deeds; the Lord is gracious and merciful. He provides food for those who fear him; he is ever mindful of his covenant.” (Ps 111:2–5).

And in still another psalm of praise, the psalmist affirms, “the Lord is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love; the Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” (Ps 145:8–9). It is this aged, gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love, to whom we turn on this Ash Wednesday, seeking to return to our foundational commitment.

For further reflections on Hebrew Scripture passages offered by the lectionary during Lent, see

See also

Holy Week 5: ascending to Jerusalem (Psalms 131-134)

During Holy Week, it is Christian tradition to trace the pathway which Jesus took towards Jerusalem, sometimes following the stories recounted in Mark 11-14. In the city of Jerusalem, Jesus was arrested, crucified and died; in this city, for untold years, pilgrims had gathered in festive celebration, to remember, to retell the stories, to nurture their faith, to seek the Lord.

In Jewish tradition, the pilgrims travelling towards the city would join in songs—some of which are included within the book of Psalms in Hebrew Scripture and Christian Bibles. On their journey towards the city, according to this tradition, the pilgrims would sing Psalms 120—134. These are known as The Songs of Ascent, for they were sung as the pilgrims climbed higher towards the city, and then higher still towards the Temple at the highest point in the city.

This series of blogs use these ancient songs as the focus for reflecting, to envisage what that journey was like for Jesus and his followers, travelling as pilgrims to the city to celebrate Passover.

It was during that week that everything came to a head.

A gathering of friends and family; a joyful occasion, with exuberant celebration. We had walked with other pilgrims, heading towards the city, climbing the road, singing the psalms, looking forward to the festival.

Each step closer to the city was a step that brought us closer to the heart of our faith. Each step along the way was a step that brought us higher, nearer to the holy mount. Each stage along the way was matched with a psalm of ascent, singing with joy as we drew near to the holy place.

So we stood at the foot of the holy place, the Temple first built by Solomon, then rededicated and rebuilt in the time of Herod; the Temple where the Lord God dwelt, where he dwelt in the Holy of Holies.

So we prayed, and sang, once more, with hope: I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; my soul is like the weaned child that is with me. O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time on and forevermore. (131)  
In the silence, reflect on Psalm 131

It was here, surely, that we would meet God; For, as we sang, The LORD has chosen Zion; he has desired it for his habitation: “This is my resting place forever; here I will reside, for I have desired it.” (132)   In the silence, reflect on Psalm 132

So we gathered around the table, friends and family, a joyful occasion, with the drinking of wine, some singing, some laughing; a meal shared together. And we celebrated in song: How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity! (133)   In the silence, reflect on Psalm 133

And again, in song, we sought to bless each other: Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD, who stand by night in the house of the LORD! Lift up your hands to the holy place, and bless the LORD. May the LORD, maker of heaven and earth, bless you from Zion. (134)   In the silence, reflect on Psalm 134

So our songs of ascent had come to an end. We were in the holy city, near to the holy place, gathered once again for a joyful occasion, with the drinking of wine, some singing, some laughing; a meal shared together; but then, a kiss … a betrayal … a denial … a trial.

It had begun in celebration. For years, it was so; for decades, for centuries, on this very night, we would gather, joined as family, to remember, to rejoice, to recall the act of liberation.

It was on that night that everything came to a head.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/28/holy-week-1-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-120-121/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/29/holy-week-2-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-122-124/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/30/holy-week-3-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-125-127/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/31/holy-week-4-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-128-130/

Holy Week 4: ascending to Jerusalem (Psalms 128-130)

During Holy Week, it is Christian tradition to trace the pathway which Jesus took towards Jerusalem, sometimes following the stories recounted in Mark 11-14. In the city of Jerusalem, Jesus was arrested, crucified and died; in this city, for untold years, pilgrims had gathered in festive celebration, to remember, to retell the stories, to nurture their faith, to seek the Lord.

In Jewish tradition, the pilgrims travelling towards the city would join in songs—some of which are included within the book of Psalms in Hebrew Scripture and Christian Bibles. On their journey towards the city, according to this tradition, the pilgrims would sing Psalms 120—134. These are known as The Songs of Ascent, for they were sung as the pilgrims climbed higher towards the city, and then higher still towards the Temple at the highest point in the city.

This series of blogs use these ancient songs as the focus for reflecting, to envisage what that journey was like for Jesus and his followers, travelling as pilgrims to the city to celebrate Passover.

It was during that week that everything came to a head.

A gathering of friends and family; a joyful occasion, with exuberant celebration, meeting up after months or years in our own villages. We had walked with other pilgrims, heading towards the city, climbing the road, singing the psalms, looking forward to the festival. We climbed, higher, nearer to the holy mount. Each stage along the way was matched with a psalm of ascent, singing with joy as we drew near to the holy place.

So we stood at the foot of the holy place, the Temple first built by Solomon, then rededicated and rebuilt in the time of Herod; the Temple where the Lord God dwelt, where he dwelt in the Holy of Holies.

And we prayed for one another, and we sang: The LORD bless you from Zion.
May you see the prosperity of Jerusalem  all the days of your life. (128) 
In the silence, reflect on Psalm 128

Yet when we came inside, into the court of the temple, there was no peace, no joyful singing, no celebration, no preparation for worship.

Instead: a whip of cords, a shout of anger, words of vengeance, judgement, rejection; tables overturned and coins scattered. A whip of cords, a shout of anger, tables overturned and coins scattered.

It was not a moment of peaceful reflection; it was a moment of fearsome agitation. So we sang, in fear: The LORD is righteous; he has cut the cords of the wicked. (129)    In the silence, reflect on Psalm 129

and again, we sang, this time in hope: O Israel, hope in the LORD! for with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is great power to redeem. It is he who will redeem Israel from all its iniquities. (130)   In the silence, reflect on Psalm 130

A gathering of friends and family; a joyful occasion, with exuberant celebration. We had walked with other pilgrims, heading towards the city,

climbing the road, singing the psalms, looking forward to the festival.

Each step closer to the city was a step that brought us closer to the heart of our faith. We climbed, higher, nearer to the holy mount. Each stage along the way was matched with a psalm of ascent, singing with joy as we drew near to the holy place. So we stepped out, full of faith, on our journey to Jerusalem.

It was during that week that everything came to a head.

See https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/28/holy-week-1-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-120-121/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/29/holy-week-2-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-122-124/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/30/holy-week-3-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-125-127/

Holy Week 3: ascending to Jerusalem (Psalms 125-127)

During Holy Week, it is Christian tradition to trace the pathway which Jesus took towards Jerusalem, sometimes following the stories recounted in Mark 11-14. In the city of Jerusalem, Jesus was arrested, crucified and died; in this city, for untold years, pilgrims had gathered in festive celebration, to remember, to retell the stories, to nurture their faith, to seek the Lord.

In Jewish tradition, the pilgrims travelling towards the city would join in songs—some of which are included within the book of Psalms in Hebrew Scripture and Christian Bibles. On their journey towards the city, according to this tradition, the pilgrims would sing Psalms 120—134. These are known as The Songs of Ascent, for they were sung as the pilgrims climbed higher towards the city, and then higher still towards the Temple at the highest point in the city.

This series of blogs use these ancient songs as the focus for reflecting, to envisage what that journey was like for Jesus and his followers, travelling as pilgrims to the city to celebrate Passover.

It was during that week that everything came to a head.

A gathering of friends and family; a joyful occasion, with exuberant celebration, meeting up after months or years in our own villages. We had walked with other pilgrims, heading towards the city, climbing the road, singing the psalms, looking forward to the festival.

Each step closer to the city was a step that brought us closer to the heart of our faith. Each step along the way was a step that brought us higher, nearer to the holy mount. Each stage along the way was matched with a psalm of ascent, singing with joy as we drew near to the holy place.

So we sang, together: Those who trust in the LORD are like Mount Zion,

which cannot be moved, but abides forever. As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the LORD surrounds his people, from this time on and forevermore. (125)  
In the silence, reflect on Psalm 125

When the LORD restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy; Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing, shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves. (126)   In the silence, reflect on Psalm 126

And then, we were at the foot of the holy place, the Temple first built by Solomon, then rededicated and rebuilt in the time of Herod; the Temple where the Lord God dwelt, where he dwelt in the Holy of Holies.

So we sang: Unless the LORD builds the house, those who build it labour in vain. Unless the LORD guards the city, the guard keeps watch in vain. (127)  
In the silence, reflect on Psalm 127

A gathering of friends and family; a joyful occasion, with exuberant celebration. We had walked with other pilgrims, heading towards the city, climbing the road, singing the psalms, looking forward to the festival.

Each step closer to the city was a step that brought us closer to the heart of our faith. Each step along the way was a step that brought us higher, nearer to the holy mount. Each stage along the way was matched with a psalm of ascent, singing with joy as we drew near to the holy place. So we stepped out, full of faith, on our journey to Jerusalem.

It was during that week that everything came to a head.

See also https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/28/holy-week-1-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-120-121/ and https://johntsquires.com/2021/03/29/holy-week-2-ascending-to-jerusalem-psalms-122-124/