Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Off to the UK to see family and friends! Postings will be intermittent.
Happy New Year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

A Mother's Carol, Clay Zambo and Scott Ethier

A Mother’s Carol

Her breath returned after pain of birth,
She awkwardly rests him on her knee.
An angel told her of peace on earth;
This new mother’s song could only be:
Magnificat anima mea Dominum!
On wings of praise my soul flies free.”

A mother’s carol, a baby’s cry:
What sorrow and joy they both express.
If she had known how her son would die,
Would Mary have said so firm a “Yes?”
Magnificat anima mea Dominum!
Let all creation say no less.

For each of us comes a time of choice--
To answer the call or turn away.
And if today you may hear that voice,
May you find the grace to boldly say,
Magnificat anima mea Dominum!
May peace be born through me today.”
- Clay Zambo

This is a new composition that won this year's VocalEssence and American Composer's Forum's 11th annual Welcome Christmas! Carol Contest. The piece also will be recorded by Minnesota Public Radio for distribution in 2009.

Scott Ethier is a composer and pianist who writes and performs concert works, musical theater, and jazz. His musical Rosa Parks (book and lyrics by Jeff Hughes) was commissioned by Theaterworks/USA and kicks off a tour of the United States at New York City’s Town Hall in February of 2009.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Missing Magnificat on Episcopal Cafe

My piece "The Missing Magnificat" is posted on Episcopal Cafe in Daily Episcopalian. A similar piece by Jonathan Bartley appeared on Christmas Day, "Red Mary: This real Christmas message isn't meek and mild, it's subversive, a challenge to wealth and power."

Mary's song has far more in common with The Red Flag than We Three Kings. But if it makes uncomfortable reading for the Church keen to attract people with a warm, fuzzy message at the one time of year when church attendance seems to actually increase, it is equally challenging for governments.

A few years ago, during the passage of one of the Conservative Government's immigration and asylum bills, an MP from the opposition benches rose to speak in the House of Commons. He began to relate the story of a young unmarried couple. The young girl was pregnant, and they were fleeing a despotic regime. As the story developed, it became clear that this was no ordinary family. He was talking about the Holy Family – a fact that was not lost of the then immigration minister, herself a Catholic, who grew redder by the second as the story unfolded. Then came the final blow. Under the government's proposals, that family, the MP proposed, would not be granted asylum in the UK.

Those who really understand Mary's take on the nativity will realise that Jesus's birth is not just good news for the oppressed, but a threat to all those who seek to restrict and control. It tells us that those who crusade for Christmas will end up losing the very festival they would defend.

My additional point is simply this: where then do we hear the Magnificat in the liturgy??

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Marina Warner interview for Belief

Marina Warner is interviewed by Joan Bakewell for the series Belief on Radio 3. She grew up in Cairo while her father was a bookseller. She was raised Catholic, and speaks about the rhythm of a Catholic school day. She wrestles with the purpose of the crucifixion and discusses internalized guilt. Mary, on the other hand, was the unifying maternal presence. Asked about the miracles of Mary, she speaks instead of human experiences of reversals and epiphanies. She speaks of how to be saint in a world without God citing Camus. She sees the election of Obama as the result of a collective ethical effort.

What was Jesus actually called?

Brian Palmer in Slate investigates Jesus' name:

Christ's given name, commonly Romanized as Yeshua, was quite common in first-century Galilee. (Jesus comes from the transliteration of Yeshua into Greek and then English.) Archaeologists have unearthed the tombs of 71 Yeshuas. The name also appears 30 times in the Old Testament in reference to four separate characters—including a descendent of Aaron who helped to distribute offerings of grain (2 Chronicles 31:15) and a man who accompanied former captives of Nebuchadnezzar back to Jerusalem (Ezra 2:2).

The long version of the name, Yehoshua, appears another few hundred times, referring most notably to the legendary conqueror of Jericho (and the second most famous bearer of the name). So why do we call the Hebrew hero of Jericho Joshua and the Christian Messiah Jesus? Because the New Testament was originally written in Greek, not Hebrew or Aramaic. Greeks did not use the sound sh, so the evangelists substituted an S sound. Then, to make it a masculine name, they added another S sound at the end. The earliest written version of the name Jesus is Romanized today as Iesous. (Thus the crucifix inscription INRI: "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum," or "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.")

The initial J didn't come until much later. That sound was foreign to Aramaic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. Not even English distinguished J from I until the mid-17th century. Thus, the 1611 King James Bible refers to Jesus as "Iesus" and his father as "Ioseph." The current spelling likely came from Switzerland, where J sounds more like the English Y. When English Protestants fled to Switzerland during the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary I, they drafted the Geneva Bible and used the Swiss spelling. Translators in England adopted the Geneva spelling by 1769.

In contrast, the Old Testament was translated directly from the original Hebrew into English, rather than via Greek. So anyone named Yehoshua or Yeshua in the Old Testament became Joshua in English.

But there's another factor in separating Jesus from Joshua: Jesus isn't a Jewish name. Its a European Protestant form of the name. Joshua, on the other hand, sounds more Jewish. Joshua, or in its full form, Yehoshua, is a theophoric name that begins with the divine name YHWH. Perhaps in the 1st century this name carried the connotation of hope for divine deliverance from Roman oppressors.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

The meaning of Christmas

There's some excellent reporting on religious even Christian themes on days like today. I've spent about 45 minutes reading articles on the web.

The St Louis Post Dispatch has an article "Silence is Holy on Christmas Day" that quotes The Rev. Clare McPherson's book, "Keeping Silence":

Theologians, scholars and pastors say silence is especially important during the holidays when the commotion and racket of the secular can distract from peaceful meditation on the true meaning of Christmas.

Silence "helps us get in touch with our deeper selves and build a stronger relationship with God," said the Rev. Mary Gene Boteler, pastor of Second Presbyterian Church in St. Louis.

"The Christmas tumult and noise that begins after Halloween pulls us away from that silence. It's as if we're afraid of what we'd discover if we were to move into that greater silence."

The sacredness of silence is a part of many religious traditions. It is often said that "Quakers have as many words for silence as Eskimos do for snow." Hindus and Buddhists value silence as a spiritual concept. Kenneth Kraft, professor of Buddhist Studies at Lehigh University, said the appreciation of inner silence is one of the most practical aspects of Buddhism.

"There is an inner chatter going on in our minds, and when we try to stop that inner chatter, we don't even know how to do it," said Kraft. "Meditation enables people to have that surface chatter quiet down, but without a loss of awareness or consciousness. In fact, quieting that chatter allows the deep mind to relate to experience in a very rich way."

Religious and literary figures have spoken and written about the value of silence. God "cannot be found in noise and restlessness," said Mother Theresa. "God is the friend of silence."

Just before Christmas in 2003, Pope John Paul II said silence was a key to the mystery of Christ's birth. Silence, he said, "is able to hear the singing of the Angels and the cry of the Babe, and does not let them drown in noise and confusion."

Shakespeare called silence "the perfectest herald of joy," and Herman Melville said all profound things "are preceded and attended by Silence." Silence, said Melville, "is the only Voice of our God."

The Rev. C.W. McPherson, an Episcopal priest and author of "Keeping Silence," says humans have not evolved far enough to handle the sheer volume of noise that exists in today's culture.

"The loudest noise our great-grandfathers heard was thunder," McPherson said. "Today we're assaulted with noise, and we've made Christmas congruent with that ... which makes Christmas too frenetic and too crazy."

Jubilant celebration at this time of year, with family, music, even gift-giving, is appropriate, even needed, McPherson said, but Christians should "deliberately build silence into their celebrations." He suggested a daily silent reading of the first three chapters of the Gospel of Luke — the story of Christ's birth.

The Charlotte Observer has an article, "Finding the light in dark times" in which the author presents a message from local clergy:

In that simple scene in Bethlehem, God showed how secondary material things are to him: He chose to enter the world not as an earthly king, but as a needy baby, born into a poor family, his first bed an animal trough. An angel announced Jesus' birth not to the rich and powerful, they say, but to lowly sheep herders, whose initial terror gave way to peace and joy.

“If you look at the manger scene, it's a place of great vulnerability – not clean, not a place of security, a borrowed shack,” says the Rev. Chip Edens, rector at Christ Episcopal Church in Charlotte. “But there's something powerful in all that. When we're vulnerable, we're more open. … Our needs become blessings and we're invited to get in touch with Christ and experience healing, strength and hope.”

All this has become real and personal to people as they see jobs vanish, homes go on the auction block, and 401(k)s plummet.

God “is saying to us, ‘These things you thought were going to take care of you? Well, they're not. But I will.'” says the Rev. Tom Stinson-Wesley, pastor of Pineville United Methodist Church. “Don't be afraid – that's God's message to us.”

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Thought for the Day (December 22): True Nativity

Thought for the Day by John Bell:

I don't believe that Mary would have ridden a donkey. What's more I don't believe that Jesus was born in a snowstorm. The average temperature in Bethlehem these days is around 70 degrees Fahrenheit.

Nor do I believe that the baby was laid in hay and surrounded by animals. I mean, it might have been 2000 years ago, but people understood the rudiments of hygiene even then.

What's worse. I don't believe in the innkeeper or his wife, in the cattle shed or in the shepherds bringing a lamb. What use would it be to a baby?

And to cap it all and risk accusations of atheism, I don't believe that either the baby or the little town of Bethlehem was silent.

And I don't believe these things because they are all understandable but fanciful accretions courtesy of Victorian carols, Christmas cards and school nativity plays performed for the benefit of parents' cameras. None of the things I disbelieve in appear in the Bible including the silent night. All we know about Bethlehem is that it was crowded out. People would have been drunk or partying or both.

What then are we left with? An almost single-parent mother giving birth to a boy in an alien village in occupied territory at a time when one in four women and one in three babies died at the point of birth. There was no one of importance in attendance, and the vast majority of the outside world, if surveyed, would have said that the event held no significance for them.

The risk of dying during labour, of being exposed to the elements and ignored by the public is precisely what Christmas celebrates. The presence of a God who relates to us not from the immunity of heaven but from the insecurity of earth. This is about the costliness of love, not the confection of sentiment.

copyright 2008 BBC

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Time for Campbell's Soup

Time for us all to support Campbell's in their choice to include us in their advertisement for Swanson's Broth in the Advocate for November. Campbell's is standing firm in spite of criticism (good advertising also!) according to this piece in Advertising Age. Anyone know Ruth Reichl or Wolfgang Puck??

Monday, December 22, 2008

Finding Jesus in the Community

Maria McKay in Christian Today writes an article "Taking Jesus Into the Community" about an artist who created painted pebbles when he noticed that the community lacked a nativity scene (we are in the UK). The artist says:

“You’ve just got to take Jesus out into the community. You’ve got to get Jesus out of the building into the streets and that’s what I am doing.”

The small pebbles are just a couple of inches long and are left nestled in recycled hamster bedding on window ledges, benches and cash machines.

It’s for that reason that the mystery giver asks that Christians will leave the pebbles where they are so that they can be found by people who do not yet believe in Jesus.

“There are going to be people caught in a storm, lost at sea this Christmas, and they are going to be crying out to God for help. People who never in a million years thought they would be crying out to God for help are going to be crying out this year.”

He adds, “I’ve only been a Christian five years and for me to be doing this is a miracle in itself because if I can be saved anybody can be saved. This is my way of giving back. I won’t ever stop telling people what God has done for me.”

Friday, December 19, 2008

March 18, 2009: "Repentance, Renewal and Reconciliation: How One Demonination Has Come to Terms with its Anti-Judaic Heritage"

Repentance, Renewal, and Reconciliation: How One Denomination (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) Has Come to Terms with Its Anti-Judaic Heritage

Lecture given by the Reverend Dr Franklin Sherman:
In 1994, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America issued a "Declaration to the Jewish Community" in which it repudiated Martin Luther's anti-Jewish writings, expressed its sorrow for their baleful effects in subsequent generations, and affirmed its "urgent desire to live out our faith in Jesus Christ with love and respect for the Jewish people." Why was the Declaration issued at that particular time? How was it received in the Jewish community, and what has been the follow-up in educational materials? Dr. Sherman, who chaired the committee that prepared the Declaration, will discuss these and related questions in his lecture.

March 18, 2009 Annual Lecture of the Center for Jewish Christian Studies and Relations: General Theological Seminary, 7.00 Seabury Auditorium.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

King Herod: National Geographic December 2008

Tom Mueller writes on King Herod and his legacy for National Geographic:

An astute and generous ruler, a brilliant general, and one of the most imaginative and energetic builders of the ancient world, Herod guided his kingdom to new prosperity and power. Yet today he is best known as the sly and murderous monarch of Matthew's Gospel, who slaughtered every male infant in Bethlehem in an unsuccessful attempt to kill the newborn Jesus, the prophesied King of the Jews. During the Middle Ages he became an image of the Antichrist: Illuminated manuscripts and Gothic gargoyles show him tearing his beard in mad fury and brandishing his sword at the luckless infants, with Satan whispering in his ear. Herod is almost certainly innocent of this crime, of which there is no report apart from Matthew's account. But children he certainly slew, including three of his own sons, along with his wife, his mother-in-law, and numerous other members of his court. Throughout his life, he blended creativity and cruelty, harmony and chaos, in ways that challenge the modern imagination.

Mary Beard's Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town

Review in TLS by W.V. Harris:

Being Mary Beard is a difficult balancing act. On the one side is the unrepentant scholar, trained in Latin epigraphy in the rigorous school of Joyce Reynolds, passionately determined to get things exactly right, ready to weigh probabilities judiciously, and thoroughly informed about the contents of the latest Dutch festschrift. On the other is the ardent blogger, and the writer (and TLS Classics editor) determined to communicate with audiences larger than a Roman historian or archaeologist can normally reach.

Pompeii: The life of a Roman town combines these two personae, often triumphantly, sometimes a little uneasily. Beard’s knowledge of what has been written about Pompeii – a huge amount – is encyclopedic and up-to-the-minute. She knows, for example, who has argued (in a Dutch festschrift) that the wall painting which shows a man on horseback labelled “Spartaks” is not after all Spartacus with his name in Oscan, as some of us had fondly imagined and as I still believe. She is also capable of practising the important ars nesciendi and leaving insoluble problems unresolved, such as the meaning of the famous wall paintings in the Villa of the Mysteries, which as a historian of religion she is well qualified to write about. Pet theories are not pushed, or at least not often. Thus though the book is personal in tone, it is also a remarkably reliable resource.

This is, thank heavens, a history book and not yet another glorified piece of antiquarianism. Beard always has context. This historicizing approach can sometimes, alas, have a slightly deflating effect, when you learn, for instance, that the wall paintings at the Villa of the Mysteries, unearthed in 1909, look so splendid because they were heavily restored very early on. But the overall effect is to replace the simplifications of the coffee table books with a complex story, in which archaeologists too are human, doing their best – or what is convenient – according to their lights, in whatever age they happen to live.

Beard creates a credible Roman Pompeii that is both noisy and smelly, yet she does so without exaggeration. This is an indispensable book for the Pompeian visitor, including those who know the site well. It succeeds in being wonderfully readable, though certain pages, with their “chaps” and “fiendishly difficult”, may make some readers feel that Professor Beard is talking down to them.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

NPR: The Bible and Same-Sex Marriage: response to Newsweek

NPR continues the debate on Newsweek's piece on Same-Sex Marriage and the Bible by Lisa Miller. Albert Mohler makes the case for the conservative side: that marriage is heterosexual and for the purpose of procreation.

Other reactions to the Newsweek piece here. Mary Hunt for Religion Dispatches makes the point that the original article is a primer for a much bigger discussion already evident in publications many of which she cites. Peter Laarman points out that when he

"finally read the Lisa Miller essay in Newsweek to find out what the fuss was all about, it instantly occurred to me, and I will put it bluntly: it is not homosexuality as such that is abomination to the Christian Right; it is the idea of a God who loves everyone and who honors love and fidelity in all forms and expressions."

Salutary information about Colon Cancer

The NY Times reports that while they are effective, colonoscopies may miss cancerous lesions, particularly flat lesions on the right side of the wall of the colon.

"...a Canadian study, published Tuesday in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine, found the test, while still widely recommended, was much less accurate than anyone expected.

In the new study, the test missed just about every cancer in the right side of the colon, where cancers are harder to detect but about 40 percent arise. And it also missed roughly a third of cancers in the left side of the colon.

Instead of preventing 90 percent of cancers, as some doctors have told patients, colonoscopies might actually prevent more like 60 percent to 70 percent."

What to do?

One solution, supported by six studies, is to be sure there is just a short time between when patients finish taking the strong laxative that cleanses their bowel and the colonoscopy, Dr. Rex said. That usually means taking half of the laxative the night before the screening test and the rest in the morning, something that often is not done, he added, but that he and others recommend.

Cancer may also be different in the right colon, researchers said.

Flat and indented polyps tend to cluster in the right colon. And so do another kind, serrated lesions, which, some studies indicate, might turn into cancer much more quickly than typical polyps.

patients should be compulsive about their bowel prep and be sure the test is done by one of the best colonoscopists in their area, gastroenterologists said. Doctors should find polyps in at least 25 percent of men and 15 percent of women. They should take at least eight minutes to withdraw an endoscope from the colon. And they should do a high volume of screening. Dr. Smith said a high volume was at least three or four colonoscopies a day.

After the test, patients can ask whether the doctor got to the right side of the colon and how that was documented.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Guantanamo and the Parable of the Talents

The priest began to tell the Parable of the Talents. How a wealthy man, parting on a journey, gave five talents to one of his servants, two to another, and one to a third. And the servant with five talents invested wisely and earned another five. And the servant with two talents did the same, also doubling his money. But the third, fearful of his master, hid the talent in the ground and earned nothing.

And the first two enter “into the joy of thy lord,” but the third “wicked and slothful” servant is cast into “outer darkness.”

“Where is this parable told?” the priest asked.

A child’s hand shot up. “Saint Matthew!”

The child was right. But what of this parable in a land where there’s nothing to invest in? Was it a “free-enterprise parable,” as John Howard, the former conservative prime minister of Australia once called it, a reminder that if you are given assets you must add to them, just as if you are entrusted with the word of God, you must spread that word?

Or was it, rather, a parable about the cost of standing up to authority, of being a whistle-blower like the third servant, who calls his master a “hard man, reaping where thou hast not sown?” Was it about the courage to face down totalitarianism and its rich apparatchiks?

I wondered, but preferred mystery to answers. I’d seen America’s Guantánamo prison. I’d felt the suffering of the woman in the car. I’d left New York’s financial disaster, based on greed for redoubled assets, and found the economic ravages of Cuba’s head-in-the-ground Communism.

Yes, pity. And if this priest had the power to turn the wafer into the flesh and blood of God, and if the people gathered here believed that and were consoled, I was ready to bow my head in silence.

From Roger Cohen's OpEd piece in the NY Times, "A Church in Guantanamo"

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Columbia University Religion Seminar tomorrow Guanyin and Chinese Buddhism

Columbia University Seminars
Seminar on Studies in Religion (#405)

Next Meeting: Monday, December 15, 2008

Topic: From Bodhisattva to Goddess: Guanyin and Chinese Buddhism

Speaker: Dr. Chun-fang Yu
Sheng Yen Professor in Chinese Buddhist Studies
Columbia University

Time: 4:15 - 6:15 p.m.

Place: The Heyman Center (East Campus)*

* Enter the Wien Hall Gate on 116th Street between Amsterdam Avenue
and Morningside Drive. Walk past Wien Hall, then turn right and make a
sharp turn up the staircase to the left, which leads to East Campus.
Check in with the guard and follow the sign to the Heyman Center.

"A Christmas Carol" Charles Dickens and the Invention of Christmas

In 1843, Dickens published "A Christmas Carol." The manuscript is currently on display at the Pierpont Morgan Library. Its a tradition in our household to go and view the manuscript at this time of year!

When the manuscript was returned after printing Dickens arranged for it to be finely bound in red morocco leather and presented it as a gift to his solicitor. It was purchased by Pierpont Morgan in the 1890s. Beginning on November 20, visitors to The Morgan Library & Museum can view the original manuscript by Dickens in a special presentation in the museum's famed McKim Building.

The manuscript reveals the author's method of composition: the pace of writing and revision, apparently contiguous, is rapid and boldly confident. Revisions are inserted for vividness and immediacy of effect.

Deleted text is struck out with a cursive and continuous looping movement of the pen, and replaced with more active verbs and fewer words to achieve greater concision. Dickens's manuscript shows vividly his efforts to create the highest-quality literary work in the shortest possible time.

Judith Flanders points out features of Dickens' Christmas:

When he first described a typical Christmas, in 1837, the year Queen Victoria came to the throne, while some of the standard markers of the festival were already in place – family parties, mistletoe and holly, plum pudding and mince pies – just as many traditional Christmas symbols were missing. There was no tree, no carols, no cards, no stockings, no crackers, no Father Christmas and, perhaps most surprisingly of all, no presents.

The tree arrived in the late 1830's from Germany. Carols took off in the 1850's after pianos arrived in middle class homes encouraging the singing of carols around the piano and Santa Claus came from America in the 1880's. Railways enabled the turkey to supplant a traditional goose on the menu since before the railways, turkeys had been marched from East Anglia where they were raised to their destinations e.g. London. Under such conditions, turkeys lost weight and had to be fattened up again before being sold.

She concludes:
So, by the end of the century, the traditional Christmas – that luxurious moment of home-grown tradition – was produced by manufacturers, delivered by railways and advertised by newspapers and magazines. Everything had been reshaped, reordered and repackaged, to be sold commercially as the perfect image of the home-made holiday.

Feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe: December 12

The New York Times reports on Our Lady of Guadalupe arriving at St Patrick's Cathedral:

She came into New York across the George Washington Bridge, a gold-framed portrait of a brown-skinned Virgin Mary escorted by a procession of pilgrims in gray jogging sweats.

According to Mexican lore, the Virgin appeared in December 1531 before an indigenous farmer and laborer named Juan Diego Cuautlatoatzin. The brown-skinned apparition told Juan Diego that she was the mother of Jesus and that she wanted a church on the Tepeyac Hill, the site of a former Aztec temple dedicated to the goddess Tonantzin.

Both Juan Diego and the Virgin of Guadalupe are passionately revered as holy incarnations of Mexican identity. Recognizing their evangelical significance, Pope John Paul II, who canonized Juan Diego in 2002, declared the Virgin of Guadalupe “Queen of the Americas.”

The portrait that arrived at St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Friday morning is a replica of the revered image kept at the Mexico City basilica. The portrait, about 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide, left Mexico City two months ago, and was brought by vehicle across the border, across the country and into New York, followed by pilgrims on foot and in cars.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

What Does Your Office Look Like?

From today's Guardian comes a picture of Marina Warner's writing room:
The higgledy-piggledy does follow a certain order; the stacks and shelves of books have become familiar, extra limbs, and I don't think I'll ever be able to move again and still find what I need. I used to write in a burrow downstairs, and moving up into the roof and light and air lifted me and my writing, or at least it felt so. I think of the room less as a retreat than a crow's nest, because the wind sings around it.The oar in the corner is a work of a few years ago by my son Conrad Shawcross - it was inspired by the prophecy that Odysseus will know the place of his death when he meets a man who mistakes the oar he is carrying for a winnowing fan.

In my own case, finishing an assignment is an occasion to tidy up. Writing one means that everything for that project is out and available for consultation. Something of this is conveyed in this paragraph:

The clothes hanging up on the right come from my mother's. She died earlier this year, and my sister and I have been gradually tidying and sifting: you can see an emerald cocktail dress she pleated by hand, and next to it, two of the outfits she smocked for me. The big W on the hatbox in the foreground comes in the middle of a P&O cabin label, when she was travelling back and forth from Cairo in the 40s and 50s. I am drawing inspiration from these things of hers for the novel I am writing now.

The problem comes when there are several projects going on simultaneously: each then requires a distinct set of accessible references and now and then, the several projects can overlap. A side-effect is an unintended cross-fertilization of ideas. Another feature of my desk is a stack of new books which I am trying to read before they have to be shelved.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Redeeming the innkeeper of Luke 2:7

RNS recently featured a story redeeming the innkeeper of Luke 2:7 including a reference to the work of Mikeal Parsons:

The innkeeper's reputation stems from a single, oblique reference in Luke 2:7. The verse says Mary wrapped the newborn Jesus in cloth "and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." From this text, Christian communities through the centuries have inferred that their savior was rebuffed at birth.

The reality was possibly much different. The "inn" (or "lodgings" in some translations) was not a hotel or hostel but perhaps a guest room in the private residence of one of Joseph's relatives, according to Mikeal Parsons, a Baylor University New Testament scholar who's writing a commentary on Luke. Because that room was already occupied, Parsons says, hosts may have made room for Mary and Joseph within their own family quarters and cleaned up an animal feeding trough (manger) to serve as a crib.

Such details are important, scholars say, in part because the birth narrative is rich with symbolism. The divine infant's portrayal in modest circumstances suggests, for instance, that God humbled himself to join the commonest of humankind. Hence for later generations to conjure a fictitious innkeeper and make him into something of a villain may be to read a new, unwarranted and potentially misleading significance into the story.

Found (Maybe): il "profumo della Maddalena" or 1st C. vases at Magdala

Italian newspapers report:

Gli archeologi dello Studium Biblicum Franciscanum di Gerusalemme hanno riportato alla luce a Magdala, in Galilea, oggetti davvero unici e particolari, la cui antichità affonda nella leggenda. Sotto uno strato di fango sono stati ritrovati suppellettili e ornamenti risalenti a 2000 anni fa, ma soprattutto degli unguenti e profumi, probabilmente simili a quelli con cui Maria Maddalena unse i piedi di Cristo.

Or, as the Daily Telegraph notes:
The archaeologists of the Franciscan academic society Studium Biblicum Franciscanum found the unopened vases dating to the first century AD conserved in mud at the bottom of a swimming pool in Magdala's thermal complex.

Speaking of the discovery Father Stefano De Luca who is leading the dig, said: "The mud-filled condition of the site allowed us to find these truly extraordinary objects, which were intact and sealed and still contain greasy substances.

"We think these are balms and perfumes and if chemical analysis confirms this, they could be similar to those used by Mary Magdalene in the Gospels to anoint the feet of Christ.

"The discovery of these vases is very important. We have in our hands the cosmetic products from the time of Jesus. It's very likely that the woman who anointed Christ's feet used these products, or ones similar in organic composition and quality."

Mark Goodacre adds useful comments on this report here (it was very late when I posted this news last night).

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Remembering Joanne McWilliam

Joanne McWilliam's birthday was today. Here are some excerpts from her obit in the Globe and Mail:

A religious pioneer and predictor of change who mentored and encouraged hundreds of women in academia and the priesthood, Dr. McWilliam tallied several milestones: She was the first woman to earn a doctorate in theology from the University of Toronto's St. Michael's College; the first ordained woman to receive tenure on the divinity faculty at U of T's Trinity College; and the first Canadian woman elected president of the American Theological Society.

She was recalled as a warm, self-effacing woman, but serious about many things: teaching, her church and advancing the cause of women, both in her field and beyond. Her son, Gonzalo Duarte, recalled a T-shirt his mother bought him in 1977 bearing the words: "Men of quality are not threatened by women for equality." It was a message she carried and heeded throughout her life.

Dr. McWilliam became a deacon in the Anglican Church in 1987, the year she married Peter Slater, an Anglican priest and fellow theologian, and was ordained a priest the next year, at the age of 60. For one thing, she felt it was important for female students to have a female priest on the faculty.

An optimist, she felt the global Anglican communion will weather its spasm over homosexuality and avoid schism. She cited examples of other threats to unity - slavery and the place of women - that failed to split the church.

Health conscious before it was fashionable, she ingested plain yogurt and chicken livers for breakfast. But a regular tipple of sherry was never turned aside. Minutes after doctors informed her that her cancer was untreatable, she asked her daughter Leslie to drop by for a glass, reasoning that "there's no point allowing life to go completely to the dogs."

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Verdi's Requiem at Carnegie Hall

We went to a spectacular performance of Verdi's Requiem at Carnegie Hall last night. The Collegiate Chorale was conducted by Daniele Callegari with the New York City Opera Orchestra. The concert was a tribute to Robert Bass, the Chorale’s longtime music director and conductor, who died in August at 55. The soloists are the soprano Adrianne Pieczonka, the mezzo Stephanie Blythe, the tenor Ramón Vargas and the bass Ain Anger.

The ending is distinctive: George Martin, in Verdi, His Life and Times (p.412) discusses the point that Verdi has not written ecclesiastical music. He says:

".... Verdi's final section plunges the singers and audience back into the personal drama as though someone had said the wrong thing and God had suddenly reappeared. The soprano is the soloist, asking to be freed from eternal death (Libera Me), and at the mention of judgment by fire, the Dies Irae begins to build up in the orchestra. Suddenly it bursts out in all its fury, terrifying and awful, and the broken suppliants almost sob their request for peace and light for the dead. But then, as in the Dies Irae section, their thoughts turn to themselves: Libera Me,
Libera Me. .... Libera Me, they sing, calling on the magic of music and words to save them from the terror of the unknown. But magic, even in a group, does not answer an individual's fears. One by one they fall silent, drop their neighbor's hand and peer out into the night, alone.
"Libera me", the soprano pleads alone, "Free me, Lord, from eternal death on that awful day." "Free me", each one breathes. "Free me". .... The audience, whether it intellectually wants to or not, becomes emotionally involved in the sheer rush of sound in the final fugue and, like the chorus and soloists, asks for some sort of emotional release. This Verdi, also quite deliberately, refuses to give it. There is no sudden burst into a sunny amen, no vision of a kind God or promise of intersession; there is only dwindling power and continued uncertainty."

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens (Onassis Cultural Center)

Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens
December 10, 2008 – May 9, 2009

The galleries of the Onassis Cultural Center in New York will be transformed into evocations of ancient Greek sanctuaries, each filled with artistic masterpieces assembled from international collections, for the major exhibition Worshiping Women: Ritual and Reality in Classical Athens. On view from December 10, 2008, through May 9, 2009, the exhibition brings together 155 rare and extraordinary archaeological objects in order to re-examine preconceptions about the exclusion of women from public life in ancient Athens. The story told by these objects, and experienced in the galleries, presents a more nuanced picture than is often seen, showing how women’s participation in cults and festivals contributed not only to personal fulfillment in Classical Greece but also to civic identity.

Among the treasures being brought to New York for the exhibition are marble statues of the goddesses Artemis and Athena (National Archaeological Museum, Athens); a white-ground vase with an image of Artemis, by the Pan Painter (State Hermitage Museum, Petersburg); a red-figure vase with an image of Iphigenia, the legendary heroine worshiped as a cult figure and seen as a model for priestesses (Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Ferrara); a vase showing the Trojan priestess Theano, another model for priestesses, receiving the Greek warriors who had come to recover Helen from Troy (Vatican Museums); and a limestone grave marker (conserved with support from the Onassis Foundation) carved with the image of a young woman in bridal costume, holding a votive offering (State Museums of Berlin). Interspersed with these and other exquisite artworks are archaeological objects that document the religious practices of Classical Athens and tell the complex story of women’s roles in that society.

“If all Greek religion was about creating and maintaining a state of harmony between mortals and gods,” the curators state, “then the role of Athenian women was an integral part of that process. It was women’s essential contribution to share equally in securing and maintaining the divine favor that made Athens great.”

Worshiping Women tells this story in three main chapters. “Goddesses and Heroines” introduces the principal female deities of Athens and Attica, in whose cults and festivals women were most actively engaged: Athena, Artemis, Aphrodite, and Demeter and her daughter Persephone. This first section also investigates the role of heroines, a special group of women believed to have lived in the distant past, who like Iphigenia became important figures of cult worship after their deaths.

The second chapter, “Women and Ritual,” explores the practice of ritual acts such as dances, libations, sacrifices, processions and festivals in which women were active in classical antiquity. Here the critical role of the priestess comes to light, specifically in her function as key-bearer for the temples of the gods.

In the final chapter, “Women and the Cycle of Life,” the exhibition explores how religious rituals defined moments of transition. Because the most important transition in a girl’s life was understood to be marriage, the wedding took on great significance, with its rituals depicted on a variety of vases associated with nuptial rites and wedding banquets. Death was another occasion on which Athenian women took on major responsibilities, such as preparing the deceased for burial and tending the graves of family members.

The Curators

Dr. Nikolaos Kaltsas is the director of the National Archaeological Museum of Greece and the author of a prize-winning book, Sculpture in the National Archaeological Museum, Athens (2002), as well as many other widely published archeological studies. Dr. Kaltsas is a member of the Central Council of Museums, the Central Council of Modern and Contemporary Monuments, and the Committee for the Conservation of the Temple of Apollo Epikourios.

Dr. Alan Shapiro, the W.H. Collins Vickers Professor of Archaeology at Johns Hopkins University, has a particular interest in Greek art, myth, and religion in the Archaic and Classical periods, especially in the interrelationships among art, religion, and politics. He is an authority on vase iconography and has written numerous studies, including Personifications in Greek Art (1993) and Myth into Art: Poet and Painter in Classical Greece (1994). In addition, he is the co-author of Women in the Classical World (1994).

Alexander S. Onassis Public Benefit Foundation (USA)
645 Fifth Avenue, Suite 304
New York, NY 10022

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Lisa Miller of Newsweek on Gay Marriage

Lisa Miller writes on gay marriage in Newsweek:

First, while the Bible and Jesus say many important things about love and family, neither explicitly defines marriage as between one man and one woman. And second, as the examples above illustrate, no sensible modern person wants marriage—theirs or anyone else's —to look in its particulars anything like what the Bible describes. "Marriage" in America refers to two separate things, a religious institution and a civil one, though it is most often enacted as a messy conflation of the two. As a civil institution, marriage offers practical benefits to both partners: contractual rights having to do with taxes; insurance; the care and custody of children; visitation rights; and inheritance. As a religious institution, marriage offers something else: a commitment of both partners before God to love, honor and cherish each other—in sickness and in health, for richer and poorer—in accordance with God's will. In a religious marriage, two people promise to take care of each other, profoundly, the way they believe God cares for them. Biblical literalists will disagree, but the Bible is a living document, powerful for more than 2,000 years because its truths speak to us even as we change through history. In that light, Scripture gives us no good reason why gays and lesbians should not be (civilly and religiously) married—and a number of excellent reasons why they should.

This is a very useful statement that will reach a wider public.

Update: I have posted a longer response to Lisa Miller's article on the Episcopal Cafe website making the case that much more than "mutual joy" is conferred in the sacramental benefits of marriage.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Learning "Pages"

We recently visited our local Apple Store for an hour-long free workshop on features of Pages (part of iWork). What a fantastic opportunity! Result: I wrote a long letter using Pages last week and saved it to send as a .pdf file. The person leading the workshop was just the right mix of youth and upbeat clarity. She even promised to work on a particular problem and get back to us.

Meantime, "Q&A: Maintaining the Mac" at the NY Times (Dec 3rd) has some fascinating information:
The Mac system also automatically runs many routine maintenance chores in the background, like purging unneeded system logs or temporary files. By default, the Mac usually does its self-maintenance between 3:15 to 5:30 in the morning (in the computer’s local time zone) as long as the machine is left on and is not in sleep mode.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

SWFS on The Torah: A Women's Commentary Dec 10 & 15

Study from The Torah: A Women's Commentary with Rabbi Dena Klein
Wednesday, December 10, 7pm

Stephen Wise is proud to host a series of discussions on the newly published, The Torah: A Women's Commentary with Rabbi Dena Klein. These sessions will celebrate the growing role of women in Jewish life as we use A Women's Commentary to explore portions that are provocative to us as Jews. We look forward to seeing you there!

5 Scholars on the 5 Books
Rabbi Andrea Weiss, PhD and Associate Editor of The Torah: A Women's Commentary, on Leviticus
Monday, December 15, 7pm

Sensing the Sacred: Leviticus through the Lens of The Torah: A Women's Commentary
What meaning can contemporary Jews draw from a book that seems to focus largely on sacrifices and other priestly rituals? With A Women's Commentary as our guide, Rabbi Weiss will explore the key themes in Leviticus and the enduring wisdom of these ancient priestly texts.

Upcoming Study Sessions with A Women's Commentary scholars:
Carol Meyers on Exodus, February 7, 7pm
Adriane Leveen on Numbers, May 4, 7pm

Co-sponsored by the New Women's Organization

These programs will take place at Stephen Wise Free Synagogue, 30 W. 68th St. Feel free to contact us at: 212-877-4050 or visit our website at

Monday, December 01, 2008

P39 to be auctioned Dec 3 at Sotheby's in London

From the Sotheby's catalogue for auction on Dec 3rd in London
(does anyone have 200,000 to 300,000 pounds? And can this kind of manuscript not be auctioned to institutions?):

One of the finest and most celebrated early Christian Gospel fragments, perhaps the oldest or possibly second oldest surviving witness to this part of the text of the Gospel of John, in its original language


Written almost certainly in Alexandria, and used in the important early Christian community at Oxyrhynchus, in the desert west of the Nile about 120 miles from Cairo, partly covered now by the modern village of Behnesa. Ancient Oxyrhynchus was principally discovered Bernard Grenfell (1869-1926) and Arthur Hunt (1871-1934), both of Queen's College, Oxford, who devoted their lives to excavating it. The site furnished many of the finest and most precious records of early Christianity ever found, including the sensational 'Sayings of Jesus' (later known as the 'Gospel of Thomas'), as well as notable classical texts, including Pindar and Menander. The present fragment was recovered by Grenfell and Hunt on 28 September 1922, and it was classified as P. Oxy. 1780. Most of the Oxyrhynchus finds are now in the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, and the British Museum. Some specimen pieces, however, were transferred by Oxford University to appropriate theological seminaries and colleges elsewhere, including the present piece which had been given by 1924 to the Baptist college, Crozer Theological Seminary, founded near Chester, Pennsylvania, in 1865. It was later the alma mater of Martin Luther King. In 1980 Crozer merged with the ecumenical Colgate Theological Seminary in Rochester, New York. The present manuscript was Inv. 8864 in the Ambrose Swasey Library in the combined Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School, until their sale in our New York rooms, 20 June 2003, lot 97, $400,000, bought then by the present owner for what is still by far the highest price ever paid at public sale for any early Christian manuscript. Since 2004 it has toured American museums in the exhibitions Dead Sea Scrolls to the Forbidden Book and Ink and Blood, where it has been seen by hundred of thousands of people.

This is P39 in the standard classification of Greek New Testament papyri. Grenfell and Hunt described the script as "a handsome specimen of the 'biblical' type, large and upright, ... unlikely to be later than the fourth century" (p.7). Roberts & Skeat, Aland, Cavallo, and others moved the dating back to well within the third century, to which it is generally assigned. More recently, Professor Philip Wesley Comfort writes (Encountering the Manuscripts, 2005, p. 172, repeated p. 353): "This manuscript displays the work of a professional scribe who wrote an early form of the Biblical Uncial script ... P39 lines up remarkably well with P. Rylands 16, dated quite confidently to the second / early third century ... and with P. Oxyrhynchus 25, dated early third. I would not hesitate to date P39 as ca. 200".

Such a date, if right, brings the fragment almost as far back as any extant substantial records of Christianity survive. It is less than 170 years from the Crucifixion. In theory, an extremely old person in 200 could as a child have known someone who at the beginning of his or her own long life might have met Jesus himself. Christianity was illegal in the Roman empire, practised in secret and in the catacombs, until the fourth century. When it was excavated at Oxyrhynchus the present fragment was by far the earliest manuscript of any part of Saint John's Gospel then known. Around 1952 the manuscript now Papyrus Bodmer II was discovered in Egypt, P66, also datable to around 200 A.D. overlapping with the text of the present fragment. Papyrus Bodmer III, P75, found at the same time, includes large portions of John's Gospel and is ascribed too to within the third century. Apart from these two, however, no other papyrus or vellum fragment includes any part of John chapter 8, and the next earliest witness to this passage is the Codex Sinaiticus itself, generally assigned to the fourth century. If the date of about 200 A.D. is sustainable, the present piece is one of the two oldest witnesses to the text; if it is cautiously dated to the third century, it is the second or third oldest known manuscript.

The fragment has John 8:14-18 on the recto and John 8:19-22 on the verso, with the account of Jesus preaching in the Temple. The people challenge his right to give evidence on his own behalf, rather than with the testimony of two witnesses, as required by the Jewish law. He replied, " 'I testify on my own behalf, and the Father who sent me testifies on my behalf'. And they said to him, 'Where is your Father?' Jesus answered, 'You know neither me nor my Father. If you knew me, you would know my Father also'" (verses 18-19). It includes the cryptic and prophetical verse 21, "Where I am going you cannot come".

The Gospel text preserved here is extremely pure, graded by Aland as category 1 among New Testament sources, a "strict" text (Text of the N.T., 1989, p.98); "the papyrus evidently agreed with the best manuscripts" (Grenfell and Hunt, 1922, p.8, n.43). The text is consistent word for word with the readings of the fourth-century Codex Vaticanus, probably also from Alexandria. The present fragment is used for its textual value in all modern critical editions of the Greek Gospels, including those of 1951, 1959, 1979 and 2004.

Among excavated fragments, the piece is of substantial size. The script is a superb and spacious Greek uncial, the script especially associated with the earliest Bibles. The writing is as fine as in any early manuscript. "The large and beautiful calligraphy shows that this manuscript was probably produced by a professional scribe for church use" (Comfort and Barrett, 1999, p. 137). The leaf was clearly from a codex, one of the oldest known, and it was evidently paginated (not foliated) by the original scribe, for it has the Greek number "ÏÄ", '74', at the top of the verso, one of the earliest of all books with contemporary pagination. It is not possible to tell whether or not the recto was also paginated, since that side of the piece is missing. Pagination, which is very rare in early codices, suggests that the volume was to be consulted at specific passages rather than read as a consecutive narrative, which is necessarily the case with scrolls. Comfort (2005, pp. 353-4) makes interesting calculations by working backwards from the page number. He notes that the scribe evidently wrote 330 characters on p. 73 and 333 on p. 74. He then counts 23,796 characters from John 8:14 back to John 1:1 at the start of the Gospel. 23,796 divided by 333 is almost exactly 71½ pages. This would not allow enough space for inclusion of the disputed passage of the Woman taken in Adultery (John 7:53-8:11), which cannot have been present. It also shows, more obviously and unambiguously, that this was from a one-volume Gospel of John.

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