Fr. James' Lectionary

The Lectionary is both a reading program for completing all of Holy Scripture on a one year schedule, and a daily comment on a portion of the day's reading wedded to a poem to give an added perspective on the theme.

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Location: Amherst, Virginia, United States

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

In the Eye of the Beholder

Daily Readings
Psalm 50 + Exodus 37 + Leviticus 17 + Matthew 6

Verse for the Day
“I know every bird in the sky, and the creatures of the fields are in my sight.”
Psalm 50:11

Daily Text Exodus 37:6-9, 17-24
6He made a mercy seat of pure gold; two cubits and a half was its length, and a cubit and a half its width. 7He made two cherubim of hammered gold; at the two ends of the mercy seat he made them, 8one cherub at the one end, and one cherub at the other end; of one piece with the mercy seat he made the cherubim at its two ends. 9The cherubim spread out their wings above, overshadowing the mercy seat with their wings. They faced one another; the faces of the cherubim were turned toward the mercy seat. 17He also made the lampstand of pure gold. The base and the shaft of the lampstand were made of hammered work; its cups, its calyxes, and its petals were of one piece with it. 18There were six branches going out of its sides, three branches of the lampstand out of one side of it and three branches of the lampstand out of the other side of it; 19three cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals, on one branch, and three cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with calyx and petals, on the other branch—so for the six branches going out of the lampstand. 20On the lampstand itself there were four cups shaped like almond blossoms, each with its calyxes and petals. 21There was a calyx of one piece with it under the first pair of branches, a calyx of one piece with it under the next pair of branches, and a calyx of one piece with it under the last pair of branches. 22Their calyxes and their branches were of one piece with it, the whole of it one hammered piece of pure gold. 23He made its seven lamps and its snuffers and its trays of pure gold. 24He made it and all its utensils of a talent of pure gold.

In the Eye of the Beholder
Beauty may be in the eye of the beholder, and this passage is one of beauty and grace. These descriptions of the mercy seat and the lampstand or menorah are ones taking us back to near the beginnings of recorded history. They have become the source of imagination and creativity for artists and poets from that time.

The mercy seat was approximately 44 inches long and 26 inches wide. It was the cover for the ark of the covenant within which was placed the tablets of stone. At either end was a gold cherub facing each other and they may have been representations of a lion-like animal with wings, characterizing an angel or messenger of God. The cherubim were molded with the mercy seat into a single gold construction. Here we catch a rare glimpse of a nation pursuing excellence in the arts. Rare because the prohibition against such images has always put the brakes on Jewish creativity in these sorts of arts. But here in this most holy place, Bezalel (meaning “in the shadow of God”) is given free rein for his abilities. This was the place of atonement, of propitiation for the sins of the people. It was also considered the footstool for the Presence of God himself who presumably dwelt above the mercy seat like the cherubim (I Chronicles 28:2, Psalm 99:5). Once a year the high priest sprinkled the blood on the mercy seat (Leviticus 16:14). It spoke of the ultimate mercy of the God of Israel in forgiving the sins of his people.

The lampstand or menorah we have seen before in Exodus. It was perhaps a likeness of a living shrub, representative of the tree of life from the Garden of Eden. It consisted of three parts, a tripod base, above which a vertical shaft, from which sprang three branches on each side that curved up to the same height as the central shaft. Each branch and the central shaft terminated in a cup made in the form of an almond flower. A specially compounded oil provided the fuel for the lamp. If the talent of gold required to create this single piece of hammered work is accurate, the menorah would have weighed about 76, and in one source, 96 pounds.

Menorah
by William Ellery Leonard

We’ve read in legends of the books of old
How deft Bezalel, wisest in his trade,
At the command of veiled Moses made
The seven-branched candlestick of beaten gold—
The base, the shaft, the cups, the knobs, the flowers,
Like almond blossoms—and the lamps were seven.

We know at least that on the templed rock
Of Zion hill, with earth’s revolving hours
Under the changing centuries of heaven,
It stood upon the solemn altar block,
By every Gentile who had heard abhorred—
The holy light of Israel of the Lord;
Until that Titus and the legions came
And battered the walls with catapult and fire,
And bore the priest and candlestick away,
And, as memorial of fulfilled desire,
Bade carve upon the arch that bears his name
The stone procession ye may see today
Beyond the Forum on the Sacred way,
Lifting the golden candlestick of fame.
The city fell, the temple was a heap;
And little children, who had else grown strong
And in their manhood venged the Roman wrong,
Strewed step and chamber, in eternal sleep.
But the great vision of the sevenfold flames
Outlasted the cups wherein at first it sprung.
The Greeks might teach the arts, the Romans law;
The heathen hordes might shout for bread and games;
Still Israel, exalted in the realms of awe,
Guarded the Light in many an alien air,
Along the borders of the midland sea
In hostile cities, spending praise and prayer
And pondering on the larger things that be—
Down through the ages, when the Cross uprose
Among the northern Gentiles to oppose:
Then huddled in the ghettos, barred at night,
In lands of unknown trees, and fiercer snows,
They watched for evermore the Light, the Light.

The main seas opened to the west. The Nations
Covered new continents with generations
That had their work to do, their thought to say;
And Israel’s hosts from bloody towns afar
In the dominions of the ermined Czar,
Seared with the iron, scarred with many a stroke,
Crowded the hollow ships but yesterday.
And came to us who are to-morrow’s folk,
And the pure Light, however some might doubt
Who mocked their dirt and rags, had not gone out.

The holy Light of Israel hath unfurled
Its tongues of mystic flame around the world.
Empires and Kings and Parliaments have passed;
Rivers and mountain chains from age to age
Become new boundaries for man’s politics.
The navies run new ensigns up the mast,
The temples try new creeds, new equipage;
The schools new sciences beyond the six.
And through the lands where many a song hath rung
The people speak no more their fathers’ tongue.
Yet in the shifting energies of man
The Light of Israel remains her Light.
And gathered to a splendid caravan
From the four corners of the day and night,
The chosen people—so the prophets hold—
Shall yet return unto the homes of old
Under the hills of Judah. Be it so.
Only the stars and moon and sun can show
A permanence of light to hers akin.

What is that Light? Who is there that shall tell
The purport of the tribe of Israel?—
In the wild welter of races on that earth
Which spins in space where thousand others spin—
The casual offspring of the Cosmic Mirth
Perhaps—what is there any man can win,
Of any nation? Ultimates aside,
Men have their aims, and Israel her pride,
She stands among the rest, austere, aloof,
Still the peculiar people, armed in proof
Of Selfhood, whilst the others merge or die.
She stands among the rest and answers: “I,
Above ye all, must ever gauge success
By ideal types, and know the more and less
Of things as being in the end defined,
For this our human life by righteousness;
And if I base this in Eternal Mind—
Our fathers’ God in victory or distress—
I cannot argue for my hardihood,
Save that the thought is in my flesh and blood,
And made me what I was in olden time,
And keeps me what I am today in every clime.”
403:151

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