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.

Location: Amherst, Virginia, United States

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Handling Holy Things

Daily Readings
Psalm 57 + Numbers 4 + Leviticus 24 + Matthew 13

Verse for the Day
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. Matthew 13:44

Daily Text Numbers 4:5-17,28,33
5When the camp is to set out, Aaron and his sons shall go in and take down the screening curtain, and cover the ark of the covenant with it; 6then they shall put on it a covering of fine leather, and spread over that a cloth all of blue, and shall put its poles in place. 7Over the table of the bread of the Presence they shall spread a blue cloth, and put on it the plates, the dishes for incense, the bowls, and the flagons for the drink offering; the regular bread also shall be on it; 8then they shall spread over them a crimson cloth, and cover it with a covering of fine leather, and shall put its poles in place. 9They shall take a blue cloth, and cover the lampstand for the light, with its lamps, its snuffers, its trays, and all the vessels for oil with which it is supplied; 10and they shall put it with all its utensils in a covering of fine leather, and put it on the carrying frame. 11Over the golden altar they shall spread a blue cloth, and cover it with a covering of fine leather, and shall put its poles in place; 12and they shall take all the utensils of the service that are used in the sanctuary, and put them in a blue cloth, and cover them with a covering of fine leather, and put them on the carrying frame. 13They shall take away the ashes from the altar, and spread a purple cloth over it; 14and they shall put on it all the utensils of the altar, which are used for the service there, the firepans, the forks, the shovels, and the basins, all the utensils of the altar; and they shall spread on it a covering of fine leather, and shall put its poles in place. 15When Aaron and his sons have finished covering the sanctuary and all the furnishings of the sanctuary, as the camp sets out, after that the Kohathites shall come to carry these, but they must not touch the holy things, or they will die. These are the things of the tent of meeting that the Kohathites are to carry. 16Eleazar son of Aaron the priest shall have charge of the oil for the light, the fragrant incense, the regular grain offering, and the anointing oil, the oversight of all the tabernacle and all that is in it, in the sanctuary and in its utensils. 17Then the LORD spoke to Moses and Aaron, saying: 28This is the service of the clans of the Gershonites relating to the tent of meeting, and their responsibilities are to be under the oversight of Ithamar son of Aaron the priest. 33This is the service of the clans of the Merarites, the whole of their service relating to the tent of meeting, under the hand of Ithamar son of Aaron the priest.

Handling Holy Things
Blue is the color of the coverings for the holy things. It is thought to refer to the color of the heavenly throne of God (Cf. Exodus 24:10) Since these items were all in the Most Holy Place or the Holy Place they were associated with the presence of God, the mercy seat actually being the place where God stood or sat. The covering itself may well have been made of dolphin skin used widely in those times and the color for the blue cloth coming from certain kinds of shellfish collected by Phoenicians or two snails, Murex trunculis and Murex brandaris. Baruch Levine writes, “These snails are found along the Mediterranean coast. …The Palestinian Talmud (Berakot 15) describes this color as that of the sea, and at Ugarit it was called uqnu, the word for lapis lazuli.” Evidently, there was extensive manufacture in the Late Bronze Age, although, as one might guess, it took a great many snails for a little color, was therefore very expensive and was reserved for royalty and important cultic purposes. [410:400]

The crimson color for the cloth, that went over the blue and under the dolphin skin, was obtained from the bodies of certain worms and insects, dried and ground into powder. All of this detail most likely holds little interest for most readers of Numbers. However, here is placed the detail that the priests and Levites would need for carrying out their functions. Such detail is available in any field be it religious, corporate, scientific or simply writing. It is just not usually published for the general public, that is those without particular need for the information. We can ridicule the bible for this or we can recognize it for what it is. There is much of this specialized material in Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. But in it all there are lessons to be read and beauty to be experienced. Simply thinking of the care and the expense in providing such beautiful protective materials for the sanctuary gives one a sense of the love and thoughtfulness that went into it.

The matter of the Kohathites who bore this material on the trek, yet could not even look on the objects before they were covered by the priests, as if seeing the objects was like seeing the face of God, must have added much to the sense of mystery and holiness around these objects. The Church used to take such care. Only priests, deacons and the altar guild were allowed in the sanctuary, and then preparation was required and ministers of the services entered and departed in a prescribed order. Holy things were handled by acolytes in particular ways that I am discovering only older priests, altar guild members and acolytes even remember. These practices are not taught in most seminaries anymore. In the process we demystify our most holy places and while we grow more relaxed, one cannot help but wonder if we lose in terms of devotion? Still the Lord requires mercy and not sacrifice and if we can hold on to the heart of our love and devotion we may be better off without the scrupulousnous of former times.

To A Young Priest
Anne Blackwell Payne

Such old, illustrious tidings you proclaim,
With quiet incandescence in your face;
Until the altar candles do not flame
With any surer radiance and grace.
It is the fire that burned in Augustine;
The passion that is selfless and most white;
That made of Francis, gentle and serene,
A torch uplifted on a somber night.
Such still adventure, and such steep a stair!
And, yet, to travel with you I would toss
The trifling cargo of myself and share
Your braver burdens and more excellent cross;
And give my little dream to be imbued
With your grave joy and flaming certitude.


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