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

Saturday, December 09, 2006

A Living God: Bel and the Dragon with poem by Madame Guyon, Since God is There

Daily Readings
Isaiah 44, III Maccabees 2, Bel and the Dragon, Luke 6

Daily Text: Bel and the Dragon

A Living God
In Bel and the Dragon, Daniel continues with these two stories of the prophet’s exploits for the Lord God against pagan deities. There is a common theme running through these two vignettes, that of the nature of a living God. Cyrus believes Bel to be living because of the amount of food the god consumes. Daniel simply laughs at the possibility. His living God doesn’t consume food at all, so ‘living’ for Daniel means something entirely different. Finally, convinced that Bel is not eating, the king is unconcerned that Daniel destroys the idol. But when the dragon, or preferably the snake god, is called to his attention he challenges Daniel that this god lives. Again Daniel, with a different definition of divine life, presents to the king a challenge. If I can kill the ‘dragon’ even without recourse to a killing weapon, will you then believe me that this is no god either? The king consents to his friend’s challenge for obviously no god can die. When he does, the king continues unconcerned until he gets so much domestic static that he has to act and in this case consign Daniel to the lion’s den for the second time in Daniel’s life, only this time for seven days!

So long is his stay in the lion’s den that Daniel’s God intervenes and coerces the prophet Habbukuk into bringing Daniel a meal on his sixth day with these ferocious lions. In the Septuagint the story is credited to Habbukuk, while in our Theodotion text Habbukuk is brought by an angel, carried by the hair of his head, to feed Daniel. His coming is evidence for Daniel that God does not forget those he loves. Undoubtedly, this story was a great comfort to some besieged people. To summarize, Daniel’s living God may not have to eat or be fed, though to be fair sacrifices were made to him, but life is demonstrated by the power to answer prayer, to act, to remember, to care for God’s own.

Since God is There
Madame Guyon,
transl. from the French by William Cowper, 1731-1800

My Lord, how full of sweet content,
I pass my years of banishment!
Where’er I dwell, I dwell with thee,
In Heaven, in earth, or on the sea.

To me remains nor place nor time;
My country is in every clime:
I can be calm and free from care
On any shore, since God is there.

Collect for the Day
O God, I am Mustafah the tailor and I work at the shop of Muhammad Ali. The whole day long I sit and pull the needle and the thread through the cloth. O God, you are the needle and I am the thread. I am attached to you and I follow you. When the thread tries to slip away from the needle it becomes tangled and must be cut so that it can be put back in the right place. O God, help me to follow you wherever you may lead me. For I am really only Mustafah the tailor, and I work at the shop of Muhammad Ali on the great square.

[286:88:266 A Muslim’s first prayer as a Christian]

Friday, December 08, 2006

Theodotion's Text: Susanna with poem by William Shakespeare, from the Merchant of Venice

Daily Readings
Isaiah 47, III Maccabees 1, Susanna, Luke 4

Daily Text: Susanna

Theodotion’s Text
Susanna has often been considered as the first chapter of Daniel even though in the Greek text it is the 13th. The early church substituted Theodotion’s version of Susanna for the Greek or Septuagintal text early on. Moore [544:92] suggests that it may have been because God is named rather than an angel and Daniel is more prominent in Theodotion’s text. For whatever reasons, this is one of the more delightful tales in the Apocrypha.

Susanna is placed in a position of moral tension by the two judges for they threaten her that if she does not have sex with them they will call witnesses that she was with a young man and they interrupted and caught them. If she consents to their coercion she sins against God and man. If she refuses to be coerced by them, she will die at the hand of the congregation. She chooses to obey God rather than save her own life and calls out for help in the garden.

The judges are even more brazenly hypocritical in the court scene for they lay their hands on her head and swear in the biblical fashion, Leviticus 24:14, that she has been a blasphemer by her betrayal of her marriage vows.

Daniel’s intervention serves to build the young prophet’s reputation among the Jewish community before he becomes famous in the Babylonian court. This story fits in with others in Daniel 1-6, though it is totally within the Jewish community, unlike the stories in the canonical text of Daniel. His intervention is directly linked to God’s action in response to the righteous Susanna’s prayer.

How often ordinary mortals find themselves in ethical and moral situations that require the truth and a damaged reputation or a lie and an unblemished public reputation. Perhaps, in addition to the subject material of Susanna, this has contributed to the popularity of this story. Generally, it is assumed that this story was originally written in Hebrew, although no such original text survives.

from The Merchant of Venice, iv.i.222
William Shakespeare

A Daniel come to judgment! yea a Daniel!
O wise young Judge, how I do honour thee!

Collect for the Day
O Lord, who has taught us that to gain the whole world and to lose our souls is great folly, grant us the grace so to lose ourselves that we may truly find ourselves anew in the life of grace, and so to forget ourselves that we may be remembered in your kingdom.

[286:119:393 Reinhold Niebuhr, 1892-1971]

Thursday, December 07, 2006

The Thread of Life: IV Maccabees 9:10-32

Daily Readings
Isaiah 61, Daniel 12, IV Maccabees 9:10-32, Luke 4

Daily Text: IV Maccabees 9:10-32

The Thread of Life
The two oldest brothers are tortured and killed in IV Maccabees 9:10-32. Their language is a little removed from the circumstances. They sound like mouthpieces for the author as they continue to talk rationally about the superiority of pious reason as their bones are being broken and the skin is flayed off those same bones. The second brother even refers to the sweetness of dying for their ancestral religion. Clearly, their commitment to the Most High God is complete. The oldest brother is speaking words of encouragement to the younger brothers as his life drains from him. The last word of the author refers to this brother’s last words and then he writes, ”When he had said this, the saintly youth broke the thread of life. The second brother “lighten(s) his pain by the joys that come from virtue.” Why is it in our time that so many of us shy away from any public witness whatsoever?

A Tale From the Talmud
William Dearness

In Judah, in the days of story,
When chronicles were gilt with glory,
Heroic dames and virgins then
The equal honors earned with men;
And God himself the prophet taught
To praise and bless them as he ought.

My heart exults to contemplate,
My rhyme runs eager to relate
Their courage firm, their high resolve,
Their faith that nothing could dissolve.
Oh, that enthusiasm strong
Would from the theme inspire the song;
That in this sad, degenerate time
I’d write in poetry sublime—
What might some grace of emulation
Raise in a faint and prostrate nation.

I leave to men of deeper knowing
The task of God’s inerrant showing;
How nature’s best and noblest sons
Are cursed and crushed by worthless ones;
But this I know, that virtues holy
Are brightened by contrasting folly,
And constant courage best was shown
When persecutors had the throne,
And columns high had ne’er been reared,
Had no invading foe appeared;
And when to desperate straits we’re brought,
Then God’s deliverance is wrought.

When Judah by the Gentile arms
Had seen th’ extreme of war’s alarms,
O’erthrown her temple and her city,
Her children slaughtered without pity;
The demon conqueror intended
Her name and fame would both be ended.
He thought one dreadful, dire example
Of horrid torture might be ample,
Now that Jehovah’d them forsaken
And from his folk his flight had taken.

One matron from the drove he chooses,
Her seven sons he also looses;
In public presence will them test,
To answer his supreme behest.

The eldest, he him sets before;
“Now, bending down, our gods adore.”
“The Lord forbid,” he reverent cries;
“His holy law such act denies.
I to no image—neither thee—
Shall kiss the hand nor bend the knee.”

His life made forfeit then was taken—
His trust in Israel’s God unshaken.

The next that sacred household cherished,
Who witnessed how his brother perished,
At once responded: “Shall I less
Than his my faith in God confess?

I love God’s law—its second word
Is none but he is Israel’s Lord.”
And so he died for truth and faith.
The third, undaunted, also saith:
“None but Jehovah worship I”—
And likewise he was drawn to die.
The fourth the traitor’s awful doom
Sets forth: “Who in Jehovah’s room
Shall worship hero, god or demon”—
His young life, too, the sword makes claim on.

“Our God is one,” the Scripture saith,
“And him alone I’ll own in death.”
So died the fifth; our watchword brave
Fresh courage to the next one gave:
“Jehovah—terrible is he
Who, Israel, dwells in midst of thee;
He may his awful plans conceal,
But in his time he’ll them reveal.”
So passed the youthful sixth, in dying,
“Jehovah, take me,” meekly sighing.

Assuming now a tender mien
The tyrant pleads: “My boy, you’ve seen
How vain it its to trust in one
Who utmost unconcern has shown.
‘Tis only to respect our law—
I’d put your countrymen in awe;
For Rome, supreme, must be obeyed—
Nor gods nor emperor gainsaid.
The test from thee’s a simple thing—
In front of Jove I’ll drop my ring,
Stoop down and pick it up; no thought
Of inferential change is wrought.”

The bright-cheeked boy, his eyes upturned,
The tyrant’s seeming mercy spurned;
His soul kept free from heathen stains
Breaks forth in rapt prophetic strains:

“Forever reigns our glorious Lord—
Performed shall be his faithful word;
His kingdom raised, while ruined thine
He’ll to oblivion consign
As chastened Israel suffers now,
So shall he purer offerings vow.
His faith in days that have gone by
Endear him to his God most high,
And future glories wait the day
When all mankind shall own his sway;

“But thou might’st save thy soul if He
Were but to show His power to thee.”
He thus to Chaldea’s king made known
His sovereign Lord and God alone.
The prostrate king the world obeyed
And favor found and humbly prayed.
To God’s own folk he mercy showed
And so was blessed in his abode;
But thou, nor truth nor mercy giving,
Are but for greater vengeance living.

“To death!” the raging tyrant cries.
Prevention weak the mother tries,
With arms enfolding makes her plea:
“O let him not be torn from me—
My seventh, my last, my life, my all!
On me let first they vengeance fall.
Sword, come on me, nor let me see
The death of one so dear to me!”

“Nay, nay,” the scoffer made reply,
“Your law forbids that you should die;
‘Ye dare not slay the dam that day
Ye take the offspring’s life away.’”

“Thou scourge of man, thou hand of God!
Thy sins thy guilty soul shall load,
Till down to depths thou shalt be driven,
Transcending all that fell from heaven.

But go, my son, when Abra’m thou
In blissful peace shalt meet, avow
Superior reverence to me—
For I gave seven, but one gave he—
But tempted was his faith when tried,
See mine performed—my Isaacs died.

“What shall I add?” Her reason flown,
Why should she linger here alone—
Wandering unguarded, heedless, fell
She whom her Lord had honored well.

Has Judah now no valiant dame
That might such awful honors claim?
For answer: In my northern home
You’ll see, ere wintry weather come,
The fields the cheery flowers adorn,
Bejeweled bright at early morn;
Then fierce the driving, biting storm
Will bare the meads of every form
That spring and summer spread around
So lavish on the fertile ground.
But brightly then the heather bell
Purple the hills I love so well.
When dangerous foxgloves, crimson clover
Lie hid till winter storms are over;
The bloom upon the Arcadian hills
Is blown by that which verdure kills.

If Judah’s winter comes again,
Her hero dames shall bloom amain.

Collect for the Day
May the source of peace send peace to all who mourn, and comfort to all who are bereaved. Amen.


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Eat and Be Freed: IV Maccabees 8:1-9:9 with poem by David Gascoyne, De Profundis

Daily Readings
Sirach 50, Daniel 1:2-45, IV Maccabees 8:1-9:9, Luke 3

Daily Text: IV Maccabees 8:1-9:9

Eat And Be Freed
In a rage over his failure to coerce Eleazar to his his pork, the tyrant, Antiochus Epiphanes, demands new victims with the same promise: eat and be freed or refuse and be tortured. This victim was a family, a family of seven brothers and their aged mother. So handsome, modest, noble and accomplished are they, that Antiochus is genuinely attracted to them and offers friendship and positions in his administration if they will obey him and reject their ancient national religion. But his coercion is not all with a silk glove. He makes no bones about it, eat or die.

The brothers, as if a Greek chorus, speak with one voice: “Save your sweet promises for someone else. You’ve obviously learned nothing from our esteemed priest, Eleazar. Is it more fitting for an old man to die than for a young one? Put us to the test. We will die and win the prize of virtue and of being with God, while you will face divine justice and eternal torment by fire.” This taunt throws the tyrant into a fury, as one might imagine, and the killing begins.

De Profundis
David Gascoyne

Out of these depths:

Where footsteps wander in the marsh of death and an
Intense infernal glare is on our faces facing down:

Out of these depths, what shamefaced cry
Half choked in the dry throat, as though a stone
Were our confounded tongue, can ever rise:
Because the mind has been struck blind
And may no more conceive
Thy Throne.

Because the depths
Are clear with only death’s
Marsh-light, because the rock of grief
Is clearly too extreme for us to breach:
Deepen our depths,

And aid our unbelief.

Collect for the Day
Lord, I yearn only to be near You,
though at times I seem remote.
Lord, I cannot find the way unaided:
teach me the faithful service You would have me do.
show me Your ways, guide me, lead me,
release me from the prison of unknowing
while I still can make amends.
Do not despise my lowly state.
Before I grow so weak, so heavy with mortality
that I bend and fall,
and my bones, brittle with age,
become food for moth and worm,
be my help, O be my help!
Where my forebears went, there go i.
Yes, I know it.
Their resting-place is mine.

I know it.
Like them I am a stranger passing through this life.
Since the womb of earth is my allotted portion,
and since I’ve chased the wind from the beginning of my days,
when will I come to set my house in order?
The passions You Yourself have made a part of me
have kept me rapt within the passing scene,
and how, enslaved to passion as I’ve been,
a prey to fierce and fiery hungers,
how, I ask, could I have served You as I needed to?
But now the time has come to ask:
why all this ambition, why the quest for high estate,
when tomorrow I must die?
Why this expense of spirit,
when tomorrow I mourn the passing time?
These days and nights combine to bring me to the end;
they scatter my thought to the winds,
they return my frame to the dust.
What now can I say in my defense:
What brave words remain to shield me from my truth?
My nature has pursued me, possessed me, driven and flayed me,
a doubtful friend from childhood on.
What then do I really have besides Your presence?
Stripped of my pretensions, naked at the last, here I stand,
and only Your goodness can clothe and shelter me.
for nothing now remains but this:
Lord, I yearn only to be near You!

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Live to God: IV Maccabees 7 with poem by St. John of the Cross, Songs of the Soul

Daily Readings
Isaiah 46, Daniel 10:1-11:1, IV Maccabees 7, Luke 1

Daily Text: IV Maccabees 7

Live to God
This author is persistent. He writes an ode to Eleazar and then concludes chapter 7 with a summarizing discourse on the sovereignty of pious reason over the emotions. The ode is prefaced by two metaphors. One of the metaphors is of the sea with a ship, waves, storms and through it all a steady hand on the tiller. Another metaphor suggests that Eleazar is like a city under siege, but in spite of the tortures and racks he conquers his besiegers with the shield of pious reason. The ode itself soars with praise for Eleazar’s worthiness, his endurance and above all his example for the congregation.

In the discourse, verses 16-23, the author uses the phrase ‘live to God’, a phrase that is common in Paul’s writing, e.g. Romans 6:10. Here are seeds of resurrection teaching, that may or may not have been influenced by Christian theology. This discourse introduces in a new and explicit way that reason dominating emotion is only possible in the one who lives his life toward God with integrity.

Songs of the Soul in Intimate
Communication and Union with
the Love of God
St. John of the Cross
Transl. from the Spanish by Roy Campbell

Oh flame of love so living,
How tenderly you force
To my soul’s inmost core your fiery probe!
Since now you’ve no misgiving,
End it, pursue your course
And for our sweet encounter tear the robe!

Oh cautery most tender!
Oh gash that is my guerdon!
Oh gentle hand! Oh touch how softly thrilling!
Eternal life you render,
Raise of all debts the burden
And change my death to life, even while killing!

Oh lamps of fiery blaze
To whose refulgent fuel
The deepest caverns of my soul grow bright,
Late blind with gloom and haze,
But in this strange renewal
Giving to the belov’d both heat and light.

What peace, with love enwreathing,
You conjure to my breast
Which only you your dwelling place may call:
While with delicious breathings
In glory, grace, and rest,
So daintily in love you make me fall!

Collect for the Day
Thou awakest us to delight in Thy praises; for Thou madest us for Thyself, and our heart is restless, until it repose in Thee.

[286:64:173 St. Augustine, 354-450]

Monday, December 04, 2006

Vicarious Expiation Requested: IV Maccabees 6 with poem by Edmund Spenser, Easter Morning

Daily Readings
Isaiah 45, Daniel 9, IV Maccabees 6, ` Revelation 22

Daily Text: IV Maccabees 6

Vicarious Expiation Requested
Several plays on words occur in IV Maccabees 6 as the soldiers ready Eleazar for torture and death. The first is that though they strip him, his piety gracefully clothes him. Again, as they flog him and he falls, his reason remains upright! Our author never forsakes his thesis.

When he raises his eyes to heaven he assumes the classic martyrs attitude [462:177]. Obviously, this is meant to signify prayer. The metaphor of the athlete of virtue is evidently a favorite one of the Stoics [462:178], and in his denial of the cessation of torture by play-acting in the matter of eating pork, the old priest asserts the importance of living with integrity all the way to death. In a final prayer he begs God to allow his death to suffice for the people. In this request for vicarious expiation, Eleazar asks that his blood purify others and that God take his life in exchange for theirs. Such a notion is first expressed in Isaiah 53:5-12, and is seen again, of course, in the Gospels.

Easter Morning
Edmund Spenser

Most glorious Lord of life, that on this day
Didst make thy triumph over death and sin,
And, having harrowed hell, didst bring away
Captivity thence captive, us to win;
This joyous day, dear Lord, with joy begin,
And grant that we, for whom thou didst die,
Being with thy dear blood clean washed from sin,
May live forever in felicity:
And that thy love we weighing worthily,
May likewise love thee for the same again:
And for thy sake, that all like dear didst buy,
With love may one another entertain.
So let us love, dear love, like as we ought;
Love is the lesson which the Lord us taught.

Collect for the Day
Lord Jesus Christ, king of glory, Son of the living God, who for sinners gave your body over into the hands of enemies, and deigned to surrender yourself to death, I implore you in your pity mercifully to rescue me from the hands of all my enemies, by your glorious body which we here adore in the form of bread, by your blood through which today the world is sanctified. And I beg too, O Lord, that I and all my friends and my enemies and all Christians, at the separation of body and soul, may be led through true faith into eternal life.

[286:157:521 Latin, 14th century, tr. Edmund Colledge]

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Worthy of Emulation: IV Maccabees 5 with poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Every Stoic Was a Stoic

Daily Readings
Isaiah 43, Daniel 8, IV Maccabees 5, Revelation 21

Daily Text: IV Maccabees 5

Worthy of Emulation
Antiochus in chapter 5 give a Stoic’s speech to Eleazar, chiding him for not looking upon the king’s demand for eating pork with more equanimity. After all, he is a learned man and should be able to rise above his primitive religion. Eleazar, on his part, denies the possibility of equanimity and rationalization. He defends his integrity and the integrity of his religion with superior stoical arguments and the perspicacity to see how his people’s Law is superior to Stoicism, accomplishing all of Stoicism’s purposes and going beyond to the one, true God. In essence his God will enable him to be a godly man in the face of the worst Antiochus Epiphanes can throw at him. The New Revised Standard Version in a note records that in Antioch, the place the Christians remembered this as happening, a church was built in honor of Eleazar and the seven young martyrs and their mother. Here was a man worthy of emulation.

Every Stoic Was a Stoic
from Essays, New England Reformers,
ii. Self-Reliance
Ralph Waldo Emerson

Every Stoic was a Stoic;
but in Christendom
where is the Christian?

Collect for the Day
From that which we fear, O Lord, make us fearless.
O bounteous One, assist us with your aid.
Drive far the malevolent, the foeman.

May the atmosphere we breathe
breathe fearlessness into us:
fearlessness on earth
and fearlessness in heaven!
May fearlessness guard us
behind and before!
May fearlessness surround us
above and below!

May we be without fear
of friend and foe!
May we be without fear
of the known and the unknown!
May we be without fear
by night and by day!
let all the world be my friend!