Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Hebraic Repetition in the Canticle of Zechariah

The Canticle of Zechariah is one of the standard liturgical texts prayed by Catholic clergy and religious, and many lay people, each day.  It is a text I quite enjoy, though I must confess that it can appear - particularly when one is tired or distracted - as a bit disjointed, a series of platitudes strung together.  Today I'd like to propose a method for digging deeper into it.

In the Hebrew scriptures, repetition is a frequently used literary device.  Anyone who has seen the canticle in Daniel chapter 3 (prayed on Sunday morning of Week 1) will have a sense of this:

Every shower and dew, bless the Lord. 
All you winds, bless the Lord.
Fire and heat, bless the Lord. 
Cold and chill, bless the Lord.
Dew and rain, bless the Lord. 
Frost and chill, bless the Lord.
Ice and snow, bless the Lord. 
Nights and days, bless the Lord.
Light and darkness, bless the Lord. 
Lightnings and clouds, bless the Lord.

And so forth.  It might suffice to say "water," but instead "shower and dew" are used.  One might assume that "fire" implies "heat," but the author uses both.  Some pairings are more complex: "nights and days" are opposites which, together, might be taken to mean "all times."

More often, this repetition in the Hebrew scriptures comes in the form of back to back lines which repeat the same concept.  We can see this, for example, in Psalm 81:

Sing joyfully to God our strength;
raise loud shouts to the God of Jacob!

Take up a melody, sound the timbrel,
the pleasant lyre with a harp.

Blow the shofar at the new moon,
at the full moon, on our solemn feast.

For this is a law for Israel,
an edict of the God of Jacob

Although the Canticle of Zechariah comes in the New Testament, it is uttered by a Jew, indeed a priest of the tribe of Levi.  Thus it comes as little surprise that it follows this convention of repetition.  I would like to suggest, however, that this repetition is not - neither here nor elsewhere - merely filler.  Nor is it simply a repetition for those who may not have been paying attention the first time (though that too is a useful function).  Rather, I believe these repetitions, in pairs or triples, invite us to consider the subtle differences between them and offer insights if we consider carefully what is being equated.  Let us begin with the first lines:

Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel;
He has come to His people and set them free.

Notice the conjunction in the second line: He has come to His people and set them free.  This is a repetition, a redundancy.  The very act of God's coming is inherently liberating.  That is a powerful witness to both His might and His goodness.

He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour,
Born of the house of His servant David.

I think this pairing speaks of the promise that God makes to David, through the prophet Nathan, in 2 Samuel 7: "The Lord also reveals to you that he will establish a house for you.   And when your time comes and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your heir after you, sprung from your loins, and I will make his kingdom firm....   And I will make his royal throne firm forever.   I will be a father to him, and he shall be a son to me....   Your house and your kingdom shall endure forever before me; your throne shall stand firm forever."  Any good Jew, familiar with this messianic prophesy, knows that the savior will come from the house of David.  And if he does, clearly he will be mighty, for the Lord will be with him.

Through His holy prophets He promised of old
That He would save us from our enemies,
From the hands of all who hate us.

He promised to show mercy to our fathers
And to remember His holy covenant.

This was the oath He swore to our father Abraham:
To set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship Him without fear,
Holy and righteous in His sight
All the days of our life.

We have three promises given here, or three versions of the same promise: salvation from enemies, mercy, and freedom to worship.  The Psalms and other writings often conflate political and spiritual enemies; while such a reading is possible here, I think the repetition begins to unwind it, since enemies are not merely political rivals or opponents on the battlefield, but those "who hate us."  For those with the eyes of faith, the ultimate hate comes from Satan, born of his jealousy that mankind might be so intimate with God.  Thus, salvation from enemies is more than a promise that God marches with our armies; it is deliverance from evil.

The mercy promised to our fathers is paired with God's remembrance of His covenant.  To a Jew, bound by the ritual law and all its requirements, the covenant might seem like a burden, a punishment, not mercy.  Even Christians, bound by fewer everyday restrictions - though called to the law of love - sometimes feel burdened by God's covenant.  But Zechariah reminds us that God's covenant and rules are the fruit of His mercy.  We may trust that they are for our good.

Zechariah ties the freedom to worship with freedom from enemies; more on that in a moment.  Notice that worshiping without fear is paired with being holy and righteous.  Why would a worshiper fear?  If such worship were illegal one might fear the secret police.  Real though such a fear is, it is ultimately temporal and passing.  But what if one's worship is not pleasing to the Almighty?  This fear is eternal and of the gravest consequence.  Here Zechariah points out that, in the context of the savior's coming, God will make us holy and righteous, such that our worship might be pleasing to Him.

But let us return to the three-fold promise: salvation from enemies, mercy, and freedom to worship.  Not only does the canticle link them all together by identifying them as God's promise, but Zechariah explicitly notes that God sets us "free from the hands of our enemies, / Free to worship Him without fear," thus linking these promises.  Why?  Because they are all pieces of the larger movement of God's salvation, brought by the Davidic savior: In God's mercy we are protected from the malevolent powers of evil, made holy and righteous, called to a new life as God's people, and invited to worship Him.

You, My child shall be called
The prophet of the Most High,
For you will go before the Lord to prepare His way,
To give His people knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins.

Notice that the prophet - John the Baptist - is doing three things here.  Or, rather, three dimensions of his task are explained: he prepare's the Lord's way, he imparts knowledge of salvation, and he speaks of the forgiveness of sins.  Recall that we have already seen the Lord's coming linked with salvation; the latter is the natural consequence of the former.  Thus, the Lord's way is not prepared with triumphal arches or flower-strewn roads, but by communicating the reality of His salvation.  Whereas earlier stanzas understood salvation as freedom from enemies and the promise of holiness, we now understand it in a new way: forgiveness of sins.  This is not a contradiction but a viewing of the same reality from another side.  Satan, the Tempter, lures us into sin and thereby deprives us of holiness.  But the savior will free us from the Evil One, forgive our sins, and thus bring holiness.

In the tender compassion of our Lord
The Dawn from on High shall break upon us,
to shine on those who dwell in darkness
And the shadow of death,
And to guide our feet into the way of peace.

Finally, we are told that the Dawn from on High - that is, Jesus, the Davidic savior - will do two things: He will shine on those in darkness and He will guide us into peace.  The interconnection between our human sin and spiritual warfare is already seen above.  Likewise, we have implicitly been hearing about the communal nature of sin and salvation: notice that Zechariah always speaks in the plural about "us."  In these final lines these concepts are brought together.  Those dwelling in darkness - the darkness of demonic oppression and of personal sin - cannot live in social harmony, and so their lives are lives of conflict.  But Jesus brings something different.  He brings His light, His saving presence, and by dispelling the darkness shows us the way to harmony and peace.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

C. S. Lewis on the Cosmic War

Having already shared passages from Lewis' Mere Christianity on the complexity of religion and on views of non-Christians, I would now like to share a third set of passages, about the reality of the cosmic war in the midst of which we live.  The first two paragraphs come from the chapter "The Invasion"; the third comes from "The Practical Conclusion."

One of the things that surprised me when I first read the New Testament seriously was that it talked so much about a Dark Power in the universe - a mighty evil spirit who was held to be the Power behind death and disease, and sin. The difference [from Dualism]  is that Christianity thinks this Dark Power was created by God, and was good when he was created, and went wrong. Christianity agrees with Dualism that this universe is at war. But it does not think this is a war between independent powers. It thinks it is a civil war, a rebellion, and that we are living in a part of the universe occupied by the rebel.

Enemy-occupied territory - that is what this world is.  Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage. When you go to church you are really listening in to the secret wireless from our friends: that is why the enemy is so anxious to prevent us from going.  He does it by playing on our conceit and laziness and intellectual snobbery.  I know someone will ask me, "Do you really mean, at this time of day, to reintroduce our old friend the devil - hoofs and horns and all?"  Well, what the time of day has to do with it I do not know.  And I am not particular about the hoofs and horns.  But in other respects my answer is "Yes, I do."  I do not claim to know anything about his personal appearance.  If anybody really wants to know him better I would say to that person, "Don't worry.  If you really want to, you will.  Whether you'll like it when you do is another question."...

Why is God landing in this enemy-occupied world in disguise and starting a sort of secret society to undermine the devil?  Why is He not landing in force, invading it?  Is it that He is not strong enough?   Well, Christians think He is going to land in force; we do not know when.  But we can guess why He is delaying.  He wants to give us the chance of joining His side freely.  I do not suppose you and I would have thought much of a Frenchman who waited till the Allies were marching into Germany and then announced he was on our side.  God will invade.  But I wonder whether people who ask God to interfere openly and directly in our world quite realise what it will be like when He does.   When that happens, it is the end of the world.  When the author walks on to the stage the play is over.  God is going to invade, all right: but what is the good of saying you are on His side then, when you see the whole natural universe melting away like a dream and something else - something it never entered your head to conceive - comes crashing in; something so beautiful to some of us and so terrible to others that none of us will have any choice left?  For this time it will be God without disguise; something so overwhelming that it will strike either irresistible love or irresistible horror into every creature.  It will be too late then to choose your side.  There is no use saying you choose to lie down when it has become impossible to stand up.  That will not be the time for choosing: it will be the time when we discover which side we really have chosen, whether we realised it before or not.  Now, today, this moment, is our chance to choose the right side.  God is holding back to give us that chance.  It will not last for ever.  We must take it or leave it.

Friday, October 11, 2013

A New Virginia State Flag

Regular readers will know that I have proposed new arms for both the City of Charlottesville and Albemarle County in Virginia.  Today I would like to make another, less modest proposal: a new state flag.

Virginia has the "standard" state flag: the state seal on a blue field.  This design has been panned by flag enthusiasts as the worst design we've got.  Every one of the ten worst flags in the North American Vexillological Association's ranking of state and provincial flags has this design.  Virginia came in 54th of 72.  (And one of those, Georgia, introduced a new flag since the poll, probably resulting in a jump ahead of Virginia.)  This is not simply a matter of vexillological snobbery or angling for a better ranking.  The whole point of a flag is to be identifiable.  If twenty states have basically the same flag, how can you tell them apart?  Virginia's state seal is more recognizable than some, but on a hazy day or at a distance the distinction is a modest one.

The basic design that I propose (above) has two layers of meaning.  The colors are drawn from the flags of Britain, from which so many of Virginia's first colonists came.  The horizontal bar recalls the Cross of St. George on the flag of England; the angled bars recall the Crosses of St. Andrew and St. Patrick, from the flags of Scotland and Ireland, respectively.  Alternatively, the shapes and colors may be read as an allegory for Virginia's history.  The bloodshed of the Revolution and Civil War (red) is now enfolded in the reign of peace (white) and Virginia, having passed through the trial of succession is bound once more by loyalty (blue) to the United States.  The shape of the stripes recalls the way people of many cultures and backgrounds have come together to form this state.  (If you say that the only thing this flag recalls for you is the flag of Iceland, I have no rebuttal except to say that I hear Icelanders are very nice people.)

Having sketched out the above design, I began to wonder if perhaps the state seal, representing the female figure of Virtus striking down Tyranny, might be incorporated.

I played around with a couple versions (see left) which incorporated these figures, as they exist on the arms of Virginia Army National Guard units (see, for example, the 276th Engineer Battalion).  But I was not entirely satisfied with these.

Finally, I settled upon the notion of placing the state seal, used on the current flag, at the junction of the angled and horizontal bars.  I must admit, I was rather pleased with the result:

Am I serious about the adoption of any of these flags for use in Virginia?  Well, sort of.  In all honesty I think them superior to the present one, but things should not be changed for light and transient causes and I do not know that a change would be worth the trouble.  I suppose I am a bit inspired by the little-known Kansas State Banner, a flag rarely used except by the Kansas National Guard, though co-equal in law with its better known counterpart and of much greater vexillological merit.

Tip o' the hat to Fix the Flags, a blog dedicated to creating better flags!  I only discovered it after drafting these, but Jack may have inspired me to work on more.

C. S. Lewis on Christian Views of Non-Christians

Here is another passage from Mere Christianity, this time from the chapter "The Rival Conceptions of God."

I have been asked to tell you what Christians believe, and I am going to begin by telling you one thing that Christians do not need to believe. If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole word is simply one huge mistake. If you are a Christian, you are free to think that all these religions, even the queerest one, contain at least some hint of the truth. When I was an atheist I had to try to persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that mattered to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view. But, of course, being a Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic - there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong: but some of the wrong answers are much nearer being right than others.

Saturday, October 5, 2013

C. S. Lewis on the Complexity of Religion

I have been re-reading C. S. Lewis' Mere Christianity.  I am not entirely convinced that every one of his arguments holds or is presented in the best way possible, but I am nevertheless struck by how much the content of this work, now seventy years old, continues to speak to the questions posed by modern men, both believers and non-believers.  Here are a few paragraphs I thought particularly forceful (but too long for Facebook statues), from the seventh chapter "The Invasion."

It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real things are not simple. They look simple, but they are not. The table I am sitting at looks simple: but ask a scientist to tell you what it is really made of-all about the atoms and how the light waves rebound from them and hit my eye and what they do to the optic nerve and what it does to my brain-and, of course, you find that what we call "seeing a table" lands you in mysteries and complications which you can hardly get to the end of. A child saying a child's prayer looks simple. And if you are content to stop there, well and good. But if you are not-and the modern world usually is not-if you want to go on and ask what is really happening- then you must be prepared for something difficult. If we ask for something more than simplicity, it is silly then to complain that the something more is not simple.

Very often, however, this silly procedure is adopted by people who are not silly, but who, consciously or unconsciously, want to destroy Christianity. Such people put up a version of Christianity suitable for a child of six and make that the object of their attack. When you try to explain the Christian doctrine as it is really held by an instructed adult, they then complain that you are making their heads turn round and that it is all too complicated and that if there really were a God they are sure He would have made "religion" simple, because simplicity is so beautiful, etc. You must be on your guard against these people for they will change their ground every minute and only waste your tune. Notice, too, their idea of God "making religion simple": as if "religion" were something God invented, and not His statement to us of certain quite unalterable facts about His own nature.

Besides being complicated, reality, in my experience, is usually odd. It is not neat, not obvious, not what you expect. For instance, when you have grasped that the earth and the other planets all go round the sun, you would naturally expect that all the planets were made to match-all at equal distances from each other, say, or distances that regularly increased, or all the same size, or else getting bigger or smaller as you go farther from the sun. In fact, you find no rhyme or reason (that we can see) about either the sizes or the distances; and some of them have one moon, one has four, one has two, some have none, and one has a ring.

Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have. So let us leave behind all these boys' philosophies-these over-simple answers. The problem is not simple and the answer is not going to be simpler either.

The full text of Mere Christianity is available here.  Thanks to Wikia for the image.