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What does this mean?

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How do we interpret what we experience?  The Lectionary reading for Pentecost Sunday takes up this question in a powerful way (Acts 1:1-21).  

When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each. Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language? Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.” Acts 2:1-13

What does this mean?  That is a fundamental question, posed more than once in the Book of Acts, and posed countless times by Christians over the centuries.  It is one thing to have an experience, it is quite another to determine what the experience meant.  In the Acts passage, we are not told the content of what the Holy Spirit spoke, although there is a tantalizing reference to "God's deeds of power."  This much is clear: the people hearing the Holy Spirit were from  diverse ethnic and linguistic backgrounds.  They heard the speech in their own language, but they did not know the meaning of what they heard. 

This is not surprising; it happens all the time.  We hear a sermon and a room full of people come away with a diverse set of impressions and interpretations.  What was the sermon about? folks wonder.  Ask as many as you like, and you'll get slightly different answers.  

Stanley Fish's famous anecdote contained in his book Is There a Text in this Class?  illustrates the point nicely:

 On the first day of the new semester, a colleague at Johns Hopkins University was approached by a student who, as it turned out, had just taken a course from me. She put to him what I think you would agree is a perfectly straightforward question: "Is there a text in this class?" Responding with a confidence so perfect that he was unaware of it (although in telling the story, he refers to this moment as "walking into the trap"), my colleague said, "Yes; it's the Norton Anthology of Literature," whereupon the trap (set not by the student but by the infinite capacity of language for being appropriated) was sprung: "No, no," she said, "I mean in this class do we believe in poems and things, or is it just us?"

 As you can see from Fish's anecdote, the interpretation of a sentence is slippery.   Even what we call the literal interpretation is subject to several reasonable options.  Was the student asking what the textbook would be for the class?  Thinking so would be perfectly reasonable, and indeed, the most likely interpretation it would seem.  But she meant something entirely different. 

Fish used this story not to show us that there are an infinite variety of interpretations, but that the range of meanings are actually quite narrow.  We could exhaust the meaning fairly quickly based on the interpretative community to which the student belonged.  So, rather than throw our hands up in despair when approaching the meaning of the text, we can be assured that  the range of reasonable meanings are not truly infinite.    

In the Acts lesson, the quoted passage ends with the amazement of the diverse audience's reaction: "what does this mean?"  But notice that others are instantly given to interpretation; they sneer and suppose that all the participants are "filled with new wine."  Those used to the domesticated and orderly silence of tradition may think that the explosion of the Holy Spirit is simply the drunken ramblings of fools.  Peter, however, understood the meaning quite differently.  

But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy. And I will show portents in the heaven above and signs on the earth below, blood, and fire, and smoky mist. The sun shall be turned to darkness and the moon to blood, before the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day. Then everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ Acts 2:14-21

What a remarkable interpretation!  What richness of meaning!  Of all the meanings that could be drawn from the multiplicity of languages, Peter thinks of the Prophet Joel.  It is a rather subversive passage, not one to be taken literally by the those opposed to letting women preach, for example.  Joel says that men and women, slaves and free will see visions and prophesy.  Those who oppose women preaching somehow read this passage right out of the Bible.  But why did Peter think that Joel contained the hermeneutical key to  the meaning of Pentecost?

I suspect he looked out at the crowd of Gentiles and Jews, an ecumenical lot standing together, and saw for the first time that God speaks to all of God's children.  The Holy Spirit cannot be contained.  She descends and ascends, inflames and inspires where she likes.  (The Hebrew word for spirit is ruach, and it is feminine).   Of the range of meanings available to Peter, this one was the most beautiful and hopeful.  It was also true.  A happy coincidence.  Peter would dream his own dream and prophesy in due course (Acts chapter 10), but he had to be open to the Holy Spirit first.  May we be so open.  

in Lent

Remember that you are dust

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Remember, you are dust.  I remember the first time I attended an Ash Wednesday service in a Baptist church.  A minister traced the cruciform image on my forehead and whispered these words "Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return."  These are somber words.   But they are ancient words, with more than a trace of biblical allusion.  In the garden, the first humans in the poeticized telling of Genesis disobey the divine command to not eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  God responds to this act of infidelity by a rather extended monologue, detailing the pain of childbirth and the toil of farming land for food.  Out of the blissful naivete of Adam's and Eve's life (how could they know the import of the divine command without moral knowledge?) they are cast into the roles of mere mortals.  God pronounces this odd benediction:

"By the sweat of your face
you shall eat bread
until you return to the ground,
for out of it you were taken;
you are dust,
and to dust you shall return.” (Genesis 3:19)

Ancient words.  Words uttered millions of times in liturgical hope.  Words that embrace life and death under the graceful hand of the Creator.  Scientific cosmology tells us that humans share the same building blocks of life with the galaxy .  Perhaps the first life emerged from a bit of space dust, the ashen remnants of a dead star.  Literally, we are all stardust.  In Genesis 2:7 God "formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being."  Out of dirt God created the adam, and breathed God's spirit into the human.  One day, the first adam would be buried in the ground.  We share that destiny, from cradle to grave.  

A great chain of being, stretching back, linking all humans who have ever lived.  And etched on our foreheads is the sign of the cross.  Before that first Easter Sunday, the cross was always and only a sign of death, destruction, and despair.  There was not a hint of redemption in its bloody beams.  But we know how the story ends.  Or rather, how it begins.  It begins not with the death of a failed messiah, but with the resurrection of our Lord.  You can't have cross without resurrection.  

So when you take the sign of the cross on Ash Wednesday, know that it is a mixture of grief and hope, sin and redemption, death and resurrection which is etched on your forehead.  A friend once told me during a time of profound moral crisis that "grace always trumps the law."  Take the ashes as a sign of God's unending grace.  Take the ashes as the free offer of mercy, the assurance of pardon, through Christ our Lord.  

in Lent

The Liturgy of the Mall

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What practices and rituals shape who you are as a human being?  Answering that truthfully requires time and the capacity for self-examination.  To prepare for the season of Lent, I propose that we do just that.

I just finished an interesting book by Christian philosopher James K.A. Smith called Desiring the Kingdom. The chief claim of the book is that Christian worship should function as a counter-liturgy to the other liturgies of formation which are active in our lives. There is, by way of example, the liturgy of the mall. The mall, with its overstimulated images of alleged human perfection, tells us that we are broken.  Our out of date shoes and clothes mark us as outcasts in a consumer economy.  We can literally purchase our way into community.  We are never prompted to ask of the mall "Where does all this stuff come from?" (101)  And therefore, "[t]he mall's liturgy fosters habits and practices that are unjust." (101).  

The book, written in 2009, is already outdated in an Amazon driven shopping economy.  I'd like to see it rewritten with an eye to the liturgy of the smartphone.   No doubt, the conclusions would be the same: we are always being formed in powerful ways by the things we spend time with.  

But hold on, you say...I thought liturgy meant religious ritual or the music and words we sing and say on Sunday morning.  Smith defines liturgies as "rituals of ultimate concern: rituals that are formative for identity, that inculcate particular visions of the good life, and do so in a way that means to trump other ritual formations" (86).  

Understood in this way, there can be a liturgy of the mall, a liturgy of Christian nationalism, etc.  Quoting theologian Stanley Hauerwas on Texas football is emblematic of the book's claims: "As is well known...Friday night high school football is the most significant liturgical event in Texas" (106).   I remember as a young student going to high school basketball and football games.  Everybody was expected to stand and place their hands over their hearts and remove their hats.  If you have trouble conceiving of these ritual acts as liturgical acts, think about what would happen if you refused to participate, or as Smith puts it: "Just try to remain seated at the next playing of the national anthem" (107).    

Actually, we wouldn't have to think hard about what would happen.  Our news has been suffused with examples of this kind of liturgical defiance.  You can quickly determine which liturgies have the most powerful hold over practices and imaginations by tracking the degree to which it is considered a sacrilege of the national religion of patriotism to kneel during the anthem.   Smith claims that most Christians fail to see any tension between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Gospel of Christian nationalism.  Why? "[B]ecause, subtly and unwittingly, the liturgies of American nationalism have so significantly shaped our imagination that they have, in many ways, trumped other liturgies" (107).   

Imagine an uproar about whether the Doxology was sung with gender inclusive language.   That might stir up some drama in a committee meeting, but it's hard to imagine that in the world outside the church, anybody would really care.  That people care so deeply about the ritual of the national anthem is a sign of how powerfully formative the liturgy of American nationalism is.  This is just by way of example, and no doubt you could identify other formative liturgies.   

All of this talk of what forms us led me inexorably to self-examination.  Especially insightful was this exercise which Smith calls "A Practices Audit."  He asks the reader to pose these questions:

  • "What are some of the most significant habits and practices that really shape your actions and attitude--what you think and what you do?" 

  • "What does your time look like?  What practices are you regularly immersed in each week?  How much time is spent doing different sorts of activities? "

  • "What do you think are the most important ritual forces in your life?" (84)

Take some time and try to answer these questions.  What kind of liturgies shape who you are?  Lent is merely a week and a half away.  Now is a good time to begin the journey of self-examination and communion that Christ calls us to begin.  


Posted by Rev. Daniel Headrick with
Tags: liturgy, lent