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Thursday, June 13, 2013

THE OPENING WORDS OF THE GOSPEL OF SAINT JOHN: His intent and his faith



Introduction
Rabbinic theology has recently found its way back into Christian theology because of the recent availability of their scholarly writings in English. The inimitable Rashi or the Baal HaTurim or Ibn Ezra or the great Ramban can now be studied to enhance the reading of the Old Testament, as well as, the New Testament. The delectable mystical theological dish has now been served across the table between Judaism and Christianity bringing the two brother religions closer than ever before. Thus, the subtle and nuanced mystical Jesus the apostles knew has returned with all of His delicate flavor permeating New Testament studies. Jesus, the Jew, comes into a clearer focus eclipsing the revolutionary Jesus into the dark hole of oblivion wrongly taught by too many with their own agendas. What we discover is the second Adam, the embodiment of Isaac, the Jacob renamed Israel, the savior Joseph in full flower. This is the Messiah the Hebrew peoples prepared to meet for over four thousand years, kept their genealogies, and why they consistently celebrated their feasts. These acts taught them to recognize Him as the Word made flesh, the Christ their Savior.

The Basics

There are three principles in the canon of Jewish theology:
      1. The giving of the Torah; the infallible timepiece,
      2. the mutuality of the covenant between God and the Jews made in the Sinai wilderness,
      3. and the relationship between the spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, the Shekinah, or the second soul, and the believer.
All three of these principles are found in the event known as the ma'amad har Sinai in Hebrew, or the theophany of God's appearance to the Hebrew peoples after their exodus from slavery in Egypt, chronicled in the Book of Exodus. In the history of the world, no other peoples have struggled as much or had such a troubled and marvelous relationship with their founder like the Hebrews. But these three principles have remained intact in spite of their struggles and failures. Primarily, because of their meticulous devotion to the Law, the Torah, their prayerful adherence to their covenant to do and hear (Ex 24: 7), and their traditions and feasts, even when the jealous world turned against them or tried to annihilate them. Their identity, strength, intelligence, and valor are all tied to this singular event, a fact unequaled by any other peoples, save the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus for the Christians. It is in the basic belief of these principles that Jesus the man, the Jew was born and lived.

The Second Creation – The Gift of Torah:
The Five Books of Moses

The Hebrew people are unique in their history with God. Unlike their scandalous cousins who perished in the flood, they have virtuous ancestors beginning with Shem. Their history as a people, however, began in the piety of the man Noah. At over 600 years old, Noah became the first lawgiver when he established the seven Laws, called the Noahide Laws (Gen 6: 9) following the flood. These laws bound all of his offspring, as well as, the rest of the world—whether they liked it or not. Noah's nephew, by a few generations, was the benevolent and faithful Abraham, who knew these laws very well. He was the second personality in the scripture to willingly make a covenant with God. Abraham was also the first to do what God asked by offering Isaac his son as a sacrifice on an altar before hearing why God commanded him to perform such an act. However, he followed dutifully, giving up his most beloved child, and learned the reason why after the fact. His elevation to Patriarch of the nation Israel, Abram to Abraham, was the hallmark of God's plan for the future. 

Even before Moses burst upon the scene with his unique rearing and the majesty of the exodus, there were men and women in the pantheon of the faithful to God, such as Isaac, who obediently allowed his father Abraham to bind him for a sacrifice. Jacob wrestled with God to win a blessing and rested his head upon the foundation stone for the coming temple. Following him was his son Joseph, who although his brothers tried to do him harm learned that it was in keeping with God's plan, that there is a measure of good found in every act of evil. He would not have been able to help his family, or the future nation of Israel, if God hadn't used his brothers' jealousy as an act of salvation. All received revelations, promises, dreams, and protection from a marauding world to bring the Hebrew people to this moment in time, to this place to experience the theophany of Sinai.

Astrophysicists describe the moments before the Big Bang unlike any other succeeding moments in the history of the universe. There is a similitude in describing the moments before the giving of the Torah to the Jews. In the seconds before the Hebrews promise to do and hear, the Talmud says, “Not a bird chirped, not a fowl flew, not an ox lowed, not an angel ascended, not a seraph proclaimed 'Holy.' The sea did not roll and no creature made a sound. All of the vast universe was silent and mute. It was then that the Voice went forth and proclaimed, I am YHWH, your God!” All of olam (creation) knew the singularity of that moment as the universe held its breath.

The Talmud explains that the Jews found themselves holding the continuation or extinction of the universe in their hands. Just as the universe began with a word, the words of the promise to do and hear would recreate the universe to be held accountable to God through the Law given in the Torah, and the Jews would be the new container for the universe, holding it within their assent and their bodies (the washing and circumcision) to the covenant with God. Saying no never occurred to them. Yes was the only answer they had to give, because they had inherited the totality of the sublime qualities of their exalted ancestors.

Their willingness was demonstrated by their desire to not preexamine the contents of the Torah before accepting it. The Sadducees, over the years, had caustically accused them of being “an impetuous nation who put their mouth before its ears.” They knew the Jews uncalculated reaction to God actually validated their worth. It was jealousy speaking because of the favor bestowed on Israel by God that prompted such acrid remarks. Isn't the hatred toward Jews today a remnant of that same irrational jealousy? The Sadducees knew the Jews had discovered the secret of the angels. When negating themselves by acting first to do God's bidding, and then listen, is the behavior of angels. It is said that their exalted spiritual state at the foot of Mt. Sinai had given them a prophetic vision of this secret.

Usually, one volunteers first to learn, then to listen and grow in knowledge in order to do, to pattern your life after the learned gestalt before you go out into the world to experience it. The Jews had discovered an even deeper wisdom, they purposely invalidated their self-will to become the devoted slaves of God by shackling themselves to the Law in perpetuity, a Law that was unseen by anyone but God. The naturalness with which they volunteered mirrored angelic behavior, but with one exception, man was created with free will. Angels were created with one purpose: Messenger, guardian, etc. Angels do not have the power to determine truth from falsehood, nor does an angel have any private aspirations. They were created to perform a singular mission, and nothing more. (This makes Lucifer's fall all the more mysterious and part of the destiny of man.) Man was given divine intellect (made in the image of God) giving him the ability to determine truth from falsehood, and the free will to act on that determination. Man's power to choose the negation of his own desires to appropriate that of God's is dissimilar to that of any other creature both in heaven and on earth. Mystically speaking, in that unselfish occasion, the Jews were truly the crown of God's creation.

Following that consentience, the universe was wrapped in a garment of righteousness it had not felt since the beginning of the world. The universe now had a potent reason for its existence: the marriage of God and Israel, with the Torah as the nuptial testament, the ketubbot, and all of creation as the huppah, the canopy. The longing of God to be intimately connected with the crown of His creation was finally fulfilled. The earth could breathe again, birds chirped, and fish swam, for the Law, the keystone for all life, was given and sealed upon a willing and prepared people by a loving God.

Hebrew tradition tells us that the Torah was offered to the rest of the world first, but was refused by every nation of peoples. Their writings tell us that God offered the Torah to Esau's offspring, but they would not tolerate a law that prohibited murder; Ishmael's progeny could not accept a law that banned thievery; and Lot's children would not accept a law that banned adultery. By accepting the Torah they would have to deny their history and their culture, literally erasing their identity and everything that made them unique. However, a merciful God could not exclude anyone from this gift. He allowed their rationalizations and refusals not only because of mans' free will, but as a contrast to the sublime character of the Hebrew peoples. It was into this strain of DNA that the Messiah would be born. For this reason the genealogies were carefully kept, and through God's mercy the door was left open to the iniquitous cousins by the inclusion of the likes of Ruth and Rahab, the only women named in the genealogies. Jethro, Moses' father-in-law, caught up with the tribes after their exodus from Egypt, but refused to stay and submit to the Law. He literally put in his two cents (system of judges) and left as quickly as he could in case he might be held accountable to the Law by proximity.

The Talmud goes on to explain that if the Jews had said no, all of creation would have ceased to exist, for there would have been no one left to make the fallen world righteous through the Law, no lineage left for the Messiah's birth. The Talmud made the dramatic statement, “not a bird chirped . . .” to enucleate the critical mass in which creation found itself in those seconds. Although man was unaware of the importance, the universe itself had a consuming awareness of the importance of a yes to God.

The Ma'amad har Sinai—Days of the Heaven on Earth:
The Giving of the Ten Commandments

The Talmudic sages write, the Presence of God was simultaneously in heaven and on earth when the Torah was given. God's presence on the mountain would forever change the substance of creation, for God hadn't walked on the earth since the Garden of Eden was closed to man. Rashi teaches that God bent the upper and lower heavens and spread them over Mt. Sinai like a sheet on a bed. Science had not conceived of the idea of folding space to move from one point to another in a short span of time and distance at the time Rashi lived. Frank Herbert's Dune had creatures who possessed this ability, a forecasting of what science was just beginning to contemplate when he originally wrote his trilogy. Rashi, Rabbi Shlomoh ben Yitzchak, lived over nine centuries ago, long before the science fiction author Herbert conceived his creatures, and long before the science caught up with him. It is said that the Burning Bush was a branch of the huge Tree of Life, found in the midst of the Garden of Eden, that Moses saw on Sinai before the exodus. (I speak of this in my novel The Garden of Souls) Rashi explained that the folding of heaven took place at that moment, allowing Moses to see a small glimpse into Paradise.

Before receiving the Law, Moses was instructed by God to place boundaries around the mountain, separating the nation Israel from God, for it had become holy ground. They were forbidden to touch the mountain, or ascend lest they would die, and turn this joyous moment into mourning. Only Moses was allowed to ascend the mountain. Aaron was permitted to be the closest to the fence, the Kohanim, or priests were on the next lower level, and the rest remained on the outside of the boundary.

Imagine the scene: The sound of the shofar growing louder, and the deafening voice of God roaring “like the sound of many waters” (Ez 43:2), the skies were lit up with thunder and lightening (Ex 19:16), and a million people were standing at the foot of the mountain in anticipation. Not since the creation of the earth had there been such a display by God, but this was the first time there were spectators of the event. The Jews believe that scene, that sacred space is still brought forward into this world through their prayers, their adherence to the Law, and their faithful attendance to the practice of their faith.

NOTE: In light of this biblical precedent, it frightens me to think that so many Catholics are so casual about tromping around the altar and touching the holy body of Christ. Many have forgotten to genuflect before Him upon entering and exiting, showing their respect for the Holy One. It wasn't that long ago that it was unthinkable that anyone except the priest would be allowed to touch the body of Christ. This was understood that the priest's hands are sanctified to perform the theophany on the altar, and receiving was on the tongue only, kneeling on the other side of a fence. Neither was it acceptable to chew it like bubble gum, or receive after eating a meal, like it was an appetizer. This concern has been voiced by a number of people to me, and, I've witnessed this abuse first hand—a young boy received in his hand, dropped his arm to his side, and made a great circle to put the host in his mouth, then skipped toward the eucharistic server with the cup, as if it was a game—this incident has become one of many, and the very reason why many Bishops in the assembly of Vatican II rightly objected to receiving on the hand. Many disagree with this note. However, it is something to at least consider thoughtfully.
The Mutuality of the Covenant:
The Jews Fiat

A Lutheran pastor once told me, “Man only has the ability to stop saying no, and is incapable of saying yes to God.” Israel did not merely assent by means of becoming neutral toward receiving the Law, nor were they an acquiescent crowd of children, terrified of being punished if they said no. They were active participants, interpenetrating God's realm and the temporal world at the same moment. Man's divine intellect gives him the power to say yes and to say no. The divine, creative yes erupted from their souls in a jubilant shout. It was an act of sheer will.

In the third month from the Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt, on this day, they arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai. They journeyed from Rephidim and arrived at the Wilderness of Sinai and encamped in the Wilderness; and Israel encamped there, opposite the mountain.”(Ex 19: 1,2) The emphasis on the word arrival and encamped are significant in this scripture. Previously, they came to Rephidim with an indolent attitude. They had neglected their study of the Torah parts given to them at Marah, and had argued with Moses and God. The wine press of experiences in Rephidim crushed their arrogance, and refined their faith. The journey from Rephidim to Sinai was completely different. It was a pilgrimage of repentance. They left Rephidim as a consecrated people with only the journey of Sinai before them.

The phrase “encampment in the Wilderness” is an indicator they were in a spiritual wilderness, for the word wilderness appears three times. Their spirit had been winnowed of sloth and selfishness, and they had gained a deeper understanding of who they were. The verb encampment is in the singular here. Rashi teaches this abundance of people were encamped as one person, with one desire. They were truly a nation of people with a singular purpose. The scripture “encamped there, opposite the mountain” indicates their willingness for a mutual participation in this event, for they were opposite God as two parties at a table facing each other to sign an agreement.

The elders were summoned and Moses “ . . . put before them all these words that YHWH had commanded him. The entire people responded together and said, 'Everything that YHWH has spoken we shall do!'” (Ex 19: 8) Never before or since had an entire people been of such a singular purpose. Their yes had created a new world, a new nation, and a new foundation. The Law had become the supporting infrastructure for the weight of the world, of the universe, or as the physicist Abbe Lemaitre coined the cosmological term the primevil atom, the Torah is the piece of matter from which all of the universe derived.

God spoke all the words, to say: I am YHWH, your God, . . .” (Ex 20: 1) The Mechilta teaches that all the commandments were spoken in a single utterance. This is from the first scriptural sentence, “God spoke all the words.” Rashi and Ramban explain that because “God spoke all the commandments” instantaneously they were incomprehensible to the Jews. God then began to repeat them word for word beginning with the declaration of who He is and His relationship to them. The Gur Aryeh predicates the reason why God spoke all the commandments in a single utterance was to instruct the Jews that the Torah was a single entity and could not be separated, removed, or changed in any way, for to do so would be heresy.

Rashi explains, “to say” means God expects answers to His commandments. Israel was to say yes to that which is positive and no to that which is negative. It often is translated “as follows” but it would be redundant, because it is implied that the words would follow. Therefore, this was a direction for the Jews to answer each word spoken, “to sayyes and no. This is another reference to the mutual nature of the relationship between God and the Jews. Each affirmation spoken created a world of righteousness, altering the face of the earth, and every no confirmed what would be prohibited, the negation creating a fence to where no one should trespass.

The Oneness of God

Each of the attributes of God are expressed in His declaration, “I am YHWH, your God, Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt . . .” (Ex 20:2) Sforno teaches the first three words of the Ten Commandments are of prime importance, because they express an attribute of His relationship to Israel. “I” denotes the oneness of God, “I am” who grants existence, the Prime Cause known to you through tradition. “YHWH,” the Tetragrammaton, revealed to Moses, is He who loves life and abhors cruelty and death. YHWH is the God of relationship, the one who longed for intimacy with man, “your God” who is accessible to His people, open to all communication. These three elements (I am, YHWH, your God) are the fundamental characteristics of the God who longed for a relationship with His people.

Who has taken you out of the land of Egypt . . .” Many sages asked why God did not say He was the creator (although it is implied in the YHWH). Rashi explains that God did not want the Jews to think He was many gods, because of all the different ways in which He had previously manifested Himself: Warrior, judge, merciful, fertility, etc. It was made clear by this statement who He is and what He has done. There were to be no misconceptions leading back to the pagan beliefs from which He had rescued them. These people still had much to learn and were not ready to understand the fullness of who God is. “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is the one and only!” (Dt 6:4) This phrase has become the single declaration every Jew uses upon rising and before he lies down at night. This is the fundamental lesson they learned after receiving and studying the Torah.

Christ is the Torah:
Christ is the Word

John's Gospel is a monumental achievement in an economy of words. His gospel did not concentrate on genealogies or in the mission of Christ as did the other three. His interest lay in the mystical union of the Law and man in the Christ, in the one who was to come, the Messiah. John sees completion, he sees fulfillment of the Old Testament's prophecy in the man Jesus. He begins his treatise, “En arche en ho logos . . .” or “In the beginning was the Word . . .” (John 1: 1) Arche meaning original beginning or starting point, but the verb en is what makes this phrase so crucial. En is in the imperfect tense. The implication is that the existence has no beginning. This Christ predates all time and creation.

The second phrase, “and the Word was with God . . .” (Jo 1: 1). The preposition pros means with indicating a personality distinct and equal in nature. The Torah, or the Word, is God's name, equal in stature with YHWH (the Father). Robertson's Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research says, “The literal idea comes out well, 'face to face with God,'” predicating personality and coexistence. Christ is face to face with the Father (YHWH). The third phrase, “and the Word was God” is the indicator of Christ's deity. “Theos en ho logos” which means God was the Word has an article ho or the to show the specific subject is the Word.

John's thesis lies in the Greek word logos, which in Hebrew is dabar and literally means word. In the Old Testament the words traditionally used to describe the Law given on that day in Sinai are the Ten Commandments, but in Hebrew they translate as the Ten Words. Therefore, John's opening words of his gospel are the crux of his entire thesis and what follows all the way to the sacrifice at the end. The Zohar, an ancient mystical book of the Hebrews whose ideas predate Christ's birth, could have influenced John's writing, and explains the Names of God. Daniel C. Matt writes in The Essential Kabbalah, “The Zohar . . . transforms the biblical narrative into a biography of God. The entire Torah is read as a divine name expressing divine being.” Christ is the incarnation of the Torah, no longer words burned into a stone, but the mystical marriage of God and man: “The Word became flesh . . .” (Jo 1:14). The Law was made flesh and a new covenant was engraved upon his body, a better sacrifice than all the animals proscribed in the Law.

The Zohar tell us that when God created the universe He withdrew His Shekinah, or the fullness of His presence, and He hovered above His creation, holding His Law (the Torah) in the Heavens. However, He left behind luminous sparks of His Shekinah, which is the cosmic glue of the universe, the substance which holds everything created together to keep it from flying apart into chaos. This idea is expressed in the very first words of Genesis, “. . . when the earth was bewilderment and void, with darkness over the surface of the deep, and the breath of God was hovering upon the surface of the waters—” (Gen 1: 2; translation from The Torah: with Rashi's Commentary Translated, Annotated, and Elucidated; The Sapirstein Edition). At this point, only God's words create order in the chaos. These sparks are concealed, as though covered in a garment, the temporal flesh or matter of the universe. This garment of creation, although seemingly to conceal God, in fact, is the revelator of Him.

In the Canticles Rabbah we find the story of the angels pleading with God to not give the Torah to the Jews: “At the time when the Holy-One-blessed-be-He sought to give the Torah to Israel the ministering angels . . . said, 'Master-of-the-universe, it is for Your happiness, Your honor, Your glory, that Your Torah be in Heaven.' He said to them, 'no satisfaction comes from you . . . it is written in it, 'when a person dies in a tent' (Num 19:14). Is there any death among you?'” Only the Torah had the power to differentiate or exercise judgment by separating life and death, righteousness and sin, because Adam and Eve had muddled the world with their act of rebellion bringing death into perfect life and sin into righteousness. The Torah, the Law bound us, defined us, and would be the only object that could release us by its observance from that death and sin. Christ would be that person to die in His tent, Shem's tent, Abraham's tent to act as the mediator for us through His perfect sacrifice. Angels would not, nor could they ever bring satisfaction to the turmoil of death and sin.

The Torah, the Law became finite when it left Heaven and was limited to the spoken and the written word, even though it was spoken and written by God. The Law was fenced by the physical manifestation of stone, and it defined the enclosures of life and death and the daily activities man pursues, but the sparks of the Shekinah were kindled into a holy fire by the jubilant yes of the Hebrew peoples. Christ the man was also bounded by flesh, yet His sacrifice ripped open the fences, the boundaries restraining man. Christ's divinity allowed us to climb the mountain to meet God face to face, no longer restrained by a fence at the bottom of the mountain or a veil in the sanctuary. And the priest came out into the open and served everyone who was willing to believe.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us . . .” (Jo 1:14). The verb lived means to pitch a tent, to dwell temporarily. The Greek is better translated as tabernacled among us referring to the temporary tabernacle in the Wilderness, organic, subject to decomposition, and frail. It was erected by and carried on the backs of the Levites until the permanent structure of the temple could be built in the promised land. The Sukkot dwelling, lived in during the period of the celebration of the Feast of Succos, became the pattern to watch for by the Jews. Christ's coming as a man was the perfect expression of God's will, the definer of the pattern, the frail, subject to death fleshly man.

Celebration of the Law in the Eucharist—When we eat this Bread and Drink this Cup...

The Kabbalah describes the study of the Torah as the discovery of a soul wrapped in a garment. The stories contained in it are not just stories, they are the garment. What lies beneath the garment is the true meaning, the body of the Torah. The observance of Judaism is in performing a mitzvot, or a duty, a commandment, or a good deed, such as the study of Torah. The celebrant sees himself arrayed in mitzvot as he is arrayed in his tefillah (the phylacteries containing the commandments the male Jew binds on his forearm and his forehead), or the tallis (the prayer shawl the male Jew drapes over his head or the smaller one he wears under his shirt with the fringes showing). He isn't merely performing rituals as something he is obligated to do. He acquires, performs, and pursues mitzvot because it is his lover, a personality, rather than a concept. He waits expectantly before each act, as a groom waits for his bride, anxious and deliciously in love.

The study of the Torah is compared to a man tasting bread, then cakes, then royal pastry which are all composed of wheat. He declares he is the master of wheat (the master of Torah), but learns nothing of the delectable delights found by the eating of those cakes. His is the mind of the minimalist. His observance is based only upon what is observed, the single ingredient; wheat. The true student searches for the deeper meaning through the four levels of observance: simple (what is immediately observed—could also include grammar and punctuation and history), midrashic (moral and theological), allegorical (description of a subject under the guise of some other subject of aptly suggestive resemblance), and mystical (having a certain spiritual character or import by virtue of a connexion or thought or union with God transcending human comprehension). His delight in the eating of bread, then cakes, then royal pastry discovers more than wheat. He notices the differences in taste, the added ingredients, how it makes him feel, how he digests each substance, its celebratory significance, where it came from, etc.

We would do well to learn this example, to not stop at a simple explanation and congratulate ourselves that we have truly studied the scripture by glancing at the history of that period and the grammar used by the author. If we do that we have failed to grasp the meaning of what the scripture tells us, ingested its true nourishment. Many popular Catholic bible studies generally add feelings to the mix in the mistaken belief that it will engage us more fully, such as: “How do you feel about this particular passage and how does it apply to your life?” Your feelings about a particular scripture are irrelevant. If we don't fully comprehend what the passage means how can we possibly apply it to our lives or know that we are having appropriate feelings?

In the Sanhedrin, those who apply a minimalist interpretation are referred to as the porek ol, or he who throws off the yoke of heaven. They are as the man who worships idols because he treats the Torah as antiquated matter and declares its laws abrogated. Manasseh, the son of Hezekiah, preached scandalous homilies and was considered a porek ol. One cannot pick and choose what they are to believe as if they were in a store and those items that pleased their eyes were the items that found their way into the basket. Either we believe with all our soul, with all our mind, and with all our strength, or we struggle forward in a lifelong commitment to reach that exalted state.

Once, someone remarked, as a woman finally became a Catholic after sitting in the pew beside her husband and children for over twenty years, that some people are a tough nut to crack. It took twenty years, but the truth sunk in, softening that hard outer layer one Mass at a time. She didn't give up going to Mass, she didn't wave her hand and dismiss church as a fruitless endeavor. She stayed. Perhaps she couldn't verbalize it, maybe even she felt satisfied up to a point, and that sustained her through that twenty years, but the Holy Spirit continued to draw her each Sunday to Mass, and helped her to reach that point where she was capable of saying yes.

John admonishes the reader to understand who Jesus is as a Jew. He is the One expected, the Word made flesh. When we process forward to partake of our royal cake, to meet our nuptial partner, we should declare, “AMEN!” with exuberance, our yes to the theophany on the altar. That what we have witnessed is an act that transcends time and space. Christ is risen! He has come! And He made us family, seated us at the table with Him, partaking of the last supper, the Passover feast along with the apostles in that upper room. We have been arrayed in the garment of grace, and now know that one day we will meet God face to face at the wedding feast in heaven.


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