Several years ago I ran across a story about Temple Emanuel in New York. The congregation had commissioned a new Torah scroll, and the leaders had decided to make it something that everyone could participate in. Rather than isolate the scribe in his studio, however, synagogue officials invited people to put their hand on the scribe’s shoulder as he carefully put quill to vellum to create the Hebrew letters.
To no one’s surprise but that of the scribe, this turned out to be a deeply moving experience, and many of the participants burst into tears. Naturally this irritated the scribe to no end, until he finally realized what was happening. For him the creation of a Torah scroll was both a sacred ritual and a job. But for first-time observers this was the awesome realization that in one brief moment they were helping to create a book that had created them a people. How could they react in any other way than to be touched to the core of their being?
I’ve recounted this story often over the years because it reminds us that Christians too are biblical people. As a monk I’ve read and recited the scriptures every day for years, and the scriptures continue to seep into my bones. And the same is true for other Christians — be they believers or even those who struggle with belief.
In a few days we are going to repeat an exercise that Christians have done for centuries. We are going to gather for Holy Week services and we are going to listen. Specifically, we are going to listen once more to the word of God which continues to shape us as God’s people.
Not a few people look at Holy Week services as some sort of marathon to be survived. Others dread what seem to be the overly-long and far-too-many readings from scripture. Still others search out churches that have abbreviated both the services and the readings. Of course I’m among the first to admit that some communities do not do these services well, and there’s no denying that the latter can seem long and tedious.
Still, it’s important to hear these readings as they are meant to be heard, and we must hear all of them, in their entirety. For one thing, they recount for us the course of salvation history. But of even greater import, they remind us of who we are as Christians, what we believe, and why we believe what we believe. In short, these passages have created and formed us as God’s people, and we owe it to ourselves to hear these texts at least once a year.
The annual sequence of readings begins with the Passion narrative on Palm Sunday, but the climax comes with the readings at the Easter Vigil. That evening we begin with Genesis, progress through the Old Testament, and then it culminates with the proclamation of the resurrection. And what’s the point of all this? Well, it’s not just meant to jog our memories about dusty passages that we may have forgotten in the course of the last year. Rather, the point is deeply profound, and it’s meant to stir in our bones.
There’s no space to recount all of the readings, but in Genesis we can pick up the spirit of what this is all about. The point of that text is not to give some hour-by-hour account of how God created the heavens and the earth. In fact I’ve always considered the details of how God did that to be God’s private business, which he best shares with physicists and other interested parties. More to the point for me was God’s habit of standing back to survey creation, and at that moment God saw that it was good. Beyond that, God did not bring us into being simply because there were molecules left over. God created us in the divine image, and God created us for a purpose.
This gets to the heart of what the Holy Week services are all about. They are not meant to be exercises in tedium. Rather, in them the biblical texts press home the point that we are noble and beautiful creatures, and we believe that there is purpose in our lives. We are meant to be more than consumers of manufactured goods and contributors to the gross domestic product. Instead, our mission is to share eternal life with God, and that conviction should shape our every waking hour.
The readings of Holy Week form us as biblical people, and that’s why we owe it to ourselves to listen intently. Of course some readers will read more eloquently than others, but perhaps those who stumble over the words are symbolic of the occasional struggles we all have. But the important point is this: these texts shape us, and in them we experience the guiding hand of God who shepherds us along.
As Christians we live and move and have our being in these texts. So this year, as was the case last year, it’s definitely worth the effort to show up and listen once more to what God has to say. Who knows how God might reward us for our attention; but we’ll never know unless we go.
+This was a busy week, and it begin with a day of reflection that I gave to the area members of the Order of Malta in Cincinnati, on March 9th.
+On March 10th I spoke on The Saint John’s Bible to the monks of Saint Anselm’s Abbey in Washington, DC. I have to confess that it was a delightful evening and I thoroughly enjoyed the hospitality of the monks.
+On March 12th I gave a retreat day on the Year of Mercy to the members of the Order of Malta in Seattle. I have given days of reflection to members in Seattle on several occasions, and it is always a pleasure to see them once again. In the course of time they have become good friends.
+At Saint John’s monks and a large number of volunteers have begun the annual ritual of making maple syrup. This year they have put in some 1,500 taps on the trees, and they are hoping that it does not get too warm too soon. For this to work the temperatures have to fall below freezing at night and climb above freezing during the day. Collecting the sap is its own reward, simply because the cool crisp air is exhilarating.
+Life always has its interesting moments, as was the case with producing this particular blog post. I had left some of the work until the morning of publication, but unfortunately the electricity went off just as I sat down to finish. This explains the tardy publication.
+The photos in today’s post include two hard-carved medieval items from The Louvre Museum in Paris, as well as four pieces from The National Gallery in Washington, DC.