14 November 2010

Drama, poetry and irony in the Temple

The Temple Mount in Jerusalem

Patrick Comerford

Sunday 14 November 2010 (The Second Sunday before Advent)

11.30 a.m.: The Community Eucharist

Isaiah 65: 17-25; Canticle 23 (the Song of Isaiah); II Thessalonians 3: 6-13; Luke 21: 5-19.

May I speak to you in the name of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Many years ago, I realised that there are three things that translate very badly, and three things that are impossible to express in print merely by changing the typeface: drama, poetry and humour, especially irony.

Our Gospel reading this morning is filled with drama, poetry, and humour, especially irony.

First for the drama:

In the Lectionary readings for Year C, we have been working our way through Saint Luke’s Gospel. After a long journey, Christ has arrived in Jerusalem, and we are preparing for the climax of this Gospel, his Passion, Death, Burial and Resurrection.

These are appropriate pre-Advent readings as we prepare for Christ’s coming among us in a short time, not so much as a cuddly child in a Christmas crib, but as Christ the King, which we mark next Sunday.

Meanwhile, this morning we find Christ in the Temple, teaching kingdom values. But these teachings are ignored by those who see him as a threat to their power and their privilege and who want to get rid of him.

Yet, instead of this being a comfortable reading, this could be a difficult and disturbing Gospel passage. If you had a choice you would probably not choose it for a Gospel reading at a Remembrance Day service this morning, trying to tell people not to be terrified when they hear about wars and insurrections (verse 9) and about nation fighting nation, kingdom fighting kingdom (verse 10).

But the lectionary is not about constantly providing us with comfortable readings; otherwise, we would end up coming to church only for the feel-good factor, and stop coming when we feel challenged and uncomfortable.

If we were to treat the Bible like this, if we were to pick and choose and so avoid the Lectionary readings we find difficult and challenging, we would end up treating our Sunday readings like some sort of Songs of Praise, picking and choosing what comforts and entertains us, but not what challenges us.

And if we do that with the Bible, we are in danger of missing out on the drama and the challenge of the full salvation story and of pursuing a god who is in our own image and likeness.

So this morning’s Gospel reading is full of drama, and drama that is challenging, drama that we need to work through.

It is a difficult challenge for a Sunday morning when we are commemorating Remembrance. But a difficult reading too, when we consider the civic and political and economic disturbances it talks about.

For the widow who has lost her savings as she saw the value of her bank shares collapse, for the pensioner who worries that the coming budget may take away his health care, for the middle class couple who see the stones of their house tumble down around them as they fail to meet their mortgage payments yet face having to pay a property tax too regardless of their ability to pay, for the student who knows her unemployed parents cannot afford next year’s fee increases, for the low-paid worker who sees his job under threat or his wages losing further value because of the misbehaviour of politicians and bankers, would this morning’s Gospel reading be a comfort or a challenge?

Would they too be fearful of, worried about dreadful portents, great signs, being betrayed, not one stone being left upon another?

Now for the poetry:

Poetry, dance and alliteration come from the soul and the heart.

Verses 8 to 19 are full of poetry and song – if you read it in a Bible translation that simply runs clause after clause, sentence after sentence, you will miss the poetry and the metre, the rhythm and the beat, in this passage.

One of the difficulties in translating poems and songs is that people have different ideas about where the rhyme and the repetition should come.

I once set out on a silly attempt to translate a great political poem by the Greek poet Yiannis Ritsos. His epic Epitaphios tells the story of a poor widow, bent Pieta-like over the body of her slain son. She weeps in a heart-breaking way over his limp, lifeless body. My son, my son, she cries, you were my Sunshine, my joy, my reason for living. Why did you die? Why were you cut off in your prime? Is this why I gave birth to you?

And then she hears his comrades continuing his struggle. Her son is alive in this mass of living, protesting bodies. And she takes new hope.

Translating this poem has proved an impossible task.

But I played a recorded, sung version once, a setting by Mikis Theodorakis movingly and emotionally sung by Maria Farantouri, while one of my sons, then only three or four, was sitting on my lap, playing snakes and ladders. I explained the basic outline of this poem. And he caught the emotion as well as the rhythm and the metre. He could grasp it in a way that no translation would have allowed me to.

And no translation can do justice to this poetic passage in Saint Luke’s Gospel. But please indulge me as I give a glimpse, just a glimpse of where you might find it.

Imagine rhyming slang. Then stone upon stone in verse 6: λίθος ἐπὶ λίθῳ (líthos epi lítho) forms a rhyming group with famines and plagues in verse 11: λιμοὶ καὶ λοιμοὶ (limoí kai loimoí). So the people who are admiring stones are being told they are bringing upon themselves – are wishing for – famines and plagues. Be wary of what you wish for.

Imagine metrical emphasis:

Do not be deceived (verse 8): μὴ πλανηθῆτε (mé planethete)

Do not follow (verse 8): μὴ πορευθῆτε (mé porefthete)

Do not be frightened (verse 9): μὴ πτοηθῆτε (mé ptoithete)

Do not prepare, or do not rehearse (verse 14): μὴ προμελετᾶν (mé promeletán)

Do not perish (verse 18): μὴ ἀπόληται (mé apólitai)

The repetitious mee-pee sound is like a bump-bump, thump-thump dramatic beating out that Theodorakis could so easily set to music.

Poetry and song are part and parcel of apocalyptic literature.

But why would Jesus bother to regale and remonstrate with those who challenge and confront him with a song of apocalyptic poetry, like some New Testament Leonard Cohen or a Sting or Simon and Garfunkel?

Well that leads me to the third difficulty, the difficulty of translating humour, especially irony:

We have just moved in the lectionary readings from last Sunday’s absurd story where the Sadducees question Jesus about the poor widow who has been forced to marry seven brothers, one after the other, in an absurd but cruel application of the Mosaic law (Luke 20: 27-38).

If you can cast your mind back to last Sunday’s Gospel, you can see how this poor widow was an object for these priests in the Temple. They had no compassion for her; she was simply a useful object to score clever debating points as they set a trap for Jesus. They cared little for her plight or her predicament.

And this is so obvious in the few verses that have been skipped over between last Sunday’s Gospel reading and this Sunday’s Gospel reading: because the missing verses (Luke 21: 1-4) hold the story of the widow with her two small coins who comes to the Temple and places all she has in the Treasury.

Who is most Christ-like?

The Sadducee who tries to show off his knowledge by trying to trap Jesus with his clever questions?

Or the widow, who, like Christ, empties herself of all she has?

Who is the true priest in the Temple that day?

The Sadducee, who exults in the beauty of the Temple, but excludes the widowed, the poor, the marginalised?

Or the widow, who places her offering, and what should be my offering, before God?

Who in their offering places humanity before God through Christ, and places God before humanity through Christ?

If that is a sharp summary of priesthood, then this woman is a perfect role model for priesthood.

But, despite Jesus drawing attention to this poor widow, those who are listening to him go back to their worldly concerns, and the beauty and wonder of human construction, rather than the beauty and wonder of God, and the reflection of that beauty and wonder in humanity … especially in humanity as it is marginalised and oppressed.

There is irony in this. If it wasn’t so sad, we might just be laughing at these sad priests in the Temple. They just don’t get the point of it all. Do you?

Hidden in this passage are two challenges for us this morning … and that’s part of the truth found in poetry too.

We are being asked to make a decisive choice for Jesus. There is a hidden Ἐγώ εἰμι (Egó eimi) saying in this passage in verse 8. Normally, we associate this self-description of Jesus with Saint John’s Gospel.

But here we are being told that there is only one true Ἐγώ εἰμι, and we are being challenged in this kairos moment to accept no other substitutes, to choose no other options, no matter how comfortable they may be, no matter how much a feel-good factor they may offer us.

Who is Jesus for me?

And who am I for Jesus?

We must make up our minds beforehand, so that there will be no need to prepare as actors rehearsing for a play (see verse 14). In accepting the challenge of being witnesses, we become martyrs (the word in verse 13 for testimony or witness, μαρτύριον (martyrion), also gives us the word martyr.

The widowed woman who gives up everything is a testimony, a witness, a martyr for Christ: we too are faced with the challenge of deciding who Christ is for us, who we are for Christ, and being examples to imitate (II Thessalonians 3: 9).

And so, may all we think, say and do be to the praise honour and glory of God, + Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This sermon was preached at the Community Eucharist during a residential weekend on Sunday 14 November 2010.

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