Thursday, 16 January 2014

snow and ice

setting sun near river Cole

We are approaching what is, as a friend reminded me, on average, the coldest day of the year. As a family, we have also just celebrated my son's 18th birthday. The first time I remember taking him out, as a new baby, was a walk in the snow, all that time ago. I carried him in a sling and walked so, so carefully, down to the park behind our house.We haven't had any snow yet this year, and I haven't really missed it, but all the same, looking back over my photo collection, the snowy ones do have a certain magic.

frozen bucket of water with leaf

There's an old rune poem written in Anglo Saxon, that describes the ice:

Ice is so cold!  immeasurably slippery,
it glistens like glass, a precious jewel,
a floor wrought of frost, beautiful to behold.
 (my own loose translation)

Frost has a capacity for bringing out the jewel-like, helping us see differently, so we notice things that would otherwise be unremarkable:

such as dead cow parseley heads ...

A spider's web ...

an ivy flowerhead ...

so many intricate details.

As it happens, my nostalgic scroll through eighteen years of winter photos is timely. Tomorrow I am welcoming a group of students to our home and sharing something with them of living appreciatively amongst a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood. I'm going to share a little, as part of my presentation, about the 99 beautiful names of God (which I have blogged about previously in 99 Beautiful Names ...). One of my long-time favourites is 'Ya Musawwir', Oh Fashioner of Intricate Details ...' Through meditation on the name we are inspired to marvel at the intricacy of patterns,
A spiral of blackthorn

 the wonder of colours,

 the detail, the fascinating beauty all around us.

Ya Musawwir calls for us to stop and notice how incredible the natural world is. Stopping to notice the beauty is one of the 'meanings' of Isa, the Ice rune of the poem above. it's one of the things I've often found myself doing, in 18 years of bringing up a young person to adulthood. Isa is sometimes interpreted as a frustrating rune of standstill, as the ice makes travel difficult - and how we all want ot keep rushing about! But life is so fast paced these days - it's interesting that it's still nature, be it snow or carrying a precious new babe out into the world for the first time, that slows us down to stop in awe every now and then.

'When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, 
the moon and the stars that you have established,
what are human beings that you are mindful of them,
mortals that you care for them?'
Psalm 8:3-4

Sunday, 5 January 2014

The Name of Jesus

page from Lindisfarne Gospels showing Anglo Saxon translation
An exploration into Anglo Saxon over the last few years, revealed a surprising little gem: the name of Jesus got translated by meaning rather than by an approximation of phonetic values. So instead of something that sounds a bit like 'Jesu' or 'Yesou' or 'Yeshua' or 'Joshua', as we get so often in translations around the world, Anglo Saxon departs completely from trying to replicate the sound, and gives 'Haeland'. (The 'a' and 'e' should be stuck together in a dipthong pronounced 'a' as in 'cat' but I can't work out how to do that on this blog site). Haeland means healer and thus rescuer from harm, a save-er in the sense that a firefighter, a surgeon or a lifeguard might be seen as a save-er. In the Gospels, Jesus is normally described doing such 'middle-earth' works, although the accounts may take on a metaphorical spiritual dimension for the reader, such as when Peter tries to walk on water, sinks, and cries out 'save me!'. (Matthew 14:30)

The Harrowing of Hell from the Melisende Psalter
For some with a concern for spiritual affairs beyong this middle-earth as Anglo Saxons called it, the concept of save-er, one who saves another from harm, becomes saviour, with a more spiritual connotation of survival in a blessed state beyond this life. The Christian concept of 'salvation' emerges gradually, it is not fully formed in the writings of the New Testament and has different emphasis in different periods of church history. In Anglo Saxon Christian literature, for example, we find an account of Christ's harrowing of hell: he courageously rescues departed souls by fetching them out of their shadow-world of joylessness and bringing them to heaven.

Haeland is a statement of belief: Jesus exists in these Anglo Saxon translations as 'the one who heals-saves'. This is close to how Jesus's own Jewish contemporaries would have encountered the meaning of his name, but not quite the same. The name of Jesus in Hebrew was at the time a common name and made up of Yah and shua. Yah is a shortened form of the holy name that was not to be spoken, (Exodus 3:14) and refers to God as revealed to Abraham, Hagar, Moses, Miriam and other ancient founders of the faith: God Most High, God who made heaven and earth. Shua means something very like the healing, helping work of Haeland. 'God is our help', or 'God rescues', or 'God saves', are possible translations. Jesus's name is a statement about God - the God Jesus asked people to devote themselves to. The Anglo Saxon translator works a subtle sleight of hand and attributes all helping work to Jesus himself, not the Deity of Hebrew scripture. Some might say these are one and the same entity, but many would argue that it's more complicated than that.

We are often unwitting hostages to the interpretations of translators.This brings me to an interesting book I read recently, 'A Native American Theology', by Clara Kidwell, Homer Noley and George 'Tink' Tinker. The authors talk about a passage that has been used oppressively by white colonisers, to frighten indigenous people into thinking they have no option but to convert. The passage in question is one quoted quite recently to me by an evangelically minded friend, as the reason why, in all conscience, he finds it very difficult to make room for other faiths. I wondered whether he had read the whole passage in the original Greek at all, as it makes a difference. Here's an English translation of the key verses:

let it be known to all of you, and to all the people of Israel, that this man is standing before you in good health by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth ... There is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among mortals by which we must be saved.’ 
Acts 4:10-12 NRSV

Fragment of Greek papyrus
That sounds pretty authoritative, doesn't it.  But the Greek word sozo, here rendered 'salvation' and 'saved', is in the same episode, which involves a man's lame leg being healed, understood to mean physical healing, restoration to wholeness. Suddenly the translator jumps from bodily wellbeing to spiritual salvation, with, it seems, little justification except that he or she is reading back into the text a theology of Christian salvation that was not fully developed at that time. So first, this is primarily an account about a healing controversy and a dispute about the fact that it happened on a Sabbath day. 'Yes but it's still the name of Jesus that effects the cure,' you might say. It's still 'by no other name ...' Well, OK, but what does the name of Jesus mean? As I said above, it points to God. It means 'God saves / helps / rescues.' Depending on your outlook, that may or may not be Jesus, and to many but not all Christians that's exactly what it does mean -  but it does take the wind out of the sails a bit. The passage becomes less oppressive, easier for a person of another faith or spiritual path to find room for manoeuvre. As the authors of A Native American Theology put it,

'So it has always been in our ceremonies and among our healing specialists since time immemorial. The power to heal always comes from the spiritual energy of Wakonda, even when particular individuals have been identified as the vehicles through whom certain kinds of healing or help can be facilitated. Yet the missionaries have used this story to proclaim to us a self-serving untruth, that God has only spoken to them and only communicated through Jesus.'

I know a lot of Christians do hold onto this passage is Acts 4:10-12 as a reason for exclusivism - even the ground of their faith, and I appreciate I will press buttons by flagging it up as a misleading, even oppressive text, in the way it is usually interpreted. But it's a wobbly rock to stand on as a foundation for faith. The text is not as clear as translators would like us to believe and indigenous peoples are not alone in having been persuaded out of fear, rather than making a choice based on love and personal calling. Personally, and it's been said many times before, I think it's time for Christians to look again at the history of colonialism, conquest and coercive conversion in the name of Jesus and look again at texts like this, and just pause, just listen to what is really being said, what following Jesus is really about, and what we really mean, how we can  say what we mean without any violence. I don't think most Christians wish to be oppressive or oppressed, but sometimes it happens anyway.

(the photos in this post are of pages in my 'Bible Manuscripts' British Library address book with thanks)