With breasts like twin gazelles – the Song of Songs

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The Song of Solomon is one of several books (Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the deuterocanonical Wisdom being the others) to be attributed to Solomon because of the tradition that made him a proverbial figure of wisdom. Its traditional title, Song of Songs,1 indicates (according to Hebrew idiom) it is the best of all songs. Sadly, no readings from it occur in the shared lectionary tradition on a Sunday.2 One short passage is used as the first reading for the feast of St Mary Magdalene.

I once gave a talk – with selected readings – on books of the bible we hardly ever read in church. This was one of my selections, and I read a couple of the passages where the lovers in the song describe each other. Afterwards, an older and more senior priest took me to one side, and said: “I’m not sure you should really read those passages in church.” To which I protested mildly, “But that was rather the point of it.” He replied, “well, you didn’t have to sound as though you were enjoying it.”

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Rite on the Edge (a book review)

I’ve pinched the title of the post from the book I’m talking about: Sarah Lawrence’s A Rite on the Edge (London, SCM Press 2019). I don’t think she could have come up with a better title for a book that looks at the diverging languages of baptism and christening, and the ideas and practices that go with them.

Baptism or christening statistics are a bit hard to be precise about. According to the Church of England’s statistics, there were 94,000 baptisms in 2018. However, only 59% (55,000) of these, were of infants younger than one year old. This makes 8.4% of live births (according to the ONS) who end up getting christened in the Church of England.

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Too many cooks make light work – looking at Proverbs

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

All cultures have proverbs. They often contradict each other, like the two I’ve jumbled up in the title of this post. Too many cooks spoil the broth; many hands make light work. Part of the wisdom of using proverbs is working out what the appropriate saying for any particular situation is. The biblical book of Proverbs contain a number that fall into the same category as our English proverbs. However, it also contains some more extended reflections on the nature of wisdom, which work rather better as readings.

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Sing us one of the songs of Zion – looking at the Psalms

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

With the psalms, this series reaches the book of the Old Testament most heavily used by Christians. It is the most quoted in the New Testament, and most read, sung and prayed in the life of the church. The Lectionary for Mass, which became the basis of the Revised Common Lectionary, reintroduced the psalms to celebrations of the Eucharist, and did so in a particular way.

Older eucharistic services, whether the Latin Missal or the Book of Common Prayer, only had an epistle and gospel reading, with chants or (eventually) a hymn between the two. When the new lectionary introduced an Old Testament reading (linked to the gospel) it also introduced a psalm which in some way responded to the Old Testament reading.

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Faith when the world makes no sense – the book of Job

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Five readings from Job crop up in the Revised Common Lectionary’s continuous set of Sunday readings;1 one of these also occurs in the shared set of related readings. Most people will therefore only hear the one reading, part of God’s speech towards the end of the book. Either way it is not a lot of exposure to a long and provocative book, which wrestles with the perennial question of why there is evil in the world.

The Patient Job, by Gerard Seghers (17th century) courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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A grab-bag of poetry, proverbs and perspicacity

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

The third main section of Old Testament and apocryphal books is something of a grab bag, whether we focus solely on the undisputed books, or include the deuterocanonical ones as well. For some people, poetry is the dominant characteristic, although much of Proverbs and Ecclesiastes are prose. For others, wisdom is the primary emphasis, although it is not the most obvious category for many psalms, nor for the love poetry of the Song of Songs.

The Hebrew books are all classified by Jewish tradition under the miscellaneous third category of Writings. They are the books that are not Law or Prophet. Christians might add to that classification, saying they are the books that are not Law, Prophet or History. Nonetheless, poetry is the predominant form, and wisdom a frequent emphasis.

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Cultural imperialism and the rebel alliance: 1 & 2 Maccabees

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

Some historical events leave a deep footprint. Alexander the Great’s conquest of much of the world, as known to the people of the Mediterranean at the time, was one such event. While the political empire he established fragmented quickly among his squabbling heirs, the linguistic and cultural empire – an accidental by-product of his victories – lasted centuries longer. Greek became the common language of the ancient Mediterranean world, and Greece’s culture, education and philosophy became the ones to admire.

For some time this was also the case in Jerusalem, many of whose leaders aspired to the Hellenistic city state model. The writer of First Maccabees attributes this primarily to the beginning of the second century BC. He sees it as yet another example of religious and cultural compromise. The leaders seeking cultural assimilation are backed up by the forces and laws of the king, Antiochus Epiphanes, who seems also to have had some delusions of grandeur. The Greek East was much quicker to treat kings or emperors as divine than the Roman West.

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Ripping yarns – Tobit, Judith and Esther

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

As I mentioned early in this series, I am including the deuterocanonical books / apocrypha in their traditional Greek and Latin Bible order. (The main post discussing this distinction is here.) Today’s post considers a cluster of short stories grouped towards the end of the historical books.

No readings occur in the Sunday Lectionary from the two deuterocanonical books of Tobit and Judith, and only one from the undisputedly canonical book of Esther. It is worth mentioning them together, as they illustrate the kind of short story, told with a historical framework, which show popular stories in their literary versions getting into the Bible. A basic familiarity with them can help us understand the culture in which Jesus and his first followers grew up.

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National and religious identity in crisis – Ezra & Nehemiah

This post is in the series Rite Reading.

If it wasn’t for the names of the biblical books, the title of this piece could look awfully like a contemporary headline. Yet in many other respects, neither Ezra nor Nehemiah feel particularly relevant for the contemporary world. Perhaps that’s why only one reading from these books crops up in the Sunday lectionary.

Gustave Doré’s woodcut of the scene (1843: Public Domain) He imagines Ezra as a second Moses with stone tablets, rather than the scroll described in the story.
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