23 December 2016

Tolkien - "Noel"

What follows is a recently re-discovered poem, originally written and published in 1936 by the master wordsmith, J. R. R. Tolkien.  Jason Duesing and ArtsBeat (via the NY Times) have elaborated on the discovery and future plans from the Tolkien Estate here and here, for this and other lost poems.

Allow me to simply share Tolkien's gorgeous wordplay to stoke the nostalgic fires of Christmas.


Grim was the world and grey last night:
The moon and stars were fled,
The hall was dark without song or light,
The fires were fallen dead.
The wind in the trees was like to the sea,
And over the mountains’ teeth
It whistled bitter-cold and free,
As a sword leapt from its sheath.

The lord of snows upreared his head;
His mantle long and pale
Upon the bitter blast was spread
And hung o’er hill and dale.
The world was blind, the boughs were bent,
All ways and paths were wild:
Then the veil of cloud apart was rent,
And here was born a Child.

The ancient dome of heaven sheer
Was pricked with distant light;
A star came shining white and clear
Alone above the night.
In the dale of dark in that hour of birth
One voice on a sudden sang:
Then all the bells in Heaven and Earth
Together at midnight rang.

Mary sang in this world below:
They heard her song arise
O’er mist and over mountain snow
To the walls of Paradise,
And the tongue of many bells was stirred
in Heaven’s towers to ring
When the voice of mortal maid was heard,
That was mother of Heaven’s King.

Glad is the world and fair this night
With stars about its head,
And the hall is filled with laughter and light,
And fires are burning red.
The bells of Paradise now ring
With bells of Christendom,
And Gloria, Gloria we will sing
That God on earth is come.

Merry Christmas!

07 December 2016

Priests by His merit

I wrestled with a section of Leviticus 21 the other day during my morning reading.  There, the following instructions are given to Moses concerning Israel's priesthood:

No man of the offspring of Aaron the priest who has a blemish shall come near to offer the Lord's food offerings; since he has a blemish, he shall not come near to offer the bread of his God...  he shall not go through the veil or approach the altar, because he has a blemish, that he may not profane my sanctuaries, for I am the Lord who sanctifies them.” (Lev 21.21-23)

As we read earlier in the passage, a "blemish" might include blindness; mutilation; disease; impotence; crippled, lame, or deformed limbs; and hunched backs (21.18-20) -- anything that might render a man physically or mentally inept.  On a practical level, such a restriction makes sense, but when I read a passage like that, my heart reacts because it's difficult to read compassion and kindness into such a law.  In fact, it's (understandably) the exact type of passage a doubter might point to as an example of a biblical contradiction.

"You claim this god of yours is loving, but what about this?"

When I read a passage like this, I think about the way people with disabilities are treated in modern society.  Yes, there are programs, organizations, treatments, and caretakers designated to meet the needs of handicapped individuals.  Yes, every restaurant has special parking spots for folks with blue swing tags.  Yes, restrooms are designed to accommodate wheelchairs.  However, the average person moving at the average pace of American society doesn't have the time of day or the wherewithal to consider those needs.  In fact, we are either more annoyed by the inconvenience these individuals can represent, or we're simply too uncomfortable around them to be properly motivated to serve them.

It's an unfortunate reality that individuals born with physical or mental disabilities have been marginalized in every society.  Ironically, it is only now -- at the current peak of supposed human evolution, where the callous "survival of the fittest" path has supposedly brought us -- that we've reached a point in society where we now have programs and institutions that can effectively care for individuals who fall into the varying categories of special needs.  That is, instead of placing them in neglected, isolated communities; treating them like they're possessed; or ostracizing them entirely (as societies have done in the past), we are actually taking strides to provide the disabled and handicapped with a quality of life unprecedented in past decades.  In evolutionary terms, this can only be defined as regression, not advancement.  And yet, modern sciences, engineering, therapies, and social work altogether geared at assisting people with disabilities reveal a depth of heart that points to the warm fingers of a compassionate Designer -- not the cold randomness of survival.

Considering all this, when I read a passage like Leviticus 21, I desperately want a verse 24 to hurl open the doors of mercy and compassion, welcoming and inviting people with deformities and disabilities, allowing them direct access to the throne room of God.  If anyone should have love and a special place for for the deformed, the lame, and the outcasts, it should be God Himself.  But even though there is no verse 24 here to express that sentiment, that doesn't mean I can jump to the conclusion that there is no room in God's heart for servants with "blemishes."

A couple clarifying points will help.

One, this section of Leviticus is addressed specifically to those in the line of the priesthood -- that is, Aaron's descendants.  And in that regard, the command is only applicable to eligible males in the Aaronic line who would otherwise perform priestly duties in the tabernacle or temple.  In other words, this is no more a blanket statement prohibiting any Israelite with a deformity who wants to serve in the temple from doing so, than it is grounds for the community to ostracize any debilitated individual from worshiping with the rest of the community (keeping in mind that if he has a disease that is contagious, he must subject himself to rules of cleanness and purification).  This law does, however, prohibit those in Aaron's generations who have special needs from serving as priests in the tabernacle/temple.

Two, what seems on the surface to be a passage ostracizing Aaronic descendants with birth defects is actually a statement about the holiness and perfection of God.  In other words, the kind of physical, mental, and spiritual state an individual must be in to appropriately serve as a priest is a writ-small reflection of what God requires of each of us.  The equation is simple: no one is holy like God is.  No one -- not even the perfect specimen of human fitness, physique, or symmetry; not even the most law-abiding, moral citizen.  Even the High Priest himself could only enter directly into God's presence one day of the year to offer sacrifices for the atonement of all the people, and that was only after he performed extensive acts of ritual cleansing and offered sacrifices for his own sins and those of his family.

Across the Testaments of Scripture, the standard that must be met is perfection.  Which is and always has been impossible for humankind.  You must serve God, but to properly serve God you must be perfect, and you cannot be perfect because you are a sinner.  This is the original Catch-22.  And yet, if we study the Word of God carefully and take a deep, long look into our own hearts, we cannot honestly deny that this is a self-inflicted state, not the work of a cruel, merciless deity.

Now, enter Jesus.

Jesus' earthly ministry accomplishes what we ourselves could not do.  His perfection, holiness, and obedience fulfills all the requirements of God's just demands.  Where universal sin had earned death and judgment, He came to drink the cup of the Father's just wrath to its dregs.  In so doing, He took our punishment -- our wages.  And then, His resurrection from the grave verified His power over both sin and death, enabling those of us who believe to have new, restored life.  Instead of being regarded as impure sinners, we can now be righteous in the eyes of God, cleansed thoroughly by the blood of His Son.  Where all of our moral strivings have failed, one act of righteousness has become the salvation we all desperately need (Rom 5.18).

Here's the hope that we can only see in shadow in Leviticus 21: the perfection that God requires of His priests was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

This means we don't have to be perfect, because He was perfection for us.

That especially includes people with "blemishes" -- permanent injuries, illnesses, or debilitations.  As a matter of fact, if we look through the pages of the gospel accounts, we'll find that these are exactly the people whom Jesus spent His time touching, cleansing, and teaching.  The helpless invalids -- the spiritual and physical outcasts from their own heritage -- were the ones to whom Jesus ministered specifically.  Those whom the entire Israelite community had rejected on the basis of deformity, illness, or stigma, Jesus drew back into the community, healing their infirmities and demonstrating what life without sin, within the restored fellowship of God others, is like.

According to Mosaic law, no one with a blemish could serve as a priest, and only those of Aaron's bloodline were eligible to be priests anyway.  And yet, even those individuals who were considered worthy to don the ephod needed their own sins atoned for.  In fact, the span of the Scriptures attests to the fact that the priesthood as an institution was ultimately insufficient to completely atone for human sin anyway.  The book of Hebrews elaborates on the profound reality that Jesus' atoning work completed the task of the priesthood, removing any further need for a temporary intermediate.  This is why God Himself, the Son, became our permanent intermediate: He became our sacrifice and He became our priest (see Hebrews 4.14-8.13).  For this reason, Paul makes the case that any distinction among believers based on class or privilege has been abolished (Gal 3.28), and Peter goes on to write that all followers of Jesus Christ, once living in the outer darkness of sin and rejection, have altogether been promoted to the status of the priesthood:

But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.  Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2.9-10)

The beauty of this is that those who might once have been forbidden from serving in the capacity of a priest, whether because of a physical or a mental deformity, have now been given direct access to God by the atoning work of Jesus.  We are now able to be ministers to the faith community the way the Israelite priests ministered to the nation, regardless of blood heritage, regardless of disability, regardless of our sinful pasts.

As followers of Jesus, we all have our place in the Kingdom -- a place not determined by anyone's merit but His.

Jesus is the great equalizer.  The cross levels the entire playing field.  In the Kingdom of Heaven, there are no distinctions of sinner or saint.  Those who were once deformed have been transformed.  We are all now priests and esteemed family members, redeemed by the blood of Jesus Christ.

This understanding should motivate us to have a greater compassion for both those with special needs, and also for those outside the community of faith.  As members of the royal priesthood, our responsibility is not to offer sacrifices on their behalf, but to proclaim the excellencies of light, truth, and the hope that Jesus Christ is the perfect sacrifice.

As we have been shown grace upon grace and unfathomable mercy by the God of all comfort and compassion (2 Cor 1.3), let us extend the same to the lost -- and especially to those with disabilities.