Friday, May 13

Hands of Mercy, Hands of Peace

We use our hands for many things. We use our hands for building. We use our hands for making music. We use our hands to write. We use our hands to type. We can hold hands with another person. We use our hands for eating. We use our hands for cleaning. We use our hands for cooking. We use our hands when making love. We use our hands for work. In many cultures, we shake hands as a way of greeting or introduction. Hands are used for these and a billion other such things in life. Hands can be messengers. Hands can be outstretched to cry out for help. Hands can be offered to give love and show mercy to others. The ancient Jews would ritually wash their hands before a meal or before preparing an offering or sacrifice. Hands are used in phraseology as well - the phrase "the hand of the Lord" was often used in the Hebrew Bible to express the power of the divine. The phrase, "this will come in handy" means, "this is useful."

We swear oaths with their hands. Offering a hand to someone can be seen as an invitation - "here, let me give you a hand." The expression, "this is in your hands" tends to mean "this is within your power" or your ability. Not everyone has hands - there are those born without hands, or those who have lost their hands over the course of their life. These individuals find other ways of going through life, and at times they may be helped by those who use their hands to develop new technologies for new ways of living.

Photo Credit to
From a Judeo-Christian perspective, consider this selection of a few of the many different uses for hands in Scripture:
  • Hands were used for blessing one's sons or heirs (Genesis 48:14)
  • Jesus used his hand to bend down and write in the sand (John 8:1-11)
  • Hands were laid on sacrifices (Exodus 29:10)
  • Hands were laid on another person in order to send the Holy Spirit (Deuteronomy 34:9)
  • Laying on hands to commission as a priest (Numbers 8:10; 1st Timothy 5:22)
  • Laying on hands to heal  (2nd Kings 4:34)
  • Lifting up hands to pray (1st Timothy 2:8)
  • Hands were used as messengers of the divine (Daniel 5:5-6)
  • "For I, the Lord your God, hold your right hand; it is I who say to you, “Fear not, I am the one who helps you” (Isaiah 41:13)
  • "And God was doing extraordinary miracles by the hands of Paul" (Acts 19:11)
  • "So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves” (Matthew 27:24)
  • "So it came about when Moses held his hand up, that Israel prevailed, and when he let his hand down, Amalek prevailed. But Moses' hands were heavy. Then they took a stone and put it under him, and he sat on it; and Aaron and Hur supported his hands, one on one side and one on the other. Thus his hands were steady until the sun set" (Exodus 17:11-12)
In the above selection of passages from Scripture - only a small selection out of many others - we find hands being used for healing, hands used to help, hands used to pray, hands used for sending, hands used to comfort, hands used for blessing, and so forth. Hands clearly play very important roles in our lives. Consider the image of a potter, molding clay with their hands. The potter takes special care to carefully craft each and every piece of pottery, molding, shaping, waiting. What if we took this same level of care with others? What if we used our hands as hands of mercy, and hands of justice - as instruments of both mercy and justice?

Hands can unfortunately also be used for many bad, even malicious purposes. Hands can be used to perpetuate social injustices and even many social sins, such as human trafficking, the alienation of immigrants, the slaughter of innocent lives, and the destruction - genocide, even - of entire people groups. Hands can be used to promote racism and discrimination, to deny basic human rights, to uphold inequality, to propagate the pornography industry (which includes the literal stripping of human dignity), to hurt minority groups and exclude others. Hands can be used to hold weapons, to deprive others of an education, to continue to advance environmental degradation, to poison, to injure, and many other such things.
Photo credit to Br. Francis de Sales Wagner (Path of Life blog)

But hands can also be used to stand up for the oppressed and the marginalized. Hands can be used to help social causes - consider movements such as those led by Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. Hands can be used to rebel against unjust social orders. Hands can be used to band together as one people. Hands can be joined together in prayer. Hands can be used to heal. Hands can be used to create. Hands can be used for many creative purposes, but can we not also use our hands to help those who are hungry? Can we use our hands to offer drinks to those who are thirsty?

Can we use our hands to offer clothes to those who have little, or none? Could we not also offer up our hands to comfort those who are mourning? Could we not use our hands to write to those who are imprisoned? We can use our hands to build homes for those who have none. We can use our hands to offer up change to those on the streets. Can we use our hands to cook for others? Can we use our hands to clean for others? Perhaps we can use our hands to communicate with the Deaf community. We can use our hands to welcome the immigrants. We can use our hands to tend to and care for our "common home," this environment and creation surrounding us. Perhaps we can also use our hands to show love and care to other animals.

Human beings are remarkable creatures. We have the amazing capacity to use our hands for works of mercy and works of justice. We can do all of these things and more. It is important for us not only to recognize this blessing, but to act on it. In particular, let this be a reminder of the social call one may say that we each have - regardless of religious tradition, culture, ethnic background, etc. - to help each other go through life together.

What will you do with your hands as instruments of mercy and justice?

Friday, March 25

Drawing Lines in the Sands of Mercy

Several months ago, Pope Francis declared this year to be a "jubilee year of mercy." Mercy is something that everyone - regardless of denomination, religious tradition, ethnic or cultural background - is called to show to other. One story in particular comes to mind from early in the Johannine corpus. In the Gospel According to St. John 7:53-8:11 we read, "Then they all went home, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, 'Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In The Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?' They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, 'Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.' Again he stooped down and wrote on the groundAt this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, 'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?' 'No one, sir,' she said. 'Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.'"

Many footnotes say regarding this passage, "The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11." This pericope (passage from Scripture) is not found in the earliest manuscripts of St. John's gospel. In fact, in the earliest manuscripts it actually seems to float around - it was in some manuscripts at one time a part of Luke's gospel before eventually migrating to John's. This is important, because it shows us that regardless of where this passage originated or where it eventually ended up, it tells us something deeply integral to the life and character of Jesus. Even if this passage was not part of the original Gospel of John (or Gospel of Luke, for that matter), and was a later tradition or memory of an actual event, it stands true as perfectly capturing an important part of his message to us.

Now, in several Christian branches, primarily the Catholic and Methodist, we find the concept of "works of mercy," sub-divided into the seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy. The corporal works of mercy focus on the physical needs of people - such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, harbor the harbor-less (or shelter the homeless) or visiting the sick, whereas the spiritual works focus more on forgiving others willingly, comforting the afflicted or bearing wrongs patiently. One does not need to be a Christian to live out these works of mercy. The word "mercy" at one point in history referred more to kindness or grace, but in the Latin (and Spanish) it is rendered as misericordia - meaning "miserable heart," or rather, "a heart full of misery" toward the situation of another. 

Mercy can also extend to taking care of our environment, showing mercy to our animal companions, showing mercy to our friends, our co-workers, our bosses, our brother(s) or sister(s), our parents, our spouses, and so forth. What we see present in the above pericope from St. John is an act of mercy on the part of Jesus. A professor of mine shared with me once an exchange he had with a Taoist priest regarding this passage. The Taoist priest said of Jesus, "I like your Jesus. I was reading this passage, and here he is a good Taoist." The Taoist philosophy places a special emphasis on non-action or no-action, which appears to be what Jesus does in response to the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees. When they come to him to use this woman in order to trap him, he instead merely answers by drawing in the sand!

What Jesus actually drew in the sand is a matter of speculation. There was an ancient Jewish law that when a woman was caught in the act of adultery, there must be at least two eyewitnesses present - and even if this was the case, the text in John does not mention any witnesses. This meant that the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees had already broken the law - but Jesus bent down and wrote in the sand, or the dust, just as in ancient times a priest would bend down and write the law which was broken and the names of the individual(s) being accused, so that the writing was not permanent. Thus, some scholars believe that Jesus was writing the sins of the Pharisees rather than of the woman, namely that of breaking the law. For evidence, some turn to an ancient passage in Jeremiah 17:13 which says, "O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who leave your way will be put to shame, those who turn aside from my ways will have their names written in the dust and blotted outfor they have departed from the Lord, the fountain of living waters."

Regardless of whether Jesus was doodling in the dust or writing the sins of the people, in doing so - and in his thoughtful yet pointed response, "Let anyone who is without sin cast the first stone" - Jesus prevented group violence on a large scale. In the Hebrew, the word "sin" essentially means "to miss the mark," as if you had a bow and arrow and missed your target. The people in the crowd as well as the Pharisees and the teachers of the law knew that they had all missed the mark, if for no other reason than using this woman's sexual misconduct as a way to trap Jesus. In return, instead of bringing further public shame and attention to this woman, he showed mercy, and through his actions showed her love and forgiveness, which no doubt led to healing. 

The story, taken this way, can be a convicting one. It forces us to ask a lot of deeply personal questions of ourselves and of those around us. It may ask us to challenge social norms, or as it is called in Catholic Social Teaching, "structures of sin" found within society. Consider the work of mercy, "harboring the harbor-less." Many have pointed out that we need to be willing to accept the refugees from overseas into the United States, to "harbor the harbor-less." This is an act (or work) of mercy. On other occasions, we find ourselves asking how we can find healing, forgiveness and love in any form in such events as the terrorist attacks on France last year, or the more recent attacks on Brussels. Or, if we live in a fast-paced and overstimulated society that has bought into consumerism, materialism and hedonism, we also question why we must bear wrongs patiently, or even be patient! 

Perhaps the question to ponder during this time of Easter, then, is this: who are we aiming our stones at in our lives? Are we aiming stones at anyone? Where in our lives can we or should we show more mercy, or how can we be more loving toward those around us? On March 17, 2013, Pope Francis shared that, "the past few days I have been reading a book by... Cardinal Kasper [who] said that feeling mercy... changes everything. This is the best thing we can feel: it changes the world. A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just." A little mercy can lead to a lot less sadness, and a little more love and compassion can lead to a better world.

"Seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."

- Micah 6:8 -

Tuesday, January 26

Jewish Identity, Catholicism and the Arch of Titus

What do Jewish cemeteries, menorahs, an ancient Roman arch and the Catholic Church have to do with each other? For many centuries, the relationship between the Roman Catholic Church and the Jewish communities has been difficult. Aside from various stages of cooperation such as those on the Iberian peninsula during the Middle Ages, much of the Church’s history has seen an anti-Semitic bent toward the Jews. This relationship was complicated in part by the presence of the Arch of Titus in Rome. The Arch of Titus was erected around 80 CE to celebrate the victory of Emperor Titus over Jerusalem, and it depicted one of the symbols that has held importance to Jews for centuries: the menorah, originally described in the Scriptures in the writings of Moses. 

Consider the importance of the menorah for the Jews: on October 14, 1928, it was reported that a 1700-year old Jewish cemetery was unearthed near the ancient town of Saloma. In it, they found “menorahs, lamps with Jewish symbols and a fragment of a sarcophagus with a massive Menorah of the kind depicted on the Arch of Titus in Rome.”1 Two years later, there was an attempt to “Revive Legend That Menorah of Second Jewish Temple is Buried in [the] Tiber River,” a legend dating back to the Medieval period. Several times in the 19th century this project was discussed - the Jewish community even offered to cover the costs if the Pope would allow it to be drudged up, but the Pope cited possible health concerns over river slime.2 Clearly, this menorah depicted on the Arch of Titus is somehow central the the Jewish identity. It continues to crop up - whether in an ancient Jewish cemetery or in a revived medieval legend. In fact, the State of Israel modeled its emblem - the menorah - after the one on the Arch of Titus.3

But another fact worth noting is that for the last 1700 years, Rome has also been largely influenced by the Catholic Church. When the Roman Empire seemed to fade away, the Roman Church rose, and many of the Roman Christians seemed to feel as if they had inherited the glories of Rome. This included the Arch of Titus. For several centuries, during the inauguration of a new Pope in Rome, Jews were forced to stand near the Arch of Titus, but not pass under it, as a way of “putting them in their place,” so to speak, reminding the Jews of the lessened role they held in Rome.4 Thus, it was even more significant in 1947 when, following the establishment of the Jewish State by the United Nations, over 5000 Jews “paraded under the Arch, in symbolical defiance of the Roman law which prohibited Jews from passing through the Arch. Prayers were recited for the 6,000,000 Jews who died in Europe at the hands of the Nazis.”5 This act of defiance was a major step for Jews. 

Following the rebirth of Israel, relations improved between the Jews and Catholics. During the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, the Church released a document, Nostra Aetate, concerning the Church and other religions. Following this document, relationships have most definitely improved, and many acts of reconciliation have taken place. In early 1996, the Israeli Religious Affairs Minister, Shimon Shetreet, spoke concerning an upcoming visit of Pope John Paul II, and noted that he had asked the Vatican to investigate whether or not the menorah was in Rome.6 He stated that the Catholic Church’s investigation into its whereabouts could be a symbol “of reconciliation between the Jewish people and the Catholic Church.”7 Finally, on December 24, 1997, the important symbol of the menorah took center stage in the relationship. Two menorahs were lit: one underneath the Arch of Titus, and another at the Vatican. This was done to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Israel’s return as a nation.8 It was an unprecedented event, and helped to continue solidifying relationships between the Roman Catholic Church and the Jews, showing that despite our shared history, Catholics and Jews can share a bright future together.

[1] "Uncover 1,700 Year Old Jewish Cemetery." Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 14 Oct. 1928. Web. 
[2] "Revive Legend That Menorah of Second Jewish Temple Is Buried in Tiber River." Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 11 Aug. 1930. Web. 
[3] "Israeli Religious Minister Says Pope May Visit This Year." Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 17 Jan. 1996. Web.
[4] "Jews Hail New Jewish State Under Arch of Titus, Erected to Mark Destruction of Judea." Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 03 Dec. 1947. Web. 
[5] Ibid.
[6] “Israeli Religious Minister Says Pope May Visit This Year.”
[7] Ibid.
[8] "Chanukah Ceremonies at Vatican, Arch of Titus Are Full of Symbolism." Jewish Telegraphic Agency. 25 Dec. 1997. Web.