John 9 and the Feast of Tabernacles

Chapter 9 of John’s gospel belongs to a much longer passage that begins in chapter 7. This entire section takes place in and around the temple during the Feast of the Tabernacles, one of the three annual festivals which Jews from throughout the world were supposed to attend. John’s readers, who would have been familiar with the temple rituals associated with the pilgrim festivals, would have seen some things in John’s story that we most likely will miss.

First, during the Feast of Tabernacles water was drawn from the pool of Siloam. The water, according to some sources, was mixed with wine and poured out at the altar to sanctify the temple and to recall the water God provided in the desert during the Israel’s exodus from Egypt.

So John tells us that Jesus stood up at the end of the festival and announced,

Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, “Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.” (7:37)

Jesus is the true living water, more central to the life of God’s people than the water drawn from Siloam’s spring, more central even than the water Moses provided in the desert.

Second, a number of giant lamp stands illuminated in the temple during the festival. It was said that they were so powerful that they lit up the entire city of Jerusalem at night.

So John also reports that Jesus proclaimed,

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. (8:12)

Jesus is the light of the world, much more so than the lamp stands that illuminated the whole city during the feast.

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The Wrong Sunday for John 9?

John 9:1-41

The gospel for this Sunday is John 9:1-41. My Orthodox friends tell me that we’re reading this passage on the wrong Sunday. They read from Matthew, Mark and Luke during Lent, and from the Gospel of John during the Sundays between Easter and Pentecost. Commenting on John 9, the Orthodox Study Bible says:

This healing is the sixth sign in John’s Gospel. Of all the miracle stories in the Bible, this is the only one in which the person was blind from birth. The blind man is symbolic of all humanity: all need illumination by Christ, the Light of the world. This sign is an illustration of baptism, which is also called “holy illumination.”As Pascha (Easter) is the traditional day to receive catechumens into the Church, the lessons following Pascha reflect a baptismal theology. Thus, this passage is read on the sixth Sunday of Pascha.

I have a friend who is a deacon in the Orthodox Church who describes their practice something like this: The purpose of the synoptic gospels is catechism, basic instruction in the Christian faith. The synoptic gospels lay out the basic teaching every catechumen – every convert to Christianity – needs to know before they are baptized. The purpose of John’s gospel, however, is mystagogy. “Mystagogy” is a combination of two Greek words, “mystery” and “to lead”. And “mystery,” here, doesn’t mean an unsolved puzzle. It pertains, rather, to a a sacred experience that words can’t fully describe.

It is the great privilege of the baptized to know the light of Christ, to enter into the divine life of the kingdom here and now. The gospel of John, who sees the life of Christ in the sacraments and the sacraments in the life of Christ, is instrumental in leading us into that light.

I suppose that when the church reads John 9 in worship is not a matter of eternal significance. I find it enlightening, though, to meditate on this text with an Orthodox eye, and to consider why our Orthodox brothers and sisters read this text when they do.

Phos Hilaron, Gladsome Light

 

Phos Hilaron is probably the oldest Christian hymn still in use. The song accompanied the lighting of the lamps in the evening. In the 4th century, Basil the Great wrote that he loved the hymn and spoke of it as if it had been long in use. It is still use during vesper services in Byzantine Rite of the Orthodox church, and English translation appear in the Evening Prayers of Lutheran and Anglican liturgies.

***

Joyous light of glory of the immortal Father,
Heavenly, holy, blessed Jesus Christ,
We have come to the setting of the Sun
And we look to the evening light.
We sing to God, the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit.
You are worthy of being praised with pure voices forever.
O Son of God, O Giver of Light,
The universe proclaims your glory.

— Evening Prayer, Lutheran Book of Worship, 1978

***

O gracious Light,
pure brightness of the everliving Father in heaven,
O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed!
Now as we come to the setting of the sun,
and our eyes behold the vesper light,
we sing your praises, O God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices,
O Son of God, O Giver of life,
and to be glorified through all the worlds.

— Evening Prayer, Book of Common Prayer, 1979

In the modern era we are surrounded  by light, even at night.  We forget how dark and dangerous the night seemed in the age before electricity. For Christians, the lighting of the lamps not only marked a significant moment in the rhythm of their daily lives, it also pointed them to the one who declared himself to be the light of the world.

Of the two English translations, I think “hilaron” is probably closer to “joyous” than to “gracious”. It’s from the same root as the English word “hilarious” and generally means “cheerful” or “merry”. In this instance, I think, “phos hilaron” means something like “the light that brings a smile to your face” or “the light that warms your heart”.

Here is the Greek text.

Φῶς ἱλαρὸν ἁγίας δόξης, ἀθανάτου Πατρός, οὐρανίου, ἁγίου, μάκαρος, Ἰησοῦ Χριστέ, ἐλθόντες ἐπὶ τὴν ἡλίου δύσιν, ἰδόντες φῶς ἑσπερινόν, ὑμνοῦμεν Πατέρα, Υἱόν, καὶ ἅγιον Πνεῦμα Θεόν. Ἄξιόν σε ἐν πᾶσι καιροῖς, ὑμνεῖσθαι φωναῖς αἰσίαις, Υἱὲ Θεοῦ, ζωὴν ὁ διδούς, Διὸ ὁ κόσμος σὲ δοξάζει.

And then there’s the Marty Haugen version in the Holden Evening Prayer. Love the tune. Prefer the ancient words.

The Road to the Kingdom Runs through Babylon

[The prophet Jeremiah said,] “This is what the LORD says: ‘Whoever stays in this city will die by the sword, famine, and plague, but whoever surrenders to the Chaldeans will live. He will keep his life like the spoils of war and will live.’ This is what the LORD says: ‘This city will most certainly be handed over to the king of Babylon’s army, and he will capture it.'” (Jeremiah 38:2-3)

A military chaplain who did what the prophet Jeremiah did, who encouraged his people to surrender to the enemy, would be in grave trouble. American soldiers never accept defeat. I can only imagine what the old man might say if I announced our impending destruction on the eve of battle, and then proclaimed that it was God’s will for our people to run away, surrender and survive. Not only would my commander be furious beyond measure, it’s quite likely that I would be charged with a capital crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

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The Temptation of Jesus in John

Matthew and Luke record the story of Jesus’ post-baptismal temptation with which most of us are familiar. The devil tempted Jesus to create bread, perform miraculous signs and reign over the kingdoms of this age. In an unpublished commentary on the Gospel of John, Deacon Ezra Ham of the Antiochian Orthodox Church alerted me to the way these temptations show up again in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel.

Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself. John 6:15

So they asked him, “What sign then will you give that we may see it and believe you? What will you do? John 6:30

“Sir,” they said, “always give us this bread.” John 6:34

In John 6, the crowd looks to Jesus for kingship, miraculous signs and bread. John never uses the word “temptation”, but the parallel is remarkable.

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