Monthly Archives: December 2020
The purpose and cause of the incarnation was that He might illuminate the world by His wisdom and excite it to the love of Himself.
–Peter Abelard, as quoted in “The Abelardian Doctrine Of The Atonement” (1892), published in Doctrine and Development : University Sermons (1898) by Hastings Rashdall, p. 138; courtesy of Wikiquote.
As the coronavirus pandemic that has raged across the world for the last eight months continues with no clear end in sight, massive changes have been wrought in our society. Not least among these has been the complete or partial closure of many churches. Some have suspended services altogether; others have shifted to services streamed over the Internet; and others have provided drive-in services. Many churches have been reopened for public services with restrictions (social distancing and use of masks) since the beginning of June; but many continue broadcasts of services for the benefit of those who prefer not to risk in-person attendance.
This unprecedented situation has been the source of much discussion, much of it political, but some theological. I’m not interested in the political aspects of the situation at all. On the other hand, in a discussion in the comments section of a blog I frequent, a very interesting theological issue came up. This was in the specific context of Catholic services, to wit, the Eucharist at Sunday Mass. The question was this: When the priest says the words of consecration of the bread and wine to make them the Body and Blood of Christ, why would it not be possible for those watching at home to have their own portions of bread and wine, and for the priest to include the bread and wine of all home-bound parishioners in his prayers? Could not everyone then receive Communion, even without having to come to Church?
For all of the creeds are false, and all of the creeds are true;
And low at the shrines where my brothers bow, there will I bow too;
For no form of a god, and no fashion
Man has made in his desperate passion,
But is worthy some worship of mine;
Not too hot with a gross belief,
Nor yet too cold with pride,
I will bow me down where my brothers bow,
Humble, but open eyed.
–Don Marquis, The God-Maker, Man; courtesy of Wikiquote.
A Hebrew belief asserted that if Yahweh lays aside his bow and hangs it in the clouds, this is a sign that his anger has subsided. Other peoples have had similar ideas, based upon the tradition that an archer carries his bow with the ends pointing downward when he wishes to indicate his peaceful intentions.
In ancient classical literature the rainbow sometimes was deified as Iris; at other times it was regarded merely as the route traversed by the messenger of Hera. The conception of the rainbow as a pathway or bridge has been widespread. For some it has been the best of all bridges, built out of three colors; for others the phrase “building on the rainbow” has meant a bootless enterprise. North American Indians were among those who thought of the rainbow as the Pathway of Souls, an interpretation found in many other places. Among the Japanese the rainbow is identified as the “Floating Bridge of Heaven”; and Hawaiian and Polynesian myths allude to the bow as the path to the upper world. In the Austrian Alps the souls of the righteous are said to ascend the bow to heaven; and in New Zealand the dead chieftains are believed to pass along it to reach their new home. In parts of France the rainbow is called the pont du St. Esprit, and in many places it is the bridge of St. Bernard or of St. Martin or of St. Peter. Basque pilgrims knew it as the ‘puente de Roma’. Sometimes it is called instead the Croy de St. Denis (or of St. Leonard or of St. Bernard or of St. Martin). In Italy the name arcu de Santa Marina is relatively familiar. Associations of the rainbow and the milky way are frequent. The Arabic name for the milky way is equivalent to Gate of Heaven, and in Russia the analogous role was played by the rainbow. Elsewhere also the bow has been called the Gate of Paradise; and by some the rainbow has been thought to be a ray of light which falls on the earth when Peter opens the heavenly gate. In parts of France the rainbow is known as the porte de St. Jacques, while the milky way is called chemin de St. Jacques. In Swabia and Bavaria saints pass by the rainbow from heaven to earth; while in Polynesia this is the route of the gods themselves.
In Eddic literature the bow served as a link between the gods and man — the Bifrost bridge, guarded by Heimdel, over which the gods passed daily. At the time of the Gotterdamerung the sons of Muspell will cross the bridge and then demolish it. Sometimes also in the Eddas the rainbow is interpreted as a necklace worn by Freyja, the “necklace of the Brisings,” alluded to in Beowulf; again it is the bow of Thor from which he shoots arrows at evil spirits. Among the Finns it has been an arc which hurls arrows of fire, in Mozambique it is the arm of a conquering god. In the Japanese Ko-Ji-Ki (or Records of Ancient Matters), compiled presumably in 712, the creation of the island of Onogoro is related to the rainbow. Deities, standing upon the “floating bridge of heaven,” thrust down a jeweled spear into the brine and stirred with it. When the spear was withdrawn, the brine that dripped down from the end was piled up in the form of the island. In myth and legend the rainbow has been regarded variously as a harbinger of misfortune and as a sign of good luck. Some have held it to be a bad sign if the feet of the bow rest on water, whereas a rainbow arching from dry land to dry land is a good augury. Dreambooks held that when one dreams of seeing a rainbow, he will give or receive a gift according as the bow is seen in the west or the east. The Crown-prince Frederick August took it as a good omen when, upon his receiving the kingdom form Napoleon in 1806, a rainbow appeared; but others interpreted it as boding ill, a view confirmed by the war and destruction of Saxony which ensued. By many, a rainbow appearing at the birth of a child is taken to be a favorable sign; but in Slavonic accounts a glance from the fay who sits at the foot of the rainbow, combing herself, brings death.
–Carl Benjamin Boyer, The Rainbow: From Myth to Mathematics (1959); courtesy of Wikiquote
As a Catholic, I have to note that it’s still Advent–the Christmas season is 25 December to 6 January. Still, in terms of the secular holiday, ’tis (almost) the season; and this year in particular, said season is even more stressful than usual. Thus, enjoy ten hours of relaxing jazz after all that holiday shopping!
Having talked about angels and demons, I want to see if those beings exhaust all the non-corporeal beings that exist. Typically, the Abrahamic religions tend to categorize all immaterial, incorporeal beings–what we’d tend to call “spirits”–as ultimately either angelic or demonic. With the partial exception of Islamic jinn, there are no other categories envisioned.
Pagan religions, both ancient and modern, by contrast, have a bewildering variety of spirit-beings that cover the entire spectrum of morality from good to evil and everywhere in between. As Jeffrey Burton Russel points out in The Devil: Perceptions of Evil from Antiquity to Primitive Christianity, in most ancient religions, God (in this context, Russell uses the term “the god” in referring to the monotheistic deity) and the gods are morally ambivalent. Gods and spirits might be helpful or harmful, good or bad. Any given god might in fact be harmful or helpful, depending on the context. The fickle behavior of the Greek pantheon is a perfect example of this, with even beloved and noble deities such as Athena being capable of spiteful and vindictive actions, as in the myth of Arachne.
Alas! is even love too weak To unlock the heart, and let it speak? Are even lovers powerless to reveal To one another what indeed they feel? I knew the mass of men conceal’d Their thoughts, for fear that if reveal’d They would by other men be met With blank indifference, or with blame reproved; I knew they lived and moved Trick’d in disguises, alien to the rest Of men, and alien to themselves — and yet The same heart beats in every human breast!
–Matthew Arnold, “The Buried Life” (1852), st. 2; courtesy of Wikiquote.