March 17, 2019, Second Sunday of Lent
This reading describes a common custom in the ancient Middle East, a covenant ritual between leaders of tribes. But in this case, one participant is God, and the other doesn't yet have a tribe. This time, the participants are not equals. So only God, invisible but symbolized by fire, does the ritual act.
Some early Christians insisted that even Gentile converts to Christ had to keep the laws of Judaism. Paul severely criticizes that view here. He asserts that the changes Christ makes in us really change everything.
In Luke's account of Jesus' transfiguration, the appearance of Moses and Elijah express the continuity of Jesus with his tradition. But the so-called exodus in Jerusalem, meaning Jesus' coming death and resurrection, are without precedent.
The Literary and Historical Setting: Starting in chapter 12, the book of Genesis gives us the story of Abram (later known as Abraham) depicted as the first person to hear and heed the voice of God. At God's prompting, Abram moved his considerable holdings from the ancient city Ur in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) to a land he knew not (modern Palestine). The one thing Abram wanted but did not have was children. So God's promise in the first paragraph is most welcome.
In the second paragraph, what God promises to Abram is a land for himself and his family. The ritual that follows is strange to us because it's described only in part. It was really a common practice and went like this: Men who wanted to seal a contract would split the carcass of one or more animals, lay the halves on the ground, and to walk between them, saying "May I be so split in half if I fail to keep the agreement we are sealing here." In this instance, the presence of God, who can't physically appear, is symbolized by the smoking pot and flaming torch. These pass between the halves of the animals, but, interestingly, the text does not say that Abram walked between them, as if to say Abram is not an equal partner in the covenant struck here.
A Wry Note on the latest N.A.B. Translation: If you're reading this, you're probably a well-prepared, conscientious lector. So you'll be amused to know how the translation used in Catholic Churches In the U.S.A. had to be dumbed down. This is due, no doubt, to a famous mispronunciation by ill-prepared lectors in the recent past. What is now translated "smoking fire pot" was formerly rendered "smoking brazier." That rather unfamiliar word is easy to mispronounce in a way that suggests something entirely different, and which invariably distracts the listening assembly. After hearing that gaffe, who would remember the edifying story of Abram's faith and God's generous promise? So the translators wisely substituted "fire pot" for "brazier." As Jesus told us in last week's gospel, "Thou shalt not put the Lord, thy God, to the test."
Proclaiming It: In proclaiming this reading, use different tones of voice for the words of God and the words of Abram. Because the images are so odd, concentrate on speaking slowly, more slowly than sounds natural to you (it won't sound unnatural to the congregation). This gives the images time to develop in the minds of your listeners.
Not persuaded to slow down? Put yourself in the place of someone listening to this passage, even someone armed with a missallette. You have to comprehend images like "count the stars," "so shall your descendants be," "credited it to him as an act of righteousness" (What could that clumsy phrase mean to someone hearing it with no introduction?), "split them in two and placed each half opposite the other," and the procession of the torch and fire pot. Such a listener needs all the help the lector can give.
Appreciate the structure here:
Pronunciation notes (Forgive me if these seem patronizing, but you remember what happened when nobody briefed the lector on the pronunciation of "brazier."):
Post-factum I told you so: Where I heard this reading proclaimed on March 11, 2001, an unprepared lector mispronounced half of these words. She undoubtedly would have had God appearing in smoky lingerie, had the Lectionary editors not preempted that possibility. She also located the addressees of the second reading on islands in the western Pacific.
The Theological and Historical Setting: Among early Christians in several places there was a controversy about whether one had to keep the old Jewish law in order to be a follower of Christ. Saint Paul argues forcefully here that one does not have to do so. Those who say you do are really "enemies of the cross of Christ," because they're acting as if the death and resurrection of Jesus are not what saves us; rather, they hold that keeping the law is what saves them. In particular, the law required eating kosher food and having males circumcised. The food is what Paul alludes to in ridiculing their devotion to their stomachs, and the circumcision is what he means when he says they glory in their "shame."
Your ProclamationThe first few sentences are complex, so say them slowly. Sound outraged when you describe some as "enemies of the cross of Christ." Sound dismissive of their position when indeed you dismiss it in four terse phrases:
Detail of a mosaic by Hildreth Meière (American, 1892-1961), in Saint Bartholomew's Episcopal Church, Manhattan, New York City, U.S.A. Her work appears in major art-deco churches, public buildings and businesses throughout the United States. Click here for an overview of her work.
This page updated January 17, 2019