Fourth Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B, January 31, 2021
Ancient people believed a face-to-face encounter with God would be overpowering, even deadly. So they welcomed the idea that a prophet, a single human being, could bear the brunt of that encounter for them. They did not always welcome what the prophet had to report from God.
Saint Paul continues his teachings about how to be prepared for the imminent return of Jesus in glory. That coming should make people put their priorities in order.
This gospel recalls a time when people questioned Jesus' authority and right to teach, because of his modest origins.
The Liturgical Setting: The gospel today depicts Jesus speaking with authority that commands the respect of the people (and, incidentally, of the evil spirits). By juxtaposing these readings, the editors of the Lectionary suggest that Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise God makes through Moses in the first reading.
The Historical and Literary Background: If necessary, let the reader suspend for a moment the sunny assumption that all the Israelites were always devout monotheists. Their literature shows that, while they should have been so, for a long time many were not. Their background and environment urged them to be simply syncretists, that is, people who graft new religious ideas onto existing ones, untroubled by the contradictions. Syncretism let them try to cover all bets in the world of unknown spirits, unforeseeable threats and uncounted possibilities. The god we know as the One God, sometimes called Yahweh in the ancient literature, frankly had to compete for their loyalty over many generations.
In her book A History of God -- The 4000-Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993, and London: William Heinemann, Ltd.), Karen Armstrong says the book of Deuteronomy comes from a period when some of Judaism's leaders were emphasizing two complementary ideas: the oneness of God and that God's election of this tribe as his Chosen People. I suspect the latter was to make the former more palatable, for Armstrong says of the struggle to become monotheistic: "The God of the prophets was forcing Israelites to sever themselves from the mythical consciousness of the Middle East and go in quite a different direction from the mainstream. In the agony of Jeremiah, we can see what an immense wrench and dislocation this involved. Israel was a tiny enclave of Yahwism surrounded by a pagan world, and Yahweh was also rejected by many of the Israelites themselves. Even the Deuteronomist, whose image of God was less threatening, saw a meeting with Yahweh as an abrasive confrontation: he makes Moses explain to the Israelites, who are appalled by the prospect of unmediated contact with Yahweh, that God will send them a prophet in each generation to bear the brunt of the divine impact." (p. 56)
Proclaiming It: So in the text at hand:
The Historical Background: This letter comes from a time when Christians believed that Jesus was about to return in glory, bringing history to its climax. (Many other factors influenced the letter, as we saw last week, but it's the expectation of Jesus' return that governs today's passage.) Paul here urges the presently unmarried to stay that way, for the little time that they all have left, and remain focused on the Lord's coming.
Proclaiming It: Since the Apostle is contrasting states of life and their respective anxieties, use contrasting tones of voice as you move from clause to clause and sentence to sentence. Your listeners should hear the difference between the married and unmarried, between concern for the world and concern for the Lord.
Meister Konrad von Friesach, "Jesus Christ dispossesses," 1458 A.D., a section of paintings of scenes on the abstinence cloth in the Cathedral of Gurk, Carinthia, Austria.
So what is an abstinence cloth, or fasting cloth (das Fastentuch in German)? Well, for abstinence or fasting, read "Lent." In European and Catholic and Evangelical churches, it was a temporary curtain used to conceal some permanent artwork during some or all of the season of Lent. In my youth in the Midwestern U.S.A., Catholic churches just put solid purple veils over some statues, and then only for the last two weeks of Lent. But this 15th-century most elaborate work seems to substitute images, perhaps more austere and seasonally appropriate, for those it hides. Feel free to correct me on this in the Disqus comment feature, above.
Click here for larger graphics of this image and details about copyright, etc. Search "Fastentuch Gurker Dom" (city of Gurk, Cathedral) for more images from the Fastentuch. There seem to be 100 separate scenes on the whole work. Some photos show the ornate(!) permanent statuary, etc., in the cathedral, behind the Fastentuch. That, I suppose, is why they felt the need to tone things down for Lent.
Padre Josef at the Cathedral of Gurk grants permission to reuse this image according the provisions of the GNU Free Documentation License, Version 1.2 or any later version published by the Free Software Foundation; with no Invariant Sections, no Front-Cover Texts, and no Back-Cover Texts. A copy of the license is included in the section entitled GNU Free Documentation License.
This page updated January 2, 2021