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Advent Alphabet: Z is for Zoroastrian

adoration-of-the-magiZ is for Zoroastrian. Do know this word? Some scholars suggest the Magi who appear in Matthew’s Gospel as visitors to Jesus were Zoroastrian priests. The word Magi derives from an Old Persian word “magus”, an occupational title for members of the priestly caste of the Zoroastrian religion. The Zoroastrians were interested in the stars, and had a highly developed “science” of astrology. Their reputation as astrologers led to the term Magi being used in connection with the occult, and this led to the development of the English word “magic”.

The Zoroastrian religion survives to this day. While it was once the dominant religious force in Iran, now it survives there only in an underground fashion, because of the radical Islamic fundamentalism that considers it to be a heretical religion.

The largest number of Zoroastrians are found in India and Pakistan. In India they are called “Parsis”.

Historians of religion credit Zoroastrianism as one of the oldest to have a credal basis- meaning that it has written statements of belief. The religion was founded by the prophet Zoroaster, also called Zarathustra, who codified religious ideas and practices that already existed, and added to them his own world-view. Zoroastrianism is one of the earliest “monotheistic” faiths, meaning they recognize only one God. Zoroaster is typically depicted as dressed in white, in garb that is very much like what modern Zoroastrian priests wear. His poetic writings form the basis of the religion, and its liturgy (prayer and ritual for worship).zoroaster

Zoroastrianism had a powerful influence on the development of the world’s major monotheistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam (often called the Abrahamic faiths because they all trace their histories back to Abraham).

Some basic Zoroastrian beliefs:

-there is one God, called Ahura Mazda, the one Uncreated Creator

-there is a conflict in the universe between order and chaos, and humanity has a role to play

-Zoroastrianism’s moral code  is summed up as: “Good Thoughts, Good Words, Good Deeds

-the religion teaches the equality of all, regardless of race, sex or social position

-Zoroastrians are urged to preserve and protect the environment

-Zoroastrian religion teaches that fire and water are to be used for ceremonies in which a person is made ritually clean. Prayer takes place in the presence of some form of fire, which is considered to be evident in any source of light.

There are active Zoroastrian faith communities in Canada, the largest being in Toronto and Vancouver. The Zoroastrian Society of Ontario is based at its community centre on Bayview Avenue, and is an active participant in Mosaic Interfaith, which is a group that promotes peace and religious tolerance.

The Advent Alphabet has  been a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods of Trinity United Church, Oakville.

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Advent Alphabet: Y is for Yeshua

blonde-jesus-versus-galilean-aramaic-yeshua-bar-yosef-by-rod-borghese-279x279Y is for Yeshua. Yeshua ben Joseph is the “reason for the season”! (The “ben” means “son of”) When I was growing up, I thought that his first name was Jesus, and his last name was Christ. It was actually not until I was studying the philosophy of religion in my under-grad years that I learned that “Jesus” is our translation of a Hebrew name which can also be expressed as “Joshua”. I say “expressed as Joshua” because in the original Hebrew writing there were only consonants, and the reader would have to fill in the vowel sounds. There is a whole group of variant ways to pronounce words that have the “J or Y” sound followed by the “S or Sh” sound, depending upon which vowel sounds we plug in. So we say his name is Jesus, but that is not a name that anyone who lived in his time would recognize.

Does it matter? Most people know who we mean when we talk about Jesus. What this minor revelation about names taught me is that it does not hurt to practice a little more humility when it comes to what we think we know, with certainty, about the founder of our faith.

The “Christ” part is not actually a name at all, but more of a description, or a title. Our English word “Christ” is derived from the Greek Χριστός “Khristos”, which means “the anointed”. When the Hebrew Scriptures (what we call the Old Testament was translated into Greek, this was the word chosen to translate the Hebrew מָשִׁיחַ which means “one who is anointed”. This Hebrew word is also translated as “Messiah”. Words are important!

The word “Christ” has taken on a meaning in Christian theology very different from what “Messiah” means in Jewish religious thinking. (The word Christ, in much of our theology, is used to refer to the 2nd person of the Holy Trinity, who in creeds is described as being both fully human and fully divine. The word Messiah in much of the Jewish literature, refers to a person who is fully human. In Jewish theology, only the one God is divine.)

When early Christian theologians began poring over their Greek translations of the Old Testament, they were not necessarily aware of what had been lost (or added, depending upon your view of things) in translation. So Old Testament passages about an anointed king or leader of Israel took on an air of prophecy, of appearing to foreshadow or predict the coming of Jesus, who later came to be called the Christ.

Scholars of religion, and particularly of Christian theology, have been debating for centuries whether or not there is a connection between the “messianic hopes” of the Jewish people, who were looking for a human leader to “save” their nation, and the earthly ministry of Jesus (or Yeshua)

Does this confusion over names, and the questions about the meaning of those names take anything away from our anticipation of the celebration of the birth of Jesus? Not for me. I think God is a mystery. It is not surprising our human languages, and our translation efforts, have not fully captured the truth.

When even our best efforts at using words to define or describe God fall short, there is always prayer. When we don’t know exactly what to say, it is good for us to listen.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, minister at Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario.

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Advent Alphabet: X-rated?

alphabet-x-abc-letter-alphabetic-character-1Xis for Xmas. As in Merry Xmas. How do you react when you see that in print? Over the years there have been emotion-laden campaigns to “do something” about the use of this abbreviation. There seems to be something about this letter that gets people x-cited. As if it is x-rated or something! I found some x-cellent pieces on the subject on-line. I thought I would offer you an x-cerpt from what I think is the best x-ample, written by Dennis Bratcher. He provides a lot of good content on a website called The Voice, which represents a Methodist perspective in the tradition of John Wesley.

“ I have no doubt that some people write “Xmas” because they are too busy or too lazy to write out the whole word. And no doubt some secular people, who are just as uninformed as Christians, see “Xmas” as a way to avoid writing “Christ.” And certainly there are secular and commercial motives in the fact that “XMAS” appears in ads and signs because it can be larger and more attention getting in the same amount of space (more bang for the buck). But those factors do not take away the thoroughly Christian origin of the word “Xmas.”  In this instance, all of the hype and hysteria over supposedly taking Christ out of Christmas by writing “Xmas” instead of spelling out “Christmas” is both uninformed and misdirected.

Abbreviations used as Christian symbols have a long history in the church. The letters of the word “Christ” in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was written, or various titles http://www.crivoice.org/images/symbols/chirho.bmpfor Jesus early became symbols of Christ and Christianity. For example, the first two letters of the word Christ (cristoV, or as it would be written in older manuscripts, CRISTOS) are the Greek letters chi (c or C) and rho (r or R). These letters were used in the early church to create the chi-rho monogram, a symbol that by the fourth century became part of the official battle standard of the emperor Constantine.

Another example is the symbol of the fish, one of the earliest symbols of Christians that has been found scratched on the walls of the catacombs of Rome. It likely originated from using the first letter of several titles of Jesus (Jesus Christ Son of God Savior). When combined these initial letters together spelled the Greek word for fish (icquV, ichthus).

The exact origin of the single letter X for Christ cannot be pinpointed with certainty. Some claim that it began in the first century AD along with the other symbols, but evidence is lacking. Others think that it came into widespread use by the thirteenth century along with many other abbreviations and symbols for Christianity and various Christian ideas that were popular in the Middle Ages. However, again, the evidence is sparse.

In any case, by the fifteenth century Xmas emerged as a widely used symbol for Christmas. In 1436 Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press with moveable type. In the early days of printing typesetting was done by hand and was very tedious and expensive. As a result, abbreviations were common. In religious publications, the church began to use the abbreviation C for the word “Christ” to cut down on the cost of the books and pamphlets. From there, the abbreviation moved into general use in newspapers and other publications, and “Xmas” became an accepted way of printing “Christmas” (along with the abbreviations Xian and Xianity). Even Webster’s dictionary acknowledges that the abbreviation Xmas was in common use by the middle of the sixteenth century.

So there is no grand scheme to dilute Christianity by promoting the use of Xmas instead of Christmas. It is not a modern invention to try to convert Christmas into a secular day, nor is it a device to promote the commercialism of the holiday season.  Its origin is thoroughly rooted in the heritage of the Church.  It is simply another way to say Christmas, drawing on a long history of symbolic abbreviations used in the church. In fact, as with other abbreviations used in common speech or writing (such as Mr. or etc.), the abbreviation “Xmas” should be pronounced “Christmas” just as if the word were written out in full, rather than saying “exmas.” Understanding this use of Christian symbolism might help us modern day Xians focus on more important issues of the Faith during Advent, and bring a little more Peace to the Xmas Season. “

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering of Rev. Darrow Woods, minister of Trinity United Church, Oakville.

 

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Advent Alphabet: W is for Waiting

waiting-on-the-clockW is for waiting. Advent is a season of waiting.

When we were children we may have anxiously waited for a special gift on Christmas morning. With the passing of years, material gifts that once seemed so important come to matter less and less, and the meaning and feeling behind them matters more and more.

What are we really waiting for? What do we hope for?

At church these past few Sundays we lit candles on an Advent wreath, signifying Hope, and Peace, and Joy, and Love. Each of these are gifts more precious, more vital, more necessary to our living than any material object I can imagine giving or receiving for Christmas.

What do you hope for? What do you really need? What are you waiting for? You may not actually know.

For two years I studied, lived, and worked with Quakers, members of the Christian denomination also called the Society of Friends. Quakers talk about prayer, especially silent prayer, as “expectant waiting”- waiting upon God with faithful confidence that God is present with us, and God knows what we need.

My hope for all who read this letter, is you may find time in the midst of the busy-ness of the season, perhaps while you are waiting in line, or in traffic, to pray. Open yourself up to God, if only to ask if there is something for which you should be waiting.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, minister at Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario.

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Advent Alphabet: V is for Virgin

virgin-mary-iconV is for Virgin. A word with volatile overtones of sexuality, judgement, and purity codes. In the western world at least, there is no time of year we hear that word more often than the season leading up to Christmas.

“Silent night! Holy night!

All is calm, all is bright

 round yon virgin mother and child.”

Did you know that Jesus’ virgin birth is a tenet of Islam? The Quran consistently refers to Jesus as “Son of Mary”.

According to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit, without having sexual intercourse with Joseph. Mark’s Gospel does not contain information about Jesus’ birth or early years before his public ministry. Instead of a birth narrative, John’s Gospel has the famous “in the beginning was the word” passage, a poetic description of the presence of “the word” with God when the world was being created.

The oldest parts of the New Testament, predating the Gospels by at least a generation, are letters from Saint Paul. They don’t discuss Jesus’ life before his public ministry, and offer no hint of anything unusual about his birth.

By the 2nd century after the death of Jesus, his virgin birth was accepted and taught by the Christian church. It went largely unchallenged until the scientific enlightenment of the 18th century.

In Orthodox and Roman Catholic theology, the Virgin Birth means Mary a virgin when she conceived, and she remained a virgin when she gave birth. The later doctrine of Immaculate Conception expanded on this, to say Mary herself was conceived in the normal way, but from her conception she was free from the “stain of original sin”. Protestant denominations such as the one I serve do not accept this doctrine.

Modern commentators point out the Virgin Birth story reflects a pre-scientific (and misogynist) view of reproduction, in which the “male seed” is planted in the “fertile ground” of the woman. It was believed in the ancient world a male child carried only the genetic inheritance of his father, while a female child was a male seed “corrupted” by the “vessel” into which it had been implanted.

Scholars suggest Matthew and Luke included the Virgin Birth for one or more of these reasons:

  1. They accepted the tradition as passed on to them.
  2. They gave Jesus an origin story to rival that of Caesar, said to be the son of the god Apollo.
  3. They told a story meant to be taken as allegory, rather than literally true.
  4. They were answering slanderous charges made against Jesus by Jewish detractors (and others) that Jesus was an illegitimate child.
  5. They were doing theology, presenting Jesus as fulfilling the prophesy in the book of Isaiah that a Saviour would arise from Bethlehem, and that he would be the son of a virgin.

Some scholars dispute the accuracy of the translation of Isaiah available to Matthew and Luke. It was called the Septuagint, and it was in Greek. (Matthew and Luke seem not to have known Hebrew.)

The passage Matthew quotes (Isaiah 7:14-16) uses the Greek word “Parthenos”. The original Hebrew text used the word “almah”, which translates as either “young woman” or “virgin”. In another letter I asked whether Isaiah’s words were meant to be taken as predicting the future. (The Old Testament tends to discourage people from listening to the words of anyone who claims to know the future- that was considered the work of soothsayers and necromancers, and other generally disreputable people.)

Personally, my faith in God does not depend on whether Matthew and Luke got it right, and Jesus actually was conceived without sexual intercourse. I believe every person who is born, and every life is holy, and miraculous, and an amazing gift from God. Jesus taught us we are all God’s beloved children.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering of Rev. Darrow Woods, minister of Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario.

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Advent Alphabet: U is for the United Church of Canada

ucc-crest U is for the United Church of Canada

The last few letters have been about ways to read the Bible I hope are helpful to efforts to think about God, and our relationship to God. I am grateful much of my formation as a person of faith, and as a preacher, teacher, pastor, writer, and spiritual director has been within the United Church of Canada. As a denomination we almost always seem to be in the middle of some kind of confusion or controversy as we continue to sort out how to be faithful followers of Jesus. In 2006 the United Church produced “A Song of Faith” which contains good words about Jesus, whose birth we are preparing to celebrate:

 

We sing of Jesus,

a Jew,

born to a woman in poverty

in a time of social upheaval

and political oppression.

He knew human joy and sorrow.

So filled with the Holy Spirit was he

that in him people experienced the presence of God among them.

We sing praise to God incarnate.

 

Jesus announced the coming of God’s reign—

a commonwealth not of domination

but of peace, justice, and reconciliation.

He healed the sick and fed the hungry.

He forgave sins and freed those held captive

by all manner of demonic powers.

He crossed barriers of race, class, culture, and gender.

He preached and practised unconditional love—

love of God, love of neighbour,

love of friend, love of enemy—

and he commanded his followers to love one another

as he had loved them….

 

By becoming flesh in Jesus,

God makes all things new.

In Jesus’ life, teaching, and self-offering,

God empowers us to live in love.

In Jesus’ crucifixion,

God bears the sin, grief, and suffering of the world.

In Jesus’ resurrection,

God overcomes death.

Nothing separates us from the love of God.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering of Rev. Darrow Woods, of Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario.

 

 

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Advent Alphabet: T is for Theology

t-_jpgT is for theology. The first half of the word, “Theo” refers to God. The second half, “logia” (study) is connected to the word-family that includes “logos”, which means “word”, and “logic”, which suggests a system or method. We are doing theological reflection when we think about God, and the activity, the identity, the purposes of God. “What is God doing?” “Who (or what) is God?” “Can we understand God’s will, or plan?” “What does God have to do with me, or I with God?”

Saint Francis of Asissi famously spent whole nights praying two questions, “Who are you, God, and who am I?”

We do theology when we read the Bible stories about Jesus’ birth. We seek to understand something about God, and our relationship with God. This is good for us, and even better if we do with it with humble awareness it is not a simple task. We bring a lot more “baggage” with us than we may realize.

I remember a lecture from my time as a philosophy under-grad, about the distinction between “Event” and “Event Meaning”. The professor said:

” Two groups of people, wearing clothing that identified them as members of opposing sides, faced each other across a wide expanse. There was a loud noise, and then a fairly large projectile was seen flying through the air, from an area dominated by one group, towards an area dominated by the other group. Then there was a lot of confused movement, and more loud noise, and it appeared that members of both groups were quite agitated.”

The professor asked, “Can anyone tell me what I was describing?”

One student made a convincing argument the scene was a battlefield. Another said it was a football game. A cynical soul at the back of the room wondered if there was a difference.

We needed more information to interpret the story. If that information was not available, we might “fill in the blanks” using our own memories, creativity, or biases. The result might say more about ourselves, than the author’s intended meaning.

An author brings their culture, and beliefs, and language, and biases into their work. We as readers are on alert to sift through and get a sense of the meaning. We may be hampered, or helped, by our own education, experience, and attitudes. In an earlier letter I mentioned how important it is to read what is in the text, and not what we expect to be there. (Can you find an inn-keeper or cattle in the nativity story?)

This issue of interpretation can crop up with relatively simple documents, like a shopping list or a sales receipt. (I have never learned to read a baseball box score in the newspaper.) When the subject matter is much more complex, there is even greater need for humility.

I believe we are meant to use our minds, and ask questions, and think carefully about matters of faith. I don’t mean to suggest it is a purely intellectual exercise- we definitely need to listen to our hearts, and pay attention to our experience in life.

John Wesley, one of the founders of the Methodist movement, drew upon scripture, tradition, reason, and experience when he sought theological understanding. He encouraged all followers of Jesus to do the same.

The Advent Alphabet is a ministry offering from Rev. Darrow Woods, minister at Trinity United Church in Oakville, Ontario.