Retracing the Footsteps of the Great Reformer

 

It was five hundred years ago today, 31 October 1517, that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany.  Had it not been for the subsequent translation of these theses from Latin into German by someone unbeknownst to Luther,  the Augustinian monk’s action would likely have drawn little attention.  Instead, these 95 theses, translated into German, would prove to be the catalyst that would shake the medieval church to its very foundations.

The church of Luther’s time has been likened to one of those old buildings covered in ivy–in my view, an apt description.  We’ve all seen those ivy-covered buildings from the late nineteenth-century.  So completely covered in ivy are they that one can see nothing more than the windows and the door. It’s impossible to tell anything about the structure beneath all that ivy:  whether it’s a building constructed of red brick, or grey sandstone, or something else.  And so it was with the medieval church!  So many practices and beliefs, with no basis in Scripture, had grown up over the centuries. What Luther, and his fellow reformers did, was to ‘pull down the ivy’ that had obscurred the church’s true message;  salvation by faith alone (sola fides), by grace alone (sola gratia), and by Jesus Christ alone (solus Christus).

A few years ago I had the privilege of spending a day in Lutherstadt-Wittenberg, as its now known.  The old university town is a great place for a walking tour because all  the important sites are easily accessible.  The prime site to visit, naturally, was the castle church door where Luther posted his 95 theses.  Why the door of the castle church? In Luther’s day, the castle church door functioned as the local university’s bulletin board.  In posting his list, Luther was calling for an academic disputation on the “power and efficacy of indulgences…”.

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This is the door of the castle church (schlosskirche), or All Saints’ Church, where Luther posted his 95 theses.  The 1517 door has not survived.  This is a later-installed door inscribed with his 95 theses.

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Luther’s grave is situated below the podium where he stood to preach.

One of the things I learned about Luther on this trip–something I hadn’t known previously–was that he was a talented musician who played the lute and possessed a great singing voice.  Putting his musical gifts in service of the Reformation, he composed hymns as well. After viewing the door of the castle church, I went to nearby Corpus Christi Chapel where I joined with others in singing Luther’s most well-known hymn, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.”  The Reformation was spread not only by sermon but by song as well.  So thrilling to be singing this hymn in Wittenberg!   A Lutheran pastor–from the US–led the group in singing Luther’s hymn, then gave a Bible reading and short talk to the handful of English-speaking tourists there.

Not long after my day in Wittenberg, I made it to another place famous for its Luther-connection: Wartburg Castle, located on a hill overlooking the city of Eisenach.  It was here at Wartburg Castle where Friedrich the Wise (Elector Frederick of Saxony) hid Martin Luther, disguised as a certain ‘Squire George’, between 1521-22, thus keeping the reformer out of the clutches of the pope who would surely have had him executed as a heretic.  Anyone who offered Luther protection would be punished as well.  Anyone who offered him up, on the other hand, would be rewarded with a plenary indulgence.

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Hidden away in the castle, in a stube or room provided by the Elector, Luther translated the New Testament from Greek to German.  Luther had never seen a Bible until he was 20 years old, and that was when he came across a Latin Bible in the monastery library at Erfurt.  He was amazed to find “what a small portion of the Scripture was allowed to reach the ears of the people.”  To the reforming monk, scripture alone (sola scriptura) was the basis for right belief and practice.   It was a moving experience for me to see the room where Luther did his translating.

Luther’s wife does not receive the attention she should, in my view, for her story is a remarkable one, too.  Katharina von Bora had entered a Cistercian convent at an early age and took her vows as soon as possible. Become dissatisfied with her life in the convent, and her interest piqued by the new teachings (which may have had something to do with her growing dissatisfaction),  she plotted with eleven other nuns to escape:  an act punishable by death.  Even giving shelter to an escaped nun was a crime under church law.  Katharina contacted Luther, and he helped her escape in an empty fish barrel!  Luther found homes, marriages, or employment for ten of the escaped nuns.  When only Katharina was left, he married her himself in 1525.   To many at this time, such a marriage was scandalous.  For a monk and a nun to marry was nothing short of incest.

“Dear Kate,” as Luther called her, proved to be a wonderfully resourceful mate:  she managed the household, brewed beer, leased land for gardening, bred cattle, and gave birth to six children.  In marrying the resourceful ex-nun, Luther proved to those around him  that one could be a clergyman and a happy husband and family man, all at the same time.

No account of the life of Martin Luther can be complete without mentioning his hateful rants against the Jewish people in his later years, his legacy thus forever tainted.  That said, Martin Luther, flawed human being though he was, deserves to be acknowledged, especially today, for freeing those held captive by Rome and revealing once more “the glorious liberty of the gospel.”

  Portraits of Katharina von Bora and Martin Luther

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How I Viewed the August 21 Solar Eclipse

Today was the much-anticipated day of the ‘American Eclipse of 2017’.  Once we learned that glasses were no longer available, my husband and I decided to try the ‘two sheets of paper and pin hole’ method.   And it worked!!  My husband cut three different sizes of holes, and wonder of wonders, it was the tiniest hole, the pin hole, that produced the best image.

Eclipse2We taped the sheet to the outside window of our back patio and waited, peering at the image on the bottom sheet every ten minutes or so as the shadows began to lengthen and it started to get cold.  That is what I will remember most about today’s solar eclipse:  the dramatic plunge in the temperature.

Eclipse3The solar eclipse was not total in our area; this is the closest we came: 90%.

Eclipse4 (2)They say that birds stop chirping during an eclipse, but the sea gulls that are so noisy this time of year in our neighbourhood never did stop their raucous cacophony.  Maybe it takes a total eclipse to silence them.

I’m glad I got to experience the solar eclipse today. It’s so easy to get caught up in our everyday activities that we forget that we are part of an immeasurably vast and awesome cosmos.   When I experience a celestial event like that of today, I am reminded of the words of the psalmist:

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers,

the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,

what is man that you are mindful of him,

the son of man that you care for him? (Psalm 8:3-4 NIV).

We who live in this part of the world got to ‘consider the heavens’ today.

The majority of those who watched the solar eclipse probably regarded it as a fascinating scientific phenomenon, and nothing more.  Christians no doubt viewed it, not only a scientific phenomenon but a demonstration of God’s awesome creative activity.

Fascinating as it was, could the American Eclipse of 2017 have been more than a scientific phenomenon or demonstration of God’s handiwork? Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of US evangelist Billy Graham, believes it could be, issuing an urgent warning of impending disaster and destruction.  The last solar eclipse to cross the continental US occurred in June of 1918.  What followed was the Spanish flu pandemic when 675,000 Americans–20 – 50 million people worldwide–died.

The trajectory of today’s solar eclipse crossed the US mainland from northwest to southeast, passing over three important seismic zones:  Cascadia, Yellowstone, and New Madrid.  Another solar eclipse will occur in eight years time, on April 24 in 2024.  At that time, the path of the solar eclipse will proceed from northeast to southwest.  The zone where the two trajectories cross on April 8 is the New Madrid seismic zone:  a significant location, for sure! This was the location of the largest earthquake ever to occur in the US.  On 16 December 1811, a 7.5 – 7.9 earthquake occurred in the region that was felt as far way as New York City, Boston, Montreal, and Washington DC.  In the early 1800s, human life lost was minimal because it occurred in an unpopulated area.  If another earthquake were to occur there, loss of human life would be catastrophic.

Today’s solar eclipse could be the harbinger of something even more devastating than a world pandemic or massive earthquake, and hence, Anne Graham Lotz’ urgent warning.  Could today’s celestial event be a sign of the approaching ‘Day of the LORD’, that time of apocalyptic judgment predicted to occur at the end of history?  According to the prophet Joel, cosmic convulsions are a signal that the Day of the LORD is imminent.

The sun will be turned to darkness and the moon to blood

before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD (Joel 2:31). 

Anne Graham Lotz may be right.  However, the thing about such claims:  it’s only with the passage of time that we learn whether or not some event was indeed a sign of impending catastrophe.

There was an earlier solar eclipse on 21 August,  in 1914,  just weeks after the start of World War I.  Its trajectory followed a path through Eastern Europe.  It’s now known as the World War I solar eclipse.  Did those who observed it see it as an omen of some sort?  Of those who did, no one, I’m sure, could have even begun to imagine what lay ahead, not only for Europe, but for the entire world.

I enjoyed watching the solar eclipse today.  Was it an omen of impending disaster? Who can say?  One thing I do know:  Christians are exhorted to be watchful, not fearful!

 

 

 

 

Terror on Temple Mount

Today is Tisha B’Av, the saddest day for the Jewish people in their entire lunar calendar.  This is a day of fasting and reflection as Jews recall the great calamities that befell their people on Tisha  B’Av, the ninth day of the Jewish month of Av.  Tradition has it that both Jerusalem Temples were destroyed on this day:  Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 586 BC, and Herod’s Temple in AD 70.  Also on this same day, the last Jewish fortress to hold out against the Romans during the Bar Kochba Revolt fell in AD 135. A  year later, the Temple area was ploughed under by the Romans, again on TishaB’Av.

I can’t help but think that recent events on the Temple Mount must add to the Jewish sense of mourning today. A little over two weeks ago, Arab Israelis smuggled guns onto the Temple Mount (Haram al-Sharif to Muslims).  Three of the gun smugglers then trained their guns on policemen standing guard just outside the site, killing two Israeli Druze police officers, before being themselves killed.  As a way to prevent further attacks of this nature, Israel installed metal detectors at two of the gates opening onto the Temple Mount and closed the others.  We all know how well that went over with certain members of the Muslim population.  Not content merely to boycott the Temple Mount or riot, one ‘aggrieved’ Arab Israeli, wanting to avenge what he saw as an ‘assault on the al-Aqsa mosque’, slaughtered three members of a Jewish family as they were sitting down for their Shabbat meal.

Mounting metal detectors seems like a reasonable response to the attack, yet it was highly objectionable to many Muslims.  What Israel had done by installing metal detectors was to “change the status quo.” (I would have thought that a terrorist attack on the Temple Mount had already changed the status quo, but that was not what the Muslim objection was all about.)

What is the ‘status quo’ on the Temple Mount?  Although the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif is sacred to both Jews and Muslims,  Jews are not allowed to pray there.  Before Jews are allowed to enter the compound, their belongings are meticulously checked for prayer shawls and phylacteries.  On the esplanade itself, patrolling police carefully scrutinize Jewish faces for moving lips, a telltale ‘giveaway’ that the Jewish visitor just might be praying.  Two weeks ago, the police were checking for moving lips, but missed terrorists moving guns onto the Temple Mount.

The idea that it is illegal for a Jew to pray on the former site of the Jewish Temple–to even be seen moving his or her lips–should be abhorrent to anyone who cares about religious freedom and human rights.  Hard to believe, but it was a fellow Jew,  the Israeli war hero Moshe Dayan, who bears the responsibility for the current status quo.

Up until 1917, the Temple Mount had been controlled by the Ottoman Empire.  In 1948, when Jordan seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Jordan transferred responsibility for the Temple Mount compound to itself.  Jews were not allowed to visit the Temple Mount while Jordan exercised control from 1948 to 1967.  With the retaking of the Temple Mount during the Six Day War in June 1967, Jews finally had control of the site of their two temples–for the first time in two thousand years.

But then Dayan, Israel’s defense minister at the time, in a stunning decision, relinquished control of the Temple Mount back to Jordan, reasoning thus:  for Muslims, the mount was a “Muslim prayer mosque” while for the Jews, the Temple Mount was no more than an “historical site of commemoration of the past…one should not hinder the Arabs from behaving there as they now do.”

Dayan’s first act on the Temple Mount was to have the flag removed that Israeli paratroopers had raised there.  Next, he cleared out the paratroop company that was supposed to remain permanently stationed on the northern part of the Temple Mount. Then,  he forbade Jewish prayer and worship on the compound (although he insisted that Jews could visit the site).  He left the Mount and its management in the hands  of the Islamic Religious Endowments Authority, or Waqf.  (The Waqf is entirely controlled and funded by the Jordanian government.) Jordan would continue to have control over what happened on the Temple Mount, while Israel would be responsible for security around the perimeter of the esplanade. Dayan believed that, by relinquishing control of the Temple Mount to the Jordanian Waqf,  he would avoid a larger conflagration with the Muslim world.

For Israel to put metal detectors on the Temple Mount was a sign,  in the eyes of many Muslims, that Israel had wrested control of the Temple Mount from the Muslim Waqf–an unlawful act.

Dayan’s magnanimous concession to the Muslim world in 1967–continued control over the Temple Mount–did not win the Jewish state any friends in the neighbourhood in the ensuing years.  Given the obvious lack of control by the waqf overseer two weeks ago, leaving the Temple Mount in the hands of a dubious ‘peace partner’ is likely to lead to a larger conflagration, just the opposite of what Moshe Dayan intended.  The status quo is no longer tenable.

 

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(This is the most volatile piece of real estate on the planet:  Temple Mount /Haram al-Sharif). This picture of the Temple Mount with its prominent Dome of the Rock was taken on my recent visit to Israel.  As I had been up on Temple Mount on a previous trip, I decided to stay down below at the Western Wall.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Prime Minister’s Support Hose

Has there ever been a prime minister or president or political leader anywhere, in any era, who used his socks to send out political messages?  I can’t think of anyone.  When Canada’s prime minister Justin Trudeau went to NATO headquarters, he wore NATO-themed hose. (Hose, a seldom-used word today meaning stockings or socks.)  When he attended the LGBT rainbow flag-raising ceremony on Parliament Hill in Ottawa recently, he wore rainbow-striped socks.  When the prime minister gave a speech at a Muslim welfare centre, he wore Muslim-themed socks.

For a political leader who likes to demonstrate his support by what he puts on his feet (weird, no?), the fact that the Toronto Gay Pride Parade and the Muslim festival of Eid Mubarak fell on the same day–as they did this year–must have posed something of a dilemma for Canada’s PM.  What socks could he wear that would affirm both groups?  He decided on a pair of striped socks inscribed with the words Eid Mubarak.  It didn’t really matter that the stripes in the Eid Mubarak socks were not the same six stripes of colour that make up the rainbow flag.

How a pair of socks celebrating an Islamic festival came to be in the PM’s sock drawer is interesting:  The Muslim owners of a Toronto-based company that sells Islam-themed socks had enlisted a Muslim member of the Liberal government to present the socks as a gift to the prime minister.  On June 25, Canada’s prime minister wore his gift of Eid Mubarak socks, first as he attended a ‘Faith and Pride’ outdoor church service, then as he marched at the head of the Toronto Gay Pride parade.

Given Islam’s view of homosexuality, I wonder how the Muslim sock-manufacturers reacted when they saw their Eid socks at a Gay Pride parade.  And what about the feelings of the Muslim-community at large.  The PM’s actions could only have been an affront to devout Muslims.  In the hadith (the sayings and actions of Muhammad), Islam’s prophet called for those who perform homosexual acts, not to be celebrated, but to be executed (Sunan Abu Dawud 4462).  In 40 out of 57 Muslim-majority countries and territories homosexuality is a criminal offense and gays can be fined, flogged, and jailed.  In ten Muslim-majority countries, homosexual activity can lead to execution.   And in two countries, it does.  Iran hangs gays in public; the Islamic State (or ISIS) hurls gay men to their deaths from roof tops.

Eid Mubarak socks at a Gay Pride parade?  What was the prime minister thinking?  The answer lies in what the PM said before the parade.  Sporting a rainbow-striped maple leaf painted on his cheek, he commented:  “It’s all about how we celebrate the multiple layers of identities that make Canada extraordinary and strong.” The prime minister’s socks were meant to show his support for two of those layers:  the LGBT and Muslim communities.  The PM’s socks were a sign of his commitment to inclusiveness: the highest ideal to which a just society should now aspire.

What is becoming clear, though, is that, even as Western political leaders tout the virtues of inclusiveness–some of them like Trudeau through their socks–some layers of society are being deliberately excluded.  The Toronto chapter of Black Lives Matter prevented the Toronto police float and uniformed police officers from marching in the Gay Pride parade.  South of the border, in Chicago, marchers carrying rainbow flags with an Israeli flag imposed on top were excluded from a parade of dykes because the Israeli flag was deemed to be ‘triggering’.

The idea of what an inclusive society looks like seems to be changing.  When you hear political leaders speak of an inclusive society, don’t assume they include you.  I won’t.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Fig Tree without Figs

No, not mine; my fig tree continues to thrive.  I’m already contemplating what to do with the growing figs–all four of them–when they are ripe:  Will I eat them raw, or will I grill them?  And when will they be ripe enough to eat?  I squeeze them every few days to check (probably not a good idea).

More FIg)

(This is a photo of my fig tree taken today.)

As I watch the figs on my fig tree grow bigger with each passing day, I’m reminded of another fig tree in the Bible: the one that Jesus encountered on the road between Bethany and Jerusalem during what has come to be called  ‘Passion Week’. The encounter is described in both Matthew’s and Mark’s Gospels (Mt  21:18-19, 20-22; Mk 11:12-14, 20-25).  The encounter went like this:  As Jesus was returning to Jerusalem after spending the night in Bethany, he became hungry.  Spotting a lone fig tree by the side of the road, he went over to it to get some figs to eat, but he found no fruit on the tree, only leaves.

Until I had a fig tree growing in my own backyard, I had no idea just how unusual that would be.  As I observed my own tree after the period of winter dormancy had ended, I noticed little green swellings–immature figs; leaves made their appearance after.  This growth pattern would be true of the fig trees that grew in Judaea as well.

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(This is what my fig tree looked like back in April.  Jesus’ encounter with the barren fig tree occurred just prior to the Passover in the Hebrew month of Nisan (our March/April).

If there were leaves on the fig tree encountered by Jesus, there should have been evidence of fruit.  Finding no fruit, Jesus said to the tree: “May no one ever eat fruit from you again!” (Mk 11:14). In Matthew’s account, the fig tree withered immediately (21:19).  In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus and his disciples observe the withered tree the next morning as they head back into Jerusalem (11:20). At first glance, Jesus’ destruction of the fig tree seems like a gross over-reaction.  After all, as Mark notes, Jesus found nothing but leaves for it was not the season for figs (11:13).  The first crop of figs does not ripen until June.

To make sense of Jesus’ harsh reaction, Bible scholars suggest that we think of it as a prophetic gesture, or sign-action.  Hebrew prophets not infrequently dramatized their messages in order to get their points across. Often their actions took bizarre forms.  Consider Jeremiah, for example, who was directed by the Lord to buy an earthenware jar, then take some of the elders and some of the senior priests, and together go out to the valley of Ben-hinnon.  There, Jeremiah was to break the jar in front of them to illustrate how God was going to break the people and the city of Jerusalem in judgment (Jer 19:1-15).

Jesus’ prophetic gesture was directed at a fig tree in the company of his disciples.  Why a fig tree?  The answer lies in the writings of the Hebrew prophets Jeremiah, Hosea, Joel, and Micah where Israel is not infrequently pictured as a fig tree.  In the book of Hosea, God says:  “I found Israel like grapes in the wilderness; / I saw your forefathers as the earliest fruit on the fig tree in its first season” (9:10).  In Joel, God calls Israel “my fig tree” (1:7).

History confirms that Jesus’ destruction of the fig tree was indeed a prophetic sign-action.  In AD 70, thirty-seven years after Jesus’ crucifixion (believed to have taken place in AD 33), Roman armies penetrated Jerusalem’s walls, destroying the Temple and razing the city. Not one stone of the magnificent Temple was left standing on another, just as Jesus had predicted (Mk 13:2). Sixty-five years later,  in AD 135, the Roman emperor Hadrian founded a pagan city, Aelia Capitolina, on the ruins of Jerusalem.  Jews were forbidden access to the new city built now according to Hellenistic plans.  Where the Jewish Temple once stood, Hadrian had a temple erected to the pagan god Jupiter Capitolinus.  And, in order to erase all Jewish connection to the land, Hadrian renamed what was once the Roman province of Judea as Syria Palaestina.  The fig tree had indeed withered to its very roots!

That Jesus’ ‘cursing’ of the fig tree was a predictive act is clear.  That said, it was obviously an indictment of Israel’s spiritual barrenness as well.  Not only had Israel’s religious leaders failed to recognize Jesus as their Messiah, they had become his fiercest opponents.  There was an outward display of religiosity–like the showy leaves on the fig tree–but no faith.  That would be true of many churches today as well.

As I read the story of the withered fig tree, I can’t help but think how differently I must view it compared to someone reading it in, say, 1017 or 1517 or 1917.  Unlike earlier generations of Bible-readers, I am part of that generation which has witnessed the return of the Jewish people to their historic homeland; the creation of the modern state of Israel; and the re-taking of Jerusalem.  To me, these events say that the story of God’s ‘fig tree’, Israel, is still unfolding.

 

 

 

 

My Fig Tree Is Making Scripture Come Alive

Last summer I was given a small fig tree to grow in a container in my backyard.  I hadn’t  realized that such a gardening feat was even possible until I saw a fig tree with ripening figs, growing in a container on a friend’s small wooden deck.  I knew then that I wanted one for my back yard, too.  Watching an exotic tree grow would be fascinating, I thought, and if all went well, in time I might have the satisfaction of eating a couple of my own home-grown figs.

There were no visible changes in my little fig tree before it shed its few leaves and went dormant for the winter.  With the coming of spring, my fig tree suddenly came to life!  First there were barely-discernable tiny green bumps on the two stems, signs of fruit to come; then leaves began to sprout.  No visible flowers, though.  The tiny, green flowers produced by a fig tree grow inside a receptacle called a syncomium, which eventually becomes the fig.

As I watched the transformation unfolding before my eyes, I was reminded of Jesus’ response to his disciples who wanted to know when the prophesied destruction of the Jerusalem Templewould take place:  “[L]earn the parable from the fig tree:  when its branch has already become tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near, ” he had said to them (Mark 13:28).

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My Fig Tree As It Begins to Grow Fruit and Leaves in the Spring

As I thought about this, other occurrences of fig trees in the Bible, both literal and figurative, came to mind.  The first mention of a fig tree comes in the third chapter of Genesis in the story of ‘the Fall’.

The Garden of Eden must have been indescribably beautiful:  “the LORD GOD made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground–trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food” (Ge 2:9). Only two trees in the garden are named:  the tree of life standing in the very middle of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:9).  Out of all the trees in the garden, only one was ‘off limits’ to Adam and Eve:  the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.  If they were to eat of it, God warned them, they would die (2:17).

Nevertheless, our first ancestors, seduced by the lies of the crafty serpent, did eat the fruit (3:6). (What kind of fruit it was, we don’t know, but it probably wasn’t an apple.)  Instead of finding themselves clothed in fine white linen like gods, Adam and Eve discovered that they were stark naked, and so they sewed fig leaves together to cover themselves up before running off to hide from God among the trees (3:7-8).

Growing up on the prairies and thus having no idea what a fig tree looked like, I had envisioned Adam and Eve frantically stitching together leaves about the size of arugula to make some sort of covering.  Their leafy creations have been translated variously by Bible translators:  aprons (KJV), loincloths (ESV), loin coverings (NASB), and coverings (NIV).  Knowing now just how big fig leaves get to be, even on a tree as small as mine, I think they were able to put something together quite quickly.

My Fig Tree at the Time of Writing This Blog

The primordial pair chose what was no doubt one of the largest leaves among the trees in the garden  The suggestive shape of the leaf may have had something to do with their choice as well!  Medieval artists seem to have thought so.  Adam and Eve and their fig leaves were depicted frequently in medieval art.

Albrecht_Dürer_-_Adam_and_Eve_(Prado)_2

A Painting of Adam and Eve by Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) (Public Domain)

Making coverings from fig leaves was an act of desperation by the primordial couple, experiencing shame and fear for the  first time.  Sin had entered the picture, ending their intimate relationship with God.  Yet, even before God drove them out of the garden, He announced His plan to restore that relationship.   He cursed the serpent and declared war on him:  “…I will put enmity / Between you and the woman, / And between your seed and her seed; / He shall bruise you on the head, / And you shall bruise him on the heel” (3:15).  Christians believe that the “seed of the woman” is a reference to Jesus and, thus, this passage has come to be known as the Protoevangelium, the ‘first gospel’.  The good news:   the estrangement between God and humans will not be permanent.

 

 

The Pope’s Politics vs. Trump’s Christianity

The spat between His Holiness Pope Francis and GOP presidential candidate Donald Trump appears to have ended. The unholy brouhaha began when Trump, speaking on Fox Business Network’s “Varney & Co.”, called the pontiff “a very political person” who didn’t understand the dangers an open border with Mexico posed to the US.  “I think Mexico got him to do it,” claimed Trump, “because they want to keep the border just the way it is.”

The pope pushed back by calling Trump’s profession of Christian faith into question, averring that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not of building bridges, is not Christian.”  Trump, in turn, called the pope’s questioning of his faith “disgraceful.”  Realizing that a fight with the pope would not likely endear him to Catholic voters, Trump has since assured everyone that he actually has great respect for the pope.

Pope Francis, to quote ‘the Donald’, is “a very political person.”   Just how political is the pontiff?   On the last night of his visit to Mexico, the pope, hoping to influence the outcome of the upcoming US presidential election (what other explanation could there be?)  turned the celebration of the Catholic Mass into a piece of political theatre.  On the evening of 17 February, the pope, accompanied by some 200,000 people, gathered on the southern shore of the Rio Grande River across from the city of El Paso, Texas, for an open-air mass.  On the US side of the river stood about four hundred or so.  During the ceremony on the Mexican side, the pope laid flowers on a memorial dedicated to those who had perished trying to reach the US.  He lamented “the forced migration” of thousands of Central Americans. As the pope well knows, what to do about the US-Mexican border is a huge issue in the 2016 election.  Deliberately injecting himself into the debate as he has done, the pope made it clear where he stands.

How political is the pope?   In 2014, the pope wrote a letter to Pres. Obama, urging the president to pursue a closer relationship with Cuba and to ease the trade restrictions imposed on the island by the US after Fidel Castro’s Communist Revolution.  Pope Francis, who acted as mediator between the US and Cuba throughout 18 months of secret negotiations, can be credited with the recent restoration of diplomatic relations between the two countries.  (Interestingly, the Holy See never broke off relations with Cuba even after Castro imprisoned or exiled the priests and confiscated all Catholic property on the island.) In protesting the economic embargo imposed by the US, the Cuban people knew they had an ally in the Vatican, which had always objected to the embargo on the grounds that impacted most adversely Cuba’s poor.

Overcome with gratitude for the economic lifeline Pope Francis has thrown him,  Raul Castro gushed on a recent visit to the Vatican:  “If the pope continues to speak like this, sooner or later I will start praying again and I will return to the Catholic church–and I’m not saying this jokingly.”  A new Catholic Church is slated to be built on the island at Sandino, the first one since the 1959 Revolution. Strangely enough, since the restoration of diplomatic relations with the US, the number of imprisoned dissidents has reached the highest level in five years.

How political is the pope?  Probably the pope’s greatest political achievement since assuming St. Peter’s Throne  has been the historic meeting between him and His Holiness  Patriarch Kirill, head of Russia’s Orthodox Church, which took place on 12 February at the Jose Marti International Airport in Havana, Cuba.  This was the first meeting between a Catholic pope and the head of the Russian Orthodox Church since the Great Schism of 1054. This was not a political meeting, however, the pope claimed:  the purpose of the meeting was for the two branches of the church to deal jointly with the dire problem of persecuted Christians in the Middle East.   The pope might have not regarded their meeting as political, but it was nevertheless.

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Photo from Asia News .it  01/27/2016

The meeting could never have taken place if Russian President Putin had not first given the patriarch the ‘green light’ to attend.  His Holiness Patriarch Kirill, the first patriarch since the breakup of the USSR, is closer to the Kremlin than any of his predecessors, even to calling Putin a “miracle from God.”  [I wrote about the unusually close relationship between Putin and the Russian Orthodox Church in a previous blog (2 January 2015).] The pope’s meeting with the saintly-looking Russian patriarch (rumoured to be, like Putin, a former KGB officer) helped to restore–somewhat–the image of Putin’s Russia in the West.

Trump was correct when he called Pope Francis a very political person.  How does one account for the pope’s political activism?  The answer is:  Latin American liberation theology aka ‘Christian’ Marxism.  Liberation theology puts social action on an equal footing with the gospel message.  In the eyes of the Argentine pope, someone who would build a wall to keep migrants out is not a Christian.

Is Trump a Christian?  When it comes to determining who is or is not a Christian, it is not our place to judge, but, as the saying goes, that doesn’t mean we can’t be ‘fruit inspectors’.