About this blog

This Blog is named after an ancient gnoseological riddle which hints hidden, disseminated, omnipresent wisdom.
I invite you to search, listen and observe with me for "the word of tree, whisper of stone, and humming together of the abyss and stars."


From Advent to Blossom

Have you heard about setting up an Advent branch, or as it is more often called twigs of St. Barbara? It is a nice and interesting Advent custom from Central Europe. Der Barbarazweig - Barbara’s twig is considered a folk Roman Catholic custom, but its roots are definitely pre-Christian and might go back to ancient Celts or Germans.
    The custom is simple and lovely. A twig of cherry or any other early blooming bush or tree is cut on (or around) December 4th, the St. Barbara holiday. It is taken home and there it is forced (this is an ugly English technical term for accelerating growth, other languages use nicer allusions). With a bit of care and some luck, Barbara’s twig will bloom nicely ad profusely on Christmas Day. Just imagine how it must felt centuries ago, before any commercial florists and imported cut flowers! It must have been spectacular.
    Strangely, I like this custom in our urban megacity setting even better. I like this idea of taking care of a barren twig in a vase and caring it into bloom. It is a new, different, hopeful, and nature-oriented spiritual discipline for Advent. When it is successful, cherry blossoms bring a sign of bright new life to the middle of the bleak and dark city winter. We (especially we Calvinist Protestants) divorced our religion and faith from nature. This old Advent custom marvelously reconnects faith, religion, spirituality, world and nature in a hopeful and harmonious manner.
    The lectionary reading from the Gospel of Luke is leading us in a similar direction. This Sunday we will hear another part of what is being called the Synoptical apocalypse. It speaks about natural, political, military and cosmic disasters and catastrophes of the end of time. Fundamentalists just love this stuff, they like to frighten people into obedience. But not so Jesus! Towards the end, this long darksome discourse takes a surprising turn. We hear a parable of the Barbarazweig, or more precisely its Near Eastern equivalent, a budding reminder of promised hope. Come this Sunday to celebrate new hopeful eco-justice eschatology; join us in celebrating Environmental Advent.
P.S. A few instructions for your own Barbarazweig if you would like to try it. For any hope of success you need about 3 weeks of outside temperatures below 40 degrees. In NYC you might need to wait longer than St. Barbara’s holiday on December 4 to get this level of cold weather (What a nice reminder of the harmful effect of global warming, even blooming trees need a cold winter!). Ask a permission from an orchard keeper, get from your florist, cut in your garden, a thin branch with at least 10 buds (cherry, forsythia, plum or pear tree). Use a sharp knife, not scissors! And use slant cut. At home, repeat the cut if it stayed out and the cut dried. Submerge the branch for an hour or so in cold water (ad a few cubes of ice if it is NYC apartment water). Put it in a vase and take it to a coldest bright room (wintergarden) for a week or so replacing or adding water as needed. After it starts truly budding, bring it to your living room. It can all be done in the living room, but it is not ideal. A dash of flower fertilizer or a dissolved baby aspirin in the vase water can also help. Success is likely but not guaranteed (which is also nice part of this spiritual discipline, try it again next year.)

P.P.S. A divine judgement (a divination practice - Ordal) by blooming of the Aaron's rod as narrated in Numeri 17 is quite an interesting phenomenological parallel.  


Incarnation mystery

Some time ago a fundamentalist “inquisitor” tried to test my orthodoxy and interrogated me about the divinity of Christ (ministers occasionally receive these kinds of strange telephone calls. You might have had similar experiences with your more conservative relatives, friends, or coworkers.) Holy innocence, I wondered, they are truly hopeless, what a pudding-head question! Not the divinity but the humanity of Christ constitutes the greatest theological mystery. Anselm of Canterbury (1034 – 1109) marveled: Cur Deus Homo - Why God (became) Human? I am not particularly fond of his motives and conclusions, but his question outlines the true mystery of incarnation. The Gospel of Matthew (1:22f) approached this mystery by referring to the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14:

Therefore the Lord himselfe will giue you a signe. Beholde, the virgine shall conceiue and beare a sonne, and she shall call his name Immanu-el. (I quote in the delightful Renaissance English of the Geneva Study Bible.)

Immanu-el, Immanuel or Emmanuel means “God with us”. But who was the original “God-with-us” of the Isaiah prophecy? No one really knows. The Prophecy was most likely directed to Jerusalem’s King Ahaz. The sign was to be the conception and birth of a royal baby to a young noblewoman (this is the exact meaning of this word (g'almah/t) in old Semitic languages, not a virgin but a young noblewoman). Who was this young noblewoman and who was this baby boy? She was probably one of the king’s wives and the boy was his son; some point to Ahaz’ son and successor king Hezekiah, but it is not certain; only a few names of queens and very few names of their children survived. Their original identities remain a mystery. But we can know other things with greater certainty. Isaiah himself had already quoted and combined several older religious formulas. The pre-biblical myth from Ugarit (KTU 1.24.8) used the identical childbearing phrase of hope: “a noblewoman will bear a son...” Biblical legendary stories record a similar hope-inspiring name-giving angelic prophetic instructions: “You will have a son and will call his name....” (Gen 16:11). All these ancient archetypal references point towards a powerful message of hope in the birth of a child. Why would the birth of a mythical baby, a royal baby, Mary’s baby, or any baby, mean that God is with us? It remains a central mystery of incarnate divine love.
    Indeed, not the divinity of Christ, but the humanity of God has been one of the deepest mysteries of divine love. How and why is God coming in the form of babies? How does it transform our view of the world? Why is God bringing help and hope by becoming one of/with us? What does it mean, that God is human? What does it mean for our ethics, for our personal, social and political behavior? But even further, why is the creator becoming creation? What does it mean to eliminate this important conceptual distinction? What does it mean for our relationship towards creation, other creatures, and the natural world? Isn’t it possible that by asking these questions our perspectives and our lives are already being transformed and hope is being born and reborn?


Divine embroidery

Would you ever think about threading a sewing needle “with a camel? What a silly idea? What a strange image? Why even bother thinking about it?
    Well, because Jesus said: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:25; Matthew 19:24; Luke 18:25) I count this pronouncement among few other “Ipsisisma verba Iesu” (The very words of Jesus). The Early church tradition would hardly created such an outlandish statement and assign it to Jesus. This saying originated with Jesus and became a proverbial expression of impossibility. And from the earliest times people were perplexed and challenged by this idea and were coming with different and diverse theories and solutions about how to explain and rationalize and normalize this statement (often with inferior motives to justify and exonerate the rich). But this statement is not rational; it is a marvelous poetic hyperbole. And similar to any other poetry it is loaded with deep meaning. It follows different, non-rational, poetic, intuitive logic. This Sunday we will be challenged and encouraged by this outlandish poetical message. 

    Now, a tangential thought. This hyperbolic saying is interesting for its other feature which is hardly ever noticed. It is about sewing. In traditional pre-industrial societies sewing was a domestic activity of women. For the world which was highly structured and divided by gender roles, this is truly surprising. Jesus paid curious and empathic attention to the world of women. For instance the Talmud does it also, but here, with Jesus, it is different! A female domestic world is lifted up or the Kingdom of God is lowered down to match each other. Our saying couples closely the Kingdom of God with sewing needles. And an other parable does it with housewife making bread, another time the Kingdom of God is being compared to sweeping and housecleaning, just imagine! This is not just a coincidence, this is an interesting repeating pattern.
    Jesus compares the great theme of the rule of God with household chores. Firstly it questions and undermines stiff gender roles and divisions in the society. Secondly it brings forward revolutionary new theology. It presents new ways of talking and thinking about God. It introduces a new and different kind of divinity, not with a sword but with a needle, not with a spear but a broom, not destroying and torching the disobedient, but kneading and baking bread for the hungry. Indeed, with God everything is possible, if only people paid attention!

Bronze sewing needle from Hellenistic period.
The Social justice theme of care for the less fortunate comes out clearly when we consider other, non-biblical, parallel of this story as quoted by Early Christian Theologian Origen (185-254 C.E.) from the Gospel of Nazoreans (Origen calls it the Gospel of the Hebrews)

It is written in a certain gospel called the Gospel of the Hebrews - if anyone will accept it, not as authoritative, but to shed light on the question at hand:
“The second rich man said to him, ‘Teacher, what good do I have to do to live?’
He said to him, ‘Sir, follow the Law and the Prophets.’
He answered, ‘I’ve done that.’
He said to him, ‘Then go sell everything you own and give it away to the poor and then come follow me.’
But the rich man didn’t want to hear this and began to scratch his head. And the Lord said to him, ‘How can you say that you follow the Law and the Prophets? In the Law it says: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Now, look around: many of your brothers and sisters, sons and daughters of Abraham, are living in filth and dying of hunger. Your house is full of good things and not a thing of yours manages to get out to them.” Turning to his disciple Simon, who was sitting with him, he said, ‘Simon, son of Jonah, it is easier for a camel to squeeze through a needle’s eye than for a wealthy person to get into heaven’s domain.’