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Africa Magazine,

St. Patrick's Missionary Society, Kiltegan, Co Wicklow, Ireland

Wonder with the Word

Fr Dermot Connolly

 

Fr Dermot encounters the Word of God against a backdrop of human life: in the story and poetry of the Bible, and in the art and the people of Africa - and elsewhere. As in life, word and image and deed go together; as the Word comes in different modes, the author adopts a variety of styles in writing, and each article is illustrated by a batik or drawing, most of them by African artists. We are invited to wonder with the Word that makes such a wayward challenge to our hearts.

 

A member of St Patrick’s Missionary Society, Fr Dermot, graduated from the Pontifical Biblical Institute, Rome, in 1967, after which he spent some ten years teaching Scripture in St Patrick’s seminary in Kiltegan, Co. Wicklow, Ireland. However, most of his adult life has been spent as a missionary in Nigeria, where for many years he led a Bible Study group in a large parish in the city of Lagos. This led to a workbook on the Psalms, A Book of Praises, published by Veritas in 1987. He has now retired from Nigeria to his own native Ireland.

©Africa, St Patrick's Missions Magazine

Nativity, Sagrada da Familia, Barcelona, Spain.

December 2018

Songs for a Firstborn Son

And she gave birth to her firstborn son 

and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger,

because there was no place for them in the inn. 

Luke 2:7 RSV

As happens in many cultures, Jewish tradition favoured the firstborn son; he had a privileged position in the family and got a double portion of the inheritance. (Deuteronomy 21:17) It had to do with the role of “firstborn” in the Exodus from Egypt. The Lord said to Moses, Consecrate to me all the firstborn. (Exodus 12:29-32; 13:1-2,11-16)

 

It can also be bestowed as a gift: David was Jesse’s youngest son, yet when he was anointed as King by the prophet Samuel the spirit of the Lord came mightily upon David from that day forward. (1 Samuel 16:1-13) The great Psalm 89 sang of it in the language of “firstborn.”

I have found my servant David,

And with my holy oil anointed him….

I for my part will make him my firstborn,

the highest of the kings of the earth. 

(Psalm 89:21-29)

The language of “firstborn” is found in St Paul’s letter to all God’s beloved in Rome: they were to be conformed to the image of God’s Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. (Romans 1:7; 8:29) And the Letter to the Hebrews placed the firstborn above the angels! (Hebrews 1:6) 

 

The greatest “Firstborn Song” may have been an early Christian hymn (now in Colossians 1:15-20). We can only sample it here, singing of Creation and Resurrection and Christ:

He is the image of the invisible God,

the firstborn of all creation;

for in him all things were created, 

in heaven and on earth,

visible and invisible. 

 

We might say creation is entangled with Christ. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. (And John’s Gospel echoes, He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him. John 1:2-3) Creation was an inside job from the start! The nativity at Bethlehem had a sense of homecoming, when Mary gave birth to her firstborn son – with the same molecules and atoms and DNA and family tree as any life form on earth. And an appropriate life-expectancy.

 

If he is to live the life, he must also die the death – even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:8) 

He is the head of the body, the Church;

he is the beginning, 

the firstborn from the dead,

that in everything he might be pre-eminent,

He is firstborn from the dead so as to gather creation with him in the same journey,

through blood and reconciliation, into the fullness of God.

 

There is more of the “Firstborn Song”, but you must listen to it for yourself. No matter that it comes in an old language of “firstborn,” and a three-tiered world: heaven and earth and underworld. And an infant at Bethlehem at the heart of all. It could blow your mind! Happy Christmas!

Three women gather in the harvest in this ink drawing from Nigeria. (Photo: Africa Magazine)

November 2017

God Bless the Work!

Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. 

He said to the reapers, “The Lord be with you.” 

They answered, “The Lord bless you.” 

(Ruth 2:4 NRSV)

 

Had Boaz and the reapers come from Ireland, rather than from Bethlehem, they might have said, “God bless the work!”, “God bless you kindly!” Friendly greetings are a sign of better times, as when Ruth, the girl from Moab, came to glean in the fields of Boaz, and harvested for herself the man who would be her husband. (Ruth 2-4)

 

Psalm 129 is one of the Songs of Ascents (Psalms 120-134). Even as they go there the pilgrims grieve for the condition of Jerusalem, as had the prophet Micah before them:

Zion shall be ploughed as a field;

Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,

and the mountain of the house a wooded height. (Micah 3:12)

 

The pilgrims borrow the prophet’s strong agricultural imagery; they sense the sufferings of the city as their own, slicing into the soil of their own flesh:

They have pressed me hard from my youth

but could never destroy me.

They ploughed my back like ploughmen,

drawing long furrows. (Psalm 129:2-3 Grail)

 

The journey from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the land of promise has been hard; a battle all the way. Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart. (WB Yeats, Easter 1916) The pilgrims’ tenderness towards Jerusalem becomes a curse against her enemies –May they be a failed crop, with neither a harvest nor a blessing for the reapers:

Let them be like grass on the roof

that withers before it flowers.

With this no reaper fills his arms,

no binder makes his sheaves. 

And those passing by will not say:

‘On you the Lord’s blessing!’

‘We bless you in the name of the Lord!’ 

(Psalm 129:6-8)

 

In Psalm 129, the pilgrims curse, with brutal honesty, those who hate Sion. As I write this, the old quarrels are raging again in Jerusalem between peoples who love the City and claim it as their home but are unable to share it. Pray a blessing on the reapers, lest the harvest fail!

 

The story of Ruth begins with a famine in the land of Judah, and a family fleeing from Bethlehem in search of food. The land of Moab was known as hostile to the people of Israel, but these refugees find a welcome there. When the famine is over Naomi, the last surviving member of the family, comes home to Bethlehem with her daughter-in-law, Ruth the Moabite.

 

The book of Ruth is a short story, with lessons on living with enemies and welcoming strangers. But there is a twist in the tale, and you must read right to its finish. As happens in some films, its full significance is revealed only as the credits scroll at the end of the movie. (If I say any more I may have to issue a SPOILER ALERT!).

Cattle and wild beasts pray. Cloth painting from Nigeria. (Photo: Africa Magazine)

July/August 2017

Speaking in Tongues

“… we hear them telling in our own tongues

the mighty works of God.”

(Acts 2:11; Deuteronomy 11:2 RSV)

 

Sometimes, in the course of a single psalm, the psalmist speaks in more than one tongue. Psalm 98 belongs to a bundle of like-minded songs in which God is seen as a King (see Psalms 93-99). The opening lines are proclaimed through the language of Israel’s story, a tongue frequently spoken in the Psalms. (See Psalms 74, 77, 105, 106, 107.)

Sing to the Lord a new song,

the Lord of wonderful deeds.

Right hand and holy arm

brought victory to God.

God made that victory known,

revealed justice to nations,

remembered a merciful love

loyal to the house of Israel.  

(Psalm 98:1-3 ICEL)

This is Exodus-talk: wonderful deeds; right hand and holy arm; a merciful love loyal to the house of Israel. (See “The Song of Moses” in Exodus 15; Psalms 135, 136.) 

 

Music-making is another favourite tongue in the psalms, another way of praying: wind and string, fingers and feet – “Down there for dancing!” – and, of course, the human voice. (Psalms 68:25-28; 126; 137; 150) “Who sings, prays twice!” says St Augustine (354-430 AD).

Sing praise to God with a harp,

with a harp and sound of music.

With sound of trumpet and horn,

shout to the Lord, our king. (Psalm 98:5-6 ICEL)

 

Long before Augustine, another north African had written, “The whole creation prays. Cattle and wild beasts pray, and bend their knees, and in coming forth from their stalls and lairs look up to heaven, their mouths not idle, making the spirit move in their own fashion….and the birds spread out the cross of their wings.” (Tertullian 160-220 AD) In Psalm 98 also, the creatures of the world speak “in their own fashion.” Creation’s tongue!

Let the sea roar with its creatures,

the world and all that live there!

Let rivers clap their hands,

the hills ring out their joy! (Psalm 98:7-8 ICEL)

A powerful tongue, whatever it might sound like! (Psalms 77:17-18; 96:11-12; 148:7-10)

 

You may be puzzled by the translation I am using; a strongly inclusive version produced in 1994 by the International Commission on English in the Liturgy. (ICEL) The effort to avoid the gender bias of some personal pronouns and other common usages, particularly in the English language, has produced a poetry of short staccato phrases that well matches the muscular idiom of the original Hebrew psalms. Psalm 98 in yet another tongue.

 

In all of this we go attentively. At Pentecost, they were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability. (Acts 2:1-11) St Paul concludes his list of spiritual gifts: to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. The Spirit helps us, both in speaking and in hearing. (1 Corinthians 12:4-11)

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