In The Wisdom Jesus  Cynthia Bourgeault writes:

“Who do you say I am?” Jesus asks repeatedly throughout the gospels. Which really means, “Who or what in you recognizes me?” It is the crucial question.

One of my own most important mentors along the path is Father Bruno Barnhardt, who for many years was prior of the Benedictine Camaldolese Monastery in Big Sur, California. He was the first person who really put the pieces together for me: that the key ingredient is really recognition energy – the capacity to ground-truth a spiritual experience in your own being. The gospels are built on it – and so was the early church – as the powerful liberation energy of the Christ event spills over and travels forward, moving from recognition to recognition.

Bruno Barnhardt explains: “As we accompany Jesus through the gospels we are present at one dramatic meeting after another. One person after another experiences a mysterious power in Jesus that from this moment changes the course of his or her life. If we are fully present at the moment when we read such a narrative, we ourselves experience the liberating power of this awakening. Examples come quickly to mind: the two disciples in John’s first chapter: ‘Rabbi, where do you dwell?’ ‘Come and see.’ … Time after time we feel the break-through of life, the wave-front of wonder…”

What caused [the first disciples] to say ‘yes’ to Jesus? I’d like to explore this question more deeply by looking at one of the most interesting and significant people who said ‘yes’: the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:4f)….

When I listen closely, the first thing I hear is a sort of mutual boldness. Clearly Jesus sees something in this woman from the start, for him even to begin to address her. And far from being intimidated, she returns his serves beautifully. It’s a fascinating exchange. There is a heart-to-heart connection, and a heart-to-heart inner seeing. He sees who she is; she sees who he is. And in the light of that mutual recognition they keep on empowering each other and drawing each other along to a greater self-disclosure…

What an extraordinary moment! It is the first time in this gospel that Jesus reveals his true identity to anyone. Something he sees in her gives him the confidence to be so nakedly vulnerable; and something she sees in him gives her the confidence to follow his lead… This quality of awareness is not something that comes from outside the moment. Rather, it grows up in the moment itself through the quality and energy of the heart connection. It is a transfusion from within (‘one deep calling to another’, in the words of Psalm 42).

Bruno has been reflecting on the mysterious energy of the exchange between Jesus and this unknown woman at the well, and he observes: “This Jesus whom we encounter is a light at the center of the world, a fire at the world’s edge. He moves beneath the images of himself as an alternate center of energy. He awakens that which lies at the core of my own being. The series of Jesus’s healings in the gospels are the story of the gradual raising to life and consciousness, to freedom and fullness, of this nascent person that I am.” He then concludes with this remarkable statement: “The knowledge of Jesus Christ is a unitive knowledge – the luminosity of my own true and eternal being… Jesus Christ standing before the Samaritan woman becomes the mirror in which she sees not only the face of God but her own true face.”

In the gospels, all the people who encountered Jesus only by hearsay, by what somebody else believed about him, by what they’d been told, by what they hoped to get out of him: all those people left. They still leave today. The ones that remained – and still remain – are the ones who have met him in the moment: in the instantaneous, mutual recognition of hearts and in the ultimate energy that is always pouring forth from this encounter. It is indeed the wellspring.

Intrigued?  In this book study, we’ll look more closely at Jesus of Nazareth and his wisdom teachings, and we’ll also learn some wisdom practices inspired by his teachings.

* See The Wisdom Jesus, p. 1-12

Prepare the Way

There’s a voice in the wilderness crying, a call from the ways untrod:
Prepare in the desert a highway, a highway for our God!
The valleys shall be exalted, the lofty hills brought low;
Make straight all the crooked places where the Lord our God may go!     
Hymnal #75

This Advent hymn perfectly captures the excitement of the herald on the desert road, calling people to prepare a way for the coming king.

Even today, in desert landscapes the long roads from one town to another always need repairs after a winter’s winds and rains. In Jesus’ day, the major Roman roads were made of stone, but throughout the empire other roads were still tracks through dirt and sand.  So at the end of each winter, the highways needed to be made smooth again…. the rock slides cleared off, the deep holes filled…..the drifts of sand swept away.

The prophet Isaiah, whose words are repeated again and again in the New Testament
(although we may recognize Isaiah’s words from Handel’s Messiah!) says –

A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low:
the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together,
for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”             Isaiah 40:3-5

And now the prophecy is retold by Luke, with John the Baptist as the herald.  Like all heralds, John’s job is to clear the way for the One who is coming next.  But also — and here John the Baptist sounds a new note — those who serve the coming king will not only smooth out the rough places and fill in the potholes so the king can come to his people: this king is going to turn the world upside down.

We hear this in the second verse of the Advent hymn:

O Zion, that bringest good tidings, get thee up to the heights and sing!
Proclaim to a desolate people the coming of their King.
Like the flowers of the field they perish, like grass our works decay,
The power and pomp of nations shall pass like a dream away.

John the Baptist is proclaiming the same message as Mary in her song, the Magnificat:

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord…
for God has looked with favor on his lowly servant…
God has scattered the proud in their conceit,
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
God has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.          Luke 1: 46-55

Both Mary and John are proclaiming that God will lift up the lowly, cast down the powerful, give food to the hungry, and command the satisfied to share their bounty. (Our world has made some progress towards God’s kingdom over the last 2,000 years, but we still have a long way to go — and so God is still calling us to join in the task of clearing the way.)

Luke’s Gospel has 24 chapters, and every chapter proclaims the greatness of the Lord.

It’s not just Luke’s last chapter, where he describes two of Jesus’ disciples, walking in sorrow away from Jerusalem.  On the road to Emmaus they meet Jesus, their Risen Lord.       Luke 24:13-35

It’s not just Luke’s first chapter, where he describes the angel Gabriel, visiting a poor young woman named Mary, telling her she will bear a son, whose kingdom will never end.        Luke 1:26-38

It’s not just the eleventh chapter, where Luke collects Jesus’ teachings on prayer: the Lord’s Prayer (Luke 11:2-4) and the prayer of persistence (Luke 11:5-13); or Jesus’ own prayers in his Last Supper, which we find near the end of the Gospel (Luke 22:14-20). 

And it’s not just Luke’s middle chapters, where he records some of Jesus’ greatest parables:  there’s the great banquet in chapter 14, to which the host invites not his family, nor the rich and powerful, but the poor, the crippled, the lame and the blind (Luke 14:7-14). 

And there’s the joy of God the Father in chapter 15, which Jesus portrays through the  parables of the lost and found: the lost sheep, the lost coin — and the prodigal son (Luke 15:3-32). 

I’d like to encourage you to read Luke’s Gospel this year: for the history that Luke tells us… for the stories he collects … for the parables he remembers… for the prayers he gives us … and above all, for this Gospel’s truth and beauty.

On most Sundays this coming year, we’ll be hearing from Luke’s Gospel. But the readings will jump around, as we move from Sunday to Sunday, and the sermons you hear after the Gospel will be from the preacher’s point of view. (Just as you’re hearing my point of view today!)

I’d like to encourage you to read this Gospel from beginning to end, so you can see and hear the whole story.  Read just a bit at a time…. then meditate on what it means to you.
And then, when you come back to the Gospel, pick it up where you left off.

You can read the Gospel on your own, or with a member of your family, or with a friend, or a group of friends. But – and this is so important – I encourage you to read this Gospel without consulting the experts first.

Yes, that’s right – whether you’re alone or in a group, listen to your own heart first,
before you listen to what some book says about it – even if books written by the greatest scholars.

Why should you listen to your own heart first?

Luke, you may know, also wrote the Book of Acts.  Acts is not only the second volume of Luke’s masterwork, it is the book that records the work of the Holy Spirit, the same Spirit poured out on you and me.

In the second chapter of Acts, St. Peter quotes the prophet Joel:

In the last days, God declares,
it will be that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh,
and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy,
and your young men shall see visions,
and your old men shall dream dreams.
          (Acts 2:17-21, Joel 2:28-32)

That same Holy Spirit will always meet us in the Gospels – speaking first to our hearts, then to our minds, and finally to our innermost souls, calling us to keep working to prepare the way of the Lord.

I learned this lesson the hard way.

In seminary, I always read the experts before I wrote an essay or a sermon, to be sure I got my facts right – because that’s what my professors were looking for.

But a few years after seminary, I signed up to take week-long course at the College of Preachers, on the grounds of Washington’s National Cathedral.  (The pictures of George Bush’s memorial service at the National Cathedral this week brought back memories of the times I visited and studied there.)

The first course I signed up for was to be taught by one of the Episcopal Church’s
leading experts on preaching, and the author of many books on Christian education for all ages.

That first afternoon, the classroom was filled with clergy from around the country and from several denominations, all of us eager to meet this popular author in the flesh.

Then the speaker arrived – a simple, unassuming man with a very quiet voice. (A greater contrast with John the Baptist you can’t imagine!)

He began the session by talking about the power of the Holy Spirit, working in and through the Scriptures to teach us, and inspire us, and guide us. And he finished the session by telling us this:

Never read the experts first – always read the Scripture first.

“Listen to what the Spirit says to you in your own heart…

“You can always trust the Spirit to speak to you…. and if you don’t hear it right, you can trust the Spirit to correct you.

“The Spirit will speak through the commentaries, yes – and the Spirit will also speak through others who may be reading with you…. but…

Always listen to the Spirit first.”

This author of many books wasn’t telling us that books and knowledge aren’t important, he was just saying that books and guides are not enough. We need to begin by listening to the Holy Spirit speaking in our own hearts, and only then listen to what others have to say.

This coming year, let’s prepare the way for the Spirit’s coming into our own hearts, into our own lives, into our own communities.

Let’s roll away the rocks, sweep out the sand, fill up the potholes, and straighten the old crooked pathways…. to make room for the God who yearns to turn our hearts, and our world, upside down.

Preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Kenwood – December 9, 2018. 



The Widow’s Offering

Mark 12:41-44

Jesus said, “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and
to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows’ houses
and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. Then a poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he said to his disciples, “This poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For they have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had.”

The widow

Some of the most important people in the Bible are nameless. The widow in today’s Gospel is surely one of them.

When Jesus saw her putting her coins into the Temple treasury box, he pointed her out to his disciples, as an example for them. But what was she an example of?

(We are now once again in the stewardship time of year, and many are the sermons that have pointed to this poor widow as an example of someone who gives her all to her church and to charity – and I’ve preached one of those sermons myself!)

It’s true that the poor among us are much more likely to give sacrificially than the rich – perhaps because no one knows better than the poor what poverty feels like.

But have you ever thought that Jesus is not talking about money here, but about something else altogether?

The setting

So let’s step back from this widow for a moment, and look at the context in which her story has been set.

Mark’s Gospel has been telling us that this week is Jesus’ last week on earth.

The week began when he entered Jerusalem, riding on a lowly donkey, while massed Roman legions were marching through another gate to maintain order during the Passover.

Then Jesus went into the Temple and drove out the merchants who had set up their tables in its courts, selling their wares and in the process swindling the poor.

Returning to the Temple the next day, he sat down to teach his disciples and the others who crowded around him. He warned his disciples to watch out for the self-important people who were walking proudly through the Temple, ostentatiously depositing their offerings in the treasury – the same people who took away widows’ houses and scorned the poor.

And that’s when Jesus pointed to this widow, putting her last coins into the treasury box.

The disciple’s offering

In just two more days it would be Passover, and the Last Supper, and the night in Gethsemane, and the trial before Pilate, and the cross on Calvary.

Just like this poor widow, letting her last coins fall into the treasury, Jesus was pouring out his life – teaching, healing, giving, suffering, dying.

At the Last Supper he would even take the cup of wine and tell his disciples – and telling us, in every Eucharist – “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many.”                                                                   (Mark 14:24)

At that moment during supper, his disciples were afraid, but they still didn’t know what was about to happen.

Later on they would remember what Jesus said, and meditate on the lengths he would go to serve others. And later still, they would begin to understand the example he had set for them: he was not only giving himself for others, but calling them to do the same.

The New Testament only begins to make sense when we understand that it was written for Jesus’ disciples – and when we begin understand that we are Jesus’ disciples, too.

So, if we are his disciples, we are called to give ourselves for others — to pour ourselves out, not just into Temple treasuries or into worthy charities, but into the world around us. But to walk the road that Jesus walked – to walk the way this widow walked – that is so hard!

How can we learn to offer ourselves, as she did – as he did?

The disciple’s prayer

I’ve come to understand that prayer is the first step toward offering ourselves for others.

I’m not talking about prayers when we’re using words, whether we’re in church, waking up in the morning or going to bed in the evening, or at times throughout the day when we are stressed or drawn to the needs of others – although of course this kind of prayer is necessary.

And I’m not talking about those times when we’re prayerfully reading, or listening to music, or looking at art, or walking in the natural world, reflecting on the presence and meaning of God in our lives – although of course this kind of prayer is necessary, too.

And I’m not talking about those times when we’re listening to (or watching) the news, feeling our hearts going out to people who are being threatened by fires, crushed by earthquakes, drowned in storms, murdered by guns, rejected for the color of their skin, persecuted for their religious faith – although this kind of prayer is necessary, too.

I’m talking about simply opening our hearts, our minds, our selves, to God – so God can be with us throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout the year, going with us wherever we go.

Or to say it more accurately, so we can be with God throughout our days, throughout our weeks, throughout our years, going wherever God takes us – following Jesus wherever he goes.

Henri Nouwen writes *

Praying is no easy matter. It demands a relationship in which you allow someone other than yourself to enter into the very center of your person, to see there what you would rather leave in darkness…

Why would you really want to do that?

Perhaps you would let the Other cross your inner threshold to see something or to touch something. But to allow the Other into that place where your most intimate life is shaped – that is dangerous and calls for defense.

An elderly woman brought to a psychiatric center… She was wild, swinging at everything in sight, and frightening everyone so much that the doctors had to take everything away from her. But there was one small coin which she gripped in her fist and would not give up. In fact, it took two people to pry open that clenched hand. It was as though she would lose her very self along with the coin. If they deprived her of that last possession, she would have nothing more and be nothing more. That was her fear.

When you are invited to pray, you are asked to open your tightly clenched fists and give up your last coin. So… when you want to pray… the first question is: How do I open my closed hands? …. Perhaps you can find your way to prayer by carefully listening to the words the angel spoke to Zechariah, Mary, the shepherds, and the women at the tomb: “Don’t be afraid.”

Don’t be afraid of the One who wants to enter your most intimate space and invite you to let go of what you are clinging to so anxiously. Don’t be afraid to show the clammy coin which will buy so little anyway…. Each time you dare to let go and to surrender one of your many fears, your hand opens a little and your palms spread out in a gesture of receiving You must be patient, of courses, very patient until your hands are completely open.”

That day in the Temple, when Jesus watched the widow pouring her coins into the treasury, he saw that she knew how to open her hands wide. He watched her letting go of her fears for the future.

Can we also look at this woman, and learn how to follow her – to that place where we become willing to let God lead us into our future?

Preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Kenwood – November 11, 2018


* Henri Nouwen, With Open Hands. Ave Maria Press, 1995.


Come, Follow Me

St. Anthony’s Monastery, Egypt

Mark 10:17-22

We can hear today’s Gospel speaking directly to us, through the power of God’s Word – words first spoken by Jesus, words echoing down through the centuries, words which still call us today: Come, follow me.

Perhaps no story in Christian history shows the power of this Gospel more than the story of St. Anthony of the Desert.

Anthony was born in Egypt, the child of Christian parents, only 200 years after the first Christian churches were established. As a child Anthony loved to go to church with his parents, and he listened to the Scriptures read in church so carefully that he remembered them for the rest of his life.

Now when Anthony was about twenty years old, his parents died, leaving him with all their property.

A few months later, on his way to church, Anthony was thinking about a Scripture he had heard on a previous Sunday: How the first Christians had sold their possessions and gave the proceeds to the Apostles for the care of the needy (see Acts 4:35).

Then, when Anthony entered the church, he heard this Gospel being read:

As Jesus was setting out on a journey,
a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him,
“Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing;
go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

When the man heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving,
for he had many possessions.

Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples,
“How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!”

When Anthony heard these words, he felt they were spoken directly to him. So he sold the property he had just inherited from his parents and – setting aside some of the money for the care of his younger sister – he gave the rest to the poor. Then, taking only a wooden staff and his cloak, Anthony walked out into the desert, where he would spend the rest of his life.

Soon disciples were following Anthony into the desert, gathering around him to live with him and learn from him. (In later centuries other monks would call Anthony the “Father of Christian Monasticism,” because he inspired similar communities of monks, first in the Egyptian desert, and then throughout the Christian world.)

Now these are the words that inspired Anthony throughout his life:

Go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor,
and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.

At the end of a very long life, when he knew that his death was approaching, Anthony told his disciples to give his possessions away as soon as he was gone – 3 things in all:
his old wooden staff and two sheepskin cloaks.

In the end, that’s all Anthony had left – two cloaks and a wooden staff.  Throughout his time in the desert, Anthony’s only wealth came from his love of God and from the Word of Jesus.

The Word of God and the Power of Wealth

So Anthony’s story is really a story about the power of God’s Word.  But his story is also a story about the power of human wealth.

By the middle ages, even though they were founded upon the teachings of St. Anthony and those who followed him, many Christian monasteries had become fabulously wealthy because they held onto the money and possessions given to them over the years.

How hard it is to hear the Gospel in the face of wealth, even for those monks who heard it every day of their lives!

Wealth, in Anthony’s time as in ours, always has the power to drown out the Word. Unless the Word is planted so deep in our hearts – teaching us to love others, constantly calling us to share what we have – wealth can keep us from hearing the Word.

Wealth, in our time as in Anthony’s, builds up over the years; we can hold onto it and treasure it, and at the end of our lives we pass it on to our heirs.

And the Word, in our time as in Anthony’s, can enter deeply into our hearts, working there until it prods us into action. But the Word can also go right over our heads.

Some of us will hear Jesus’ words, but we think there’s no way we could follow them. (Some of us imagine that we, too, are being called to walk out into the desert with just a staff and a cloak.)

Others will make a practice of giving away some of what we have: from the ordinary giving of everyday people, to the extraordinary giving of some of the richest people in our country today.

But many who have heard Jesus’ words will still spend our lives collecting possessions and wealth. (Some of us can hear this Gospel, and even Anthony’s story, without really letting it speak to our hearts.)

So what did Jesus mean when he said, “Follow me?”

Anthony heard Jesus tell him to sell everything, and walk out into the desert.

The Way of Love

Very few of us are called to live in the desert; but all of us are called to walk the Way of Love.

The Way of Love will be different for every one of us, but those who have been taught how to love, and those who have learned how to share, can learn to resist the call of wealth.

In Anthony’s life, it was his parents who taught him to love Jesus, and to love the word he heard in church.  In my own life, it was my grandmother, who showed me her love of Jesus, and taught me to share with others. Who taught you the Way of love?

The Word of God is the Word of Love. Love was the Word that hovered over the waters of chaos, at the very beginning of time.  The Word of Love lived deep in the soul of Jesus, who looked on that rich young man and loved him, even though he knew that the man would not find the strength to follow him.  And the Word of Love is still working through the Spirit, who breathes through us here today.

It is the Word of God, the Love of Jesus – who loves us all, and connects us all  – who calls us all to share what we have been given.

My prayer for all of us today is that we will hear these words of Jesus, letting them penetrate deep into our hearts, helping us find the Way of Love, and helping us to share more of what we have been given.

And my prayer for Leela and her family today is that she will someday hear Jesus’ words, and remember Jesus’ words throughout her life: Come, follow me.


Preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Kenwood – October 14, 2018
(and for Leela’s baptism)

Learning from the Canaanite Woman

Jesus set out and went away to the region of Tyre.  He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there.  Yet he could not escape notice, for a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet.  She begged him to caste the demon out of her daughter.  He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.”  But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go — the demon has left your daughter.”  So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.   Mark 7:24-30

Whenever I hear a story from the gospels, I’ve learned to ask myself:

What does this story tell me about Jesus?
What does it tell me about God?
What does it tell me about the world that Jesus lived in?

In today’s gospel Jesus has traveled beyond the border separating Galilee from the land of the Canaanites. Today there’s a heavily militarized border there between Israel and Lebanon. But there were no borders under the Romans –  you could go almost everywhere, because Rome kept an iron grip over every people around the Mediterranean Sea.

But even without borders, there are always walls between people. It seems that we humans have evolved with the need to protect ourselves from “the others” – that is, anyone who is different from us.

And so today we’re still building walls — between peoples, languages, sexes, classes, and religions.

Today’s Gospel shows us this tendency even in the human Jesus: His culture and his Scriptures were telling him that he was called to the people of Israel.  He believed that he had been sent to bring the lost sheep of Israel back into the fold.

He was probably visiting a Jewish home in Tyre. (It’s still a city in southern Lebanon today, bombed for decades now by Israeli planes and armies.) But into this Jewish home comes a Canaanite woman, begging healing for her daughter.

And now we see Jesus changing his mind – he begins to understand that his call is not only to his own people, but to anyone seeking the love and mercy of God.

Jesus changed his mind? Now the story gets interesting!

Maybe Jesus wasn’t born knowing everything. Maybe he had to learn and grow — just like us — and maybe he, too, had to stretch his mind to see his world as God saw it.

Perhaps Jesus was divine not because he was all-knowing, but because he knew how to open his heart to God. Perhaps, growing up, Jesus had to learn how to listen — and how to be aware of the needs of others.

Perhaps Jesus also had to learn how to pay attention to his own deep feelings, and then to reflect on the meaning of these things. (Perhaps he learned to “ponder these things in his heart”, as the gospel says of his mother Mary).

I think Jesus always yearned to “dwell” – to live and move and have his being –
in that place where God lives.  And in learning to “dwell” – listening, feeling, reflecting, praying – he learned to understand where God lives.

But notice, in this Gospel story, that Jesus also found the strength to return to God whenever he found himself off-base, whenever he was wrong, whenever his vision was incomplete.

Can you do that?  Can I do that?

Usually I can understand what’s right and what’s wrong, and often I can see where God dwells, but still it’s hard to move myself to that place.  Yet that’s what we see Jesus doing in his encounter with the Canaanite woman.

So we look again at this Gospel, and ask:

What can we learn about Jesus? He was a human being who lived and learned,
with a unique ability to stand where God stands.

What can we learn about Jesus’ world (and ours)?  We humans have always lived in a world of walls, and even when the walls are breaking down, our first impulse is to build new ones.

What can we learn about God from this Gospel? The God of Jesus Christ builds no walls, but embraces the world.

The early church had to remember the Canaanite woman. They had to remember her because she taught Jesus about the breadth and height and depth of God’s love.

And so, down through the centuries the Canaanite woman has been teaching the church about God’ love, through this Gospel we’ve heard today.

In the 16th century, when the English prayer book was written, the authors still remembered this woman; and you probably remember her prayer, too. We always called it “the Prayer of Humble Access”, but we could have called it “the Prayer of the Canaanite Woman”):

We do not to presume to co:me to this thy Table, O merciful Lord, trusting in our own righteousness, but in thy manifold and great mercies.  We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under thy Table. But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy…. BCP p. 337

And in the late 20th century, the poet Brian Wren wrote this hymn, which says it all:

When Christ was lifted from the earth, his arms stretched out above
through every culture, every birth, to draw an answering love.
Still east and west his love extends and always, near or far,
he calls and claims us as his friends, and loves us as we are.
Where generation, class, or race divide us to our shame,
he sees not labels but a face, a person, and a name.
Thus freely loved, though fully known, may I in Christ be free
to welcome and accept his own, as Christ as accepted me. Amen.

To hear the hymn, go to

Preached at St. Patrick’s Episcopal Church, Kenwood – September 9, 2018.

A Whale of a Tale

The Prophet Jonah Before the Walls of Ninevah

Jonah 3:1-5, 10

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, “Get up, go to Nineveh, that great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it.

Mark 1:14-20

After John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

A whale of a tale

The Bible tells us that Jonah, the man we’ve heard was swallowed by a whale, was actually a prophet. So here are three things to know about prophets:

(1) Being a prophet is never easy;
(2) Prophets are called to be truth-tellers, not fortune-tellers; and
(3) Everyone – not just a special few – has a call to prophesy.

(1) Being a prophet is never easy:

Today’s lessons (at least, the portions we’ve heard this morning) make being a prophet look easy. Jonah saves 120,000 people (not to mention every animal) in the enemy’s city. Jesus walks along the Sea of Galilee and calls disciples, and they immediately drop everything to follow him.

But would you really want to be a prophet? (Just look at the Gospel again – Jesus’ story begins with John the Baptist’s arrest by Herod.) Everyone knows that being a prophet is never easy.

We all know about Jonah, the man who is said to have survived in the belly of a whale, but we don’t much else about him. Actually, the story of Jonah was originally a legend that circulated all around the Middle East. When we lived in there in the sixties, we visited two beach towns – one in Lebanon, the other in Syria, which called themselves “Nebi Yunis,” (the Prophet Jonah in Arabic) – each town proclaiming that it was the very place where the whale coughed Jonah up.

How can a human being survive for three days in the belly of a whale? That’s the question the name of Jonah usually raises. Biblical literalists still argue that Jonah really survived his time in the whale, thinking this old story is about miracles. But it’s not a story about miracles at all – it’s a story that points out how hard it is to be a prophet. It’s even a story that makes fun of prophets.

(Here are some more reasons not to be a prophet – you might be killed; you might be thrown into jail; you might be hated; and you certainly will be laughed at.)

After centuries of being told as an oral legend in various languages around the Middle East, the Hebrew book of Jonah was written around 500 years before Jesus was born. The writer takes the old legend and turns it into a short story. It’s a very short story, only four chapters long.

God calls Jonah to be a prophet, but Jonah doesn’t want to do it. The whole idea of going all the way from Israel to Ninevah, a big city in today’s Iraq, to be a prophet turns Jonah off. He is absolutely sure that no one in Ninevah, a great foreign power, will listen to him.

So Jonah runs away to Joppa, a city still on Israel’s Mediterranean coast today, and there he boards a ship heading for Turkey. He thinks he’s escaped God’s call, and falls asleep happily in his bunk on the ship.
And while Jonah sleeps, God stirs up a great storm. The ship’s crew becomes desperate, and each sailor falls on his knees, begging his own god to save them. Finally, after a couple of stormy days, the ship’s captain comes down and wakes Jonah up from his nap, asking him to pray to his God, too. Maybe Jonah’s God will stop the storm.

But Jonah already knows why the storm has blown up – God’s angry at him. So Jonah talks the crew into throwing him overboard, thinking that this punishment will take away God’s anger. And Jonah is right – the storm is calmed and the ship survives.

But now a great sea creature (which we call a whale) is sent by God to swallow Jonah. For three days and three nights Jonah suffers inside the fish’s belly. He finally confesses his disobedience, and he begs God for mercy. Then God speaks to the sea creature, which spits Jonah out onto dry land.

Now, after his rescue, Jonah knows he has to go to Ninevah, to tell the people there to repent. So he walks the thousand miles to Ninevah, muttering all the way that no one will listen to him. But when he gets there, he hurries through the streets calling people to repent – and to his surprise, they do! The people beg for forgiveness – and God, being a forgiving God, does forgive them. What a great outcome to Jonah’s hard work!

(2) Prophets are called to be truth-tellers, not fortune-tellers:

But Jonah is furious, and he angrily tells God this is the reason he tried to run away. He says,

“Oh Lord, Isn’t this what I told you when I was still in my own country? Isn’t this why I ran away? For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and ready to relent from punishing.”

(What Jonah meant was this: “I knew that you would be merciful to the Ninevites, even though they are foreigners and don’t believe in you!”)

So Jonah finishes by saying, “Now, O Lord, just put me out of my misery.” And in his snit, Jonah goes outside the city and sits down in the scorching sun, prepared to die. But God makes a bush to grow up over Jonah, to give him shade. And Jonah is happy for the shade. But the next day, a worm comes and attacks the bush, and it withers away. Then the sun rises, a great east wind comes up, and the hot sun beats down on Jonah’s head, and once again he begs God to let him die.

Then God says to Jonah: “So you are concerned about the bush, for which you did not labor and which you did not grow; it came into being in a night and perished in a night. And should I not be concerned about Nineveh, that great city, in which there are more than a hundred and twenty thousand people and also many animals?” And Jonah says to God: “I knew that your are gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love…. But who is getting your mercy? Me? Or these foreigners, who don’t even believe in you?”

(3) Everyone, not just a special few, has a call to prophesy:

Increasingly in this nation, we are becoming foreign countries to each other. Many of us, like Jonah, are beginning to think that God should have no mercy on the foreigners, the illegal aliens, or the lazy poor. Others are thinking that God should have no mercy on the haters, the prejudiced, and the penny-pinchers who won’t spend an extra cent to help the poor.

And most of us are still thinking that one person, the right person, will make all the difference and lead us to the promised land.

So here’s the task ahead of us: we don’t need any lone prophets, we need a multitude of prophets to speak the truth.

So, what prophetic word is God giving to you?


Preached at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church
January 21, 2018

Walking the Jordan River

Waters shall break forth in the wilderness…
Isaiah 35-10

There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God…
Psalm 46:1-12 

On either side of the river is the tree of life, with its twelve kinds of fruit,
and the leaves of the fruit are for the healing of the nations…
Revelation 22:1-5

Then Jesus came to the Jordan, to be baptized by John….
Matthew 3:13-17 

The Jordan River winds through the whole Bible, a sacred symbol for Jews, Christians, and Muslims.  Jews remember that their ancestors crossed through the Jordan into the promised land.  Christians remember that Jesus came there to be baptized in its waters. And Muslims remember Muhammad, whose closest companions were buried there.

In today’s Gospel Jesus steps into the Jordan…. not just to be baptized in a symbolic action, but to be completely drenched in the river.

Are you ready to step into the waters, too?

Walking the river with Jesus

As a young boy, Jesus probably climbed into the mountains north of his home in Nazareth, perhaps even reaching the springs that feed the river near Mt. Hermon.

Cascades near Mt. Hermon

He would have seen farmers using the Jordan’s water to irrigate their farms…

The upper Jordan

He would have hiked around the Sea of Galilee, formed by the river over many centuries.

The Sea of Galilee

And as a grown man, after his baptism in the river, we know he climbed into the dry hills above the Jordan, to wrestle with his call to ministry.

The lower Jordan desert

Walking the river today

I invite you to walk the Jordan River with me this morning.  We could choose to hike along the Colorado River, sacred to the Native Americans who live along its banks, dammed by American engineers, and diverted to American farms before it reaches Mexican land.

Or we could walk along the Ganges as it rushes south through India and Bangladesh, or along the Nile as it winds through the nations of North Africa.

We could be walking almost any river on Earth, because every river has ecological, human, and spiritual value to the people who live nearby; but we’re walking the Jordan today because it already has spiritual value for us, and it is crying out for practical solutions to its many problems.

The Jordan from outer space

For a river with such mighty meaning, the Jordan River is very short – only 156 miles long.  It was once more than 75 feet wide, flanked by willow trees and poplars and filled with fish that could be eaten; but today, at its best the Jordan is less than 6 feet deep. It’s become more like a creek than a river.

The river flows through some of the most dangerous and disputed land on Earth.  Its sources begin in the mountains where the borders of Lebanon, Syria, and Israel meet.  Then, below the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan forms the border between Israel and two Arab nations.

But the crisis facing the river Jordan involves more than international politics.  Today environmentalists blame Israel, Jordan and Syria for crippling damage to the river and its ecosystem. 70% to 90% of the river’s waters are used for human purposes along the upper Jordan, and the remaining water comes from sewage and the contaminated agricultural run-off.

at Yardenit

Just below the Sea of Galilee, the modern pilgrim comes to Yardenit, where the Israelis have created a pool of clean water.  Every year more than 600,000 pilgrims come here, to step in the water, to be baptized, or to be re-baptized. If you only saw the Jordan here (as most Christian pilgrims do) you might think that the Jordan River is still robust and vibrant.

at Alumout

But just a few miles south of Yardenit, we come to the Alumot Dam, which diverts the fresh water into Israel’s national water carrier.  A small sewage treatment plant processes the rest, sending a thin stream of brownish-yellow sewage water back into the stream. As the river continues south, the sewage from thousands of Israelis living in the upper Jordan Valley; from thousands of Israeli settlers and Palestinians on the West Bank; and from a quarter-million Jordanians provides the Lower Jordan River with most of its water.

at the Island of Peace

A few miles south of Alumot, we come to the “Island of Peace”. To find an Island of Peace anywhere in the world is rare, but to find it in the Middle East is a miracle.  The land here is Jordanian, but it’s owned and farmed by an Israel kibbutz.  100 years ago, kibbutz leaders received permission from Jordan to build a hydroelectric power station, and the canals and dams built for the station created an island.  In spite of continuing conflict Israel ceded the area to Jordan 25 years ago, as part of the Israel-Jordan Treaty of Peace. Jordan agreed to lease it back so the Israeli farmers could continue to cultivate the land. The kibbutz on the Island of Peace continues to this day; international pilgrims still visit; and Friends of the Earth – Middle East hope (now called EcoPeace) hopes to create a “Jordan Peace Park”.

at Bethany beyond the Jordan

A few miles south of the “Island of Peace” we come to al-Maghtas – or “Bethany beyond the Jordan”. This is the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism – honored and visited for nearly 2,000 years of Christian history.   Today pilgrims walk down steps that led to a deck on the river’s edge, and – if they dare – can step into the Jordan’s waters.

Two years ago, EcoPeace led journalists on a tour of the river.  One of the journalists recorded,

“One look at the river and we understood why we came on the trip. It was pitiful.  The Jordan River, for all its fame, was a narrow  brownish stream that gurgled its way south.  On the opposite side, just a few meters away from us in Jordan, was a similar wooden deck where tourists came and went.

“One pilgrim put on a white cloth and calmly entered the water. The guide, who had been explaining how the river turned from gushing rapids into a fetid stream, stopped mid-sentence as we all watched in horror. “

Sometimes our convictions about spiritual truth the can blind us to material reality.

   at the Dead Sea

A few more miles, and we come to the Dead Sea. The Jordan always ended here; the waters have no outlet because the sea is so far below sea level. But today the Dead Sea is truly dying, shrinking by the day as its waters are drained away for human use.

The Jordan River is the latest victim of the Syrian civil war

More than 3 million refugees have fled Syria to date, and over half a million have settled in bone-dry and water-impoverished Jordan.   Environmental issues are understandably a very distant second to humanitarian concerns, but the rising numbers of refugees needing water have reduced the river’s flow to a trickle.

Za’atari refugee camp

One of the Jordan’s major tributaries, the Yarmouk River, flows southwest out of Syria and forms the border between Syria, Jordan and Israel.  Nearby is the Za’atari Refugee Camp, the second largest refugee camp in the world and now the fourth largest settlement in Jordan.

(To illustrate the impact that humans have on these rivers, note this: When refugees began to flee southern Syria, the amount of water flowing downstream to the Yarmouk water greatly increased – because the water is no longer being used by Syrian farms and towns.)

EcoPeace Middle East  

EcoPeace Middle East is an international organization active in environmental peacemaking. With 40 paid employees and hundreds of volunteers, EcoPeace publishes scientific and social research, spearheads national-level advocacy campaigns and engages in grassroots community development.

One of EcoPeace’s major goals is the rehabilitation of the Jordan River and the Dead Sea.  Its Good Water Neighbors project engages residents of all ages, mayors and municipal representatives in 25 communities throughout all three countries in a united effort to rehabilitate the regions’ shared water resources.  Amazingly, considering the region’s problems, EcoPeace has made surprising headway in encouraging cooperation to save the river.

A study by EcoPeace scientists shows that the Jordan River could return to life with 400 million cubic meters of fresh water annually.  Where would the water come from?  Half would be returned by Israel, a quarter by Jordan, and the last quarter by Syria.  EcoPeace says those percentages are based on historically who has taken what.  “Historically, Israel has taken 46% of the flow. So it can at least return that much and because of its [strong] economic situation it can return more.”

Impossible?  The work EcoPeace has done with local councils and the media has created a public outcry which in turn has convinced the local authorities near the Sea of Galilee to finally build a sewage treatment plant, which will treat the waste and then use that water for other purposes.

A proposed Jordan River Peace Park is another source of hope to EcoPeace . Its leaders envision an island national park where Jordanians, Israelis, and Palestinians, who so seldom meet, might congregate and try to overcome their differences.

What are we going to do about water?

This has been another week when we’ve felt defeated by American politics, alarmed by world leaders threatening war, and overwhelmed by monster hurricanes and earthquakes.  Can we muster any energy to save earth’s waters?

Every worth-while task is daunting.  It doesn’t matter whether you want to save the salmon in the Columbia River or the Morro Bay Estuary, share water equitably from the Colorado or the San Joaquin delta.  It doesn’t matter whether your water issue starts with underground wells in Cambria or Paso Robles, or the with the cost of treating sewage in Los Osos.

But if Israelis and Jordanians can maintain an Island of Peace in a region of war, what could we do here?

I know that everyone here this morning is already personally doing something to care for the environment.  We’ve learned to recycle, take shorter showers, stop using Styrofoam cups and plastic bottles  – small personal actions that mount up when we do it together.  But how are we working together to pressure our local officials, our national leaders, to make better decisions about water?

If some brave Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians can cooperate to save the Jordan River, can’t we muster the patience to deal with our own neighbors, with our community service districts, with our county, state and national leaders?

How big a task is too big for us?  Let’s return to this morning’s psalm:

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,
though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea.
though the mountains tremble at its tumult.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.
Psalm 46

As I see it, there are two ways to respond to what this psalm is saying.

We could hear it saying,  Don’t worry, leave it to God.
Or we could hear, God will give you strength to do the work before you. 

What do you hear?

Every worth-while task is daunting, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done.

The Mud Creek Slide

Yesterday when Rob read this verse – the mountains toppled into the depths of the sea – he was reminded of the great slide on Highway One north of us – and the mind-boggling challenge of repairing it.

So Rob asked, should we wait for God to fix this – these mountains that have tumbled into the sea – or can God give us strength – the strength to decide to fix our infrastructure, to repair our roads and our dams, and then agree to pay taxes so the state of California can fix it?

Rob says that’s one thing he can do.

What’s  your  “one thing”?

Preached at St. Benedict’s Episcopal Church, Los Osos
River Sunday: September 24, 2017


Jesus: The Human Face of God

© Jay Parini. Reproduced by permission of the author.


What is metanoia?

Over the years, when have you experienced metanoia?
      What could new metanoia mean for you today?
         What could metanoia mean for your home?
            For your town?  For our country?



Take my yoke upon you and learn from me,
for I am gentle and humble in heart,
and you will find rest for your soul.
For my yoke is easy and my burden light.

Matthew 11:29-30

The soul of man is the lamp of God. 
Hebrew Proverb

This is a biography of Jesus, not a theological tract, though I take seriously the message embodied in the story of Christ that unfolded in real time. In Jesus: The Human Face of God, I offer a fresh look at him from the viewpoint of someone (a poet, novelist, and teacher of literature) who regards scripture as continuous revelation, embodied  not only in the four gospels – still the main source for information about the life of Jesus – but also in extra-canonical writing, such as the Gnostic Gospels, as well as in centuries of poetry and literature, where we see that prophecy remains active and  ongoing. I emphasize throughout what I call the gradually realizing kingdom of God – a process of transformation, like that of an undeveloped photograph dipped in chemicals. The process  itself adds detail and depth to the image, which grows more distinct and plausible by the moment.

Literal-minded readings of the scriptures distort this understanding of the kingdom of God in unfortunate ways. In my view, one is not “saved” by simply checking off the boxes in a code of dogmatic beliefs – this is not what Jesus had in mind.  He asked more of us than that, and offered more as well. And so,  in this portrait of Jesus’s life and ideas, I put forward a mythos – a  Greek word meaning story or legend – which suggests that the  narrative has symbolic contours as well as literal heft, and that one should always read this story with a kind of double vision, keeping in mind the larger meanings contained in the words and deeds that have mattered so much to Christians over two millennia.

Modern theologians have talked about demythologizing Jesus, but I want to remythologize him. At every turn in this biography, I try to imagine what Jesus meant to those who  encountered him, and how his teachings and behavior inspired  deeply personal transformations with public or social (even political) implications.

Jesus was a religious genius, and the Spirit moved in him in unique ways, with unusual grace and force, allowing him access to the highest levels of God-consciousness. His own life provided an example of how to behave in the world, urging us to love our neighbors as ourselves, to turn the other check when  struck, and to remain fixed on “faith, hope, and love.”  “This is  my commandment,” Jesus said, putting before us a single ideal, “That you love one another, as I have loved you” (John 15:12).  The simplicity and force of this statement take away the breath.

In the course of this book, I make an effort to place Jesus and his teachings within the context of desert wisdom. He came into this world at a turning point in history, a devout  Jew trained in the laws of Moses and the traditions of Judaism.  But he lived on the Silk Road, where he had access to Eastern as well as Western ideas. These currents informed his thoughts, and the Sermon on the Mount – where the core of his teaching  lies in compressed form – extended and transformed key Jewish concepts while absorbing the Hindu and Buddhist idea of Karma: the notion that we ultimately reap what we sow.  Jesus thought of the human mind in Greek terms, of course: an amalgam of body and soul. Yet his understanding of the human condition drew on every available concept as he set forth at the age of thirty with energy and passion, hoping to reshape the world, speaking not to elites – those who ruled the Roman Empire  or administered the Second Temple in Jerusalem – but to the  poor, the weak, and the marginalized. Here was, indeed, a revolution.

He was a ferocious, challenging teacher, hardly the Jesus “meek and mild” of the church hymn. And he made huge demands on those drawn toward him, as when he says in Mark  8:34: “Whoever will come after me, let him deny himself, and  take up his cross, and follow me.” It’s an audacious invitation and one that Christians rarely take with the seriousness intended. The Way of Jesus, as it might be called, involves self denial, a sense of losing oneself in order to find oneself, moving  through the inevitable pain of life with good cheer, accepting  gracefully the burdens that fall on our shoulders and the tasks  that lie before us. This is true discipleship,

On this subject, I often recall the life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian and minister who was executed by the Nazis in a concentration camp at Flossenburg on April 9, 1945, only a few weeks before its liberation by the Allies. Bonhoeffer stood up boldly to Hitler, and his anti-Nazi activities led to his arrest by the Gestapo. During his imprisonment in Berlin’s Tegel Military Prison for a year and a half, Bonhoeffer offered comfort and inspiration to his fellow prisoners, and even his Nazi jailers admired his courage and compassion, the example he set for others in a dire situation. He imitated Jesus there,  making use of his example, allowing it to define his own life and actions.

Bonhoeffer reflected passionately on the meaning of his life, writing in his diary only a few months before his death: “It all depends on whether or not the fragment of our life reveals the plan and material of the whole. There are fragments which are  only good to be thrown away, and others which are important for centuries to come because their fulfillment can only be a divine work. They are fragments of necessity. If our life, however  remotely, reflects such a fragment … we shall not have to bewail our fragmentary life, but, on the contrary, rejoice in it.” (1)   

In The Cost of Discipleship, a bracing theological work, Bonhoeffer meditates at book-length on what it means to take up the cross: “Discipleship means adherence to Christ, and, because Christ is the object of that adherence, it must take the form of discipleship. An abstract Christology, a doctrinal system, a general religious knowledge on the subject of grace or on the forgiveness of sins, render discipleship superfluous, and in fact they positively exclude any idea of discipleship whatever, and are essentially inimical to the whole conception of following Christ.” (2)   So it won’t do simply to follow a doctrinal system, marking off the things one has to believe in order to be “saved.” To follow the Way of Jesus, one has to walk in a certain direction, experiencing the difficulties as well as the illimitable freedom of that choice. “Happy are the simple followers of Jesus Christ who have been overcome by his grace,” writes Bonhoeffer. “Happy are they who, knowing that grace, can live in the world without being of it, who, by following Jesus Christ, are so assured of their heavenly citizenship that they are truly free to live their lives in this world.” (3)   Bonhoeffer’s statement makes one question the idea of dogma, the notion that one should adhere  to strict rules and prescribed statements in order to pursue the  Christian way.

Jesus himself would have been startled to learn that, only a few centuries after his death – with the conversion of Emperor  Constantine in the early fourth century – the Roman Empire itself would officially adopt his teachings and make them the law of the land. He might well have balked at the thought that a world religion would arise in his name, with competing theologians (and armies), all convinced that their understanding of his gospel message is correct, while other views are wrong. Jesus had no intention of founding a church (Greek: ekklesia) in competition with Judaism, although as the parable of the mustard seed suggests, he could imagine large numbers of people flocking to his tree of ideas like birds.

In the last chapter of this book, I explore the “afterlife” of Jesus, how a church gradually formed, with competing ideas about what his life meant. I also explore the various attempts to write about his life, which in the modern age began in the eighteenth century, when after the Enlightenment a degree of skepticism arose about the historical status of Jesus and the deeds  and words relayed in the gospels. But that’s later in the story.  The starting point, for me – as suggested above – is the world into which Jesus was born, a pervasively Jewish world in Palestine at one of the major junctures in history, when the message that Jesus offered struck a small chord among a core group  of people  – most of them Mediterranean peasants who could  barely read or write – that would grow louder and more resonant in time.

Yet questions loom: Who exactly was this man, Jesus of  Nazareth? Was he, as some scholars argue, a wandering rabbi, a magician, a healer and exorcist like many others at this time, including Rabbinic sages such as Honi ha-Ma’agel or Hanina ben  Dosa?(4)   Was he also an apocalyptic visionary who imagined an end to history? As anyone who reads the gospels soon notices, Jesus quoted easily and often from Hebrew scriptures, with incredible alertness to parallels that foreshadowed his own story.  He understood that Jews in Palestine felt profoundly uneasy  under Roman rule, and he reflected this political reality in the  things he said and did. But it’s important to keep in mind that he was always a good, if unconventional, Jew. The fact that he took himself to be the long-awaited Christ (the Greek word  for messiah) would, in fact, hardly have endeared him to Jewish  authorities, who never imagined that the Chosen One would come from peasant stock in a remote Galilean village. That wasn’t what they had in mind, and they looked askance at his purveyance of “signs and wonders” – miracles and astounding deeds that drew crowds wherever he went.

Christians have sometimes turned away from the supernatural aspects of his life with a sense of embarrassment. Walking on water? Giving sight to blind men? Healing lepers? Turning water into wine? Bringing the dead back to life? Rising from the dead after being crucified? Thomas Jefferson and Leo Tolstoy – both sons of the Enlightenment – sifted through the gospels with great care and a red pencil, underlining the aphorisms where his wisdom shone; at the same time, they crossed out the supernatural parts, including the Resurrection, which they assumed no self-respecting intellectual could abide. In What Is Religion? Tolstoy puts his views forward without fudging his skepticism: “Religion is not a belief, settled once for all, in certain supernatural occurrences supposed to have taken place once upon a time, nor in the necessity for certain prayers and ceremonies; nor is it, as the scientists suppose, a survival of the superstitions of ancient ignorance, which in our time has no meaning or application to life; but religion is a certain relation of man to eternal life and to God, a relation accordant with reason and contemporary knowledge.” (5)

To this day liberal Christians tend to deflect the “superstitious” parts of the Jesus story and prefer to see religion as “a relation accordant with reason and contemporary knowledge,”  with Jesus as a prophet who preached love and nonviolent resistance to evil. He becomes simply a wise man who wished us to behave like the Good Samaritan in the parable (Luke 10:29-37), that kindly fellow who went out of his way to help a robbed and beaten traveler who lay by the roadside. This was ethical behavior of a high order, and Jesus encouraged such habits of rectitude and responsibility. Love your neighbor. Treat people as you would treat yourself (unless you happen to treat yourself badly).

This Jesus stands in contrast to the Jesus of evangelical Protestantism, where he becomes the Savior, the single doorway to heaven, the only route to eternal life, the way to ward off the flames of hell. Indeed, we’re all familiar with the bumper sticker versions of this theology, perhaps best summed up as “Jesus Saves.” For such Christians, the Redeemer was required by his father in heaven to die for the sins of humanity. In this tradition, simply believing that he gave his life for our sins buys admittance to God’s kingdom. This is widely known as conversion: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ, and you will be saved, and your house,” as we read in Acts 16:31. It’s a simple idea, attractive to large numbers of people, although such a picture of Jesus and his “good news” tends to oversimplify his message and meaning, leading to a kind of limited vision that is both reductive and – in my opinion – dangerous. It suggests that one can, in an instant, cross a magical line and acquire salvation instead of entering into the gradually realizing kingdom of God, a process of daily transformation.


Jesus invited, even insisted on, a change of heart, asking us to repent. But repentance is only part of the deeper meaning buried in the Greek term μετάνοια (metanoia) – a key word in the New Testament. The word derives from meta, meaning “to move beyond,” as in metaphysics, or “grow large or increase.” Noia means “mental” or “mind.” So the word, quite specifically, means: “to grow  large in mind.” When scriptures suggest that one should “repent” in order to be “saved,” this actually means that in addition  to having a change of heart – and that remains a core meaning here – one should go beyond the mind, reaching for awareness of the spirit, for a deep grounding in God.  Even to be “saved”  doesn’t relate to “salvation” in the most common sense of the  term: soteria in Greek. It means “being filled with a new spirit.”  In other words, one shifts consciousness, through prayer and  meditation, through worship, seeking a larger and wider consciousness. One wakes up into the kingdom, moving beyond  the deadening confines of everyday reality.

This is very different from the usual focus on repentance and salvation, concepts that actually derive from the early Church Fathers, especially Justin Martyr, who influenced Irenaeus and  Tertullian, early theologians who focused on the need for remorse, for expiation – getting rid of one’s sinful deeds by admitting them. St. Jerome, who translated the Bible into Latin in the late fourth century, absorbed this teaching, and he set in motion  a range of theological misperceptions by translating metanoia as paenitentia, which becomes, in English, repent, as in the King James Version (KJV): “Repent ye, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” (Matthew 3:2) .

This translation does not reflect a properly complex version of the term metanoia (which occurs fifty-eight times in the New Testament). The word itself suggests a beckoning by God toward the human soul, an invitation to spaciousness and awakening. (6)   It implies a reaching beyond (meta) the mind (noia), a wish to acquire a wider spiritual awareness.  A better way to translate this verse in Matthew would be: “Have a true change of heart and wake up to God. The spaciousness of his kingdom lies inside you. Transformation is not only possible: it lies within your grasp.” This, for me, is what it means to be “saved,” and it asks more of us than mere assent to a list of beliefs. It requires a mindfulness and absorption of God’s kingdom that is, in the end, life changing.

While not a biblical scholar, I have over many years been in close contact with Christianity and Christians from different (often conflicting) theological traditions. Growing up in the home of a former Roman Catholic turned Baptist minister, I often sat through hot summer evenings in tabernacle meetings of a kind familiar to anyone who has watched Billy Graham on television. Indeed, I heard the Reverend Graham in person on more than one occasion, and countless times on television and radio – my family listened every Sunday at lunchtime to his weekly radio sermon. I continue to have genuine sympathy for what might be called “that old-time religion.” Every morning at the breakfast table, my father read from the King James Version of the Bible, large portions of which I committed to memory.  I later studied the Greek New Testament, reading a good deal  of theology in college, graduate school, and beyond. Christian theology has been a preoccupation of mine for some five decades. (I should note that most of the versions of the New Testament quoted in this book are my own, produced by working from an interlinear Greek-English text. For reasons of familiarity I sometimes prefer the King James Version, as when I quote the Beatitudes or the Lord’s Prayer. I use the KJV in all cases when quoting from the Hebrew scriptures. To my ear, it’s what the Old Testament sounds like.) As a young man I became, and I remain, a member of the Episcopal Church, with an Anglican disposition – a consequence of ten years spent in Britain, perhaps.

My religious affections range widely, probably as a result of the mongrel past described above. At the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, I wrote a graduate thesis on Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit movement and an innovator in the field of devotional practice, as seen in his Spiritual Exercises, which dates to the early sixteenth century. In college, I was thoroughly enamored of modern theologians like Paul Tillich and Rudolf Bultmann, who brought my evangelical orientation into question; yet I retain a sympathy for the religion of my childhood: my heart warms when I hear hymns like “Blessed Assurance” or “Just as I Am.” My own religious  practice, however, draws on many strands in Christianity, and  my reading in the field ranges over any number of (often contradictory) spiritual writers, many of them as much influenced by Buddhism as Christian theology. (I regularly teach a course  on poetry and spirituality at Middlebury College, bringing me into constant contact with a range of spiritual writing from the  Psalms through the Tao Te Ching, the poems of Rumi, as well  as T. S. Eliot, R. S. Thomas, Charles Wright, and Mary Oliver, among others. In fact, I write as someone who has spent more time reading poetry than scholarly studies of Jesus.) Although I will allude frequently to competing interpretations of biblical texts, my focus will remain on my own understanding of the  meaning of the life of Christ – provisional as this must necessarily be.

In the final chapter of this book, I attempt to deal with the often contradictory efforts of scholars in recent centuries to locate the historical foundations of the Jesus story: the so-called quest for the historical Jesus. It’s not easy work, as the biblical trail alone is often blurry, and the usual techniques of “scientific” history rarely apply here. The gospels themselves can’t be considered historical evidence in the modern sense of that term.  But in my attempt to reimagine the mythos of Jesus, I try to take  all this uncertainty into account, retelling the story as I see it, noting the difficulties of interpretation where they arise, drawing attention to contradictions where they exist, while trying to see Jesus steadily and whole through the kaleidoscopic lens of  many texts.

Now in my mid-sixties, I’m still in search of Jesus, and this seeking often seems more important than the finding. To a large degree, this biography itself represents the fruit of my decades-long project of trying to understand Jesus and to take his example purposefully in my own life. I often recall some lines from the Gospel of Thomas, one of the Gnostic Gospels discovered in the sands of Egypt at Nag Hamrnadi in 1945:

If you are searching,
You must not stop until you find.
When you find, however,
You will become troubled.
Your confusion will give way to wonder.
In wonder you will reign over all things.
Your sovereignty will be your rest.  (7)   

This search, for me, involves a great deal of confusion, although it often gives way to wonder, to a feeling of all-embracing peace and sympathy for others. Jesus invites me to consider the lilies, and to understand that, by grace, I have access to a wider kingdom than I’d previously imagined. It’s a matter of “thy will be done,” not my own willing: a shift of emphasis that lifts the burden.

While I pay close attention to the facts in this biography of Jesus, the historicity of his life is less important than the meaning of the story itself. It doesn’t matter what aspects of his  life – his sayings, the exemplary deeds that formed the core of his ministry, the miracles – can be confirmed (or denied) by historians. At the end of his recent book, Constructing Jesus, Dale C. Allison, Jr. – a leading New Testament scholar – concludes his long study with a moving frankness: “While I am proudly a historian, I must confess that history is not what matters most.  If my deathbed finds me alert and not overly racked with pain, I will then be preoccupied with how I have witnessed and embodied faith, hope, and charity. I will not be fretting over the historicity of this or that part of the Bible.(8)   This rings true in  my ears.

What matters is the way that God moved in the life of Jesus, who showed us how to find this spirit within ourselves.  Ralph Waldo Emerson put the matter succinctly in his “Divinity School Address” delivered at Harvard in 1838:

Jesus Christ belonged to the true race of the prophets. He saw with open eye the mystery of the soul. Drawn by its severe harmony, ravished with its beauty, he lived in it, and had his being there. Alone in all history he estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me. He saw that God incarnates himself in man, and evermore goes forth anew to take possession of his world. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion,  “I am divine. Through me, God acts; through me, speaks. Would  you see God, see me.”

The story of Jesus transcends time and physical boundaries. To understand it, one must remain open to every possibility, regarding the miracles of Jesus and the Resurrection as mysteries more alluring than frustrating, more inspiring than disconcerting. I narrate the life of Jesus from Bethlehem to Golgotha and beyond – with sympathy for its profound mythic pull, its transforming powers. I stop by the wayside to explain major moments or concepts that may not be familiar to all readers, such as the Virgin Birth or the Transfiguration. In the process of remythologizing Jesus, I take in stride the supernatural aspects of his life, believing that reality is more complex than we usually think, and that we can’t begin to imagine the truth of things with the limited intellectual and perceptual machinery we’ve  been given. In this, I follow St. Anselm, who referred to “faith on a quest to know:’ writing: “For I do not seek to understand  so that I may believe, but I believe so that I may understand. (9)   

Within the Christian worldview, history becomes a pattern of timeless moments. And the work involves trying to find a place in the bewildering universe of hints and guesses that confront us as we search, looking around us at things we can scarcely hope to comprehend with the limited intellect and resources we’ve been given. As T. S. Eliot put it so beautifully in  “The Dry Salvages”:

                        These are only hints and guesses,
 Hints followed by guesses; and the rest
Is prayer, observance, discipline, thought and action.


How would you explain the Greek word metanoia?
Over the years, when have you experienced metanoia?

What could new metanoia mean for you today?
What could metanoia mean for your home?
For your town?  For our country?



1  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1959), 33.

2  Bonhoeffer, 59.

3  Bonhoeffer, 55-56.

4  For a discussion of the Jewish context of Jesus, see Geza Vermes, Jesus the Jew: A Historian’s Reading of the Gospels (London: Collins, 1973) or Daniel Boyarin, The Jewish Gospels: The Story of the Jewish Christ (New York: The New Press, 2012).

5   Last Steps: The Late Writings of Leo Tolstoy, ed. Jay Parini (London: Penguin, 2009), 164.

6   For a fuller discussion of metanoia, see Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus: Transforming Heart and Mind – a New Perspective on Christ and His .Message (Boston: Shambhala, 2008), 37-38. See also Murray A. Rae, Kierkegaard’s Vision if the Incarnation: By Faith Transformed (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998). My reading of metanoia is also reinforced by Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of a Religious Revolutionary (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2006), 219-20.  Borg says: “The Greek roots of ‘repent’ mean ‘to go beyond the mind that you have.’”

The Gospel of Thomas: Wisdom of the Twin, ed. Lynn Bauman (Ashland, OR: White Cloud Press, 2004), 8. I am grateful to Cynthia Bourgeault for directing me to this translation.

8   Dale C. Allison, Jr., Constructing Jesus: Memory, Imagination, and History (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 462.

9   Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, The Major Works, trans. M.J.  Charlesworth (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 87.


It would be impossible to acknowledge all of those who have helped me along my path over many decades in my pursuit of Jesus, but several friends read this manuscript in various drafts, including a number of gifted theologians and biblical scholars. These include Ellie Gebarowski Bagley, J. Stannard Baker, Edward Howells, Paul Jersild, John Kiess, Richard McLaughlan and O. Larry Yarbrough. Without their encouragement and suggestions, this book would have been infinitely poorer, although I accept full responsibility for all errors of fact and judgment. The manuscript was closely read by my editor and friend, James Atlas, and by my wife, Devon Jersild. Their suggestions were acutely intelligent and always helpful as well as encouraging.


Chapter 1 – Ancient Palestine

© Jay Parini. Reproduced by permission of the author.


Where did the “silk road” go in Jesus’ day? 
Do we live on a “silk road” today?
How does today’s “silk road” change the way we see the world?


Jesus was a Near Eastern event.  
– Cynthia Bourgeault, The Wisdom Jesus

The lilies are fallen unto me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.
Psalm 16:6


I  recently stood at sunrise on a hill overlooking Jerusalem, with goat bells tinkling in the middle distance.  The Mount of Olives loomed in a rising mist, the air tinged with the odor of cypress, not unlike the smell of sage with a twist of lemon. It occurred to me that for thousands of years this prospect had remained more or less unchanged. This bleached landscape was a place where generations of merchants and caravans traveled along the Silk Road in search of wealth and adventure, where foreign armies came and went, where religious passions met, sometimes mingled, often clashed in near apocalypse. The walled city itself was a palimpsest, with many erasures and overwritten passages; it speaks of stratified cultures, layer upon layer: pagan, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, and many iterations of each. It has always, indeed, been a site of placement and displacement, sacred to someone, a major cross roads between East and West, an incendiary point on any map of the world.

For good reason, theologians, historians, and archaeologists have focused intensely on Palestine, especially in the biblical period, and recent work has produced revelations that only enhance the mythic aspect of place in this land. Palestine is a magnet for mythos, the cradle of desert wisdom. And the narrative residue of this area is daunting: a thousand and one tales mingle here, true and partially true, fantastic or realistic. The degree to which ancient Hebrew scripture represents what actually occurred during the millennium before Jesus’s birth, up through the day of his crucifixion in the third decade of the first century is, by itself, a subject that has vexed scholars over the centuries. Yet we know a great deal more about Palestine now than we did only a century ago. “It is no exaggeration to say that since the mid-twentieth century our Western map of the known Christian universe has been blasted wide open.” writes Cynthia Bourgeault, a scholar who has looked closely at the wisdom tradition in the teachings of Jesus. (1)  She refers mainly to the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels, such as the Gospel of Thomas, at Nag Hamrnadi in Egypt, as well as the Dead Sea Scrolls in Qumran. In fact, the doors and windows have been flung open by archaeology and textual criticism, and our knowledge of ancient Palestine has multiplied exponentially, bringing new perspectives on the life of Jesus.

A few points we can assume: Jesus was no illiterate carpenter without access to the marketplace of ideas. Living on the Silk Road, a trading thoroughfare between East and West, he would have encountered Hellenistic notions of the soul’s immortality that poured in from the West, from Greece and Rome, and felt the heady winds of mysticism blowing from Persia and the East. Many cultural historians, such as Jerry H. Bentley, have dangled the possibility before us that Buddhism played a role in the shaping of early Christianity, with stories about the Buddha often having parallels in the life and teachings of Jesus. (2)  At the very least, religion and trade were binding influences in Palestine at this critical juncture in time, and one can’t overestimate the impact these had on ideas circulating in Galilee at the beginning of this millennium.

In short, the world into which Jesus was born during the time of Augustus Caesar was cosmopolitan as well as Jewish, if reluctantly under Roman authority. The emperor allowed any number of client kings to operate on its behalf: Herod the Great, for instance, kept an eye fixed on Rome for direction as he reigned over an impressive kingdom, where religious culture flourished, centered on the magnificent Second Temple in Jerusalem, which (according to Luke 2:39-52) Jesus visited with his family, who probably joined regular caravans from Nazareth, his home village, to worship at religious festivals, such as the feast of Passover.

This was a desert world alert to every spiritual wind that swept its bright and stony surfaces, a place with “an awesome, all-pervading sense of time and space,” as Joseph Campbell, the great student of world myth, has noted, calling it “a kind of Aladdin cave within which light and darkness, spirit and soul, interplay to create” a world where the human and the divine mingled under the relentless sun. Campbell concludes: “The individual in this world is not an individual at all, but of an organ or part of the great organism – as in Paul or Augustine’s view of the Living Body of Christ. In each being, as throughout the world cavern, there play the two contrary, all-pervading principles of Spirit and Soul.” (3)


Ancient Palestine stretched from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River and adjoining territories: a landscape of olive and fig trees, juniper and date palms, fields of grain, vineyards, fragrant desert flowers and plants, undulating mountains and fertile valleys, with sunlight shimmering off stone buildings – especially the magnificent Second Temple in Jerusalem, which Herod (shortly before the birth of Jesus) enlarged to a size nearly as big as his ego. It became the focal point for Jewish worship, even for civic life in the capital. Indeed, the rebuilding of the Second Temple involved large numbers of people over several decades. According to Joachim Jeremias, a revered New Testament scholar: “When the work began, 10,000 lay workers and 1,000 priests trained for the purpose are said to have been engaged.” (4)  That’s a small army. The historian Titus Flavius Josephus (37-100 CE), who remains a major source of information about the early Christian era, described entering the Temple himself and being dazzled by the golden facade that made him blink with admiration and awe. Jeremias says: “Even though we must take the statements of Josephus with critical caution, we cannot doubt that the Temple was built with the greatest possible splendor and provided great opportunities for craftsmanship in gold, silver and bronze. Indeed, on entering the Temple, no matter from what direction a man came, he would have to pass through double gates covered with gold and silver.” (5)

Jesus didn’t enjoy such luxuries, being from a poor village in Galilee, the son of a journeyman (Greek: tekton), perhaps a carpenter or mason by trade: linguists continue to argue over the exact meaning of that term. It’s certain, however, that life outside the Temple itself was anything but lavish for most Jews in this era. They lived in houses of rough-cut stone with flat tiled roofs and unpainted wooden doors. The windows had no screens, of course, so flies were daily companions. These crude dwellings had packed-dirt floors and open courtyards where family and friends gathered for meals and conversation in a peasant society wedded to the agricultural rhythms of planting and harvest times. In the course of any day, Jesus would have seen chickens, sheep, cattle, oxen, camels, goats, horses, and donkeys. The city streets would often have been paved or cobbled, but this was mostly a land of dusty roads and dry, windswept vistas. The smell of dung lingered in the air.

Few people in Palestine at this time could read and write, though devout Jews listened to readings of the Hebrew scriptures, the Tanakh, which included the Pentateuch (or Torah) – the five books of Moses – as well as the Prophets. The so-called Writings, such as the Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, or Job, were later additions to the canonical Hebrew Bible, but they circulated among Jews along with a large quantity of Midrash, a kind of writing devoted to interpreting the meaning of scripture, especially its legal and ethical aspects. Jesus knew these texts well, as we see from his conversations as reported in the gospels, and regarded teaching as a central aspect of his mission: indeed, his followers often called him Rabbi or Teacher. As I noted before, he considered himself a devout Jew with ideas about reforming Judaism, not someone with designs on starting his own religion. It’s significant that he never left a word of writing himself, which meant that his sayings and parables rode on the uncertain breeze of oral tradition, circulating like spores, taking root here and there.

His native language was Aramaic, a Semitic tongue commonly spoken in Palestine at this time, especially among Jews. (It was in the Canaanite family of languages). By the first century, Greek had become the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean, and this was true in Palestine as well, as it had been under the influence of Hellenistic culture since its conquest by Alexander the Great in the fourth century BCE. One assumes that Jesus had some knowledge of Greek, although we lack hard evidence for this. The Romans, who arrived in the middle of the first century BCE, preferred Latin for official purposes, but Latin was rare in the streets (though not unknown). From the trial of Jesus before Pontius Pilate, a Roman prefect, we can assume that Jesus spoke Latin, although his degree of fluency can’t be known. In short, Palestine offered a very complex linguistic stew.

Close to home, Jesus had access to civilized culture. He could have walked to Sepphoris in less than an hour, this city of forty thousand inhabitants and the capital of Galilee, as it lay only a few miles to the northwest of Nazareth. It was the home of King Herod Antipas (until he moved his palace to Tiberias in the 20s CE, when Jesus would have been a young man), and the royal court brought visitors from far and wide. The city perched on the top of a mountain like a bird, hence the Hebrew name for it: Zippori, after tzipor, meaning “bird.” As the discoveries of recent archaeology reveal, it was a wealthy metropolis: the elaborate mosaic floors and colonnaded, paved streets confirm this. It was a busy commercial center, with two markets where traders brought goods from far and wide: woven fabrics from the east, an array of earthenware pots, jewelry, oil for burning in lamps, wooden furniture, beer and wine, fresh fish and fowl, various meats and baked goods, seasonings that included cumin, garlic, coriander, mint, mustard, and dill. Both men and women walked about in loose-fitting tunics, although the men wore leather belts or cloth girdles. Sandals were made of leather and sold in the marketplace. Any number of coins circulated for currency, often minted in Sepphoris.

Of course a substantial sector of the population in Palestine labored in agricultural jobs in this era. They planted and reaped barley or grapes or cared for animals. A smaller group manned fishing boats or worked in what might be considered the clothing industry: weaving cloth for tunics, tooling leather for sandals and belts. Some labored in the olive-oil business, cultivating the orchards or pressing the olives themselves. A number of beekeepers could also be found, as honey was much prized in Palestine, then as now. One could also find a number of butcher shops in any small city or town, and meat from Palestine traveled as far as Athens. Luxury goods, too, attracted any number of specialists, such as jewelers and goldsmiths. Jesus would have been familiar with all of these professions, and he made use of many images from the everyday lives of working men in his parables.


Galilee in the first century was charged with religious feelings, with competing groups of rabbis – Rabbi Hillel and Rabbi Shammai each founded traditions of biblical study and practice, often in competition for followers. Several devout sects flourished, including the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the Essenes, and the Zealots – the latter a group that didn’t come fully into view until the Jewish revolt of 66 CE, although precursor movements certainly existed. (Jesus not only knew of these sects but possibly belonged to one of them, as Geza Vermes – a pioneering scholar of Judaism and its influence on Christianity – notes.) (6)  Each of these sects of Judaism had elaborate rules and habits, although none of them emphasized “belief,” as the term is commonly understood by Christians today. Judaism, then as now, was a religion of practice, not intellectual or emotional assent. You lived as a Jew, following the laws put forward in the Torah. The afterlife could take care of itself.

The Sadducees – the name alludes to Saduc, a legendary high priest during the time of King David – formed an elite of wealthy or influential Jews, including the priests and elders who presided over ritual life in the temple.  A worldly group, they got along well with outsiders (travelers from Rome and Greece, Gaul, Egypt and elsewhere) and considered the Pharisees narrow-minded because of their fanatical adherence to Mosaic laws. One occasionally hears of them in the Bible, as when in Matthew 22:23 we read of certain members of this group approaching Jesus: “That same day the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question.” In Acts 23:8 we hear that this group had no belief in angels or spirits. Their world was utterly material, focused on the here and now, the physical universe, where ritual mattered as a guide to ethical behavior. They welcomed foreigners into their midst, even non-Jews.

The Pharisees, as their name suggests (the root of the term means “set apart”), wanted nothing to do with outsiders (non Jews or gentiles), and today they would be considered purists. They thought of themselves as “friends” (Hebrew: haberim) of the covenant made by God through Moses with the people of Israel. They first arrived on the scene in the second century before Jesus, and by the time of his public ministry had become a dominant voice in Judaism, with strict rules of admission that included a period when they had to prove their willingness to adhere to ritual laws. (7)  They stressed the need to help the poor and asked their members to tithe, giving a tenth of their income to the poor. As opposed to the Sadducees, they believed in the resurrection of the dead and leaned toward prophecy – ideas and tendencies that would influence Jesus in his thinking. And yet Jesus was in conflict with them repeatedly, as when, in Matthew 15:1-3, they complained to Jesus about the behavior of his followers: “Why do your disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? For they don’t wash their hands when they eat bread.”  Jesus couldn’t abide such rules, and suggested to his disciples in Matthew 23:5 that the Pharisees did all their works “to be seen by men.” That is, they were showing off, concerned with out ward conformity, not inward transformation.

The Essenes and Zealots were lesser movements in Palestine at this time, but they appealed in various ways to Jesus and his followers. Like the Pharisees, the Essenes advocated Jewish separateness, which they took to an extreme, living in exclusive communities, pursuing repentance and ritual purification. Some lived in mountain caves at Qumran (where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the mid-twentieth century). They were ascetics who led disciplined, prayerful lives – the Jewish equivalent of monks and nuns. They believed in the human soul and the resurrection of the body, concepts that Jesus would reinforce in his teaching. (There was a branch of the Essenes, or an offshoot, centered in Egypt called the Therapeutae, who strongly encouraged celibacy as a sign of devoutness, even encouraging new followers to abandon their wives and families. They engaged in a practice not unlike psychological counseling, and so they could be considered the ancestors of our present-day therapists.) The Zealots, barely in evidence yet, were less spiritually adept and theoretical. They were political revolutionaries: guerrillas, in effect. (One of the disciples of Jesus, Simon, may have been a Zealot.) In response to what they regarded as Jewish humiliation by the Romans, they wished to drive these pagan invaders from their homeland. As one major scholar of Jewish history has said, “From Galilee stemmed all revolutionary movements,” and these “so disturbed the Romans” that they put pressure on local authorities to repress them by whatever means. (8) Among the legendary heroes of rebellion was Judas the Galilean, a cofounder of the Zealots. When we think about the eventual crucifixion of Jesus by Roman authorities, it’s worth recalling that he associated with people – rabble-rousers, in effect – who resisted foreign occupation. The Zealots never forgot how badly the Jews had been treated by foreign occupations, and they recalled the destruction of the First Temple with a special distaste for their humiliation at the hands of the Babylonians.

For Jews, the past wasn’t really past. When the First Temple (or Solomon’s Temple) was destroyed during the siege of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, significant parts of the Jewish population  – largely the middle and upper classes, which numbered about ten thousand people – were swept into captivity by the Babylonian Empire, which vastly outnumbered them. The loss of the Temple – the center of Jewish spiritual and political life – was irreparable and seemed to contradict everything God had foretold in the Holy Scriptures about the triumph of  Israel over its enemies, forcing a crisis of confidence, even a crisis of faith. Why had God done this to us? Jews wondered. Had he not made promises about our triumph? From this crisis came many of the mournful psalms and lamentations of the Hebrew Bible. But one also saw the emergence of Ezekiel and Daniel, books of the Old Testament that embody the dream of a return to the homeland, with a theology of salvation in which a Davidic kingdom might be reestablished under the protective eye of God. (Notice that salvation for Jews was a political manifestation of God’s kingdom on earth, not a personal matter, as with many Christians.)

Not surprisingly, it was during the long Babylonian exile that Jews began to conceive of an actual adversary to God, someone who had plotted against his grand scheme for the triumph of Israel, and his opposition helped to explain the trouble at hand. This oppositional figure – not especially terrifying in his first appearances – was called Ha-satan, meaning ‘the Adversary.’  “Although he was a fairly insignificant nuisance in the Hebrew scriptures, he grew in status in later Jewish literature,” says Diarmaid MacCulloch, author of A History of Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years, “particularly among writers who were influenced by other religious cultures which spoke of powerful demonic figures.” Ha-satan evolved into Satan, growing in stature during the early Christian era, especially in the Book of Revelation, where he stages a final assault on God’s authority at the Battle of Armageddon. Needless to say, he also took a star turn through the Book of Job – one of the later books of the Hebrew scriptures.

In the wake of the Babylonian exile, for half a century, the First Temple lay in ruins. It was a devastating period but, in retrospect, a fallow time, during which fresh ideas from Greece poured into the region, ultimately affecting early Christian thought in the first century. Alexander the Great had seized control of Palestine and adjacent territories on his eastward expansion, and he opened Judaic doors to Greek philosophical thought while giving the Greek language a solid foothold in the Middle East that it would not relinquish for generations. The dualism of Plato, in particular, with its distinction between the body and the soul, was a legacy that influenced thinkers such as the apostle Paul, whose theological speculations became the foundation of Christian thought. (9) One hears the Hellenistic note, for example, in the idea of “emptying out” or kenosis – the word Paul chooses in his jaw-dropping theoretical effusions in the second chapter of Philippians: “Do nothing out of personal ambition or self-regard but in humbleness regard others as more important than yourself. Let all of you look not only to your own interests but to the interests of others. Have the mind of Christ in yours, thinking of him, who (though he was a god) didn’t consider his equality with God something he could attach himself to. Instead, he emptied himself out, taking on the form of a servant, having been born in the likeness of a man. And he humbled himself further, to the point of death on the cross. For this, God raised him up.” Even here, in my reading, I detect echoes of the rebuilding of Solomon’s Temple, that note of exile, a sense of Paul grappling with Greek ideas in original ways, shaping them to his own theological purposes.

Jesus benefited from the eclectic mix of ideas in Palestine during his coming of age. Yet it could not have been easy for him or any other devout Jew during the Roman occupation at the beginning of the first century, when there were strenuously competing notions about the nature and worship of God and the proper forms that religious practice should take. As the Talmudic scholar Daniel Boyarin recalls: “There were no rabbis yet, and even the priests in Jerusalem and around the temple were divided among themselves. Not only that, but there were many Jews both in Palestine and outside of it, in places such as Alexandria and Egypt, who had very different ideas about what being a good, devout Jew meant.” (10)  For his part, Jesus – a man with remarkable skills of spiritual intuition – had his own ideas, and these often conflicted with those of more conventional Jews, especially his notion of self-sacrifice: giving up the ego, allowing God to control our lives. “Blessed are the meek,” he would say, “for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).  Before this, one would have to look hard to find anyone celebrating “the meek” or suggesting that they would inherit anything at all, let alone “the earth.”

In a unique fusion, Jesus gathered up many of the loose ends of Judaism, which had frayed badly in Palestine during this era. In a sequence of disruptive sayings and parables, some of which had their origins in Judaic thought and some from elsewhere, he set before the world an ethical code with visionary force, with the power to transform lives and society in spiritual and material ways. But he would do more than that, taking on the role of Messiah or (the Greek word for it) Christ: a luminous figure who became the ultimate symbol of suffering, death. and resurrection. It’s not for nothing that we begin counting a new era from the date of his birth: Anno Domini, meaning the year of our Lord. But he came not only to provide comfort and ethical guidance, but to challenge those around him in ferocious, unsettling, even frightening ways. As T. S. Eliot put it so well in Gerontion:  “In the juvescence of the year / Came Christ the tiger.”

The Silk Road


What was the “silk road” in Jesus’ day? Who and what did it connect?
Do we live on a “silk road” today? Who and what does it connect?
How has today’s “road” changed the way we see the world?


1  Bourgeault, 16.

See Jerry H. Bentley, Old World Encounters: Cross-Cultural Contacts and Exchanges in Pre-Modern Times (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

3  Joseph Campbell, The Masks of God: Occidental Mythology (New York: Viking, 1964), 397-98.

4  Joachim Jeremias, Jerusalem at the Time of Jesus, F. H. and C. H. Cave (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1969), 22. This translation was based on the third German edition of this book, published in 1963.

5  Jeremias, 23.

6  Vermes, 62.

7  Jeremias, 251.

8  Simon Dubnow, History of the Jews 1 (South Brunswick, N.J.: T. Yoseloff, 1967),74.

9   See Martin Hengel, Jews, Greeks, and Barbarians: Aspects of the Hellenization of Judaism in the Pre-Christian Period, John Bowden (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1980). Hengel wrote numerous books on the Greek influence on early Christian thought and culture.

10 Boyarin, 5.




Chapter 2 – In the Beginning

© Jay Parini. Reproduced by permission of the author.

Questions to guide your reading:

For you, what is the deep meaning of “the Christmas Story”?

John’s Gospel opens, “In the beginning was the Logos.”
What is the


God became like us so that we might become like God.
– St. Athenasius, De incarnatione   

Aren’t we enlarged
by the scale of what we’re able
to desire?
– Mark Doty, “Messiah”

The early Christians had little information about the circumstances of Jesus’s birth, and curiosity must have overwhelmed them. The first Christian writings – the letters of Paul (written perhaps two decades after the Crucifixion) – say nothing about Christmas or the birth of Jesus; indeed, Paul shows no interest whatsoever in the life of Christ, his origins, or his family life. The earliest gospel, Mark, makes no mention of the birth whatsoever. Neither does the author of John appear to have any knowledge of Christmas. Instead, that gospel famously opens with a philosophical speculation about Jesus being present before anything else in the form of logos, a Greek term that has no decent equivalent in English, though it’s rendered as “Word” in nearly all translations: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The emphasis here lies in the notion of logos as an all-governing principle of creation permeating created things. But this is hardly like the Christmas story, which is much less philosophical and abstract.

Christmas is, by contrast, a legendary tale about a threatened family. A messenger of God comes to Mary, a terrified young virgin, and informs her that she would conceive a son without having slept with her husband-to-be, Joseph. The story soon becomes a narrative of dislocation and poverty: Jesus is born in a manger in Bethlehem, with his parents on the road, away from home. It’s a story with obvious political implications, too, as Jesus – a marginal Jew born in meager circumstances – nevertheless seems to threaten the maniacal King Herod, who didn’t want a rival for kingship of the Jews, and so he tried to get rid of this potential rival by killing all young male children in the region – a mythical event known as the Massacre of the Innocents. So the family is forced to hide in Egypt, adding the element of flight and fear to the story. But it’s also a charming and magical account, with alluring imagery that sticks in the mind: a star hovers over the barn where Jesus lies, marking the spot of his emergence into history. Wise Men or Magi come from the east, traveling with gifts, on camels. Shepherds keep watch over their flocks by night, while the desert is cold, glistening on the eve of the Messiah’s birth. The event happens at the winter solstice, when the world grows still in icy weather, only to open up and begin to move again, slowly, as it leans toward hope in the form of a baby, who arrives with the holy hush of amazement.

Only Luke and Matthew include Christmas in their narratives of the life of Christ, perhaps reformulating legends that had spread by word of mouth for many years, and their versions of the birth of Jesus sit uncomfortably together, with many contradictory elements. It’s possible that these accounts arose gradually, in the decades after the death of Jesus, in different communities, and so the stories emphasize unique aspects of the tale, deepening the legend in ways that spoke to their present needs, as followers of Jesus, as threatened and marginal communities of faith who struggled to make sense of the man whose gospel or “good news” informed their lives.

The foregrounding moment in this tale is the Annunciation, a point at the beginning of the tale where Mary (and also Joseph, although separately) get a surprise visit from the angel Gabriel – a spirit mentioned only in the Book of Daniel before this startling appearance to Mary in the quiet of her chamber. Gabriel explained calmly to this young virgin that she would bear a special son. The angel speaks with a respectful brightness: “Hail, you that are highly favored, the Lord is with you: blessed are you among women” (Luke 1:38). This appearance, and the astonishing message of Gabriel, terrified the poor girl.  Yet Gabriel told her not to be afraid but to celebrate: “You have found favor with God.” (This favor was the “grace” we associate with Mary, as in “Hail Mary, full of grace,” although the phrase comes from a misreading of the Latin translation of the Bible: the Greek word kechoritomene simply means “favored one.”) (1)

The Annunciation has a wondrous quality about it, and it has been touchingly rendered in paintings by many of the greatest artists of the West, often with challenging interpretations of the scene, as in Fra Angelico’s bold fresco at the San Marco convent in Florence (finished in 1445), where Mary is no meek teenager frightened by her situation and wishing to withdraw; rather, she stares with a frank boldness into the eyes of Gabriel, fully composed and taking on her fate as the person who will deliver God’s child to the world. She seems proud, even delighted, by the fact that God singled her out as “handmaid of the Lord.”  Her crucial moment in history has come, and she seems equal to the task at hand.

The contradictions in the two birth narratives emerge with the genealogies that Matthew and Luke offer, as a way of establishing the pedigree of Jesus. In Matthew, the lineage begins with Abraham – the ultimate Jewish patriarch of the Old Testament – and moves to David, a triumphant Jewish king, then pivots through a sequence of royal Jewish names. This seems in keeping with the Jewish slant on Jesus generally offered in that gospel, as it stresses the Judaic heritage of the Christ child. Luke, on the other hand, offers a lineage that would appeal to gentiles as well as Jews: Jesus’s ancestry starts with Adam, father of all mankind, and not Abraham, a shift of emphasis that brings Jesus into a larger family that included gentiles. David is still there, but the line runs this time through the prophets, suggesting a more spiritual kingdom than the one that Matthew had in mind.

In both narratives, Mary gives birth to Jesus in Bethlehem. No doubt it meant something to early Jewish followers of Jesus that Bethlehem should be the birthplace of their beloved rabbi, as this small city on the West Bank of the Jordan was the home of Jesse, father of David. It’s a place where David had once kept sheep and eventually was crowned King of Israel. Unlike Nazareth, probably the real birthplace of Jesus, it had huge symbolic import. One recalls that when Philip, a disciple of Jesus, explained to Nathanael that Jesus was the Messiah foretold by Moses, Nathanael asked in a withering voice: “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:43-46). It’s also significant that in the Old Testament one hears that a future shepherd of the flock of Israel would emerge from Bethlehem (Micah 5:1-14). So it was fitting that the birth of Jesus should be associated with a holy place.

In Matthew, the Christmas story morphs into a tale of displacement, fear, and flight, with the Holy Family escaping into Egypt, a thrilling but scary narrative. In Luke, a very different kind of story unfolds. Joseph and Mary have been forced to travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem in Judea because of a Roman census that is never even mentioned in Matthew. (2)  It’s not obviously a dangerous situation. Indeed, Herod does not threaten male children in Luke, nor do Jesus, Mary, and Joseph rush away to Egypt to escape the vengeance of Herod and his desire to murder a rival to his throne. It’s an altogether more comforting story, easier on the ears of children, if less riveting.

The discrepancies in the Christmas narratives don’t matter, not unless one feels an urgent need to regard these texts as literal truth, the infallible Word of God (not unlike the Koran in fundamentalist Islam). Each account of the Christmas story has its unique emphasis, with Matthew putting forward the concept of Jesus as royalty, in both his lineage and the notion that people of importance (the Magi) would come from far away to worship at his feet. Herod’s sense of rivalry is also important in Matthew. He is a royal person, after all, if only in a spiritual way, and his presence in the world has political consequences, for himself and others. Luke, on the other hand, emphasizes the ordinary aspects of Jesus, his position as a marginal person. He is the son of Adam and the “Son of Man” as much as “Prince of Peace” or “Son of God.” (3)  Poor folk – shepherds are nothing if not poor – come to visit the manger, not Magi bearing fancy gifts.

Yet Luke is a wonderful writer, adding scenes that intensify the mythic echo chamber of the story. He says, for example, that after Mary became pregnant, she paid a three-month visit to her cousin Elizabeth in Hebron, in the hill country south of Jerusalem. Elizabeth was an old and previously barren woman. Her husband was Zacharias, an elderly priest of the temple, who learned from an angel that his wife was pregnant. (This visit to Zacharias mirrors a similar visit to Joseph, who has never gotten much attention for having been told by an angel that Mary’s child would be someone special.) Zacharias actually doubted the news about his wife’s pregnancy. How could such a thing happen at their age? Never one for skepticism, God struck Zacharias dumb, though he later regained his powers of speech upon the birth of his son: a symbolic restoration. The angel instructed Elizabeth that her son should be named John, and he in due course became John the Baptist. The narrative pointedly foreshadows a later story in the gospels, where John precedes Jesus as a prophet and religious teacher, then baptizes him in the Jordan River. And so the birth of John prefigures the birth of the Incarnate Word, Jesus: the spirit made flesh. John himself becomes “a voice crying in the wilderness.”

Elizabeth understood Mary’s situation at a glance. She intuited that the Holy Spirit, not Joseph, had created this child in her cousin’s womb, and she understood that Mary would deliver the Son of God to the world. She cried out with a kind of giddy appreciation: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb” (Luke 1:42). Mary replied eloquently and modestly, lowering her eyes to the floor: “My soul does magnify the Lord.” Her response echoes in history, and the words have been set frequently to music, called the Magnificat after the Latin version of Mary’s statement, which begins: Magnificat mea Dominum. (4)

The concept of the Virgin Birth, a miraculous event, means a great deal to Christians as a sign from God that the spirit was sent to dwell in human form. Yet it’s worth recalling that the word “virgin” had an elastic meaning in both Greek and Hebrew. “It was certainly not confined to denoting men and women without experience of sexual intercourse,” notes Vermes. “The Greek word could explicitly or implicitly include this meaning, or the main stress could fall on the youth of a girl or boy, and generally, though not necessarily, on their unmarried state.” (5) In The Masks of God, Joseph Campbell observes: “On the level simply of legend, without regard to the possibility of an actual miracle, the Virgin Birth must be interpreted as a mythic motif from the Persian or Greek, not Hebrew, side of the Christian heritage.” (6)  Judaism, with its love of patriarchy, could not easily have generated a story in which the Messiah was not really one of Abraham’s full-blooded sons.

Exactly what the gospel writers meant by proclaiming Mary’s virginity has preoccupied theologians down the centuries as they have tried to understand or tease out its many possible implications. What is not in dispute among Christians is the more general idea that Jesus was no ordinary man, and that from conception he carried within his soul the spark of God, as in the word “Immanuel,” which means “God dwells within,” a name first mentioned in Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord will give you a sign: the young maiden will give birth to a son, and he will be called Immanuel.” And the Virgin Birth anchors the Christmas story, putting forward a theological point of considerable subtlety as well as force.

Despite the lack of any reference to it elsewhere in the entire New Testament, the Virgin Birth remains a central tenet of Christian dogma, one developed by the Church Fathers – those early, highly influential, theologians and teachers, such as Origen, Tertullian, and Augustine. Sensing the lack of scriptural authority for the concept, the authors of later apocryphal gospels, such as the Infancy Gospel of James, often focused on the subject of Mary’s virginity, suggesting that she remained a virgin even after her marriage to Joseph. The fact that Jesus had siblings, however, complicated the matter. Was Mary not their mother?  These siblings may, of course, have been half siblings from an earlier marriage or, perhaps, cousins. Theologians have argued as much. But Matthew 13:55 states firmly that Jesus had at least four brothers (James, Joseph, Simon, and Judas) and two unnamed sisters. None of this contradicts the idea that Jesus was Mary’s first child or that he didn’t come from Joseph, but of God – at least in a symbolic way.

The rather fantastic idea that a human being might give birth to a child created by a god would have puzzled no one in the ancient world.  Important people were often thought to be part human, part divine: Romulus and Remus, for example, the mythical twins who founded Rome, were the children of Rhea Silvia and the god Mars. It was frequently said that Augustus, the great emperor, was conceived in the Temple of Apollo, with no human father. Modern readers with any knowledge of pagan mythology will be familiar with the concept of gods mingling with human beings, sometimes with astounding consequences, as when Leda was raped by Zeus in the form of a swan, producing an offspring named Helen, who would become Helen of Troy, that extraordinary beauty whose face, according to the poet Christopher Marlowe, “launched a thousand ships” and led to the Trojan War.

Just to note: the Virgin Birth should not be confused with the Roman Catholic idea of the Immaculate Conception, the doctrine that Mary was a human being and yet conceived without sin (Latin: macula), and therefore Jesus was not born to someone who had been tainted by the transgressions of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, relating back to the doctrine of original sin, which simply means that every human being is stained by the sins of their original parents. But this lurches into the wilder thickets of theological speculation. What matters in the Christmas story is that Jesus should have come into the world in a way that conveyed a sense of his unique connection to God as well as his deep-seated humanity. The Virgin Birth, as a mythical concept, delivers that message quite beautifully.

It’s worth dwelling on the story of the Magi, told with compression and charm in Matthew 2:1-12. “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking Where is the infant who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star rising, and have come to pay him homage.” The star actually hovers over the stable where the child lies, suggesting to many in later years that these wise men could have been astrologers, who read meaning into stars and their patterns. “On entering the house, they saw the infant with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure baskets, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by a different path.”

This unlikely visit forms a haunting piece of narrative, often depicted by painters and framed with idiosyncratic perfection in T. S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi.” In this poetic monologue, one of the wise men revisits the miraculous event years afterward, remembering a journey undertaken in the “very dead of winter.” It had been a “cold coming” over icy mountains: a journey from the old world of faithlessness and uncertainty to the new world, where redemption and new life seemed at last possible. The three Magi may well have been “holy Zoroastrian astronomers,” as E. F. Burgess speculated, suggesting they were used to following the signs of heaven. The “Yonder Star” that drew them to the West “was a sign prophesied 600 years before by Zoroaster. The prophecy not only described the celestial occurrence, but also specifically named Bethlehem as the birthplace of the new prophet.” (7)

The Magi have lodged themselves in the Western imagination, where names soon attached to them: Melchior, Caspar, and Balthasar. That they came “from the east” has within it a sense of the rising sun, the beginning of a new day. In various Christian traditions, the wise men traveled from Babylon, Persia, or Yemen. The actual number of Magi is never stated in Matthew, but since they brought three gifts, they are commonly imagined as a trio. The gifts they bring seem to acknowledge the royalty at hand, and this follows Matthew’s efforts to make the Jesus into a princely child, with a Davidic heritage. And there is the added sense of fulfilling Old Testament prophecies, as in Isaiah 60:3: “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.”

The gifts they bring have symbolic radiance.  Gold was then, as now, the most valuable of metals, the standard for wealth from time immemorial, fit for a king.  Frankincense was a coveted perfume associated with temple rituals.  And myrrh was a kind of oil, used for anointments and during the process of embalming. (It was later used in the Eastern Orthodox Church for major sacramental rites, such as confirmation or extreme unction – the last rites of the Church – which are bestowed upon the dying.) It was also widely believed in Jewish tradition that royalty would visit the infant who would become the Messiah, and the writer of Matthew understood the significance of this homage, that the Magi stand in for all yearning Christians, those who lean to beginnings, in search of the child who will bring light to the world in a dark time.

Even with all of its gleaming details, the Christmas story leaves a lot to the imagination, which is why in subsequent centuries the followers of Jesus filled in the blanks wherever possible, making the myth as concrete as they could. Neither Matthew nor Luke, for instance, specified the date of Jesus’s birth – the calendar year would have been different in any case.   Christians didn’t settle on December 25 as Christmas Day until the fourth century, and this choice probably had something to do with its proximity to the winter solstice or its position as the final day of the Roman Saturnalia. It was in the late third century, in fact, that the Roman emperor Aurelian established this date as a feast day celebrating the birth of the Unconquered Sun (Sol Invictus), so it already had festive and quasi-religious prominence.(8)  The Unconquered Sun becomes the Son of God, who conquers death itself.


What followed the manger scene in Bethlehem varies in Luke and Matthew, as noted above. In Matthew, the family in due course returns to Nazareth after the flight to Egypt, once the coast is clear. The flight itself, as Matthew wished to emphasize, fulfilled a prophecy in the Hebrew scriptures (Hosea 11:1), where we read that a future leader will come “out of Egypt.” Such a twist in the narrative may have been added to underscore the Jewish inheritance of Jesus as well as to amplify the mythic reverberations of the story. The echoes between the flight to Egypt and the legendary flight of the Jews into Egypt during the period known as the Exodus were intentional. As ever, Matthew had a Jewish audience in mind, and his readers would hear the reverberations in his telling. Herod wished to get rid of the child who might be a future king of the Jews much as the Pharaoh (Exodus 2:15) wanted to get rid of Moses, issuing a bloody command (1:22) that every Jewish male baby be thrown into the Nile. God instructed Joseph, father of Jesus, in his dreams how to proceed in difficult circumstances, perhaps reminding readers that Joseph’s namesake in Exodus possessed the gift of interpreting dreams: so much so that his talent attracted the eye of Pharaoh (Genesis 37:19; 41:25).

Matthew’s Egyptian episode fascinated later writers, as we see in the Apocrypha and Gnostic Gospels – material excluded by makers of the official canon, yet fascinating to read. In one of these, palm trees bow down before the progression of the infant Jesus – an image of such brightness that it somehow lodged in the Koran (19:25). In some versions of the flight to Egypt, a patient nurse called Salome looks after the child, and some regard her as the sister of Mary; indeed she is occasionally thought to be the Mary who appears beside Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross in Matthew 27:55, though once again the gospel narratives lack enough specificity to make such an identification.  Names, in fact, presented a constant problem for later generations of readers, who couldn’t be sure that a particular name in the New Testament attached to someone with the same name elsewhere.

After his birth, Jesus would have been circumcised on the eighth day, in accordance with Jewish custom; the eight days symbolize the willingness of Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac on the eighth day. Luke mentions that Jesus was circumcised, dwelling on the ritual presentation of the child at the Temple (Luke 2:22-40). In this memorable scene, an elderly man called Simeon the Righteous steps into the picture from the wings, thrilled to see the Messiah before he dies. He was possibly one of the temple elders from the tribe of Levi who would have been authorized to bestow on the child the usual blessing for such occasions: “The Lord bless thee and keep thee, the Lord make his face to shine upon thee and be gracious unto thee, the Lord lift his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace” (Numbers 6:24-26). With relief and delight, he lifted the child in his arms, telling God that he could “now dismiss” him from this world. He offers a remarkable prayer of thanks known as the Nunc Dimittis, meaning simply “Now dismiss.” It opens movingly: “Now Lord, let your servant go in peace.” Another devout person in the temple at the time was Anna, referred to as a “prophetess” and remembered as a kind of godmother to Jesus. (Her name could also be translated as Hannah, echoing the story in Samuel where the prophetess Hannah gave birth to Samuel, another blessed child who would play a pivotal role in the history of the Jews.)

The ritual of purification happened forty days after the birth of the child in keeping with Jewish law (as framed in both Leviticus and Exodus). As required by law and custom, the parents of the newborn child sacrificed a pair of turtledoves (young pigeons) – no doubt because they could not afford to sacrifice a lamb.(9)  Here, as elsewhere, readers must choose which tradition to follow, Matthew or Luke. If Jesus and his family had fled to Egypt from Bethlehem, as Matthew suggests, he would never have gone to Jerusalem for Mary’s ritual purification, though literal-minded readers find ways to reconcile these stories.

Reconciliation is unnecessary, however, as anyone who engages Christianity in liturgy and practice will know; the Christmas story requires no defense. It represents the moment when the timeless enters time, when God begins a grand process of revelation. The star hovering over the manger in Bethlehem beckons, and the notion of wise men, or Magi, coming from the east to pay homage to the Christ child feeds our sense of expectation; we, like them, embark on a journey without a guarantee of arrival, bearing the gift of our own hope. And every year, as the holiday looms in late December, the urge to sing out in adoration comes. As the poet George Herbert wrote in the seventeenth century: “The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?”


We know nothing about Jesus during the years of childhood, adolescence, and young manhood except for a slight but intriguing story in Luke 1:41-52. This glimpse of him involves his conversation with Temple elders in Jerusalem, at the age of twelve, offering a look at his developing character. It gives us an opportunity to see how Jesus regarded himself – and was viewed by others – at the doorstep of manhood.

The family – Mary, Joseph, Jesus, and his siblings – traveled to Jerusalem on their annual pilgrimage to the Second Temple. This edifice would have dazzled the young man: fifteen stories in height, with a profusion of gold ornamentation on a foundation of glistening limestone blocks called ashlars. The Wailing Wall – still in place – was its western foundation, and it’s all that remains of the original edifice. It was actually a sequence of interlocking spaces that included rooms for prayer, worship, and study. Rabbinical courts met there as well, including the Sanhedrin. Like the Egyptian pyramids, Herod’s Temple was a wonder of the world, grander than anything in Rome itself. That Mary and Joseph would come to Jerusalem to visit the Temple says something about their piety and spiritual ambitions. Being a tekton, or carpenter, Joseph ranked low – even a peasant with a little bit of land had more clout in society. Yet the family must have had the support of the Nazarene Jewish community. One assumes that Mary and Joseph traveled as part of a company of faithful Jews who made this three-day journey along dusty roads, traveling in a caravan, taking plenty of food and water, with some of the pilgrims riding on camels or donkeys. They would have passed through the lush Galilean countryside into the barren hills of Judea, edging along high cliffs as they approached the Holy City, with its amber walls, no doubt joining a throng that moved toward Jerusalem for the high holidays.

Jesus and his family would have entered the Temple through a grand entrance on the southern slope, which archaeologists have uncovered. It contained a series of bathing pools or miqvaoth that pilgrims used for ritual purification before entering the presence of God. One would have heard singers from the tribe of Levi chanting hymns from the Book of Psalms. One then approached the esplanade of the Great Court, under a series of broad porticos. The interior courtyards were reserved for Jews who had been purified in a ritual fashion. The final approach led to the Holy of Holies, the most sacred place in Judaism, which once (during the First Temple period) contained the Ark of the Covenant. Of course neither Jesus nor his family would have seen this holy place, which the High Priest himself could only approach one day a year (on Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement, when blood was sprinkled on the altar).

After a week of celebrations that included gatherings for prayer, the sacrificing of animals, ritual bathing, and attendance at readings of Holy Scripture, the family of Jesus began their journey back to Nazareth. In the shuffle of their departure, Jesus got left behind, and his parents hurried back to look for him. It would have been terrifying for them, as anything might happen in a strange city. For two days they searched for their child without luck. On the third day they found him in the Temple, where he sat in a circle of elders and discussed the meaning of scriptures – the gospel doesn’t give much detail here, although it would have been highly unusual to see a child of this age in such august circumstances and being taken seriously by the elders at hand. Jesus seems to have been precocious as well as devout and wildly self-confident. Mary, however, was not impressed by this spectacle, and she asked her son how he could act in such an inconsiderate manner. He replied, in a tone that still rings with a shock: “Don’t you know I must be about my father’s business?” As we read in Luke 2:50, “And they didn’t understand what he said to them.”

Jesus reluctantly deferred to his mother, who had apparently not fully absorbed yet that her child was God’s own son. He went with his parents back to Nazareth and “was subject unto them,” fulfilling the commandment to obey one’s father and mother. (A later writer may have added this reassuring verse, feeling uncomfortable with this adolescent rebellious streak in Jesus.) During the years of his public ministry, however, Jesus urged his disciples to abandon their homes and to put everyone and everything to one side in pursuit of God’s will for them. Family did not come first, not in his own life, even as a boy of twelve. He was obviously not easy for his parents to control, and it’s probably a good thing that we hear little about him in Nazareth until he reemerges as a grown man.

This anecdote has another purpose, giving us a sense that Jesus was a scholar at heart. From an early age, he devoted himself to studying the scripture, and he enjoyed discussing the meaning of various passages. This seems right for one who would, in due course, become a model teacher, a man addressed by his followers as Rabbi, which means “a teacher of Torah,” one grounded in Jewish law, the halakha. In fact, during the years of his public ministry, Jesus wandered through Galilee and adjacent territories with a notable aura of mission, offering his own readings of familiar Hebrew texts, attracting large crowds, who found his teachings both uplifting and convincing, if at times challenging and even heretical. This radical teacher is, in fact, an adult version of the twelve-year-old boy in the Temple.

The paucity of stories about the young Jesus frustrated early Christians, but any number of apocryphal evangelists took up the subject with relish, trying to fill in gaps. Over twenty more gospels have been found, sometimes in fragmentary form in languages such as Syriac and Armenian as well as Greek.(10)  In many of the anecdotes associated with this extra-canonical literature, Jesus takes the form of a trickster child-god from mythology, performing astounding (often silly) miracles. In one of them, for instance, he turns a salt cod into a live fish, scaring the wits out of his boyish companions. Elsewhere, he forms a number of birds from raw clay and then brings them to life with a sweep of the hand: voila! In another, he shows a command of the alphabet that astonishes his teachers. But there is a dark side, too, as in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas, where he blinds the parents of a child who offends him – a bizarre and cruel act that seems calculated to make readers dislike or fear him. (One assumes, perhaps, that the writers of these gospels projected their own angers or frustrations onto this fantasy version of Jesus, which the church firmly rejected. Indeed, the Gospel of John states clearly that the miracle of changing water into wine at the wedding in Cana was Jesus’s first miracle.)

So where was Jesus during his first thirty years, and how did he spend his time? One easily imagines him working with his father, perhaps in nearby Sepphoris, helping to build a theater or colonnade or sports arena. It’s obvious that he studied the Hebrew Bible at his local synagogue, as his later ministry reveals an intimate knowledge of these texts. He might have spent time working in nearby vineyards or barley fields, as his later teachings often rely on pastoral images, perhaps gleaned from childhood. His geographical horizon was limited, a point that emerges when he commands his followers to witness for him “in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and to the outermost parts of the earth” (Acts1:8).  The likelihood is that Jesus never left Palestine, although folklore has placed him as far afield as India. The notion that Jesus visited England was prevalent, too, as we see when William Blake asks: “And did those feet in ancient time / Walk upon England’s mountains green?”  The answer, alas, is: No.

The hidden years in the life of Jesus remain unrecoverable, the stuff of legend, most of it fanciful. No doubt he underwent many of the same transformations, sexual and personal, that occur within the body and mind of any adolescent. He grew in knowledge of the world and, in his case, vastly increased his spiritual awareness. “That he, like every human being, struggled toward some definition of self within, in relation to, and perhaps in opposition to, larger social units is equally clear,” writes John P. Meier in A Marginal Jew, a major four-volume study of Jesus and his teachings.(11)  Yet Jesus came into full public view only in young adulthood, after his baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist, when the heavens opened for him, and he experienced a transformation from Jesus to Messiah or Christ: one fully realized in his ministry, his death, and his ultimate resurrection.


For you, what is the deep meaning of “the Christmas Story”?

John’s Gospel opens, “In the beginning was the Logos.” How
would you explain the


Notes for Chapter 2

1.  The liturgy of the Christian church owes more to the Latin translation by Jerome than to the original Greek gospels, which were not widely known until long after many traditions and rituals hardened into formalities. Even most of the Church Fathers, including Augustine and Aquinas, knew very little Greek. It wasn’t until the time of Erasmus and Luther, in the early sixteenth century, that it was taken for granted that a biblical scholar should go back to the original Greek for guidance.

2.  The census is mentioned in Luke 2:1. The author takes pains to identify the time: it happened when Quirinius was governor of Syria. There are complex historical problems with the dating; but there was certainly a governor of Syria called Publius Sulpicius Quirinius (d. 21 ACE), who is mentioned in such ancient historians as Josephus, Suetonius, Tacitus, and Dio Cassius. This leads us to a further question: If the Christmas story here is “made up,” why did the author take such pains to identify the historical setting? Perhaps the question answers itself. Veracity is important in a testimony, and the gospels are testimonial literature. The more specific the details, the more believable the story becomes. One added problem is that the census under Quirinius only related to the province of Judea, not those living in Galilee.

3.  The phrase “Prince of Peace,” commonly associated with Jesus, actually derives from a passage in Isaiah 9:6 in the Hebrew scriptures.

4.  J. S. Bach’s Magnificat (1723) is among the finest musical settings of this passage.

5. Vermes, 218.

6. Campbell, 336.

7.  E. F. Burgess, “T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi.’” Explicator 42 (Summer 1984), 36.

8.  A Syrian commentator called Dionysius bar-Salbi, writing in the twelfth century, seems to have first suggested that Christmas was moved from January 6 to its present position because of the pagan Sol Invictus holiday. For a discussion of this and other theories about the dating of Christmas, see Thomas J. Tally, Origins of the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1991).

9.  From this, perhaps, follows the number of birds among the gifts given during the Twelve Days of Christmas, including the partridge in a pear tree!

10.  This was quoted by Ireneaus of Lyon toward the end of the second century CE. A similar gospel is the Protoevangelium of James, which has similar tales of the young Jesus. For a good survey of recent scholarship on the Thomas tradition and other non-canonical gospels, see: Simon Gathercole, The Composition of the Gospel of Thomas: Original Language and Influences (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012).

11.  John P. Meier, A Marginal Jew: The Roots of the Problem and the Person, Vol. I (New York: Doubleday, 1991), 254.