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Africa Magazine,

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

Wonder with the Word

Fr Dermot Connolly

 

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

 

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

©Africa, St Patrick's Missions Magazine

The Good Shepherd. This painting is in a small chapel near Diedorf in Bavaria. (Image: Sr Maria-Magdalena R. from Pixabay)

May 2020

Following the Sheep

Psalm 78 tells the story of the people of Israel and their Exodus from Egypt to the mountain of Zion which God loves. (Ps 78:68) The psalmist called it a mashal, a teaching, a parable: I will open my mouth in a parable / and utter hidden lessons of the past. (Ps 78:2) 

 

The psalm describes the Exodus, saying that the people on that journey were a defiant and rebellious generation. (Ps 78:8) They resisted every step of the way: 

Yet again they turned and tested God; they provoked the Holy One of Israel. (Ps 78:41) 

 

They strayed, faithless like their ancestors;

they betrayed him like a 

treacherous bow. 

(Ps 78:57)

 

A disturbing poem, and it goes on long enough – the second-longest psalm in the Bible. But woven through its conflicts is a God who behaves like a shepherd. Could this be the parable?

By day he led them with a cloud;

throughout the night, with a light of fire. 

He split the rocks in the desert.

He gave them plentiful drink, 

as from the deep. 

(Ps 78:14-15)

 

He had brought out his people like sheep,

leading them in the desert like a flock.

He had led them safely with nothing to fear,

while the sea engulfed their foes. 

(Ps 78:52-53)

 

A later practitioner said about the shepherd’s craft: “When he has brought out all his sheep, he goes ahead of them, and the sheep follow because they know his voice.” (John 10:4) It is the classic Biblical image of the shepherd but, as Jesus well knew, only half the parable.

 

What of those who can’t keep up? Listen: “The children are weak, and the sheep and the cows which have calved make it hard for me. If they are driven too hard, even for one day, the whole flock will die....For my part, I shall move at a slower pace, according to the pace of the flock I am driving and the children.” It could be any time, any war zone, any wasted earth; in fact, it is the voice of the Patriarch Jacob, another shepherd. (Genesis 33:13-14)

 

Psalm 78 completes the parable with David, who is to be shepherd of Jacob:

And he chose his servant David,

and took him away from the sheepfolds.

From the care of the ewes he brought him

to be shepherd of Jacob, his people,

of Israel his own possession. 

(Ps 78:70-71)

 

The shepherd not only leads but accompanies. The Hebrew idiom behind “the care of the ewes” is literally “from after” and is most often translated “following.” Or as we might put it, the shepherd looks after the flock.

He tended them with blameless heart;

with his skilful hands he led them. (Psalm 78:72)

Nativity, Sagrada da Familia, Barcelona, Spain.

December 2018

Songs for a Firstborn Son

And she gave birth to her firstborn son 

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

because there was no place for them in the inn. 

Luke 2:7 RSV

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

 

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

I have found my servant David,

And with my holy oil anointed him….

I for my part will make him my firstborn,

the highest of the kings of the earth. 

(Psalm 89:21-29)

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

 

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

He is the image of the invisible God,

the firstborn of all creation;

for in him all things were created, 

in heaven and on earth,

visible and invisible. 

 

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

 

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

He is the head of the body, the Church;

he is the beginning, 

the firstborn from the dead,

that in everything he might be pre-eminent,

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

through blood and reconciliation, into the fullness of God.

 

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

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

November 2017

God Bless the Work!

Just then Boaz came from Bethlehem. 

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

They answered, “The Lord bless you.” 

(Ruth 2:4 NRSV)

 

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

 

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

Zion shall be ploughed as a field;

Jerusalem shall become a heap of ruins,

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

 

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

They have pressed me hard from my youth

but could never destroy me.

They ploughed my back like ploughmen,

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

 

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

Let them be like grass on the roof

that withers before it flowers.

With this no reaper fills his arms,

no binder makes his sheaves. 

And those passing by will not say:

‘On you the Lord’s blessing!’

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

(Psalm 129:6-8)

 

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

 

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

 

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

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