House: (v 35): A house, in its literal meaning, is a building erected for human habitation. More figuratively, a church is sometimes called “the house of God” – it is a building whose primary purpose is the worship of God. ‘House’ in v 35 may, according to this usage, refer to the Temple in Jerusalem, which the Jews believed to be the dwelling place of God. But there are other possibly pertinent senses of ‘house’. A ‘royal house’ may refer not to a palace but to a royal family, line or dynasty, as in “House of Windsor”, where the reference is not just to the present royal family but to the line or dynasty which they represent. The ‘House of David’ is a Biblical equivalent. A notable family other than royalty may also be termed a ‘house’ – eg Shakespeare’s House of Montague, House of Capulet, in Romeo and Juliet. In these senses ‘house’ may refer not just to the royal line or family itself but also to the claims it makes for its own legitimacy and status and the ‘history’ and stories it appropriates in support of those claims. In the present context, ‘house’ probably refers to Jerusalem, not just as a place of stones and mortar but also as the centrepiece of Jewish life and history and identity as God’s chosen people. The Greek word for ‘house’, oikos, when conjoined to nomia, means ‘household management’, especially with regard to expenditure, and gives us our word ‘economy’ = ‘the financial management of a nation’.
Body: In v 21 of today’s Epistle reading, Paul refers to the “lowly body” which, at the resurrection, will be transformed into a “glorious” body. For Paul, the body is often associated with sin and so with death. Thus, in Romans 7:23-24 he sees the body as the arena or vehicle for sin’s ‘war’ against the law of God: “O wretch that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” Here, ‘body’ stands for the old Adam or sinful human nature, being virtually synonymous with ‘flesh’ (Greek sarx – see entry for Sunday 5th July 2015). But as with ‘flesh’, not all Paul’s references to the body are negative. In Colossians 1:18 he speaks of Christ as “the head of the body”, the Church, and in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 he makes the only allusion in the New Testament to the tripartite division of the human person into ‘spirit’ (pneuma), ‘soul’ (psuche), and ‘body’ (soma). It is clear from 1 Thessalonians 5:23 that Paul sees all parts of the human person as open to sanctification, thereby calling into question some of the old polarities, such as that between reason and imagination, body and spirit. The Greek word for ‘body’, soma, gives us our word ‘somatic’ = ‘pertaining to the body’ and, in conjunction with psuche, we have ‘psychosomatic’ = ‘pertaining to bodily symptoms as having a mental origin.’
Hermit: In today’s Gospel reading (Luke 4:1-15) Jesus is led into the desert by the Spirit to be tempted by the devil (v 6). The Greek word translated ‘desert’ or ‘wilderness’ is eremos, a word from which our English word ‘hermit’ is derived. A hermit, as traditionally understood, is someone who seeks solitude in order to commune more closely with God through prayer and contemplation. During the early centuries of the Church many Christians lived as hermits, especially in the desert areas of Egypt, some of them becoming known as the Desert Fathers. The Eastern Church has an unbroken tradition of eremitical life. In the West, that tradition was broken by the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, except in so far as it survived in certain monastic orders. The 20th century has seen a revival of the eremitical tradition in both the Roman Catholic and Anglican Churches. Probably the best known of modern hermits is Thomas Merton who, as a Trappist monk, was given leave by his Order to live as a hermit. He wrote extensively on the subject of contemplation. A contemporary Anglican hermit (or ‘solitary’), Maggie Ross, (not her real name) has sought, in her writings, to recover the essential place of silence in the Christian life and to retrieve the understanding of ‘the work of silence’ as the foundation of Jesus’s teaching.
In those Anglican traditions which observe the Transfiguration as the last Sunday before Lent it closes the season of Epiphany. Where the Transfiguration is observed later in the year (6th August in England), Epiphany concludes with Candlemas. Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the penitential period corresponding to the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert being tempted by the Devil. Liturgically, Lent is marked, like Advent, by purple vestments and the omission of the Gloria. Ash Wednesday takes its name from the practice of marking the forehead of penitents with a cross in ash as a reminder that from dust they came and to dust they will return. It is also a reminder of our baptismal vows, when the sign of the cross was first placed on us. The ashes used are traditionally obtained by burning the palm crosses of the previous year. Lent has traditionally been a period of fasting, but the obligation to fast is now much less emphasised, and in the Roman Catholic Church only Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are now universally prescribed as fast days. Ash Wednesday is preceded by Shrove Tuesday, the day when the faithful went to confession so that they could enter Lent absolved or ‘shriven’ from their sins. It is also known as Pancake Tuesday, from the practice of eating pancakes on that day.
Mess: Candlemas falls on 2nd February. The element ‘-mas(s)’ may be related to the word ‘mess’ which, like ‘mass’, derives from missio via missa (see last week’s entry). Missa developed two lines of meaning. As the antecedent form of ‘mass’ it came to be used, in former times, as a formula of dismissal at the end of the Latin Mass. As an antecedent form of ‘mess’, however, it developed the meaning ‘a sending out or around of a course of food’. This development is reflected in the word ‘mess’ as used in the armed forces, where it refers to the quarters where service people take their meals, as in ‘officers’ mess’. In the Inns of Court in London budding barristers ‘mess together’ at mess tables of four, where they eat their prescribed numbers of dinners. The phrase ‘a mess of pottage’ has become proverbial. It seems to have been first used in the heading to Genesis Chapter 25 in the Geneva Bible of 1560, the chapter where (vv 29-34) Esau sells his birthright to Jacob for a ‘mess of pottage’ – i.e. a dish of lentil stew. It is possible that ‘mass’ as a title for the Eucharist is a variant form of ‘mess’ rather than a transference from the formula of dismissal, which is the usual explanation.
A Word in Season