Windy prophets? A question of interpretation

Photo by Nita from Pexels

It’s axiomatic that every translation is an interpretation. But my brain was snagged by one translation in today’s first reading at morning prayer. In the NRSV Jeremiah 5:13 reads:

The prophets are nothing but wind,
for the word is not in them.

As far as I can tell, every translation is a variant on this. And I find myself wondering how much doctrine has influenced the translators’ choice to render the word ruaḥ as wind, not spirit. My Hebrew is nearly non-existent, but as far as I can tell, in every other context where the words naḇi and ruaḥ are used together, ruaḥ is always translated as spirit.

I am aware that in other contexts Jeremiah normally uses the word to mean wind or breath, but this is the only place he uses it in the same context as the word prophet. So, I ask, in the hope that someone with greater knowledge than I has an answer, is there any reason other than a doctrinal one to avoid this translation?

The prophets are nothing but spirit,
for the word is not in them.

And of that translation is possible, does it enhance our understanding of how Jeremiah understands prophecy?

Greetings for Epiphany

A happy and blessed feast of the Epiphany to you. There is a tradition, which seems to have arisen in central Europe in the Middle Ages, of blessing chalk at Epiphany, which is then used by families to mark the doorways of their homes. It is, near the New Year, a prayer for and celebration of Christ’s blessing. This tradition is becoming increasingly common everywhere, and among many denominations.

What surprised me last year, when I was looking for texts to use, is that there don’t seem to be that many around. So in this short Epiphany post, I thought I would first of all summarise the practice, and then provide a simple form of prayer, both for the chalk blessing, and then the prayers at home.

The chalk is used to write the year, and three letters, interlinked by a series of crosses, on the lintel, or door frame of the main door in the house. The date is split in two, the first two digits beginning the sequence, the letters C, M and B coming in the middle, and the last two digits of the year completing the sequence. So for this year, someone would chalk the blessing out as:

20 + C + M + B + 21

Why these letters, you may ask? Firstly, they stand for the traditional names given the three wise men: Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar. Secondly they represent the Latin phrase “Christus mansionem benedicat!” which means “Christ bless the house”.

The chalks are blessed in church on Epiphany (or thereabouts, which means some people will have done this on Sunday rather than today). Then anyone who wants to participate takes the chalk home and marks up their own door.

A blessing for the chalk

God of our journeying,
on this day we celebrate the travels of the Magi,
welcomed at journey’s end into the home of the Holy Family,
and drawn into the presence of your Word
made flesh in the Christ child.
Take this chalk,
and make it an instrument of your blessing,
that what we inscribe upon our doors
may be a reality in our hearts and homes.
May all strangers who cross our threshold be made welcome,
all weary travellers find warmth and rest,
and Christ himself be present with us,
the heart and head of our home;
in whose name we make our prayer. Amen.

Prayers to be used when marking the lintel

Our help is in the name of the Lord,
who has made heaven and earth.

From the rising of the sun to its setting,
your name is proclaimed throughout the world.

At their journey’s end, the wise men found a welcome.
May this house always be open to those who need it.

Lord, hear us; Lord, graciously hear us.

By taking from Mary flesh of our flesh, and bone of our bone,
your Son overcame the division between heaven and earth.
May we who follow him make in every wall an open door.

Lord, hear us; Lord, graciously hear us.

Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar entered the house,
and found there the one they had long sought.
May all in this house know Christ present here.

Lord, hear us; Lord, graciously hear us.

In the Holy Family’s home, the three kings found their King
enthroned on his mother’s knee, and they worshipped.
May Christ always rule in our home and our hearts.

Lord, hear us; Lord, graciously hear us.

The door frame or lintel is chalked: 20 + C + M + B + 20

Christ bless this house.
Christ bless this house.

All say the Lord’s Prayer

Creator of the heavens,
who led the Magi by a star
to worship the Christ-child:
guide and sustain us,
that we may find our journey’s end
in Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

(This final prayer is the Church of England’s alternative (accessible) collect for Epiphany, and is © The Archbishop’s Council.)

Epiphany podcast – a gospel for unlikely people

One of the things our diocese does is produce a weekly sermon podcast – around a five minute reflection with discussion questions. The intended audience is those small congregations where lay people are leading worship, who don’t have the permission or ability to preach. It’s deliberately kept shorter than a sermon, first because recordings are harder to listen to, and second to encourage some discussion.

Unfortunately, this week was my turn, and the assumption is that most churches will be keeping Epiphany on the Sunday. I confess to finding this much harder than regular preaching, firstly, because being short requires a lot more work, secondly, because it is for a range of congregations, not a single context, and thirdly, because, when preaching normally, I rely on the feedback of people’s expressions to improvise from my outline. Finally, as if all that weren’t enough (and I wonder if others find the same), I think preaching on major festivals is so much harder than ordinary Sundays. What is there, after all, to say that hasn’t been said better by someone else before?

journey of the magi

But, should all that have failed to put you off, here is what I made of the task, concentrating on the readings Isaiah 60.1-6 and Matthew 2.1-12.

Or you can see it with text and questions on our diocesan website.

Hello 2021

For the first time in a long while, I’ve been beginning to feel the desire to blog again. I’ve spent the last few weeks backing up all the posts that formed part of my guide to the Bible aimed especially at those who need to understand it enough to read it well in public worship. They’re now on what will be an (I hope) permanent site (but who can tell with Google). If you haven’t come across them before, I hope find them useful, either for yourself, or to point someone else too.

Find them here: Lection and Liturgy

That major project complete, I hope 2021 is the year I get back my blogging mojo.

Misunderstanding translation?

In his brief introduction to Ephesians, Stephen Fowl says this:

Naturally, it is a mistake to think that there is pure translation, free of all commentary. This is always a matter of degree. Nevertheless, dynamic equivalence translations offer considerably more commentary than the formal correspondence and do so under the guise of providing a translation.


I’m not so sure. It would certainly be possible to attempt to produce a literal gloss, whereby the same English word is used every time the same Greek word is used. I’m not aware of any translation that actually does that. The problem is that the semantic range of English words is not the same as the semantic range of Greek words.

I’m not aware, for example, of any translation that tries to represent the meaning of Paul’s “ψυχικόν” (psychikon – e.g. 1 Cor 15:46) as either “lifeish” or “soulish”. And that’s before we consider how the word is used in sentences, or spoken in performance. A sarcastic comment of “Yeah, right!” does not mean “I agree”, but more something like “Are you insane?”

Literal – word-for-word – translations are likely as interpretative as dynamic – meaning-for-meaning – translations. Glossing the Greek (or Hebrew) text word by word is simply neither informative nor accurate. All translations are commentary, and arguing for a presumed superiority of the formal or literal is simply, I think, to misunderstand how language works.

Language! taking care of our words in public

Cross posted from Liturgica.

One of the things good liturgy does is teach us something about the use of language. Most specifically, it gives us words to use to speak to God. These have usually been crafted with care, drawing on the depth of the tradition, however updated to be able to make sense in the present. People take care shaping the words of the liturgy, because what we say matters. In so far as we can speak truth about the God who is beyond our full understanding, we want to speak truthfully to, about, and for God.

Continue reading “Language! taking care of our words in public”

Problematic polls and collective worship

I’ve been having an interesting Twitter conversation over the last 24 hours with a secularist about a Humanists UK poll on collective worship. As with many polls of this kind, I felt the most appropriate response was to tweet a link to this classic clip, which is what got the conversation started.

The poll is being puffed by Humanists UK, currently seeking to change the law by generating favourable publicity for a case before the courts. For a discussion of the bigger issues, see this post by Jonathan Chaplin on the always informative Law and Religion UK.

There are a number of reasons to be wary of polls, and this one triggers most if not all of my five alerts.

Continue reading “Problematic polls and collective worship”

Theology: training writers in obscurity?

I’ve been writing a review of a book I’m not going to identify here. It has left me reflecting on traditional English theological education. When carried out to doctoral level, it seems to train people to write for an audience of three or four: the supervisors and examiners. 

The most notable feature of the book I’ve just finished is the way the author so clearly wants me to know what he’s read, and that he has read everything relevant to the topic. Trying to follow the main line of thought through the dense thickets of citation was sometimes quite an effort. Since this book is postdoctoral work, this is simply an acquired habit.

Continue reading “Theology: training writers in obscurity?”

After redundancy

I’ve been very quiet on social media over the last few months. That has largely been because of a significant restructuring at work which led to my post being made redundant. It is a strange and disorienting experience to go through, and I didn’t feel like blogging about it while it was happening. It’s especially uncomfortable when to be made potentially jobless is also (as clergy) to be made potentially homeless. 

Nor do I intend to write much about transitioning over the summer to a newly created post focussed on lay training and discipleship development, which I have been successful in applying for. Nor do I want at present to reflect on “survivor’s guilt” and my concern for those colleagues who are now having to look elsewhere for their future employment. 

Some people may find that kind of blogging therapeutic. I don’t think I’m one of them, but it would seem dishonest not to acknowledge here something of the context in which I have been silent, and from which I am seeking to refocus. If you’re the praying sort, you might remember those in my workplace who are still struggling, alongside all those in the wider economy who are in the same boat.

However, I do think the new role means I’ll be doing some fresh thinking, and I hope to do some of that thinking out loud on this blog in ways I haven’t for some time. I’ve therefore refreshed things slightly, in preparation for a return to more active blogging. 

Mainly I’ve moved the title down to being a subtitle, and stolen a new title from one of my favourite poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins. It comes from his sonnet “As kingfishers catch fire”.

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies dráw fláme; 
 as tumbled over rim in roundy wells 
 stones ring; like each tucked string tells, each hung bell’s 
bow swung finds tongue to fling out broad its name; 
each mortal thing does one thing and the same: 
 deals out that being indoors each one dwells; 
 selves—goes itself; myself it speaks and spells, 
crying Whát I do is me: for that I came. 

Í say móre: the just man justices; 
 kéeps gráce: thát keeps all his goings graces; 
acts in God’s eye what in God’s eye he is—
 Chríst—for Christ plays in ten thousand places, 
lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his
 to the Father through the features of men’s faces. 

Geracrd Manley Hopkins

The octave looks at how each creature reveals God’s glory by being itself; the sestet suggests a greater human vocation, made possible by God’s assumption of humanity in Christ. 

We share a call to contributing to the richness of creation by being ourselves as all creatures do (“Whát I do is me: for that I came”).  Beyond that we have a call to see and receive (and to be and offer) the richness of God’s grace and gift in the richness of human life and action. The sheer diversity of humanity when ordered towards justice and generosity participates in, reveals, and revels in, the beauty and love of God.

It’s not unrelated to the experience of redundancy and restructuring. I have been sustained by the care-full approach taken by diocesan management, in the shared experience of colleagues going through restructuring, and through the support and love of friends both Christian and non-Christian.

My Christian friends may be more comfortable with the thought that they have been God’s gifts to me more than my non-Christian ones, but I need to acknowledge the diversity of people through whom, and ways in which, I have been sustained through upheaval and fragility. God’s variegated grace in these wonderfully diverse relationships is one part of Hopkins’ meaning for me when he says “Christ plays in ten thousand places.” It is in humanity that God is to be freshly valued. It is in God that humanity is to be newly appreciated.

The C of E Brexit allegation

Cathy Newman’s rather unsatisfactory interview with Justin Welby on Friday early on repeated the not-entirely true “Pollsters say the majority of Anglican churchgoers voted to leave.”

The polling data from the British Election Study (BES) might more carefully be described as saying: those who identified in a poll as Church of England/Anglican/Episcopalian voted 60% to 40% to leave. Figures from British Religion in Numbers, whose graph I reproduce below.

I am not entirely sure these two statements are the same thing.

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