ADVENT 18, 2017
Well, I have to admit that things have been a bit stressful lately. I bet they have been for you, too. as you know, I have been worried about the Christmas and Christmas Eve stuff. However, I am also concerned about the future of the church--Eliot Church and the church at large--and more than a little stunned by the state of the world. Maybe that is why I made last night the time to read the first chapter of Luke in The Tyndale Bible. I will probably move on to another chapter tonight and then to Matthew so as to get the whole story (at least in the scriptural sense) covered.
Actually, reading it isn't that hard if you use one of the contemporary "translations" of this first translation of the Christian scriptures into English. Those have standard modern spelling and punctuation. We use that version at the 7pm service on Christmas Eve so we don't get lost or confused. What I read last night was the facsimile of the 1526 edition.
I bought it years ago when I first got into Tyndale. I am a nerd and get super-enthusiastic about certain things. Every once in a while I crack it open. Reading it turns out to be a challenge. For starters an "s" looks just like an "f" and sometimes a "j' will be rendered as an "i". Words change their spelling in the midst of the same paragraph. Then, of course, there is a different vocabulary and sentence structure. Oh...and there is the font. My modern and aging eyes have trouble figuring out certain differences so "houffe" (house) looks like "bouffe". Also my brain tries to fill in words too fast so that the fairly straightforward "bleffed" (blessed) comes out as "baffled" when I read. Baffled is, of course, my condition in those moments...not Mary's.
That said, I like to do it sometimes. It requires concentration. The Advent/Christmas story is pretty familiar to me at this point and it is easy to stop paying attention to the words. Bending over this thing, puzzling it out, keeps me focused. There is also the history of the document. This would be the first book many people encountered in their lives. Certainly in 1526, it would be the first Bible they could read themselves. They would have had to puzzle it out, too. Literacy wasn't widespread. They also would have taken it very seriously.
After all, their actions were illegal. In 1535 the authorities caught up to William Tyndale. In 1536 he was strangled and burned for the crime of this translation. Turns out these hard words have power greater than their use as "lessons" between carols on Christmas Eve. Those who actually had their own power worried that if anyone could read it, their power would be diminished.
When I read this translation I cannot help but wonder--as its original readers must have--what it was that made the church, the governments, and the rich so scared. When I read this version, concentrating on getting every word correct, the answer is obvious. Jesus so clearly sided with his fellow poor and oppressed. He claimed lordship from his lowly post and said that the world we move through does not belong to the ownership class. Nor does God's world.
Back then the Bible was viewed--at least by those whose position was threatened--as a document for the purpose of revolution. It was dealt with in the ways the rich still deal with such things. It was repressed. Today we would say that people were granted "unequal access" to it. We see the same strategy in action when the concept of equal access to money, education, employment, healthcare, housing, marriage, and compensation (among others) is challenged, Even more recently, we can add the internet to this list. Just as with the Bible, deregulation is an attempt to restrict the flow of information.
To believe in these things--that all people should be able to have their fair share of the resources and that equal access is the same as equal opportunity--is to mark yourself off as part of the fringe, a dreamer, a progressive. To believe that the wealthy and powerful need to surrender their wealth and power sounds downright unchristian to contemporary ears. Yet that was what Jesus, his family, and his friends were all about.
Over the centuries there has been a concerted effort to declaw Jesus' actions and teachings. It saves wear and tear on the furniture. There is a feeling in many parts of Burbania that to live by your faith in the public sphere is somehow rude. The problem is, the public sphere is so large that this idea reduces faith to a thought exercise. We are expected to generate happy thoughts at certain times and sad thoughts at others. No wonder people don't go to church! So much of the season is about warm fuzzies, joy and light, Jesus would be a Grinch at his own birthday party.
I am pretty sure I don't agree with Tyndale theologically on some points (quite possibly many). Also, a modern Bible scholar could debate his word choice in a number of places. Still, there is Jesus, for the first time in accessible English, laying the groundwork for a massive upending of the social order that has yet to be fully realized. Today some churches fear stirring the pot and appearing as something other than pillars of the established way. In the Evangelical world there is much soul-searching about how some (but certainly not all) people in that community have abandoned long held beliefs to stand in the current political "winner's circle". Others--both individuals and congregations of many theological stripes--do step out and speak out. Sure, there are penalties for that. However, this has been quite a year for the Religious Left.
On Christmas Eve in this country we will probably think we are reading a nice religious story that will reassure us. In fact, it probably will provide solace in a difficult time. It does, in fact, contain a personal meaning. Yet the radical message is still there, too. I, at least, will be praying that it enters our hearts in such way that on Christmas morning we feel that call to build a just a peaceful world. I pray we build (using today's words, not Tyndale's) the Commonwealth of Heaven.