Reading the New Testament (Week 2)

This week’s New Testament readings are Luke 2 and Matthew 2.

Luke 2

Luke 2:1-7

There are few verses of scripture more familiar to Christians than these. We understand that this “tax” was more of a census, and I have read that by Roman law Joseph and Mary might have remained in Nazareth and registered there, but Jewish tradition declared that they should return to his — or their — ancestral home, Bethlehem, the City of David. Thus the prophecy of Micah 5:2 was fulfilled.

The Birth of Christ - Carl Bloch

As to where Jesus was born, I have often heard that it was probably a cave where animals were kept, not a barn. But I recently read an article by Ian Paul, “Once more: Jesus was not born in a stable.” He argues something entirely different. It’s an interesting exploration, though I am not scholar enough to evaluate it. See what you think.

In any case, the fact that he was born, the angelic announcements, and the role of the shepherds matter more than the specific structure and do not depend on it for their validity or significance. Even if what our imaginations have built may be shaky in purely historical terms — good grief, we sing of “bleak midwinter,” “snow on snow on snow,” and “a cold winter’s night,” which scarcely fit the climate — the text itself is mostly clear on the essentials.

Luke 2:8-20

Shepherds Abiding in the Fields - Carl Bloch

I have often reflected on the role of the shepherds in this story and heaven’s choice of shepherds for that role. Whether these were ordinary shepherds tending ordinary flocks or temple shepherds tending temple flocks matters little to our calculation of their humble station and circumstances.

Reading the New Testament (Week 1)

This Week’s Readings

This week’s readings are Matthew 1 and Luke 1. I’ll look at them separately, for the most part, though the Gospels often run in parallel. I’m a big fan of reading chapters and books whole, not just skipping around and cherry-picking whichever passages support the doctrinal point of the moment.

You’ll occasionally find me summarizing or retelling a passage without offering additional thoughts. I’ll do this either to connect with something earlier or later in the text (or discussion), or because sometimes merely retelling a passage in different words can be insightful.

Sometimes I will speculate, as I imagine what might have happened, given the sparse record we have. I’ll try to be be clear about that, when I do.

Reading the New Testament: Introduction (Week 0)

David Rodeback

In the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — like many other Christian churches, no doubt — we’re studying the New Testament in Sunday School this year. Latter-day Saint classes and congregations worldwide will more or less follow the same schedule, and members are invited to follow it in their personal and family scripture study. Interesting and fruitful things can and should happen when we study together this way.

If you hear a Latter-day Saint — we prefer that to Mormon — refer to “Come, Follow Me,” that’s either a beloved hymn or the title the Church has given to its revised multiyear curriculum. After we study the New Testament this year, presumably we’ll turn in subsequent years (not necessarily in this order) to the Old Testament, the Book of Mormon, the Doctrine and Covenants, and the Pearl of Great Price, to name the other books we accept as scripture, odd as most may sound to those of other faiths. I’ve read, studied, and loved all these books for years. But I’m glad it’s the New Testament this year.

I’m planning a weekly post here, with some of my thoughts as I study each week’s readings. I’ll try to post early in each week, for the sake of anyone who’s on schedule and finds my musings helpful.

“Fit Us for Heaven” (Thoughts on a Christmas Afternoon)

I’ve been thinking a lot about music during this Christmas season. It’s not just because Offspring #3 is playing at Carnegie Hall (a concert last night and another on Friday; I wish we were there). And it’s not just because my wife’s organ playing in our Christmas service on Sunday afternoon was as glorious as ever, if not more so. At least since my teen years, when I made my share of it, the music of Christmas has been my favorite part of the season.

Christmas music

My favorite hymns, carols, and performances thereof have varied somewhat over the years – though mostly in the sense that my list of favorites has multiplied. Even now, after more than half a hundred Christmases, I am still adding favorites. For example, last year an old hymn, “See Amid the Winter’s Snow,” made the list. I now have four different recordings of it on my iPhone, and I like them all. (See below for a performance on YouTube.)

Beyond Bethlehem

This season, bits of text more than whole songs have had me pondering. I’ve long appreciated Christmas hymns which celebrate but also look beyond the (mostly) sweet story of the Savior’s birth. For example, “Once in Royal David’s City” looks to a glorious future (again, see below for a video):

Neighbors, Strangers, Pilgrims, Friends

I talked recently with some non-LDS friends and neighbors in Utah Valley. They’ve lived here for years, and they know us Mormons (officially, members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints) quite well. In speaking of their experience here, they praised us for welcoming their particular religious minority among us. I gratefully add that they were philosophical and forgiving about our occasional clumsiness and outright failures on that score over the years.

Welcome to Utah sign

When we truly welcome others into our towns and neighborhoods – and homes, hearts, and circles of friends – we’re not just being nice. We’re obeying two key commandments. Both are literally as old as Moses.

One Savior, Four Gifts (Easter Thoughts)

Easter

I have known people who thought their lives were wonderful, or at least happy, or at least good enough – until something awful happened to them or to people they love. I have known people who, from an early age, suffered in ways and degrees that convinced them – and others – that their lives could never be wonderful, or even happy, or even good enough.

The message of Easter, the holiest of Christian holy days, is that eventually, through the infinite grace of Jesus Christ, when all our becoming is done, our lives can and will be good enough. Even happy. Even wonderful.

Even now, even here amid our yearning, the gifts of Easter inspire goodness, instill (not just promise) happiness, and fill us with wonder.

Easter flowers

Lorenzo Snow on Leadership (Sometimes the Lesson Is for Me)

Unless I’m teaching, most church lessons stick in my head only until I’m exiting the room after class. Some prompt me to make an electronic note of a thought I want to remember or something I should do; I will at least see these notes again someday, and maybe they’ll do someone some good. Once in a while, a lesson sticks with me for years — like this one from Lorenzo Snow.

Lorenzo Snow
Lorenzo Snow (1814-1901)

A few years ago, we were studying the teachings of the late Lorenzo Snow, fifth President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The title of that week’s chapter was “Church Leadership and Selfless Service.” Our curriculum for those classes is different now, but when we studied teachings of past presidents of the Church, the idea was that we’d read and study the chapter in the week before our Sunday discussion, so we’d be prepared to discuss the material and our own insights. Sometimes I actually did that. More often, I read the chapter in class, during the boring moments which can sometimes be had among Mormons.

That’s what I was doing this time, near the end of the hour. If there had been time, I’d have raised my hand and shared what I was reading, though the discussion was focused elsewhere in the chapter. Our classes are informal enough that such things are usually welcome — or at least endured with patience.

Thanksgiving Thoughts

Vertical and Horizontal Thanksgiving

A day to be grateful to all who bless our lives and for every way in which they have done so? If Thanksgiving Day were only that, it would be an important secular holiday. But what if it’s more?

(If you’re certain it should not be more or unwilling to consider that it might be, please just accept my earnest wishes for your happy Thanksgiving. You may not wish to read the rest of this.)

looking at stars

What if Thanksgiving is also a day to be grateful for everyone who blesses my life – that is, grateful to a higher power of some sort, who has caused my life to intersect with these people and their many generous acts and quiet virtues? What if today is for thanking a deity who put me in a place and time in which I have food to eat and work to do, some freedom to enjoy as I’m doing it, some faithful friends around me, and a comfortable place to lay my head?

What if this is a day to invite humility, gratitude’s plain and less socially acceptable sister virtue, to our happy feast?

What if Thanksgiving is inherently a religious holiday?