March/April Issue


Thrilled With Love

From Jennifer L. Holberg

Consider today’s blog a bit of a continuation of Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell’s from yesterday on Christ’s “descent to the dead.” 

Frederick Buechner has argued “that we really can’t hear what the stories of the Bible are saying until we hear them as stories about ourselves”—and I think the same thing has to be true about doctrine.  For me, probably no writer has helped me imaginatively engage theological issues better than Dante in the Divine Comedy.  (And I’m not alone: this past Saturday’s Wall Street Journal has a piece entitled “The Ultimate Self-Help Book: Dante’s Divine Comedy.”)

Set as it is on Good Friday through Easter, the medieval Divine Comedy very consciously uses that timeline (referring specifically to events “one thousand and two hundred sixty-six years ago”) as a marker of the salvific work that the character Dante has lost sight of—and which necessitates the long trip through hell and purgatory to paradise itself. 

Most readers will perhaps best remember the journey that Dante and his guide, the poet Virgil, take through hell in “Inferno” and the vivid stories of the sinners they meet there. Dante’s imaginative renderings of those sinners’ punishments, each fitted to the defining sin, remain some of the most powerfully rendered scenes in all of literature.

But what has always struck me is the richly imagined landscape.  It’s not just as if Dante and Virgil meet sinners while walking around a fiery lake or something—no, instead, Dante creates a physical world that shows the full effects of the fall. 


Olly, Olly, Oxen Free!

From Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell

Playing hide-and-seek as a kid, when the game was over, we would yell out “Olly, olly, oxen free.” Only recently did I learn the ancient origin of our nonsensical refrain was “All ye, all ye, all come free.”

In these first days of Eastertide, I like to envision Jesus, robust and victorious, standing triumphantly over the splintered gates of hell, calling out, “All ye, all ye, all come free!”

It wasn’t in any classroom or theological tome that I first encountered such a vision of the risen Christ. It was in some wonderfully peculiar medieval art. Jesus usually strides over the blown-to-smithereens gates. Often there are a few little demons squished beneath the heavy gates. Behind the conquering Lord is a mob of people. Adam and Eve are typically at the front of the procession, in what might be considered the greatest prison break of all time. I’ve been told that in some of the art you can be certain that they are Adam and Eve because they have no navels. Think about it.

Nearly every Sunday we recite “he descended to the dead” in the Apostles’ Creed. Some of you may recall that we used to say “he descended into hell.” Are we trying to clean up the creed? Make it more family-friendly, rated PG rather than R? Not really. Instead, the intention is to convey “sheol”—the place of the dead—rather than hell, the place of the demonic and damned.

In our Reformed tradition, we have never made much of Christ’s descent.


An Ethical Missionary

From Jessica Bratt

Today's guest post comes from the Rev. Dr. Daniel Meeter, pastor of Old First Reformed Church in Brooklyn, New York.

The charismatic rabbi of the most dynamic synagogue in Brooklyn announced his resignation a few weeks ago, and this made the papers in both New York City and Israel. People were “shocked” and “stunned.” I was only momentarily surprised, and that was at the timing. I had figured it was coming. I know this rabbi very well, and I know him to be a missionary, and missionaries move on.

My friend Andy Bachman has been the senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Elohim (CBE), the largest Reform synagogue in Brooklyn, since 2006. Under his leadership, the synagogue has doubled in size to 1000 families. Andy has welcomed many young Jews back to the faith. The CBE synagogue has gained a national reputation for revitalized worship, innovative education, expansive cultural programming, progressive Zionism, and social witness. After Hurricane Sandy the synagogue began feeding thousands of the storm’s victims, and then “CBE Feeds” morphed into an ongoing ministry for the poor of New York. On Sundays, a Christian church meets in the main sanctuary. Hundreds of people pass through the doors of Beth Elohim every day, and only a majority of them are Jews. It’s the cathedral of Park Slope. Rabbi Andy Bachman has led all this.


Easter Sunday

My gifted friend Paul Willis has a lovely poem called “Rosing from the Dead,” in a book with the same title. The poem recounts his driving home with his family from a Good Friday service. “It is dark. It is silent,” he writes. Then, his young daughter speaks:

“Sunday,” says Hanna,
“Jesus will be rosing
from the dead.”

I never think of Easter in exactly the same way again.


Susan VanZanten teaches English at Seattle Pacific University, in Seattle, Washington. Her writings include Mending a Tattered Faith: Devotions with Dickinson (Wipf and Stock, 2011) and Reading a Different Story: A Christian Scholar's Journey from America to Africa (Baker Academic, 2013).


Look for the Helpers

From Debra Rienstra

“Taking Jesus’ body, the two of them wrapped it, with the spices, in strips of linen.” (John 20:25)

Joseph of Arimathea appears in all four gospels, but I am particularly drawn to the account in John, which includes some details beyond what the synoptics provide. Here Joseph is accompanied in his ministrations by Nicodemus—that other recorded member of the Secret Disciple Club. Nicodemus shows up with seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloes, and the two of them together get the job done. We can imagine them, grim and hurried, managing the mangled body, one spreading the spices while the other pulls a fold of linen over and around. Perhaps on another occasion they would have had their own servants or a hired expert do this work, but I like to think of them glancing at the rapidly setting pre-Sabbath sun and agreeing, “Let’s just do it ourselves.”

Luke describes Joseph as “a member of the Council, a good and upright man, who had not consented to [the Council’s] decision and action” (23:50-51). Matthew mentions that he was rich (27:57). John says that Joseph “was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly because he feared the Jews” (19:38). John is the only one who notes Joseph’s discretion about his loyalty to Jesus, but if this is an offense, John seems to forgive it easily, perhaps exactly because Joseph rose to the occasion in this terrible hour. No one else could have done what Joseph did. Who among the terrified disciples or the women had the standing to dare a request to Pilate for the body of a crucified enemy of the state? Joseph must have known how to negotiate his way through the halls of power and make the ask. He also had the means with which to obtain the proper embalming materials was able to secure rights to a nearby tomb, a new or at least never-used one, according to Matthew, Luke, and John. He, and let’s say Nicodemus and a couple servants, must have marched back out to that gruesome hill, right through the dispersing but still-gawking crowds, and talked the soldiers into taking the body down and handing it over. At this point, Catholic tradition allows us to imagine them pausing to allow a heart-broken mother a moment to embrace her son’s tortured body.