The Divine Hours of Lent

An editor asked me the other day about whether or not I knew of any ideas or concepts floating around out there in religion that had not yet been developed into book-length treatments, but should be. I think I probably frightened the poor man half to death with the unbridled enthusiasm and vigor of my response.
Lord, yes, there’s a book idea out there that I have been wanting somebody to take on for years. In my head, it’s entitled Bible Stories Your Mother Never Told You; and what it would be is a compilation, in story form, of all the Bible stories we buried in the 20th century because they weren’t nice or, even worse, because they didn’t fit the doctrinal standards of enlightened religion. I want somebody to re-tell, and then compile, the outre tales like Og of Bashan and his 13-foot-long bedstead, for he was the last of the giants that once roamed the earth and ruled the tribes of man.
I’d love to hear again the splendor of Melchizedek, mighty king of Salem, who had neither progeny nor forebears, but instead was, and who as priest of the Most High God blessed Abram and took from him the first tithe. I think we should remember and ponder again how it was that the Witch of Endor managed to conjure for King Saul the ghost of the prophet Samuel in order that the king might learn from the dead what his own future was to be.
I want to revel again in the scheme of Rahab, the prostitute, who was the first woman in recorded history to use a red light to mark her place of business…well, actually, it was a scarlet rope, and she hung it out her window to signal Joshua and the waiting Israelite army that it was safe for them to invade the city, but to please spare her home and family while they were doing it.
I want to be amused all over again by how the warrior Jephthah used a lisp to save Gilead. I love that wondrous tale of how he separated the infiltrating, but physically similar, Ephraimites from the true Hebrews in his camp by having each man say, “shibboleth.” As it turns out, Ephraimities couldn’t make that “sh” sound and could only say “sibboleth.” Off with their heads!….over a lisp, no less.
Goodness, for that matter and while we are on Jephthah, I want to be confused and mystified all over again by his daughter and by her story. Especially in Lent, I want to feel again the poignancy of how she wandered the hills of Gilead for sixty days, dancing there with her handmaidens, dancing and mourning her virginity and preparing herself for what was to come. That is, she was preparing herself to be sacrificed by her father in fulfillment of a vow he had made to Yahweh. As with Iphigenia at Aulis, so with Jephthah’s nameless daughter in Gilead. Both would die as sacrifices at the hand of a warrior-father. So horrific is that story that we are told the women for Israel for decades thereafter went up into the mountains for four days every year, making retreat there and mourning the fate of one of their own.
The list goes on, Jephthah’s daughter being the one that cuts closest to Lent and what we are coming to as we approach Black Friday. But what matters here is not the titillation of lining up a whole battery of suppressed stories for the sake of their potential shock value. What matters is why they became, if not actively deleted from frequent telling, then at least ones to avoid because of the theological complexity they expose.
What matters is that those stories and three dozen others like them are the texture of religion. They are the nursery, the truth, and the hotbed out of which Judaism and Christianity come. They are the canonically established family stories of who we are; and without them, we are and forever will be bland strangers lost in concepts and theories, but lacking history and narrative insight.
What matters is that being observant Christian in a christianized culture is very difficult, especially if that culture has cleaned up your personnel file to fit its own sense of propriety and decorum.
What matters is that Lent is the time assigned for considering prayerfully how it is that we have allowed the world to make our religion too small.

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