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Notes on the Bible and Religion

A Column Appearing in the Newspapers of Coastal Bend Publishing

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Delayed Release

Due to an error on the publisher side of things, my column for this week will be delayed one or two weeks. 
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One Very Special Chair

In my previous entry, I wrote about the liturgical seasons of the Christian calendar. In several Christian traditions, the calendar year is full of feast days for particular saints.

Rather than describing huge meals, the word “feasts” here means more like optional memorial days to remind the faithful of exemplary Christians from the past. Many protestant denominations give relatively little or no attention to these feast days, in part because of some issues arising during the 16th century Reformation—but that is a topic for another day.

As it turns out, there is a rather peculiar feast day this week: February 22nd is the Feast of St. Peter’s Chair. A feast day for a chair? This almost begs for a Note on the Bible and Religion!

Simon Peter was one of Jesus’ closest disciples and was quite the personality. He might be called Jesus’ right-hand man. A fisherman by trade, he and Jesus came to have some rather interesting words with each other (e.g., Matthew 26:33-35, 75; Mark 8:29-34; John 21:15-17). He was the disciple who, seeing Jesus walking upon the sea, stepped out of a boat and walked on water himself until fear set in and he cried out for Jesus to save him (Matthew 14:25-31). And during the arrest of Jesus, it was Peter who drew his sword and hacked at a servant of the High Priest, cutting off his ear (John 18:10, 26). Two books of the Bible are attributed to him.

Jesus even gave Simon the name Peter (meaning “Rock”), and told him “upon this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). As a founder of the Church in Rome, Peter is considered its first bishop, and is regarded as the first in a line of popes stretching from antiquity to today.

It is with this point that a feast day for a chair begins to make sense.

You may have heard of cathedrals. A cathedral is usually larger and more ornate than a typical church. Cathedral literally means “armchair” or “throne”. Cathedrals, then, are the special churches where a bishop “sits” or officially presides. The cathedral in Rome known as St. Peter’s Basilica houses the magnificent Cathedra Petri (“Throne of Peter”). It is a majestic work in an immense and wonderfully beautiful church.

Early churches, by contrast, were very simple structures. One of the earliest surviving churches is the Dura-Europos house church in Syria. It was a mere residence converted for Christian worship services. Yet even in this early church, we see the importance of Peter. In the house’s baptismal fresco, we see an image of Peter submerging as he walks on water. His right hand is reaching out for Jesus’ own saving right hand.

And so, both in today’s grand cathedral (chair) in Rome and in a simple house church from antiquity, it is Peter who may be seen as Jesus’ right-hand man.


The Colors of the Seasons

Giving wall calendars as holiday gifts remains popular, although not nearly as popular as it was before smart gadgets provided a calendar at one’s fingertips.

Christianity also has a “calendar” of sorts, a cycle of liturgical seasons through the year. Not all churches follow the calendar completely, although you might be hard-pressed to find a Christian denomination that does not place Christmas on or about December 25th.  A few weeks ago, we entered something known as Ordinary Time.

The seasonal colored vestments that a priest (pastor) wears and the matching material draped on things such as pulpits and communion tables are called parament sets. Sometimes, these sets are ornate and costly. Some churches or pastors have simpler ones. And some churches deliberately use none or almost none. In Ordinary Time, these sets are green. Among other things, green symbolizes life and hope.

If you attended a Christmas service several weeks ago, you may have seen a white (or even gold-colored) parament set. These colors are reserved mainly for Christmastide and Eastertide. Among other things, these colors symbolize purity, glory, and joy.

Purple (or Blue) parament sets (representing repentance, sacrifice, and self-discipline) are sometimes seen during Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas. That color may also be seen during Lent, a forty-day period set aside for additional self-discipline, self-reflection, and the contemplation of Christ’s suffering. This “purple” season of Lent begins in just a couple of weeks.

Then there’s Red. Of the common parament set colors, red is the rarest—but its days pack a wallop! It is used on days such as Good Friday (the day of Jesus’ crucifixion and death) and Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descended upon the early Apostles and other followers of Jesus, establishing the Church.

But what does the Bible say about all these seasonal religious colors? The New Testament is silent about it. Jesus criticized the priesthood of his day, but his criticism wasn’t about their clothing as far as I can tell. Generally, a priests’ robes remain similar to the garb someone might wear in antiquity. The paraments merely add colors for special days and seasons.

There is, however, one passage from the Old Testament that rings out. Exodus 28:1-5 instructs that the priests of Israel shall have liturgical vestments for dignity and adornment. They were to be made by skilled hands and with such textiles as fine linen and gold, blue, purple, and crimson yarns. This ancient text does not command that seasonal drapery is necessary in our holy places, but it may establish a biblical precedent allowing such coloring.

And so, as we anticipate the green of spring and, perhaps, as we see more green in our churches, we are reminded of the new life and hope available to us in Christ. Death is defeated. For Christians, this hope of eternal life is the new, Ordinary Time in which we live. That’s extraordinary!

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