From the Prophet Haggai:
Now therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider how you have fared. You have sown much, and harvested little; you eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill; you clothe yourselves, but no one is warm; and you that earn wages earn wages to put them into a bag with holes.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Haggai 1:5-6 (NRSV) – December 13, 2013.)
It never ceases to amaze me how directly Scripture can speak to the present day! The admonition to “Consider how you have fared,” and its description of an economy in a shambles, where the people work but do not enjoy the produce of their labor, continue to be hungry and thirsty, cannot find warmth, and find their earnings dribbling away to nothing, could be addressed to anyone anywhere in today’s world, I think.
Haggai’s purpose in speaking his prophecy is to encourage the rebuilding of the Temple in the years immediately following the end of the Babylonian Exile, sometime around 520 BCE. His thesis seems to be that if the Jews can reclaim their spiritual center, in his eyes quite literally the physical center of the universe, the Temple of God, their lot will improve. It’s a good point, I think.
I’ve noticed over the past few days that a lot of people were remarking that today would be “Friday the 13th,” not a few with noticeable dread. Many of the same people regularly check their horoscopes and will make it a point of telling others, “I’m a Sagittarius,” or will explain someone’s behavior with, “Well, he IS a Leo!”
My late mother was one such person. She didn’t put much stock in concern about the number 13 (live and work in Las Vegas, Nevada, and you see and learn to dismiss a lot of that sort of thing), but she sure seemed to pay attention to astrology. She was a Cancerian; she constantly reminded my brother and me that he was a Leo and I, a Libra. Whatever personality traits we exhibited were explained by the stars! But all that changed when she entered her 70s.
Something else changed then, too. Her son became a priest. About a year after my ordination, my family and I were visiting my parents and I noticed on her nightstand a copy of The Book of Common Prayer, an old study bible that had been on their bookshelves unused for years, and a newcomer’s pamphlet from a local Episcopal Church. I picked up the BCP and walked into the living room.
“Uh . . . what’s this?” I asked innocently.
“Well,” she said in that almost-sarcastic tone of voice on which I think she had a trademark, “I guess you’re serious about this, so I thought I’d better check it out.”
And check it out she did. Both she and my step-father became official members of the Episcopal Church later that year. He became a regular handyman volunteer around the church, and she became an active member (and even an officer) in the Episcopal Church Women. They attended Mass every week, took part in social events, and worked in the church’s outreach ministry. Both pre-planned their memorial services using the burial rites of the Prayer Book, and their ashes are now together in the memory garden next to the larger church sanctuary their capital contributions help to build.
Here’s the interesting thing: after that day when she admitted she was “checking out” religious faith, I never again heard a word about horoscopes or the zodiac. God, Jesus, and the Christian faith had made astrology unnecessary in her life.
I have atheist and agnostic friends who will scoff at that. In their minds there is no difference between belief that the stars control our destiny and belief that there is a God who loves us. There is, however, a significant difference and it is exactly in that verb I just used – love. The stars, the number 13, rabbit’s feet and lucky clovers, the things of superstition are indifferent to human beings; God is never indifferent.
When we put the indifferent (indeed, the inanimate) at the center of our lives, life suffers. Whether that indifferent thing is a distant star or a bank account, a good luck piece or a career, that thing cannot give back any of our devotion. Center on the indifferent, we will sow much and harvest little. When God is at the center of life, our devotion is returned. Our hunger and our thirst are satisfied.
Haggai was on the right track and his prophecy does address our current situation. A religious re-centering was needed and perhaps the Temple was a visible sign of that re-centering of the returned exiles, but one does not really need a physical center. The people, each individually and all together as a society, needed a spiritual center. The people, each of us individually and all of us together as a society, still do.
It is Advent: the Advent call to self-examination continues in Haggai’s prophecy. What is at our spiritual center? As the morning psalm says today, God is our “strong rock, a castle to keep [us] safe,” and God will lead us and guide us. (Ps. 31:3)
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.