Thursday, March 23, 2023

How long?


This afternoon, I’ve been reading Mary Beard’s SPQR: a History of Ancient Rome. Beard jumps in with Cicero’s denouncement of Catiline before the senate in 63BCE. In passing, she notes that “the modern word ‘candidate’ derives from the Latin candidatus, which means ‘whitened’ and refers to the specially whitened togas that Romans wore during election campaigns, to impress the voters.” (p. 32)

Beard writes,

“It did not take long for the opening words of Cicero’s speech given on 8 November (the First Catilinarian) to become one of the best known and instantly recognisable quotes of the Roman world: ‘Quo usque tandem abutere, Catilina, patientia nostra?’ (‘How long, Catiline, will you go on abusing our patience?’) (p. 41)

In the short-term, Cicero has his finest hour, but it is not without backlash.

I am struck by the account of Jesus’ transfiguration (Matthew 17, Mark 9, Luke 9) where Jesus’ clothes become dazzling white (Mark goes so far as to claim whiter than any human process could make them) and which is immediately followed by Jesus declaring, “You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you? How much longer must I put up with you?”—the Latin translation of Matthew’s and Luke’s version uses the form ‘quousque’—before exorcising a demon, a hostile and foreign element.

These Gospels were written circulating within the Roman empire (even if Matthew is traditionally considered to be primarily addressed to an audience of Jewish background). I think it likely that Jesus is here intentionally playing on Cicero’s famous phrase (among other references). I am also intrigued by how the early Christian community in Rome, and those who may have been interested in finding out more about this sect, may have been struck by these passages. In contrast to Cicero, who has the alleged conspirators put to death without trial, is Jesus a Catiline figure—the Roman writer Sallust had already put a version of Cicero’s words into Catiline’s mouth, ‘Quae quo usque tandem patiemini, o fortissimi viri?’ ‘How long will you go on putting up with this, my braves?’—and hence revolutionary?


Friday, March 17, 2023

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Dust and friendship


‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return. Turn away from sin and remain faithful to Christ.’

Picture in your mind’s eye a room, with closed curtains or louvered blinds, a shaft of light breaking through, motes of dust suspended in the air, revealed to be dancing.

Dust is largely made up of tiny flakes of shed skin. Recently I bought a new pair of boots. They will be comfortable, but they take a little breaking-in, especially around the top of the boot where the leather chaffs against my leg, scrubbing, sloughing off skin that falls down onto the side of my boot. Bending to tie the laces, I notice this light dust on the darker leather.

Jesus would send his disciples ahead of him, to every village he intended to go to, to seek out lodgings on the way. He told them what to do if they found a welcome. And what to do if they did not: shake the dust off their feet as a testimony (witness, evidence, proof) against the people of that village.

Except that in both Mark’s account and Luke’s, the ‘against’ is supplied by context. Mark writes eis (to, into, about, against, among) martyrion autois (Mark 6:11). Luke writes eis martyrion ep’ (on, upon) autous (Luke 9:5) and kai ton koniorton ton kollēthenta hemin ek tēs poleōs hymōn eis tous podas apomassometha hymin: even the dust that has cleaved-us-together us from-within your city to the feet we wipe off you (Luke 10:11).

Given the context, it is entirely right to translate this wiping off the dust as a response to the absence of welcome. But because the negative must be supplied by context; because the words can be translated positively in a different context; and because Jesus hints at dust as a sign of cleaving together in friendship—the same thought behind ‘therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife and they become one flesh, Genesis 2:24—we can surely imagine this action symbolising all partings. That an action that is a sign of judgement in one context might be a sign of blessing in another.

When we spend time in fellowship together, sharing our lives with one another, breaking bread, we inevitably build up forensic evidence that witnesses to our relationship: my dust cleaves to you, and your dust to me. And when the time comes to move on, from one place of welcome to the next, we might do so wiping against one another (in my own culture, that might be a handshake, or a hug, unlikely the rubbing of feet against each other) and blessing one another: though we are apart, may my dust that still clings to you and your dust that still clings to me bear witness; though we are apart, for a while, we are not forgotten to each other: may God bless you and keep you, until we meet again.

As I prepare to go off on a three-month sabbatical, I am thinking about the dust that clings.