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We are all on a Journey

An address by Fr John Slater on

17 August 2003 11:00 | Fr John Slater

One of the things I really miss in coming to a church which uses the Prayer Book readings at the Eucharist is hearing the Old Testament. The new lectionaries have three readings each Sunday, including one from the Old Testament. I’m afraid that knowledge of the Bible, once so universal, is being lost to most people in this country. And that represents a real impoverishment not only to our religious understanding but also to our appreciation of English literature and culture.

I often wonder what people understand of even a popular hymn like Guide me O thou great Redeemer. What is the crystal fountain whence the healing stream doth flow? Or the fiery cloudy pillar? Without knowing the story of the Exodus, the hymn loses its points of reference.

It would be impossible to understand the New Testament without knowledge of the Old Testament. Reading today’s Epistle can really make no sense at all unless we see the parallel being drawn between our Christian lives and the journey of the children of Israel from Egypt to the Promised Land. It’s in the story of the Exodus that we read about the pillar of cloud and the crossing of the sea, the mysterious food called manna and the quenching water that flowed from the rock. It was in the wilderness of Sinai that the people complained, tempted God and turned to idolatry and lust.

St Paul says that this Old Testament history was written for our admonition, and it is he who draws the parallel with our lives. We have to remember that so much Christian theology depends on this originally Jewish scholar of the school of the Pharisees which Jesus had judged quite severely.

St Paul refers to events taking place in the Sinai desert which was the middle point in the journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. You could parallel that journey with our own Christian journey in which our present life is a middle point between Calvary and our final union with God which is the goal of the Christian journey.

The journey is a powerful symbol of the human condition and parallels with Biblical history can illuminate our own situation - but only so far. If we lose the vocabulary, literary and visual, of the Old Testament, then quoting it is unhelpful and we might well be better off seeking analogies in contemporary novels and films. Yet there are elements of the Old Testament that we really can’t do without because Jesus himself spoke in terms of the sagas and stories of the Hebrew Bible. The earliest Christians came to terms with the Lord’s death in the light of the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the Servant of God whose underserved sufferings were redemptive of the sins of others.

It seems appropriate, in the middle of the holiday season, to be talking about journeys. Every journey needs its beginning and its goal, but travelling can be as important as arriving. How we have travelled will determine just who we are when we arrive. How we have lived will determine just who we are as we seek to grow into the possibility of finding union with God at last. My plea is for informed Bible reading among Christians and for a renewed commitment in schools to making sure all our young people grow up knowing the essential stories of the Bible as a foundation for religious insight and belief.
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