Tear Open the Heavens

January 7, 2018

There are many interesting and helpful ways to read the Bible. I always find it fascinating when a word, or phrase, or image repeats across texts. Sea, mountain, shepherd, wilderness-  are all words the can clue us into the larger story of God.

So also, the words,”tear open” or “rend”. In Isaiah 64, we read, “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down…” Then in Mark 1:10, the story of Jesus baptism we read, “And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” And in Mark 15:38 (and also the other gospels) at the crucifixion, “And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom.”

It is helpful to remember as we contemplate the rending of the heavens that ancient people believed the sky was a dome. They inhabited a three storied universe. There were waters above and below, and a dome over the earth.

By Ralph V. Chamberlin (?) – Ralph V. Chamberlin. “The Early Hebrew Conception of the Universe”. The White and Blue. Vol XIII no. 11, Dec. 24 1909. pp. 84-88, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=39116402

The understanding of the ancient world was that the heavens could actually be torn apart. This sort of cosmic disruption of nature imagery is fairly common in the Bible. Often God’s appearing is described as mountains quaking, stars falling from the sky, fire and smoke.  Ancient people expected the world to be dramatically changed when God came near. Mt Sinai is covered in smoke with thunder and lightning, and the mountain shakes as Moses goes up to receive Torah.

So God rends the heavens-

When Isaiah writes about God coming to God’s people, the heavens are torn open,and the mountains quake. When Jesus is baptized, Mark tells us the heavens are torn apart. And when Jesus dies, all the gospels tell us the curtain around the Holy of Holies is torn.

It is a powerful image, God tearing the roof off the world to come to us. God tearing open the division between the holiest place in the Temple and humankind. Every barrier between God and humanity is disrupted, Nothing stops God. Nothing will keep God from us.

And yet… God loves a paradox. So Jesus’ birth is a quiet event. His is born to poor parents in backwater Judea. The only people, in any telling of the nativity, who experience divine drama are a few shepherds who see the heavenly host, the heavenly army who come, paradoxically, singing of peace.

These are, of course, not the only times, nor the only ways “tear open” are used in the Bible.  Most often tearing and rending refer to the practice of tearing garments in grief or despair. Ultimately though, rending and tearing  are not the result of despair but the result of God coming to us, a theophany, the appearing of God. Tears changed to joy. Despair to hope.

O that you would rend the heavens and come down!


Mary: Tough and Feisty

December 24, 2017

For protestants, Advent and Christmas are, in all honesty, the only time of the year we spend any time thinking about Mary.  Often the words, meek, mild, obedient, and submissive,  are used to describe her.  People talk about how young Mary is. All those words paint a particular picture of Mary.

But that’s not the picture we get when we read what the Bible has to say about her. One thing we need to remember is that the Bible doesn’t use a lot of descriptive language. We rarely are told what someone is thinking or feeling. As readers, our clues come from what people do and say. And Mary does and says some interesting things.

Mary’s encounter with the angel Gabriel is bookended by two other angel visitations in Luke’s gospel. There is a particular format, if you will, to angel encounters. Angels are, by all accounts, fearsome beings. That’s why one of the first things angels say to people is ,    “Fear not”.

Zechariah sees and angel and is “terrified; and fear overwhelmed him.” (Luke 1:11). The shepherds also see an angel “and they were terrified”. Both times the first thing the angel says is “Do not be afraid.” This is how visits from angels go- people who see an angel are terrified.

Except…Mary’s experience is different. When the angel visits Mary his first words are “Greetings, favored one!”  Mary is not terrified, or afraid. She is perplexed and she ponders. She wonders what is going on. She is never described as being terrified or afraid.

Zechariah an old priest and the shepherds, who were a tough bunch, are all terrified. But not Mary. She seems to be stronger than we typically give her credit for.

The angel Gabriel does tell Mary to not be afraid but that seems to be a word of encouragement for what God is asking her to do.  It seems more, “Don’t be afraid of the future” rather than don’t be afraid of an angel. She asks questions and after they are answered she agrees. “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word”.  “Here I am” is the response of people called to speak and act on God’s behalf. With these three words, she stands alongside Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah.

When Mary says,” let it be with me”, she accepts her part in God’s redemption of the world. Mary understands the promises of Torah and the prophets. Mary knows “it” will change everything.

Meek and mild? How about tough and feisty?

Then Mary goes to visit her relative Elizabeth, probably a trip of 80-100 miles. A significant journey in those days.  And just in case we still want to reduce Mary to a little girl – meek, mild, unaware of what God is up to, she says this:


 “My soul magnifies the Lord,  

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.

For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;

 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate;

he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”


Mary’s song, the Magnificat, echos the words of the prophets. There is nothing meek, mild, submissive, or helpless about Mary. She proclaims God’s salvation of the oppressed. She accepts her role in God’s redemption of the world.

“Let it be with me according to your word.” That”it” is a big “it”. Pregnancy is always a big “it” and in Mary’s case there are social and religious consequences. But the “It” doesn’t end with the birth of Jesus.  The “It” involves her seeing Jesus fulfill his peculiar calling of Messiah. The “It” involves Mary seeing Jesus say and do things that will catch the attention of the authorities, both religious and Roman. The “It”  means Mary at the cross as her son dies. The “it” changes everything.

It takes a strong woman to say, “Let it be with me according to your word.” It takes a strong woman to stand alongside Moses, Samuel, and Isaiah. To speak a prophetic word.  It takes a strong woman to raise the Messiah and watch him change everything.


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