Sunday, August 28, 2016


The Rev. Know it all’s Wonderful World of Words! (Continued)

Speaking of aspergils, let us move on to Baptism. Baptism is a very simple word. In classical Greek, it simply means to dunk. It would have been the word used to refer to the dunking of doughnuts, had the ancient Greeks doughnuts, for which there is no archeological evidence. Dunking had an important meaning among the Israelites, as mentioned in my last thrilling installment. The difference between the Christian use of dunking and the Jewish use of dunking was that the Christian dunking created something new. The symbolism of the Jewish ritual bath, as I understand it, was to wash off impurity. The purpose of baptism is much more. We hold that it creates something new. 

When the people of Israel passed through the Red Sea, they became something new. When the land was destroyed and only Noah and his family were spared, humanity became something new. When the Breath of God hovered over the waters of the void in Genesis, the world, a new thing, was made. That’s the symbolism of baptism. It isn’t just a dunking in water; it is a dunking in the Trinity, and adoption into the Family which is God. We hold that Baptism can turn something human into something divine. That’s a whole lot more than the sink in corner of a good Kosher Deli. There’s a lot of argument among Jesus' followers about the requirements for baptism. Some say that you should only baptize adults who can make a decision for Christ. We Catholics believe that baptism is Christ’s decision for us. We believe in grace. God gives the grace of an invitation to give new life even to babies who can only receive our love. They don’t have to earn the gift.

We pray the one day each child will accept that invitation, but nonetheless, the Lord who said, “Let the children come to Me,” makes that wonderful gift of grace. Some say it has to be a full immersion. Some say it has to be done in the name of Jesus only. We Catholics and most Christians say it has to in the name of the Trinity Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Let’s see what the first Christians thought. The “Didache”, or “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles,” was probably written around 80 years after the birth of Jesus. That means around 45 or 50 years after Pentecost. It was probably written in Syria, just north of the Holy Land. It may have been written earlier, even as early as some of the books of the New Testament. It goes way back. It is an instructional manual about how to do things the right way. Here is what it says about Christian Baptism: (Chapter 7, verses 1-4)

Concerning baptism, baptize in this way. After you have spoken all these things, “baptize in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit,” in running water. If you do not have running water, baptize in other water. If you are not able in cold, then in warm. If you do not have either, pour out water three times on the head “in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. 

This seems to be what the first Christians did and it’s what we Catholics still do.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

The Wonderful World of Words - part2

The Wonderful World of Words! (Continued)

So what is an aspergil anyway?  The more proper word is “aspergillum the plural is “aspergilla” but I’ve no idea why one would use more than one at a time anyway. It is a holy water sprinkler, sometimes in the form of a brush, or a rod with a perforated metal ball at one end. It can even be made of pine or hyssop branches as in Psalm 51: “Thou shalt purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean.”  Hyssop is associated with rituals of purification in a number of ancient religions, but I have absolutely no idea why. Just a cautionary note: When using a metal aspergil, the sprinkler (that is the priest or deacon) should make very sure that the little perforated ball is tightly screwed on to the handle. The round business end of the aspergil has been known to fly off and bonk the “sprinklee” (the faithful) in the head. If this happens to you, assume that it is a very special sign of divine favor and do not sue the parish.

The more interesting thing here is holy water. We Catholics use sacred or blessed water for purification as did a whole lot of ancient religions, but especially the religion of Israel. The temple mount was honeycombed with cisterns to hold the vast amount of water needed for the purification of sacrificial animals, the altar, priests, people and things. The great question is why we modern people would cling to ancient religious forms such as the use of holy water. It is quite simple. Catholicism believes that the body is sacred. We are not souls trapped in flesh. We are incarnate spirits. My body, not just my soul, really is me. It matters what I do with it, how I treat it and even how I dispose of it when I am no longer using it. We bury the dead, and even in the exceptional circumstance of cremation, the remains of the body are to be buried or stored in sacred ground that has been blessed with, you guessed it, holy water in most cases.

Why holy water? Holy water is a symbol of baptism. The Israelites passed through the Red Sea and the river Jordan, and Jews still practice a kind of self-baptism called a mikveh in which they immerse themselves to shed the dirt and pollution of this world. We do something like this in baptism. We symbolically pass from one shore of the Red Sea on which we are slaves to the other shore on which we find ourselves free. We even do this with things by means of holy water. They pass from one state to another, from a secular use to a sacred one. This baptism of things is not so much to remove a kind of uncleanness, but to dedicate them to a new purpose. This thing now belongs primarily to God. So when you have me bless your car, realize that by baptizing it with holy water, I am not just wishing it good luck. I am giving it to God. I hope that is your intention when you ask for a blessing.

HOSANNA. Now that you know what an aspergil is, shall we move on to the meaning of Hosanna?  It is an Aramaic word meaning “Save us!”, or “Savior!”

It is not a Hebrew word originally. Hebrew and Aramaic are very closely related languages of the Northwest Semitic language group. I suppose the relationship between the two languages is almost same as that of Spanish and Portuguese. They are almost, but not quite, mutually intelligible.  Ancient Aram was essentially what we now call Syria, just north of Israel. It was the home of the Arameans who settled there around 3500 BC, at least 1,500 years before Abraham arrived in the land of Canaan, where a variety of other Semitic dialects were spoken. Aramaic gradually became the common language of the Middle East just as English has become a world language in our times. When the Jews were exiled to Babylon, they stopped speaking Hebrew and started speaking its cousin, Aramaic the language spoken at that time in Babylon, now the country of Iraq. Thus it was when Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, the crowd shouted, “Save us!” in their native tongue which was not Hebrew, but Aramaic! Hebrew had not been the common language of the Jews for almost six centuries by the time Jesus entered Jerusalem. Aramaic had been.

The prayer “Holy, Holy, Holy” with its “Hosanna” is a direct lift from the Hebrew liturgy on the feast of Sukkot, (the Feast of Booths) The Jews to this day process in their synagogues on the mornings of the week of Sukkot saying “Holy, Holy, Holy” and “Hosanna,” (or “Hoshanna” as they pronounce it.) It is a prayer to plead for the coming of the Messiah.  “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” is a normal way to say “Welcome” among the Jews. In fact, the seventh day of Sukkoth is called Hoshana Rabbah (the Great Hosanna).

So there you have it. We say at Mass what the citizens of Jerusalem said to Jesus when He appeared as their king on Palm Sunday, 2,000 years ago, and we say it in Aramaic, just as they did. Holy water, and Hosannas with Holy, Holy, Holy, are just more evidence that you do on Sunday morning ties us ever more fully to that big book on the coffee table, the Bible!

By the way, Aramaic is still spoken. It is spoken all over Skokie by our Assyrian and Chaldean neighbors, friends and parishioners. Any day of the week you can hear the language in which our Lord Jesus and His Blessed Mother spoke to each other.

Rev. Know-it-all

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The Wonderful World of Words - part 1

I am tired of commenting on the free fall of the Church and the culture in our times, so I am going to write about something I enjoy.  You will just have to endure it. So, welcome to a new adventure in the exciting study of religion:

The Rev. Know-it-all’s Wonderful World of Words!

This is dedicated to those of us who can’t tell a Hosanna from an Aspergil. Why, you may ask is this important? If you go to church on a regular basis, you are saying “Hosanna” at least twice a week. For all most of know, when we say “Hosanna,” we may be asking the Almighty to slap us silly. Actually this is a more likely possibility with an aspergil. They sometimes come unscrewed and bonk somebody in the head during a spritzing with holy water. If this happens to you it means that God is really trying hard to get your attention.

Let us begin with a discussion of the English language. Modern linguists now suspect that English is not so much a language as it is a failed attempt to create the world’s largest crossword puzzle. The story of English begins in the mists of prehistory when people who had not yet discovered cable television moved a lot of large stones around to create a henge made of stone. They called it Stonehenge. They then refused to tell subsequent generations why they had built it.  My theory is that they had a lot of free time on their hands and they said to one another, “This should keep them guessing in years to come.”

Currently large, pasty-faced, ungainly English people gather there on certain days of the year and pretend they are druids and such. They are practicing a very ancient religion which they just made up a few years ago. The Neolithic pranksters who built Stonehenge must be laughing themselves silly from beyond the grave if that sort of thing is possible. We have no idea what language these ancient people spoke and their only contribution to modern English may, in fact be a few place names, but we can’t even be sure of that. Next came the Celts or Kelts or Gaelts or however scholars are pronouncing it this week. The Celts were an Indo-European people who took over Europe beginning about 4,000 years before Christ. The Indo-European peoples seem to have originated in Central Asia and as they moved with herds and flocks, they brought their language and their chromosomes with them. They don’t seem to have been very aggressive about the conquest, taking 4,000 years to accomplish it, but eventually descendants of the Indo-Europeans were to be found everywhere from India to Iceland. I suspect that it wasn’t really an invasion so much a slow migration with frequent conversations such as, “Hello, sir. I’m your new neighbor. May I date your daughter?” 

The Indo-European language family eventually came to dominate much of the world and most of Europe. Celtic was one branch of that language, as well as being a basketball team. Celtic was spoken by leprechauns, banshees and the snakes that St. Patrick drove out of Ireland. It is still spoken in Wales, Cornwall, Breton and far western Ireland. It, too, left very little imprint on the English language except some more place names and such words as smithereens, whiskey and flannel. (Hence the connection between whiskey and the condition known as flannel mouth). Then came the Romans right around the time of Christ. They invaded first in 55 BC and then tried again with more success in 43 AD. They managed to remain in Britain until around 410 AD and their legacy left little more than, you guessed it, place names. Then things really started to cook.

The Germans invaded, and we Germans are too stubborn to adopt other people’s languages if we can possibly avoid doing so, at least that was my grandmother’s attitude. The particular tribes that invaded England were the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes. Perhaps you heard of the Anglo-Saxons, but the Jutes? That is probably because they are essentially Danish and very polite and do not want to draw attention to themselves. With them came an ancient form of German that is still spoken in East and West Frisia, which province is the butt of many modern German jokes. (“How many Frisians does it take to screw in a light bulb? Don’t be ridiculous. They don’t have electricity in Frisia yet.” And they say the Germans are humorless!) 

With the Frisian dialect spoken by the invaders, English was born. The Christian faith of Romano-Celtic Britons pretty much died out with the advent of the German invaders and their musical language and charming religion that involved burying people alive or burning them to death. The Kingdom of Kent in southern England was ruled by the pagan Aethelbert, whose queen was a French Christian princess named Bertha. Queen Bertha was a foot in the door for the faith and in 595, Pope Gregory sent St. Augustine of Canterbury, not to be confused with the Tunisian pear thief of the same name, with a bunch of Roman monks to reintroduce Christianity to Britain, the land of the Angles or, as you and I call it, England. Latin returned to England with the monks. Over the course of the next 200 years, the pagan Germans of England accepted Christianity and started to keep things like legal documents and perhaps strudel recipes stored in monasteries and written in the Latin language. 

Then came the Vikings around 800. They started out with just a little murder, rape and pillage, but then decided to move in. Large parts of England, Scotland and Ireland were now inhabited by the Scandinavians, who despite their many denials are fairly close relatives genetically and linguistically to the Germans. The Vikings brought more vocabulary and a different sentence structure with them and added these to the stew that is English. Then came the French in 1066, actually French-ified Vikings from Normandy. They were not going to speak the rough German/Viking language that the Saxons spoke. At the time English sounded like a case of terminal hairball. They kept speaking Norman French. They brought more Latin words to the language so that eventually about half of the English dictionary is Latin in origin. The grammar is German, but the vocabulary is half Latin.

This invasion precipitated the greatest changes in the language. If English is your second language, you must have wondered about the “k” in knight and that extra “a” in aardvark, not to mention the “g” in daughter. We have not put those into the language just to make your life difficult. The truth is WE ACTUALLY USED TO PRONOUNCE THOSE LETTERS, JUST AS THEY STILL DO IN GERMAN!!! Daughter for example was once pronounced “dawkhter” with an emphasis on the “Khhhh…” which sounds like a person being choked to death. The French would have none of it. They just started leaving out the offending letters. The enlightenment added more Latin and a bunch of Greek technical words because the doctors and professors wanted to let everyone know how much smarter they were than everyone else, for instance, by calling a bruise by its Greek name (hematoma). They do this just to be irritating, and to keep you in your place, peasant.  So after a thousand or so years of war, pillage and invasion, we have English.

Most languages develop from simplification of earlier languages at a fairly steady rate. English is a linguistic train wreck. England was repeatedly invaded because of its balmy climate and famous cuisine, I’m sure. They actually eat something called “spotted something-or–other” that sounds like a serious medical condition.

What if anything does this have to do with religion? I’m getting there. All those Benedictine monks brought their cherished Latin manuscripts with their Greek and Hebrew religious terms to England. The Germanic peasants were suitably mystified by this and weren’t really interested enough in Christianity to even worry about what the crazy monks called their weird ceremonies. So it is that we have words like “Mass.” Do you know what “Mass” really means? In English it means, “A property of matter equal to the measure of the amount of matter contained in or constituting a physical body that partly determines the body's resistance to changes in the speed or direction of its motion.” In Latin it means. “Go away. We’re done.” which was the part of the ceremony most interesting to the barely Christianized Anglo-Saxons and Normans forced to attend. This is why for those who do their religion in English. It is very important to know this stuff.  The great bulk of us have no idea what the terms of our religion actually mean, even when we are hit on the head by a flying aspergil.

Next week: Do you have any idea what “Hosanna” actually means?