Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Ask and Ye Shall Receive

Ok, so you didn't ask for a post on the semantics of reception. But, I've written one, and now you get to decide whether or not to receive--read? internalize? act on?--it.

During his post-resurrection minister Jesus Christ appeared to his apostles behind closed doors, "where the disciples were assembled for fear of the Jews" (John 20:19). After giving them verbal instructions, "he breathed on them, and saith unto them, Receive ye the Holy Ghost" (John 20:22).  This injunction to receive is one that Jesus Christ adapted to multiple occasions. When Pharisees asked him whether it was "lawful for a man to put away his wife for every cause" (Matt. 19:3) Jesus responded with the admonition that marriage is be a permanent institution, not a coupling of convenience:

"Have ye not read, that he which made them at the beginning made them male and female, and said, For this cause shall a man leave father and mother, and shall cleave to his wife: and they twain shall be one flesh? Wherefore they are no more twain but one flesh. What therefore God hath joined together, let not man put asunder" (Matt. 19:4-6).

Jesus rejected divorce and remarriage "except it be for fornication" (19:9), and his disciples--not the Pharisees!--observed that "If the case of the man be so with his wife, it is not good to marry" (19:10). The Savior responded by teaching that "All men cannot receive this saying, save they to whom it is given. For there are some eunuchs, which were so born from their mother's womb: and there are some eunuchs, which were made eunuchs of men: and there be eunuchs, which have made themselves eunuchs for the kingdom of heaven's sake. He that is able to receive it, let him receive it" (19:11-12). The object or ideal we are to receive in this last sentence is not wholly clear, but I like to think that "it" refers to the doctrine of marriage he's just explained--or, indeed, to a spouse "received" in the spirit of that doctrine.

Certainly Orson Pratt used that language to describe his own marriage; in 1835, he "baptized Sarah Marinda Bates, near Sacketts Harbor, whom I received in marriage upwards of one year after." Christ's biblical commandment to "receive" is preserved in the saving and exalting ordinances of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, in directives to receive the Holy Ghost or to receive a spouse. But what does such a directive entail?

English language speakers generally use the verb "receive" in a passive sense that involves little or no action on the recipient's part. Students receive grades from teachers (whether they like it or not); murder victims might receive a blow to the head; and family members might receive news of a loved one's passing. To receive, in these instances, requires no action on the part of the recipient. But receiving the Holy Ghost--or receiving a spouse in marriage--requires action, not inert passivity. When, in the game of football, a wide receiver stretches out his hands to catch a pass from the quarterback, he must act aggressively in order to receive:

So too with individuals who wish to receive the Holy Ghost or a spouse; reception requires action. Elder Bednar made this point with reference to promptings from the Holy Ghost, exhorting us to open a pathway into our heart. Quoting from Nephi, Elder Bednar taught that " 'When a man speaketh by the power of the Holy Ghost the power of the Holy Ghost carrieth [the message] unto the hearts of the children of men' (2 Ne. 33:1). Please notice how the power of the Spirit carries the message unto but not necessarily into the heart. A teacher can explain, demonstrate, persuade, and testify, and do so with great spiritual power and effectiveness. Ultimately, however, the content of a message and the witness of the Holy Ghost penetrate into the heart only if a receiver allows them to enter."

Receiving the witness of the Holy Ghost is a matter of (actively) preparing a pathway into our hearts and a place within our hearts where he can dwell. If we wish to obey Jesus' injunction to "Receive the Holy Ghost," we would do well to imitate the example of a Shunammite woman described in the Bible. This woman of faith, having seen the prophet Elisha pass by her house regularly said to her husband, "I perceive that this is an holy man of God, which passeth by us continually. Let us make a little chamber, I pray thee, on the wall; and let us set for him there a bed, and a table, and a stool, and a candlestick: and it shall be, when he cometh to us, that he shall turn in thither" (2 Kgs. 4:9-10). This faithful woman was not content with allowing Elisha to visit when he knocked on her door; desiring his uplifting and edifying presence in her house on a regular basis, she made her home into a place that was ready to receive the prophet at any moment, a space whose comforts might entice this man of God into visiting her more regularly.

If we want the Holy Ghost to dwell with us, we can't wait for Him to knock on the door, then sweep our dirt under the rug and run around the house searching for a place where He could sit comfortably; rather, we must make our hearts into homes where He always will feel welcome. Only when the Holy Ghost is able to touch our hearts at every hour of the day, as Elisha was able to visit the Shunammite couple whenever he pleased, will we be in full compliance with Christ's commandment to "Receive the Holy Ghost."

The same logic, of course, applies to the work of receiving a spouse. After many wedding ceremonies today, the newly married couple will gather to greet their friends and family for the first time as husband and wife at a wedding reception. This idea of a wedding reception is actually derived from the practice of astrology; according to the Oxford English Dictionary [GATED], the word reception was first used to describe "two planets being received into the other's house, exaltation, or other dignity." A nineteenth-century astrology text cited in the OED explains that "Reception is when two planets are mutually posited in each other's essential dignities." I love this definition, which applies beautifully to the need for a husband and wife to actively receive one another in marriage.

To be posited in the essential dignities of another is to comprehend the worth of that individual and to position those dignities or worthy attributes at the center of your relationship, to privilege the dignity and worthiness of that spouse above all else. In other words, to "receive" a spouse or be "in reception" of a spouse is to center your relationship on the divine (Remember the word's origins in the stars!) worth of your spouse, to recognize him or her as a child of God and to base your relationship on that fact.

Other scriptures provide additional insight as to what it might mean to appropriately receive a spouse. I personally treasure the counsel given to Oliver Cowdery and Joseph Smith in the Doctrine and Covenants as they worked together in a close partnership to advance the kingdom: "Admonish [Joseph Smith] in his faults, and also receive admonition of him" (6:19). Surely this counsel should also apply to husbands and wives who have covenanted to receive a spouse in marriage. After all, a wife who has centered her marriage around the essential dignities of her husband will likely find little to admonish him for, and a husband who recognizes the essential dignities of his wife would be willing to receive her admonitions in a spirit of meekness.

Every member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints has covenanted to receive the Holy Ghost, and every couple who has been sealed by the priesthood in a temple of God ought to receive his or her spouse in the manner of Oliver Pratt. To receive is not merely to passively accept but to actively prepare a place for, to entice and welcome, to dwell on the dignity and worth of the individual being received, and to welcome admonition from that companion. I find it significant that we have been commanded to enter into the same type of relationship with our spouse that we engage in with a member of the godhead; keep that in mind when next you head to a wedding "reception."

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Great Are the Words of Isaiah: Chapter 22

At the end of chapter twenty-two, Isaiah speaks of a steward, Eliakim, in Messianic terms as the savior of Judah:

"And I will clothe him with thy robe, and strengthen him with thy girdle, and I will commit thy government into his hand: and he shall be a father to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and to the house of Judah. And the key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder; so he shall open, and none shall shut; and he shall shut, and none shall open. And I will fasten him as a nail in a sure place; and he shall be for a glorious throne to his father's house. And they shall hang upon him all the glory of his father's house, the offspring and the issue, all vessels of small quantity, from the vessels of cups, even to all the vessels of flagons" (22:21-24).

This beautiful metaphor describes the Savior as a source of strength that will support all of the trials and tribulations of his covenant people; he will carry burdens both large (flagons) and small (cups). He can carry those burdens because he, unlike us, is able to support them--he is "in a sure place." The word sure here is a translation of the Hebrew verb 'aman, and with this word Isaiah seems to be drawing a distinction between Christ's ability to bear our burdens and the inability of (even great) mortal men. When Moses was confronted by the complaints of Israel in the wilderness he, in turn, complained to the Lord:

"Have I conceived all this people? have I begotten them, that thou shouldest say unto me, Carry them in thy bosom, as a nursing father beareth the sucking child, unto the land which thou swarest unto their fathers? . . . I am not able to bear all this people alone, because it is too heavy for me" (Num. 11:12, 14).

Moses cannot bear the burden (massa'; Num. 11:11) that Christ will bear (massa'; Isa. 22:25). He cannot act as a "nursing father," which is another translation of 'aman. But Christ--who has "conceived all this people" is "able to bear all this people alone." He is our foster-father (another possible translation of 'aman) who adopts us into his family, who carries and nourishes us like a nurse: "For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:26); "as newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the [W]ord, that ye may grow thereby: if so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious" (1 Pet. 2:2-3). Christ is 'aman--or, perhaps, as Joseph Smith transliterated, Ahman.

In the Journal of Discourses Orson Pratt recorded "one revelation that this people are not generally acquainted with. I think it has never been published, but probably it will in the Church History. It is given in questions and answers. The first question is, 'What is the name of God in the pure language?' The answer says, 'Ahman'" (2:342). Of course, while that particular revelation may not have been included in the Doctrine and Covenants, its substance was; Christ refers to himself in the Doctrine and Covenants as "your Redeemer, even the Son Ahman" or Son of God (78:20). It seems quite likely to me that the Hebrew verb 'aman (which, like Ahman, bears more than a passing resemblance to the Egyptian name for God, Amon)--a word that describes a nourishing father--is a linguistic descendant for "the name of God in the pure language."

The Book of Mormon prophet Jacob seems to have recognized this connection between Ahman, the name of God, and the Hebrew aman. Before his first sermon (on Isaiah!) Jacob tells the Nephite people "I will read you the words of Isaiah . . . that ye may learn and glorify the name of your God" (2 Ne. 6:4). He proceeds to quote two verses from Isaiah (49:22-23), including the promise that "kings shall be thy nursing fathers [aman]" (2 Ne. 6:7). In the Hebrew from which he was reading on the brass plates, this verse of Isaiah would have answered Jacob's promise to teach the Nephites "the name of your God," as he explained the nurturing nature of a Heavenly Father (aman/Ahman) who would gather scattered Israel together again.

When we read Isaiah 22:23, then, we might do so in the following manner: "And I will fasten him [Christ] as a nail in Ahman's place." Christ is the nail that bears us (all those vessels) up, that keeps us in the proximity of Ahman, in a manner analogous to the way in which a servant was bound to his master by a nail thrust through his ear into the doorpost of his master's house (Ex. 21:6; Deut. 15:17). No one else, not even Moses, was strong enough to take Christ's place as the nail; mere mortal men, Ezekiel explains, are like a flexible vine: "Shall wood be taken thereof to do any work? or will men take a pin of it to hang any vessel thereon?" (Ez. 15:3).

Only by accepting Jesus Christ as the Nail in a sure ('aman, Ahman, foster father, nourishing) place can we be saved; we must give ourselves up to his mercy and strength as a vessel and burden that we cannot bear alone.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Golden Plates in the New World

So I've just been doing a little reading in Christopher Columbus's letters. On his second voyage to the Caribbean Columbus took along Diego Alvarez Chanca, a physician who wrote a letter describing the voyage to his hometown of Seville. Chanca--like everyone else who traveled to the New World--spends a lot of time talking about gold, and I was struck by the way in which he describes native practices of shaping the metal:

"At the time of their departure [the explorers'], he [Guacamari, the native chief] gave to each of them a jewel of gold, to each according as each seemed to merit. This gold they fashion in very thin plates" (Jane 56).

Chanca's phrase is Spanish is actually, "Este oro facian en fojas muy delgadas," which could also be translated, "this gold they fashion in very thin pages." In other words, among this group of Native Americans on the island of Hispaniola, all gold was first shaped into very thin sheets that Chanca thought resembled the pages of a book. The gold might subsequently be reshaped into masks or jewelry, but first it was formed into thin plates. I'm sure that someone at the Neal A. Maxwell Institute for Religious Scholarship has already made this connection, but it seems worthwhile to point out that Native peoples living in the Americas regularly fashioned their gold into thin sheets or pages centuries before Joseph Smith saw the gold plates given him by Moroni.