Interview: discussing the Saint John’s Bible with Jonathan Homrighausen

Jonathan Homrighausen is a PhD candidate at Duke University, working on Hebrew Bible. He’s also a writer and scholar on Scripture, art, and interreligious dialogue. While he was working on his MA at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, CA, he began researching The Saint John’s Bible. His interest continued to develop to the point that he wrote a book about it: Illuminating Justice: The Ethical Imagination of The Saint John’s Bible (Liturgical Press, 2018), which ‘explores the call to social ethics in The Saint John’s Bible, the first major handwritten and hand-illuminated Christian Bible since the invention of the printing press.’

If you’re interested in the history of the Bible, biblical manuscripts and their physicality, art and the Bible, the liturgical use of the Bible, or just the Bible, period, you’ll enjoy this interview. Here’s the questions I asked Jonathan:

  1. First, what is The Saint John’s Bible? When, where, and how did it come about?
  2. Can you tell us about your professional training and how The Saint John’s Bible became of interest to you?
  3. I’ve read that this is the first Bible of its kind made since the popularization of the printing press. What does this mean and how does it help us understand the history of the Bible?
  4. Many of us might not think much about the intersection between art and the Bible. How does The Saint John’s Bible shed light on that relationship?
  5. My friend, Michael Barber of the Augustine Institute in Denver, has said something to the extent that we sometimes forget the Bible’s purpose was liturgical or sacramental long before it became an object of research. How does The Saint John’s Bible help us think about the liturgical purpose of the Bible?
  6. Your book, Illuminating Justice: The Ethical Imagination of The Saint John’s Bible, ‘explores the social ethics in The Saint John’s Bible’. How does this Bible uniquely provoke ethical/moral thinking? Or, another way of asking: How does the Bible provoke ethical/moral thinking in a way that’s different from any other Bible I might purchase?
  7. If I wanted to see The Saint John’s Bible, what would I have to do?

Easter 2020

In Luke’s Gospel the two disciples who traveled to Emmaus didn’t recognize Jesus until they saw him through the breaking of the bread. For many Christians, this is how Jesus is seen and heard every week. This pandemic has taken away that experience away from them. Instead, we’re left with something closer to Mark’s open-ended account of the Resurrection. We’re trembling with fear. We don’t understand what’s happening. We haven’t experienced closure.

The Evangelist Matthew reminds us in this time that Jesus’ final words include the promise that he’ll be with us always, even to the end of the age. The Evangelist John reminds us that like Mary Magdalene, the Apostle to the Apostles, we can hear the Resurrected One’s voice if we listen as we’re addressed by name.

In our sacred Scriptures we have four similar but unique interpretations of the Resurrection. This year it’s important to remember that; it’s important to remember that we don’t experience the risen Lord the same; it’s important that even our individual experiences of Easter can change.

This Easter isn’t ruined. It’s different. It’ll add new texture to your understanding of the event and it’s meaning. Next year we’ll break bread again. But this year we experience fear and trembling, we hope for the the divine presence, and we listen for the Voice

Good Friday 2020

I hope everyone is staying safe today. If you’re wanting some semblance of Good Friday liturgy, I know many Churches will be doing services online, and there’s even our (TMI Episcopal) chapel service recording. (I’m Judas. Also, we practiced social distancing and all the participants are residents on campus. We gathered at All Saints Chapel on our campus to do this.)

There’s a lot that can be said on this solemn day. Instead, I want to share a Facebook post and a couple of articles that stood out to me.

This 2018 Facebook post from my friend Joshua Paul Smith was a reminder of the upside-down nature of ‘Good’ Friday:

Also, I found Rev. Laura Everett’s article ‘After a Holy Week disrupted by death, an honest Easter’ to be a timely reflection on what Good Friday means in light of this pandemic. Also quite insightful is Prof. Rev. Stephen B. Chapman’s ‘This year Easter will feel more like Passover’.

Maundy Thursday 2020

We hear this narrative yearly, at least. We hear it alluded to more often than that: ‘On the night that he was betrayed…’ But we hear it from different perspectives. This is the first time I’ve heard it during a pandemic. What does this do to my hearing of this story?

It emphasizes our agnosticism toward the future. Most of us didn’t know we’d be in this situation on April 9th, 2020. While there were a few people who could make decision that could’ve impacted the trajectory of this pandemic (see ‘South Korea’) most of us aren’t those people. We can respond only to the world as it unfolds before us.

This experience highlights the disciples place in the Maundy Thursday tradition. Jesus seems to have expected something. Each Evangelist gives Jesus more or less of an understanding of his fate. But in the Gospels, his disciples seems uniformly unaware. Tragedy is coming. They don’t know it. They can do nothing to stop it.

This night the disciples will be shown their inability to control things. This night most of us recognize this helplessness in ourselves. We’d like to be the masters of our destinies but we’re not. Personally, this Maundy Thursday preaches that message as loud and as clear as it ever could.

But there’s one thing we can control. Jesus commands us to do so. We’re told to love one another and he loves us. In our powerlessness, we can do something powerful; we’re commanded to do something powerful: love one another. We see this in the work of our medical professionals but they’re not alone. We can all contribute in some way for we can all love in some way.

Maundy Thursday icon of Jesus washing the feet of St. Peter

Palm Sunday 2020

This morning I googled icons of Jesus’ triumphal entry. The one posted above, by the Ukrainian artist Oleksandr Antonyuk, stood out to me not just because of it’s unique visually—the proportions of Jesus’ head and the shape donkey’s body stand out the most—but because it’s lonely. Palm Sunday 2020 will be a lonely one. We won’t be gathered together. We’ll be at home, maybe with family, maybe live-streaming a service, but not together as we’re accustom.

There’s something odd yet fitting about celebrating Palm Sunday during a pandemic. I’ve often told my students that the Gospels are probably easier to embrace for those who see the world through the lens of disorder and brokenness. If life’s going well for you it’s hard to resonate with the desperation of narratives that climax with execution by crucifixion.

But then a pandemic breaks us. Even the most comfortable are uncomfortable. And those who already were suffering, sadly, are even more vulnerable to the harshness of our world. It’s one of those rare moments where we’re all sharing in some form of struggle even if it’s not being felt evenly. But it’s being felt and that opens us up to stories we’ve heard already but needed to hear in a new way.

Palm Sunday does exalt Jesus as King but it also highlights the reality of shattered expectations. Jesus isn’t that kind of King. Jesus will not experience that kind of enthronement. The paradox of the Gospels is that Jesus is the kind of King who rides a humble donkey, whose enthronement is a Roman cross, who in the Johannine tradition has a Kingdom that’s not from this earth. His disciples don’t understand this. His adoring crowds don’t know this. In just a few days their worldview will be shattered.

Many may be asking ‘why?’ this pandemic is happening just as Jesus and his disciples will ask (in a few days, liturgically) how Palm Sunday could morph into ‘Good’ Friday. As regards the pandemic, we can talk about humanity’s responsibility another time because in this situation there’s a lot of it. But for a moment I want to think about divine responsibility as relates to expectations. One reason I enjoy teaching the Book of Job, and why it’s the last part of the Hebrew Bible I cover when I do, is because it undermines all the theodicy of Books like Proverbs and Deuteronomy. It’s (IMO) an absurdist response to the idea we could comprehend the divine mind even if the divine plan was explained to us. I don’t like this for theological reasons, per se (I’m not linking with many Fundamentalists who rebuke us for questioning God), but for literary, human reasons: I don’t think we can understand our suffering and our world in ways that satisfy us when we’re experiencing that suffering. All we can understand is we had expectations about how the world should work, or God should act, and those expectations were wrong.

Like Job, we feel alone when this happens. We feel like we’re the only one being targeted by God. Did Jesus feel this during the Holy Week we’re about to remember? It seems like he did. He asks, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ He asks this less than a week after he rides into Jerusalem as the King, as the Messiah.

But Job isn’t alone. He represents all of us, even if in the extreme. And Jesus wasn’t alone, he represents all of us, even if in the extreme. And now, during this pandemic, we’re not alone. We may feel alone, or at least lonely, but this is a microcosm of the human condition. Our expectations are high, they’re broken, and we’re left wondering why things are the way they are. This pandemic has magnified this reality. And all we can do is let it color this particular Palm Sunday for us so that we read these stories afresh.

Holy Week exists, liturgically, to be experienced. Usually, this is sacramental in nature. Now, it’s in the midst of a world shattering pandemic. We have no choice but to go through this Palm Sunday alone, like Job, and like Jesus, and allow it to speak to us about our expectations. But I don’t say this is to encourage reflecting on Palm Sunday isolating from the rest of Holy Week. For today, yes, let it sink into your soul a bit. But this isn’t the last day. We have six more to go.