The Fire of the Word
- Thursday, July 05, 2012
Pilgrim, swept by storms and weary,
raise your head, look up and see:
Jesus, Lamb of God, our Savior,
clothed in robes of majesty;
girdled with the gold of loyalty,
round his hem the bells ring clear,
singing grace to every sinner:
Christ, the eternal Yes, is here!
Remarkably, this single verse ranges across almost the whole sweep of Scripture as it references Paul’s experience of being shipwrecked in the Mediterranean (Acts 27:13-44), John the Baptist’s exhortation to “Behold the Lamb of God!” (Jn 1:29 kjv), John the Evangelist’s vision of Jesus on the island of Patmos (Rev 1:13), the clothing of the Levitical priests (Ex 28:33-35) and the story of the woman reaching for the hem of Jesus’ garment (Mt 9:20-22). Into this are woven theological allusions to the incarnation (Christ’s vestments symbolically reach to the earth) and the atonement. It’s a remarkable synthesis for a young woman who lived and worked on a rural sheep farm and had only a rudimentary education to her credit.
These poems and hymns, now considered treasures of the Welsh language, might have been lost to us altogether after Ann Griffiths’s tragic death at the age of twenty-nine, had they not been collected by her maid and published in the early nineteenth century by Thomas Charles of Bala, a clergyman living over the mountains in northwest Wales. Around the time of their publication, Charles was also playing a key role in an initiative which would enable countless others to experience the life-changing power of Scripture for themselves. At the turn of the century a young teenager named Mary Jones turned up at Charles’s home, having walked twenty-six miles, barefoot, across the Welsh mountains.
She had been saving money for six years and had made her difficult journey with one purpose: to buy a Bible.
Charles was impressed and shaken by her single-minded determination and her passionate hunger for Scripture. A couple of years later he related the story to friends meeting together in London, and lamented the scarcity of affordable Welsh-language Bibles which could be distributed to those, like Mary, who longed to read Scripture for themselves. The friends decided to create an organization to translate, publish and distribute the Bible as widely as possible—and so the British and Foreign Bible Society was born, the first of the many Bible societies throughout the world, which have made Scripture available and accessible to millions.
In our own time we might consider the life of Martin Luther King Jr., a moral and political leader whose speeches and example changed the face of Western society. The catalysts of the civil rights movement are well known: the arrest of Rosa Parks on a Montgomery bus for refusing to give up her seat for a white man, the longing of so many to see integration in the public school system, the desperate circumstances of many black Americans in the southern states—to name just a few. Less often acknowledged, though, is the direct role of the Bible in shaping King’s life and actions. The inspiration for his nonviolent resistance came directly from the message of Jesus (and, of course, from the example of Gandhi, but Gandhi in turn frequently acknowledged his indebtedness to the teachings of Christ). King looked particularly to the Sermon on the Mount, where Jesus spoke of turning the other cheek and loving our enemies. His teaching about “creative suffering” was rooted in his reading of the Passion narratives. And his astonishingly inclusive social vision, expressed so movingly in
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