“A few figs from thistles…”
by Howard A. Tabor
Candace Varenhorst’s sermon yesterday took me back to a class I’d taken as a freshman. Most of my college experience has worked that way: without application or meaning at the time, but, now and then, massively useful in the most obtuse situations. And so it was Sunday morning. I don’t think she’ll mind being called a small-C catholic.¹
Education occurs at three scales: 1) wholesale (large-lecture classes delivered to undergraduate throngs in drafty lecture barns); 2) retail (classes of 25-40 where it was far more difficult to remain anonymous and you might actually learn something); and 3) boutique (the advanced seminar of fewer than ten students; classes taught by real faculty, rather than grad students more intent on passing their orals and finding a suitably obscure dissertation topic, approval guaranteed).
Uncertain of a path in the world of work, my freshman year happened in those barns (where you were told, the first day, that persons to your left and right would likely be gone by mid-term). And one of those classes of 300+ was Intro to Anthropology, which I took because it wasn’t Econ 101. And so, one foggy morning at 8:00, I was captivated by fifty minutes devoted to the religion of ancient Egypt.² What I recall — and remember this was in 1963 or 1964 — was rekindled through the sermon of Rev Candace Varenhorst.³
Ma’at is the Egyptian concept of truth, balance, order, harmony, law, morality, and justice, and in her personification she regulated the stars, seasons, and the actions of both mortals and the deities, and established the order of the universe out of chaos at the moment of creation. Each Egyptian, from Pharaohs to farmers harvesting onions from the fields, conducted their lives according to ma’at, which lacks a convenient English translation. Perhaps it is precisely that vagueness (to us in the 21st century, at least) which gave ma’at its utility, for each Egyptian knew that, at death, they would confront the Assessors of Ma’at in Duat (the Egyptian underworld) to answer the Forty-two Negative Confessions. Moses might have got a double hernia lugging these down from Mount Sinai; ten was sufficient for Yahweh, thank you.
Just half of the Judeo-Christian commandments guide our relationships with one another. Not so for ancient Egypt: Only two of the forty-two concern the gods; the other forty are practical tools for daily living and dealing with one another. By Egyptian standards, I wouldn’t measure up.
It’s probably a good thing they had no Hell. Your heart was the measure of your truthfulness: Successfully weighed against the Feather of Ma’at, the deceased was granted passage to the Fields of Bullrushes. But a heavy heart — now there’s a notion we might all take note — was devoured by Ammit and its owner simply ceased to exist. Is that a worse fate than the Lake of Fire and eternal damnation? I’m not sure.
This cycle of Rev Varenhorst’s sermons challenge us; they’re an invitation to reëvaluate our behavior as members of the community — no idle task in the current political environment. In my case, the message was clear.
¹ cath·o·lic (adjective) — 1. (especially of a person’s tastes) including a wide variety of things; all-embracing. synonyms: universal, diverse, wide, broad, eclectic, liberal, latitudinarian.
² In the 60s we didn’t have Jan Assmann’s book Death and Salvation in Ancient Egypt. That wasn’t available in English until 2005.
³ While I’m nominally an Episcopalian, Rowan comes from Methodist stock, so we alternate between St Joseph-the-Carpenter and Asbury UMC. Frankly, the coffee is better at St Joe but one of those Methodist ladies makes a killer snickerdoodle.