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The promise of a rainbow

Der Regenbogen / l’arc en ciel / l’arcobaleno / el arco iris

Prompted by a not-so-youthful enthusiasm, I one year attended a biblical Hebrew summer school in an effort to improve my basic grasp of the language. It was a fascinating experience; busy days spent with an interesting, disparate group of people, mostly retired enthusiasts but several, like me, in some form of Christian ministerial training. The intended object in that relatively short period of time was, I think, more than anything else, to extend our range of vocabulary.

After a day spent deconstructing Christian liturgies to see the influence and inheritance of Jewish prayer styles, one of the evening “homework” exercises was to find for ourselves Jewish prayers similar to two we had been studying, the basis of the offertory prayers at Mass that begin with a benedictory [benedictional] formula:

Blessed are you, Lord, God of all creation …

(The transliterated Hebrew is Barukh attah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-olam – rendered in English as, ‘Blessed are you Lord our God King of the universe’.)

As many Hebrew prayers and blessings begin with the same phrase, after only a little time spent in the library that evening, we none of us had a problem in producing a result for the morning session the next day. One of our group discovered an example that I found particularly memorable – so much so that I later acquired a framed copy of the blessing in Hebrew characters on a highly decorated parchment which now hangs in my study – Ne’eman bivrito (He is faithful to his covenant): this is a Hebrew blessing to be recited on any occasion one sees a rainbow, so reminding the person reciting the blessing of God’s faithfulness.

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יהוה אֱלהֵינוּ מֶלֶך הָעולָם זוכֵר הַבְּרִית וְנֶאֱמָן בִּבְרִיתו וְקַיָּם בְּמַאֲמָרו

Barukh attah Adonai Eloheinu melekh ha-olam,

zokher ha’berit vene’eman bivrito v’kaiyam bema’amaro.

photo of a rainbow over the Old City of Jerusalem

* * * * *

Rainbows are everywhere at the moment, on doors, in windows, on sign-boards; I’ve even seen some on lamp posts and car rear bumpers.

When I was a child, the evening or night-time return car journeys after pre- and post-Christmas visits to relatives were made more entertaining by counting the number of lit Christmas trees seen in the windows of houses we drove past. Who could spot the most? Would I see more from my side of the car? Who would win? And then, all of a sudden, we were back at home. A useful distraction for my parents to offer to tired and irritable children.

Now I find myself playing a similar game on my journeys to and from various crematoriums and cemeteries, as well as on my walks around the neighbourhood, only this time I am counting rainbows and not Christmas trees.

* * * * *

I suppose that this reflection builds on that for St Joseph the Worker (Friday 1 May) - again, we are thinking about the idea of work, not on this occasion from merely a human perspective but also from the divine.

If I mention “liturgy” in a strictly technical sense, then I may be referring to the activity (the doing) of the pattern of celebration and worship in church; equally, I may be referring to the collection of traditional rubrics and established practices that govern how the liturgy is ‘done’.

The Greek word leitourgia, from which our English word ‘liturgy’ comes, is comprised of two root words: a noun ergon (work) and an adjective litos (meaning of, or belonging to, the people). So, literally leitourgia means “work of the people”.

We seem to have created something which, if not exactly liturgical, has much of liturgy about it: a set time, a gathered group, a particular purpose and intention, a remembrance, an established pattern of behaviour, a symbol denoting belonging or group identity. The Thursday evening, 8 pm, ‘clap for carers’, applause to the accompaniment of horns, whistles, car- and boat-horns, the banging of saucepans, the explosion of fireworks, the symbol of the rainbow. This is how liturgy arises, through the ritualization of human conduct. The word “symbol” to describe the rainbow is itself interesting, coming from the Greek symbolon (σύμβολον) comprised of two words: σύν syn (together) and βάλλω bállō (I throw, put). The symbol brings together, the rainbow unites in common purpose, common feeling.

* * * * *

Apart from the sudden rise of the rainbow as a symbol of solidarity with NHS frontline staff and carers, many of us may perhaps be more familiar with the rainbow in the context of the LGBTQ+ community, most often in the form of the rainbow flag, sometimes referred to as the gay pride flag, itself a worldwide symbol of LGBTQ+ pride.

The first gay pride flag was designed by Gilbert Baker in San Francisco in 1978. Originally the flag had eight colour stripes but although there have been variations in the number and colour or stripes since, it is most often seen today with six, and each colour is symbolic of a specific aspect of human experience and existence. The rainbow again offers a visual shorthand for identity and solidarity. There is a powerful oft-used phrase: ‘unity in diversity’.

* * * * *

For a frequently occurring natural phenomenon, it is perhaps surprising that there are only four references to rainbows in three books of the Scriptures:

God said, ‘Here is the sign of the Covenant I make between myself and you and every living creature with you for all generations: I set my bow in the clouds and it shall be a sign of the Covenant between me and the earth. When I gather the clouds over the earth and the bow appears in the clouds, I will recall the Covenant between myself and you and every living creature of every kind. And so the waters shall never again become a flood to destroy all things of flesh. When the bow is in the clouds I shall see it and call to mind the lasting Covenant beween God and every living creature of every kind that is found on the earth.’

God said to Noah, ‘This is the sign of the Covenant I have established between myself and every living things that is found on the earth.’ (Genesis 9:12-17)

Above the vault over their heads was something that liked like a sapphire; it was shaped like a throne and high up on this throne was a being that looked like a man. I saw him shine like bronze, and close to and all around him from what seemed his loins upwards was what looked like fire; and from what seemed his loins downwards I saw what liked like fire, and a light all round like a bow in the clouds on rainy days’ that is how the surrounding light appeared. (Ezekiel 1:25-28a)

With that, the Spirit possessed me and I saw a throne standing in heaven, and the One who was sitting on the throne, and the Person sitting there looked like a diamond and a ruby. There was a rainbow encircling the throne, and this looked like and emerald. (Revelation 4:3)

Then I saw another powerful angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over this head; his face was like the sun, and his legs were pillars of fire. (Revelation 10:1)

* * * * *

Given that the Genesis reading explicitly mentions ‘covenant’, I am tempted to ponder whether this Government may introduce an NHS Covenant as a lasting legacy of the coronavirus pandemic, in much the way the Military or Armed Forces Covenant has been spoken about in public life since the year 2000.

Fr Alistair

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