Let’s start at the very beginning . . .

This Saturday past I started reading Robert Farrar Capon’s delightful cookbook The Supper of the Lamb.  Fr. Capon’s second chapter sets forth an exercise with an onion, for which he advises his reader to set aside no less than an hour.  To spend an hour with an onion requires a significant degree of patient meditation upon its several layers: the outer skin (both sides), the skin on the exterior sides of all the onion’s layers, the shape of its layers after you’ve cut it open top to bottom, the moisture hidden in its layers.  The outcome of this exercise is to know the onion in all its beauty, eccentricity, and potency.onion430x300

Fr. Capon’s onion chapter took me back a few weeks.  I was reading Knud Jeppesen’s Counterpoint: The Polyphonic Vocal Style of the Sixteenth Century – specifically, his chapter on the Ecclesiastical Modes, the eight tones used in Gregorian chants.  All the tones contain the same notes: the seven pitches of the diatonic scale (do-re-mi- . . . ti).  Yet by varying range (the first tone, for example, goes from re to re one octave higher, the equivalent of the Dorian Mode in modern music), tonics (sometimes where the chant starts, more typically where it ends), dominants (unlike modern major/minor music, the dominant need not be a perfect fifth above the tonic), and generally omitted degrees, from seven notes you generate eight tones which vary greatly in mood.  The outcome of playing the tones of Gregorian chanting is to hear the potency of seven notes — sans accidentals, modulations, even harmony.

Dr. Jeppesen’s chapter took me back to last Advent. I was reading St Matthew’s account of the conception of Jesus, which Matthew tells secondhand from Joseph’s perspective.  Joseph, seeing that Mary his betrothed is with child, and knowing that he isn’t the child’s father, deduces that he has legitimate grounds to divorce Mary, and resolves to do so.  So we aren’t surprised when Matthew says that Joseph is dikaios – that is, righteous or just.  But Matthew adds that Joseph’s justice also made him “unwilling to put [Mary] to open shame,” that he resolved “to divorce her quietly.”  This is Matthew’s first illustration of justice and righteousness, a major theme in his gospel, and it involves one of the major legal controversies of his time: “Is it lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any cause?”  Joseph’s justice doesn’t follow the latitudinarianism of the Hillelite Jews that “any cause” (or “no fault”) divorce was permissible.  Neither does it follow the hard-line approach of the Shammaite Pharisees, who may well have insisted upon the Mosaic penalty of stoning.  Joseph combines firmness in principle – which we would usually call justice – with forbearance in applying the remedy – which we’d usually call mercy – and, for all that, Matthew calls Joseph just.  The outcome of looking at Matthew’s first illustration of justice is to sense the potency of what that one word justice means in the Kingdom of God, with its unique combination of firmness of principle and quiet mercy in application.

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Posted on September 30, 2013, in Aesthetics, David Mitchel and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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